Zooming in on a giant: the Tarantula Nebula in the visible light on the left, a zoomed-in image of the location of R 136 in the center panel, and the R 136 cluster in the lower right of the last panel. Image Credit:ESO/P. Crowther/C.J. Evans
Zooming in on a giant: the Tarantula Nebula in the visible light on the left, a zoomed-in image of the location of R 136 in the center panel, and the R 136 cluster in the lower right of the last panel. Image Credit:ESO/P. Crowther/C.J. Evans

Astronomy

Most Massive Star Discovered: Over 300 Suns at Birth!

22 Jul , 2010 by

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Often, writing about astronomy tends to mirror the job of those writing for the Guinness Book of World Records – just when you think a record is practically unbeatable, somebody else appears to show up the previous record-holder. This is surely the case with the stellar heavyweight (er, “heavymass”) R 136a1, which has been shown by data taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope to tip the stellar scales at 265 times the mass of our Sun. What’s even more impressive is that R 136a1 has lost mass over the course of its lifetime, and likely was about 320 solar masses at birth. That deserves a “Yikes!”

R 136a1 lies in a cluster of young, massive stars with hot surface temperatures that is located inside the Tarantula Nebula. The Tarantula Nebula is nested inside the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbors, 165,000 light-years away. The cluster is called RMC 136a (or more commonly referred to as R136), and in addition to the whopper that is R 136a1, there are three other stars with masses at birth in the 150 solar mass range.

Extremely massive stars like R 136a1 were previously thought to be unable to form, posing a challenge to stellar physicists as to just how this behemoth came about. It’s possible that it formed by itself in the relatively dense gas and dust of the R136 cluster, or that multiple smaller stars merged to create the larger star at some point early on in its lifetime.

If breaking the mass record weren’t enough, R136a1 also happens to be the most luminous star ever discovered, with an output of energy that is over 10 million times that of the Sun. If you want to learn more about how astronomers determine the mass and luminosity of stars, here is an excellent and thorough introduction to the subject.

To validate the models used in determining the mass and luminosity of the stars in R136, the team of astronomers led by Paul Crowther, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield, used the VLT to examine NGC 3603, a closer stellar nursery. NGC 3603 is only 22,000 light years away, and two of the stars in that cluster are in a binary system, which allowed the team to measure their masses.

A comparison of the smallest stars (red dwarfs), Sun-like stars, blue dwarfs, and the most massive star ever discovered, R 136a1. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

We are lucky to have observed this extremely massive star, as the rule for the most massive stars is, “Live fast, die young.” The more massive a star is, the faster it churns through the fuel that powers its increased luminosity. Our Sun, which has a medium amount of mass in relation to the two extremes, will last for around for about 10 billion years. Smaller, red dwarf stars can last trillions of years, while large stars on the scale of R 136a1 only glimmer in all of their brilliance for millions of years.

What will happen to R 136a1 at the end of its life? Stars with a mass of over 150 Suns ultimately explode in a light show of staggering proportions generated by what’s called a pair-instability supernova. For more on this phenomenon, check out this article from Universe Today from last year.

Source: ESO press release

A nod and a snarky wink to Genevieve Valentine

By
I started writing for Universe Today in September 2007, and have loved every second of it since! Astronomy and science are fascinating for me to learn and write about, and it makes me happy to share my passion for science with others. In addition to the science writing, I'm a full-time bicycle mechanic and the two balance nicely, as I get to work with my hands for part of the day, and my head the other part (some of the topics are a stretch for me to wrap my head around, too!).



67 Responses

  1. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    This story is an absolute crock, which the blithering media has literally blown out of proportion – especially in light of the con job by the UK astronomy.
    The high mass of these and the star in question have been known for ages.
    As far as we know, the masses of stars can only be directly made by binary systems. According to the arXiv article “”, this actually was derived by ” Comparisons with stellar models calculated for the main-sequence evolution” Stellar models!!!!, and not evidenced by any direct means. So according to “contemporary stellar & photometric results” Bingo. We have the massive star known.

    So we now have the worldwide media now claiming this is some brand new discovery – haling UK astronomy in our faces.

    Sorry this is utter nonsense.

    Want proof. Just read the abstract of the AAS Meeting held in 1997 by Massey, P and Hunter, D. Star Formation in R136: A Cluster of O3 Stars Revealed by HST Spectroscope. Here they say;

    The most massive stars are well above the highest mass tracks available (120 cal M_sun), and a conservative estimate places the highest mass star at ~ 150cal M_sun, making this the highest mass unevolved star yet found. Comparing this to other clusters suggests that we have yet to encounter any physical limit to how massive a star may form in nature, that the only limit we see is a statistical one, depending upon the richness (and age) of the cluster.

    Note the limitation is also statistical and was calculated!

    (And this is not the only paper on the mass of the biggest stars in the cluster!)

    Astronomy is not a just popularist view of the universe, it is supposed to work on measured evidence and the scientific method. These astronomers should be drawn and quartered for the deceptions here. I’m already utterly disgusted with this story!

  2. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Actually, this is UK article is really boarding on plagiarism.

    In the published paper by Elson, R.A.W., et.al. in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1992 (MNRAS., 258, 103-106 (1992)) entitled The Massive Stars in the R136 region of 30 Doradus it says in the Introduction (pg.103) that;

    Once thought to be a single star with ~2000 [Solar Masses], it has been more recently been resolved into eight components, and the upper mass limit revised to ~250 M [Solar Masses] (Weigelt et al 1991, Weigelt & Baier 1985; Walborn 1986)

    So this story ain’t “new”? Sorry much of the work that was done twenty-five years ago is saying the same thing!!

  3. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Evidence of the media beat-up can be found almost everywhere. However, the critical on is in the UK Guardian by Ian Sample “Giant star takes scientists by surprise”.

    This now global viral story has the same paraphrased line “…discovery has astonished scientists who thought it was impossible for stars to exceed more than 150 times the mass of the sun.” actually is not true!

