NASA satellite captures landmark supernova images

What’s so ‘super’ about a supernova—a naturally occurring stellar explosion equivalent to the detonation of a few octillion nuclear warheads? Recent news indicates that this occurrence is nothing short of super and definitely far from ordinary. On January 9, 2008, the Burst Alert Telescope, a device built into NASA’s Swift satellite, recorded an exciting supernova observation seen by team leader Alicia Soderberg of Princeton University. The star SN 2008D exploded, creating a supernova 100 billion times brighter and 20 times larger than the size of the Sun.

Soderberg reveals that, “the probability of that happening is about one in 10,000. It was really exciting. We caught the whole thing on tape, basically.” Astronomers usually catch the after-effects of stellar explosions, but this is the first time that a star has been caught in the act. “For years we have dreamed of seeing a star just as it was exploding, but actually finding one is a once in a lifetime event,” says Soderberg.

Supernova SN 2008D lasted only seven minutes but during that time it illuminated the galaxy with blinding light. Researchers concluded that this star was most likely 20 times the size of the Sun and expanded at 70 per cent the speed of light. This occurrence strengthens many theorists’ current astrophysical models of supernovae which hypothesize that when a massive star burns all of its nuclear fuel, its iron core collapses under its own gravity causing an implosion. As a result, a forceful shockwave manifests, detonating the star and releasing numerous flashes of x-rays into interstellar space. “Seeing the shock break out in x-rays can give a direct view of the exploding star in the last minutes of its life and also provide a signpost to which astronomers can quickly point their telescopes to watch the explosion unfold,” reported Edo Berger of Princeton University.

This rare celestial phenomenon occurs approximately once every 50 years and is the ultimate outer space explosion. Supernovae have the potential to radiate the same amount of energy the sun emits in its lifetime, and emit a shockwave of gas and dust up to a tenth the speed of light into the abyss of interstellar space. And they don’t just put on a spectacular light show. Their explosions also generate elements heavier than iron which ultimately create other stars and planets.

“Novae are ordinary stars that increase in brightness, while supernovae are even brighter. They are explosions of white stars that can be eight times the mass of the sun,” says Chris Matzner, Assistant Professor in the Astronomy Department at the University of Toronto. He distinguishes between the two main types of supernovae: type I and type II. Generally speaking, type I supernovae result from white dwarf stars rich in carbon and oxygen. In most situations, white dwarf stars accumulate a large amount of matter, becoming increasingly dense and, as a result, the carbon and oxygen fuse causing the star’s explosion. Type II supernovae usually occur when a considerably large star is near death. When its nuclear fuel is depleted, it no longer has a supply of energy to support it. The star’s iron core then collapses giving rise to a supernova.

Ultimately, the really super aspect of supernovae may be their ability to teach us about the cosmos. As Soderberg puts it, “This newly born supernova is going to be the Rosetta stone of supernova studies for years to come.”

Dinosaurs invade Toronto

Dinosaurs are still alive. At least, they were for about 90 minutes at the Air Canada Centre on June 18. For a week in mid-June the BBC, in collaboration with The Creature Production Company, presented a life-sized version of their 1999 television documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs.

The show opened with Liliensternus, a small, raptor-like creature from the Triassic Period, stalking hatching Plateosaurus eggs. The dinosaur’s bumpy gait and extra (although well disguised) set of legs were the only clues that there was a human involved in its movement. The audience sat captivated, waiting to see whether the hunter would capture its vulnerable prey.

Huxley, the paleontologist host, gave geological context to the scene, revealing that the Earth’s land was concentrated in the single supercontinent Pangaea.

Before the show, I had wondered if, like in the movie Jurassic Park, scientific integrity would be sacrificed for dramatic impact. Fortunately, the BBC did an excellent job of weaving scientific facts into the show while maintaining the roaring horror that the young audience members expected.

The dinosaurs were introduced chronologically: first the Triassic Period, followed by the Jurassic and Cretaceous Period dinosaurs. During the introduction of each period, Huxley would remind the audience of the continental circumstances and their effect on weather patterns and plant and animal life.

