This message is a response to a recent news item about Betelgeuse exploding as a supernova to become a "second Sun". As a professional astronomer I was interviewed over the phone about this story and provided some commentary in the form of background information on supernovae, but unfortunately have found myself at the centre of a misleading story spread across the web. I thus feel obliged to set the record straight to defend my reputation and that of my University, and am writing this post as a matter of public record for others to use as needed.
For your information:
The original source and scientific basis of the above news story is an observation by Charles Townes of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues of an apparent shrinkage of Betelgeuse, as reported for example in New Scientist:
In this article Charles Townes is quoted as saying:
"Maybe there's some instability in the star and it's going to collapse or at least go way down in size or blow off some material, but who knows,"
Thus, given that Betelgeuse is an example of a relatively nearby massive star expected to end in a core-collapse supernova, it is natural that some would speculate that the above observation of an apparent shrinkage is some sort of harbinger of a supernova in the near future, even though there are other more prosaic and perhaps more likely explanations.
Unfortunately, what was reported in original form using my commentary incorrectly implied that I am the source of a prediction of a Betelgeuse supernova event in the near future, with a spurious reference to 2012. My comments also appear to have been either misunderstood or paraphrased to create some other misguided impressions in the story, especially regarding what to expect if Betelgeuse becomes a supernova (an impression that is not helped by the use of a Stars Wars movie picture, complete with a double Sun). In particular I note that given the distance of Betelgeuse and a representative absolute magnitude for a core collapse supernova, such an event is best imagined as a bright star likely to rival the full Moon in brightness, and there is of course not going to be a transfer of supernova debris to the Earth, as may be implied from what was reported.
While I continue to regard the enthusiasm for astronomy stories by news organisations as something to be valued, the preceding indicates how worthwhile it would be for everyone reporting astronomy stories to consistently adopt a scientific approach, by using credible sources such as refereed research papers, by utilising and making clear key original sources of information, and where practical, independently confirming the main points before publishing. The web is an excellent source of information, but sadly works just as well at disseminating misinformation. I trust this post helps sets the record straight in this particular instance.
Finally, I note that the journalist responsible for the original story has been kind enough to update the story based on corrections I have been making in various quarters, and this message from me is not intended to be a criticism of any individual person. Instead, I encourage scientists to adopt the role of patient educator when dealing with the media under all circumstances.
University of Southern Queensland, Australia
2011 January 25