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David Shenk’s Favorite Geniuses

Question: What interests you about genius as a subject?

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David Shenk:  Yeah.  I’ve always been interested in this question of what is the difference between people who are mediocre at something and the people who are great at something, and I think a lot of us are and it’s my good fortune as a writer to be able to follow my curiosities and I’ve done a lot of science writing, so I read a lot of science and I try to be the guy who is going to explain a scientific concept to the general public, so that’s just what I do in a lot of my work.  What got me on the road to this book is that I noticed that there were a lot of different pieces of science kind of pointing in this certain direction, but no one had ever really put it together.  There is this…  You know there are all these people saying, well, blank slate is dead.  We’re not all born the same and that’s obviously true, and then there’s all these people pointing out all these… all the power of genes, which is also obviously true, and there’s all this neat stuff about intelligence, which we’re learning more and more about, so I saw that all these different pieces of science could be woven together and tell a story that in newspapers and magazines and so far other books wasn’t being told.  I think partly because they were from so many different eras of science and different arenas as well.

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Question: Do you have any “heroes” whose gifts you find particularly admirable or fascinating?

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David Shenk:  Great question.  My mind goes in a lot of different directions there.  My writer heroes are people like John McPhee who and Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe and E.B. White who are able to… were able to take nonfiction to a whole new art, particularly John McPhee, who does a lot of science writing and does that trick of taking things that scientists understand, but aren’t quite able to articulate for the general public, and just thinks about them and pushes them in all these different metaphorical ways and comes up with stories so that he can put the stuff into a format that people would enjoy reading and find a way for non scientists to kind of put this knowledge in their own brains and then of course apply it to their own lives. 

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Other heroes, I mean there are heroes in the book.  Alfred Binet who came up, who invented the concept of IQ and developed the first IQ test before it was basically stolen by Lewis Terman and not really stolen, but adapted it in this kind of manipulative way so that by the time it got to America it was thought to be this test that revealed this innate intelligence whereas Alfred Binet actually invented the test to expose weaknesses in learning that were going on in young children and say, “Hey, what can we do about this?”  This is before all the science that came out.  This is more than a hundred years ago.  His whole concept of intelligence was this set of skills and that if we come up with a good test to divine what people… what kids aren’t learning well we see their weaknesses, we can show that to the teachers and say, all right, let’s figure out how to build up these other skills as opposed to this school which then, dominated unfortunately intelligence for many decades, which is this idea of this innate endowment, which we now know to be false.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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His book is called "The Genius in All of Us." But do any men or women of brilliance hold special fascination for David Shenk?

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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
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  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

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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