Freakish Star Stuns Astronomers
Astronomers have detected a star that should not exist. Current theory cannot explain the composition of a star in the constellation Leo. This “freakish star,” moreover, is probably not unique. What is it, exactly, that modern star formation theory does explain?
Science Daily reported the reactions by astronomers to this star, named SDSS J102915+172927, found with the Very Large Telescope in Chile. They called the star “primitive” because it has very low abundance of metals – that is (to astronomers) any elements heavier than hydrogen, helium and lithium (the initial elements thought to be formed after the big bang) The strong spectral line of calcium was detected, but they had to look long and hard to find others. Space.com posted a video with freakish music to match, showing the star’s location in Leo, headlining, “Star That Should Never Have Existed, Exists.” At New Scientist, Lisa Grossman tried to describe the surprise of finding this star:
Imagine you're an archaeologist. You find what looks like the skeleton of a protohuman. One hand seems to be grasping an object – could it be a clue to how these early beings lived? You scrape off the mud only to find that the object resembles a cellphone.
Your sense of shock is akin to how Lorenzo Monaco of the European Southern Observatory in Chile and colleagues must have felt when they examined the elemental composition of an oddball star, prosaically named SDSS J102915+172927.
Two major difficulties arise from this star. Elisabeth Caffau (University of Heidelberg, University of Paris) explained the first: “A widely accepted theory predicts that stars like this, with low mass and extremely low quantities of metals, shouldn’t exist because the clouds of material from which they formed could never have condensed.” New Scientist said this star has 4.5 millionths the heavy elements found in our sun.
The other difficulty is the low abundance of lithium. “Such an old star should have a composition similar to that of the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, with a few more metals in it,” Science Daily said. “But the team found that the proportion of lithium in the star was at least fifty times less than expected in the material produced by the Big Bang.” What happened to it? Maybe the star ate it. Another astronomer suggested as much: “It is a mystery how the lithium that formed just after the beginning of the Universe was destroyed in this star.”
This is a blow to the primordial star soup theory, the New Scientist article suggested. “The first stars are thought to have condensed out of the hot soup left over from the big bang and contained only hydrogen, helium and a trace of lithium,” wrote Grossman. “They were giants tens of times more massive than the sun, and they quickly exploded as supernovas.” She added in jest, “Until now, the universe seemed to agree.” This “impossible star” is smaller than our sun, and if it is primordial from the big bang, “couldn’t form from the same primordial stuff as these early giants” because the gas clouds “would be too hot to squeeze apart into separate clumps.” It would have taken several generations of stars to go supernova to generate enough carbon and oxygen to act as coolants that would allow condensation into smaller stars. “According to the theory, this star should not have been able to form,” Grossman commented. “But it did.”
If this were the only star like this, maybe they could consider it a freak. “The researchers also point out that this freakish star is probably not unique,” the article on Science Daily ended. No explanation was given, no revised theory offered; just another trip through the looking glass: Caffau said, “We have identified several more candidate stars that might have metal levels similar to, or even lower than, those in SDSS J102915+172927. We are now planning to observe them with the VLT to see if this is the case.”
Theories are fun till facts come along and mess them up. Now watch the theory rescue devices go into action. One astronomer in the New Scientist article said maybe this star is a piece of a primordial giant star. Maybe the giant star had a disk of material spinning like an out-of-control merry-go-round, and this star is like one of the children thrown out onto the grass. Like we said, theories are fun till facts come along and mess them up. Astronomers must have their fun, facts notwithstanding. When the rescue devices become so numerous they smother the original theory, they defeat their purpose, even if the rescuers are having lots of fun.
Remember that scientific observation is very different than scientific explanation. After laughing about the primitive star with a cellphone, we are reminded of a funny quote by astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge in 1965, “If stars did not exist, it would be easy to prove that this is what we expect.” Go look at the stars (picture). Are you better off with astronomers’ explanations than you were 46 years ago?