I am a female astrophysicist who has studied Betelgeuse for the past 5 years. My team, under the mentorship of Dr. J. Craig Wheeler (University of Texas at Austin), found that Betelgeuse may have gobbled up another star the size of our sun--which may explain why it's spinning at its current rotational velocity. Our next step is to use asteroseismology--studying stellar pulsations--to figure out when Betelgeuse will explode.

Here are some press releases covering our work: http://www.iflscience.com/space/betelgeuse-spinning-faster-than-expected-because-it-ate-a-sun-like-star/



And here's our paper: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1611.08031.pdf

Proof (a photo of me talking about Betelgeuse at our local Astronomy on Tap): http://i.imgur.com/eMt0WHs.jpg

EDIT 1: Back online answering while I can! AMA!

EDIT 2: I'm getting some feedback/questions asking why I mentioned I'm a female in my title. I included it because it's an accomplishment to participate- and make an impact- in a male-dominated field. About 20% of physicists are female (https://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/womenphysics.cfm). Astronomy is higher, about 35% women, but still more heavily weighted towards men. I include it to help prompt discussions about being a female in science, because there are systematic gender inequalities in the field. I include it to potentially inspire other young women interested in science- and to let them know that they can succeed.

Comments: 1010 • Responses: 84  • Date: 

chgolisa1234361015 karma

My name is Emma and I'm 7 ( moms is helping me type Btw )and I want to be an astrophysicist when I grow up. How many galaxies have you found ? And how good in math do you have to be to become an astrophysicist?

starstrickenSF797 karma

Hey Emma! It's fantastic to hear you want to pursue astrophysics! I do theoretical astrophysics (rather than observation) so I actually haven't found any galaxies- but I do get to model supernova explosions! I was actually horrible at math until the middle of high school, when I started getting tutored and spending loads of time on it. Don't get too bogged down in the math-- enjoy star gazing and staring at the sky and I promise the math will fall into place! Feel free to PM me if you'd like to chat more :).

greendepths218 karma

Im very much interested in anything astro- (apart from astrology), and I always thought there is a bit of sadness behind studies in that department. We are advanced enough to assume that someday we will be able to actual visit other planets, other starts, but it wont be us

Like if you were a zoologist and you were neve be able to actually come close to animals. Only look at them via binoculars.

Do you get that sentiment sometimes?

starstrickenSF274 karma

Yup. Absolutely. I would give anything to be able to visit Mars, or travel to other stars. That's ultimately what got me interested in studying space--not the math or the technical aspects, but looking up at the night sky and thinking about what's out there. On one hand, we are very lucky to live during a time with the technology to model stars and view distant galaxies. But it's definitely bittersweet.

kennicutt171 karma

If I understand the press release correctly, the stellar evolution code your team used is one dimensional, in that it only models radial variations within the star and assumes spherical symmetry.

On the other hand, it says that one of the main things about Betelgeuse that is unusual is that it's spinning pretty rapidly for a giant star.

But stellar rotation is inherently at least a two-dimensional problem, because the star has a rotation axis and is no longer spherically symmetric. How can you model this with a one-dimensional simulation? More generally, how can you model other physics that might be important (convection, magnetic fields, etc) that are inherently 3d?

starstrickenSF211 karma

Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. This is definitely a problem. 3D hydrodynamic simulations are beginning to become more widely used, but they still require a lot more computer power and time. When we started this investigation 5 years ago, I don't even think 3D simulations were an option. But, to be fair, we don't even understand how to accurately model convection and magnetohydrodynamics in a 3D simulation. Sure, it's probably more accurate than a 1D problem, but how much more? Convection is something MESA has developed pretty robustly over the past few years, but magnetic fields are certainly an issue that would need a 3D code. Bottom line, we'll need further investigation. We found that it's extremely difficult to match the observed parameters (radius, temp, rotational velocity) with the models that MESA produced--and if that's the case, maybe we're not treating rotational velocity (or convection) correctly.

danceswithwool139 karma

Will Betelgeuse go supernova? Or is it massive enough to become a black hole?

starstrickenSF214 karma

Yes, it will go supernova! Though we don't think it will form a black hole, it potentially could. Stellar deaths are dependent on the mass of the star, and how much material is left after the explosion. If there's less than 3 solar masses of material left over, it'll probably become a neutron star (and that's what I'm betting on). If there's more than 3 solar masses, it could form a black hole. That's one of the reasons why it's important to try and gauge how massive Betelgeuse is--it will ultimately determine its fate.

danceswithwool76 karma

Ok follow up. It's relatively close to us. If it goes supernova are we in any danger? Or will we just get the light show of the century?

starstrickenSF243 karma

No, not in danger! And yes, definitely the light show of the century. We'll be able to see it at night and during the day--we'll have shadows at night, and it'll be brighter than the moon. But we won't be in danger of any debris, or x-rays, or gamma rays. We'll just see something beautiful in the night sky.

confusedplaguedog51 karma

When it does happen, how long will it stay bright?

starstrickenSF127 karma

EDIT: it'll probably will be bright for around 3 months--just confirmed with my advisor.

