AAVSO, American Association of Variable Star Observers, astronomy, astrophysicist, Betelgeuse, dimming, fainting, light year, math, mathematics, prediction, progenitor star, Schrödinger's cat, Schrödinger's star, Star, stars, supernova
Much Ado About Something
Some astronomers are taking a dim view of the fading light of Betelgeuse. Many are trying to dampen down reports of the star’s demise while not ruling out the possibility. The reality of science is that no one knows what is happening.
A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to a Supernova
Betelgeuse is the hot topic in astronomy because it has been dramatically dimming or ‘fainting’ [SEE Graph 1.0.] In a period of three months, it has dropped from being the eleventh brightest star in the night sky to the twenty-third brightest. This fainting spell is significant because when a star goes supernova it rapidly collapses prior to the event.
Astronomers Edward Guinan, Richard Wasatonic (Villanova University,) and Thomas Calderwood (AAVSO) posted a notice on December 8th of the fainting of Betelgeuse that helped raise awareness of the event. The news media became aware of it and by late December the fainting of Betelgeuse was trending in public speculation of a spectacular doom for Betelgeuse.
A 645-Year-Old Notice
Because of the distance between Earth and Betelgeuse, we wouldn’t know of a supernova event until approximately 645 years after it happens. Our first indication would likely be through a sudden increase in neutrinos. The visual confirmation would occur a few hours later.
If Betelgeuse has gone supernova within the past ≈645 years, then an astronomer could say that Betelgeuse has both gone supernova and has not gone supernova. The delay creates a Schrödinger’s cat scenario. The truth is unknowable.
But astronomers remind us that it may be 100,000 years of more until Betelgeuse makes a stellar spectacle of itself and then abruptly ends its role of marking Orion’s armpit. Their impreciseness of the future of the star is due to a lack of observations of the behavior of progenitor stars (stars that end their life as a supernova) in the years, months, weeks, and days just prior to a supernova.
Why Don’t Astronomers Know?
It’s been over 400 years since a star in the Milky Way was observed after it went supernova. That event, like almost every other supernova observation, occurred after the star exploded. Rarely have astronomers been forewarned of an impending explosion and in those cases, the warning has been a matter of hours prior to the event.
To make an accurate prediction of a supernova, we must have data to create a theoretical model of behavior preceding the collapse of the star. The model must be created by using mathematical formulas based on observable data. Without the math, a prediction is just an opinion.
In science, “We don’t know,” is the motivation to discover the truth, even if the truth contradicts the desires and opinions of the majority. At the core of every legitimate scientist is an unwavering desire to offer facts and not mislead others. Astronomers can’t, and shouldn’t, attempt to predict a supernova. “We don’t know,” is the correct answer and the general public has to accept that answer.
Unfortunately, most humans don’t like not knowing. Religions like to give absolute answers to questions even if the answer is unknown or even if it is 100% wrong. A scientist and/or scholar is governed by a higher power of truth. For scientists, not knowing the answer is what makes the process discovery so satisfying.
The End of the Faint?
In the past week observations of the fainting of Betelgeuse have leveled off. This may indicate that Betelgeuse is about to begin increasing in brightness. It may also indicate the fainting is pausing, or it may indicate that there is no pause and next week astronomers will see a continued drop in brightness. No one knows.
My Answer To the Question
I am not a scholar in the field of astronomy so I can state my opinion about the situation. My opinion is that at some time in the past 645 years, Betelgeuse has gone supernova…and it hasn’t.
You have to love Schrödinger.