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Daniel Hudon

Instructions on How to Build a Galaxy

Few things in the Universe are as awesome as galaxies, and this fact alone should be enough incentive for you to begin your project. Held up side-by-side-by-side with rainbows and the Canadian Rockies, galaxies always win. If poets had access to telescopes more often, they would be waxing to their lovers about the diffuse brilliance of galaxies rather than the twinkling stars.

Don't listen to the naysayers who will remind you there are already a hundred billion galaxies in the Universe and insist you are wasting your time. Noah's neighbors said he was crazy to build an ark and look at what happened to them. Instead, listen to Rumi: Start a big, foolish project. No new galaxies have been constructed in the past fourteen billion years, but that's no reason for you not to build one. Once you've built a galaxy, you can do anything.

Galaxies come in three types, categorized according to their shapes: ellipticals, spirals and irregulars, and it is recommended that you build one of these types, otherwise, your galaxy will certainly fail.

Elliptical galaxies look like cosmic footballs. They are made mostly of old stars that zing around in chaotic orbits. The largest galaxies in the Universe are ellipticals, so bear that in mind if your aim is grandeur.

Spiral galaxies are more jaw-droppingly stunning than a dozen red roses in full bloom, or proofs of the existence of God, take your pick. All astronomers keep a postcard-sized photo of their favorite spiral galaxy under their pillow at night in the hopes they will have beautiful [1] dreams.

The main feature of spiral galaxies is their disk, which contains most of their stars and enough to make, oh, zillions more. It has the eponymous spiral pattern lovely enough to make even the most cold-hearted observers swoon. If you create a successful spiral galaxy and advertise it properly, schoolchildren all over the world will scrawl thank you letters to you, in crayon.

Irregular galaxies are amorphous blobs of stars, gas and dust, without any obvious features. Think of a bug on the windshield or of any painting whose title is “Untitled,” and you've got the right idea. Though they appear rather generic, you shouldn't discount them entirely because a failed elliptical or spiral could be a successful irregular.

Galaxies take up a lot of space so we suggest building your galaxy in its ultimate location. This prevents the need for renting a universe-sized studio, which would be prohibitively expensive. Recently, astronomers have discovered large voids in inter-galactic space that are crying out to be filled with a galaxy or two. Look into it.

After deciding on your type of galaxy, you need to collect the raw materials. Your prime concern is to acquire a suitable amount of hydrogen gas. Aim for enough to build a few billion stars. Don't scrimp because without enough gas for gravity to hold it together, the expanding space will tear your proto-galaxy apart and you'll have to start over. Try a local hardware store (be sure to call ahead) or a university physics lab where, if necessary, you can bribe the technician with beer. Tell him it's for the sake of art, man.

For a successful galaxy, you will also need a mysterious substance known as dark matter. No one knows why. Just gather it (try dead stars and, in a pinch, black holes) and shape it into a centrally concentrated super-galactic-sized sphere. A very large pair of mittens might help. Allow the dark matter to (weakly) attract your hydrogen gas and trigger your first round of star formation. Stand clear, those first stars can light up with a bang.

At this stage, you've already done more work than all twelve of the labors of Hercules so a breather is in order. Take a nap. Get a cup of coffee. Let gravity do its work. But stay focused because there are still a few things to watch out for.

Don't be alarmed if a supermassive black hole forms in the center of your protogalactic cloud. This is a sign of a healthy baby galaxy. Just be sure not to fall in or you'll be super-stretched thinner than spaghetti before being crushed into oblivion. Though the black hole will be invisible, as super-heated matter falls in (before disappearing forever), you should expect to see its last gasp X-ray fireworks from across the Universe. You can warm your hands in the glow.

Elsewhere in your contracting proto-galaxy, some gas clumps should develop into clusters of stars. If these don't wind up being dazzlingly pretty, you need to create larger clumps. In order to form a diffuse disk, which we recommend, see to it that your cloud has an ever-so-slight rotational motion about its central axis. As the cloud contracts, it will whirl into a disk as dictated by the law of conservation of angular momentum (one of those laws that make both figure skating and galaxy building fun). This could take a few hundred million years. Don't get impatient—it takes longer to build a mountain range. Trust in the laws of the Universe.

If you can't create a disk, you may just have to call it an irregular galaxy and wrap up your project. Or, put it aside, start over with a larger gas cloud and spin it up with a good swift kick.

As for creating a spiral pattern in your disk, no one knows how these get created so you're on your own. Use your imagination, that's why you're in this business. Otherwise, your best bet is to hope for a tidal tug from a nearby galaxy to create a density wave that roams around the galaxy, causing new stars to light up as it passes through. After it goes around a few times, you should see a spiral pattern. If not, try flipping the disk over, maybe it's upside down.

If your heart is set on an elliptical galaxy, find another spiral and smash the two galaxies together. Such collisions were all the rage in the early days of the Universe and astronomers are still trying to sort out what happened. One more won't hurt. Go for broke and merge in a whole bunch of spirals to ensure that you get a mish-mash of chaotic orbits about the central black hole. Allow a few billion years for the collision to run its course and for the elliptical shape to be revealed. Quality takes time.

When you're satisfied with your galaxy (fluff up some of the nebulae as a finishing touch), announce its presence to the Universe. Point out that it's the first man-made galaxy and give coordinates for how to find it. Arrange for it to be inhabited (see How to Build a Planet in Twelve Easy Steps)—there's nothing lonelier than a galaxy devoid of life. Stand back and admire your handiwork: the ultimate glow of a billion suns. And take a break—bigger projects await.

©2009 by Daniel Hudon

[1] Should you decide, as a side-project, to pass around photos of spiral galaxies among the generals of warring nations as a way of promoting peace, let us know how it works out. We’re optimistic.

Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, teaches natural science at Boston University, in Boston, Massachusetts. He has published a wide range of prose and poetry in print and online, including, most recently, in Tiferet, The Nashwaak Review, Bayou Magazine, The Hiss Quarterly, Asian Cha, Opium Magazine, Word Riot, and Riffing on String, an anthology of writing about string theory. His first book, The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos, will be published in 2009 by Oval Books (UK). For more information see his Web site.

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