After the Triassic Period the continents were separated and ocean currents diverted, shifting rain and storm patterns. Changing weather conditions forced the evolution of all kinds of species, from plants to mighty dinosaurs. Huxley didn’t forget about the importance of insects during these massive changes. Insects and plants dramatically affected each other’s evolution; plants provided food for insects while insects acted as crucial pollinators. Plant evolution also changed the food and camouflage available for the dinosaurs, guiding their evolution.

Even though the science was accurate, there was something missing from the dinosaurs’ interactions. In the opening sequence, the Plateosaurus hatchling was rescued by its mother. Afterwards, every herbivore being hunted by its coeval carnivore managed to escape. I kept waiting for the carnivore to win; after all, they have to eat too. Although one scene featured some Utahraptors feasting on fresh meat, the writers avoided onstage kills, probably to prevent too many young tears.

Only one non-terrestrial dinosaur, the flying Ornithocheirus, made an appearance that night. Aquatic dinosaurs were sadly missed. The deep-diving Icthyosaurs would have made a splashing hit.

Overall, the show put the story of dinosaurs in perspective. Instead of learning about individual species, the audience learned how geology, weather and species interaction guided global evolution. This kind of comprehensive thinking is vital when considering the process of evolution; considering any problem without context is futile. Current concerns, like the sudden disappearance of bees or the serious decline in shark populations, will affect humans even if it’s not intuitive how.

Walking with Dinosaurs accomplished the difficult feat of knitting an awesome, breathtaking performance with realistic and relevant science. Well done.

Rating: VVVVv

Tennis regains the advantage at this year’s Rogers Cup

As Rafael Nadal sprawled across the All-England Tennis Club’s grass centre court after his dramatic Wimbledon win, the scandals plaguing tennis seemed all but forgotten.

In early August of last year at the Sopot Open in Poland, tennis became the subject of uncharacteristically bad press. The fourth seeded player Nikolay Davydenko was cruising for a set and a half against the relatively unknown Martin Vassallo Arguello with no reason to question his eventual victory. However the odds on the popular British gambling website Betfair did not see it that way. Millions of dollars poured into the site from just a few users on Davydenko’s opponent, pushing the odds in Arguello’s favor. Davydenko went on to retire in the third set complaining of a foot injury. Betfair cancelled all bets on the match as the integrity of the gentleman’s sport was abruptly thrown into question. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) launched a probe into the matter while several players reported to journalists of incidents in which they were approached to fix matches.

Such corruption was the top story despite so many engaging developments: the meteoric rise of Serbian youngster Novak Djokovic, the clay court domination of Mallorca’s Rafael Nadal, and the first signs of aging shown by Swiss maestro and world number one Roger Federer.

The Rogers Cup begins as tennis represses the memory of the Davydenko scandal. As the physical and rhetorical grace of Muhammad Ali once rescued boxing from its reputation as a sport dominated by mafiosos during the 1970’s, the Wimbledon Final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer was so pure in its athleticism that sports fans could concentrate on something other than the strains of corruption

The top ten male tennis players have all expressed their intent to travel to Toronto to compete at the Rexall Centre at York University beginning July 19. Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal have each won the tournament the last three years respectively and will be the overwhelming favourites once again. However, with each of the top players desperately vying for a gold at the Beijing Olympics, one or more may withdraw from the tournament at the last second, or ‘tank’ an early round match to prepare for the two-week tournament in China.

The early disappearance of a few of the top seeds would be a welcome sight for Frank Dancevic, the lone Canadian in the singles draw, who will try to become the first Canadian to win in Toronto. Last year, the Niagara Falls native made it to the quarter-finals before ultimately succumbing to his nerves against Nadal in a tight three set match. Dancevic has had a disappointing year thus far, failing to advance past the second round of a Grand Slam. But Dancevic has recently shown signs of returning to last year’s form with an upset win over former Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian and a quarterfinal appearance at the Hall of Fame tournament in Newport, Rhode Island.

The best chance for a hometown victory, however, is on the doubles court. Toronto’s Daniel Nestor is coming off his first Wimbledon victory, completing a Career Grand Slam, and staking claim to the title of greatest-ever Canadian tennis player. Nestor won the Rogers tournament in 2000, partnering with fellow Canadian Sebastien Lareau, and now returns in 2008 as the number one doubles player in the world anchored by a big serving partner, Serbia’s Nenad Zimonjic.