DigiMagic47 karma

Why will it emit only visible light, is this some effect of the processes involved in the explosion? Or it emits everything, and Earth's atmosphere filters out some parts of spectrum more than others?

starstrickenSF86 karma

Stars emit all types of light on the EM spectrum! We'll be able to visibly see it due to visible light, but we can also observe various parts of Betelgeuse (e.g. it's shell) using various parts of the EM spectrum.

TheNTSocial84 karma

To add on to this answer, not even just EM radiation! IIRC about 99% of the energy released in a typical supernova is in the form of neutrinos. Because the neutrinos only interact weakly, they can actually escape the star before the visible light, since the photons get bogged down scattering off charged particles. There are many neutrino detectors around the world which have a secondary purpose of serving as a supernova early warning system.

starstrickenSF70 karma

Yes!! You're absolutely right--an influx neutrinos would be the first thing we notice. Thanks, @TheNTSocial for pointing that out!

Corryvrecken45 karma

/u/TheNTSocial FYI, that will notify the user they have been mentioned

starstrickenSF57 karma

Oh hey thanks!! I'm a reddit noob.

theNealCutter4 karma

If this thing goes supernova, would it be really fast, like an hour or would the light show last for days? (sorry, I don't really know that much about stars and such.)

starstrickenSF5 karma

It'd be visible for about 3 months!

mynamesstillnotjason118 karma

Have you ever said the star's name three times consecutively? If so, what happened?

starstrickenSF128 karma


NeedsAdditionalNames81 karma

Why did you need to include female in the title? Is being a female scientist really that unusual?

starstrickenSF191 karma

I included it because it's an accomplishment to participate- and make an impact- in a male-dominated field. About 20% of physicists are female (https://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/womenphysics.cfm). Astronomy is higher, about 35% women, but still more heavily weighted towards men. I include it to help prompt discussions about being a female in science, because there are systematic gender inequalities in the field. I include it to potentially inspire other young women interested in science- and to let them know that they can succeed.

mivaldes76 karma

Is it Beetle juice or Baytle guice?

starstrickenSF82 karma

TBH I oscillate between the two

mivaldes20 karma

Thx! So I'm good either way then :) Is it satisfying to focus on such a small portion of the sky or do you wish there were time for more?

starstrickenSF31 karma

I have to hone in my research questions or else I'd be lost being overwhelmed at how cool everything is! But I'm excited to study something else (whatever that may be) in the future!

MudButt200073 karma

What made you enter a traditionally male field (science) and how can I foster that in my daughter?

starstrickenSF150 karma

Thanks for asking! I was lucky to grow up with parents who prioritized education and curiosity. They didn't emphasize science as much as they emphasized intellectual curiosity--whatever form that took. I was never allowed to answer a question with 'I don't know'; rather, I was prompted to answer 'I'll try and find out'. Working in a traditional male field is intimidating, but there are some fantastic mentors out there who want to see young women succeed. I think finding mentors who supported me was 3/4 of the battle. I'd suggest urging your daughter to ask questions, surround her with books and a supportive environment, and take her places (like the outdoors!) to see science (the night sky, plants, whatever!) rather than getting bogged down in the technical aspects. Also urge her to seek out mentors who will advocate for her--and for the science she's curious about.

TheAmazingBunbury54 karma

Hope I'm not too late to the party.

Are you into science fiction at all? How do most scientists feel about it?

I tend to find that my favorite sci fi comes from people who have more than a layman's understanding of science, physics especially. All of my curiosity about the universe starts with theory. Math is fascinating, but I never had the head for it or the motivation to dedicate the energy to make myself learn it at a high level.

starstrickenSF75 karma

I LOVE SCIENCE FICTION!!! My advisor actually wrote a couple of sci fi books and teaches a popular science sci fi course. All about it. I think most people I know in the field love it as well!

TheAmazingBunbury21 karma

Thanks so much for answering me. I've wondered about this for years. I wonder what the relationship is like between scientists and science fiction authors/creators. What are your favorite sci fi things?

starstrickenSF50 karma

I think some part of the time scientists end up being authors themselves! I love battlestar galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek, and twilight zone. Favorite sci fi books include ender's game, stranger in a strange land, and do androids dream of electric sheep! Most of my colleagues are huge Star Wars/Star Trek fans as well.

jpfrana47 karma

ever play Kerbal Space Program?

starstrickenSF85 karma

Nope, but my boyfriend has mentioned how cool it is about 5 billion times

danettechappell43 karma

What techniques do you use to study something so far away? And along those same lines, since Betelgeuse is so far away, if it goes Supernova, how long will it take us to find out?

starstrickenSF64 karma

Great question. Betelgeuse is about 640 light years away, so there's a chance (albeit a small one) that it's already exploded. However, what that really means is that it'll take about 640 for the light to reach us once it has exploded. It's also huge, which means it's very easy to see in our night sky--and you would think that would mean it's easily studied. However, it has a massive envelope around it, which actually obscures our observations. We want to see what's happening inside the star, and that envelope makes it difficult to probe.

