The oldest star in the universe? Maybe, maybe not

Feb 14, 2014 by Geraint Lewis, The Conversation
The oldest star is out there somewhere. But which one is it? Credit: www.shutterstock.com

There is a myth that goldfish have a three-second memory, and I sometimes wonder if the same is true about the part of the human mind that deals with science in the news.

This week, the international media has trumpeted the by Australian scientists of the oldest star in the universe, with the catchy name SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, formed in the almost pristine gas soon after the Big Bang.

This would mean the star has been slowly burning away for almost 13.7 billion years.

Something older?

But this story may leave those that follow the scientific media scratching their heads slightly, as only six months ago the media telling us about HD 140283, the "Methuselah Star", whose best-estimated age is almost 14.5 billion years.

This formally makes HD 140283 older than the universe itself, but the uncertainty in the age, by about 800,000 years, could bring it back into line with our cosmological measurements for the universe's age.

A Digitized Sky Survey image of the oldest star with a well-determined age in our galaxy, cataloged as HD 140283, which lies 190.1 light-years away. Credit: Digitized Sky Survey (DSS), STScI/AURA, Palomar/Caltech, and UKSTU/AAO

So, why is this new discovery touted as the oldest star in the universe?

Science vs cultural interest

In my opinion, there are two key reasons, one scientific, the other cultural.

Let's start with scientific. Discovery in typically come in two pieces, the experiment or observations, and the interpretation. The media often focus upon the latter, as interpretations can be quite sensational. It what grabs the headlines, while the blood, sweat and tears shed in experiment and observation to get the data can be messy, or laborious, and could be swept under the carpet.

As explained by Stefan Keller, the observations required to identify this were heroic.

It is in a picturesque part of the southern sky between the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (two galaxies that orbit around the Milky Way) Credit: Mike Bessell, ANU/Space Telescope Science Institute

A new telescope, SkyMapper, born out of the ashes of the disastrous 2003 Canberra fires, is mapping the Southern sky, looking, at least in part, for stars with the right colours to be missing the we find are common in the Sun.

SkyMapper throws up lots of candidate stars, and spectroscopy with larger telescopes is needed to search for the telltale signs (or lack of) heavier elements.

The presented in this new result is that they have identified a star that appears to have been forged from almost pure hydrogen and helium, polluted with a small amount of heavier elements from a single exploding star. These conditions were only present in the very early Universe, and so clearly this is an important discovery.

But what about the claim that this is the oldest star in the universe? Well, this is where things get messy. Unfortunately, stars not display simple clocks ticking off the time since they were born.

The age of stars

To understand the age of stars, we have to understand how they are formed, and how they evolve, and while a star is much simpler than a bumblebee, accounting for the complexities of physics, the uncertainties in the conditions in the early Universe, and may other factors, precise dating is fraught with difficulties.

This latest discovery, of SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, may be the oldest star we know in the universe, but given the uncertainties involved, maybe it isn't.

In fact, the Nature paper announcing this new star goes into exquisite detail on how the observations were made and how the abundance of chemicals was measured, and then argues conclusively that the material from which the star was made must have existed in the very early Universe. But it's highly important to note that the one thing the authors do not comment on is the actual age of the star.

Back to cultural interest

So, what about the cultural reasons?

We've established that the discovery of an extraordinary chemically deprived star that could only have formed in the is a scientifically significant result.

But would there have been much media interest if it was said that it may be (not is) the oldest star in the universe?

It appears that to pique the interest of some journalists, stories must be quirky or threaten to "rewrite the textbooks". So out goes the actual uncertainty and confusion that often muddies the waters of real science, and this story is sold as the discovery of the oldest star.

What is a public to make of this latest news when, as I raised earlier, they've already been told of the existence of something older in the Methuselah Star discovery?

In a world where Kim Kardashian doing the most trivial things appears newsworthy, it seems that science has to be sensational to be considered interesting to the public.

