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

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

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