Rewriting the rulebook on supernovae

Supernovae—the final explosive efforts of dying stars—are the most beautiful of astronomical phenomena. Usually occurring in higher-mass stars than our sun, a supernova produces an explosion so bright that its luminosity can rival that of the galaxy.

In astronomy, supernovae are used as standardized candles to understand dark energy and the expansion of the universe. Scientists can predict the distance of a supernova from earth, given average supernova brightness. If a supernova is dimmer than expected, it is farther away. When a supernova is observed moving farther away, it is said to be redshifting. This is evidence of the acceleration of the universe. However, astronomers at the University of Toronto have recently put the validity of the supernova average brightness into question.

Supernovae occur in stars with masses great enough to turn hydrogen and helium into heavier elements. Bigger stars burn more rapidly and their hydrogen fuel eventually runs out. At this point, the shell of the star begins to contract, increasing the star’s pressure and temperature and starting a reaction in which helium produces carbon. The same chain of events occurs until carbon turns into heavier elements. Each time this chain of events takes place, the star becomes more and more unstable, eventually leading to the implosion of its core. The implosion has enough force to create an outward explosion, which can be brighter than the light of ten million suns. These kinds of explosions provide an environment for the birth of new stars.

U of T researcher Andrew Howell explained in a recent interview that there are two recognized kinds of supernovae, one brighter than the other. The brighter kind has a greater rate of occurrence in galaxies where more stars are created, whereas the dimmer supernovae are more prevalent in older galaxies.

Howell and other U of T researchers from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics measured the brightness of a supernova and quantified it by constructing a stretch distribution.

A stretch distribution is a graph that compares the brightness of a supernova over the amount of time it takes for the explosion to subside. The greater the width of the graph, the brighter the light, because it takes longer for that light to subside. Using this technique, Howell and his team made a key discovery in their 2007 paper: they found the stretch was getting larger with greater redshift, as one moves further away from the earth.

Since light takes time to travel to Earth from far-away supernovae, the light that we see now is, in reality, from a time far in the past—closer to the beginnings of the universe and the big bang. The further we look, the further back in time we are seeing, but supernovae from earlier in time bear different characteristics from more recent ones. Supernovae have evolved so that the average ratio of bright to dim supernovae today is different from that in the past. In fact, the average supernova now is becoming dimmer as compared to a supernova from earlier in the universe’s history, when there was a much higher rate of star formation.

Howell concluded, therefore, that the averages used by cosmologists for predicting brightness will change over time. This discovery is important for the study of dark energy and the expanding universe, as a change in the average opens up possible inaccuracies in former conclusions.

Howell chose to study astrophysics because of dark energy, a substance that composes over 70 per cent of the entire universe. The nature of this substance is largely unknown. In a field with very little a priori knowledge, Howell’s discovery is important, though the bias noticed in the stretch distribution has always been corrected for, despite not being understood. However, Howell explains that in future research in this mysterious area of astronomy, even the slightest changes are sure to make a difference.

Fast Facts: Supernovae

  • Chinese astronomers observed the first recorded supernova in AD 185

  • After the invention of powerful telescopes, it became easier to observe supernovae. The 1885 discovery of S Andromedae (in the Andromeda galaxy) heralded this new age of astronomy

  • The core of a supernova collapses in on itself at a velocity close to 70,000 km/s

  • After a supernova is discovered, it is reported to the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and named

  • Amateur and professional astronomers discover hundreds of supernovae every year–367 in 2005 and 551 in 2006

  • After exploding, a supernova can emit the same amount of energy over a period of a few months as the sun would put out over 10 billion years

  • In a galaxy the size of the Milky Way, supernova occur on average once every 50 years

An ethical tango with television

If you’ve ever lost yourself in a good book or a dramatic TV show, you’d know what it feels like to cheer on the good guys and hate the bad. But if you find yourself egging on Kiefer Sutherland as he executes his boss to save the country, you have to ask yourself just how far you’re willing to get pulled in.

This was one of the questions discussed at a bioethics session hosted by the Joint Centre for Bioethics Undergraduate Initiative on October 24. Sue MacRae, the former deputy director of the centre, started the session by screening an episode of 24 and discussing the ethical conflicts—whether relevant to real-life or not—that emerged.