    The only real surprise is that it took the truly gullible media twenty-five odd years to find out!

    IMO, Professor Crowther has a lot to answer to!

  4. Bill says:

    I thought that there WAS a physical limit on star size?

    to get a giganto-star, you need a huge stellar cloud to form it out of, but in the process of formation, if it is too big, won’t the radiation pressure and winds blow much of the cloud away before it is in incorporated into the growing star? Or is this just an idea that someone had to explain why there seems to be a limit on star size, but it hasn’t been proven/demonstrated/whatever?

    Also, that picture; that can’t be to scale, can it? I mean, if r136a1 is blue, it hasn’t gone giant (in terms of expanding and cooling) yet. And if it hasn’t gone giant yet, and has 265xM(solar), its gotta be crazy dense, and maybe only 10 x as voluminous as the sun. But that picture makes it seem as if r136a1 is a lot more than just 10 x the sun’s volume.

    Or am I just wrong about everything? It has been a few years since Astrophysics.

    Oh also, Salacious; this article mentions that two of the stars in this cluster were in a binary system, allowing their masses to be calculated. If you assume that the compositions and ages of these two stars and R136a1 are more or less the same (which seems reasonable to me, seeing as all three are young stars in the same star-forming cloud), and you can relate the luminosities of these two stars to the luminosity of R136a1, can’t you then relate their masses? It might not really be directly massing the star, but it seems pretty solid to me. If I’m wrong, I would certainly like to know where, but that was what I thought.

  5. Excalibur says:

    The Eddington limit, or more generally the hydrodynamic balance of the star is very much dependant on the total mass, and stars above that mass will slowly or quickly radiate themselves away.

    But it is possible that stars can form being above the Eddington limit, and then spend their lifetime with a large stellar wind. Why stars are believed to do this trick has alot to do with accretion disks, polar jets and magnetic funneling, but generally they fit the profile of LBV-stars.. Stars that big (above about 50Msun) do not follow the evolutionary tracks of smaller stars, they stay blue and giant throughout their lifetime.

    Relating masses in the way described works (as a general method) if the singularity and age of each star can be verified. All it takes is a close binary star with disclosing shared envelope of gas, and what looks to be a single star is actually 2 stars. Eta Carinae comes to mind, suspected of performing this exact trick. That makes it possible that r136a1 might still be 2 or more stars in very close orbit with common envelope.

    After reading both the article and the comments i am very sceptical about this. I would go as far as to say that there is enough reason to believe it is not a measurement of a single massed star afterall.

  6. Trippy says:

    “What will happen to R 136a1 at the end of its life? Stars with a mass of over 150 million Suns ultimately explode in a light show of staggering proportions generated by what’s called a pair-instability supernova.”

    Presumably you actually mean 150 suns, not 150 million suns?

  7. Kevin says:

    Absolutely blown out of proportion (pardon the expression). The way the media’s going on about it it’s like the star has taken a bearing on our solar system.

  8. Aqua says:

    Here’s Crowther’s (et al) paper: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1030/eso1030.pdf

    Good catch @Trippy!

  9. Maddad says:

    While a binary mass will give the best mass measurement, it is not the only way to obtain an estimate. The color of the star also will be an indicator.

  10. SteveZodiac says:

    I was reading the Wikipaedia entry on VY Canis Majoris and it said it was the next biggest star after R136a1, then whoosh! the entry was edited out. Looks like we are in for an academic cat-fight over this one. I’d prefer to see some energy devoted to working out how these >150MSun stars get started.

  11. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    I’m surprised at HSBC’s [over] reaction to this report. He appears never to have read a scientific article in a mainstream newspaper. This is how they attempt to get the general population intersted in science. Dearie, dearie me. If he’s that incensed perhaps he should contact the original authors and persuade them to sue the Sheffiled team for plagarism [his word not mine]. Let’s see how far they get.

  12. Brian Sheen says:

    The ESO PR has been reported all over and some has reached the popular press even.

    In the UK we will all remember Maggie’s dynamic exposition long after we have forgotten what she was on about. That of course is the point, Jo Public would not read the original paper but needs to be aware that his money is being spent on something big.

    It is true that many discoveries are discovered several times but in the ESO PR they credit the HST archival material, (ie pre existing).

    A problem that writing for UT is that many of its readers are very experienced while other are new comers to the sport.

    It would help us all if the original paper ref. could also be included – Thanks Aqua.

    Brian – Roseland.

  13. M. Malenfant says:

    Every few years such a story about some new most massive or most luminous star pops up, which turnes out soon after as exaggerated and the respective star becomes demoted to more normal proportions afterwards.
    HD93129a, Pistol Star, LBV 1806-20, then again / repeatedly Eta-Car, the Peony Nebula Star –
    and now R136a1 (again). Sometime it appears, each astronomer pushes his own favorite with much marketing.
    The masses are estimates based on models, which are prone to some errors:
    especially for those of these stars only visible in infrared it seems the models have been corrected for lower temperatures yielding much lower masses / luminosities.
    In several other cases of seemingly excessive mass the star turned out to be multiple:
    HD93129a turned out to be double. Pismis 24-1, which was estimated with up to 300 M-Sun turned out triple after thorough investigation.
    There seem to be few othersuspect ‘over-weights’ still to be investigated e. g. Cyg-OB2#22a.
    The story about R136a1 is surprising, since R136 has been used as proof, that stars do not exceed the limit of 150 M-Sun (as the Arches cluster), and R136a1 is well known. From the press release it is not recognisable what new insight on this has been found (if any). Or was it just a reference included in the article to make it sound more interesting?
    Even if this star is compatible with the assumption of such high mass, given the distance to LMC it is more likely, that it is a still unresolved multiple as the nearer examples resolved recently.

  14. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    Strange how everybody and his dog cravenly believe the word of climate modellers but stellar modellers are villified. I wonder why??

  15. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    This is a measurement of a higher mass than previously reported. I don’t think this is quite so much an egregious case of plagerism.

