Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Writer's block

Sorry to have been quiet recently, I've been fighting a bout of writer's block. It's not a lack of ideas, it's just that none of them make for even mildly interesting entries. (Of course, this hasn't stopped me before). So, I'll just write a couple of sentences on each topic, and you can do some Google searching to fill in the blanks.
  • Coincidence? Last week many members of my family were cut off from phone service when a vandal snipped fiber optic cables. In one of the reader's comments, someone asked if it was "just a coincidence?????" that the cables were snipped during an ongoing contract dispute between AT&T and their worker's union. The relation seems plausible, but that doesn't mean that they're related. Coincidences, even those that seem unlikely, are extraordinarily common. Just because two closely-spaced rare events happen doesn't mean they're related, as shown in the film My Cousin Vinny (and some more reputable periodicals and books). In astronomy, we always have to be really careful about coincidences.
  • The case of the disappearing star Astronomers believe that supernovae are explosions at the end of the life of a star. These explosions can completely obliterate the star or leave behind a neutron star or black hole. In either case, once the explosion fades away, the original star should be gone. This disappearance had been confirmed in only one case, Supernova 1987A in the Milky Way's next door neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud. Now, Justyn Maund, a friend and colleague of mine, has shown that in two other supernovae, the original star has disappeared, too. Maybe it's not surprising, but it is important confirmation that our theories are right. (In none of the three cases has the remnant neutron star or black hole yet been seen; they are extraordinarily difficult to detect. But that will be another important test...)
  • Amateur astronomers saved our hides. Well, that may be a little strong, but they certainly have saved at least two major observing runs. Our local white dwarf research group has contacts with amateur astronomers in the Central Texas Astronomical Society(CTAS). They have been helping us for years, and we let them use our spare equipment. Well, on an observing run last month, our primary camera at McDonald Observatory broke in the middle of the night. In a couple of hours, Willie Strickland of CTAS had taken the spare camera off of their telescope, and I was able to get it to the mountain the next day, so we only lost one night to that instrument problem. After the observing run, CTAS member Dean Chandler was able to diagnose and fix the problem with a $10 spare part, which saved hundreds of dollars and weeks of time that it would have cost if we'd sent it back to the manufacturer for repairs. We greatly appreciate the time and effort that Dean, Willie, and other CTAS members have donated to our research work; we would be dead in the water without them right now!
  • There's a new poll off to the right asking how you are celebrating the International Year of Astronomy. Why not weigh in?

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