Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 2, 2011

The Many Stars of the Heavens … Are Young?


In my unofficial rivalry with a high school student, it looks like I’m finally getting a post up before him about the latest from Brian Thomas and the Institute for Creation Research’s “Daily Science Updates.” Though it’s really an unfair challenge because he’s in a land Down Under and wakes up about the same time that these suckers go up on the ICR’s website. I’m supposed to be in bed.

This post today is about the IRC’s post, “New Study Can’t Explain Blue Stragglers’ Youth.”

About Stars

Stars are important. Perhaps that much should be obvious to everyone. In the current epoch of the universe, stars are what provide energy to allow some minor things like, say, life to exist. Stars are formed generally with a set amount of gases, and the vast majority of this gas is hydrogen. In the core of stars – roughly the inner 10% in a sun-like star – temperatures and pressures are high enough for fusion to occur which is what provides energy.

It also prevents the stars from collapsing. Stars are a balancing between outward pressure from heat and energy versus the collapsing force of gravity. Gravity compresses the gas until fusion begins and counters it. In small stars, there is less force of gravity, and so the pressures and temperatures are lower and fusion goes on more slowly. In large stars, there is a larger force from gravity, the pressures and temperatures are much higher, and fusion goes on at a much faster rate and over a larger portion of the star in order to prevent collapse.

This means that even though smaller stars – say, red dwarfs – are significantly lighter than the sun, they will be able to continue to fuse hydrogen for roughly 10 trillion years as opposed to the sun which has an estimated lifetime of 10 billion years.

Contrast that with the gigantic stars – blue supergiants – which are generally up to about 50 times the mass of the sun, and these will go through their nuclear fuel in roughly 10 million years. In each of these (red dwarfs, yellow dwarfs like the sun, blue supergiants), we’re dealing with a factor of one thousand difference in expected lifetime because of the different pace of fusion.

Blue Stragglers

Surrounding our galaxy, there are roughly 175 known groups of stars called globular clusters. These are tight groupings of many hundreds of thousands to millions of stars that generally all formed at once (astronomically speaking) and lack any interstellar material from which to form new stars. There are different ideas for how these originated – some think they were just clouds of gas that collapsed into dense clusters of stars, similar to open clusters, while others think they may be the cores of small dwarf galaxies that were consumed by our galaxy.

What’s known is that effectively every globular cluster surrounding our galaxy is very old, on the order of 10 billion years. In fact, before we had good models of stellar evolution, there was a disconnect in cosmology where we thought globular clusters were older than the universe (obviously that could not be true). It’s important to note in a post about this particular subject that these have since been reconciled both by better estimates for the universe’s age and better stellar models.

The point is that globulars around our galaxy are old (many around Andromeda are young, but this post is not about them). The problem is that most globular clusters contain a few blue supergiant stars known as “blue stragglers.” These are, well, blue supergiant stars. Given what I said above, these should not exist in an old star cluster because they should have exploded 10 billion minus 10 million years ago.

The same can be said about some open clusters in our galaxy, except that open clusters are usually young and they contain fewer members. Open clusters usually form within the plane of the galaxy, and over the course of a few hundred thousand to hundred million years, the member stars disperse due to interactions with other stars. So, most are young and most happily contain blue supergiant stars that are no problem for stellar evolution models.

There are a few exceptions, and one of them is discussed in the article that’s the subject of this post.

NGC 188 is well above the plane of the galaxy, so it has managed to stay together for about 7 billion years. All the members formed at about the same time, except that it contains some of those blue stragglers. So again, we have a question that needs answering: How do you get stars that are supposed to have lifetimes at 10 million years in a cluster that’s 7 billion years old?

Enter Brian Thomas and the Young-Earth Creationists to the Rescue!

Mr. Thomas’ article is responding to a recent Nature paper entitled, “A mass transfer origin for blue stragglers in NGC 188 as revealed by half-solar-mass companions.” With the wonders of the internet, you can read the paper yourself for free here (it’s short, but it’s pretty technical).

Now, to start off with, when I was an undergraduate just a very very few short years ago, because I’m not old, we were taught that the likely explanation for blue stragglers was that they were a second generation of stars within open clusters. These days, it appears as though the most promising explanations are either a collision between two stars that produces a massive enough result to make a blue supergiant, and/or a star in a close binary system that siphons off material from a companion to give it enough mass to turn into a blue supergiant.

This paper, in particular, that Thomas references was looking at the latter explanation. Through their observations, they have statistically ruled out the merger as the likely explanation and settle on mass transfer as the more likely of the two. They end their paper by saying mergers of triplets may happen, though. Remember: Clusters are dense and so binary and trinary systems are not uncommon.