If you have some free time and a few extra dollars on hand this July, take the TTC up to York to catch some world class tennis. Dozens of nations will be represented, from Argentina and Chile to Russia and the Czech Republic, each trying to capture the momentum going into the Olympic Games.

Read and destroy

On June 12, the Conservative government introduced Bill C-61, aimed at decreasing illegal file-sharing over the Internet. The bill is an attempt to renew Canada’s already existing copyright laws and bring it closer to American intellectual property laws.

“The Copyright Act, even with the changes proposed by the government […] remains anti-student,” said Christopher Tabor, the manager of Queen’s Bookstore.

According to the legislation, it will be illegal to download documents and PDFs from online databases. Files accessible through university library systems must be deleted within five days of downloading. Violators of these regulations could be fined up to $500.

Libraries such as Robarts would have to guarantee that only one copy of any document, print or online, can be created per student. Even legal reproductions of a document cannot be transferred to another individual.

As well, libraries would be forced to lock up files and prohibit interlibrary loans through electronic delivery, requiring users to wait for paper copies of documents to be delivered to their library.

“Bill C-61 attempts to provide balance, but misses the boat for ordinary Canadians and over 21 million library users,” said Rob Tiessen, chair of the Canadian Library Association Copyright Committee.

Online lecture notes will be available for a limited amount of time, to students and teachers of the course only, so that it will be illegal to share notes with students in other sections or semesters. Once a course has ended the lecture recordings, notes, and past exams will be destroyed. The bill states that paper documents cannot be reproduced if in an electronic state and digitally encrypted. This will dramatically decrease the efficiency of researching and simplicity of online databases. Copying copyrighted material such as CDs and Powerpoint presentations to portal devices will also be banned. Unless illegally downloaded, consumers are looking at costs of up to 60,000 dollars to fill a portable music player, and none of those songs can be transferred to another computer, Ipod or CD.

“Students recognize the importance of maintaining and enforcing strict policies for copyright infringement,” said Zach Churchill, the director of the Canadian Alliance of Students Associations. “However, these new proposals could seriously stifle an institution’s ability to teach and a student’s ability to learn”.

The bill may never see the light of day. With a possible election in the fall, the bill could die on the order paper of parliament before becoming law.

Blue day in July

It apparently took forty consecutive losses to convince U of T football coach Steve Howlett that enough is enough, as he resigned on July 4th, 2008. But who can blame him, considering that Howlett will be remembered as the coach who brought on the embarrassing 0-49 (and counting!) record to our beloved institution and athletic program.

Rather than act like our model sibling American schools and fire Howlett 3-4 years ago, U of T embraced the futility and mediocrity of our football program and let him ride to eventual rock bottom.

At least now he has abandoned the sinking ship and moved on with his life.

Howlett was hired to fix a football program that hadn’t had a winning season since 1995, when they went 4-3-1 (Four wins! Do you believe it?). Instead, the program has not progressed and we are stuck waiting for the next coach to fix this slumping team.

Why can’t a large metropolis like Toronto produce a winning football team, let alone produce a single win? Excuses are meaningless—U of T just doesn’t take responsibility, and no one seems to care.

With a losing streak as embarrassing as the one we currently own, there is no outcry from students, faculty, or the athletic administration. To the students, it has become an ongoing joke. They have accepted this record and use it as a tool for self-deprecation.

The administration, hell-bent on tradition, appears to be content with a team that simply goes out and plays. Having a high budget for sports doesn’t guarantee success, but what’s the point of a competitive university team if the results don’t matter?

Still, excuses are made. High entrance marks are preventing some players from attending U of T. Not having a permanent home while the old stadium was torn down and rebuilt also turned players off. It is ironic that while that stadium was rebuilt, the team wasn’t.

Does the athletic administration know something about the football program that we don’t? While maintaining a budget as high as it was, Howlett stayed on the payroll despite his lackluster results.

Football is not high on the to-do list for our school and sadly, it shows. However, football becomes important when there is outcry from the media realizing that we haven’t won a football game in five years.

