Neutrinos and the Day After Tomorrow

In Episode 178 of the Gerry Anderson Podcast, Chris Dale featured the film The Day After Tomorrow on his Randomizer segment. This is not the 2004 film about climate change. Instead, it was a 1975 segment of an American after school series called Special Treat, which offered educational programming aimed at teenagers. It appeared soon afterward on the BBC. The show was produced by Gerry Anderson and starred Nick Tate, Joanna Dunham, and Brian Blessed. The show was produced between seasons one and two of Space: 1999 and it shares models and props with the television show. One of the show’s goals was to introduce kids to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Anderson apparently had the notion that he might turn this into a series, so wrote it in such a way that more episodes could follow the special.

I was intrigued by Dale’s discussion of the show on the podcast, so decided to seek it out. The episode is available on the DVD The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson, along with several other one-shot gems produced by Anderson. The Day After Tomorrow reminded me of what Lost in Space might have been like without the Robot or Dr. Smith. Two families travel in a near light-speed craft to Alpha Centauri and beyond. Of course, this becomes our “vehicle” for discussing the effects of special relativity. Nick Tate, best known as Alan Carter in Space: 1999, is the captain and he travels with his daughter. Brian Blessed and Joanna Dunham play a husband and wife scientist team with a son. Like the Robinson kids in the early episodes of Lost in Space, these kids are smart, but manage to avoid crossing over into the annoying territory that kids in science fiction shows have been known to do. Since this is 1975 and well before Brian Blessed became known for “Gordon’s Alive!” in Flash Gordon, he delivers a subdued and believable performance as a scientist.

While I was prepared to see the cast to discuss the wonders of Einstein’s theories, there was a moment that truly surprised me about two-thirds of the way into the show. Joanna Dunham’s character, Dr. Anna Bowen, is observing a red giant star when she warns that she’s detecting “massive neutrino emissions from the red sun.” A moment later, the sun explodes into a supernova! As it turns out, the notion that a supernova would be preceded by a neutrino burst is a theory proposed by my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, in a 1966 paper. This theory would finally be demonstrated in 1987 when a neutrino burst was detected just before Supernova 1987A was observed.

Stirling Colgate at the Digitized Astronomy Observatory after the detection of neutrinos from Supernova 1987A

It’s hard to look at the special and say that it was full of groundbreaking or mind-blowing science. Mostly it seemed like a fun, action adventure show that tossed in some tidbits about special relativity. Still, writer Johnny Byrne had done some homework in astronomy to know that it had been theorized that a neutrino burst would precede a supernova explosion. As a science fiction writer, I know story and character come first, but I really do appreciate a moment like this when I see a writer going the extra mile to understand his subject matter.

Remembering Stirling Colgate

My graduate advisor, Stirling A. Colgate, passed away last weekend. He was a colorful character, president of New Mexico Tech from 1965-1974, and physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Here we see him as he appeared in the PBS Nova episode “Death of a Star” which was filmed around the time I worked for him. In the background is the Digitized Astronomy Supernova Search Telescope that he developed and I worked on for two years.

Stirling Colgate

Perhaps Stirling’s most famous contribution to astrophysics was predicting that there would be a neutrino burst during a supernova explosion. This idea was borne out by the explosion of Supernova 1987A. Stirling once told me that the reason he went into physics was that he enjoyed watching things explode. Of course supernovas are the biggest explosions in the universe.

One of Stirling’s other major accomplishments was his attempt to build a supernova search telescope. He started this telescope in the 1960s, during the era when astronomers sat out in the dome with the telescope, often taking photos on glass plates or counting photons with photoelectric photometers. Stirling’s supernova search never worked as hoped, but the papers that came from the project helped to drive further development in robotic and automated astronomy. It paved the way for remote operation of telescopes. This in turn allowed for better image quality, because astronomers didn’t have to be out at the telescope. It allowed for real-time analysis of data, because astronomers could use a computer to collect data and look at it at the same time. What’s more, because of this work, astronomers don’t always have to travel to the telescope that’s collecting their data, they can work over the internet. Among other things, this work allowed for the development of robotic space-based telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler.

As I said, Stirling was a colorful character. His last name was not coincidence. He was an heir to the Colgate family of Colgate toothpaste fame. There are many stories I could tell that really aren’t appropriate here, but one thing he did tell a friend upon meeting him was, “You’ve no doubt heard many stories about me. Let me assure you that each and every one of them is true, even the contradictory ones!”

While I was working for Stirling in 1989, William Fowler came to give a lecture at New Mexico Tech. In 1983, Fowler won the Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe. Fowler had also been one of Stirling’s postdoctoral advisors. The three of us, along with Stirling’s wife, Rosie, sat around a table in Socorro’s Capitol Bar, shooting the breeze. I remember Stirling turning to Willy Fowler and asking what he thought about recent studies that showed the possibility of global warming. Fowler said if it bore out, it would have tremendous impact. It’s amazing to me that over twenty years later, we’re just starting to see the scale of the impact.

Unfortunately, over the years, Stirling’s work and mine carried us in different directions. It has been a while since I’ve had a chance to communicate with him, but he still sticks with me as an important and influential teacher. He taught me how to solder electronics, how to read an oscilloscope and how to repair cryogenic systems. He taught me about the physics of exploding stars and he taught me about statistical analysis. He taught me to always ask why things work and not just how they work.

Free of his mortal coil, I picture Stirling in a swimsuit, waiting to dive into a distant supernova and ride the waves of the explosion as far they’ll carry him.