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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Why have men become so lonely – and how does it affect their health?

New findings show the consequences of having a lonely heart.

Go out and get some friends. No, seriously. Hop on the Tube and act faux-interested in the crap-looking book your fellow commuter is reading, even if it's on their Kindle. Chances are it's better than the one in your bag, and they're probably a decent human being and just as lonely, like you and me.

A new slate of facts and figures are showing just how widespread loneliness, is while simultaneously being amazingly terrible for your health.

Research led by Steven Cole from the medicine department at University of California, Los Angeles is showing the cellular mechanisms behind the long known pitfalls of loneliness. Perceived social isolation (PSI) – the scientific term for loneliness –increases the exposure to chronic diseases and even mortality for individuals across the world.

The authors examined the effects of loneliness on leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which are produced from stem cells in the bone marrow and are critical to the immune system and defending the body against bacteria and viruses. The results showed loneliness increases signalling in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling our fight-or-flight responses, and also affects the production of white blood cells.

Recently, the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men's health and wellbeing, carried out a survey with the help of YouGov investigating friendship and loneliness amongst men. The results are alarming, with only 11 per cent of single men across the spectrum in their early 20s to late-middle age saying they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.

Friendship has shown not only to be important to a person's overall wellbeing, but can even add to a person's earnings. A previous study involving 10,000 US citizens over 35 years showed people earned 2 per cent more for each friend they had.

The Movember Foundation survey comes soon after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that men in Britain make up 58 per cent of the 2.47m people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64. The reasons behind this figure include marrying later in life and failed marriages, which usually result in children living with the mother. Women still make up the majority of the 7.7m single-occupant households across all ages in the country, at approximately 54 per cent.

Chronic loneliness seems to have slowly become a persistent problem for the country despite our hyper-connected world. It's an issue that has made even Jeremy Hunt say sensible things, such as "the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives" about this hidden crisis. He's previously called for British families to adopt the approach of many Asian families of having grandparents live under the same roof as children and grandchildren, and view care homes as a last, not first, option.

The number of single-person households has continued to increase over the years. While studies such as this add to the list of reasons why being alone is terrible for you, researchers are stumped as to how we can tackle this major social issue. Here's my suggestion: turn off whatever screen you're reading this from and strike up a conversation with someone who looks approachable. They could end up becoming your new best friend.