Hopefully a new coach can be brought in who will vow to reverse this streak. The record could be broken, perhaps sooner than we may think, but a new coach can’t fix everything. We may progress in scouting and attracting new, skilled players, but if U of T continues with the mentality that it is okay to lose then we will never advance. Until the football team is no longer at the butt end of constant jokes, they can’t improve. As with those mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs, time is needed for things to be reversed, and now is a good time to start.

‘We are ready’

BEIJING—“Of course I’m excited, how could you not be?” It’s a brisk day in Beijing, but here in the dining hall of Peking University, nothing can cool marketing student Jackie Yu’s enthusiasm for the upcoming Summer Olympic Games. “I’ve never seen Chinese people so excited before, everyone is behind the Olympics,” says Yu. Signs of this fervor can be seen across the city. Crowds swarm the official Games merchandise kiosks at shopping malls. Subway commuters stare agape at flat-screen TVs playing educational videos about the various Olympic sports, many of which they have never seen before, such as equestrian events and kayaking.

For Yu and many other Chinese, interest in the Olympics has little to do with sports. Hu Ming, a computer science major at Beihang University, says it’s about showing his homeland to the world. “There is still a lot of misunderstanding about China—that we’re some underdeveloped people with long plaited hair and bound feet. So everyone sees this as an opportunity to show the world what the new China is really like.”

Of course, China’s path to the Olympics has been fraught with controversy. Despite promises to clean up its human rights record and improve air quality before the start of the Games, the government has continued to face protests and complaints, most notably for its ties with the Sudanese government, its continued occupation of the Tibetan and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions, and pollution around its Olympic venues.

While the central government has tried to appease foreign observers with piecemeal concessions, the mood at home seems decidedly resolute. “Personally I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about,” says Li Qing. As a political science and philosophy student at Qinghua University, Li is well aware of the arguments being put forth by human rights activists. He simply disagrees. “I think China just has a different understanding than the West of what it means to uphold human rights. Would it be better to go back to the old Tibetan feudal system where the peasants were treated like slaves to the Dalai Lama? Or to have offshore prisons like the American Guantanamo Bay?” He adds, “The government is like a person, they don’t always do everything perfectly, but overall we think they do more right than wrong, especially after the Sichuan earthquakes where they acted so quickly. How can you say they don’t treat their citizens right after that?”

Indeed, many see the May 12 earthquakes in Sichuan province as a turning point in Olympic preparations. The Games took on greater symbolic meaning: Not only do they unveil China’s grand debut as a world power, supporters say, but also the country’s strength as a survivor.

Serious concerns arise that this intensely renewed nationalism has allowed the central government to get away with imposing questionable policies. The Olympics have brought a host of new regulations that range from the more innocuous “social courtesy” program of instructing citizens on Western norms—to line up, not wear pyjamas and slippers in public, and avoid noisily spitting on the street—to more contentious measures that some call social cleansing. The latter call for stricter controls on the flow of itinerant workers, police registration of migrant travelers, and crackdowns on such “unseemly” sights as homeless panhandlers and street vendors. To U.S. expatriate Weiling Wong, the measures are attempts to cover up ugly urban realities. “The government is hiding the children under the bed while company’s over,” Wong says.

Li, the Qinghua student, still stands by his government. He argues that the controversy is overstated. “We are the most populous country in the world. One city here has more people than some European countries, so of course our government has to take certain policies that you Westerners find terrible, but without them, we would have total social chaos.”

Though some locals are ambivalent to the Games or oppose them altogether, there is a general recognition of this as a historic moment. “We are ready,” goes the theme song for the one-year countdown to the Olympics. The propitious date of August 8, 2008, holds high hopes for a country that has hurled headlong into modernization—and for protestors demanding social and political change. Let the Games begin.

Ricciardi is off-base

If casual baseball fans were searching for clues as to how the Toronto Blue Jays have fared this season, they wouldn’t have to look much further than the fact that the sole Jay selected for the All Star Game in New York is Roy Halladay.

A perennial candidate for the Cy Young Award, Halladay has been consistent in his ability to give the Jays a chance to win. Despite his best efforts, the past several seasons have been characterized by team-wide underachievement, untimely injuries, and a revolving door of excuses and ‘wait-til-next-years’ given by the front office.