    There is an upper limit on stellar mass in a stable configuration. A star above the Eddington mass limit will be very energetic and eject mass by radiation pressure until it mass is reduced to below 150 solar masses.

    LC

  16. Bill says:

    @Paul

    I would imagine it is because not all models are created equal.

    It can be very difficult to gather data on a star that is x lightyears away, and as a result, models are based on only a few variables (temperature, mass, composition, age).

    On the other hand, it relatively much easier to get climate data, allowing for a more diverse and inclusive data set and more complete models.

  17. Aodhhan says:

    LBC….
    Thank you once again for displaying your total ignorance and never ending pessimism without facts. Your references are old, and do not precisely match the subject. There isn’t any plagarism going on, obviously because this is a new discovery. Before you go lashing out at someone elses research… instead of coming up with old and offset material, try doing your own research for a change.

    Seriously… if you are so intelligent and knowledgeable, why don’t we see any of your research? Where is the data you have come up with? Where is the data you have which opposes this finding? Don’t have any??? Then shaddup!!

    As far as the mass, while they cannot get an exact measurement, they can definitely get within the ballpark, and just by using common sense… i.e. knowing a cup of coffee is going to be a lot less massive than an office buidling without precise measurement.

    However that being said, the size isn’t conclusive. It is possible they came accross two stars orbiting each other (binary system). It will take a little bit of time to determine this; however from x-ray data, it does appear to be only one star.

    In any case, whether it comes out to be a single or double, it is newsworthy and exciting.

  18. Jon Hanford says:

    “Aodhhan Says:
    July 23rd, 2010 at 7:22 am

    LBC….
    Thank you once again for displaying your total ignorance and never ending pessimism without facts. Your references are old, and do not precisely match the subject……….”

    I would have thought that by now Aodhhan would have reread his post and:

    A) Apologize to LC

    B) Post a correction

    That he has done neither speaks volumes!

    “The stupid, it burns”
    (we need a graphic here. IVAN3MAN? Dr Flimmer?)

  19. Aodhhan says:

    Absolutely not.
    Anyone who publicly admonishes someone elses research without fact or proof deserves it back many times over.

    LBC is obviously no expert, and attempts to use his own uneducated logic to determine how things in the Universe should be. Most of the time he misunderstands the research of others which makes it almost hilarious, except for the fact he demeans the work of real experts who have spent numerous hours in their attempt to increase mans knowledge.

    I will not (neither should anyone else) put up with this sort of nonsense. His rants only mislead and confuse others who come hear to learn something.

    Perhaps I have been a bit harsh in my words for this blog; in this context I apologize, and I am sorry if I offend anyone

    Yet… I find it very hard not to say something, when I see such BS being written about someone elses work; It’s about integerity… for this I will not apologize. It would be like witnessing a crime against another person and not saying anything. Perhaps you can sit back and let someone get hurt… I cannot.

    John… perhaps you aren’t much better. Since I can see instead of coming up with something new and creative… you attempt to use Dr. Plait’s hallmarked phrase. Nice.

  20. Meate says:

    Aodhhan, unless my eyes are playing tricks on me, LBC didn’t post anything of what you accused him of posting. He cited no references, stated that this wasn’t a flagrant case of plagerism, and didn’t lash out at someone elses research.

    I’m with Jon on this one: you really should go back and read what LBC posted. I think you’ll find that his single four sentence post in these comments was really quite harmless.

  21. Jon Hanford says:

    “Lawrence B. Crowell Says:
    July 23rd, 2010 at 3:30 am

    This is a measurement of a higher mass than previously reported. I don’t think this is quite so much an egregious case of plagerism.

    There is an upper limit on stellar mass in a stable configuration. A star above the Eddington mass limit will be very energetic and eject mass by radiation pressure until it mass is reduced to below 150 solar masses.”

    I reprint LC’s post since you must have missed it the first time.

    “Your references are old, and do not precisely match the subject”

    Initially, I thought you were referring to HSBC posts, as they actually contain references.! What, again, are LC references?

    “There isn’t any plagarism going on….”

    And LC never said there was. So, again, another pointless rant that does not advance the conversation one iota.

  22. Dark Gnat says:

    “Watch your fire and check your targets.”

  23. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    I was very careful with my words here. I said “this is UK article is really boarding on plagiarism.

    The ESo article liked here says;

    “Not only is R136a1 the most massive star ever found, but it also has the highest luminosity too, close to 10 million times greater than the Sun. “Owing to the rarity of these monsters, I think it is unlikely that this new record will be broken any time soon,” concludes Crowther.”

    The alleged approximation to plagiarism here centres on the words “new record”. Not only is it false, it has already been determined before by several other astronomers – and without acknowledgement. Worst, it seems that the statement was deliberately made (knowing it was wrong) to only draw attention to the story and by the principle investigator of the study!

    Question. Why did this article somehow became viral in the media? Could it be because of the funding cuts to UK astronomy in recent years, and was politically driven to fund those belated UK astronomers further?

    (See Ian O’Neil’s UT story “of January 28th, 2008; “UK Astronomy Community “Deliberately Sabotaged” By Funding Cuts To Gemini Observatories”
    Could it also have something to do with the UK recently pulling out of the Anglo-Australian Telescope facility in Australia?

    Sorry guys. It seems to me more like a political and cynical way of promoting UK astronomy which has been on the decline in recent years mostly due to the global financial position.

  24. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Note: I should add that problems in the UK (an especially University of Sheffield) can be found at; STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy

    It doesn’t take a genius to realise there are other forces at work here, and not just unfounded or rehashed claims of discovery.

    Cynically, it is probably all do to make the UK astronomy highlighted in the media so their politicians might reverse their budget cuts. That is what is also disgraceful!

  25. ND says:

    Aodhhan,

    I’m really interested in what your credentials are. What is your background in science that makes you think you have the right to call people names and trash them like you do. Who are you?

    Dear UT, I think banning Aodhhan should be considered given his behavior.

