Chaos Theory, one of the great mathematical advances of our age, holds that random patterns replicate themselves at different scales; the line made by water lapping a rocky shore, if you could draw it, would show the same density of zigs and zags as a map of an entire continental coast. That phenomenon seems to be at work in the picture on this page, which might be taken for columns of smoke rising from a fire into a still, starry sky. Those are, indeed, stars in the background, but the columns are of hydrogen gas and microscopic dust, and they measure roughly a light-year--6 trillion miles--from top to bottom.
What excited astronomers about the image-which was captured in April by the Hubble Space Telescope and released last week by NASA--was that it showed details never seen before of the formation of new stars. It shows a portion of the Eagle Nebula, a fuzzy patch of light visible in the western sky between the constellations of Sagittarius and Serpens. The nebula, approximately 7,000 light-years distant, is described by NASA as "a bowl-shaped blister on the side of a dense cloud of cold interstellar gas," essentially hydrogen. Within this immense bowl are about 100 relatively young stars, including some that are much larger and hotter than the sun. Their intense ultraviolet radiation heats the gas cloud and, in a process called "photoevaporation," sends it streaming off into space. The columns contain concentrations of denser material, such as carbon and silica dust, that remain behind--the way some desert rock formations resist erosion, forming buttes and mesas.
The lead researcher, Dr. Jeff Hester of Arizona State University, is particularly interested in the fingerlike projections on the surface of the columns. These bumps, which are roughly the size of our solar system, appear to represent regions of even higher density-high enough to begin the process of gravitational accumulation and concentration that produces stars. A major question in cosmology has been how stars achieve a particular size, which in turn determines their brightness, longevity and ultimate fate. Hester thinks the Hubble pictures may help answer that. Astronomers call these formations "evaporating gaseous globules"-or EGGs. From them, it appears, much of the universe may have hatched. .