Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 17, 2023


I'm kind of an excitable type.

I think that may be why I went into science.  The rigorous, evidence-basted methods of science were a nice antidote to the fact that my natural state is having my emotions swinging me around by the tail constantly.

Even after years of studying (and teaching) science, and twelve years of writing about it here at Skeptophilia Central, I still have the capacity for going off the deep end sometimes.  Which is what happened when I read a paper (a preprint, actually) from the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society called "The Evolutionary Stage of Betelgeuse Inferred from its Pulsation Periods," by Hideyuki Saio (Tohoku University) and Devesh Nandal, Georges Meynet, and Sylvia Ekström (Université de Genève).

The constellation Orion.  Betelgeuse is in the upper left corner of the image.  [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Mouser, Orion 3008 huge, CC BY-SA 3.0]

First, a little background, before I get to the squee-inducing part.

Stars exist in a state of tension between two forces -- the inward pull of gravity and the outward pressure from the heat produced by fusion in the core.  At the very beginning of their lives, stars form from a loose cloud of mostly hydrogen gas that collapses under its own attractive gravitational force.  That collapse increases the pressure and temperature, and -- if the initial cloud was big enough -- eventually they rise high enough to trigger the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium.  This is a (very) energy-releasing reaction -- physicists call such reactions exothermic -- and that energy pushes outward, balancing the inward pull of gravity.  The star goes into equilibrium.

But there's not an infinite supply of hydrogen.  The hydrogen fuel in the core is eventually exhausted, so fusion slows down.  The temperature drops, as does the outward pressure, so -- for a while -- gravity wins.  The star collapses, heating the core up, until the temperature and pressure become sufficient to fuse the helium "ash" in the core into carbon.  (This process, incidentally, is where the carbon in the organic molecules in our bodies comes from; Carl Sagan was spot-on in saying "We are made from star stuff.")

Helium fusion is also exothermic, so once again, the star goes into equilibrium.  But then the helium runs out, and the collapse resumes until the pressure and temperature are high enough to fuse carbon into oxygen. 

Then oxygen into silicon.  Then silicon into iron.

Two things are important here.  The first is that each of the reactions -- from hydrogen fusing into helium through silicon fusing into iron -- produces less energy than the one before it but requires higher temperatures and pressures to make it happen.  The second is that something happens when you pass that final reaction, which is that any subsequent fusion into heavier elements is an endothermic, or energy-consuming, reaction.

So when the silicon is used up, and the star's core is made mostly of iron, there's pretty much nowhere to go.  The gravitational collapse picks up again, and there is no "next reaction" that might produce energy to balance it.  So the collapse continues until finally there's such a tremendous temperature spike that the entire star goes kablooie.

This is called a supernova, and it releases more energy in a few seconds than the star liberated in the entire rest of its life.  The unimaginable pressures do fuse some of the iron in the core into those heavier elements, despite the energy required, and that's where all the elements on the periodic table with atomic numbers higher than 26 come from, from the gold in our jewelry to the silver in our coinage and the copper in our electrical wires.

With me so far?  Because there's one more thing I haven't told you.

Each stage in a star's life takes much less time than the one before it.

The hydrogen to helium stage lasts millions to billions of years.  (The Sun is in the hydrogen-burning stage, and is estimated to have another five billion years to go.)  Higher-mass stars have higher pressures and temperatures, and consume their fuel at a greater rate, but we're still talking tens to hundreds of millions of years.  Helium-to-carbon lasts maybe a million years; carbon-to-oxygen, we're talking decades.

After that, it's pretty much a ticking time bomb with a very short fuse.

Now for the punch line: the Saio et al. paper suggests that the pulsation periods of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse indicate that it is nearing the end of the carbon burning stage.  So we might actually have a shot at seeing one of the brightest stars in the sky go supernova in our lifetimes.

This paper has even the scientists flipping out.  One of my favorite science vloggers, astronomer Becky Smethurst of Oxford University, did a YouTube video about this paper and you could tell she was barely keeping it together.  Ordinarily, whenever you hear about anything impressive in sciences like astronomy and geology -- such as a supernova or gamma-ray burster, or the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupting or the East African Rift Zone tearing Africa apart -- the scientists will respond with a deep sigh and a monotone "as we've explained many times before, blah blah blah astronomical/geological time scales blah blah blah."

Now, though, the astronomers are actually acting like this is the real deal.  (And in fact, if Saio et al. are right, Betelgeuse has probably already blown itself to smithereens; at six-hundred-odd light years away, we just haven't gotten the memo yet.)

When this happens, it's gonna be spectacular.  A supernova that close will be bright enough to read by at night, most likely for months, and will be easily visible during the day.  The happy news is that it's not close enough to do us any damage; a supernova under twenty-five light years away could be catastrophic, doing nasty stuff like blowing away the atmosphere.  (Fortunately, there are no supernova candidates anywhere near that close to us.)  Betelgeuse will just create some amazing fireworks, as well as permanently changing the contour of the familiar constellation of Orion.

So my opinion is: bring on the supernova.  We could use a little excitement down here.


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