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Credit: UCO/Lick/STScI/M.Perrin et al


BP Piscium: A Fish out of Water
Oct 15, 2010

Before the discovery of jetted stars, such as BP Piscium above, the idea of a star with a ring around it threaded by a hot helical filament that remained coherent for several light-years would have been dismissed as impossible.


With only gravity and gas, you can’t get much more than balls of warm hydrogen. To make a star, the weak force of gravity has to compress the gas beyond the natural limits that we know of until the pressure initiates a nuclear reaction that’s not been demonstrated actually to occur. (Decades of building expensive machinery to replicate this hypothetical process and to produce fusion power have still to do it.)


That’s just to get an ordinary star with an ordinary power output. To get the much greater energy of such stars as novas and pulsars, theorists must leave the garden of natural physics and trek deep into the dungeons of the supernatural: into the lairs of such speculative hypotheses as neutron stars and black holes, merging stars and colliding galaxies.


The jetted stars were found in abundance. So were their big brothers, jetted galaxies, with threads that were tens or hundreds of thousands of light-years long, ending in regions of radio emission larger than the galaxies. Hot gas, even in a strong gravitational field, tends to dissipate. These threads didn’t dissipate.


The “donut-on-a-stick” stars were often accompanied by signs of magnetism—another phenomenon that the gravity-and-gas boys had thought was impossible in space. Without worrying too much about how the magnetism was generated, astronomers were happy to let the magnetic field lines twist themselves into tubes that would confine the gas into the observed filaments. Of course, magnetism doesn’t affect gas, so they had to admit that the gas was plasma long enough to keep it in the magnetic tube.


The admission was repudiated before anyone had time to mention the electrical properties of plasma. Electricity was a fifth column that threatened to overthrow the gravity-and-gas citadel: The threads were Birkeland currents that carried electrical power. They were what generated the magnetism—as the physics of nature as we know it describes.


X-ray and radio maps of the heavens traced out lanes of emission and magnetism connecting stars and galaxies: This was evidence that the stars and galaxies were strung like streetlights on these Birkeland currents. Electricity and plasma can be many, many times more energetic that gravity and gas, and the possibility arose that the cosmos was powered, not by gravity and gas and supernatural physics, but by electricity and plasma and the natural physics that can be studied in a laboratory.


BP Piscium and its visible Birkeland power cable are a pointer to a return to nature in astronomy.


Mel Acheson



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