From the press, I learned by a rather interesting new study was published from my university about observing a supernova in the next 50 years. In particular, the researchers figure that there is near a 90+% chance of such an event happening in our own galaxy! This is exciting because the last supernova recorded in the Milky Way was in 1604 by Johannes Kepler. We have been waiting way too long to not have one.
Now, don’t get your telescopes out yet. That near 100% was for seeing a supernova in infrared. There is a much smaller probability of something being notable to us in the visible spectrum. But supernovae are super-bright, producing as much light as an entire galaxy of stars. Why won’t we notice it except in lower frequencies? That’s because most of the area a supernova could go off in the galaxy is far away and there is a lot of dust in the way. Basically, if the supernova happens on the opposite side of the core of the galaxy, we haven’t a chance of seeing it because of all the dust in the way; the distance alone would make it difficult to notice for naked-eye observers. So the researchers are considering detection with modern IR telescopes and methods.
I should also mention one of the researchers, John Beacom, is a former professor of mine. His particular interest is with neutrino astronomy, and that made big gains in the wake of the 1987 supernova seen in the Large Magellanic Cloud. So a detection of supernovae in our galaxy will not only be using IR but potentially also neutrinos. Great stuff.
Not so great is how the media is running with the story. I have seen on Twitter over and over a version of the story from The Register in the UK. It’s a news outlet known for its skewing of climate research, but here they wanted to immediately compare supernovae to the Star of Bethlehem. They also make reference to support for this idea by citing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Why is this wrong? Well, the first point is basic: the Gospel doesn’t say the Star was bright, let alone the brightest in the sky. That’s all based on later legend-building. Moreover, as I prove in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, there were no visible novae/supernovae around the time of Jesus, and such stellar explosions don’t fit the details of the story at all. But perhaps someone needs to tell the people at The Register that. Then again, they’re probably getting a lot of hits…