Friday, May 13, 2011

Crab Nebula Superflare: It's Not Supposed to Do That

"The more we know, the more we know that we don't know."
- the Lemming (and lots of other folks)

The Lemming said that, so it's a "Lemming" quote. But the Lemming isn't the first person to make that observation. See what you get when you 'Google' that sentence.

It's the Lemming's guess that whoever 'originally' said it was repeating what someone else said: someone whose words didn't get written down - and that person had heard it before, in a chain going back to the day when someone realized that the new wonder-technology, fire, wasn't an unmixed blessing.

And yet, we're still using fire. And making fire extinguishers, which is another topic.

Let's see, the Lemming had something in mind for this post. It's on the desktop - - - AHA! Found it!

"Superflare from Crab Nebula Has Astronomers Mystified"
(May 11, 2011)

"The Crab Nebula, the dusty remains of an exploded star, has unleashed a surprisingly massive flare that is five times more powerful than any eruption previously seen from the celestial object, leaving scientists struggling to explain the event, NASA says.

"The so-called 'superflare' was detected on April 12 by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which is continuously mapping the sky in gamma ray wavelengths in search of gamma-ray bursts, the brightest explosions in the universe. [Video: Supernova Spits New Gamma-Ray Fire]

"The Crab Nebula's strong outburst lasted six days, and its exact cause has scientists scratching their heads, especially since the superflare followed an earlier gamma-ray flare from the nebula in January...."

The Crab Nebula superflare may not get a Hollywood treatment, even though it's got a moderately cool name. This may be just as well, given the movie industry's track record:
Back to the article:

Change Happens

"...The spectacular and colorful Crab Nebula is the wreckage of a dying star that emitted an explosion of light that reached Earth in the year 1054. The former star was located 6,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Taurus when it erupted in a brilliant supernova explosion. [Supernovas: Photos of Star Explosions]

"At the heart of an expanding gas cloud lies what is left of the original star's core, a super-dense neutron star that spins 30 times a second. With each rotation, the star swings intense beams of radiation toward Earth, creating the pulsed emission characteristic of spinning neutron stars, which are also known as pulsars.

"Apart from these pulses, astrophysicists thought the Crab Nebula was a virtually constant source of high-energy radiation. But, in January, scientists representing a variety of space-based observatories, including NASA's Fermi, Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, reported long-term changes in brightness at X-ray energies...."

The not-so-constant Crab Nebula has joined the ranks of things we thought never changed, but do:
Now, about these superflares:

"Extremely Puzzling Events," Science, and the Lemming

"...'These superflares are the most intense outbursts we've seen to date, and they are all extremely puzzling events,' said Alice Harding at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in a statement. 'We think they are caused by sudden rearrangements of the magnetic field not far from the neutron star, but exactly where that's happening remains a mystery....'

As the Lemming's said before, it's nice when observation and experiment confirm some scientific theory. When observation and experiment don't match what's expected: that's exciting! Inexplicable phenomena mean that there's something new, previously-unknown, to learn about this universe.

That, in the Lemming's opinion, is exciting.

It's not 'proof' that science is a fake or some kind of conspiracy. Although hoaxes have been known among the scientific community - and surrounding wannabes. Like the well-publicized Piltdown Man. (1911-1953) ("Piltdown Man Hoax Is Exposed:," John Hillary, The New York Times (November 22, 1953), via Clark University, Worcester, MA)

What does the Piltdown Man have to do with astrophysics? Not much, actually. What a hoax that lasted four decades and fascinating new data from the depths of space have in common is that both get discussed by people.

Now Available: One Universe, As-Is

Some folks probably still think that the Piltdown Man hoax 'proves' that science is a big fake - and possibly a commie plot. Others may see folks in the first group: and assume that they're typical of 'those religious nuts.'

The rest of us, the Lemming hopes, are more interested in what's being discovered. Science, in the Lemming's opinion is "a patient yet passionate search for the truth about the cosmos, about nature and about the constitution of the human being."1 Sure: now and then somebody cobbles together primate parts and passes them off as Piltdown Man, or comes up with a new crisis du jure - but that, in the Lemming's opinion, is more human nature and marketing than science.

The Lemming prefers to take this universe 'as is', not the way some ideology insists it 'should' be. And that's another topic.

As for scientists finding out that an explanation that seemed to make sense - doesn't fit new data? That's what science is about: working out a theory that says why something happens, and then testing the theory to see how accurate it is.

For example, phlogiston was a pretty good way to explain combustion. Until new data just wouldn't fit the 'phlogiston' theory. And that's yet another topic.

Somewhat-related posts:

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