  26. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Like in any criminal action, in court there has to be a proven motive…

    In this case, we can use Crowther own words as possible motive, which appeared in the Royal Astronomical Society; “Astronomy Forum : Notes from 15th January 2010”;

    “13. Paul Crowther then set out his analysis of different structures for funding UK astronomy.

    The CSR07 [Government Funding ] settlement and resulting STFC allocation led to a disproportionately large and detrimental impact on funding for research in astronomy and space science. In turn, this has caused the press and public perception of UK involvement in fundamental science to be far more negative than in the past.

    Do you guys think this relevant enough?

  27. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Wow, I made a short comment about this research and the mass of this star and look what happened! I made no claim of plaigerism.

    For some reason Aodhhan has me as a target. To be honest though I sometimes get the sense that Aodhhan gets drunk while writing rants. The reason is that some of his writing borders on incoherence. That he would target me for something Hon. Salacious B. Crumb wrote seems a bit like a drunk driver who merged into the oncoming lane of traffic.

    LC

  28. Scrambler Sinister says:

    Nice to be here as a member of UT. No body is this polite when having conversations on youtube. I feel uplifted.

  29. lookingbeyond says:

    What a heated debate this has become!
    Am i the only one that thought Aodhhan was actually directing his post to Hon. Salacious B. Crumb and there was a strange mixup with names?

    On other thoughts, It might be a bit daunting to see all this heated arguing for any newcomers stumbling on UT for the first time..

  30. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    @ lookingbeyond

    There is no real heated debate here, It is just one individual acting like a jerk whose erratic behaviour is just mimic in previous instances. For some reason this chap has one big chip on his shoulders, and anyone showing knowledge better than he is viciously attacked This individual seems to have very little understanding of science or astronomy and is far too willing to pick a fight – often with absurd notions with the subject or with even the simple concepts. Like the coward he is, he runs away when the going gets tough – at least until the next time. Pity.

    Yes, I agree, he seems to have mixed-up his targets (again). I do suggest you just ignore him and his little rants and pontificaticating mixed up notions.

  31. TerryG says:

    Umm at the risk of discussing astronomy…what detectable signature, if any, would you expect to observe from the event of two stars merging to form a blue hyper-giant?

  32. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    I can’t say too much about stellar mergers. I would tend to think the coalescence would be chaotic an violent. Hot O and B stars are pretty well organized systems, even if they only exist for a little as a few million years.

    Aodhhan is a sort of troll.

    LC

  33. TerryG says:

    Cheers LC. It’s clear that many UT readers enjoy your posts, I’m certainly one of them, please keep them coming.

  34. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Wow! When I came back to the civilization (aka “web”) from the outback (aka “childhood town”) and noted a 30+ thread I thought it was another EU troll infestation. I happily forgot about our other trolls…

    Since this is a sorry mess (except for the actual discussion, who somehow made it through), I doubt I can add further damage by commenting on it:

    For some reason Aodhhan has me as a target. To be honest though I sometimes get the sense that Aodhhan gets drunk while writing rants.

    Nothing personal, but I believe Aodhhan has targeted both LBC and HSBC in unwarranted attacks at times. I should check, but the subject (of stupid behavior) invites intellectual laziness.

    But yes, there is confusion here. Now I have never been able to tell on a short-term basis between drug abuse and mental disorders, since both seem capable to flip-flop individuals in and out of confused thinking and acting. (Luckily, layman here as in so many other subjects. :-D)

    [Cuts long and in the end pointless analysis of banning vs ignoring.] Guess that is how far I can take this for now.

  35. Spoodle58 says:

    @ Hon. Salacious B. Crumb

    “Astronomy is not a just popularist view of the universe, it is supposed to work on measured evidence and the scientific method. These astronomers should be drawn and quartered for the deceptions here. I’m already utterly disgusted with this story!”

    Hear hear, I totally agree.

    @ Paul Eaton-Jones

    I’m with you on the models, I was thinking the same.

  36. Aqua says:

    “The higher the Baboon climbs the tree… the more he shows his butt.”

    It appears that the mass in the heads of some of the participants in this room is in fact, much larger than R 136a1!

  37. paul_crowther says:

    Please find answers to some of the queries raised here, incljuding links to relevant, peer-reviewed scientific journal papers: http://pacrowther.staff.shef.ac.uk/r136a1.html

  38. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    It appears that the mass in the heads of some of the participants in this room is in fact, much larger than R 136a1!

    Now there you go again with some unwarranted and unsubstantiated claims, which so impedes the discussion. Hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras.

    People here have some vested interest, skills and knowledge, and it becomes painfully obvious when confused thinking and acting crawls onto the table. This recurrent but sadly unanswered love of zebras of yours is one of those.

    [Sure there can be exceptions, so that there really are airheads on here. But LBC theory is much more likely in any given crowd when cranks have been distinguished.]

  39. capper says:

    how many people were scared away from professional science after meeting a few arrogant windbags during their key formative years? i can think of at least one.

    the are far too many “crumbs” in cosmology.

    …and a big FAIL to larsson for trying to bring EU into the discussion (yet again). F-

  40. AvidEnthusiast says:

    Just a note from an avid astrophysics and theoretical physics observer, a layman…

    1 Aodhhan targeted the wrong commenter (he cited LBC and it should have been HSBC).

    2. HSBC, right or wrong, posted a comment on the article- not a comment about another person. This commenting forum should be about the article always.

    3. HSBC’ comment struck me significantly in that there are different points of view on the article’s content- that there may be politics involved with its publishing- or not. That is exactly what commenting forums are intended to do- to bring discussion to the matter at hand.

    4. I am only an enthusiast in this arena. I have read and listened for decades. I often embrace articles and ideas because I trust that the sources I choose are accurate and reliable. I have learned many times, however, that over time the articles and ideas are often challenged and sometimes remodeled, if not entirely dismissed. As with all discoveries and declarations, the truth will out.
    I expect in time, that the claims about this massive star will be verified, refined, redefined or dismissed.
    Knee jerk reactions such as the comments by HSBC do not alarm me. They help me remember that sometimes we are fed BS. whether the BS is in the comment or the article remains to be seen.
    What I know for certain is that, over many decades I have observed the progression of scientific assertions evolve into tangible truths, or fall to the abyss of ‘what was I thinking?’.
    The truth about this star will be known, but not from boisterous rantings and certainly not from personal attacks on those who comment.

