We Are Stardust: Photographs of the Great Beyond

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A new exhibit at the Smithsonian showcases magisterial images of stars and planets light years away from our own

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When Jonathan McDowell first got interested in space when he was a kid, growing up in the United States and England during the space race. "It's always been a bit of a philosophical thing for me," he said, "the questions of where do we come from, and the awe and majesty of the scales involved." Now, a few decades and one eponymous asteroid later, an exhibit he helped curate at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum is, he hopes, giving more people that same curiosity about the world that inspired his career as a scientist at the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory.

The images from the exhibit, a few of which we've collected with their accompanying captions in the gallery below, showcase parts of our universe beyond our solar system. "I think people are familiar with Mars and Jupiter and the places in our solar system, but that they don't often get to see photographs of the places beyond it," he explained. "What I hope people will come away with is a bit more of a sense of scale in the universe, and the idea that you have the planets in our solar system going around our sun, and then you have the idea of our sun as one of many stars in our galaxy, and then our galaxy as one of many galaxies in our universe." 

Additionally, he said, he hopes people will learn about the different kinds of telescopes we use to study the universe -- not just the Hubble, which many people know, but also the Chandra Telescope, which uses X-ray to look at violent events, and the Spitzer Telescope, which uses infrared to get pictures of star formation.

McDowell says that we can learn about our own world -- physics, climate, chemistry -- by studying galaxies billions of light years away. If you jiggle a sodium atom here on Earth, he explains, it gives off a yellow color (as in some streetlamps). A sodium atom in the light  from far away galaxies gives of the exact same glow. Physics doesn't change whether it's billions of light years away or right here. "The atoms in your body were cooked in the center of a star, and so we are intimately connected with the universe. ... So that understanding the universe is understanding where we come from."

Image: NASA.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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