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Galaxies Outside the Atlas

Mercury Winter 2011 Table of Contents

by Trevor Quirk

spiral galaxy NGC 4911

The face-on spiral galaxy NGC 4911, part of the Coma Cluster of galaxies. Courtesy NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA).

Soft clouds of grey pitch silently thicken the sky, still lit from below by the sinking sun. The upward veins and creases of the clouds are illuminated by an apricot fire, as a young, eager John Salzer buries his eyes and mind in an atlas under the mellow electric light of a library.

He's lost — surrounded by towering cases and shelves of hardcover books printed on manila, edge-stained pages. There's that
distinct smell of library dust, the floating accumulation of disintegrated paper, ancient ink, and binding glue through static air. It's The Hubble Atlas of Galaxies he's lost in. He turns the pages slowly, in pensive movement, taking note of the fact that every galaxy is different. Salzer knows that the initial ensemble of hydrogen and helium is essentially the same for each galaxy, yet somehow — and this is what allures him — this endless catalog of images contains no congruencies. Not a single repetition or suspected duplicate. Shape, color, stellar distribution, and size — all different.

That was the childhood scene John Salzer, an astronomer at Indiana University, described to me when I had the opportunity to speak with him about his recent work.

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