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Lunch Hour Lecture: On supernovae and serendipity

ycrnf0113 October 2014

Like a white dwarf, autumn 2014’s first Lunch Hour Lecture was dense, full of energy and tightly packed (but in this case, time and not space, I might add).

Psyched for my first Lunch Hour Lecture, I was ready to explore the world of supernovae with a 45-minute guided journey through the stars, namely, ones in the process of exploding very dramatically.

Radiating enthusiasm and demonstrating expertise from start to finish, Dr Steve Fossey (UCL Physics and Astronomy) took a capacity audience on a whistle stop tour of January’s discovery of a Type ia supernova, memorably named SN 2014J, and situated in our neighbourhood galaxy, the sci-fi sounding, Messier 82.

After summarising the rules for supernovae discovery (there are two options: looking, and not looking but accidentally finding), Dr Fossey gave a short overview of history’s accidental supernova discoveries.

One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour till it becomes unstable Credit: European Southern Observatory

One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour until it becomes unstable
Credit: European Southern Observatory via Oli Usher

Beginning with Tycho Brahe’s find in 1572 – labelled SN 1572 – which rewrote the rules of astronomy, he moved on to Johannes Kepler’s discovery of SN 1604 in, wait for it, 1604 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and finally, and more recently, SN 1987A, found by astronomers in Chile.

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On supernovae and serendipity

Oli Usher24 March 2014

Fresh from his discovery in January of Supernova 2014J while at UCL’s University of London Observatory, Dr Steve Fossey spoke about ‘Supernovae and serendipity’ at a Physics Colloquium on 12 March.

When introducing Dr Fossey, the observatory’s director Professor Ian Howarth explained how he wanted to set some facts straight.

Supernova 2014 J Seen by UCL's observatory

Supernova 2014 J seen from UCL’s observatory
Credit: UCL Phyics & Astronomy

The discovery of Supernova 2014J was no fluke, he said, and the press release that said it was a happy accident (written by yours truly) was wrong, along with all the coverage that followed.

Like all good jokes, this one had a large kernel of truth (so Ian, if you’re reading, no hard feelings!): even if first chancing upon the supernova was a stroke of luck, what happened next, both on the night of the discovery at UCL and in the days that followed at observatories around the world, was not.

I bring this up because the story of what happened after the discovery is in many ways more interesting than what happened on the night.

Supernovae, Dr Fossey explained, are all caused by a star becoming unstable and exploding, but the reasons for the instability, and the properties of the explosion, vary. And in those variations lie this one’s importance.

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