I should make it clear to my colleagues that I am not picking on this particular news story; I have great respect for the astronomers involved, and am very excited by the success of SkyMapper and the discovery of this exotic star.

But we've all become guilty (me included) often learning through media training how you "sell" your story to the media.

This leaves the news reading public, including the next generation of scientists, with a distorted view of how science proceeds and what's important.

While it would take a substantial cultural shift, science needs a better, more accurate, presentation within the public , displaying it as a continual human challenge. This is not an unattainable goal!

But before we close, we can return to the question on whether SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 is the oldest star we know in the Universe.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. Nobody knows for certain.

Explore further: 'Oldest star' found from iron fingerprint (Update)

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chardo137
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 14, 2014
Well said. As a long time reader of science, I am constantly having to explain to friends the reality behind the hype given to these stories. I know that writers are supposed to make stories exciting, but doesn't that detract from the reality, and the excitement of watching the step by step advances of science? I am also disappointed by the "This is how it could destroy the universe" or "This is how it could kill you" takes on so many of the stories. I think that actual science is exciting enough by itself.
no fate
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2014
"There is a myth that goldfish have a three-second memory, and I sometimes wonder if the same is true about the part of the human mind that deals with science in the news."

Maybe a bit longer than 3 seconds, but I have been reading books on astronomy for over 30 years so I have seen the rise and fall of many theories about what we are seeing out there. The author of the article has my respect for voicing his disdain of sensationalism in reporting scientific news. Posters here criticize this all the time (re-reporting a finding like it is new, claiming a "discovery" we already know about, saying something is signifigant when it isn't....yet). But most of all I respect his recognition that interpretation is the point where some things go wrong. We use what we "know" to attempt to interpret information we have about something we do not. When this "knowledge" is called into question, so is everything that it was used to infer.

Onward we go.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2014
Discovery in science typically come in two pieces, the experiment or observations, and the interpretation.

Good observation. Though one should not forget that the science stories one reads (e.g. on physorg) aren't written by scientists but by science journalists (i.e. people with a degree in journalism and a minimum of scientific background, which is barely enough to talk to scientists and not be totally confused).

Scientists, on the other hand, write papers and articles in scientific journals (which laymen mostly don't get to read because they are very expensive).
If you have any experience with reading the actual papers you'll know that the 'interpretation' part isn't in there. Any results you'll found in a paper are those that are clearly subtsantiated by the observation/experiment - nothing more.
no fate
3 / 5 (3) Feb 14, 2014
"If you have any experience with reading the actual papers you'll know that the 'interpretation' part isn't in there"

Of course it is. Otherwise the paper is nothing more than a description of the data. The paper is about how the researchers interpret the data, that is the reason for the paper in the first place.
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 14, 2014
Otherwise the paper is nothing more than a description of the data

Read scientific papers. That's what they are. Descriptions of data, experiments and outcomes of those experiments.

This leaves the news reading public, including the next generation of scientists, with a distorted view of how science proceeds and what's important

Well, not the future generation of scientists: Since as a scientist you have to start reading the actual papers. Then you realize pretty quickly that that is an entirely different world than reading popular science press articles.

(BTW, even though some might not want to hear it: Reading physorg doesn't make you scientifically literate - it just gives you a very rough idea what areas people look into who are. Much like watching sports doesn't make you an athlete or even able to understand what it takes to succeed in any one discipline.)
Osteta
Feb 14, 2014
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Osteta
Feb 14, 2014
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Osteta
Feb 14, 2014
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TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2014
Isn't it unreasonable to assume that the oldest star in the entire universe is only 190ly away?? What did I miss?
no fate
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
"Read scientific papers. That's what they are. Descriptions of data, experiments and the outcomes of those experiments".

Some are. Others, not.

