Astrophysicist Looks At Galaxy Far, Far Away

Astrophysicist Mordecai-Mark Mac Low talks about the galaxy Messier 101, and Rebecca Roberts explores references to 101 in literature.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

For our next look at the number 101 on this 101st day of the year, we'll look skyward. A few light-years past Saturn, there's a galaxy that fits in with our theme very well.

Mr. MORDECAI-MARK MAC LOW (Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History): This is a galaxy that is the 101st object in Charles Messier's catalogue of nebular objects. Thus, it's known as M101 for Messier 101.

ROBERTS: That's Mordecai-Mark Mac Low. He's curator of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And the guy he's talking about, Charles Messier, was a French astronomer in the 1700s, but when the object M101 was discovered, no one knew it was a galaxy.

Mr. MAC LOW: Now you have to understand that at the time, they weren't looking at galaxies. They were looking for fuzzy things in the sky that were not comets, so that they could know that they were not discovering a comet when they saw one of these. It wasn't understood to be a galaxy similar to the Milky Way until well into the 20th century.

ROBERTS: And M101 goes by another name that you've probably heard if you're a fan of children's science fiction.

Mr. MAC LOW: M101 is sometimes known as the Pinwheel Galaxy because it's a particularly bright, prominent, spiral galaxy, as spiral galaxies go.

ROBERTS: That's the Pinwheel Galaxy, home of the planet Uriel from Madeleine L'Engle's book "A Wrinkle in Time." The number 101 plays a role in other fiction too. There are, of course, 101 Dalmatians.

(Soundbite of movie, "101 Dalmatians")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) A hundred and one.

ROBERTS: It's Neo's apartment number in "The Matrix" and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator model.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Terminator")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Cyberdyne systems model 101.

ROBERTS: And Room 101 is a particularly unpleasant place in George Orwell's 1984.

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