“With the world moving as quickly as it’s moving, just a couple of years is a generation now,” said MacRae. “The kind of ethical issues I studied 15 years ago are […] similar, but they’re changing rapidly as our world’s changing and as technology is changing.” For MacRae, media, whether accurately representing the issues or not, can be a good place to get a sense of the emerging ethical quandaries we face as a society.

As a former bioethicist in Canadian and U.S. hospitals, MacRae’s interest in applied ethics intersects with narrative elements in movies, books, and other media outlets. Though plots have changed over time—15 years ago it was Star Trek, now it’s terrorism and cell-phone-era 24—ethical concerns haven’t gotten any simpler.

The issue may be assisted suicide, for example, or the sacrifice of few to save many, or the conflict between private interests and public health. MacRae stressed that these are more than academic questions. They are real-world concerns. In 2004’s SARS scare, for example, health officials needed to make difficult decisions such as what liberties and restrictions to impose on the public in order to contain the outbreak. Is it better to enforce quarantine or leave it voluntary? Do you disclose private information about people for the greater public good? These are the questions MacRae examines.

The complexities of today’s media (the Internet, TV shows, news outlets) can raise awareness of certain issues, but they can also skew our world view. For MacRae, the media is so strongly opinionated and value-laden that it may change the way we see scenarios that are already ethical hotbeds: disability and end-of-life choices, for example.

A study published in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine made this point. The study examined the outcomes of real CPR interventions versus those on the TV drama ER and found that on ER the rate of recovery was much higher.

“It is fair to say that many people who watch these medical dramas such as ER get fooled into thinking CPR saves many more lives than it really does,” commented MacRae. “This may lead to a false sense of what technology can do for us.”

In our health care system, conflicts often emerge between patients and health-care professionals over issues such as risky treatments. For MacRae, these conflicts need to be discussed at the fundamental level of value systems and world views.

“I think probably the most interesting thing to me about media right now is that we live in an era where media has made us ask different questions about reality altogether,” said MacRae. Today, the Internet and news can offer us, simultaneously, different world views on a single event.

“It’s like we have a whole different approach to truth,” said MacRae. “What are the facts? What are opinions? And how do we begin to make sense of these competing values and world views?

“That’s where ethics comes in. Ethical frameworks can help us make sense of competing values and help individuals arrive at decisions together.”

Rocking the Boat

On Saturday night at The Boat The Varsity hosted its first Off The Record party which showcased some of Toronto’s best musical talent and raised $750.00 for Journalists For Human Rights. The evening—which saw the Kensington hotspot packed to capacity—kicked off with a powerful performance by one-man loop-orchestra Now Yr Taken, who was followed by the shimmering melodies of MTV-approved rockers The Coast. Next up, Uncut unleashed a killer set of spine-shattering hits including amazing renditions of “Taken in Sleep,” “Chain Fight,” and even managed to recover from a blown fuse (with the help of Boat booker Keith Hamilton) to cap off their set with “Understanding The New Violence.” Bassist Derek Tokar rocked so hard he cracked the head of his alpinewhite Thunderbird IV in their set-concluding melee. The final band of the night, Germans, impressed the crowd by constantly rotating between instruments, covering a Cap’n Jazz tune, and delivering energetic performances of “Nature’s Mouth” and “I Am the Teacher” off their album Cape Fear. Taking care of DJ duties for the night was Shit La Merde (bottom left) who managed to keep the dance floor hopping well into daylight savings. Thanks to everyone who came out to support local talent and Journalists For Human Rights. Watch out for another Off The Record party in the spring!

Blues get the ball rolling

For the third straight year, the Varsity Blues faced the Ryerson Rams on opening night–and the results stayed true to form. As the immortal Yankee Yogi Berra once put it, it’s déjà vu all over again..Toronto has won all its season openers against the Rams, 73-55 and 79-39 in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Over three seasons, the Blues have dominated Ryerson 6-0 in regular season play. With Ryerson set to arrive at the AC for a rematch this week, Toronto will look for a repeat of their opening night success.

