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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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Big Explosions

Hubble Telescope image of the Crab NebulaNow that I’ve gotten your attention with the entry title, I of course have to admit that there are no big explosions at CERN. That’s a good thing, too, because I’m talking about really big explosions.

CERN, like any big laboratory or university, has a fair number of lectures and colloquia on various topics in physics. One of the great things about being a physicist, and a physics student in particular, is that going to these lectures counts as work, at least if it doesn’t get in the way of things that have to be done. Since my work this week was mostly meetings about getting a new project and passing the old one off to another person, along with writing an ATLAS Infernal Internal Note on the old project, I had the opportunity and need for any educational breaks I could find.

As it happened, there were three very interesting talks by Princeton Professor Adam Burrows. Their nominal subject was “Black Holes and Neutron Stars,” but what he really wanted to show was stars exploding. The first talk, which was definitely my favorite, had a lot of movies and simulations of exactly that. A particularly pretty example is this movie of a Type Ia Supernova:

The neat thing about that video is that, not only does it look good, it’s also a real simulation. One of the main things I learned from the talks is that a substantial obstacle to understanding the details of supernovae is a lack of computing power: there are a lot of ideas about how they work exactly, but none of them come out quite right in simplified simulations. For example, Type II Supernovae probably need to lose their spherical symmetry so that the explosion can spread along one axis while new material collapses into the core from other directions, but it’s not clear exactly how this happens, and it can’t be simulated properly in only two dimensions.

Jokes about avoiding real work aside, it’s quite valuable for physicists to keep up with work in fields that are somewhat removed from our own work; you never know what interesting connections might come up. The details of supernovae have a lot of particle physics in them; for example, there are a tremendous number of neutrinos produced. In fact, neutrino detectors were the first instruments to “see” Supernova 1987a, because the weakly-interacting neutrinos escaped from the star a few hours ahead of the rest of the explosion.

[Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)]

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