Lying Headlines That Lie: Here Come the Suns edition

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Sometimes you see an attention-grabbing headline and you know—you just know—the actual story will not live up to that billing. Today’s case in point comes from always fun science fiction news and fandom site io9 (part of Nick Denton’s sprawling Gawker Media empire of online-itude), which surprised me on Thursday with this announcement in 20-point type:

Well, in the words of Tony Shalhoub from Galaxy Quest, “That was a hell of a thing.” I would have thought that maybe I’d have heard this news a little sooner, what with being semi-plugged into the world of science journamalism and all. It’s not the sort of thing I should discover while scrounging for Fringe spoilers.

But sometimes what the headline giveth, the body text taketh away:

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse is getting ready to go supernova, and when it does Earth will have a front-row seat. The explosion will be so bright that Earth will briefly seem to have two suns in the sky.

The star is located in the Orion Nebula, about 640 light-years away from Earth.

…aaaaaand there it is. “Second sun” here is apparently synonymous with “really bright star,” as opposed to “giant ball of al fresco fusion that’s actually part of our stellar system.” My bad.

Also, if you were thinking of changing your travel plans over this news, it turns out that the word “soon” in the headline and the phrase “getting ready to go supernova” are also used somewhat loosely:

In stellar terms, it’s predicted to explode in the very near future. Of course, the conversion from stellar to human terms is pretty extreme, as Betelgeuse is predicted to explode anytime in the next million years.

Oh, io9, I wish I knew how to quit you.

For a time, I was inclined to forgive the rube-baiting headline because the story told me how amazing the sky would appear whenever Betelgeuse finally did go kaboom:

But still, whether the explosion occurs in 2011 or 1002011 (give or take 640 years for the light to reach Earth), it’s going to make for one of the most unforgettable light shows in our planet’s history. For a few weeks, the supernova will be so bright that there will appear to be two stars in the sky, and night be will indistinguishable from day for much of that time.

Alas, no. Because I was so intrigued by the subject, I popped over to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy site (where else?) for his discussion of “Is Betelgeuse about to blow?” And that’s when he dashed my better-double-up-on-the-sunblock misconceptions:

At that distance, it’ll get bright, about as bright as the full Moon. That’s pretty bright! It’ll hurt your eyes to look at it, but that’s about it. The original post says it may get as bright as the Sun, but that’s totally wrong. It won’t even get 1/100,000th that bright. Still bright, but it’s not going to cook us. Even if it were going to explode soon. Which it almost certainly isn’t.

Read the rest of Phil’s post for more great information, including his guesses about what is probably stirring up this rumor of (ahem) impending supernovaness. And io9? Only the fact that your recaps have saved me from watching the execrable V series stops me from being very, very disappointed in you.

But to its credit, the io9 article does follow up with a neatly readable short review of historical supernovas, and what astronomers have been able to deduce about them from clues in ancient writings and artworks. If you know your astronomy, none of this may be new to you, but if you don’t—or if you’d like a brief refresher—you may enjoy the story.

Just don’t expect to see something that looks like dawn on Tatooine in the next few weeks.

Screenshot from "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," via Wikipedia. For educational purpose of illustrating the cultural icon known as Tatooine.

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