Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2008

Starlight provides memorial

March 27, 2008

Scientist told us that the light from an exploding star 40 times the size of the sun briefly appeared in the night sky last week. For a few hours, it could be spotted shinning in the sky as brightly as the stars in Orion's belt although few of us would have noticed the star's unexpected and sudden appearance.

What made the event so remarkable was that the star was in a galaxy 8.5 billion light years away, a distance half the estimated size of the universe. Light from the galaxy is so faint, the astronomers were previously unaware of its existence.

It's truly incomprehensible. Light from the supernova had traveled more than half the distance toward us and had been seen by the strange eyes, infrared sensors or gamma ray detectors of untold beings unimaginable to us when the sun first blinked on from the nuclear reaction in its core 3 billion years ago. It had reached the outer reaches of our own Milky Way Galaxy when human life appeared on earth, only to arrive here on the night of Arthur C. Clarke's death.

I don't know what that means other than the universe can be as ironic as it is huge. A firmament capable of creating the recently observed death-ray galaxy spewing intense radiation on a smaller star cluster it is devouring would seem indifferent to us but is still somehow capable of sending us a meaningful 8.5 billion year old message.

We're living in a remarkable time of discovery in astronomy. New planets in distant solar systems are announced routinely through the telltale wobble of stars. This month, scientists told us the atmospheric composition of one of the newly discovered 277 "extrasolar" planets circling a distant star contained the organic molecule methane. It is thought with the right cooking, methane could play a key role in the development of life was we know it.

That's just a start. I've read astronomers predict through the use of advanced telescopes that within 25 years they will be able to detect the signs of intelligent live on planets in our galaxy, meaning on some distant planet they will observe lights of an advanced alien civilization.

That of course assumes the existence of other intelligent species, but I tend to believe such predictions. I saw Clarke nearly 40 years ago when he visited K-State in the Landon Lecture Series. It was a year or two after the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Clarke was at the height of his fame. I remember he predicted we would all soon have home computers and he would be able go instantly communicate with friends from his home in Ceylon.

At that time, I had never seen a computer. But I knew they were big lumbering things you couldn't fit in your living room and programmed with stacks of punch cards. The desktop computer as it appeared in the 1980s was still a decade in the future. It's safe to say Clarke ran in more informed circles than I.

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