When Science and Art Collide Exploding Star + Documentary Film = Amazing Discovery

At Calvin, big discoveries can lead to beautiful partnerships across disciplines. Take astronomy and film. Calvin astronomy professor Larry Molnar is making an unprecedented prediction: that a star he is watching will explode between 2018 and 2020.

One-in-a-million

“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion,” Prof. Molnar says. “It’s never been done.” The star came to Prof. Molnar’s attention in 2013 at an astronomy conference he and Daniel Van Noord ’14, his research assistant, attended.

They began gathering data to determine whether the star was pulsing or binary (two stars orbiting each other). Once they established it was binary, student Cara Alexander spent a summer analyzing the data, growing confident the stars would merge into a red nova, the term for one kind of stellar explosion.

Documenting the discovery

Enter Sam Smartt, a professor of communication arts and sciences. He started creating a documentary about the red nova discovery in late 2014.

“I felt like it was a little gem of a story here in our backyard,” says Prof. Smartt.

So far, he has logged about 60 hours of filming—using a team of staff and students—creating a trailer and producing short films. He estimates the documentary will be finished about two years after the red nova explodes.

The partnership has been a natural fit for Profs. Smartt and Molnar. “I think there are a lot of parallels between Larry’s project and my project,” Prof. Smartt says. “The reason that he was able to find the star is because he has a telescope here that he can focus at one target for a long period of time. And it’s kind of the same thing with me: As this story unfolds, I can be there all along the way.”

VERGE: spring 2016

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