All right, Mr Spock/Benson/Smartypants: So the initial image provoking our friend Shelan O’Keefe’s entry…
Which she in turn quite provocatively (and sensibly) likened to the >< hourglass effect one often finds in modelings of human vision, as in this:
So that effect turns out to be a sort of optical illusion in the first instance, a technological flaw, or rather the effect of our own Milky Way’s blocking out the full view of the universe…
Such that, well, you know, nice catch but, essentially, never mind.
All right, but what are we then to make of this image, released that same week by NASA, one of the latest instances of the image trove being sent back from the newly refurbished Hubble space telescope?
No optical illusion here. That’s what in fact is actually happening out there in the actual universe. It’s a so-called planetary nebula, to be specific, catalogued as NGC 6302, but more popularly called the “Bug Nebula” or the “Butterfly Nebula.”1
And returning to Ms. O’Keefe’s original surmise, likening such imagery to the schematic dynamics of human visual perception, what, if anything, are we to make of that rhyme?
(Radio silence from Mr. Spock. Looks like we have him stumped.)
And lord knows, we don’t claim to know. But we can’t help but wonder.
Meanwhile, taking off from another aspect of that “Eyes on and in the Universe,” to wit that Percival Lowell misprision of canals on Mars…
Which turned out to be a sort of opthamalogical projection of the vein structure of his own eyeball…
That in turn set us to thinking, in the weeks since, about an earlier contest tie-in between that image, originally broached in the Lee Friedlander entry, and Matt Kirkham’s postscript offering of a candled chicken egg:
Bear with us here: we grant that the loose synapses in what follows may be stretching things a bit taught even by our standards.
But so we got to thinking about eggs and eyes. For starters, their recurrent etymological convergence across all sorts of languages. Eye/egg in English (along with egg whites and the whites of one’s eyes). But then as well oeil/oeuf in French.
This is the sort of thing the contest keeps its own Lieutenant Uhura linguistics officer on staff and on duty at the command deck for, in the form of my daughter Sara Weschler (senior linguistics major at Brown). What does she make of the egg/eye convergence? We emailed a query, and she answered almost immediately.
It does seem to be the case that a lot of Indo-European languages have similar sounding words for “egg” and “eye” but that may simply be because the Proto-European terms (egg-2owyo-/2oyyo- ; eye/to see-2oqw) sounded similar and this then radiated out to all the daughter languages. I really don’t know if the similarity in the PIE root is due to a some intrinsic connection between speakers’ concepts of eyes and eggs or is just coincidence (there are only so many ways to arrange phonemes into a one or two syllable word, plenty of words sound similar without being actually related to one another).
Anyway, as for the list you wanted:
French: oeuf/oeil (pretty close)
(pretty far—fricative, stop)
(kinda cool because the phonetic change kind of went in the reverse direction from English)
(I think this is a stretch, but yes the consonant is a fricative in each word—though place and manner of articulation have changed so that’s a bit far)
Slightly more interesting would be to look at whether this holds in non-Indo-Eur. languages. I tried it on Mandarin and Arabic speakers in my house: Fail. But….
In Acholi (Nilo-Saharan), you get the following: “eye” is “wang” and egg is "tong"—not that close, however “eyeball” is “tong-wang”—literally “the egg of the eye.” I think “tong” might generally refer to anything oval shaped, though. Acholi has a very small vocabulary so a lot of meanings get extended.
Bantu (in the Niger-Kordifanian family) languages might be a bit more promising here. For instance, in Kiswahili, the words for egg (yai, mayai) and eye (jicho, macho) are in the same noun class (ji-/ma- or 5/6 class—traditionally the class for paired objects). Though most Bantu languages no longer hold to any semantic basis for noun class assignment, at this point (phonology is much more significant), the classes were at one point semantically meaningful —such that core vocabulary can still traced to groupings based on certain shared characteristics. Since both eyes and eggs are pretty prominent in everyday life, chances are they are part of the core vocabulary and got assigned to classes back when this was still a semantic process. Then again—there are A LOT of words in every class, so I wouldn’t take this too far.
Sesotho—a southern Bantu language—however, might give you something to go off of. Again, both words belong to the 5/6 class in this language. But here they are actually a lot closer than in Kiswahili.
