Friday, September 21, 2012

German biogeochemistry postdoc proposes to extinguish the "unsustainable" Sun

Nathaniel Virgo (SE) is a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Jena. His DPhil was about the effect of limited energy supply on organisms. You may see lots of similar "conventional physics" topics that are always "tainted by the environmentalist ideology" a little bit.

Two hours ago, he asked a question at the Physics Stack Exchange that made me LOL. He has already made all the important general plans and only asks the physics users to help him with a technical detail. So his question is:

What is the easiest way to stop a star?

No kidding. You're going to learn something about the mainstream science at the mainstream scientific institutes that do research into Earth sciences. ;-)


What is the easiest way to stop a star?

I'm concerned that the stars are using up hydrogen nuclei at an unsustainable rate. If I was a sufficiently advanced civilisation I might want to do something about this, so that the hydrogen could be burnt in fusion reactors instead. That way, a much higher proportion of the available energy could be put to some use before it eventually becomes thermal radiation.

So my questions are:
  1. What would be the most energy-efficient way (using known physics) to blow apart a star or otherwise prevent or greatly slow the rate at which it performs fusion? We're assuming this civilisation has access to vast amounts of energy but doesn't want to waste it unnecessarily, since the aim is to access energy from the hydrogen the star would have burned. In order for this to be worthwhile, the energy gained from doing this would have to be substantially more than the energy the process takes.
  2. What would be the astronomical signature of such an activity? If it was happening in a distant galaxy, would we be able to detect it from Earth?


I emphasized the words "concerned" and "unsustainable" to make it clear that this Gentleman is firmly within the "mainstream" discourse of the Earth sciences that is currently fully controlled by the environmental whackos.

The idea that the Sun wastes too much energy so we should better extinguish it (almost all life on Earth would stop within weeks) is such a funny ramification of the environmentalist thinking (or, more precisely, the absence of it) that I didn't resist and had to repost the question here.

For the sake of completeness, here's my answer:

Burning (and fusion) is "unsustainable" by definition because it means to convert an increasing amount of fuel to "energy" plus "waste products" and at some moment, there is no fuel left.

I am not sure whether the word "unsustainable" was used as a joke, a parody of the same nonsensical adjective that is so popular with the low-brow media these days, but I have surely laughed (because it almost sounds like you are proposing to extinguish the Sun to be truly environment-friendly). The thermonuclear reaction in the Sun has been "sustained" for 4.7 billion years and about 7.5 billion years are left before the Sun goes red giant. That's over 10 billion years – many other processes are much less sustainable than that. More importantly, there is nothing wrong about processes' and activities' being "unsustainable". All the processes in the real world are unsustainable and the most pleasant ones are the least sustainable, too.

But back to your specific project.

When it comes to energy, it is possible to blow a star apart without spending energy that exceeds the actual thermonuclear energy stored in the star. Just make a simple calculation for the Sun. Try to divide it to 2 semisuns whose mass is \(10^{30}\) kilograms, each. The current distance between the two semisuns is about \(700,000\) kilometers, the radius of the Sun. You want to separate them to a distance where the potential energy is small, comparable to that at infinity.

It means that you must "liberate" the semisuns from a potential well. The gravitational potential energy you need to spend is\[

E = \frac{G\cdot M\cdot M}{R} = \frac{6.67\times 10^{-11}\times 10^{60}}{700,000,000} =
10^{41}\,{\rm Joules}

\] That's equivalent to the energy of \(10^{24}\) kilograms (the mass of the Moon or so) completely converted to energy via \(E=mc^2\), or thermonuclear energy from burning the whole Earth of hydrogen (approximately).

You may force the Sun to do something like the "red giant" transition prematurely and save some hydrogen that is unburned. To do so, you will have to spend the amount of energy corresponding to the Earth completely burned via fusion.

But of course, the counting of the energy which was "favorable" isn't the only problem. To actually tear the Sun apart, you would have to send an object inside the Sun that would survive the rather extreme conditions over there, including 15 million Celsius degrees and 3 billion atmospheres of pressure. Needless to say, no solid can survive these conditions: any object based on atoms we know will inevitably become a plasma. A closely related fact is that ordinary matter based on nuclei and electron doesn't allow for any "higher-pressure" explosion than the thermonuclear one so there's nothing "stronger" that could be sent to the Sun as an explosive to counteract the huge pressure inside the star.

One must get used to the fact that plasma is what becomes out of anything that tries to "intervene" into the Sun – and any intruder would be quickly devoured and the Sun would restore its balance. The only possible loophole is that the amount of this stuff is large. So you may think about colliding two stars which could perhaps tear them apart and stop the fusion. This isn't easy. The energy needed to substantially change the trajectory of another star is very, very large, unless one is lucky that the stars are already going to "nearly collide" which is extremely unlikely.

