One brief flash

>> Wednesday, May 21, 2008

There was an announcement today that astronomers got lucky and were able to focus several of the world's ground-based and space-based telescope on a supernova in real time (or the 84,000,000-year time-delay equivalent; space, as Douglas Adams mentioned, is big, really, really big). This may not seem like a big deal, but it's actually a huge first: normally, we only notice a supernova after it's started, when there's a visible flare-up in the sky; what happened this time was an astronomer just happened by pure luck to notice an X-ray flash while she was looking at data from the orbiting Swift satellite. The process is better explained by Phil Plait ("The Bad Astronomer") at the above link--the skinny is that the core of a dying star collapses faster than the surface does, generating a shock wave of X-rays, you might think of it (by way of a crude analogy) as the chest pains or numb left arm preceding the actual heart attack. What are the odds of an astronomer happening to catch this event? Plait says the X-ray burst lasted five minutes--and, let's see, there are 1,440 minutes in a day... yeah, the odds are long.

As a result, astronomers were able to turn a number of eyes on the source of the flash, and were able to actually watch the star explode. For several millennia now, the classic "observation" of a supernova has pretty much been, "Hey, look, that star's brighter than it was last night." This time, it was essentially, "Wait for it... wait for it... boom! There it goes!" I mean, not exactly, but you get the idea.

By way of further perspective, Plait notes that atoms can't fuse past a certain mass--atoms like calcium, iron, zinc and iodine aren't pumped out by healthy stars, they're cranked out by the dying ones. Carl Sagan used to say we were made out of starstuff, but that's not quite complete--the fuller picture (and I'm not sure if it's less romantic or more) is that we're made of the corpses of stars, the dead ash of the ones that have blown apart or slammed into each other.

But then again, that thought itself is a little prosaic; I kinda hate it when people feel they have to justify science by explaining why something has some practical or banal application. One sometimes begins to think that curiosity has passed from the world, or maybe that's romanticizing the past, too, maybe a certain segment of people has always lacked imagination and a sense of wonder. The bottom line is that even if exploding stars weren't a part of our genesis, vast things blowing up eighty-four million years ago and being noticed just now by someone who happened to be looking at the right five minutes out of fifteen hundred, the light of a mind-blowingly ginormous cataclysm crossing such a vast stretch of time and space that nobody can stand in awe of it for an epoch--all of that is really fucking cool on its own terms.

Anyway, read the article and take a minute (or more) to sit in awe.


Jim Wright Friday, May 23, 2008 at 11:42:00 AM EDT  

I saw an article on this a couple of days ago.

Couldn't see anything with my telescope, I've really got to get a 200inch mirror, not this little 6" mirror that I've got now ;)

This actually made the news, briefly, yesterday, or the day before - don't remember exactly. Which I thought was amazing - Britney must have been having a slow day or something.

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