The Whirlpool Galaxy

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

I’ve been a science-fiction buff (some would say an “astronerd”) since I learned to read. I see every sci-fi movie, eventually, even the really deliciously bad ones from the 1950s. But I am increasingly prone to stay home. My son is urging me to see the final installment in the Avengers series. However, he says I wouldn’t truly appreciate it unless I watch all 59 hours of the previous movies.

At his urging, I tried to watch “Captain America,” which got great reviews from practically everybody for its nonstop action.

I had to walk out of the theater. As my Italian grandmother used to say, “Too much. Too much.”

I have come to appreciate simpler, more profound joys like the Whirlpool Galaxy in a big telescope at Perkins Observatory, or the structure of a leaf that I can hold in my own hand.

Hundreds of billions of stars in the shape of a child’s pinwheel have an appeal that quick-cut superhero battles, even on a “universal scale,” can never match.

I spent a good chunk of my life wanting to see the spiral structure of the Whirlpool, which seasoned stargazers call M51. During my misspent youth, I struggled with binoculars to see it. I finally did see it as a faint smudge.

I invite you to do likewise.

Just down from the last star in the handle of the Big Dipper is a triangle of faint stars that can be seen best in a pair of binoculars.

Galaxies are the basic units of the universe. They usually consist of hundreds of billions of stars accumulated in large islands separated from each other by vast quantities of practically nothing at all.

All of the stars you see around you on a clear night are part of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Those stars are trillions of miles away. But they are close indeed compared to the distance to the Whirlpool Galaxy.

The nearest star to our sun is about 4.25 light years away. (Multiply that number by six trillion, and you’ll get the number of miles.) That means it took 4.25 years for the light from it to get here.

The Whirlpool is 23 million light years away. It took 23 million years for the light from that galaxy to reach the Earth. And light travels fast, to the tune of 186,000 miles per second.

That makes the galaxy 5.4 million times farther away than the nearest star to our Earth and sun.

Like our own Milky Way, the Whirlpool’s pinwheel arms spiral outward from a bright central hub. In a small telescope or binoculars, you’ll see the hub. Since M51 is spiral galaxy seen nearly “face-on,” a large (and expensive) telescope will show the faint spiral arms if viewing conditions are perfect.

What you cannot see is the slow rotation of the spiral. Our own Milky Way is slowly spinning to create those spiral arms. A star out near its outer edge might take more than 100 million years to make one circuit around the central hub.

In other words, when it comes to the Whirlpool, a small telescope or binoculars just won’t cut it. At 23 million light years away, even a galaxy 60,000 light years across and a mass estimated at 160 billion suns fades to a smudge.

I first saw the smudge in binoculars as soon as I was old enough to hold them steady.

Someday, I vowed, I would have a telescope big enough to see the spiral structure.

To that end, I built a series of larger and larger telescopes. I was pretty broke at the time, so I sold each telescope to finance the next larger one, ordered a new set of telescope mirrors, and hammered together every new telescope out of scrap plywood in my garage.

Then, I waited again for the first clear, moonless night and drove my new creation out to some rural site far from city lights and indoor plumbing. I waited again for the galaxy to rise high enough in the sky to be seen properly. I looked.

“Still a SMUDGE,” I whispered to myself each time, as my mind calculated what it would cost me in time, effort, and missed lunches to construct an even bigger telescope.

At long last, my 17-inch-diameter mirror came in the mail. I had saved my lunch money for over a year to get it. Then I had waited another year for the optical company to fabricate it. I finished the telescope in a single weekend of frenzied sawing and pounding nails. It still smelled of newly cut wood as I loaded it unpainted in the car. I will never forget the warm spring night when I stood on the lawn at Perkins Observatory. (Back in those days, I was not allowed into the building, even to use the restroom.)

At first, I saw the bright central hub, but I had seen that smudge many times before. As my eyes slowly adapted to the dark, out of the hub curled the glorious spiral arms.

You might think that the experience was a bit anticlimactic after all that waiting, but it wasn’t. I was seeing the basic unit, the defining quality, of the universe with a telescope I had built with my own hands and heart. I was collecting the real photons of light that had traveled 23 million years to reach my eyes and then die. But I didn’t mourn for that light. It was reborn in an instant as an undimmed memory I will carry with me all the rest of my days.

The experience left me with a hunger for more. I asked myself a thousand questions, some of which I still ask to this day. Why are some galaxies shaped like pinwheels and others shaped like otherwise unstructured eggs? How can a spinning mass of stars maintain its spiral structure over millions — nay, billions — of our pathetically short earthly years? But the answers to those questions would have to wait. A room full of students would be waiting for me in just a few hours. Coffee. Need coffee now.

After my observing adventure at Perkins, I stared at the all-night truck stop into my fourth cup of java at 4 a.m. I thought of the ageless forces of the universe and also of a few lines of verse from the 19th century by William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wildflower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

I stirred the black coffee and slowly poured in some cream. I could see a spiral galaxy, perfectly formed, in that cup of coffee.

There is the universe, I thought, the grand macrocosm of swirling galaxies to the perfect spiral in my very microcosmic coffee cup.

So, turn off your TVs. Throw away your computer games. While you’re at it, tell your children for me that we have to stop implying to them in word and deed that the only experiences worth having involve exploding planets and severed heads.

You’ll find more in the light dancing in a forest or the touch of a hand on your own, or the subtle structure of a galaxy than you will find in a thousand bands of comic book superheroes. I cannot promise you that learning about your world will be easy. All I can promise you is a universe of indescribable beauty and experiences that will fill a lifetime with unending wonder. All I can promise is a life of intellectual and emotional fulfillment, a slow but steady journey ever upward toward the light.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.