This door is about to come to an abrupt stop, however, with general manager J.P. Ricciardi caught in the middle.

After seven years of respectable results (such as building a .500 club on a lower payroll than divisional rivals Red Sox and Yankees), Ricciardi seems to have run out of rope, and his only hope is a late season surge by the sub-.500 Jays. This year was supposed to be the year, but on-field losses have translated to the overall failure of Ricciardi’s master plan.

Riccardi has done little to stay on board until his contract expires in 2010, and he has always maximized expectations while downplaying the importance of not meeting them. In the past few seasons, he orchestrated a handful of public relation disasters that have undermined fans’ interest in the Blue Jays brand and their confidence in Ricciardi’s ability to deliver a winner on the field.

The most glaring offense came early last season when, after admitting that he lied to the media about the nature and extent of closer BJ Ryan’s elbow injury, Ricciardi tried to downplay his deception.

Ryan went on to have season-ending Tommy John surgery, as Ricciardi was vilified for disrespecting fans.

An uglier example of Riccardi’s tendency to say the wrong thing happened in June when he answered a fan’s question on Mike Wilner’s radio show about the Jays’ potential interest in acquiring Reds slugger Adam Dunn. A very frustrated Ricciardi went into a tirade, claiming that the Jays had ‘done [their] homework on Dunn’ and discovered that he ‘didn’t even like baseball’.

The outburst received considerable media attention and was subjected to a sharp rebuke from Dunn who dismissed Ricciardi as a ‘clown’ whom he didn’t even recognize by name. After Ricciardi’s remarks, Dunn, a free agent after this season, ignored the possibility of playing in Toronto.

Ricciardi was caught in even more drama after the firing of long-time personal friend and Jays manager John Gibbons, despite his statement that ‘Gibby’ had the ability to lead the team to the playoffs. It was suggested to Toronto baseball writers that President and CEO Paul Godfrey chose to remove Gibbons, which if true, would show a blatant lack of Ricciardi’s authority. Ricciardi claimed the decision was his, and that he is happy with current manager Cito Gaston.

With a background in politics and a keen eye for public perception, Godfrey must know that fans have almost completely lost patience with Ricciardi. Given Godfrey’s mandate to deliver high attendance figures and black bottom lines, it is difficult to imagine that he will be the one to throw Ricciardi a lifeline for next year as the team limps through the dog days of another wasted summer.

Dunlap’s last lap?

By the end of this month, the University of Toronto will finalize its sale of the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill to an undisclosed private third party. The university has already laid off the observatory’s staff.

Governing Council committees had voted for the observatory’s closure and sale starting last November, but now a group called the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders has stepped in, in an effort to classify the observatory and surrounding area as a world heritage site. The group said it will not hesitate to take the matter to the UN, under its UNESCO agency.

Meanwhile, the municipality of Richmond Hill has already approached the provincial Conservation Review Board regarding the protection of the site.

The Defenders group is arguing for protection of 100 per cent of the observatory and its surrounding area, while the municipality is arguing for 48 per cent, which includes the observatory but excludes an adjacent strip of forest land.

The university also wants to remove portraits of David Dunlap and his wife, currently situated inside the observatory, and relocate them to U of T’s new institute for astronomy. The Defenders are opposed to this proposal. They believe the portraits to be part of the building.

U of T has otherwise washed its hands of the matter, saying that the fate of the observatory remains a matter to be dealt between the town and the developers.

Rob Steiner, U of T’s Assistant Vice-President strategic communications, said: “[The observatory’s] historical value is for the town to decide.”

Steiner said the purpose of the observatory is for supporting astronomy, and that it is important for the university to “honour [that] original intent.” He added the observatory has not been able to do world class research over the last 20 years due to light pollution from the GTA. The university has said that funneling the profits it will make from the sale back to its astronomy program will better suit the intent of the Observatory’s original donor.

The 79-hectare site, along with the 74-inch telescope, then the second largest telescope in the world, were donated to U of T by Jessie Donalda Dunlap in honour of her husband in the 1930s. It was donated on the condition that the site be used for scientific research. If sold, the site could be reverted to the ownership of the Dunlap heirs. In 2003, U of T successfully fought for the termination of that clause.