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Big Think Edge: Learn 3 new skills this week

Three new lessons and experts join Big Think's premium video learning platform, Big Think Edge.

  • In this week's trio of Big Think Edge videos, it's all about mastery, whether you want to be a master explainer, master presenter, or a master problem-solver.
  • A great explanation can only come from a deep understanding of your topic, says Mihir Desai. Want your slide shows to excel? Nancy Duarte's got your strategy. That mind-boggling problem won't be so impossible to resolve once you distill it to its essence, says Po-Shen Loh.
  • If you're not a subscriber yet, join Big Think Edge today! Our back to school sale is on right now, so you can get 30% off a subscription.


This week at Big Think Edge, three experts talk about how to achieve three very different types of success. Finance and law professor Mihir Desai shares what he's learned about constructing crystal-clear explanations for complicated concepts. Presentation expert Nancy Duarte reveals the principles behind a great, totally on-target slide show. Mathematician Po-Shen Loh discusses how breaking down tricky problems into an equation-like form can be the first step on the path to their satisfying solution.

Demystify Complex Concepts: Bring Academic Ideas to Life for Your Audience, with Mihir Desai

Through his 18 years of teaching, Harvard professor of finance and law Mihir Desai has seen how hard it can be for students to understand complex concepts. For anyone who's been in the position of introducing new ideas to colleagues, it's a familiar feeling. As he wrote his book, The Wisdom of Finance, he found a method for making explanations resonate with an audience. It involves reacquainting yourself with the core truths underlying a concept, identifying the reasons anyone should care, and wrapping it all in a compelling story.

"COMMIT TO DEEP RESEARCH. YOUR INTUITION WILL TELL YOU WHEN YOU'VE HIT SOMETHING GOOD."

— MIHIR DESAI

Available August 26 in Boost Your Creative Intelligence

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Communicating to Transform: Formal Presentation Techniques, with Nancy Duarte

Expert in presentation design Nancy Duarte helps you make your slide shows more successful. She shows how to get started, beginning with choosing the best role for your presentation to play: Should it be a backdrop for a talk or a self-propelled, information-packed document? Duarte talks about making your deck more persuasive by revealing the story in your data, and explains why ruthlessly deleting elements that are important only to you makes your presentation so much more engaging.

"DATA ITSELF IS INTERESTING, BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE FORGET THERE'S A NARRATIVE IN THE DATA."

— NANCY DUARTE

Available August 26 in Boost Your Professional Intelligence

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Ask the Cleanest Question: Design Solutions Like a Mathematician, with Po-Shen Loh

When you're trying to figure something out, attempting to grapple with all of its details can easily become overwhelming. Professor of mathematics and software developer Po-Shen Loh has a way of dealing with problems that you can use in pretty much any context. He suggests that approaching your problem like a mathematician can be the key to arriving at its solution. Putting your finger on its core issues is the first step toward finding a formula that solves it.

Available August 29 in Boost Your Analytical Intelligence

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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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