The story of Superman is so well known that I hardly need go into detail. But in case you’re some sort of commie, the idea is that he was born on the planet Krypton orbiting a far away red star, and sent to Earth while still a baby by his parents as their home planet exploded around them. Our yellow Sun somehow gives Kal-El superpowers, and he goes on to star in a series of increasingly poorly-made movies*.
I’ve often wondered exactly what kind of star Krypton orbited and where it was. Up until now all we’ve known is that it was red, and red stars come in many flavors, from dinky red dwarfs with a tenth the mass of the Sun up to massive supergiants like Betelgeuse which outweigh the Sun by dozens of times (I’ll note that a deleted scene in "Superman Returns" indicates it’s a red supergiant).
Well, that’s about to change. DC comics is releasing a new book this week – Action Comics Superman #14 – that finally reveals the answer to this stellar question. And they picked a special guest to reveal it: my old friend Neil Tyson.
Actually, Neil did more than just appear in the comic: he was approached by DC to find a good star to fit the story. Red supergiants don’t work; they explode as supernovae when they are too young to have an advanced civilization rise on any orbiting planets. Red giants aren’t a great fit either; they can be old, but none is at the right distance to match the storyline. It would have to be a red dwarf: there are lots of them, they can be very old, and some are close enough to fit the plot.
I won’t keep you in suspense: the star is LHS 2520, a red dwarf in the southern constellation of Corvus (at the center of the picture here). It’s an M3.5 dwarf, meaning it has about a quarter of the Sun’s mass, a third its diameter, roughly half the Sun’s temperature, and a luminosity of a mere 1% of our Sun’s. It’s only 27 light years away – very close on the scale of the galaxy – but such a dim bulb you need a telescope to see it at all (for any astronomers out there, the coordinates are RA: 12h 10m 5.77s, Dec: -15° 4m 17.9 s).
Which brings us back to the Superman story. I was sent an advance copy, and it’s actually a clever tale, with some relatively solid science in it. I won’t spoil it, but apparently Superman comes to visit the Hayden Planetarium in New York City (where Neil is the director) every 382 days, which happens to be the period of Krypton around the star (known as Rao in the comic canon). Although it’s not said explicitly in the story, it sounds like they try to observe Krypton when it’s at the point in its orbit where it appears farthest from its star, reducing the glare and making it easier to spot†.
As for the major plot point of the story, I won’t reveal it. But I’ll give you a hint: Superman is about 27 years old. PLEASE don’t leave any guesses in the comments below until a few days after the issue is out. I want to avoid spoiling it for any other readers.
Being a dork, I have to comment on some of the science in the story, though. Given the mass of a star and the period of a planet orbiting it, you can find the distance between the two. Doing the math (I’m a dork, remember?) I find the distance of Krypton to its Sun is about 100 million kilometers, somewhat closer than Earth is to the Sun (150 million kilometers).
But remember, Rao is a dim red dwarf! It’s so cool and faint that even at that closer orbital distance, Krypton would be a chilly world. Even if the planet is black as soot (and thereby absorbing all the heat falling on it from Rao) its temperature is still something like -170° Celsius – about -270° F! [If you're curious, I outline how to calculate this on the Bad Astronomy website.] At that temperature oxygen and nitrogen are still gases – barely – but it’s way below the freezing point of water. And if it’s not black, but instead snowy and white, the temperature will be even lower.
So Krypton maybe isn’t the best place for life to arise… still, there are ways out of this. Maybe either the Kryptonians migrated there (they couldn’t find a warmer planet?) or there’s something else going on. If it’s really volcanic then greenhouse gases could be prevalent, raising the temperature. Possibly the planet’s interior is still warm from heat leftover from its formation… or maybe whatever made it warm enough to be habitable also led to its destruction. Comic book science can be pretty ironic.
[DC comics: call me! I have ideas.]
I also feel obligated to note that in the comic, they made the planet look much larger than the star. That doesn’t work; the two are so far away it doesn’t matter if Krypton was on Rao’s near or far side; it would have to appear smaller than the star. We know Krypton is not a gas giant, so it can’t be much more than a few times Earth’s size. Even compared to a red dwarf that’s pretty small.
Still, it does make for a dramatic series of panels, and I’m always willing to let art trump science if need be. And this really is a pretty nifty story.
