Confessions Of An Astrophysicist: I'm In Love With A Star

Dec 2, 2014
Originally published on December 3, 2014 2:37 pm

So, I'm in love and it's not an easy thing.

Though my beloved is beautiful and subtle and bestowed of great grace, there also is a terrible distance between us. Nothing I do can bridge that gulf, and the object of my affections will not acknowledge me. But I don't care. For those in love know that enduring the indifference and the distance is nothing but a tiny price to pay.

My love, of course, is a star. Her name is Mira.

There is not a lot of discussion of love and science out there. When these two words do find themselves paired, the discussion is usually about the science of love. Then what you get is a lot of talk about hormones and neurons and evolutionary biology. Occasionally, talk of love and science might even point to the pitfalls of dating your lab partner.

But all these discussions miss an essential point. Love and science are intimately connected. That's because the best part of being a scientist is falling deeply in love with what you study.

I don't mean falling in love with a whole field — astrophysics or anthropology or vertebrate biology. You'd better love your field if you're going to slog through 16 years of schooling. No — I mean falling in love on a much more specific level. I mean the process by which something out in there in the world — something that a month ago was a stranger — becomes intimate.

That, after all, is how all love is born. For me, right now, I'm getting to know Mira very, very well. And, in the process, I'm falling in love.

Mira is a star much like the sun, only she's much older. Having long since run out of hydrogen fuel to fuse into helium (and thereby support herself against her own gravity), Mira was forced to take drastic measures to survive. While her core shrank and heated to the point where helium fusion could ignite (100 million degrees), her outer layers expanded and cooled. Now she is a "red giant," a star so large that if placed at the center of our solar system she would engulf the Earth. Red giants stars are, however, pretty common, so if that was all there was to Mira, she might not be worthy of my devotion.

Instead, Mira has a sibling.

Mira is really Mira A. She's part of a binary system and her sibling, Mira B, is an older, "dead" white dwarf star. Mira B, however, is a greedy sib. Every year, she gravitationally sucks more than a trillion trillion tons of gas from her sister. Mira A is, in other words, feeding her zombie sibling.

Such "mass transfer" in a binary star system is a rich subject involving the physics of gravity, gas flows and radiation. To truly embrace its complexity, astrophysicists like myself have to use the most advanced tools at our disposal, like the supercomputer simulation shown in this YouTube video. What makes Mira stand out in this effort to understand stellar mass transfer is her (relative) proximity to us.

Located "just" 300 light years-away, the full battery of modern astronomical tools has been brought to bear on Mira and her sibling. Few stars can be seen as anything more than pinpricks of light in even the most powerful telescopes. But because Mira is so close and so big, we've gotten beautiful images of her in X-rays and radio waves and other kinds of light. In these snapshots, we've seen traces of vast gas spirals forming curlicues as the two stars orbit each other. And we've seen a bridge of light wider than our entire solar system marking the monumental transfer of mass from one star to the other.

These pictures offer a rare and astonishing vision of other, distant suns. If you've got a certain kind of mindset, it's enough to make you weep.

Over the past month, I've spent a lot of time with Mira and her sister. I've been poring over scientific papers on the two stars, deciphering graphs and staring at images. I'm supposed to be interested Mira as just one specific example of the general process of mass transfer in binary stars. That's really the question the astronomical community wants to understand (i.e., how binary stars evolve).

But the more time I spend on just this one specific object, the more I'm filled with a very specific kind of sensibility. It's a mix of wonder and joy and gratitude. Through Mira, in all her particularities, I get to see the entire kaleidoscope of nature's possibilities, including bugs and trees and people and cultures and planets and all stars. It's as if the very specific details of Mira let me see how remarkable the world is, in general.

If that ain't love, I don't know what is.

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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