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.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Witness to a crash

Well, thanks to my friend, the brilliant writer Gil Miller, I now have another reason to huddle under my blankie for the rest of the day.

We've dealt here before with a great many cosmic phenomena that you would seriously not want to get too close to.  Some of these sound like Geordi-Laforgian technobabble from Star Trek, but I promise all of them are quite real:

From this,  you might come to the conclusion that I have a morbid fascination with astronomical phenomena that are big and scary and dangerous and can kill you.  This is not entirely incorrect; I would only modify it insofar as to add that I am also morbidly fascinated with geological phenomena (earthquakes, volcanoes, pyroclastic flows, lahars) and meteorological phenomena (hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, microbursts) that are big and scary and dangerous and can kill you.

Call it a failing.

In any case, thanks to Gil's eagle-eyed facility for spotting cool recent research in science, I now have a new astronomical one to add to the list -- a luminous fast cooler.  This one provides the added frisson of being (as yet) unexplained -- although as you'll see, there's a possible explanation for it that makes it even scarier.

The research that uncovered the phenomenon was done by a team led by Matt Nicholl, astrophysicist at Queen's University Belfast, using data from ATLAS, the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (speaking of scary phenomena) telescope network in Hawaii, Chile and South Africa.  The event they discovered was (fortunately) nowhere near our own neighborhood; it was spotted in a galaxy two billion light years away.

What happened is that a completely ordinary, Sun-like star suddenly flared up by a factor of a hundred billion.  The first thought, of course, was supernova -- but this explosion's profile was completely different than that of a supernova, and stars the size of the Sun aren't supposed to go supernova anyhow.  Then, as if to add to the mystery, it cooled just as fast, fading by two orders of magnitude in only two weeks.  A month later, it was only at one percent of its peak brightness shortly after detonating (still, of course, considerably brighter than it had been).

The first question, of course, is "if it wasn't a supernova, what was it?"  And the answer thus far is "we're not sure."  So the researchers started trying to find other examples of the phenomenon, and uncovered two previously unrecognized events that matched the recent explosion's profile, one in 2009 and one in 2020.

But that still doesn't tell us how a perfectly ordinary star can suddenly go boom.  Nicholl says that the team has come up with only one possible hypothesis -- and it's a doozie.

"The most plausible explanation seems to be a black hole colliding with a star," Nicholl said.

Well, that's just all kinds of comforting.

Artist's conception of a black hole devouring a star [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

So it's all very well to say cheerily, "Hey, at least the Sun's not gonna go supernova, and we don't have any Wolf-Rayet stars nearby, and the nearest gamma-ray burster isn't pointed in our direction, and false vacuum collapse is really unlikely!  We're sitting here happily orbiting a highly stable star still in the prime of life, in a quiet corner of the galaxy!  What could go wrong?"

Apparently, what could go wrong is that a black hole could come swooping in out of nowhere and make the Sun explode.

Now, mind you, there are no black holes near us.  That we know of.  And chances are, we would, because even though they're black (thus the name), their influence on the matter around them is considerable.  The great likelihood is if there were a black hole headed for a crash with the Sun, you'd know about it plenty in advance.

Not that there's anything you could do about it, other than the time-honored maneuver of sticking your head between your legs and kissing your ass goodbye.

So thanks to Gil for making me feel even tinier and more fragile than I already did, which led me to share this delightful discovery with you.

Have a nice day.


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