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News of Shelton's discovery, promptly named 1987A (for the first supernova of the year), was telegraphed to observatories around the world by the International Astronomical Union. Word spread through the scientific community at close to the speed of light, producing outright euphoria and the kind of giddy remarks seldom heard from scientists. "It's so exciting, it's hard to sleep," said John Bahcall, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. "It's like Christmas," exclaimed Astronomer Stan Woosley of the University of California at Santa Cruz. "We've been waiting for this for 383 years."
For the first time, modern scientists had the opportunity to observe close up, by astronomical standards, nature's most spectacular display. They could train sophisticated instruments on an exploding star and analyze in detail a phenomenon fundamental to the structure of the universe, to the formation of stars and indeed to life itself.
An overstatement? Hardly. The stupendous processes that lead to and occur during a supernova are responsible for the production of many of the elements in the universe. These elements are hurled into the cosmos by the force of the supernova blast to form great clouds of gas and dust. Subsequent supernovas send shock waves through the clouds, coalescing gas and dust and starting the formation of new stars and planets. Thus the planets and any life that evolves on them consist of elements forged in supernovas. Furthermore, these stellar explosions generate energetic particles, known as cosmic rays, that can cause mutations in terrestrial organisms and may have played a direct role in the evolution of life on earth. In a very literal sense, says University of Illinois Astrophysicist Larry Smarr, "we are the grandchildren of supernovas."
For scientists this opportunity to dissect a supernova, perhaps even to find on old photographic plates the very star that created the spectacle, will test theories of stellar evolution and death that until now were largely dependent on equations, computer runs and unbridled imagination. "What makes this supernova exciting," says Robert Garrison, an astronomer at the University of Toronto's telescope at Las Campanas, "is that it's writing the textbook. The theoreticians are letting themselves go wild thinking of all the possibilities." Says Physics Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia: "This is the beginning of scientific research on supernovas. It was science fiction before. Now it's science fact." What was perhaps most remarkable about the hubbub was that scientists were studying an event that occurred 170,000 years ago and was now being played out, like a rerun on television of an old newsreel, before their very eyes.