So, we took a theoretical approach--we ran stellar evolutionary models using a code called MESA to try to match what we were seeing with what our models produced.

efg3q9hrf08e23 karma

What will yo do to verify your model-based claim?

starstrickenSF43 karma

The next step is to use asteroseismology to probe the stellar core. That basically means trying to predict pulsation frequencies in each of our models, and then observing those stellar pulsations in Betelgeuse itself!

iseedots15 karma

this is so cool, recently been looking at it since it became visible in my part of the night sky, its just mind boggling for my simple brain to grasp all that could possibly be happening out there but all I see down here is a big star, twinkling away.

starstrickenSF20 karma

It's mind boggling for me too :)

intronert35 karma

What could you do if you suddenly had 10x your current compute resources?

starstrickenSF51 karma

Sweet question--I've never gotten this before. Probably investigate 3D hydrodynamic models so I could model things like magnetohydrodynamics, convection, turbulence, etc. We can replicate it somewhat, but a 3D code is really the key--and is outside our current capabilities.

BTTF8535 karma

What models do we have to understand how stars can envelop each other? What ways does this merging change the physics of the larger sun?

starstrickenSF41 karma

So, when two stars are close enough that they gravitationally interact, one star can accrete matter, or be stripped of its outer layers, onto the other star. We can model this using tools like MESA, or other hydrodynamic simulations. Basically, we just ad hoc add matter from one star and throw it onto the other. This is important because it changes the rotational velocity of the star--think of the quintessential ice skater who rotates faster when her arms are pulled in, rather than stretched out--potentially hastening the end of its life.

Messianiclegacy34 karma

What are the odds of some object wandering into the solar system and royally fucking us?

starstrickenSF48 karma

Eh, pretty low. An asteroid would have to be greater than ~10 m to cause really profound damage on earth, and the approximate rate of large asteroid impact earth is one every ~100 million years.

watchoutyo31 karma

Do you believe there is life out there?

starstrickenSF82 karma

I do! I think it's virtually impossible that we're the only life anywhere in the Universe. I don't know if I believe that it's sentient, but I do believe there's life other than on Earth.

ceilingfans2329 karma

How did you keep motivated during schooling? The thought of tackling this mountain of knowledge makes me a little apprehensive.

starstrickenSF38 karma

It's tough. It's really tough. But finding people who are studying similar stuff, and just as excited as I am about space, helped a lot. The classes were interesting, but what I was REALLY interested in was learning about current questions in the field. Whenever I remembered that, it made balancing classes and research a lot easier.

iseedots9 karma

How did you become interested in this field? would you say your parents influenced you? what inspired you?

starstrickenSF22 karma

Corny, but true- I've always loved looking at the sky. My parents encouraged my curiosity, but they didn't tell me what I could and couldn't study- rather, they just helped support what I chose to do. That was hugely helpful. I also had a variety of mentors (both female and male) who were really excited about space. That excitement got me excited, and encouraged me to continue my studies.

starstrickenSF27 karma

"I included it because it's an accomplishment to participate- and make an impact- in a male-dominated field. About 20% of physicists are female (https://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/womenphysics.cfm). Astronomy is higher, about 35% women, but still more heavily weighted towards men. I include it to help prompt discussions about being a female in science, because there are systematic gender inequalities in the field. I include it to potentially inspire other young women interested in science- and to let them know that they can succeed."


Hey I went to school with you! I don't really have a question, so I guess I'll just ask what's up? And how's your post-undergrad life been treating you?

starstrickenSF28 karma

Hey! Pretty great, how're the stars looking on your end?

8236416 karma

Cooooool. Drop by /r/Astronomy to say "Hello," on your way out?

Main question: I wanted to be an astrophysicist, when I was 15. But then a Discovery Channel program touched on the politics of research science, with good theoretical physicists losing grad students en mass because the physicists' work had gone out of vogue and the students were worried it'd affect their job hunt. How bad is that aspect of academia, really? Humans like fads, of course, but science can look much worse than you'd expect.


starstrickenSF18 karma

Would love to :) thanks for the invite! I'd be lying if I said I didn't see politics in research science. People are highly competitive, and publishing is the name of the game. However, I honestly don't think I've seen grad students leaving because their advisor's science wasn't 'cool' anymore. While I was looking for grad schools, I had one professor tell me to start my thesis on an unpopular and uncool topic, because that's where I'd be able to make the most potential impact. To be fair, I'm not sold on that idea either. Ultimately, I've mainly seen grad students/post docs leave the field because the possibility of getting a job in astro is so low--one professor told me that when he first started grad school, he calculated the probability of getting a tenured job in academia to be 10-3. That's daunting and tbh kind of insane.

