A sudden star (Science Christmas)

(My mother went into the hospital during my holiday visit, which understandably prevented me from posting the final Science Advent entry. So, here concludes the holiday season series with my Christmas gift to you.)

Day 25 (Christmas Day)

The evolution of the star V838 Monocerotis, which suddenly flared to 15,000 times the brightness of the Sun before fading. This series of images shows the outburst at various stages; it is still rapidly changing today. [Credit: NASA/ESA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)]

The evolution of the star V838 Monocerotis, which suddenly flared to 15,000 times the brightness of the Sun before fading. This series of images shows the outburst at various stages; it is still rapidly changing today. [Credit: NASA/ESA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)]

Sometimes a star surprises us by becoming suddenly much brighter. One was an unmemorable star known as V838 Monocerotis, which briefly flared to 15,000 times the brightness of our Sun before fading again. (“Monocerotis” refers to Monoceros, the faint “unicorn” constellation next to Orion in the sky.) The star is still evolving, and the reason for its outburst is unknown, though astronomers have some ideas.

I have reflected several times during this series on the fascinating transients — comets, novas, supernovas — that sometimes flash across our seemingly changeless sky. Yet the nature of the cosmos is evolution, change, birth, and death. Much of that change happens on a scale too slow for human lives: the ponderous rotation of galaxies, the formation of new stars or planets, even the birth of new species. Through science, we can piece together the timelines of events too vast and slow to grasp: seeing many different objects at various stages of their evolution, we can comprehend their life cycles — even the life cycle of our planet, our galaxy, our Universe.

My science gift to you is something you already possess: the gift of change, and of discovery. Embrace the slow turning of the beautiful cosmos, and never stop being open to new things to see.

Little round planet in a big Universe
Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed
It depends on what you look at obviously
Even more it depends on the way that you see.
Bruce Cockburn

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1 Response to “A sudden star (Science Christmas)”


  1. 1 Linda Walling December 25, 2013 at 11:08

    Thanks for this, Matthew, and I hope your mom is doing better! Merry Christmas!


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