Stranger than fiction


It’s in supermarkets, airports and bookstores nationally. My newest book isn’t quite a book at all, even though it’s 51,000 words long. Rather, it’s a fat, glossy magazine packed with hundreds of gorgeous color photos. Published by Astronomy magazine, it is a countdown, from 50 to Number One, of the strangest things in the entire universe.

I think that the Top Five, in particular, are off-the scale amazing. Our Number One entity, discovered less than a year ago, is very likely an entirely new kind of object never seen before by science, even though it fills half of our southern sky!

The enjoyable task of creating a collection of celestial oddities and oddballs began with an obvious question: What makes something strange? How do we define “strange?” I grapple with this every month in my “Strange Universe” column in Astronomy magazine. On that page, however, I don’t limit myself to actual physical objects. A concept can be strange. So can a historical event, or the circumstances of an eclipse, or even the life of a particular astronomer. Many aspects of Einstein’s Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and modern cosmology are definitely strange.

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But this publication (available on Astronomy.com for $9.95) is not about ideas, people or historical events. Its focus is on real objects. So again, which ones get inducted into the cosmic Hall of Strange, and which get rejected as too normal?

Consider our Sun. It’s amazing in a hundred different ways, but is it truly peculiar, meaning unlike other stars of its type? Not at all. So, sorry, Sol, but you didn’t make the cut. However, now contemplate our nearest neighbor planet, Venus. It’s universally familiar, quite ordinary in some ways, and yet it boasts several aspects that are totally unique. It is the slowest-spinning object in the universe. Its mountains seem to get coated with snowfalls of white lead. It has the highest surface temperature and pressure of any planet, so that its air distorts everything like a funhouse mirror. Bingo! It gets in.

The other editors and I had fun whittling down the list of potential oddities. We ended up including a phantom-twin quasar whose incoming light passed across a massive foreground galaxy, breaking its image into separate copies – one a year older than the other. Imagine seeing two living versions of your friend Mike, one as he is today and the other as he was a year ago! There is a moon whose features seem to come from five different worlds, pasted together like a collage. There are stars shaped like footballs; an object whose glow comes from magnetism alone; a red nebula sculptured into a perfect “God’s Eye” rectangle of interlocking spiderwebs; and another whose sharp boundary forms the uncanny profile of a famous Chilean poet.

A few objects are not whole planets or stars, but features within them. How could we omit the cantaloupe surface of the bizarre moon Triton: not only the solar system’s coldest place, but also the only major body that orbits in the wrong direction? Or the giant hexagon that surrounds Saturn’s North Pole?

Superlatives count. The coldest place in the universe makes the grade. So does the fastest, the most radioactive, the most oddly illuminated and the planet that essentially doesn’t rotate at all, where a person could walk faster than it spins.

In the end, the collection included entities that ranged from the familiar (who has not heard of the planet Mercury?) to the utterly esoteric. When was the last time anyone mentioned the pulsar PSR J1748-2446AD at a party?

During the next year or two, I’ll feature several of these astonishing entities on this page. Unfortunately, the dramatic color images cannot be reproduced here in Alm@nac. So I hope that you pick up a copy of The 50 Weirdest Objects in the Cosmos. It will not disappoint you.

 

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