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How the IMEBORON conferences began


The nature of discovery: a supernova
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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Just an aside, Brian, on the nature of discovery. Here’s a good example: whether a discoverer can be beaten to his own discovery. You’ll know that there are events called supernovae. They don’t occur very frequently. At least they’re not observed from Earth very frequently, but they are phenomenal events when a star explodes, to put it crudely, at the end of its life and blows out its content and that is in fact where the elements come from. All the elements that we’ve got are in fact made from stars and they find their way into our universe because that is matter condensing from the rest of the universe and it will take up the results of these explosions and that’s how many of the heavier elements were formed. Now, these events can’t be missed in the sky but they don’t occur very often.

There was a famous one found by the Chinese, Galileo saw one, and there was one occurred and I just don’t recall the date but about 30 years ago I think in the South Magellanic Cloud in the Southern Hemisphere and what happened in the actual observation was that an astronomer was doing some work with a telescope on one of the many telescopes on the mountains in Hawaii where the mountains are high and the air is clear so there’s not much disturbance from twinkling of the air, and he’d been there for a while so he thought he’d stretch his legs, go outside and have a smoke. He knew the area of the heavens very well because being an astronomer he’d been studying this and he was just looking up and... he saw a star which he knew hadn’t been there before and the only way that he could have missed it as a bright star in a well known constellation was because it was a supernova and he said, ‘My God, a supernova, turn the telescopes round, let’s look at this’. Confirmed, within minutes almost, a supernova. That’s the observation which actually nobody doubts. What did he do? Excited, I don’t think the internet was there then, but he telegraphed or got in contact with the people on the other side of the Pacific from Hawaii, which is New Zealand, and said, point your telescopes at these co-ordinates, you’ll see a supernova which they did. So they observed it the day before because New Zealand’s on the other side of the date line and so they said, yes, we can see this star. Now, they didn’t say it of course but they could have said, we’ve seen it a day before you. In absolute time of course that’s nonsense. The first guy had seen it and discovered it but did he meet our discovery criteria? The answer is no he didn’t because he hadn’t published it, but that shows of course that in different areas of science you can have different criteria and no-one doubts for one moment that this man... particularly as everyone else in the world could say that what he saw was actually still there.

But another thing just on the side is that the seeing of this explosion actually occur and then decaying away over weeks and months gave some enormously valuable information about what elements had been formed. They were all radiating and remember of course that this occurred light years away so it really wasn’t happening now. It had been happening in the remote past, but the light from that supernova was just reaching us. It’s an interesting parallel in a different field of study.

Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.

Tags: Magellanic Cloud, New Zealand, Galileo Galilei

Duration: 4 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011