I can't even estimate how many papers I have in my library. And yes I have read all of them...some more than once. Your lack of objectivity becomes apparent in the face of anything that challenges your beliefs or what you consider to be knowledge you posess. "Scientific papers" have been written about BH's, DM, DE, core accretion and a myriad of other as yet untested, not experimentally validated subjects. Thus they (the papers) are INTERPRETING the data to indicate the existence of the subjects of the paper. Peer reviewed by a panel of scientists who would interpret the data in the same fashion and thus are approved for publication.

Good for consistency, bad for accuracy.
In some cases you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Fortunately that isn't universal or I'd still be plugging the same impossible crap I once trusted as correct.
Kron
1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2014
Isn't it unreasonable to assume that the oldest star in the entire universe is only 190ly away?? What did I miss?


The star at 190 light years away is seen as it was 190 years ago. A star 14 billion light years away is seen as it was 14 billion years ago.
Nestle
1 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2014
Of course it's strange. In distant universe is the same density of galaxies like today, although you can see only these youngest ones. The isotropy of Universe across space implies, that the Universe is isotropic across time too, i.e. steady state.
Kron
3 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2014
If we are to hypothesize, Nestle, I'd rather say that this steady state universe is a cyclic one. Like a star which condenses out of a molecular cloud, then goes nova to form a cloud once more, then condenses once more...to infinity - the universe *most likely* operates in the same way.
Kron
3 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2014
If you consider this model you can do away with inflation. (energy escaping at greater than light speeds as a result of expanding space). Inflation is necessary to allow all of the energy of the universe to escape an infinitessimally small, infinitely dense region. By doing away with the big bang we do away with the "birth of space and time".
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Feb 14, 2014
Isn't it unreasonable to assume that the oldest star in the entire universe is only 190ly away?? What did I miss?


The star at 190 light years away is seen as it was 190 years ago. A star 14 billion light years away is seen as it was 14 billion years ago.
Dufuss.

"A Digitized Sky Survey image of the oldest star with a well-determined age in our galaxy, cataloged as HD 140283, which lies 190.1 light-years away. Credit: Digitized Sky Survey (DSS), STScI/AURA, Palomar/Caltech, and UKSTU/AAO"

-Out of the gazillions of stars in the universe they found that the oldest is only 190ly away. DOES THIS MAKE SENSE??
Kron
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
I know what you're saying Otto but how do you know that a star 14 billion light years away hasn't already died? Comprende?
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (3) Feb 14, 2014
What a fantastic, and rare, pause in the quest to convince ourselves that we know! Kudos to the article author for having the courage to bring up this important topic.

Re: "It appears that to pique the interest of some journalists, stories must be quirky or threaten to "rewrite the textbooks"."

They must also not diverge too much from our expectations for what we will see, based upon what we have come to accept as normal within our unique thin skin of an atmosphere. And this is where the really fascinating stuff is happening, actually: Our experiences here are not at all reflective of what is happening in the universe at large. And this leads to expectations which are not at all reflective of the actual universe. We want to believe that the universe is fundamentally mechanistic, just like the stuff that we see all around us. And each opportunity we get to collectively realize that it is not, we decide to nevertheless favor the mechanistic interpretation.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (5) Feb 14, 2014
Today, along with this article, "PhysOrg also carries the article, "Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds". The article declares that, although most Americans have difficulty understanding "scientific" claims, "a majority are interested in hearing about the latest breakthroughs and think highly of scientists". In it's own way, this is intended to make just public adulation the "excuse" for trusting "science" and sending more money to support its lies. The article itself declares that those promoting the popularizing of "science" sees the value in that as being not ennobling people and bettering society but ensuring "funding" and fattening the ranks of conspirators in the lie by "helping attract future scientists". And, now, this article declares that the very "breakthroughs" the people "are interested in" and which lead them to "respect scientists" are just gussied up accounts! There is no honesty in pushing "science" to the public.
Nestle
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
If we are to hypothesize, Nestle, I'd rather say that this steady state universe is a cyclic one.
In AWT the universe is neither cyclic, neither static. It's just random. When you're living inside of it, such an randomness appear like the life inside the foam - the nearest cell creates the illusion of expanding universe, these more distant ones the illusion or periodic universe. But if you rise your head, you'll see, we're actually living inside of infinite field of random events with no apparent order in it. I do perfectly realize, why the people do speculate about these particular models, but the willingness to admit the broad general view is still missing here. It's pretty annoying: the people are attracted to particular models like the bees to the honey. They resist to thinking in general perspective desperately. The most general model of reality is actually this one, which doesn't takes any assumptions and the periodicity is such an hypothesis.