Christine Cho, a fifth year co-captain with the Blues, knows exactly what her team can expect from these opponents. “Ryerson is a very scrappy team that will keep fighting regardless of what the score is. They’re small compared to most other teams, but they really hustle after loose balls and rebounds. They also have some decent shooters so it’s important for us to limit their shots.”

Following their game plan, the Blues forced their opponents into a poor shooting night on Friday. Ryerson shot an abysmal 32.7 per cent from the field, while U of T capitalized on most of its opportunities, with field goals scored at 45.2 per cent. The Blues also outscored the Rams in hustle stats, out-rebounding 31-24 over the weekend, and had 17 steals to Ryerson’s 10. Allaine Hutton led the way for Toronto with 19 points, while Cho also had a good game, finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds, and three steals. Toronto would cruise to a 73-46 victory, although a closeopening quarter left some cause for concern. “We didn’t have a good start to the game at all,” said Cho. We need to find a way to get ourselves going right from the tip off. As far as what we did well, we came back from halftime to pull ahead in the third quarter through our defensive pressure and good shooting.”

The beginning of any season is often filled with hope and optimism, and a few early victories, even against an inferior opponent, allow the team to build momentum heading into more difficult match-ups. With the roster from last season still intact, the Blues know what kind of team they have “We’re a team that works hard every night at practices and games,” Cho said. “If we do that, we are capable of beating any team on any given night.”

After a disappointing end to their 2006 season, which finished 12-10, it was good to get the first win out of the way. Cho said that the experience on their roster gives the Blues the advantage most nights. She is joined on the team by her co-captains, guard Kyla Burwash and forward Amanda Van Leeuwan, on a battle tested Toronto squad. If the team hopes to meet many of the goals they’ve set this year: winning the OUA and competing for a national title, they will need these three players to lead the way.

Leafs flashing the green

Hold on a second, Leaf Nation. Put those champagne corks back in and stop planning the Stanley Cup route down Bay Street, because the Leafs don’t have John Tavares yet. And they never will. Rumour says that John Ferguson Jr. has offered the 17-year-old Oshawa Generals star John Tavares a contract to play with the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. While nothing has been set in stone, this is not something for Leaf fans to cheer about.

Last season with Oshawa, Tavares passed Wayne Gretzkey’s single season goal record at 76. With stats and comparisons to Gretzkey, Tavares has been touted as the next great player and a potential first overall draft pick in 2009. As the projected number one overall, the Leafs stand little chance at picking up Tavares in the draft unless they tank next season completely, and that still would not guarantee anything.

Instead, John Ferguson has offered Tavares a one-year contract in the AHL, after which he can enter the draft and get signed by whoever gets the first pick, if he so chooses. The only problem with this scenario is that AHL rules specify that players must be 18 as of September 15. Since Tavares turns 18 on September 20, the rules must be changed in order for him to don a Marlies jersey. This seems unlikely, as exceptions weren’t made for,players like former number-one pick Alexander Ovechkin.

That’s where this contract comes into play. If Tavares is allowed to play in the AHL, he must bypass the draft in 2009 and play for the Marlies until he is 21 in order to play with the Leafs. Tavares would be an unrestricted free agent, and Leafs fans can keep hoping he loves his city more than a fat paycheck.

But let’s be realistic. Tavares will never turn down big bucks at 19 to play for the Leafs at 21. It would be crazy. What if he got hurt? His payday will be cut down substantially, and his NHL career could potentially be over before it even began. Nowadays, players want and expect the big bucks if they are a high draft pick. Money, sadly, is the determining factor when a young player moves to professional sports. So if Tavares is allowed to play for the Marlies, it will be a one-year deal, nothing more.

In offering Tavares the contract, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment is also getting a quick money grab from the oh-so-faithful citizens of Toronto. Putting a name like John Tavares on the Marlies will cause John Doe, who doesn’t really watch or follow hockey, to buy tickets because he has heard Tavares’ name mentioned in the same breath as Wayne Gretzkey and Sidney Crosby. This potential contract is an attempt at raising attendance at Marlies games—which is abysmal as best. They average 3,224 people per game, third worst in the AHL. Putting a recognized name in the AHL will boost Marlies sales and bring more money to MLSE.