    Bravo to all of you who defend the scientific process! Bah-humbug to those who pollute this forum with petty hate.

  41. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    I’m continue to be shocked by the odd and varied responses here.

    The problem is not the arXiv paper here. I acknowledge is certainly important addition to the knowledge about these massive stars, and greatly expands ideas on massive stars and their limitations. However, the published paper just seems to negate some of the important early discovery and observations of the star cluster R136, which realised that the sizes of these stars was significant. I.e. Regarding the investigation of the photometric determined size of the stellar masses as in the peer reviewed Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society paper; Elson, R.A.W., et.al. “The Massive Stars in the R136 region of 30 Doradus.”; MNRAS., 258, 103-106 (1992))
    (now cited eleven times in the Astrophysical Data Service (ADS).) [Note: This paper is not cited as a reference in this recent Crowther arXiv / MNRAS paper.]

    As far as I know, this is the first paper to claim the upper mass limit of some of the components of R136 – being ~250 Solar Masses. Photometrically, the results of Elson study infer the mass of the largest component “~ 200+/-50 M (Solar Masses).”

    Its omission, whether deliberate or not, is central to some of the quite wrongful claims in the ESO press release. I.e.

    “Our new finding supports the previous view that there is also an upper limit to how big stars can get, although it raises the limit by a factor of two, to about 300 solar masses.”

    The Elson paper clearly shows this statement is incorrect.

    Secondly, my comments are more towards to the viral story and the wild claims this is a “new discovery” instead of the more passive additional information found about this star in the scientific investigation by this Sheffield group.

    So, really my words are certainly not some uncontrolled “knee jerk reaction” (as AvidEnthusiast says) I knew it was wrong and distorted from the moment I heard the story in the media – hence my comment.

    As the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees rightly says (21st July 2010)

    “I don’t view this discovery as a big breakthrough. It’s a bit bigger than other stars of this kind that we’ve seen and it’s nice that it involves British scientists and the world’s biggest telescope. It’s a step forward, but it is not more than an incremental advance in our knowledge”

    My own comment here was independently made almost at the same time of Rees’, and though my words might be seemingly cruder, the points I make are valid and in some ways are meant to be questioning and provocative.

    [I really did appreciated the link by paul_crowther to “R136a1 -Frequently Asked Questions.” and also the links to other media reports. The clarifications in this page should help those trying to grasp the subtle nuances of this story. ]

  42. Aodhhan says:

    LBC…

    I apologize. I directed comments towards you, which were meant to be directed to Crumb.

    There is no difference when talking about “boarding on plagarism”, and actual plagarism. You are still making the same claim, it is misleading, as if to say they didn’t steal everything; however, they did take the idea and turn it around. Something which is done here often.
    Then you go on to blatantly state they are deceiving the public. So don’t innoncent, like you weren’t being harsh and juding by saying “bordering” on plagarism. It is quite clear what your context is.

    Furthermore, just because the UK may have funding problems doesn’t mean they would make up stories and risk their credibility, which is what makes you in this community. If you lose it, you’ve lost your career. All you’re doing is fueling conspiracy theories, which is worse than calling someone a plagarist.

    On another note, I could be a kindergarten student and it wouldn’t matter. If you are going to make a claim, you better have proof exceeding the originator. A person should never lay back and let someone get away with making a false or misleading statement.

    Also note, the media made more of this than the authors. Nobody has proven anything against it. The authors even stated theyhave more research to do in order to confirm.
    Like many other papers which come out, some professionals have weighed in on what else it could be. They didn’t come right out and say it was wrong (they wouldn’t dare do that without proof), only other possibilities. Most of their thoughts do not come from jealousy, hatred, band-wagon jumping or ignorant speculation… it comes from critical thinking.

    I did laugh when you said, “IMO, Professor Crowther has a lot to answer to!”
    Not because it was ironic or apauling, but because you wouldn’t get it if he did.

  43. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Question 1 : Why did the authors of this current paper not reference Elson’s paper?
    I.e. Elson, R.A.W., et.al. “The Massive Stars in the R136 region of 30 Doradus.”; MNRAS., 258, 103-106 (1992))

    Important Note: Paragraph 4 and 5 of the “1. Introduction” in the Crowther et.al. paper fails to mention any published peer reviewed works on the nature of R136 before Hunter et.al. paper Ap.J., 448, 179 (1995).
    (Really. Shouldn’t have the referee on this Crowther, et.al. paper picked up this omission?)

  44. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    @ Aodhhan

    Ah. The arrogant jackass returns. As for “critical thinking”, you can’t even tell the difference between people. What chance do you have when it comes to stories on astronomy?

    I’ll say it again.

    YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT!

  45. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Aodhhan: apology accepted, but it would be preferable if you changed you behavior in general.

    The quote by Martin Rees posted by Hon. Salacious B. Crumb appears to reflect things most accurately. This is not a huge ground breaking discovery in particular, but an incremental advance. Yet 98% of science is done this way.

    LC

  46. Don Alexander says:

    Whoa, people, what’s up with this bloodbath??? Reading all of these posts, I must say the one person who is being really aggressive and out of order (all the way to personal attacks like “arrogant jackass”) is HSBC…

    Concerning your recent comment on why they did not cite the 1992 paper… It’s not the point of a scientific article to cite every last paper that somehow deals with the topic back to the beginning. 18 years is a very long time… And I daresay the observational data of this 1992 paper has to be a LOT worse than what Crowther et al. present. No HST spectroscopy, no AO-supported Big Glass observations of any kind… I’m pretty sure they were photometrically and spectroscopically unable to discern the three stars of R136a.

