A Peek at Star Formation
Protostar HH-34 lies about
1500 light-years away in the Orion Nebula star-forming region. Some
features of HH-34 are understood─some are not. At the core of
Herbig-Haro 34 lies a seemingly typical young star. This star,
though, somehow ejects energetic "bullets" of high-energy particles.
We see stars.
Then we ask questions: What are they? Where do they come
from? We can’t get close enough to find direct answers, so
we recall things we already know that appear similar or at
We’ve had pretty
good luck explaining things with gravity and ideal gas laws.
Perhaps we could start with an extended cloud of hydrogen
(we have to start with something) floating somewhere among
the x-, y- and z-axes of a coordinate system. We could let a
force act from the center of mass (we know the equations for
a point force). We could crank the numbers through the
equations and see what happens:
contracts. The temperature rises. The radiation pressure
increases until it balances with the gravitational force
from the point. (We must do this slowly in order to maintain
equilibrium conditions: Otherwise discontinuities might
arise and our continuous equations would no longer be
tell us how much the cloud has collapsed and what shape it
is and what the temperature is: The cloud has become a
sphere the size of a star, and it’s hot enough, provided we
assume quantum tunneling effects, at that central point to
sustain energy-producing fusion reactions that transform
hydrogen into helium. The equations have many variables that
can be tuned to match the energy output of stars. The fusion
reactions should produce neutrinos: We check and find
Our theory is
But then we keep
looking, and we find things that the equations didn’t
predict: There are only half as many neutrinos as there
should be. And there are magnetic fields, which, as far as
we know, are “frozen” into the gaseous cloud and therefore
won’t let it contract. We can adjust the equations; we can
introduce ad hoc exceptions; we can save the theory.
But after a while all the adjustments and exceptions get
cumbersome. Occasionally they even contradict each other.
Some of our colleagues begin considering alternative
theories. For a time we can keep them in line with threats
of refusing grants and denying publication. Then one day
we peek at an alternative theory....
Instead of a
cloud of hydrogen in 3-D coordinates there’s an electric
circuit in plasma. Birkeland cables carry power from
somewhere to somewhere else: The center of interest is a
cosmic power surge through interstellar plasma that evolves
through a series of instabilities. The plasma along the
current axis pinches into a stack of cells similar to “bead
lightning.” The cells become toroidal and then spherical.
Long-range electromagnetic forces efficiently pull in matter
from the surrounding space and compact it into spheroids.
The spiraling force in the Birkeland current sets the
spheroids spinning. As the energy dissipates and the current
wanes, the spheroids are no longer held by the axial force:
They shoot off in random directions.
still carrying some of the current. If the current increases
again, the internal electrical stress explodes them into two
or more pieces, which are also spheroidal by virtue of
gravity and the electrical pressure on them. If there is a
resonance in the circuit, it may show up as an oscillation
in a spheroid’s luminosity.
predicts that stars should form along axial filaments that
have some helical structure: We observe Herbig-Haro stars
(see image above) with long, twisted, knotty “jets” emerging
from their poles. This theory predicts that some stars
should vary in luminosity with periods that could range from
weeks to fractions of a second: We observe variable stars
that dim and brighten over a few days to a few hours. We
observe pulsars that flash radiation up to thousands of
times a second. This theory predicts that many stars should
be binary or multiple systems and that many should have
close-orbiting gas-giant planets around them: We observe an
abundance of multiple star systems and quite a few gas
giants in close orbits. This theory predicts no lower size
limit to stellar behavior since all bodies receive external
electrical power. We observe low mass brown dwarfs flaring
and powerfully emitting x-rays.
This theory is
verified. We decide to try it, and after a while we forget
the first theory.
Then come the
personal questions: Will we keep looking? When anomalies are
discovered, as they surely will be, how long will we adjust
this new theory and make exceptions? How will we treat our
colleagues who consider another alternative?
Will we also
peek at that novel theory?
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