The blues of supernovas, the standard candles of jazz

A supernova called Mingus, after the jazz composer and bassist. The supernova was recently announced to be the most distant white dwarf (Type Ia) supernova yet discovered. [Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute]
A supernova called Mingus, after the jazz composer and bassist. The supernova was recently announced to be the most distant white dwarf (Type Ia) supernova yet discovered. [Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute]
I first heard about the supernova named Mingus at a poster session of a conference nearly 10 years ago. I couldn’t tell you now which conference, or who presented the poster (based on a little forensic work, I think it was Rachel Gibbons and Rob Knop, but I can’t be sure). However, given my professional field of cosmology and my love of jazz, the name caught my eye. Mingus of course refers to jazz composer, bassist, and bandleader Charles Mingus, one of the great composers of 20th century music in any genre. (If you don’t agree that jazz composers are equal to those working in the genre usually called classical, you and me are about to fight.)

Mingus the supernova was discovered as part of the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP), led by Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter. Since 2004, SCP researchers determined that Mingus is a Type Ia supernova, also known as a white dwarf supernova for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. Supernovas are sometimes nicknamed for composers, partly so that astronomers don’t have to remember license-plate-like names such as SCP-0401, Mingus’ official entry in the catalog.

The bassline of supernova knowledge

When I initially heard about Mingus at that conference, it was just a potentially interesting supernova, but determining its type pushed it into a different category. White dwarf supernovas all explode in similar ways, since white dwarfs have a maximum mass—the Chandrasekhar limit—beyond which they cannot grow. (The Type Ia designation is based on a lack of hydrogen emission from the supernova, rather than the progenitor of the explosion.) Adding mass beyond the limit causes the white dwarf to explode, by some as-yet uncertain mechanism.

According to my best understanding of ongoing research, many (perhaps most) white dwarf supernovas arise from collisions between two white dwarfs, but some are caused when the white dwarf strips gas off an ordinary companion star. These scenarios are known as double-degenerate (DD) and single-degenerate (SD), respectively, since white dwarfs are kept from gravitational collapse by electron degeneracy pressure, due to the Pauli exclusion principle in quantum mechanics.

The Boogie Stop Shuffle supernova

Charles Mingus (1922-1979), one of the greatest 20th century composers.

Whatever the specific mechanism for the explosion, white dwarf supernovas are really useful in cosmology. This is because the maximum brightness they attain is strongly coupled to how quickly they fade over time after the explosion: the brighter the maximum, the more slowly they fade. By measuring this evolution—their light-curves—astronomers can determine the supernova’s intrinsic brightness, which in turn allows them to measure the distance to the explosion. That’s a big deal, worthy of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

Mingus is the farthest white dwarf supernova discovered, which will make it important in studying the expansion of the Universe—and its acceleration rate, which we know as dark energy. Of course, one supernova at that distance isn’t itself useful: the galaxy it lives in is moving relative to cosmic expansion, so we need many to cancel those effects out. However, it’s an exciting find: Mingus exploded 10 billion years ago, long before Earth and our Sun were formed.

Standard candles are objects with known intrinsic brightness; white dwarf supernovas are more accurately known as standardizable candles, since their intrinsic brightness must be determined through light-curve measurements. You can’t just start with a supernova light curve and immediately know the distance: a little work and acquired knowledge are necessary to make that transformation. In that sense, white dwarf supernovas resemble the musical form known as the blues.

Reduced to their essence, the blues are very simple: three chords, varying in a set pattern over 12 measures of music. However, a blues tune by Johnny Cash doesn’t sound much like one written by Thelonious Monk, and both differ noticeably from Chuck Berry. Take away the superficial differences, however, and the chord structure and harmonic structure are the blues. From their roots in the American South by African-American songwriters, the blues became the backbone of all indigenous American musical forms in the 20th century: jazz, country, and of course rock and roll.

Charles Mingus drew on many musical genres in his compositions, including church music and modern classical, making his pieces some of the most complex in all of jazz. But the blues were always there, as they were with most jazz composers. (I could draw comparisons between Mingus’ explosive temper and supernovas as well, but I’ll refrain.) Here’s one of his best-known blues compositions, from the classic album Mingus Ah Um.

Of course, jazz is also built around improvisation. Mingus’ compositions were complex, but his ensembles also pioneered free jazz improvisation. Similarly, the structure of scientific discovery is fairly rigid…but within that framework, what freedom we have to create our own styles, drawing on the best of our creativity. Too often we think of science as creatively dead, unimaginative work, but it’s not: at its best, science is one of the most creative of human endeavors. The study of white dwarf supernovas and Mingus’ music have far more in common than homage paid in a nickname.

One response to “The blues of supernovas, the standard candles of jazz”

  1. […] I gotta say, though: this supernova was nicknamed “Woodrow Wilson”, which kind of bugs me. Wilson was a war president, which means we Americans tend to give him a pass on a lot of things, but both his foreign and domestic policies reeked of racism. He worked against racial equality at home and abroad, stamping on egalitarian movements in the League of Nations and segregating the Federal Government. (The previous Republican administrations, for all their faults, had been making efforts to give African-Americans a voice after the Civil War.) Anyway, that’s mostly beside the point. If you want to read about a supernova named for someone whose work I do admire (prickly though he was), see my post about Supernova Mingus. […]

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