Scientists baffled as monster star vanishes

Remnants: A massive star supernova that exploded about 8,000 years ago. © Nasa

Are you literally a star? It is a fact that humans are made of stardust. Nearly all the elements in our bodies were made in a star – and will eventually be returned to a “cosmic ash heap”.

Over 70-million light years away, a giant star in the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy has gone missing.

The monster star – known as a luminous blue variable (LBV) – had been studied by scientists for years, only to disappear suddenly without a trace.

As one shocked magazine headline said: “Stars are not supposed to go out like this.”

The observations were made by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in the Chilean desert.

“We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night,” says Jose Groh, a Trinity College Dublin astrophysicist involved in the study.

It could mean that the giant star skipped the normal process of exploding into a supernova, instead immediately becoming a black hole.

Andrew Allan, leading the study, said, “If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner.”

Like all the elements in the Universe – our Sun and planet included – massive stars eventually fade to dust.

Almost every element in the Universe was created inside a large star so hot and heavy that it fuses its own atoms into something new.

When these stars die, these elements are released into the emptiness of space, often landing on planets where they sometimes react, accumulating into new structures.

The first life on Earth was originally just one such lucky arrangement of celestial specks.

“Nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas,” says planetary scientist Dr Ashley King.

“We have stuff in us as old as the Universe,” says astrophysicist Karel Schrijver.

The main difference between humans and most other matter is that we are conscious beings, able to appreciate the Universe – we assume the same cannot be said about a grain of sand.

Nonetheless, the idea that one arrangement of space dust can be self-aware, and another not, is hard to prove.

For some philosophers, one solution to this hard problem of consciousness is panpsychism – accepting that everything in the Universe has an internal state and, possibly, feeling.

So, are we literally stars?

Cosmic soup

Yes. We are made of the same stuff as stars and so is everything else in the Universe. This dizzying thought can be seen as something beautiful. There is no tension between our existence as curious and confused beings and our place in a complex and often surprising world. We are truly part of the cosmos. We owe everything to the very same objects that light and heat our world. That feels right.

Then again, the fact we are conscious does feel exceptional. The belief that all matter has an internal, feeling state is just too hard to accept. Though our building blocks might be shared with the rest of the Universe, there is something special in their arrangement. This has given us something different – even more special than being at one with the cosmos: being able to admire it.

You Decide

  1. Since we are largely made of stardust, should we be spending more time mourning the loss of a star?
  2. What do you think of the idea that every existing thing is conscious?

Activities

  1. Write a short poem about the missing star.
  2. What if rocks were conscious? Try writing the imaginary diary of a pebble on the beach.

Some People Say...

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the Universe to know itself.”

Carl Sagan (1934–1996), US astronomer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Only 5% of all stars have evolved past the stage of converting hydrogen into helium. The minimum temperature required for the fusion of hydrogen is five million degrees. Only hydrogen, helium, and lithium and a few radioactive elements were not created inside stars.
What do we not know?
We do not have any way of fully testing what it is that separates our minds from other combinations of space dust in the Universe. As the philosopher Philip Goff puts it: “The problem of consciousness, however, is radically unlike any other scientific problem. One reason is that consciousness is unobservable.”

Word Watch

Light years
A measurement for huge intergalactic distances; each year approximately equivalent to six million million miles. When we look at an object several light years away, we are literally observing its past.
Luminous blue variable
The type of star that went missing. These are enormous, highly evolved and incredibly rare celestial objects. Their degree of brightness is subject to sudden changes.
Astrophysicist
A space scientist who studies the laws of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in the Universe.
Supernova
A supernova is the powerful and incredibly bright explosion of a star. It takes place towards the end of a large star’s life. It is the largest explosion to take place in space and can shine brighter than whole galaxies.
Hard problem of consciousness
Why are some physical objects aware of themselves (us) when others probably aren’t? (rocks). In scientific terms, how does that internal state of feeling come about?

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