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March 2000

"We've Only Just Begun"

I've got this song from my younger days bouncing around in my head these days.

We've only just begun to live,
White lace and promises
A kiss for luck and we're on our way.
And yes, we've just begun.

Written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols for, believe it or not, a bank commercial, the Carpenters made it famous as their signature love song. I think it was a law in the early 70's that this song be performed at every wedding in the United States. Or at least it seemed that way.

So why has this song been rattling around in my brain these days? No, I'm not planning on getting married. Been there, am doing that.

The reason? Astronomy. It seems that hardly a week goes by these days without an item of astronomical news appearing that starts the refrain all over again: we've only just begun. Consider just two items in the astronomical news during the past few weeks.

FEB 16, 2000 (Columbia University): "For the first time in history, scientists are now able to see the details of a supernova remnant in the making. We have observed many examples of supernova remnants--for example, the Crab Nebula--but all were formed long ago. We have never before seen one in the making in any meaningful degree of detail."

While the radiation from the Supernova 1987A explosion (in the Large Magellanic Cloud) traveled out at the speed of light, material from the star itself was ejected at a much lower speed, some tens of millions of miles per hour. This material is now beginning to catch up and collide with material blown out some twenty thousand years earlier by the star in a relatively gentle, slow, cool stellar wind. Peter Garnavich (University of Notre Dame) explains, "The real fireworks show is finally starting, and over the next ten years things will get spectacular."

About the same time as the Supernova Supershow was announced the European Southern Observatory announced that "first light" on the third Very Large Telescope was achieved in record time. Later this year the fourth VLT unit will go online. Telescopes such as the VLT, the Keck telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the CHANDRA X-ray telescope, the recently announced SALT (South American Large Telescope), and the much anticipated Next Generation Space Telescope (which some say will have one hundred times the sensitivity of HST) means, to all of us that, truly, "we've only just begun. Don't change the channel. It's getting good. The plot thickens. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Oh, by the way, my favorite Carpenters tune was their awesome 1990 smash hit: "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft". Well, maybe it wasn't a smash hit, but they DID record it! Next month: A long distance call to Comet Hale-Bopp. Just kidding.


click for larger image

A Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 look at the remnant of Supernova 1987A taken on February 2, 2000. The 13-year-old explosion's shock wave collides with a surrounding ring of prior ejecta from the supernova's genesis star. Courtesy NASA, Peter Challis and Robert Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Peter Garnavich (University of Notre Dame) and the SINS collaboration.

"The goodness of the night upon you"
Othello Act 1 Scene 2

Russell Sipe

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