Dust to dust

David Maisel, Library of Dust 387, 2005

The Infrared Small Magellanic Cloud, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

"From 1913 to 1971 five thousand one hundred and twenty one mentally ill patients were cremated on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital. Their remains were sealed in copper canisters. The canisters were stored in the hospital's basement until the 1970s when they were moved to a memorial vault underground. The vault was subjected to periodic floods. In 2000 they were removed from their institutional crypt, placed on plain pine shelves in a storeroom, and were left virtually forgotten until David Maisel heard of their existence and photographed them."

The second image shows the main body of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy. It is "comprised of a 'bar' on the left and a 'wing' extending to the right. The bar contains both old stars (in blue) and young stars lighting up their natal dust (green/red). The wing mainly contains young stars. In addition, the image contains a galactic globular cluster in the lower left (blue cluster of stars) and emission from dust in our own galaxy (green in the upper right and lower right corners)."

In a beautiful essay, Adam Harrison Levy reflects on the wondrous chemical and alchemical efflorescence of the canisters whose content, ashes of the long forgotten dead, seems to assert itself in bursts of colors, not unlike the colors of the stars and dust in the cosmic universe. As he wrote, "If all this seems grim, take a look at the canisters again. Their swirl and surge of color reminds me of nothing less than the spectacular images taken through NASA's Spitzer telescope: the visual identity of the canisters miraculously mirrors that of the universe itself. And yet each rivulet and blossom of color are as distinctive and as personal as the human remains held within. It's as if the mysterious something that leaves the body at the moment of death, often called the soul, is trying to escape. What's left is evidence of extraordinary beauty."

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