    Concerning “Why did the referee not notice?” Referees are just human too. I’ve been a ref. often enough, I know I’m not perfect. And very often, I’ve read other people’s papers and found glaring omissions (my papers, and those of other people)… And usually these were already accepted, so writing the authors was useless.

    I read the crowther paper yesterday, and indeed, it does not seem to be a huge leap… BUT they present a valuable re-analysis of a lot of old (and partly recent) data in the light of the newest atmosphere models, and their comparison for the NGC 3603 binary (for which the mass was recently dynamically determined) is quite valuable.

    And it’s not the author’s fault that the story went viral and was pared down to “ZOMG NEW MONSTER HYOOGE!!!!” by the mass media…

    So how about everyone cooling down!

  47. Dominion says:

    this is no bloodbath, Don. just a heated discussion. the kind that puts it’s participants to task with citations and sources. i love reading the posts here as there are so many different views and personalities. been a while since i saw Anaconda rear his ugly head. now those were the days of the bloodbath. and so much fun! i doubt that Aodhhan is truly insulted so please don’t take offense on his behalf.

  48. TerryG says:

    Don Alexander makes many excellent points.
    Hot headed comments are completely unnecessary, unwelcome and clearly violate the “be nice, be brief” policy.

  49. Jody says:

    @Lookingbeyond: I’m a complete noob, and I’ve gotta say I’m more amused than daunted by all the “heated arguing.” Heated or not, valid or not, people here still seem more polite than in most forums that allow comments.

    Having said that (wink to Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld), I am always a bit surprised when adults, using a medium that allows for editing, resort to name calling and hissy-fit throwing.

    Now, having said **that** I look forward to learning from all of you. My interest in astronomy is strong, but my scientific aptitude…..not so much. I struggle with basic math, which means I struggle with science, which pretty much ensures that I remain on the outskirts of any in-depth conversation about astronomy/space. Whether or not I grasp the entirety of a conversation, I’m bound to come away with something that I didn’t know before. And for that, I say in advance, “Thank you to all.”

  50. Aodhhan says:

    Crumb…
    It’s my experience, people who believe they know everything, act as if they know everything, write out mathematical expressions they cannot explain, etc…. like you; do not know anything. You’re just simply a poser who needs to compensate.

  51. M. Malenfant says:

    I tend to second HSBC.
    After finding some more infomative articles (not that easy between all the hype) I get the news as ‘new data and re-calibration of models leading to significantly higher mass estimates for R136a1 rendering it the highest mass star known – well above the upper limit of 150M-sun postulated recently.’
    It seems several corrections lead to generally somewhat higher mass estimates of the most massive known stars including those in Arches and NGC3603. Obviously Crowther et al. still assume there is an upper limit – though the statistical argument (‘statistically there should be stars above the limit, but none are found’) becomes weaker, if the limit is raised.

    Looking on the highest masses in R136 it appears suspicious, though, that except R136a1 alll are at least not much above 150 M-sun, but R136a1 has ~2 times this mass – a little far for a smooth distribution.
    -> Might this point to an exceptional creation mechanism (merger?) or a binary in spite of claims to have this ruled out?

    Would be interesting to know the high end masses for Arches and NGC3603 according to the new evaluations.

  52. Don Alexander says:

    For NGC 3603 A1a, A1b, B, C respectively:

    M_init (M?):
    148+40?27
    106+23?20
    166+20?20
    137+17?14
    Mcurrent (M?):
    120+26?17
    92+16?15
    132+13?13
    113+11?8

    For R136 a1, a2, a3, c respectively:

    Minit (M?):
    320+100?40
    240+45?45
    165+30?30
    220+55?45
    Mcurrent (M?)
    265+80?35
    195+35?35
    135+25?20
    175+40?35

    So, as you can see, there are actually three stars in R136 with ZAMS masses of ~ 200+ M?

    In the Arches cluster, using new, more precise photometry and a new estimation of the extinction (higher), they find five stars with ZAMS masses of > 150 M? (up to 185). Note these are lower limits due to uncertainty concerning the optical regime.

  53. paul_crowther says:

    HSBC, since you seem to be very interested in the Elson et al. paper from 1992 you’ll be aware that their conclusion states:

    “the [HST] data upon which this analysis is based are frustratingly poor”.

    Why? Pre-COSTAR Hubble images were awful, which were only rectified in post-COSTAR (e.g. WFPC2: Hunter et al. 1995) images.

    If still dubious about 250+ solar masses being common knowledge, try reading Krumholz et al. (Science, 323, 754) where their intro states: “Stars can form with masses up to at least 120 Msun.. (Weidner et al. 2004; Figer 2005).”

    Paul

  54. M. Malenfant says:

    Don Alexander,
    thank you for providing the numbers

  55. Salacious says:

    Whoa, people, what’s up with this bloodbath??? Reading all of these posts, I must say the one person who is being really aggressive and out of order (all the way to personal attacks like “arrogant jackass”) is HSBC…

    Bloodbath, what bloodbath? “Out of order” because I question the motivations of the ESO press release? “personal attack” because some individual acts like a bully, using derogatory terms, but say nothing about the subject at hand? (repeating other encounters for months here at Universe Today) Oh well. You cannot keep everyone happy.. and, yes, you’re entitled to your opinion.

    Concerning your recent comment on why they did not cite the 1992 paper… It’s not the point of a scientific article to cite every last paper that somehow deals with the topic back to the beginning. 18 years is a very long time… And I daresay the observational data of this 1992 paper has to be a LOT worse than what Crowther et al. present. No HST spectroscopy, no AO-supported Big Glass observations of any kind… I’m pretty sure they were photometrically and spectroscopically unable to discern the three stars of R136a.

    I agree that not every paper needs to cited. The 1992 paper is certainly not as concise or as detailed as Crowther et.al., nor does it have all the bells and whistles, but it is an important step in the evolution of the observations of R136. However, they do discuss the upper mass limit and come with a prediction of ~250 Solar Masses. The result is a step to the Crowther et.al. paper, and regardless of the position, four paper suggesting this value it somewhat legitimate. If anything, it would have been useful to reinforce the current article.