You get the idea (it can be a little dangerous asking our Liutenant Uhura/ Sara Weschler anything like this, especially when she is procrastinating from doing her Semantics homework). Generally speaking, she’s a bit dubious:
I think you may be doing what linguists call “crying Wolof”—which is to say deducing an etymological connection between two words that just happen to sound the same (the expression comes from numerous instances of amateur linguists crying wolf as to links between words in English and the West African language, Wolof).
But that doesn’t mean that we have to be. Especially, in this instance, with regard to that Spanish case (huevo/ojo), which allows us to take a fresh look at this amazing early Velázquez painting of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1618):
As for the generally accepted meaning of this gorgeous painting, Wikipedia’s account pretty much captures the conventional interpretation, to wit:
In this case, Velázquez has painted the interior of a kitchen with two half-length women to the left (one an old woman who appeared in his Old Woman Cooking Eggs from the same period). On the table are a number of foods, perhaps the ingredients of an Aioli (a garlic mayonnaise made to accompany fish). These have been prepared by the maid. Extremely realistic, they were probably painted from the artist’s own household as they appear in other bodegón paintings from the same time.
In the background is a biblical scene, generally accepted to be the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10). In it, Christ goes to the house of a woman named Martha. Her sister, Mary, sat at his feet and listened to him speak. Martha, on the other hand, went to “make all the preparations that had to be made.” Upset that Mary did not help her, she complained to Christ to which he responded: “Martha, Martha, … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” In the painting, Christ is shown as a bearded man in a blue tunic. He gesticulates at Martha, the woman standing behind Mary, rebuking her for her frustration.
The plight of Martha clearly relates to that of the maid in the foreground. She has just prepared a large amount of food and, from the redness of her creased puffy cheeks, we can see that she is also upset. To comfort her (or perhaps even to rebuke her), the elderly woman indicates the scene in the background reminding her that she cannot expect to gain fulfillment from work alone. The maid, who cannot bring herself to look directly at the biblical scene and instead looks out of the painting towards us, meditates on the implications of the story.
All of which is all right as far as it goes, except for that business about the maid not being able to bring herself to look at the scene in the background…Because, what if the Christ and Mary and Martha scene within the scene is not taking place either in a painting hung on the wall (hence a long time ago), or even through a window cut into the wall (and hence in the present but in a room behind the maid and the old lady) but rather, as Jonathan Miller and various others have suggested, right there in front of the maid and the old lady, in the same room, reflected in a mirror? Much depends on how one is to interpret the frame around the Christ/Mary/Martha imagery. Is it a picture frame, or rather the cut through a wall (note how the two would both look alike, another pun-like misprision, a sort of visual counterpart to crying Wolof). And if a picture frame, is the frame in question framing a painting or a mirror?
It seems pretty obvious to us here at Convergence Central that we are indeed dealing with a mirror, which provides a much more vividly empathic reading of the look on the maid’s begrudging face; she is not looking out at us but rather at the Christ/Mary/Martha scene transpiring right there before her eyes. Note that Velásquez was to return to this paradoxical framed mirror scene-within-a-scene motif time and again in his career, for example in his Kitchen Scene with Supper at Emmaus, from around the same time as the Mary and Martha painting, but then as well in The Spinners (Fable of Ariadne) painting discussed at length in the original Everything that Rises book (pp. 36-42), and then most famously, around the same time (1656-7), in Las Meninas. And note of course the recurrence of the >< hourglass effect in any mirrored image.
But bracketing all that and returning to the Mary and Martha painting, what is one to make of those spooky eggs in the lower left-hand corner?
What else are we to make of them if not, notwithstanding Uhura/Sara’s hesitations, huevo/ojo, an echo of the maid’s own mystified and mystifying gaze—an echo of our own perplexed confusions?
But wait, just as we were getting set to sign off on this already overlong entry, who should chime in after all but our own Dr. Spock, once again in the familiar person of regular contributor Michael Benson (whose forthcoming volume Far Out will be doing for Hubble’s galactic photography what his 2006 volume Beyond did for photographic legacy of interplanetary space probes). Recall that we’d asked him what he made of that planetary nebula, and his reply wandered not so much to eyeballs as, well, you’ll see:
Fascinating, Ren, I mean Jim, or should I say Captain Kirk, fascinating.
