Archive for November 28th, 2013


A hydrogen bomb detonated against your eyeball

November 28, 2013

…would deliver less energy to your retina than a supernova observed from a distance of one astronomical unit (AU; the distance from the Earth to the sun). How much less? From this XKCD What If:

Which of the following would be brighter, in terms of the amount of energy delivered to your retina:

A supernova, seen from as far away as the Sun is from the Earth, or

The detonation of a hydrogen bomb pressed against your eyeball?

Applying the physicist rule of thumb suggests that the supernova is brighter. And indeed, it is … by nine orders of magnitude.

That rocked me back on my heels. And it got me thinking: how far away would one have to be for a supernova to be only as bright as an h-bomb pressed against one’s eyeball?


Radiated energy is subject to the inverse-square law, by which intensity of radiation is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. So the answer  to my question is the square root of billion in AU, which is 31,623 AU, which is almost precisely half a light year. (BTW, Google will translate AU to light years for you!)

So if you’re close enough to a supernova that the light takes six months to reach you, it will still be like being nuked at point-blank range.

How far away from a supernova do you need to be to be safe? According to this article, even at a distance of 3000 light years, a supernova could still wreck the ozone layer of an Earth-like world.

Even more suprisingly (to me, anyway), the 1006 and 1054 supernovae apparently left detectable chemical traces on Earth, despite being 7200 and 6500 light years away, respectively. From farther down in the same article:

Gamma rays from a supernova would induce a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere converting molecular nitrogen into nitrogen oxides…. In 2009, elevated levels of nitrate ions were found in Antarctic ice, which coincided with the 1006 and 1054 supernovae.

Amazing. The 1054 supernova is near and dear to my heart. Its visible remnant, the Crab Nebula, is also catalogued as Messier 1. I have observed it dozens of times, most notably during my nearly-annual Messier Marathons. I had no idea that it had literally left its mark on Earth.

So, here’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: there are no particularly good supernova candidates close enough to Earth to pose a serious threat. All of the contenders are not massive enough yet (if they’re white dwarfs) or too far away, or won’t blow for millennia, or some combination of the above. So you can tuck in with abandon. We could still be annihilated at any moment by death from space–just ask the folks in Chelyabinsk–but it probably won’t come in form of a supernova.

Hat tip to Mike.