"Hypotheses non fingo".
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
I know what you're saying Otto but how do you know that a star 14 billion light years away hasn't already died? Comprende?
It's not 14 billion ly away. It is a 14 billion year-old star that's sitting 190ly away from us. Comprende? Troll?
In it's own way, this is intended to make just public adulation the "excuse" for trusting "science" and sending more money to support its lies.
Are you comparing this to how ken ham debates bill nye at the creation museum in order to gain pr and legitimacy for the lie if creationism? That museum full of nonsense like Noah using dinosaurs to build the ark and such?

Well it's not really the same thing is it?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Just so we' re clear on what my question is;

"This week, the international media has trumpeted the discovery by Australian scientists of the oldest star in the universe, with the catchy name SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, formed in the almost pristine gas soon after the Big Bang. This would mean the star has been slowly burning away for almost 13.7 billion years."

-But as the article says, they find an even OLDER one only 190ly away from us:

"the media telling us about HD 140283, the "Methuselah Star", whose best-estimated age is almost 14.5 billion years."

"the oldest star with a well-determined age IN OUR GALAXY, cataloged as HD 140283, which lies 190.1 light-years away."

HD 140283 = HD 140283; same star.

-So I repeat; how could it be that the oldest star in the universe is only 190ly away from the earth?
Q-Star
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
"the oldest star with a well-determined age IN OUR GALAXY, cataloged as HD 140283, which lies 190.1 light-years away."

HD 140283 = HD 140283; same star.

-So I repeat; how could it be that the oldest star in the universe is only 190ly away from the earth?


If you are talking about HD140283, it is older than our Galaxy. It is thought to have formed in a primordial dwarf galaxy which may or may not be a constituent forming the Milky Way. Any star that is thought to be 13 + billions years old has to be within a billion light-years or less to us, otherwise we would be seeing a star less than 13 billion years old. 190 light years is just what it is, all that means is it isn't 250 or 100.

There may be an older one in M31 or M33 or the SMG or LMG, just no one has found it yet. It will take a long time to make spectrograph and analyze 400 + billion individual stars so it may be awhile before anyone can say "oldest". They should just say "oldest found".
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Any star that is thought to be 13 + billions years old has to be within a billion light-years or less to us, otherwise we would be seeing a star less than 13 billion years old
This is nonsense. We can see primordial galaxies which are farther away than this.
190 light years is just what it is, all that means is it isn't 250 or 100
It is also an INCREDIBLY IMPROBABLE COINCIDENCE that 'the oldest star in the entire universe' just happens to be RIGHT NEXT to us. Do you understand just how ridiculous this notion is??
There may be an older one in M31 or M33 or the SMG or LMG
-Or absolutely anywhere else in the entire universe. There are galaxies billions of ly away from us which are just as old as ours is.

Im trying to be polite here. You may have some idea just how difficult this can be for me.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
First, the press release itself didn't claim "the oldest star", it claimed "one of the earliest". [ http://web.mit.ed...209.html ]

And it has lower iron content than all previous stars, so likely older. They didn't try to estimate the age, as in the "Methuselah star" study.

