[Physics] When did we learn that stars die?


As we all know, the stars we see in the night sky might already be dead. I was wondering though, when was this fact or conclusion commonly established? Today, most people (let's assume with an above average education) would probably be aware of this fact.

When is the earliest time when the same could be said? I am particularly interested if the same could be said for the time period revolving around the period 1850 – 1900.

I know that the speed of light was approximated fairly accurately in the 17th century. Knowing this (finite) speed, it's not hard for me to draw the conclusion that the source of the light I see may not be there anymore. Would this be an easy conclusion to draw a hundred years ago however? Maybe they thought stars don't die?

Best Answer

Super novae were known a long time ago. But they were not understood as a the death throes of a star.

In spite of the apparent immutability of the heavens, Chinese astronomers were aware that new stars could appear. In 185 AD, they were the first to observe and write about a supernova, now known as the SN 185. The brightest stellar event in recorded history was the SN 1006 supernova, which was observed in 1006 and written about by the Egyptian astronomer Ali ibn Ridwan and several Chinese astronomers. The SN 1054 supernova, which gave birth to the Crab Nebula, was also observed by Chinese and Islamic astronomers.

But it wasn't until later we understood they had a life-cycle. The Greek philosopher Aristotle even proposed that the stars were made of a special element, not found on Earth, that never changes.

The Chinese might have been the first to suggest the idea as they took careful note of "guest stars" which suddenly appeared among the fixed stars.

It would seem that another person who suggested the idea was probably Tycho Brahe (14 December 1546 – 24 October 1601) as he coined the term nova meaning new star. And likely with this new mind set births brings deaths. He also is famous for realizing stars are very far away (due to parallax). In 1572 he witnessed a super nova and in 1573 he published a small book, "De nova stella" (The New Star) based on the super nova he saw. (Most super novae were assumed to be new stars, not dieing stars).

The event of understanding stars die probably just fell out of understanding what stars are. I'm not sure you can point to one event or person in history that could prove to know stars die prior to understanding stars themselves.

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