by David H. Levy
Ever since I read Bart J. Bok’s foreword to Rose Wilder’s and Gerald Ames’ The Golden Book of Astronomy, I have marveled at what the night sky had to offer and how much of that has changed. “Such wonders,” Bok wrote,” fill this book.” I have never forgotten those beauties, in particular Bart’s favorite: The Eta Carinae nebula, deep in the southern sky.
On Tuesday, July 12, 2022, NASA released the first light pictures from the Webb telescope. One of them is the Eta Carinae nebula. If Bart Bok could come back to us for one minute, he would be thrilled and elated beyond expression. The image is unadulterated joy. It shows so much more than anyone has ever seen before. It tells how this faint star suddenly became the second brightest star in the sky in 1843, the year of a great comet, and it had a second eruption near the end of the 19th century. If Eta Carinae should one day become a supernova it may become as bright as, or even much brighter than, Venus.
The other picture that really got to me was Stephan’s Quintet. It was the first compact group of interacting galaxies ever discovered. First observed from France by Éduard Stephan, it consists of four galaxies interacting with one another; plus, a fifth NGC 7320, which is much closer to us. I have seen this cluster many times. Seeing these images from the new telescope pierced my eyes, and warmed my heart. But my mind kept returning to the image of Eta Carinae, and to Bart and Priscilla Bok and their lives together.
Bart loved to tell the story of how he and Priscilla attended the opening of the Flandrau planetarium in November 1975. They arrived early that morning, and they walked toward an exhibit in the back, in the galaxy room. Suddenly Priscilla stopped. “Bart,” she said softly as she gazed upon a picture of Eta Carinae, “When I am gone, I will be in this nebula. Whenever you look at the nebula, you will see me there.”
Priscilla passed away just four days later. In her memory Bart funded a beautiful concrete bench in the aviary at the Desert Museum. Bart often visited the museum and always enjoyed her bench. “Another audience with the roadrunner soon took place,” I wrote later. “As he watched this roadrunner, Bart’s thoughts wandered off to a far off place and time. A memory of Priscilla, happy and alert as she fed a group of magpies, filled his mind. Slowly the image faded, and he imagined once again the exquisite swirls of the nebula in Carina.”
The James Webb space telescope belongs to the world. In January 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter. Over the course of a few nights, he discovered four moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, and the night sky has not been the same ever since.
In July of 1994, the Hubble space telescope also pointed at Jupiter. It recorded the crash of a comet on the solar system’s biggest planet, and the night sky changed again.
On Tuesday, July 12, the world saw the James Webb Space telescope’s first view of the Eta Carinae nebula. The night sky will never be the same.