Astronomy of the Bizarre in Eurasia

I discovered a little late during college that I really liked astronomy. Too bad, but at least I also loved what I did study.

I remember learning how stars are believed to form and change and die, and how that process creates what we’re made out of (carbon, nitrogen, iron, etc.). My favorite class was “Astronomy of the Bizarre,” where we studied things like black holes and quasars.

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Courtesy

When we covered supernovas, it occurred to me that this could be a metaphor for what had happened to the Soviet Union.

In one theoretical version of events, a super-massive star gradually burns through its fuel, with the nuclear reaction turning the star’s material into heavier and heavier elements. At some point the pull of gravity within the core overcomes the outward pressure generated by the star’s heat, and the star collapses under its own weight.

It immediately rebounds in an enormous explosion that sends a shell of matter flying off into space. The remaining core can become a neutron star or a black hole, depending on the star’s mass.

If it’s massive enough, the core becomes a black hole. Even light can’t escape from it, and anything that comes too close gets sucked in—being torn apart in the process. A neutron star is not a threat, but it can become a black hole if it steals enough mass from a nearby star. That in itself qualifies as bizarre.

Binary system with one star taking mass from the other

Binary system with one star accreting mass from the other. Courtesy wikimedia

You could say the USSR collapsed under its own weight, too, and it lost its outer shell of Soviet republics. Those turned into Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the other so-called Newly Independent States.

I used to wonder during the 1990s if Russia would prove to be a black hole and threaten to pull its shell back in. Eventually it looked like the answer was no. Moscow has made things hard for some of its neighbors, but they have stayed independent. Whether Moscow and the Russian people accept that independence is another question.

However, this year things have started to look different, considering that Russia has actually begun stealing “matter.” It has taken Crimea from Ukraine, and who knows what Putin will do next. Russia may turn into a black hole after all.