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Jewish World Review July 12, 2001 / 21 Tamuz, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

Some stars, like some people, never shine

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- BY occurring now in the Northern Hemisphere, summer not only prevents us from freezing our buckets off at the beach, it also (believe it or don't) offers us with a lofty opportunity to ponder how stars grow.

No, not TV or movie stars. There's no accounting for how some of them got to be stars.

I'd discuss them at more length here, but I haven't even heard of most of them, and many of the ones I have heard about I wish I hadn't.

So instead I'm going to talk about something I also know darn little about but that - unlike TV and movie stars - interests me. And if you've got a lick of sense, it will interest you, too.

If it doesn't, just turn back to the proteomics section of the paper and read about, well, proteomics. What else would you expect to find there?

If you look up on a relatively clear night (assuming you're outside), you'll get a false picture of what's going on. The sky appears to be full of silent stars and it all looks so placid, lovely and innocent.

But ever since the big bang, the sky has been full of violent crashes and smashes and comings and goings and so forth.

Why, it's a wonder that any of us gets any sleep at night. If the stars were upstairs neighbors, we'd demand the landlord evict them. A new report on how stars - and failed stars called brown dwarfs - are born gives us a hint of the cosmic banging around going on over our heads.

The report was written by a University of Colorado astronomer, Bo Reipurth, and Cathie Clarke of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England.

It appears in the current issue of The Astronomical Journal, which you can usually find on magazine shelves between Art for Dummies Digest and Ax Murderers' Monthly.

Reipurth and Clarke have spent a chunk of their professional careers trying to figure out why the cosmos is scattered with these brown dwarfs, but also why they are almost never found near normal stars.

You yourself may have better things to worry about, but I am reassured that at least two people on the planet stay up at night thinking about this, if only so I don't have to.

What Reipurth and Clarke have concluded is that these brown dwarfs most likely were ejected from new multiple-star systems before they could get big enough to become real burning-bright stars.

They were, in other words, the runts of the litter, booted out of the nursery while bigger siblings fed on the gaseous matter that is necessary for the growth of stars.

"The smaller and weaker star embryos are constantly flung out of the central feeding ground by gravitational slingshots and thus grow slower," says Reipurth.

To become a true star, it turns out, requires an agent, luck and a willingness to ... Oh, no, wait. That's the entertainment sort.

To become a true star, it turns out, requires the potential stars to acquire about 8 percent of the mass of our sun so that the process of nuclear ignition can occur and they can light up like a firefly on steroids.

"If they don't make it," says Reipurth, "they don't ignite. If such small star embryos are ejected by their siblings so early that they have not built up the necessary mass and fuel, they become brown dwarfs."

Unlike human beings, however, these failed stars can't get their GEDs, borrow money for college and eventually make something of themselves.

"Brown dwarfs are left to merely glimmer darkly forever," Reipurth says.

Well, on second thought, that's what a lot of human beings do, too.

Only not forever.

Just until their summer sunburns wear off.


Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved