A newspapers function is to report the news. It is also to sell newspapers. As a result we the readers usually are subjected to endless articles about national and local politics, the disaster in Iraq, the latest news of the celebrity or celebrity couple of the moment, and most recently all aspects of the global warming issue. At least the last topic is getting attention, as the survival of our species could be in the balance.
From time to time there is an article in the newspaper that can shift the reader’s consciousness to an entirely different place than the obsessing about the human condition. There was such an article the other day in the New York Times that did that for me. Under the headline “Astronomers Report One for the Record Books” was the story about the human ‘discovery’ of the brightest and most powerful stellar explosion ever recorded. Of course ever recorded means by humans, not necessarily the largest ever, but since it is a newspaper for humans, we’ll let that one go.
Last September, a graduate student from the University of Texas was using a small telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. The graduate student, Robert Quimby was “trolling for supernovas” late one night when he discovered this explosion in a galaxy 240 million light years away in the constellation Perseus. [Now I have never trolled for supernovas let alone deep sea fish, but Quimby obviously must now be considered to be a master at supernova trolling]. The explosion he discovered was more than a hundred times as large as the typical supernova that signifies the end of a massive star.
One scientist suggested that this supernova might well be the ‘most massive star ever seen to explode” and that it was ‘about 150 times the mass of the Sun’. It is phrases like that which take the reader out of the commute to another day of self absorbed human endeavor and puts him into the consideration of both how big the infinity of space truly is and of course how, by comparison, how woefully insignificant all other stories in the newspaper really are. [It is always an indication to me that sometimes I lose the cosmic perspective on life on earth. Now that we are facing a fundamental shift regarding life on earth, it will help us all to start to hold a bit more cosmic perspective as we consider the next 100 years].
The interesting thing regarding the big explosion that Quimby discovered last year, and that is being researched and reported for the Astrophysical Journal is that the great scientific minds who are fascinated by it, really don’t know why it happened. This of course is the new question. The interesting aspect of all this is that while such massive stars are extremely rare in the modern universe, it is believed that they were very common when the universe was less than a billion years old. The further analysis of this explosion, and others like it will let scientists further learn how this type of explosion and the earlier ones in the life of the universe, scatter their carbon and iron ashes out into space where they can be made into stars. In other words how these explosions fertilize subsequent generations of stars and possibly additional planets.
Of course the interesting thing about all this is that this newly discovered cataclysmic explosion actually happened 240 million light years away, which means it happened before man was on this earth. Hence the title of this column.