The next link in the chain

Our sun, again. It's pretty big, eh? But not really - in the grand scheme of it all, our star is pretty average in most respects, which is a good thing. Because stars get a lot, lot bigger. For example:
 And that's big. Stars of this size burn hot and fast, living only a fraction as long as our star. Stars of this size play by some different rules. For example, their fusion process is different:
 Big stars were far more common in the early universe, and it is the big stars which made ALL elements in existence heavier than Iron (and a great deal of the iron too). For, you see, Stars are alive in the sense they are born, live (by burning - a hallmark of all life), and then die. Here:
 Fret not - our star is not going Supernova. Rather, it will puff up, eat all the planets out to Earth, and then shrink way, way down to a White Dwarf, and remain like that for billions and billions of years. The big stars, however, cross a threshold - a phase change, if you will, going up the chain (of temperature/pressure). As you can see, based on the size of the star, when these big guys go, they end up as a Neutron Star, or a Black Hole. More on Black Holes in the next post. 
  A neutron star is an exceedingly strange thing. First, they only come about when massive stars explode, and the remaining core shrinks down to the size of Manhattan. However, this small space contains an ENORMOUS amount of matter, so dense that a teaspoon of it would weigh more than the entire Earth. A neutron star has a solid crust, of Iron - how strange is that? It experiences "starquakes" on its surface, just like earthquakes, but on a scale beyond comprehension. But I am most interested in the interior, for, from what I can gather, the center of a neutron star sits on a line of reality - on one side is our universe, filled with energy, matter, stars, planets, etc; on the other side, is the Singularity of a Black Hole, which no one really has any idea about.
Neutron stars can go by a couple of different names. They're also known as Pulsars, due to the two jets of matter spewing out from the poles. They're also known as Magnetars, due to the incredible magnetic fields generated by this much mass/energy contained in such a small space, spinning incredibly fast. Again, the neutron star resides on the line between our reality of gravity, and the gravity of a black hole (which is "infinite"). 

My point? This line, of creation/destruction, reality/some other reality. There is so much mystery here it boggles my mind. Think of the processes involved: There was the Big Bang (another huge mystery) which produced the raw materials for everything; this material cooled over time, forming matter through phase changes; this matter aggregated, and eventually formed the first atoms (hydrogen and helium); these atoms coalesced into humongous clouds that blanketed the entire universe in darkness until, due to the vagaries of time/space, one very, very special cloud got very dense, and more matter was drawn to the center, making it denser, and so on; it began to spin, and draw in more matter, until BOOM! The birth of the first star, powered by an engine of creation hitherto unknown in existence: Fusion. Then another star was born, and another, and a million billions others. All huge, gigantic stars that burned hot and fast, and then exploded, seeding the early universe with all the elements we know today, and providing the material for the next generation of stars (ours is 3rd generation, I believe).

But they also left behind Neutron stars and Black Holes. Which might appear to be destruction incarnate, but really became the gravitational loci of the newly forming galaxies - our ultimate homes.

So, once again, over and over and over again - creation = destruction. All opposites are the same. Binaries are illusions. Yadda Yadda. In other words: We live in a constantly unfolding miracle that we barely perceive or understand. I find it inspiring, since there's so much more we can know. About the universe, and thus about ourselves (we are made, LITERALLY, from the material ejected by a Supernova).

And oh yeah, here's an actual Neutron star, viewed in X-ray:


l.e.s.ter said...

Just one of many posts that make me wish I'd paid more attention in school. Really fascinating. Do you understand much about the science of understanding these things? About quantifications like "about the size of Manhattan"? Are these guesses based on gravitational readings? How can we possibly know these things? And how many generations have known them -- is this knowledge less than a century old?

Redshirt said...

Good questions!

Yes, I feel as if I have a foundational knowledge on the science of everything I bring up here. Not an expert by any means, but an "informed laymen", if you will. For now!

There was a great article the other day, here:

Which goes into a nice discussion on how scientists know how far things away are in the Universe, and correspondingly, how big they are.

In the case of a Neutron star, they're fairly easy to measure because of a couple of reasons: 1. They are flashing (like sirens) a huge amount of matter out in two jets. These jets can be used to gage size and mass. Additionally, dense objects like Neutron stars bend light around them - this bending can be measured, and then calculations made as to the size of the object. To wit, I believe most scientists would say they have a 90-95% confidence rate on the numbers they give for size and distance - a big increase over previous estimates.

This knowledge is all very new - last 20 years. It's only with the advent of a new generation of awesome telescopes that we've been able to discover and then measure these types of objects - Hubble Chandra, Spitzer, etc. They all work in tandem at different radiation wavelengths and the pictures they create together are the sources of this recent knowledge.

It's been said that right now, we are in the golden age of Cosmology. I believe it - in fact, from a mystical sense, we are living in the age of Revelation. Literally, the mysteries of the Universe, of our existence, are being revealed as we speak. It's a great time for astronomy - thanks in very large part to computing power.