MitchAlmighty16 karma

I am studying to be a mathematician, specialising in quantum mechanics. Is there any advice you could give me starting out? I love astrophysics, it was going to be my degree but I ended up going for quantum mechanics on a 50/50!

starstrickenSF27 karma

I love that! Advice: find a mentor (advisor) and use them as a resource. Physics is a really difficult field, and it really helps when someone advocates for you. Also, when it gets really hard, have a sheet of paper with stuff written on it on why you got into it, or a photo that captures something cool in QM, or set your homepage to be a popular science homepage. It's easy to get caught up in the difficult technical aspects that make physics hard, and I found it was really important to maintain perspective. Best of luck!!

mc_zodiac_pimp14 karma

I also run MESA. Any chance that your inlist files are available? Granted I run 8845...which I'd recommend you check out because of the modified hydrocode.

I ask because I'm finding that some of MESA's results might depend on the &controls min_dt settings.

I didn't see any of MESA's astero data in your paper. Do you have predictions based on MESA that you are looking for?

starstrickenSF9 karma

AWESOME. Yes, would love to collaborate. The min_dt does affect results- were you at the MESA workshop this summer? I definitely need to update mine..

As for astero data, that's the current paper we're working on. We didn't actually use GYRE for it, but manually calculated the damping and convective frequencies for various convective regions in the star. Would be great to get your info- can you PM me?

YourAveragePaki13 karma

Two questions!

  1. Did the studies show that the star was slowly stripped of it's mass over time? Or was it literally gobbled up quickly? I read somewhere about the "Roche Limit" I think where a smaller object breaks apart due to tidal forces once it gets too close to the larger object.

  2. As someone who loves reading and learning about astronomy as a past time and hobby, part of me wants to pursue some form of higher education in astronomy (I just started uni). However I really disliked physics in high school. How much physics do you apply in your field and do you ever find it gets dry?

starstrickenSF19 karma

Thanks for the questions! Here's what I think... 1. You're right on the Roche limit! Basically, once a star gets within the Roche limit, gravity becomes the 'important' force and matter gets stripped from one star and placed on the other. However, there's another wind that comes from rotation. We ran rotating and non-rotating models to study the effect of mass loss on stars. This is something still not totally understood by astronomers--is there episodic mass loss (aka really crazy events that strip the mass quickly) or is it a slow and steady effect over time? We're still not sure. 2. That's amazing that you're curious about astronomy--I'd absolutely recommend continuing to learn about and pursue it! I actually got a dual degree in physics and in astronomy, because the astronomy degree was so similar to the physics degree. There's a lot of physics, but in my opinion it truly depends on your teacher, how comfortable you are in math, and how passionate you are. Personally, I'm still not very comfortable with physics, but I love astronomy so I pushed through it. The cool thing about astrophysics is that you use basic physics concepts (as well as advanced ones) to describe some pretty extraordinary aspects in our universe.

YourAveragePaki6 karma

Thanks for the reply! That's nice to see that you still pushed through it. I'm gonna keep an open mind on pursuing it further. And it turns out that my uni offers electives in astronomy so I'm definitely gonna look into that. Thanks again :)

starstrickenSF15 karma

Awesome! Best of luck, and if you ever have any questions about studying astronomy don't be afraid to reach out!

SoldierCrouton13 karma

Current Student at The University of Hawaii wondering how Betelgeuse has actually "gobbled up" another star? Have the two stars collided and betelgeuse was the larger of the two and gained its size or what? Amazing discovery I love this! Thank you so much!

starstrickenSF14 karma

Yeah, good question! Hope hawaii's treating you well- I'm hoping to take a trip to Keck soon. So you're basically right on the money- we're thinking that the two stars gravitationally interacted, and Betelgeuse (the larger star) stripped the smaller star of its matter and "absorbed" it onto its outer layers!

pattydirt12 karma

Is it possible that betelgeuse has already exploded and we don't know it yet? If not, what means do we have of knowing that it hasn't exploded?

starstrickenSF20 karma

It's possible, but unlikely--Betelgeuse is about 10 million years old, and only 640 light years away (which means it takes light 640 years to reach us). The likelihood that it already happened, but the light hasn't reached us yet (in other words, exploded in the past 640 years) is pretty small compared to how old it is.

