Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Super-Duper-Nova: Is it Cool or the Worst Thing Ever?

Two astronomy post-docs at Berkeley announced yesterday that they had discovered the brightest supernova ever, a supernova of the sort that may have been common in the early universe, and would have played an important role in generating and dispersing the heavier-than-hydrogen-and-helium elements necessary for the formation of planets and evolution of life, but that is quite rare in the more recent past. The super-duper-nova (as I'll call it) occurred in a galaxy about 240 million light-years away, which means that it occurred about 240 million years ago (because that's how long it took for the radiation from the super-duper-nova to get here).

The news coverage of this story has had a "gee whiz" feel to it, which is largely appropriate, I suppose. This is, after all, a very important discovery.

Still, it's possible that the super-duper-nova destroyed all life on one or more planets in its vicinity. If so, should that not be sobering? When we learn about the extinction of Earth's dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we can't feel that much regret, partly because, had the dinosaurs survived, they would have likely continued to occupy the niches that our early mammalian ancestors came to occupy. No dinosaur extinction; no us.

But that's not true with the inhabitants, if any, of the planets, if any, incinerated by the super-duper-nova 240 million years ago. Because of the great distance in space and time, nothing that occurred there and then could have had any effect whatsoever on Earth until now, and the current effect is utterly harmless. Suppose we learned that the super-duper-nova in fact did wipe out life on a nearby planet (never mind how we might learn this, or if you care, look here or rent the film Contact.) Should we not be utterly horrified by this news?

Intellectually, I'd say yes, and yet I'm having difficulty actually feeling anything for the wiped-out inhabitants of the hypothesized planet. Maybe that just reflects my own moral failings, but I suspect that my (lack of) feeling would be widely shared by most people who gave the question any thought. If so, it's interesting to speculate as to why I/we can't feel much for the victims of this ancient and distant tragedy. The answer, I think, is that a time scale of hundreds of millions of years feels unreal. It's just so hard to wrap our little minds around the notion that 240 million years ago on Planet XYZ, billions of highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive bug people were incinerated. Even to state the issue sounds ridiculous.

And that brings me to my legal point, sort of. (Dorf on Law, I know.) The preposterously large stage on, and long time-scale in, which our universe unfolds gives it an unreal feeling, even to rational, scientifically oriented secularists like myself. The wonder, in light of this phenomenon and how religious most Americans are, is that only 3 out of the 10 Republican Presidential candidates at last week's debate said they don't believe in evolution.


Adam P. said...

geez. physics shmysics.

Tam said...

Do you think our inability to feel for those super-duper-nova victims is not [only] due to the distance in space and time, but [also] due to their hypothetical status -- and an underlying assumption, whether based on any scientific knowledge, that they probably didn't exist?

If the latter, then I would account for the lack of more denial of evolution theory by the GOP candidates by distinguishing it on the basis of its widely accepted status in the scientific community.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to Tam, maybe, but that can't be the whole of it. We know that people in the Middle Ages existed, and yet we read about their misery with interest but little sympathy. (That doesn't go to the evolution point directly, but to the tendency to view the remote past as almost fictional.)

Tam said...

Mike, I'm not sure the analogy to fiction serves you well, because I think you would agree that we can (and do, on a regular basis) sympathize with fictional characters.

How about running the argument sort of in reverse, to prove the counterpoint. Consider the movie Braveheart. If a first-time viewer, unaware of the historical basis of the movie, identifies and sympathizes with William Wallace, then surely, his later finding out that that William Wallace is in fact an historical character, wouldn't diminish his sympathy, right? Does that not demonstrate a very real ability to sympathize with misery of someone who existed in the medieval times?

Derek said...

I think this might just be a limiting example of the problem of moral distance. Most of us would feel more morally obligated to help someone dying in our own neighborhood, city, country, etc. (even if we don't know them) than someone dying in a different neighborhood, city, country, etc. But there doesn't seem to be any (obvious) moral justification for this. I think the tragedy in a distant galaxy hypo probably plays on this phenomenon.

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