Science and Mr. Cranky-Pants

One day, not too long ago, I met a scrooge of a man, but instead of Christmas he seemed to have a hearty dislike of science and basic research. I don’t think it was based on being religous and creationist, just grumpy. I was sitting in a cafe reading on my iPad, he sitting nearby. He was just looking about and curiously asked me about my iPad, what did I do with it or was it simply a toy?

I said, no it wasn’t just a toy, I use my iPad like a computer and use it for many things related to my work. “Oh, and what do you do?” he asked. I told him, I am an astronomer researching the physics of stars. At that point, the cafe became dark and chilly and the man looked like he was about to jump up and proclaim “bah humbug.” Instead, he snickered and asked what’s the use of doing that?

What is the use of stellar physics? It is a form of basic science, understanding the building blocks of the universe, how life can exist about the Sun and other stars. It increases our collective knowledge, and helps us find our place in the universe. Indirectly, it helps spawn new technology and provides a venue for general science education.

My response illicitted nothing but another snicker, and the comment that he hoped his tax dollars didn’t help fund my research. It was my turn to ask why.

He said that tax money should be spent on doing useful research only, but that was only his opinion, as if to excuse his accusation that I am wasting my time and his money. But, understanding stars helps us understand x-rays, lasers and so on. We can observe x-rays from the Sun and other stars and by understanding how the x-rays are generated in better detail we can transfer that knowledge to medical physics, etc. Without basic research by Einstein, lasers might not have been invented and we might not have dvd players, precision laser cutting and welding nor laser pointers that we use to annoy cats, just to name a few.

I don’t know why I was surprised, but the man proceeded to explain that the Sun does not have x-rays, for which I had to convince him otherwise, and that his opinion was based on him being a skeptic and that he paid precious money in taxes. Money too precious to be wasted on such frivolousness. At this point he seemed more like Scrooge or maybe Gollum.

I wish I could have changed the man’s opinion, but I think his head was deeply buried in the sand or possibly somewhere else and no contrary opinion could pierce that thick skull. I would call him a luddite but that might insult luddites. Maybe, if I could summon three ghosts to visit in one night, maybe Yuri’s night, that might change his perspective. One could be the ghost of Isaac Newton, who could show him the basis of curiosity and the power of mathematics. The ghost of science present could Charles Townes, who co-invented the laser, who could show him how he benefits from basic science no matter how obscure. The ghost of science future could be someone with lots of technological gadgets, that are all broken and no one knows how to fix, suffers from hunger because global warming has decimated farming, is poorer because the ghost has no usable skills for which to earn a living and suffering from serious case of stupid caused by too much reality television and not enough reality. Apologies to Charles Dickens for my poor analogy and to Margaret Atwood if I copied some of her themes from her compelling Massey Lectures.

I was shocked by the man’s sentiment and ignorance. But, it seems to be a growing sentiment. Congressmen in the US questioning the role of the National Science Foundation, as if they should decide which research should be funded. The Canadian government changing the role of the National Research Council from funding science to pursuing only economical technologies, trading basic research for get rich quick technologies and hoping for another BlackBerry... but maybe not Nortel. There are too many attacks on basic science these days, sometimes in the name of economic hardships, sometimes in the time of the taxpayer but rarely in the name of common sense.

This is ironic. Basic science has powered much economic development since the second World War. In 1945, the report “Science: the Endless Frontier” led to the creation of the National Science Foundation to promote and fund basic and applied research. It was recognized that science would help drive economic growth and development. And this is true today. Is it coincidence that Silicon Valley and many other tech hubs are situated near prominent research universities? Basic research drives technology innovations, and it is not easy to predict which research will lead to winners. The time scale from basic research to markets can be decades, maybe more, and can build ideas from many disciplines. An election cycle is simply too short of a time.

It is a tough question how much funding science should get and what research projects should share in the funding but I lament how science appears to be perceived more and more as a waste. But, one can hope that this attitude is the exception and not the norm.


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The World won't end and neither will Betelguese


Betelgeuse is a constant companion in the night sky for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It is the brightest star in the constellation, but its fame or infamy is due to a common fear that it will explode and destroy the Earth in a couple of days. Short answer is it won’t happen. There is zero chance it will destroy the Earth and practically zero chance we will see Betelgeuse explode in our lifetimes much less in the next month or so.

I’ll ignore the nonsense about the Mayan calendar ending except to say that the calendar probably isn’t ending, just starting a new cycle, like when we start a new year in our calendar. What I am interested in is Betelgeuse the future exploding star. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star, meaning that it emits a lot more light than the Sun, about one hundred thousand times more. It is about ten to twenty times the mass of the Sun and Betelgeuse is near the end of its life. The Sun is main sequence star where it generates energy by fusing hydrogen atoms to helium in its center. Betelgeuse has fused all of the hydrogen in the center and has moved on, now fusing helium or maybe carbon. When stars evolve to this phase of life, time is running out; stars like Betelgeuse will live for a few hundred thousand years. This seems long but the Sun is more than four billion years old.

Betelgeuse will continue to age and fuse carbon, when it runs out of carbon it will fuse neon and then oxygen and so on until the core is made of iron. Iron is a poor element for nuclear reactions. When hydrogen atoms fuse together to make helium, energy is released, but for iron atoms to fuse together, energy has to be added to make them fuse. In that case the star becomes unstable and explodes. That is Betelgeuse’s fate and when it explodes we’ll see it. When Betelgeuse explodes it will emit roughly ten billion times more light than the Sun and will appear to use to be one hundred thousand times brighter than it appears now. Since Betelgeuse is about six hundred lightyears away then it will appear to be a bit dimmer than the full moon, at least for a week or so until the supernova begins to get darker and fade away. That’s pretty darn bright. We would be able to see the supernova during the day. But that is about it.

It has been speculated that Betelgeuse will blow up this year and that it could destroy the Earth. I don’t know how it could destroy the Earth, it is too far for a normal supernova to do any damage, if it were a special type of explosion called a gamma-ray burst, and if the pole of Betelgeuse were pointed directly at us then maybe. But, Betelgeuse is not pointing pole on to us, and it is not likely that Betelgeuse will be a gamma-ray burst. Most work suggests that Betelgeuse is less than 20 times more massive than the Sun and gamma-ray bursts are believed to occur in binary star systems or stars more massive. So no destruction there.

We can also be sure that Betelgeuse will not explode for a while. Recent research by a colleague of mine showed that Betelgeuse must be only recently a red supergiant. In his article (Mackey et al. 2012, ApJ, 751L, 10), he modelled observations of a double bow shock that is observed about Betelgeuse. A bow shock is formed by a wind from a star as it speeds through the interstellar gas and dust as the star itself is also moving, like a wake formed as a boat moves through water. It was shown that the double bow shock can form only if Betelgeuse is rapidly evolving from a hot blue supergiant and only just become a red supergiant. If Betelgeuse were a red supergiant for more than a ten to thirty-thousand years then we would see only the one bow shock. This means that Betelgeuse must have a little while to go before it can become a supernova.

So Betelgeuse will not destroy us nor explode in the next few months or years or centuries.
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