ChunkyRingWorm10 karma

I have a question about gamma ray bursts. I read that betelgeuse is bound to go super nova within the next hundred thousand years or so. What would the chances of its GRB reaching and disrupting life on earth? If it's not a concern, why not?


starstrickenSF15 karma

Yes! You're right, we're thinking it'll explode in the next 100,000 years or so. It'll certainly release gamma rays and x-rays, but because we're 640 light years away, we won't be affected. We'll just see a beautiful object in the sky!

ChunkyRingWorm6 karma

What do we currently think the range of GRBs are? I know they travel in two concentrated jets but I also heard we have detected GRBs from thousands of light years away and many we have detected originated outside our own galaxy. How close would a supernova need to be to be a concern?

Thanks again, I find GRBs fascinating.

starstrickenSF12 karma

Love the curiosity! So, GRBs occur about once every few hundred thousand years in a galaxy like the Milky Way--and only a small sliver of them are close enough to impact life on Earth. I think the current calculations place a dangerous GRB at around 50 light years from Earth--way closer than Betelgeuse!

triplecrong9 karma

What happens when Betelgeuse explodes?

starstrickenSF16 karma

We'll be able to see it at night and during the day--we'll have shadows at night, and it'll be brighter than the moon. But we won't be in danger of any debris, or x-rays, or gamma rays. We'll just see something beautiful in the night sky.

triplecrong6 karma

How long do you think this effect would last? Damn, that would be amazing!

starstrickenSF14 karma

Probably around 3 months!

thememeofficer8 karma

What is your opinion on dogs?

starstrickenSF32 karma

I love them they're perfect humans don't deserve them

plinytheballer7 karma

Hello, I am probably a little late to the party!

Thank you for doing such an interesting AMA. I have a lot of amateur interest in science, especially astronomy, and really appreciate the opportunity to hear from someone who actually does it!

If you could solve any one mystery in your field, what would it be and why?

starstrickenSF13 karma

Hi - this is awesome! Thanks for taking the time to ask. If I could solve ANY mystery in my field, I'd go for the real meat of physics--trying to find a grand unifying theory for general relativity and quantum mechanics. Why does quantum work on a small scale, but GR works on a large one? (Note: this is obviously a pipe dream, but it's at the heart of physics/astrophysics and fundamentally understanding the universe.)

plinytheballer5 karma

Thanks for the answer! You sure don't aim low. :D

starstrickenSF7 karma

Of course!! Lollll, you did ask for ANY mystery ;).

FaithSkater6 karma

I'm a freshman in high school and hoping to become an astrophysicist. Is there anything I can do to help me prepare now for college and grad school? Also, what exactly do you do on a daily basis as an astrophysicist? Thanks :)

starstrickenSF4 karma

Absolutely! I'd suggest finding a mentor at your school or a local university who you can meet up with to ask questions about things you're curious about regarding space. Feel free to email profs at universities you're interested in. Try to take calculus your senior year, and take as many AP tests as you can! But for now, just read about popular science stories regarding space and honestly just get excited about it. That's the best part.

As for my day to day, I stare at my computer a lot of the time (lol). I run models, and then meet with my advisor to discuss. It depends on the advisor in terms of how frequently you meet. I also try to read relevant papers on the arXiv to keep up to date! The rest of the time is spent commiserating with fellow students and attending colloquia!

MitchAlmighty6 karma

I've got one additional question before I go to bed, do you ever feel sad, because of your study? I mean it's safe to say the average Joe focusses the majority of their life on social status and consumerism, but the kind of stuff you deal with and I will deal with in the future, understanding the vastness of our universe, the insignificance of ourselves and such. Do you ever just find that overwhelming? I've always put it down to my understanding more about the universe and what it's made of than others do. That may be confusing to read, I never did too well at English in school XD always maths and physics/Chem.

starstrickenSF14 karma

Makes sense to me! I find it overwhelming, but more often than not I find it liberating. It's freeing to know that a mistake I made six hours ago doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. It gives me perspective, and I find that very beautiful and liberating.

conalfisher6 karma

Hey, I've always been interested in becoming an astrophysicist or something along those lines, what's the process of becoming one like?

starstrickenSF10 karma

That's awesome to hear! Depending on the program, it's essentially a physics degree, with a few additional astronomy classes tacked on. I interned at an observatory and participated in an NSF REU program (https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.jsp?unitid=5045) over the summers, and participated in research all four years. I highly suggest doing research to supplement your studies--that's why you're going into the field, after all! After that, there's grad school for somewhere between 4-7 years, and then typically 1-2 post docs.

todreamofspace6 karma

Hi from NJ! (waves)

As someone who also has advanced degrees in Astronomy and Physics, where do you think you'll be in your research 10-15 years from now? Also, have you ever thought of advocating for astronomy education in schools or any type of inquiry-based ast/phy education?