Lewis noted the quacking media duck, but made himself a hen of a feather.
Q-Star
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
Any star that is thought to be 13 + billions years old has to be within a billion light-years or less to us, otherwise we would be seeing a star less than 13 billion years old
This is nonsense. We can see primordial galaxies which are farther away than this.
190 light years is just what it is, all that means is it isn't 250 or 100
It is also an INCREDIBLY IMPROBABLE COINCIDENCE that 'the oldest star in the entire universe' just happens to be RIGHT NEXT to us. Do you understand just how ridiculous this notion is??
There may be an older one in M31 or M33 or the SMG or LMG
-Or absolutely anywhere else in the entire universe. There are galaxies billions of ly away from us which are just as old as ours is.

Im trying to be polite here. You may have some idea just how difficult this can be for me.


If we look at a galaxy 13 billion light years away, we are seeing something that is less than 1 billion years old.
Nestle
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
They didn't try to estimate the age, as in the "Methuselah star" study.
Well, they did compare it to progenitor stars of z ~ 20 (value of red shift), which is attributed to age in contemporary cosmology. The astronomers and cosmologists just use different, not so obvious units for age.
Q-Star
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
It is also an INCREDIBLY IMPROBABLE COINCIDENCE that 'the oldest star in the entire universe' just happens to be RIGHT NEXT to us. Do you understand just how ridiculous this notion is??


Yes I do. If you had read what I said you know that I do. "oldest found" was what I suggested they use rather than "oldest".

There may be an older one in M31 or M33 or the SMG or LMG
-Or absolutely anywhere else in the entire universe. There are galaxies billions of ly away from us which are just as old as ours is.


Yes there are. But if we look at a galaxy 1 billion ly away, we are looking at something a billion years younger than we are. 2 billion ly away? 2 billion years younger than we are. Etc, etc,

Im trying to be polite here. You may have some idea just how difficult this can be for me.


Trust me, I have a very good idea. But I'm not thin skinned. We're just two anonymous guys on the computer.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
If we look at a galaxy 13 billion light years away, we are seeing something that is less than 1 billion years old
CORRECT. And that galaxy still exists TODAY. And its stars are that much older. And according to the article, NONE of them is older than the one sitting right next to us.

"The oldest star in the universe"

-is what the article says. Obviously this is bullshit.
"oldest found" was what I suggested
No, because we could find an old star in andromeda for instance and just add on 2,538,000 light years, more or less, and find out if its older than the 'oldest star in the universe' sitting right next to us.

But according to the article, we've already found the oldest and its right HERE.
Q-Star
5 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2014
But according to the article, we've already found the oldest and its right HERE.


I agree Otto. The most anyone can honestly say is "the oldest found so far". There maybe an older in M31 (Andromeda). There may be an older one in the SMC or LMC. There may be an older one is M33 (Triangulum). But that is about 400 or 500 billions stars that need looking at before anyone can say "oldest". Each star needs to be assessed individually. So oldest will always be a ridiculous claim.

To look further is just as ridiculous. Because the further away, the more difficult it is to look at the star with enough resolution to determine it's age. By definition, a star over 13 billion years old is a very dim star intrinsically. It's an M V (dwarf). There is absolutely no way to view one of those with enough resolution to spectroscopically measure it's individual metallicity. That is the only way to guess at it's age, by the low metallicity.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Feb 16, 2014
I agree Otto. The most anyone can honestly say is "the oldest found so far".
Well I can also think of a number of ways to reword the original statement to get an entirely different meaning. So what?
There maybe an older in M31 (Andromeda). There may be an older one in the SMC or LMC. There may be an older one is M33 (Triangulum).
There may be an older star existing at this very moment, ANYWHERE in the universe. This does NOT depend on whether we ever find it or not. The chances that it is only 190ly away from us are impossibly small. Ergo the statement 'oldest in the universe' is utter bullshit .
Fleetfoot
5 / 5 (4) Feb 17, 2014
This has to be one of the best articles I've ever read on Phys.org. Finally someone in the profession is making clear the reasons why press popularisations are so often over-hyped and inaccurate. Well said that man!