"Avoid black holes when you can."
That was the tongue-in-cheek lesson that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson offered The Associated Press this week, based on spectacular photos that show a black hole shooting deadly radiation into a galaxy. The blast likely destroyed tens of millions of stars with orbiting planets, perhaps even some that contained life.
I use the past tense because all of this began a long time ago. Space being as large as it is, pictures take a little longer to develop than at your neighborhood digital photo kiosk.
Oh, and Tyson did offer one other lesson from these images, which were recorded by several telescopes on Earth: "This is a reminder that you are not alone in the universe. You are not isolated."
That sounds very much like a Christmas message, although I'm sure that wasn't his intent. There is, however, a Christmas connection to those images from a galaxy far, far away.
It is this: If there is one thing on which atheists and many religious people agree, it is that the world will cease to exist some day. A supernova, a radiation blast from a black hole or a cataclysmic melting of the elements from the hands of a righteously indignant God will end this Earth as we know it.
There is one other thing on which the two sides can agree. The lives of everyone living today will end some day, most likely much sooner than the end of the world.
The difference between the two sides is the difference between hope and the despair that comes from the temporary nature of all things.
Strip away the sales from desperate retailers, the mad rush to find an elusive Wii, the tinsel, glitter, cookies and parties from the season, and you are left with this essence about Christmas. It is about hope.
It's about the hope that our lives here, the good or ill we do, will matter beyond the sum of the elements that define us and our surroundings.
It's about the hope that the relationships we forge, the results of an innate human instinct to love, nurture and mentor, will not evaporate with the tears at a funeral.
It's about the hope for justice, not out of a sense of vengeance, but for the sake of those who have been mistreated and abused.
It's about the hope that there is brilliant light even in the coldest darkness, just as the many colorful lights bring a sparkle to December's gloom.
Most of all, it's about the hope that life really matters; that the things we do won't evaporate some day in a cloud of cosmic radiation. Improving yourself really is important. Helping other people really will pay long-term dividends. Things don't just live on in stories and history books until they blow up some day along with everything else.
It's the difference between the here and now, and eternity.
The AP story about the destruction of the galaxy described it as "the latest act of senseless violence," another tongue-in-cheek description that also was laden with assumptions about our existence. We know the world is violent. Humans attack humans all the time. Shows about nature on television are famous for portraying violence among and between species as just part of the natural chain of life. Only silly humans feel sorry for the furry creatures who get eaten by bigger furry creatures; or for a far-flung galaxy that gets destroyed by a blast of radiation.
The baby born in Bethlehem about 2007 years ago brought a different sort of message. He spoke of mansions in a different realm. He healed bodies and spirits. Ultimately, he transcended the temporary nature that characterizes everything our eyes can see.
Even the death of a galaxy can eventually lead to renewal. Scientists say the radiation attack may lead to the formation of new stars and planets some day.But that promise seems cold and uninviting without the hope so many earthlings will celebrate this week. We are not alone in the universe.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]