The problem with this, according to Thomas, is:

“Nothing explains the many blue stragglers that are not binary stars and yet exist near and far throughout the universe. Could they have received recent “youthfulness” through collisions with other stars?”

I’m not actually sure where Thomas is coming from here. By definition, blue stragglers kinda need to be a member of a cluster of stars because otherwise they wouldn’t be blue stragglers. The reason we know they “shouldn’t” be so young is that we need a cluster that all formed at the same time from which to say, “Oh, every star in here formed at the same time, the bulk age is 5 billion years, therefore giant massive blue stars are out of place.” Perhaps Peter can provide context for this.

Moving forward to the next-to-last paragraph of the ICR article:

“So, isolated blue stars could not have received their young looks from a binary system, since by definition they have no binary from which to siphon fuel. They probably didn’t receive their youthful appearance from collisions, either, according to these results. And though the binary blue stragglers may have siphoned fuel from nearby partners, the idea that 12 of 16 only did so recently—after an imagined 7-billion-year wait—defies reasonable odds.”

At some point in skepticism and debunking, we simply have to ask, “Show your work/math.” Brian, show your math here. How did you calculate what are “reasonable odds?” We’re talking about a cluster with over 10,000 stars in a tightly confined space. Brian is presenting a specific, statistical claim. He needs to back it up with data before it’s even worth going into further.

It’s like me saying it’s mathematically impossible for 100 billion trees to exist on this planet. Okay, fine, but before anyone should accept that or take my word for it, they should demand to see evidence.

But, at least in that article (I see no link to “further math” nor “supplemental material”), he does not. Rather, the next sentence is “goddidit.” Err, sorry, it’s: “Thus, the best explanation is still the most straightforward one—blue straggler stars look young because they are young.” Yeah — what I said: “Goddidit.”

Edited to Add: Solstation.com has a nice illustration showing the two different models:

Missing the Forrest for the Tree

I find it interesting when young-Earth creationists use star ages to argue for a creation only a few thousand years ago. The whole “problem” with blue stragglers is that they are in a system that is otherwise dated to be several billion years old. And yet creationists don’t address that big, glaring contradiction to their “model.” Or in discussing supernovae and why there appear to be “too few” of them for the age of the galaxy (let alone universe), they miss the entire fact that supernovae occur at the end of a massive star’s death which takes at least 10 million (not thousand) years to happen.

Or that there exist neutron stars and black holes, which are the remnants from these explosions which would have again taken at least 10 million years to happen.

Or that there exist white dwarfs, which are the remnants from a sun-like star at the end of its life, and yet that takes several billion years to form.

At that point, for creationists, they must simply revert to God as Loki, the Norse trickster god. God made everything with the appearance of age to trick us. That’s not the kind of god that I think deserves to be worshiped. Nor, actually, do I quite understand why an omnipotent being has such a personality insecurity and low self-esteem to need to be worshiped. But I digress from astronomy here.

Final Thoughts

Why and how blue stragglers exist is an open question in modern astrophysics. It’s an interesting question, and it’s one that may not have a single answer. The latest paper seems to indicate that at least in this cluster, binary collisions are not the likely formation mechanism. It may be elsewhere. It could be trinary. It could be mass siphoning. We don’t know. But never should we revert to and replace “we don’t know” with “goddidit.” That simply stops science in its tracks and leaves willful ignorance in its wake.


  1. hi stuart,

    I am having reservations on both science and pseudo science. Mayan 2012 – Doom for example – 2011 has had unprecedented world wide share of nuclear disaster, tsunami, floods, earthquakes, financial busts, political uprisings, I wonder if things couldn’t have been a bit better when care couldn’t have been prevented expecting the unexpected?


    Comment by sleeping8 — November 2, 2011 @ 6:20 am | Reply

    • This is not true, but it is often cited with each passing year. There are two factors going on. First, there’s an instant, 24-hour news cycle. 200 years ago, if a giant volcano went off in Tunisia, we wouldn’t hear about it in the US for days or weeks and by then it would be a blip in section C page 10 of maybe a national but no way a local newspaper. Second, we have a surging world population that is occupying more and more land area while getting more concentrated in every area that was previously occupied. The same level of natural disaster in a present-day occupied location is going to do significantly more damage and affect significantly more people than it would have 100 years ago. And, since we’re living in more areas, those disasters that would have been, “Tornado blows through prairie” 200 years ago are now, “Tornado destroys town.”

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — November 2, 2011 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  2. Sorry, for a stupid question – we have the red-shift when things are going away from us – if a thing is coming towards us wouldn’t it be blue? Do they know for certain that it is part of the galaxy – and they are not watching something super super from beyond through the galaxy?