Physics will not allow you to do such things. You would need a form of matter that is more extreme than the plasma in the Sun, e.g. the neutron matter, but this probably can't be much lighter (and easier to prepare, e.g. when it comes to energy) than the star itself. A black hole could only drill a hole (when fast enough) or consume the Sun (which you don't want).

However, if you allow the Sun to be eaten by a black hole, you will actually get a more efficient and more sustainable source of energy. Well, too sustainable. ;-) A black hole of the mass comparable to the solar mass would have a radius about 3 miles. It would only send roughly one photon of the 3-mile-long wavelength every nanosecond or so in the Hawking radiation and it would only evaporate after \(10^{60}\) years or so. It would be so sustainable that no one could possibly observe the energy it is emitting. However, the black hole would ultimately emit all the energy \(E=mc^2\) stored in the mass.

If there are powerful civilizations ready to do some "helioengineering", they surely don't suffer from naive and primitive misconceptions about the world such as the word "sustainable" and many other words that are so popular in the mentally retarded movement known as "environmentalism". These civilizations may do many things artificially but they surely realize that the thermonuclear reaction in the stars is a highly efficient and useful way to get the energy from the hydrogen fuel. Even some of us realize that almost all the useful energy that allowed the Earth to evolve and create life and other things came from the Sun.

The Sun may become unsustainable in 7.5 billion years but according to everything we know about Nature, it's the optimum device to provide large enough civilizations – whole planets – with energy.

Concerning ambitious but less crazy plans in the outer space, look at NASA's plans to produce a "warp drive": HTML, PDF.


  1. I share this young men's concern. :-) I can even guess where he got the idea. Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt): “Time is a finite entity, you know. Only about four billion years to go
    till the sun explodes. I know it seems like a lot now, but it will soon
    go if we just squander it on frivolous nonsense and small talk.”

  2. Lubos you are the best. Sarcasm with a straight face will always confuse these fools.

    Sustainability is a self limiting chimera so perhaps these self styled environmentalists have their own extinction built into their philosophy. That in itself inculcates a sense of great calm, in me.

  3. Oh please! The galactic empire developed this technology years ago

  4. The only way to stop a star is to take away their car keys and throw them in jail. Otherwise, they'll just continue to mow down pedestrians all over Hollywood.
    Lindsey Lohan..? Amanda Bynes..? Next thing you know, you've got a fill blown Mel Gibson or Nick Nolte on you're hands.
    Solar mass ejections...gamma rays...O, the humanity.

  5. Typo, should be "your" not "you're." need more coffee.

  6. Ha ha Lumo, your answer was a lot of fun to read too +1 :-D

  7. Perphaps he doesn't want to permanentely shut down the sun. Merely switch it off at night when he's not using it. :-)

    You know, like the people who puts an LED light globe into their refrigerator to save electricity.

  8. Obviously his amp goes all the way up to 11.

  9. Add me to the choir: I (too) can not imagine a more entertaining and efficient debunker than Lumo.

    Here is a link to a relevant documentary shining some rarely shone light on excessive environmentalism (and closely related examples of unrealistic idealism):

  10. Since the Earth is getting further from the Sun maybe the best shot would be to wait until we are far enough. Although the environmentalists might want to find a way to accelerate this processus i.e. creating more tides, with a bigger tidal range... or accelerating the rising sea level ? ;-)

  11. If we were to extinguish the sun, then because we are complete products of the sun via evolution etc., the sun would in some sense be committing suicide.

  12. you can edit your posts on disqus, probably just like advanced civiliastions can edit their nearby suns

  13. Wow, what a load of rubbish that video is. 5 minutes in it starts going on about eugenics and 19th century politics. (Update: 12 minutes in we're now going over the minutiae of World War II).

    No doubt this is going to be an attempt to discredit a person who started up some idea that the video maker opposes (which he hasn't actually bothered to say what his position is yet, I had to google to find out what the Murray-Darling issue even was).

    This is typical of anti-science people , they can't argue with the science so they just have to smear the character of people involved. Relying on the fact that the peons sharing their video on social media will apply the fallacy, "Person A said 'X', and Person A is a bad person, therefore 'X' is wrong"

  14. Go find movie cult classic from long ago and faraway before Lubos motl even. It is a satire low budget sic if that is very funny and relevant

  15. the guy must have been joking. good answer, however...

  16. To be clear for future reference: my question on Physics SE was intended only as a frivolous diversion, and the first sentence was a joke. It certainly isn't connected in any way with my work at the Max Planck institute.

    I was asking the question in the context of cosmological "deep time". On a long enough time scale (I guess around 10^12 years, give or take an order of magnitude or two), hydrogen nuclei will start to become scarce. It seemed to me that any intelligent civilisations that might exist in that epoch would have the motivation to stop the stars in order to prolong their existence by burning it more slowly. The question was the result of idly wondering whether they would have the means to do so. Perhaps I should have been more explicit about this motivation, rather than introducing it in the tongue-in-cheek way that I did.