As a female in the physical sciences, sometimes we have a bit of pushback from golden age professors. Did you experience any form of misogyny during undergraduate studies when looking for guidance, research opportunities or recommendations for graduate school?

starstrickenSF6 karma

Hey! Great to (virtually) meet you!

Awesome to hear someone else has seen the light at the end of the tunnel. As I'm entering grad school, I'm keeping my options open in terms of what subfield I want to study. I've been doing supernovae all through undergrad, but there's a lot out there that I haven't experienced. I know I want to stay in theory but beyond that--I'm not sure. As for advocacy- absolutely. 100%. My high school had an astrophysics class, and it was hugely formative to my development and interest in astro. Would love to get more involved with that from the other side.

On the pushback...I'm not sure if you experienced the same thing, but I think there was more of a stigma, or tendency towards misogyny, from physics profs than astro. I was lucky to not directly experience any direct misogyny when applying (that I know of, at least) but I do have friends who did. There were also several profs in the astro community who were asked to leave this year (as you may know) due to sexual harassment, and that influenced where I was looking for grad school as well. In terms of the whole process, however, I was lucky enough to have mentors who really advocated for me.

Ahlahria5 karma

As a child, how did you develop your passion for astrophysics and how did your parents help nurture this passion?

starstrickenSF14 karma

To be perfectly honest, I've always loved stargazing. As I briefly previously mentioned, I was lucky to grow up with parents who prioritized education and curiosity. They didn't emphasize science as much as they emphasized intellectual curiosity--whatever form that took. I was never allowed to answer a question with 'I don't know'; rather, I was prompted to answer 'I'll try and find out'. I was extremely lucky to have parents who surrounded me with resources- be it books or mentors- who encouraged me to continue studying space, even when it's really, really, really hard. I went to several nature camps, where we'd spend the nights star gazing--that was big for me. Being able to visualize and put into context why I studying/going to study space.

AtariLynx5 karma

What's your theory on Tabby's Star?

Edit: Manners. Sorry, should have said this in the first place - thanks for doing this AMA!

starstrickenSF7 karma

Agh. I don't study exoplanets, so I don't pretend to even be close to the answer-- but then again, nobody does. I'm not super thrilled by the idea of a comet swarm (I think it's unlikely that we happen to be studying it when that happens). I'm going to go with the boring possibility of systematic instrumentation error...but it could be alien megastructures. Who knows

cunuk5 karma

Why did you find in necessary to include your gender? Isn't it interesting enough by just saying you're an astrophysicist?

starstrickenSF16 karma

As I previously mentioned, I included it because it's an accomplishment to participate- and make an impact- in a male-dominated field. About 20% of physicists are female (https://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/womenphysics.cfm). Astronomy is higher, about 35% women, but still more heavily weighted towards men. I include it to help prompt discussions about being a female in science, because there are systematic gender inequalities in the field. I include it to potentially inspire other young women interested in science- and to let them know that they can succeed.

Milkypopsicle5 karma

Will you continue to study Betelgeuse only? Or is this a temporary project at this moment?

starstrickenSF6 karma

I plan to continue studying it for now! I'm planning on expanding my research on supernovae once we wrap up our project on the asteroseismology of Betelgeuse

subtropicalyland4 karma

Thanks so much for doing this AMA :D Betelgeuse was one of the first stars I could identify by name so I've always been a bit obsessed by it.

If and when Betelgeuse went Supernova what do you think you could potentially learn from the event? Would you be aiming to answer specific questions?

starstrickenSF8 karma

Absolutely! Very excited people are excited and asking questions. The cool thing about Betelgeuse exploding is that it'll be extremely close, so we can study the post-explosion physics (e.g. the dissipating material, the potential neutron star) to a pretty high accuracy. It could confirm or deny theoretical models, which will hone our understanding of the mechanisms behind the explosion (i.e. convective overshoot, rotation, etc.) I'm sure there will be more specific questions, but the major benefit is that it'll provide a high energy event really close to us that will allow for a very unique area of observation.

DriftingSkies4 karma

One thing that I've noticed about star masses and sizes is that a star's density decreases as a function of its mass, with larger stars such as Betelgeuse being particularly notable for being so much less dense than the Sun. This would appear surprising on first glance because more mass means a higher gravitational attraction within the star.

Would your models predict that Betelgeuse would get even larger as a result of absorbing additional matter from another star, or would the added mass and gravitational pull cause it to contract?

starstrickenSF7 karma

Interesting question! Density is dependent on mass and radius, but the radius of a star is a pretty complicated result of the star's other properties and is dependent on which part of the HR diagram the star falls. If it's on the main sequence, it has one particular relationship between the mass and radius, whereas if it's on the red giant branch (RGB) it has another. A lot of that is due to the extended stellar envelope. My main point is that trying to derive a relationship for stellar density and mass may depend on what stage of stellar evolution the star resides in. As for Betelgeuse, I do think the other star would have added matter to the outer portions--making it balloon outward, rather than contract! That would explain the extra angular momentum and higher observed rotational velocity.