    Comment by sleeping8 — November 2, 2011 @ 7:53 am | Reply

    • Take a look at my page on spectroscopy, specifically the Doppler shift section. Basically, we know where strong absorption lines are from different kinds of stars when they are not moving towards nor away from us. We can match these up with where they appear in other stars to figure out if they are moving towards or away from us.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — November 2, 2011 @ 11:20 am | Reply

      • Thanks. stuart, your page on spectroscopy is cool! next stupid question -“New Study Can’t Explain Blue Stragglers’ Youth.” article says stragglers ” burn fuel so fast that they should have burned out billions of years ago. ” – Don’t the researchers know how many billions it should take – The age of the universe is only 13.75 ± 0.13 billion years since the Big Bang gives Wikepedia. Could thse stars be burning something else which which burns slow and yet be hot. Or it could have an envelop/ or in a pocket of some kind that didn’t allow energy to dissipate – trapped until only blue hot is allowed to go?

        Comment by sleeping8 — November 2, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

      • The very short answer is “no.”

        The longer answer is to keep in mind that stars didn’t form when the universe did, they form continuously since maybe a few million years after the big bang. The issue is that we know when the stars in the cluster formed, and so if these blue stragglers are members of the cluster, they should have formed at the same time so should no longer exist. So if we observe a very young cluster – say, the stars in the Orion nebula – then there’s no “problem” with hot, bright, massive blue stars.

        It is the case, though, that massive stars can fuse elements heavier than hydrogen. But they start with hydrogen. When the hydrogen in the core runs out, the star collapses a bit, raising the temperature and pressure, and the previous “ash” from hydrogen fusion – helium – can then fuse. Meanwhile, a shell of hydrogen fusion can occur around it because the temperature and pressure is now enough there for that fusion. This progresses through silicon fusion with an end product of iron, at which point you can no longer get energy from fusion processes. For more info on this, see my page on fusion.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — November 2, 2011 @ 11:28 pm

      • dear stuart, i have great respect for your knowledge – you are a born teacher and spread knowledge.

        I am a born skeptic. I agree with you on one principle – Caveat Emptor – Buyer beware. It is science and religion we have entered via the route of astronomy. One of the oldest subject that has guided and guides the lives of anybody any where any time on this planet. I am including the Sun, moon and planets.

        The structure of the statement “There is more than one way to make a blue straggler” is in my opinion not very scientific English. But that or anything else is not good enough reason for anybody to convert me and save my soul so that they can go to heaven.

        I have fundamental issues with the concepts of space and time itself. I believe Time is a figment of human imagination. We are hard wired to believe in existence of Time as reality because of life and death observed movements of objects in space.

        Universality Of Perception Of Things In Nature

        Perceiving incident energy is common to living things. Differences could exist in the speed and degree of refinement or accuracy of perception.
        Significantly, all living things exhibit the process of growth, slow decay and death. The crux characteristic of life is death! All forms of life have abilities to measure and quantify or otherwise depict incident energy on their being during their lifetime. This is used to infer or reckon. These are ‘facts’ or data. This is in some form understandable to it. It is a pity that we understand data to be something that we can go hunting for and we ‘capture’ it. In Sanskrit, the words ‘dhAta’ and ‘dhAtum’ have connotations for the giver and the given. This perspective could be important for obtaining knowledge harmoniously.

        Objects cannot be observed through sheer will power of sensory apparatuses. They are ‘observable’ because their presence is ‘announced’ in a way. It is the inherent nature of all objects and phenomena to do that. That a sensor observes it is incidental. I am not saying here that you cannot dive into the seas, search, and discover oysters and pearls. We are putting sensory apparatuses in a position to observe. Such use of the sensory apparatus is appropriately called ‘probes’.

        Reality and Truth

        There is a distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘truth’. Whatever is observable is ‘reality’. Organs of knowledge receive energy from objects or objects themselves impact on the senses. They are sense-realities, ‘satyam’ . For example, a photograph is evidence. There is an area in the photograph that appears different from the background. This could be the picture of a man or something has caused a smudge in the photograph. This is sense-reality – A witness is asked, ‘What do you see in this photograph?’ Now the following are the possibilities
        1. The witness sees the object or the ‘smudge’ (sense reality), interprets it as a person and says, ‘I see a person’ – This is ‘truthful’ reporting.
        2. The witness cannot see the object or smudge. He says, ‘I can see nothing clearly. I have left my glasses at home’. This is ‘truthful’ reporting too.
        3. The witness can see the figure of a person in the photograph. He says, ‘I can see the picture of a man’. This is ‘truthful’ reporting too.
        4. The witness can see the figure of a person in the photograph. He says, ‘I can see nothing clearly. I have left my glasses at home’. This is ‘false reporting’ willfully)

        Illusions- ‘mitthya’-

        The senses or sensors perceive phenomena but interpretations are wrong. There is ‘truthful’ reporting, but corroborative evidence shows the ‘reality’ to be something else. What is false is the interpreted part not the perception. Continuing with example given above,

        5. The witness answers, ‘I see a person’. An expert witness is called. He declares, ‘Rocks, subjected to weathering take different shapes. The object in this photograph could be a boulder having the shape of a person. Since there is no air on Mars it cannot be a human’.