So the attempted signing of John Tavares is not MLSE’s way of trying to grow our farm system. That hasn’t been their priority in years. All they care about is the almighty dollar. MLSE saw a loophole, a chance to offer the next big thing a minor league contract so they can boost the sales of the Marlies and grab a few bucks in the meantime. John Tavares is not the first step in rebuilding a team that has not seen the Stanley Cup for 40 years. He is just another example of the disaster that is the Maple Leaf franchise

‘Yes’ choice expected in levy vote

Voting results on the Student Commons levy are expected early Monday, wrapping up a two-week-long campaign.

The referendum was conducted by the University of Toronto Student’s Union from Oct. 31, to Nov. 2, with polling stations across campus. According to a news release on UTSU’s website, over 3,100 ballots were cast in the referendum, representing around 11 per cent of full-time undergraduate students. The referendum needed a voter turnout of at least five per cent to be valid.

Though the votes have been counted, at press time verification was still ongoing to make sure that all ballots were cast by eligible voters.

The referendum and the proposal to build a student-funded, 24-hour centre, called the Student Commons, has been a long time coming. St. George is the only campus at the university not to have a dedicated student centre, and says that “of the thousands of students who voted, a clear majority supported funding the construction of this building.”

The proposed centre is based on the same concept as the student centres at UTM and UTSC, which serve as activity hubs. UTSU plans to house itself in the Student Commons and has announced a laundry list of intentions for the building. The student union plans to sell TTC metropasses all month long, run their food bank every day in an accessible location, and operate their used book exchange year-round, up from just three weeks in the fall.

Various groups have expressed interest in getting space at the centre, including the Centre for Women and Trans People, Students for Barrier Free Access, the cycle repair group Bikechain, and student publication the Newspaper, as well the Sexual Education Centre, which will lose its current space on St. George Street to make way for an expansion of the Rotman School of Management.

The Student Commons is also projected to contain a student-run eatery, and lounge, club, student group, general meeting, and prayer space. Notably, neither the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students nor campus radio station CUIT has sought space in the centre, though both were mentioned by UTSU as victims of a supposed prioritization of corporate space over student space.

Controversies arose over the plan of funding the centre through a student levy for full-time undergrads. The referendum proposed charging full-time students $5 per semester until the building opens (in 2009 according to current estimates). At that point, students would also start paying $6.50 to cover operating costs and $14.50 a semester for no more than 25 years to pay off mortgages arising from building expenditures. The operating cost is subject to a maximum 10 per cent increase per semester to cover inflation. The official report estimates annual operating costs of around $645,000.

“I certainly do not agree with paying for something I will likely not be able to use during my time as an undergradu- ate,” said Grant Gonzales, a first-year student at St. Michael’s College and a representative on the Arts and Science Council.

Campaigning was rife with controversy, with the election’s chief returning officer, Gail Alivio, receiving complaints that the “yes” campaign used “aggressive” campaigning and broke UTSU rules laid out in its Charter on Referenda.

Alivio gave five demerit points to the “yes” campaign for hanging a banner within sight of the Sidney Smith hall polling station.

“A ‘no’ vote means that this will never happen,” said Michal Hay, VP university affairs of UTSU. “The campaign was therefore very tense.”

Some students complained about being mislead by the emphasis on the initial $5 per semester levy, rather than the higher costs that would come later.

“I felt that the ‘yes’ campaign was entirely run by the student union. This overwhelmed the ‘no’ campaign,” said Mykelle Pacquing, a third-year at University College. “I had voted ‘yes’ and have discovered to my horror that this was only to lead up to its construction and could go as high as $14 [instead of $5]. I feel duped and taken advantaged of in this referendum and now I feel responsible if the ‘yes’ vote wins.”

Some disagreed. “The current UTSU executive should be applauded for exercising democratic principles […] I am disappointed at the negative and inaccurate campaign launched by APUS,” said UTM Student Union president Walied Khogali, who endorsed the “yes” campaign.

Hay said that she believed students would have accepted the proposed terms of the levy even if the sum of the per-semester costs had been more emphasized. in campaign materials.

