Before you get any ideas, no, we have not been visited by the Mad Hatter.
A children’s book, a genius and a space agency really do share something quite bizarre in common. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it also marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (OK, that one was yesterday. But still!).
To celebrate these milestones, NASA, our third link in the chain, released a visible/X-ray image of the Cheshire Cat group of galaxies – a nod to the iconic 19th century tale.
Can you see the resemblance? Good. Because it gets slightly more complicated from here.
The image NASA shared not only references Alice in Wonderland, it’s also a testament to Einstein’s theory. The genius argued that matter warps space-time, which means objects “can cause an observable bending of light from a background object.” Which, in other words, means some of the cat-like features you see in these galaxies are the result of light that has been stretched and bent by large amounts of mass. This phenomenon, known as “gravitational lensing”, allows astronomers to probe far away galaxies in ways that would otherwise be impossible, even with the help of the world’s best telescopes.
The image above is an example of that. What you’re actually looking at is a group of distant galaxies set on a crash course for each other. Each “eye” of the cat represents the brightest group of galaxies in the area, which are barreling towards one another at over 300,000 miles per hour, according to NASA. The purple hue is of hot gas being heated to millions of degrees, while astronomers say the left eye contains a super-massive blackhole. So even though there are some visual similarities between this celestial body and the Cheshire Cat, it’s definitely no wonderland.
“The latest results from the “Cheshire Cat” group of galaxies show how manifestations of Einstein’s 100-year-old theory can lead to new discoveries today,” NASA wrote in a statement.
To recap: Alice in Wonderland was the inspiration behind the name given to this group of Galaxies. And Einstein’s theory allowed us to understand exactly what is going on with the celestial body, while NASA was the one to apply those discoveries, allowing us Earthlings to check out the image today.
Yeah, talk about all the stars aligning, right?