The issue comes out on November 7, and I’ll be heading over to my local comic store (Time Warp) to pick up a copy. Next time I see Neil maybe I’ll get him to sign it. It’s not too often I get to do that with someone who knows Superman.
Image credits: DC Comics; Digitized Sky Survey/NASA/Skyview
* I love – LOVE – the 1978 Superman movie, and I still to this day listen to the soundtrack, so you can argue with me over this, but you will be wrong.
† This actually happens twice per orbit, when it’s on either side of its star. That means the orbital period is actually twice 382 days, or well over two years… and as you’ll see, that puts it farther from its star, making things worse.
The San Diego Comic Con is the largest pop–culture (scif, fantasy, and so on) convention in America, and one of the largest in the world; over 130,000 people attend. It’s actually a madhouse (A MAAADHOUSE!), with a packed exhibit hall and hundreds of amazing panels and talks.
[At the bottom of this post is a gallery of pictures I took while I was there.]
This year, I moderated a panel called "The Science of Science Fiction: Canon Fodder" – we talked about keeping the science straight in a pre-existing universe when you’re writing a prequel or sequel. I asked top-notch A-listers to be on the panel, and man, they came through. I had Jane Espenson ("Buffy", "Firefly", "Battlestar Galactica", "Torchwood: Miracle Day"), Dr. Kevin Grazier (science advisor for "Battlestar", "Eureka", and the upcoming show "Defiance"), Ashley Miller (who cowrote "X Men: First Class" and "Thor" with panelist Zack Stentz), Jaime Paglia (co-creator and producer of "Eureka"), Jon Spaihts (who wrote the original screenplay for "Prometheus", and Zack Stentz (cowriter with Ash Miller).
The room was packed, and the panel itself was a lot of fun (if you don’t believe me, read this io9 review and another on Physics Central). I cannot praise the panelists highly enough, and I really hope someone got video. It was amazing. And I must thank The Science and Entertainment Exchange for sponsoring the panel. Without them it literally wouldn’t have happened, and Marty Perrault did the vast majority of work making sure this event happened without a hitch. She’s amazing too.
I also sat on a panel myself for io9′s Science Fiction That Will Change Your Life, where I plugged my friends John Scalzi’s and Rob Reid’s books. That was fun, and I clearly need to do a lot more reading given the other panelist’s recommendations.
So much else happened it’s hard to list it all. I did a video interview with Neil Tyson for his Star Talk radio show, I went to fabulous parties, I went to w00tstock and The Nerdist shows. And Holy Gallifrey, I got into the Doctor Who panel (thanks Lee!) and sat in the eighth row, close enough to feel the wind when Karen Gillan flipped her long, silky, red hair. Sigh. See the gallery below for some great pictures from that panel!
But the best part, really, was meeting up with old friends and catching up. If I thanked them all individually this post would be twice as long, but they know who they are.
Comic Con is insanity, it’s a mob, it’s a non-stop sprint of nerdnitude for four days, and I loved every second of it. And you bet your lump of glowing green kryptonite I’ll be there next year – I have even bigger ideas for panels and guests. If I can pull off even half of this, it’ll shake the pillars of heaven. Stay Tuned.
Here are some of the pictures I took from my time at Comic Con. Click the thumbnail to go to a slide, or use the arrows to navigate.
If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time then you’re familiar with astronomer Neil Tyson. You may remember the speech he gave when asked about the most astounding fact he knew. It’s an amazing passage, probably the best speech he’s made.
You may also remember Gavin Aung Than, who does the web comic Zen Pencils. He takes famous quotations and creates comics to go with them, reinterpreting the words with his art and adding extra depth to them. I wrote about him when he drew a series of panels for a Carl Sagan quotation.
So what do you get when Gavin takes on Neil?
That’s only the first few panels. You really, really need to see the rest. He did a fantastic job with Neil’s words.
He’s done quite a few of these comics in the past, but this is easily the best yet. Gavin should be a lot more popular on the web, and I fully expect he will be. It’s moving and beautiful and wonderful. Go.
Tip o’ the zen pencil to Gavin himself on Twitter.
My old friend and colleague Neil Tyson has long been an advocate for exploration, for basic investment in science, and for pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. In early March, he got a chance to make his stand official: he testified before the Senate.
Here’s what he said:
Not bad, not bad at all. His passion for this is clear, and his thinking true. There is a lot of room for the devil in the details — he and I agree that doubling NASA’s budget would be A Good Thing, but there would have to be a requisite increase in oversight, and many more administrative details. But that’s not the point when you’re talking to Congress about inspiration: you’re there to inspire. He’s trying to make a much larger point and not get bogged down in details.