    Concerning “Why did the referee not notice?” Referees are just human too. I’ve been a ref. often enough, I know I’m not perfect. And very often, I’ve read other people’s papers and found glaring omissions (my papers, and those of other people)… And usually these were already accepted, so writing the authors was useless.

    Agreed.

    I read the crowther paper yesterday, and indeed, it does not seem to be a huge leap… BUT they present a valuable re-analysis of a lot of old (and partly recent) data in the light of the newest atmosphere models, and their comparison for the NGC 3603 binary (for which the mass was recently dynamically determined) is quite valuable.

    Yes. I have absolutely no qualms about the current paper as I have previously stated. It is quite useful addition to our knowledge. The issue is former paper have made claims of high solar masses in R136. Crowther et.al ignored them – probably legitimately, but the rejection probably should have been explained. (If one is going to claim the “Guinness Book of Records” for some star you should have been more through. All the “little Johnny’s” out there via this paper and the ESO press release, now think Crowther et.al. have been solely instrumental in discovering the largest star, when in fact someone has else infer the same conclusion. Elson et.al. should have been acknowledged in my view. [I am considering writing to the RAS, subject to the editors, requesting a letter with the perspective of unfounded or incomplete claims regarding R136. Sure it is esoteric, but for educating the public’s perspective, absolute scientific truths in astronomy published in astrophysical papers is equally important if astronomy remains a legitimate science. If we present as fact to the public it has to be 110% correct and never misleading. I sometimes have to teach those “little Johnnies”, and I feel uncomfortable teaching them even slight distortions. The “Everest of stars” in astronomy is highly influential on the young.
    Professor, PhD, or humble amateur : this is where our responsibilities lie!]

    And it’s not the author’s fault that the story went viral and was pared down to “ZOMG NEW MONSTER HYOOGE!!!!” by the mass media…

    Sorry. I absolutely disagree. The authors were involved in the ESO press release. Ot was their words which propagated the story – and if they were wrong, they should have corrected it. From my perspective, they are making claims that are not 100% verified nor 110% absolute truth as decreed by the application of the ideal being primarily of science and the scientific method.

    So how about everyone cooling down!

    I am as cool as a cucumber, and so is everyone else. I’ve presented my case with adequate evidence, citations, and links. Other than the troublesome Aodhhan, who has persisted in undermining everything I say, I’ve been honest in my appraisals. There is something fundamentally wrong with the press release by the ESO – frankly reflecting the general problem of presenting astronomy and astrophysics to the general reader in sites like Universe Today. I might not be a high-flying professional astronomer, but I do know science has an important responsibility of legitimacy and absolute truth and what we say.

    In the end, there are few doubts in the nitty-griitty of the gust of whole story of this article. Yet when the wrong conclusions are filtered to the wider public that are unfounded and are distorted, there are questions to be properly answered. I have real doubts on the “political” nature of the publicity of the story. Right or wrong, the ESO Press Release does not tell the whole truth. Worse. It has not been corrected.

    Thanks very much for the thoughtful and unexpected reply here.

    Note: As to Prof. Crowther’s shock contribution here, I have significant difficulties responding to his superior knowledge and somewhat far wider expertise. I will very careful respond to his latter post in turn.

  56. Salacious says:

    HSBC, since you seem to be very interested in the Elson et al. paper from 1992 you’ll be aware that their conclusion states:
    “the [HST] data upon which this analysis is based are frustratingly poor”.
    Why? Pre-COSTAR Hubble images were awful, which were only rectified in post-COSTAR (e.g. WFPC2: Hunter et al. 1995) images.
    If still dubious about 250+ solar masses being common knowledge, try reading Krumholz et al. (Science, 323, 754) where their intro states: “Stars can form with masses up to at least 120 Msun.. (Weidner et al. 2004; Figer 2005).”
    Paul

    Sir, with respect to your response here, my problem is more to do with the ESO Press Release than your published paper. I feel I have no right to question the legitimacy of your paper – and to do so would be quite disrespectful of your position.

    My own real concern here has been mostly with the distorted media position of your paper/story and of the significant problem created within science education and the wider astronomical community.

    In claiming the “Everest of stars” is not just some whim nor something said to be said in gist. The somewhat careless ESO Release, and the subsequent viral media story, has consequences right down to some child in some anonymous school room.

    As to the Elson et.al. article, everything almost with what you say. I do remember when the star 30 Doradus was revealed a multiple and the Elson et.al. article revealing the true massive nature of these remarkable stars. It had a significant effect on me and the local astronomical community.

    Note: So right or wrong, Elson et.al. make the claim of the most massive star was about 250 solar masses – both in the “Abstract” and “Conclusion.” If one makes the claim for the wider and popular stance of the “Everest of stars”, it should be acknowledged and/or placed in the perspective of the wider story. Based on the limitations of their investigations, I think Elson et.al. have some legitimate claims, if not, conferring what is now claimed by you and your colleagues investigations. Regardless, I think you certainly have legitimate claims of refining the maximum and precision of stellar masses through your latest study.

    Note: I really thank you very much for your honest decision contribution to “Universe Today” story. IMO it shows that the honest astronomical community has a role to play into the progression of the science. Your appraisal here is most gratefully acknowledged.

  57. Salacious says:

    I said;

    “In claiming the “Everest of stars” is not just some whim nor something said to be said in gist. The somewhat careless ESO Release, and the subsequent viral media story, has consequences right down to some child in some anonymous school room.”

    Error : “gist” should have read “jest”

  58. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    …and a big FAIL to larsson for trying to bring EU into the discussion (yet again). F-

    Yes, it was a big FAIL, too little thought went into risking that. (If not yet again: once.) But I pulled it off, luckily! 😀

  59. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Reading all of these posts, I must say the one person who is being really aggressive and out of order (all the way to personal attacks like “arrogant jackass”) is HSBC…

    I’m not coming down in an evaluation of different persons behavior; and this is no black-or-white issue anyway.

