Secrets of the Stars
By R. D. Flavin
TWINKLE, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are! Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky.
(Taylor 1806, pp. 11-12; from “The Star.”)
A. P. W. B. Dumbledore, B. J. Spears, O. J. Simpson and J. D. Watson.
They glow, radiate and shine while all too often self-destructing with some final spectacle that prolongs interest. Recently much attention has been directed at fantasy author Jo Murray (aka J. K. Rowling) and her extraordinary claim that the highly regarded headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is homosexual. Our commitment to voyeuristically examine every salacious slip, excruciating error and attention-seeking escapade by the former Mouseketeer, Britney Jean Spears, continues to occupy a niche somewhere between daily flossing and absentmindedly picking scabs. 1985 NFL Hall of Fame inductee, Orenthal James Simpson, wasn’t content with getting away with murder and persists in providing us with many examples of wrong behavior. Public controversy has never strayed far from the career of the 1962 Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. James Dewey Watson, and he apparently enjoys maintaining that uncomfortable relationship. Yet, these celebrity stunts, blunders, crimes and gaffs are simply filler copy for the tabloids while the true secrets of the stars are revealed elsewhere. One merely has to know where to look.
We may discuss facts, truths and data, describe and catagorize our likes and dislikes, debate judgements of good or bad and right or wrong, however Nature will always defy our limited terminology. Words won’t suffice and, besides, we’re the passers by and Nature will still exist long after our personal preferences for Ashcan jazz and physical relations which blaze off the Scoville Organoleptic chart. Still, we struggle with perceptions and articulate as best we can. We are sometimes privy to the secrets of the stars, though restricted in expression with only about 100,000 million brain cells and around 750,000 unique words (for English speakers) to attempt communication. I’ll utilize what’s available to share several secrets.
G292.0+1.8 pulsar3C 326 North and South galaxies
All stars eventually burn out, though how fast and what happens as the aging stars exhaust themselves is usually determined by the size of the star in its prime. Smaller stars meet their ends differently from larger ones. When a massive star begins its final years, it often explodes as a supernova for a brief and brilliant period and sheds much of itself into space (contributing to the stuff of future stars). Within the supernova remnant the core of the dying star is likely to pressurize its remaining protons and electrons forming many neutrons and turning the center into a neutron star. Some neutron stars are identified from an emission of radio waves which are detected with regularity as they reach the Earth and are known as pulsars. [Note: in a significant (and increasingly known) number of cases the neutron star becomes a victim of its own gravitational forces and further collapses to form a black hole.] Recently a pulsar was discovered which doesn’t reside in the center of a supernova remnant like other pulsars. Stars apparently don’t like being predictable.
The remains of a supernova explosion and pulsar known as G292.0+1.8 is located 20,000 light years from Earth (or a tad more than 117,572,507,463,660,000 miles). A just released image captured from by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, an orbiting satellite launched in 1999, shows the stellar ejecta surrounding the pulsar as an extensive elemental cloud with large amounts of oxygen, silicon, sulfur and magnesium. Of particular interest to astrophysicists and cosmologists is the off-center location of the pulsar in relation to the supernova remnant. It’s thought that the supernova explosion wasn’t uniform, more energy was released in one direction than others, and that the pulsar was pushed into its “lopsided” position. We may assume Nature doesn’t changes its behavior and follows secret rules we’re not yet aware of.
As some stars are more massive than others, so too are some clusters of stars (or galaxies) larger or smaller than average. And, as Nature dictates, when there’s a disproportional size difference, one “wins” another “loses.” Such is the ongoing case of the 3C 326 North galaxy and its diminutive neighbor, 3C 326 South. The Spritzer Space Telescope is documenting a “robbery” in progress as the bigger galaxy is siphoning away all of the smaller galaxy’s reserve of molecular hydrogen. A likelihood has been advanced that North will absorb the South or, at the very least, leave the victim out of gas and unable to produce new stars and planets. As Nature is responsible only to itself this theft is regarded as yet another example of some stars being above the law.
