September 1, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

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. 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?

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  • Vernon Houston says:

    Very Nice read. And the plot thickens.

  • louislj says:

    This seems to reverberate straight (or bent) on the time space continuum, back to the origins of a flawed initial premise.

  • joe3eagles says:

    I hope this isn’t one of those sites that “moderates” out all opposing comments that challenge the preferred views of the site’s owners. Hopefully, I simply screwed up and didn’t save my comment properly. Here it is again, just in case:

    The author seems to be crowing about astronomers wailing and gnashing their teeth over the discovery of a star that throws a wrench into the theory that explains star formation.

    Unlike close-minded religionists, scientists don’t start with a conclusion and selectively look only for facts that verify that conclusion. They make observations and come up with theories that explain the most likely cause of what they observe.

    There’s a reason a scientific theory is called a theory. The theory that explains how stars are formed is not the same thing as the fact that stars ARE formed. The stars would have formed regardless of whether humanity ever came up with a theory to describe it.

    If you read the actual literature on the issue of this star, you’d understand that astronomers are fairly ecstatic about the discovery. It will bring them that much closer to understanding the actual process of star formation in the very early universe. That’s the beauty of the scientific method.

    Contrast this elation with the reaction of religionists when inconvenient facts contradict what they want to believe. LA-LA-LA-LA-LA! I can’t HEAR you!

  • Editor says:

    Attention Readers:
    Joe3Eagles’ rant has been let through to serve as a bad example.  This is how NOT to comment.  CEH is under no obligation to publish all comments—read the rules.  If you disagree with an article, fine.  Help forward the discussion with evidence presented in a constructive way.  Self-righteous mockeries with broad-brush characterizations (“religionists” vs “scientists”) that reveal ignorance of the history and philosophy of science only broadcast one’s bad breath.  If that is your goal, go unload it in the echo chamber at Pharyngula or somewhere else; not here.  Joe, we don’t mind a good disagreement, but we don’t want to be guilty of letting you embarrass yourself in public.  You get one more chance to change your tone or you will be banned.

  • Rkyway says:

    “…stars like this, with low mass and extremely low quantities of metals, shouldn’t exist.”

    – Most sci mag writers conveniently forget that Materialism ‘predicts’ that living organisms shouldn’t exist.

    If materialism were true, not even planets should exist; let alone solar systems like the one we spin our tales in.

    Contra Joe3eagles, secular scientists do start with a conclusion; materialism, and they hold to their position (despite contradictory evidence) as rigidly as anyone. (You can’t get more ‘fundamentalist’ than being a materialist.)

  • tokyojim says:

    Joe3 said:
    “Unlike close-minded religionists, scientists don’t start with a conclusion and selectively look only for facts that verify that conclusion. They make observations and come up with theories that explain the most likely cause of what they observe.”

    Joe, I disagree.  Scientists too start with a foregone conclusion and try and fit the facts into their theory.

    Their conclusion is this:  “God, even if He does exist, was not involved in creation so the universe and life itself it had to evolve by natural means.” 

    They don’t care what the theory is.  As long as it doesn’t involve God, they are happy.  That was not always the case with science. 

    I think you will have a hard time arguing astronomy with this writer as he is an expert in this area.

    You said: “The stars would have formed regardless of whether humanity ever came up with a theory to describe it.”

    This is simply your opinion, yet you state it as if it is a fact.  You cannot prove this.  In fact, you cannot even prove that stars came into existence apart from a creative act of God.  We cannot prove that God created the stars either, but we do have the testimony of the Creator in His Word. 

    Also, the fact that astronomers cannot yet even figure out how stars could form on their own, seems to give more credence to the God idea than the evolution theory.  There may be a good reason why evolution has not yet been able to explain basic star formation – Perhaps they were not formed by evolution.  If God created them, I doubt you’ll ever find a plausible scenario for the evolutionary formation of the stars.

    Oh, and one more thing:  The scientific method may be beautiful, but I really don’t think that scientists are using the “scientific method” to understand the “actual process of star formation” like you seem to believe. 

    Perhaps you need to refresh your memory as to what the scientific method is before making such a statement.  Unless I am severely misinformed, you can’t use the scientific method to understand something that happened in the past, was not observed, and cannot be repeated.

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