    But you really need to read more than these comments here to see each individual behavior over time, and understand others comment on this.

  60. M. Malenfant says:

    As Salacious I see the irritating point here in the press release / public communication.
    After having found the original paper (which is not that easy between all the hyped publications and with only public internet access): this is quite interesting and a good analysis.

    But the press release is grossly misleading and confusing. Leveraging the aspect of the most massive star as such is ok to get attention (the press would highlight this anyway) but at least the more detailed text should be nearer to what has actually been achieved / what is the new insight.
    Now to a layperson it appears, as if a new star had been found. With some background in this area you feel rather fooled by most of the publications.

  61. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    As I said at the top of the page this is how virtually all science stories are reported by the non-specialist press [mainstream media if you will]. If your newspaper of choice has a science reporter/correspondent then you may get a slightly more detailed analysis, an explaination that the headline report is merly an overview and or even a pointer to the origianl paper. Most newspapers have a news reporter writing a piece for ALL their readers who, the writer, may not be particularly well read in science. One can virtually guarantee that 99% of the readers have little or no knowledge of stellar physics [in this case] but even if a few measly percent of the readers have their interest piqued and want to find out a bit more and get on the road to loving astronomy then it’s job done. Most readers will not have their lives blighted by what ‘we experts’ know to be either slightly misleading or confusing reportage. We should be bloody thankful that newspapers carry any stories and photographs about astronomy/particle physics and any other of the big sciences.

  62. Salacious says:

    @ Paul

    Eh? We are mostly talking about an ESO Press Release, which was used by the media to draw their bizarre conclusions. Obviously, the ESO PR was supported by the authors of the paper (they are actually quoted.)

    Frankly, “We should be bloody thankful that newspapers carry any stories and photographs about astronomy/particle physics and any other of the big sciences.” is useless IF THE INFORMATION IS NOT ACTUALLY CORRECT!!!

    Worst. How can we be sure that the media were not manipulated here? If we to follow your ideology, we have no means of making sure science does not abuse its position – and sadly feed the ill-informed, the radical skeptics and doubters of good science.

    Sorry, but your last statement here is quite irrelevant to the gist of the argument. I.e. The ESO release is the core fault of this unfortunate saga – and someone ought to take responsibility for it.

  63. TerryG says:

    Game, set and match to Professor Paul Crowther, University of Sheffield :-)

  64. Don Alexander says:

    HSBC, you may be overestimating the influence the authors had on the ESO press release. Admittedly, I have neither proof for or against that… But I’ve been part of a few press releases, and they aren’t written by the authors of the paper. They’re written by ESO or university staff, who usually have a lot more knowledge of science than your average newspaper reporter, but also, of course, want to sensationalize the results a bit. And I would not be astonished if the authors didn’t even have a final veto on the text.

    Furthermore, I don’t see how the information in the press release is “NOT ACTUALLY CORRECT” – at least in the sense of presenting false results. If someone comes along with a better stellar atmosphere model and shows that, using the same data Crowther et al. used, that R136a1 is actually only 140 solar masses… Then, yes, incorrect. But where is anything here being presented which is misleading to the public? Do they really care that other people suspected these stars to be huge years earlier?? Of course not. I can’t believe a single layman who might increase his interest in astronomy (or a young student who may be pushed toward studying astronomy) will throw down everything in disgust after finding out not everyone might have been cited correctly…

    It’s not like we are talking about pioneers of a field not getting the Nobel prize or so… 😉

  65. Salacious says:

    @ Don

    …the sense of presenting false results.

    Actually, I think you really mean “misleading” results.

    I’ve have never said Crowther et.al. paper made “false results” and to say so or infer so is quite disingenuous.

    Also Elson et.al. doesn’t say 150 Solar Masses, as that is quoted as Crowther et.al. ‘theoretical’ value they say “200±50 Solar Masses” I.e. Within the limit of Crowther et.al mass. The star exceeding 140M⊙ for R136a1 here has been stated by more than a dozen sources since Crowther’s et.al. 2010 paper – hence they are not the first

    As for the rest of the comment, well, you entitled to your opinion. The only comment I see is these errors are often cumulative, resulting with erroneous ideas being perpetuated. One that come to mind is that planetary nebulae are formed by ‘explosive’ nova-like phenomena when it is actually a superwind phenomena.

    The simple fact is that the claim of the discovery of the largest known star here, is therefore, incorrect.

    (Note I far from a ‘layman’ here.)

  66. Salacious says:

    @TerryG

    I didn’t realise we are playing tennis here!

    Even according to Paul Crowther here; “If still dubious about 250+ solar masses being common knowledge.

    The fact that this is “dubious” infers the statement of the most massive star known is not absolutely true. With great respect to Professor Crowther opinion here, and his great expertise regarding stellar evolution, I do think the investigation of previous claims of the most massive star deserve far more scrutiny. (It would certainly make a interesting paper in it’s own right – and would be great guidance for novices and professionals alike!)

    Again, my assertion is more to do with the nature of the press release and subsequent media reports.

  67. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    Actually Salacious it’s your comment at the start of the replies to which I was responding – i.e. – “This story is an absolute crock, which the blithering media has literally blown out of proportion – especially in light of the con job by the UK astronomy.” ANY reporting of science that brings it to a wider audience and pricks somebody’s curiosity to dig deeper is to be welcomed. If the report contains inaccuracies that only the ‘experts’ can detect so what? Any intelligent person looking further into will soon discover inaccuracies and move on.
    As for my last comment being, ” quite irrelevant to the gist of the argument”, au contraire, it is particullarly germaine because, I say again, the original complaint was levelled at the ‘mainstream media’s’ report. How do you think the layman should find out stuff? Certainly not by coming here and asking a questions as all he will get is a series of abstruse, convoluted mathematical equations and techno-speak that are meaningless to all but three or four contributors. Showing off impresses no one and deters many.

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