ElectricRook14 karma

I thought Betlegeuse was a red giant with very low density, basically a glowing vacuum. How can that swallow another star?

starstrickenSF6 karma

Well, it has a really big radius (1,000 solar radii), so it has a "low" density. But because it basically burped out its outer layers, the extended outer shell accounts for most of that radius-- the rest of the mass is in the core. It swallows the other star because it gravitationally interacts and ends up stripping the smaller star of its mass!

featureXYZ4 karma

Where do you see yourself in 10 and 20 years? Also, this "Betelgeuse is about 15 to 25 times the mass of our Sun, but it is an astonishing 1,000 times the size!" taken from the iflscience article you posted, is an incredible statement that I cant fathom!

starstrickenSF8 karma

It's pretty incredible! It's huge, but there are some even bigger stars--sometimes up to 200 times the mass of our sun. If Betelgeuse replaced our Sun, it'd engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, AND Mars. As for where I'd see myself in 10-20 years, I'm still trying to figure that out. I'm heading to grad school in the Fall to pursue my PhD in Astrophysics, which will account for the next 4 - (probably) 7 years of my life. After that, I'd love to continue in academia while also making discoveries accessible to the wider public. I'm not sure what that role looks like, but it's definitely something I'm very interested in.

Orbitalmechanix4 karma

I just wanted to say I also study aerospace engineering at UT and took Dr. Wheeler's Life and Death of Stars on the side for fun. I really enjoyed his energetic passion, he's a spry old feller.

I'm also on the climbing team and have met a few astronomy graduate students. Have you worked with Wenbin Lu at all? I know he works with black holes, which of course are not red giants, but are certainly related. Do you use McDonald observatory much?

Keep up the hard work, I love seeing UT in the news and I love all things space related!

starstrickenSF5 karma

That's fantastic!! Dr. Wheeler is incredible- really lucky to have had him as an advisor. I've heard great things on that class, I always wanted to sit in on it.

I never worked with him, but I wonder if he's worked with Dr. Wheeler? I'll have to ask- he's obviously a black holes expert as well.

As for McDonald, I interned out there for a summer! One of my favorite places on the planet.

Thanks for the positive feedback, really appreciate it! Best of luck with aerospace, and take more Astro classes with Craig if you can!

liarsandstones4 karma

Hey! I've been interested in theoretical astrophysics since the beginning of my high school career, but in my research on it, I found that jobs were few and far between, and they don't pay very well. How true is this? Thanks for the AMA!

starstrickenSF4 karma

Hi there! I think tenured jobs in academia are extremely hard to get- but I don't think that should dissuade you from studying astro. For those who are tenured, however, I think they are actually paid reasonably well. Grad student/post docs obviously don't get paid much, but the hope is that they'll make up that deficit once attaining a masters/PhD. The great part is that most schools fund you to study in grad school, and there certainly are grants to help fund your studies. I've been daunted by non-academic jobs after studying astro, but I've been happy to find that there are a lot of technical jobs (you develop comp sci skills when doing astro research) that value a physics/astro background. I think there are actually plenty of roles that value analytical backgrounds, regardless of if its astro, physics, finance, or something else.

WanderingDonkey3 karma

Do people find it geeky when you talk about your field to others? Has it worked on a date or anything?

starstrickenSF8 karma

Yes, geeky--very very geeky. But that's what makes it so cool.

noether933 karma

How did you modelled overshooting?

starstrickenSF6 karma

MESA treats it as an exponential decay coefficient, which specifies the mixing length and which the user specifies. Read more here in section 4.1! https://arxiv.org/pdf/1301.0319v2.pdf

AlolanMew3 karma

are we all going to die soon thanks to this?

starstrickenSF3 karma

Nope! It won't impact us (the debris, x-rays, and gamma rays won't reach us) but we'll be able to see it in the night/day sky!

delta_p_delta_x3 karma

Excellent—an astrophysics AmA! I've got a couple of questions, please bear with me:

I'm currently a conscript, having completed my GCE A Levels in 2015 with good grades in physics, chemistry and maths. I've got about a year left in military service, and I hope to study astrophysics in either the UK or US, come 2018.

What suggestions do you have for me, in terms of preparation for university, such as reading up material in advance, or personal statements, or mindsets to have? Are there any prerequisites that colleges look for, such as IOAA medals?

Next, assuming I actually get a degree in astrophysics, how's the job scope and market for a foreigner astrophysicist to the UK/US, given that I hold neither passports?

Thanks so much!

starstrickenSF5 karma

Congratulations on your A levels and military service! I'm not sure I'm qualified to give advice on foreign astro-focused questions, but I'll try my best!

