Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Shooting stars

The first jobs I had after dropping out of grad school were as an office temp. For me this was a step up the employment food chain. Since I was almost forty and just out of a decade in academia, it took a while to adjust to the culture of the office. In an office with a lot of temps there is a bit of a clash of cultures going on all the time between the career office workers and the various tribes that they bring in on a temporary basis. The career office workers don't always want to bond too closely with the temps who might be gone in a few days or weeks. I suppose this has changed a little since then as nobody is permanent in any job.

In this particular job, a hospital HMO had brought in a couple of college, students out for the summer, and me to reorganize a large file system. The college students and I formed our own clique and shared academic war stories on our breaks. We all knew we were temporary and shared the permanent workers hesitation about bonding too closely. Between the two cliques were the temps who wanted the assignment to turn into a permanent gig. They spent an equal amount of time in both groups. On this day, one of the straddlers, Gregg, was sitting with college crowd.

"If the sun disappeared," he asked in an attempt to engage the college students in conversation, "how long do you think it would take the oceans to freeze?"

I pondered the depth of the problem. I thought of the oceans of Europa under their miles of ice. I thought of the heat generated by midoceanic thermal vents. I thought of mighty tectonic forces and streams beneath glaciers that lubricate their movement. I tried to phrase all of this into a succinct answer. "Well," I began, "I don't think they would freeze all the way down. At least not right away..."

Ion, just back from a stint in the Peace Corps, cut me off. " What do you mean "If the sun disappeared'?" he said, cutting right to the chase.

"Uh, you know, if it shot off into space."

"That never happens!"

"Sure it does. It happens all the time. What about shooting stars?"

"That's not what that means!!!""

I'm not sure if we ever did manage to convince Gregg that stars don't just get up and leave or to explain about meteors, laws of inertia, and such. If Gregg was reading the science news today, he'd be sure we were the ones who didn't understand the universe.
A total of 14 young stars racing through clouds of gas like bullets, creating brilliant arrowhead structures and tails of glowing gas, have been revealed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. They represent a new type of runaway stars, scientists say.

The discovery of the speedy stars by Hubble, announced here today at the 213th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, came as something of a shock to the astronomers who found them.


The bow shocks that the stars created in those interstellar clouds could be anywhere from 100 billion to a trillion miles wide (the equivalent of 17 times to 170 times the width of our solar system, out to the orbit of Neptune).

These bow shocks indicate that the stars are traveling fast, more than 112,000 mph (180,000 kph) with respect to the dense gas they're plowing through – roughly five times faster than typical young stars.

Damn, these shooting stars are cool.

No comments: