Alexander Hiller, Ariane Ben Eli, and Sarah Graber
medium: video and synthesizer
On first glance, Sarah Graber’s paper, “These are not the Stars You are Looking for: On the Detection of X-Ray Emission from HD 143352,” appears to be strings of words and numbers, equations and symbols, and names that bring to mind myth and legend—and astrology—more easily than they give up their meaning.
RV Tau variable stars are yellow supergiants. Yellow supergiants are big, luminous, but cool stars that, so far, haven’t been spotted much using X-ray telescopes. Astronomers believe many of them are binaries, which is the word they use to describe two stars that revolve around each other—drawing a kind of figure eight, the sign for eternity—indefinitely. The one RV Tau variable star that was detected in X-ray, then, could have been detected because it is one part of a binary, and its partner is hotter and more emotive, or emitive, so to speak.
Spotting a second RV Tau variable star using X-ray would have been extremely exciting. The possibility of such a discovery could lead a researcher to discount other possibilities in favor of the thrill of the new, which is exactly what Graber did upon first detecting the star HD 143352 in X-ray.
Within astronomy, the tradition of challenging the observations of one’s colleagues is old. Copernican astronomy challenged the geocentric Ptolemaic model. Galileo was willing to die for his belief that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun. Tycho Brahe, for whom the Tycho-2 astronomical catalogue is named, was unwilling to reject Ptolemy in favor of Copernicus, and although his observations were exponentially more accurate than anyone else’s in his time or before him, his astronomy was rejected in favor of later, braver, more accurate astronomies.
Like astronomers before her, Graber’s observations eventually led her to different conclusions than her colleagues. The apparent detection of a second RV Tau variable star in X-ray was mistaken, she says, because the star in question turned out to not be an RV Tau variable at all. HD 143352 had long been misclassified, its color and brightness misinterpreted. Tracing the history of the star back through catalogues, it becomes clear that somewhere along the way, a couple off-base assumptions and inferences distorted the presumed character of the star. This distortion, over time, kept astronomers from seeing clearly what they were looking at.
Not that long ago, astronomers mistook galaxies for single bright stars. Now, we see farther and with greater clarity into space than at any time in the past. Often, what we think we see is distorted. This is the idea that animated our project. What happens when we look closer, or more clearly, at the world around us? What courage does it take to challenge one’s colleagues to take a closer look, to consider the possibility that they’re wrong, or simply to offer an explanation that dismantles that of one’s colleagues? That is the courage it takes to be an astronomer. It’s also the quality that pushes us forward in every field. We strive to see with greater clarity, and that makes the ordinary sometimes extraordinary.
Ad Astra is a video project inspired by and in play with “These are not the Stars You are Looking for.” The shapes in Ad Astra morph and mimic astronomical visualizations, telescopic distortions, blinking satellites and the expansion of gas in the universe. Mimic is the most accurate word to describe what we’ve done, because the videos were made by taking footage of common objects in our environment. These “mistaken” forms allude to the humanness in error and provide the mystery to look further for new discoveries.
Alexander Hiller is a GS student studying writing, emotion and narrative. He is unable to stop thinking about space. He loves dueling binary stars and is writing a screenplay about two planetary bodies using comets to communicate. He hopes one day to combine all his loves into one giant film. See him on twitter @hillerthriller
Ariane Ben Eli is a writer and visual artist whose interests include physical geography, plate tectonics and California, safe drinking water, the future of energy, and how people learn. Her love of astronomy goes way, way back because Ariane is from Tucson, a city surrounded by large observatories. The first big telescope she visited was the 61-inch Kuiper telescope in the Steward Observatory on Mount Bigelow. Her favorite observatory, of course, is the Rutherfurd Observatory.
Sarah Graber is a senior Astronomy major at Columbia, currently taking an almost 100% arts-based course load for the final semester. Academically, Sarah is into instrumentation, public outreach, and science communication/education, and outside of school is mostly an arts person. "These are not the Stars You are Looking for" is Sarah's first published paper!