Appearances may be deceiving and stars are known to occasionally misrepresent themselves. A punk gang of stars in the NGC 3603 nebula has been photographed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope combining their light to appear as if they were a single, impossibly huge star. Actually, a few groups are all running the same scam and passing themselves off as three really big stars. As if being a star isn’t enough, the NGC 3603 nebula neighborhood seems a popular hangout for stellar egos that believe it's how one looks not what one does that's important.
Stellar careers fluctuate with certain stars outshining others for a time. Eta (η) Carinae, as one of the brightest and most mysterious stars observable without assistance, has an amazing past with a promise that ...the best is yet to come. As noted by the first century CE Greek astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolemaeus, the unique star is part of the ancient southern constellation, Argo Navis, which was later split into three smaller constellations by Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (La Caille 1763). Carina was first described in modern times by the English astronomer, Sir Edmund Halley who listed its luminosity as of the fourth magnitude (Halley 1677). The star system was nicknamed the “Keyhole Nebula” by Sir John Frederick William Herschel in 1838, who also recorded its main star as of the first magnitude (Herschel 1969). Five years later, an event termed the “Great Eruption” occurred which briefly lifted η Carina to the position of second brightest star in the night sky (behind, of course, Sirius). The main star is now thought to a part of a “double star” team with its unnamed sidekick still receiving little or no credit. Carina’s career is thought be wrapping up (in a few hundreds of thousands of years or so) as its getting too weighty for its own good and will likely go supernova sooner rather than later. Maybe its stellar sidekick will get proper billing before then.
Rowling presenting to fans, Spears shaving, Simpson in cuffs again and Watson as an old elitist.
Being truly self-destructive requires a genuine commitment and not just an occasional gun-shot to the foot. Britney Spears, marketed as a provocative yet pure American sweetheart and getting leers from kids and curmudgeons (like Sen. Bob Dole), may not end up like Marilyn Monroe or Anna Nicole Smith, but since the notorious kiss with Madonna at the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards, she’s had marriage problems, parenting issues, automobile accidents and somehow doesn’t understand that not wearing panties in public may attract attention. Her hair is growing back as is her career with the release of her latest studio album. The secret of her ongoing success may well be a disingenuous image of self-destruction and she’s actually a creative and marketing genius. Or, a sad and messy end ultimately awaits and we’ll all have to read the tabloids and watch the entertainment programs to be informed as to when we should expect a further update.
We humbly follow Aristotle’s dictum, “horror vacui,” which became the idiom, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and as we don’t have enough “dumb” stars to embarrass us, we've been given O. J. Simpson. Thanks, Nature, and expect us to do something about global warming really soon. With over a decade of minor legal problems after being acquitted of the murders Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, it looks like O. J.’s fate will finally manifest inside prison rather than outside. Maybe Nature secretly knows what's best and he’s getting what he deserves. We'll discuss the global warming thing later.
This week Dr. James D. Watson retired from his position as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a major biological research facility in New York, as a result of earlier comments regarding the intelligence of Africans or “people of colour.” A side-ways racist comment more akin to offhand remarks by Jimmy the Greek rather than Don Imus, Watson’s recent babble is unscientific and not the first time he’s inserted his Oxfords into his mouth. Watson’s recent babble is unscientific and his previous asides about depressed thin people, non-hireable fat people and abortion and homosexuality are elitist drivel.
I very much miss the late Carl Sagan. He knew the most important secret, that we are “star-stuff” and we should behave accordingly.
Halley, Edmond. 1679. Catalogus stellarum australium sive, supplementum Catalogi Tychonici exhibens longitudines & latitudines
stellarum fixarum. London: R. Harford.
La Caille, Nicolas Louis de, and J. D. Maraldi. 1763. Coelum australe stelliferum seu, Observationes ad construendum stellarum australium
catalogum institutae, in Africa ad caput Bonae-Spei. Paris: Sumptibus H.L. Guerin et L.F. Delatour.
Taylor, Jane and Ann Taylor. 1806. Rhymes for the Nursery by the Authors of Original Poems. London: Darton, Harvey and Darton.