        Interestingly ‘mitthya’– illusion is the name of the wife of ‘adharma’! ‘adharma’ has connotation for disruptive and disharmonious principles. Illusions are based on observed Reality and Facts. Our sense organs or sensors have observed and recorded these. We have data. We can process, analyze, draw inferences, ‘reckon’, and build up a ‘knowledge’ base from this too.

        But are they based on ‘reality’ -‘satyam’? The only way of finding out is to go ahead. If we find the cool oasis it is real otherwise it was a mirage and an illusion.

        We cannot just leave it at that either. We need to know why we are not finding anything though we have data. These could be important to avoiding disastrous consequences of illusions. In order to know why it is an illusion and not reality we need a different set or sets of data that could assist us to understand why we did not find the oasis. It is possible we may not find explanations, too.

        ‘mAyA’ – is yet another word that has connotations of ‘illusion’. In its usage, the scales can be grand and include the whole Universe! Initially tend to grant ‘poetic license’ to such usage but there is need for cautioun. Fallibility in interpretation is characteristic of the human race.

        Look around you and you will find a myriad scientifically created ‘illusions’. These are all around and within us too. Air conditioning, TV, synthetic perfumes, flavors are all ‘illusions’. Are all those lights you see in the sky. planets, stars and even the Sun real? ‘Science’ tells us and our senses tell us they are real. Data on them can be gathered accurately. But light travels around 186 000 miles in one second. And light that started from these distant objects takes time to reach us. This could be thousands of years and more in case of stars. So, in real time, now, are they there or not? We don’t know! And it appears we cannot know too!

        I am pressing the keys on the keyboard and letters are appearing on the keyboard. But at the microcosmic level there can be no physical contact between the atoms of my fingers and the atoms of the keyboard. So, am I touching the keys or not? This needs explanation at micro-levels of transference of energy, force and work. And this explains that ‘I am touching’ and yet ‘not touching the keys’. I don’t know whether this type of scientific ‘realities’ is what the ancients chose to call ‘mAyA’.

        Abstraction is the beautiful capability of our mind for logic, conjecture, imagination and creativity. Abstractions use primal building blocks. These could be innate and instinctive or learnt with experience. These could be an axioms or primitive notions found in mathematics. Data about abstractions can be based on

        1. Actually observed phenomena that may be reality or illusions.
        2. Not actually observed phenomena in the realm of creativity and fiction.


        Sense-false is not observable in Nature. This is described exactly by our witness in earlier given example, ‘Sorry, I can see nothing. I left my glasses at home’. I too am not really equipped to venture into this area. Briefly, Sense-false cannot even be thought about. The moment you try it becomes a part of your mind and is a Sense-reality!

        For all theoretical and practical purposes, Sense-false does not exist and that makes sense. ‘The unreal never is. The real, never is not. Those who know reality know this’

        With this background, we can see that data can be recorded for anything that can be observed or imagined. And all of them are sense-
        realities. They could even be abstract paintings that may never be understood. The moot question is, ‘of the phenomena observed, how much is reality, how much are illusions and how much are abstractions’.

        Summary and Conclusion
        1. The reality is phenomena in Nature – and energy from that impinging on our senses. That we observe it and it increases our knowledge content can makes us think that there is Knowledge out there and the energy that is impinging on us is carrying a knowledge element is the most rational for practical purposes but it has a nagging rider – it can be be used egotistically for deriding others opinions, converting them, profiling them etc. which is self defeating in the long run because it is against nature. no two things are exactly the same in anyway.
        2. When data is understood it becomes information.
        7. ‘buddhi’ is the ultimate ‘processor’ and store of ‘j~jAna’- knowledge within us.

        In short, ‘j~jAna’ – knowledge is out there and ‘j~jAna’ – knowledge is inside our minds. And information is ‘food for thought’?

        Comment by sleeping8 — November 3, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

  3. […] I missed the previous DpSU – New Study Can’t Explain Blue Stragglers’ Youth – but Dr Robbins took it out in his post The Many Stars of the Heavens … Are Young? […]

    Pingback by Planetary Evolution « Eye on the ICR — November 3, 2011 @ 1:34 am | Reply

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