That photo of yours (or should I say of Hubble’s) captures a classic “planetary nebula,” which is a particularly misnamed category of celestial object. Planetaries have little to do with planets (apart from maybe still possessing terminally scorched satellites—the remnants of planets that, for all we know, may once have hosted life). Rather they are stars in the sometimes long, evolved process of giving up their respective ghosts. Planetaries present what’s, in effect, the beacon-like kinematic obituary of stars that have exploded. They’re like a New Orleans funeral, except instead of music you get a very extended acid trip of a light show.
So what’s going on in this case? The castoff shell of plasma and gas that has been expelled by the dying star at the center of the “Butterfly” has been fired into ionized brilliance by the exposed high-temperature stellar remnant at its center. In this case, that remnant is obscured by gas and dust, so you don’t see any central focal point.
Planetary nebulae only last a few tens of thousands of years, compared to the several billion that their source star typically shone. The explosions producing the planetaries are a crucial part of the stellar life-cycle, not just because they signify the ending of a star’s story but because the elements that have been forged and refined within it (over the billions of years during which it burned with steady intensity) are now returned to the interstellar medium, where they can eventually become ingredients for new stars.
So rather than being death masks, which would be a pretty grim characterization for such beautiful and ephemeral objects, planetary nebulae are more comparable to flowers that bloom to spread their seed. In fact, both their beauty and their diversity give good grounds for this argument, Jim.
But unlike flowers, which all look quite similar if they belong to the same species, the planetaries are even more diverse in their appearance. Alongside this “Butterfly,” for example, we have the super-symmetrical Helix Nebula, a.k.a. the “Eye of God”; the bipolar spirographic Cat’s Eye; the jade-colored smoke-ring Southern Ring Nebula; the eternally weird Eskimo Head nebula, which looks like a lysergic vision of an Eskimo face surrounded by a fur parko—a “neon inuit,” or so I call it in Far Out—and on and on. Just Google “planetary nebula” and make sure you set it for images.
Actually planetaries outdo even snowflakes, which while also individually unique are somewhat similar in appearance if you happen to have a well-chilled microscope on hand to examine them. And as far as we know in our admittedly early understanding of the planetary nebula phenomeonon, the typology of their originator stars doesn’t indicate what kind of planetary will be left behind when they explode: no two are alike, period. And their diversity isn’t due to a difference in the multifaceted branching of symmetrical crystals but rather to inexplicable variations in the speed and symmetry with which they explode and also to the tempo and force of the spasms preceding their explosion—pre-terminal explosive eruptions which cast sometimes very large quantities of stellar material off at high velocities. These expulsions of material frequently create an expanding outer shell or several such shells that halo the glowing central nebula. The unrepeatability of these stellar death-throes, along with other partially understood factors, creates the profound singularity of each planetary nebula.
In the case of the “Butterfly,” to judge from the press release that accompanied the new Hubble image, the symmetry here is a result of the interactions of various gasses ejected from the central star, which is “hidden within a doughnut-shaped ring of dust, which appears as a dark band pinching the nebula in the center. The thick dust belt constricts the star’s outflow, creating the classic ‘bipolar’ or hourglass shape.” The release goes into further detail: “The WFC3 image reveals a complex history of ejections from the star. The star first evolved into a huge red-giant star, with a diameter of about 1,000 times that of our Sun. It then lost its extended outer layers. Some of this gas was cast off from its equator at a relatively slow speed, perhaps as low as 20,000 miles an hour, creating the doughnut-shaped ring. Other gas was ejected perpendicular to the ring at higher speeds, producing the elongated ‘wings’ of the butterfly-shaped structure. Later, as the central star heated up, a much faster stellar wind, a stream of charged particles traveling at more than 2 million miles an hour, plowed through the existing wing-shaped structure, further modifying its shape.”
As I said, Ren—I mean, Jim: fascinating—just fascinating. Wish I hadn’t dozed off that day in Starfleet Academy.
Thank you, Spock—I mean, Michael.
As for the rest of you, keep your eyes peeled for Michael’s latest, due out in just a few weeks:
1 See NASA’s extended explanation here: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2009/25/image/f/
2 Keep in mind that the le- and ma- are noun class markers so there literally thousands of words that start with these syllables. Still, the roots “-hlo” and “-he” are pretty close for two words in the same class.