In terms of preparing for university, I'd say try to be engaged with current scientific dialogue, whether that's through reading literature on the arXiv or reading popular science mags. I've learned that just keeping my feet wet in Astro goes a long way in terms of getting back into the swing of things after a hiatus. If you can, brush up on diff eq and multi variable calc. For personal statements, steer clear of stereotypical Astro stuff "I've loved space since I first looked at the sky)- which, by the way, is totally true and something I've said multiple times on this thread. Think of one or two specific research problems you'd like to address, and communicate why that particular school would be best to support that. Also- contact profs! Ask them questions and make connections!

As for the job scope as a foreign astronomer, I'm sorry but I'm honestly not sure- I know people do it so there's definitely a way, I just don't know what the specifics are.

Anyway, hope the first part of it helped at least!

asquishyhorizon2 karma

hey, fellow space lady here (only one year into uni though), would the addition of hydrogen from a sunlike star not give betelgeuse quite a bit more lifetime before a supernova, like a few thousand years at least? i want to see it go off in my lifetime :C

starstrickenSF6 karma

Hey there! Good luck in astro--you got this. Hmm, I see what you're saying, but I believe that hydrogen just gets placed in the outer shell of the star. In other words, it affects the angular momentum, but not necessarily the fusion inside the core. I'd love to see it go off too :(

asquishyhorizon3 karma

right, so its the emergence of iron that causes the supernova and not the lack of hydrogen, dont know why i didnt realise that before hehe. good luck and thank you for your time, i very much hope you find out when C:

starstrickenSF6 karma

Thank you! Good luck in your studies as well!!

binzeeno2 karma

How does your childhood reflect what you do as a astrophysicist?

starstrickenSF5 karma

I was raised by supportive parents who valued education and intellectual pursuits. That made a huge impact on who I am and what I do. I spent nights star gazing with my dad, which I think really helped. It helped put in perspective what I was learning in school.

TheDarkFiddler2 karma

So, what are your thoughts on a hypothetical Beetlejuice 2?

starstrickenSF5 karma

Betelgeuse Betelgeuse Betelgeuse

CaptainChewbacca2 karma

Are you worried something will happen if you say 'Betelgeuse' too many times?

starstrickenSF9 karma

I worried that I wouldn't get published, probably.

cr0wbar2 karma

Always nice to see a woman in astrophysics, my mother being a professor in radio astronomy sometimes speaks of the pay gap between her and male professors. Is it something you noticed?

starstrickenSF3 karma

Yes, absolutely. I've seen it affect tenure, salary, and resource allocation. Such a shame.

weaksquare2 karma

OMG. I am so sorry I got in late on this! Is it possible we will see Betelgeuse go supernova in our life time?

starstrickenSF5 karma

Probably not! It's only 640 light years away, so the possibility that it exploded in the past 640 years is pretty low (given that it's 10 million years old). We're predicting it'll explode in the next 100,000 years or so!

MuonManLaserJab1 karma

How long have there been publishing houses on Betelgeuse? Would readership have been greater on Earth?

starstrickenSF4 karma


starstrickenSF1 karma

One of my favorite books of all time! (Next to Harry Potter, of course)

digital_angel_3161 karma

Is the movie series "Men in Black" based on fact - what with scientists sending mesages to outer space and all?

starstrickenSF5 karma


magicpants12331 karma

Is Neil Tyson Degrasse your hero?

starstrickenSF3 karma

Yeah! But Carl Sagan is my perennial Astro hero.

SquaggleWaggle1 karma

How much do you like "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"???

starstrickenSF4 karma

About 42%

InfuriatedBox1 karma

Hi there, my name is Vic and I'm a teenager living in a small town. My whole life I've been interested in Astro anything. I was wondering, how long have you been in to this field, and did you have to do anything in your high school career that was special to this field?

starstrickenSF5 karma

Hey Vic! It's great to hear you're interested in Astro. I've been interested since I was young, but I just graduated from college and received a dual degree in physics/astronomy. My high school actually had an astrophysics class, which really helped me get interested and learn the fundamentals. But, the most important thing was to find a mentor at my high school who wanted me to continue studying astronomy and who could provide extra reading/time to discuss it. I'd definitely urge you to seek someone out at your school or at a university nearby! In my experience, college profs are always excited when high school students come and ask them questions.

mhummel1 karma

If Betelgeuse went supernova any time soon, would you be thrilled that you got to witness it, or sad that it's gone?

starstrickenSF8 karma

Thrilled. Watching something like that happen would be just incredible-- and the subsequent science that could be done on the post-explosion remnants would be pretty sweet too!

[deleted]0 karma


starstrickenSF7 karma

Nope! There are plenty of people much smarter than I am, and plenty of people who are smarter about different things.