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When Distant Holes Collide

November 21, 2002

Here we were contemplating a dispute around the old oak tree, a thorough holiday rug-cleaning and which turkey stuffing to use next week when suddenly our lives collided with news of these two colliding black holes in space.

You might have missed it because the discovery of evidence pointing to the colossal crash of two galaxies was widely deemed less newsworthy on Earth than the Bachelor's final pick or the possible demolition of Los Angeles police headquarters.

So let's think of this celestial story in terms familiar to the California universe -- say, as a freeway. We (our sun and its planets) are on the southbound side of the freeway. Earth is in the southbound commuter lane moving at 66,500 miles an hour, which would make for a short commute if Earth had a destination in the infinity of space.

On the freeway's northbound side are two trucks, each the size of the Milky Way. Interestingly, one of them is going the wrong way. They collide. Whatever is in them, along with whatever is in the neighborhood, flies into a lot of large pieces, emitting forces we've yet to contemplate and radiation requiring sun block with an SPF around 5,000. All this would spill into the southbound lanes for millions of years. Now, do you find this worthy of the traffic report?

It's true, space news seems far away, even if Lance Bass gets there. If we ignore space, maybe it too will go away. Space can be bewildering. It has hypotheses, hypotenuses and nuclei, invisible rays, black holes that aren't holes and more baffling numbers than even your car lease. For example, these colliding galaxies are 400 million light-years away, which, at 186,000 miles a second, is 2,400 million trillion miles away, give or take a lane.

Each of the two galaxies has a black hole, and the mass in each black hole generates gravity stronger than any Oreck. Light can't even escape from black holes; hence, the name. Talk about stuffing.

The galaxies circle each other, faster and faster like water down a drain. They're at 3,000 light-years and closing. The total merger will take many millions of years. (By the way, our galaxy is headed straight toward the Andromeda galaxy.)

But wait a thousand seconds! The light we're seeing now started its journey to the new Chandra space telescope 400 million years ago. So the explosive merger probably already happened. Was anyone's weekend spoiled? Was "Harry Potter's" box office hurt? It's old news. Who cares?

Let's get back to important stuff. So at 20 minutes a pound and 325 degrees, a 16-pound turkey should cook for -- um, drop the zero, carry the one -- well, way less than a light-year anyway.

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