Fireworks are on the menu today in thousands of U.S. cities as we celebrate the July 4th Independence Day. The invention of fireworks takes us back to the time of the ancient empires.
The Chinese stumbled onto the first proto-firecrackers around 200 B.C. when someone threw green bamboo rods into a fire. Air and sap inside the reeds heated up until bursting through the wood in a loud bang. The noise was thought to ward off evil spirits.
Sometime between 600 and 900 A.D. a precursor to gunpowder was invented that burned bright and hot when exposed to flame. Packed inside a bamboo tube and lit on fire, the gas created when the mixture burned under pressure blew the tube apart. The firecracker was born! Rolled paper later replaced bamboo.
Firecrackers were introduced to the West by none other than Marco Polo when he returned to Italy with a sackful from his trip to the Orient in 1292. Before any of these seminal events, the universe had been playing with fire since time began. One of its grandest creations still lighting up galaxies to this day is the exploding star or supernova. Lesser but equally picturesque fireworks happen all the time in the Milky Way.
Like many an amateur astronomer, Scottish clergyman Thomas Anderson made a last naked eye sweep of the sky while walking to his home late on the evening of February 21, 1901. He gaze suddenly stopped at a brand new 3rd magnitude star in the constellation Perseus the Hero. Anderson reported his observation to the Greenwich Observatory thinking that something so bright must have been seen by others. He soon learned he was the first discoverer of a new nova.
Nova Persei brightened over the next two days to magnitude 0.2, rivaling Vega in brilliance. While astronomers at the time realized they were witnessing a stellar explosion, they didn’t know its nature.
Novas or novae (NO-vee) occur in tight binary star system where a larger, bloated star – typically a red giant – orbits an Earth-sized but extremely dense star called a white dwarf.
In a scene straight out of David-and-Goliath, the dwarf’s strong gravity pulls hydrogen gas from the giant into a swirling disk, where it funnels down to the surface of the star to accumulate as an ocean of gas.
Heated to millions of degrees, the hydrogen suddenly ignites in a thermonuclear explosion. Sort of like bamboo in a fire but kicked it up a few billion notches. Remnants of the blast form a halo of fireworks around the binary.
A once-obscure star can brighten to the naked eye visibility in a matter of days. We call the star a “nova”, the Latin word for new, but of course it’s been there all along, lost in obscurity until its sudden rise to fame. Nova Persei is still around but renamed GK Persei. While it typically shines at a dim 13th magnitude, the star shows occasional smaller flare-ups.
In other explosive news, scientists using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced the discovery today of the “holy grail” of subatomic particles, a Higgs-like boson. British physicist Peter Higgs, after whom it’s named, was one of six physicists who predicted the particle’s existence in the 1960s.
The Higgs boson is a physical sign of the Higgs field, an invisible force field that pervades the universe and gives all elementary particles – every neutron, proton and electron comprising the atoms of which we’re made – their most basic quality: mass. Were it not for the Higgs field and its particle manifestation, the Higgs boson, matter as we know it would not exist. Our universe would be little more than radiation zipping about at the speed of light. The various particles acquire their unique masses as they “swim” through the field.
Since the Higgs boson is a heavy particle, you need a lot of energy to create one. Remember what we learned from Einstein – mass or stuff is a super compact form of energy. Scientists used the LHC to fling millions of protons at one another at 99.99% the speed of light to detect the presence of the Higgs. To read more about the seminal discovery, check out this Reuters story . The London Telegraph has a video and live coverage.
It’s certainly going to be a happy Fourth of July in Switzerland today. Fireworks all around!