Event listings for week of November 5



  • Presented by the new College Commuters Council
  • Monday, nov. 5, 6-8 p.m. Free! new College Commuters’ Lounge, Wilson Hall


  • Fresh, affordable meals every Tuesday!
  • Tuesday, nov. 6, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. affordable!
  • baldwin room, ISC (33 St. George St.)


  • Making an impact in darfur with STand and amnesty International
  • Wednesday, nov. 7. Hart House


  • beginner lesson presented by the UCoC and UT-Swing
  • Wednesday, nov. 7, 6:45-9:30 p.m. $2.
  • Junior Common room, University College


  • Lecturer from U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for 27th annual Holocaust education Week
  • Wednesay, nov. 7, 5 p.m. Free! Multi-faith Centre, Koffl er Institute (569 Spadina ave.)


  • brahms’ academic Festival overture and
  • beethoven’s 9th Symphony
  • Thursday nov. 8, 8-10 p.m. Free!
  • Hart House Grand Hall.


  • Cover gets you a t-shirt and marker. all proceeds to PlayPumps
  • Thursday, nov. 8, 10 p.m.-3 a.m. $5 for U of T students
  • afterlife nightclub (250 adelaide St. W.).
  • and


  • no experience necessary!
  • Sunday, nov. 11, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • elliot Heritage House, brampton (meet at U of T)


  • Learn about admission requirements and application procedures
  • Tuesday, nov. 13, 1-3 p.m. Free! UTM South building, room 3094



  • relieve elementary school with horse shows and farming
  • nov. 5 through nov. 11. $18, or 2-for-1 after 5 p.m.
  • direct energy Centre, exhibition Place


  • Learn to fix your bike with real mechanics
  • Wednesday, nov. 7, 7-9 p.m. $30
  • Community bicycle network (761 Queen St. W.)
  • 416-504-2918.


  • Five programs over fi ve nights for the fifth anniversary
  • nov. 8-11. Tickets $7-10, or $27-35 for full festival.
  • Innis Town Hall Theatre (2 Sussex ave.)

Watered-down science spills into court

The water has boiled over between the Canadian Federation of Students and a major scientific research council, who late last week went to court over the fallout of a controversial U of T study. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Federation of Students are awaiting a federal court ruling over a complex case involving charges of research misconduct and plagiarism.

“We really want to use this case as an example of the way in which university oversight can break down and how university researchers, to please their sponsors, can pervert the research process if we don’t have strict oversight,” said Ian Boyko, the campaigns coordinator for CFS.

During the summer of 2000, Liza Ballantyne and Robert C. Andrews, both of U of T’s Department of Civil Engineering, conducted a joint study with Indiana University, partially supported by ERCO Worldwide, a Toronto- based chlorine dioxide supplier. They ran their study in the small town of Wiarton, Ontario, whose residents were unaware of the experiment until some began noticing something “funny” with their water and brought the issue to the town council. A survey found that over 40 per cent of Wiarton residents had noticed a “considerable change” in their drinking water.

Though the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, and other publications reported these claims, Andrews deemed the project a success.

The study resulted in a paper entitled “Implementation of chlorine dioxide disinfection: Effects of the treatment change on drinking water quality in a full-scale distribution system,” which was later retracted. It stated that monitoring complaints about water quality was crucial. “No customer taste and odor complaints were reported during the study period,” the paper reported

The case was blown open when Chris Radziminski, a former graduate student at U of T, came forward to CFS complaining that the university had plagiarized sections of his master’s thesis on chlorine dioxide for purifying water and that his conclusions had been manipulated by U of T and ERCO Worldwide.

Without his permission or knowledge, he was listed as the primary author of an article published in 2002.

NSERC, whose policy is to oversee research integrity, gave the prestigious Synergy Award for Innovation to U of T and ERCO. Andrews also received funding from NSERC, leading some to believe that NSERC simply looked the other way when things started going in the wrong direction. Andrews did not return repeated phone calls and emails.

Ruta Pocius, U of T’s director of issues management and media relations, noted that the university considers its part in the case closed, and that the ongoing legal battle is an issue between CFS and NSERC. The university conducted three reviews of the alleged research misconduct, each of which found no policies had been violated.