Why we could soon see a revolution in our understanding of the universe

The biggest known star in the universe is about to blow. This kind of thing doesn't happen every day - and when it does, something extremely interesting usually happens.

It’s a shame that modern astronomy’s naming systems are so no-nonsense. We’re going to be considering a star that will soon explode within a constellation called Ara. Ptolemy named the constellation in the 2nd century; it means “altar”, because the Greeks saw it as the place where the gods made sacrifices and formed alliances. In Chinese astronomy, this area of the sky is known as the “azure dragon of the east”.

Meanwhile, a team of modern astronomers is talking about looking within Ara at a cluster of stars it calls Westerlund 1. The star the astronomers are interested in is W26. The instrument they’ll be using to look at it is known without irony as the “Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope”. Thankfully, what they’ve found does kindle something in the imagination.

The biggest known star in the universe is about to blow. Its radius is 1,500 times that of the sun but it is only dimly visible. Besides being about 150,000 trillion kilometres from Planet Earth, it’s also on the other side of one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. As a result, W26’s light passes through a fearful amount of dust and gas before it reaches us.

Janet E Drew of the University of Hertfordshire first spotted W26’s potential in pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. According to a paper that she and her team recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, follow-up studies show that it is shedding mass so quickly that it will soon explode as a supernova.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. Drew’s team is now applying for telescope time in order to take a closer look.

Supernova explosions are not just pretty pictures. In the past, we have used them to seed a revolution in our understanding of the entire universe. Watching how the different colours in the spectrum of the explosion’s flash fade away gives us a way of determining not just how far the light travelled to the earth but how the space between the supernova and the earth was expanding during the light’s journey. That led us to the discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, not slowing down.

Until then, everyone had thought that the gravitational attraction between all the matter in the universe would be pulling on it, slowing down the expansion that started with the Big Bang.

Yet a survey of the light coming from various supernovae showed that something is pushing on the fabric of the universe, causing an ever-faster expansion. We still don’t know what that something is, although it has been given a name that is better than usual: dark energy.

Studying W26’s explosion is unlikely to bring us revelations on that kind of scale. However, it’s still going to be an inspiring moment.

Heavy atoms are already spewing out from the star as its surface breaks up. These atoms were manufactured in nuclear reactions powered by the high temperatures and pressures that exist deep within the body of the star and are essential to the formation of new solar systems. When W26 explodes, it will eject atoms that will seed future suns, future planets and, quite possibly, future life.

We’ve known for at least a century that all the stuff from which we, the sun and our planet are made comes from other stars. But we still don’t know where in the star the elements form or how they rise to the surface.

The idea that we are stardust is almost banal now but, happily, it still thrills and motivates the astronomers who get to work out the details of how that came to be – even if they have to use something called the Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope to do it.

In this handout from NASA, the mosaic image, one of the largest ever taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope of the Crab Nebula, shows six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star's supernova explosion. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.