NPR logo Reasons To Be Cheerful: Seeing Stars

Reasons To Be Cheerful: Seeing Stars

When I was in Jr. High School I wanted to be an astronomer. So I asked my parents for a telescope and, being the kind parents they were, they bought me one for my birthday. All day I was out-of-my-head excited. I couldn't wait for it to get dark. Finally I was going to see the Universe as I knew it to be. Finally I was going to see the STARS. Forget those little pinpoints of light. That was for losers who didn't have telescopes. I was going to see huge plumes of fire erupting from off the rumbling surface of giant thermonuclear burning spheres of plasma.

Night fell. I set up the 'scope on the roof of my New Jersey home and turned it one of the 3 stars that came out at night. Slowly I got it in the sights of the little finder scope. Slowly I adjusted the focus. There it was, there it was ... a little pinpoint of light. Damn! Where were my plumes of plasma, my giant flares, my arcades of fire? It was that night that I became a theorist. Who needed a telescope. I had my imagination (the same statement was true of my love life then too).

It turns out that even with the best (single) telescope, stars are still too far away to appear as anything more than points of light.

Not anymore!

Thanks to the development of some very cool technology and advances in the process of infrared interferometry the face of the largest stars that are relatively close to us can now be resolved. I offer you this link for a picture of Betelgeuse, a giant star with a radius as large Jupiter's orbit. The image even shows distinct spots on the star's surface. (This sets my theorists heart aflutter. Are the spots due to large magnetic fields on the stars surface? Are they causing giant stellar flares that blast mass into space?)

After 50,000 years of human beings looking at the stars and making stories and myths and explanations for them, what does it mean to live in the first generation that can actually see them for what they are? To me its at least one reason to be cheerful in spite of everything else.