And his main point, I think, rings true. After all, "How much would you pay for the Universe?"
What do you get when you ask astronomer Neil Tyson what he thinks the most astounding fact about the Universe is?
An awesome answer.
Y’know, I’ve been doing this astronomy and space outreach thing for a long time now, and on my best days I might get close to an answer like this. But Neil cranks them out effortlessly. He’s really, really good at this.
A new Symphony of Science has come out today, in honor of Carl Sagan’s birthday. And I’m pleased to see it features three people I call friends: Neil Tyson, Brian Cox, and Carolyn Porco:
Isn’t that wonderful? Symphony of Science is the work of musician John Boswell, who takes the words of scientists and creates these lovely videos. You should watch them all.
I mention that Neil, Brian, and Carolyn are all friends for two reasons; one is that sharing a love of science is not a zero-sum game, a conserved quantity. The more we share it, the more people who are heard and seen doing it, the more desire there is for it. Each of us broadens the audience for all. There is no fixed capacity for learning and wonder.
But also, it’s more than that. It’s a reason I think Sagan would’ve agreed with as well: we’re all in this together. Paupers and kings, famous and infamous, men, women, black, white, all flavors of humanity. We are all riding this planet, and where we go is largely up to us. We can make the most of it, or we can squander it.
I am personally inspired by pieces like this. Like most people, I sometimes lose sight of my own goals, I sometimes get mired in the day-to-day business of life. But when I see Neil and Brian and Carolyn and, yes, Carl Sagan, letting their passion show, mine returns as well.
Keeping the passion is what drives the personal thirst for learning. Showing that passion is what instills it in others.
Show a little passion now and again. Who knows who you’ll inspire?
In July 2011, at the JREF’s TAM 9 meeting in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel discussing the future of space exploration. On that panel were some familiar faces: Bill Nye (the Science Guy), astronomers Neil Tyson and Pamela Gay, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. All of us have, ah, some experience talking to the public about matters spacey, so I knew it would be a fun panel to moderate.
I had no idea. The video of the panel has been made available by the JREF, so you can see it for yourself! I’ve embedded it below. It’s an hour long, but I think you’ll find it absolutely worth your time to watch all the way through. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said it was the best panel at the meeting, and one of the best we’ve ever had at TAM! As a participant, modesty forbids me from saying more, but then, who am I to disagree?
It was a rollicking discussion, and very interesting. Neil was in rare form, and I think my favorite moment was when Pamela was making a point, and Neil jumped in to give an opinion… and Pamela held up a finger and "shusshed" him! It was extremely funny, especially when Neil got this, "OK, fine, you got me" expression on his face. After the panel, Neil was signing books, and I got Pamela to sit down next to him and recreate the moment:
I was on travel yesterday and didn’t get a chance to link to the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal web comic, leading to approximately a metric ton of emails and notes on Twitter telling me about it. I know, the sample I have extracted below doesn’t give you a hint why people would be telling me about this particular strip, but click it to get the whole picture.
OK, spoilers below the fold! Don’t read until you’ve looked at the comic!
Carl Sagan revolutionized popular astronomy with his book and TV show "Cosmos", which had an audience of hundreds of millions of people. We’ve learned a lot about our Universe since then, and we’re overdue for a modern version of Sagan’s show. So I’m pleased to find out that Neil Tyson will be hosting a revamped and updated version of "Cosmos"!
He’s working with Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow and herself a science popularizer), Steve Soter (who also worked on the original show), and Seth MacFarlane, creator of "Family Guy". I know, that may sound weird, but MacFarlane is a big science fan, a friend of Neil’s, and commonly puts a lot of science into his shows.
The new show is being created by National Geographic and Fox, and will air on the latter in prime time. To circumvent the expected comments on this, note that Fox News is separate from Fox TV, so the irony is there but perhaps not as strong as you might think.
I’m looking forward to this new show. "Cosmos" had a profound effect on hundreds of millions of people, but times have changed. I’ll be curious to see how they update the look and feel of the program for the modern audience.
Image credit: Wikipedia
This is just a quick note to let y’all know that the two radio interviews I did over the past weekend are now archived.
The Think Atheist interview is available on their website.
They were both fun to do, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!