Saturday, March 22, 2008
On Wednesday (March 19), astronomers detected a huge gamma ray burst. It was visible to the human naked eye. The light from this explosion has been travelling towards us for 7.5 billion years. The universe is only 13.7 billion years old, which puts this explosion at over halfway to the edge of the visible universe (13.7 billion light years away from us). This is amazing...
Humans, with their naked eyes, have seen a celestial event that is halfway to the edge of the visible universe. I don't even think Superman boasted to have that kind of super-sight! Not only that, we are actually witnessing an event that happened 7.5 billion years ago - we are literally seeing into the past. 
It's also the brightest object (intrisically) we have ever observed in the universe. Specifically, it was 2.5 *cough* million freaking times more luminous than the brightest observed supernova. Compared to that amount of energy output, the output of our own star may as well be the equivalent of a stray spark from a burning log. It is a good thing that we don't live anyhere near it.
The words of Don Juan inspire me at times like this: "I am a candle flame burning against a cosmic background of a hundred billion suns, but I will be the best candle flame I can be."
Even more sobering, this explosion has been visible in a sphere that contains approximately 1/8 of the visible universe. There are trillions of galaxies (which each contain billions of stars and their associated planets) in the visible universe. Even if life were so rare that it only occurs once per galaxy, this celestial event may have already been witnessed by hundreds of billions of forms of extra-terrestrial life, and almost certainly caused the extinction of some of them, including intelligent ones. At least we'll have something to talk about if we ever meet aliens. 
As new and interesting this explosion is to us, if you believe life is possible elsewhere in the universe, please take a moment of silence to reflect about all the life in the universe, our cosmic siblings, exterminated because they were too close to this monstrous celestial event.
I hope we fare better than extermination when Betelgeuse goes supernova. We'll probably be ok ... unless its axis is directed towards us; then we die.
Burton MacKenZie www.burtonmackenzie.com
 One can (successfully) argue that this is true everywhere. Even light coming from a metre away travels for a measurable (and nonzero) amount of time. Seeing picoseconds into the past doesn't seem to stir the same emotion as seeing 7.5 billion years into it.
 the alternate ending for this post was going to be:
Us: "Hey, do you remember that huge gamma ray burst from 7.5 billion years ago?"Photo Credit: See alt text for NASA credit
Aliens: "Yeah, that really sucked."
Us: "We thought it was cool."
Aliens: "Hey man, we knew some dudes that got exterminated by it."
"Sorry, dude. I was just sayin'."