Scattered Thoughts On the Day

So much of the world is mourning Robin Williams, and quite rightly people are encouraging those experiencing depression to seek help, rather than take their lives. Naturally I concur with this, but it seems to me that the commentary has often treated depression as a single condition.

In fact, one of the major obstacle to successful treatment is that depression is almost certainly a complex of different conditions, which are best treated in different ways, and one of the great challenges is to identify the particular form a person has.

There is a theory held by a substantial, albeit still minority, group of health professionals, that says that a large portion of people diagnosed with simple “depression” are actually suffering from type 2 bipolar disorder. In Williams’ case his manic side was so obvious that bipolar was probably the first, rather than the last, thing considered, but the majority of coverage I have seen has failed to specify that he had been diagnosed with bipolar, a missed opportunity to increase awareness.

I’m only marginally more qualified to discuss this than your average anti-vaxer or climate change denier is to speak on the topics on which they hold forth so readily. So I can’t really say if the theory is right.

Nevertheless, it is clear that it is true for at least some people. One of my closest friends spent years being fruitlessly treated for depression with SSRIs and various other treatments. Then he encountered one of the advocates of this theory, was put on medication for bipolar and experienced an almost immediate turnaround in his life. Even before this I was sympathetic to the idea, having heard it from Professor Jack Pettigrew, who developed a theory to explain the causes of bipolar that I find utterly fascinating.

I’m certainly aware of the dangers of extrapolating from the experience of those I happen to know, while being influenced by the elegance of a relatively untested theory.

Nevertheless, whether you accept the claims of widespread misdiagnosis or not, the general lesson I would draw is that if a treatment is not working, look around for others. If the therapist you are seeing is unwilling to consider other options, get a second opinion. I know that is easier said than done. When depressed the effort to reach out once can be enormous, to reach out a second time may seem impossible, particularly if, like so many depressed people, you feel that you are unworthy of any support that may be offered. All I can do is encourage everyone to do so.

While on sad topics, I want to pay tribute to Chris Mardon. Chris died on Saturday, but I only found out today. Chris was a founding member of the Victorian Greens, one of the original 17 who formed the party. I didn’t know him well – we tended to operate in different parts of the organization, but his efforts were hard to miss. It was only recently that I learned of his impressive achievements outside the party, both as an engineer and as one of the first to bring climate change to public attention in Australia.

So on a sorrowful day it was good to bring some beauty to quite a lot of people’s attention. I don’t have the figures on how many people have viewed this article, since the bitly link that sometimes provides me with data was not created in this case, but 21 hours after it was posted 80,000 people have liked it.

The phenomenon of bioluminescent surf got quite a run a few months ago when Will Ho’s pictures made it to Gizmodo, but I think Phil Hart‘s work is even better. I hope lots of people have clicked through to his page to see his amazing astrophotography as well.

George Monbiot recently posted a column about how the environment movement needs to focus on promises, not fears. I haven’t yet really digested this, so I’m not sure to what extent I agree. And I’m even less sure how we go about achieveing such a shift most of the time. But I think photos like this probably have a part to play.

Bioluminescent surf and the Milky Way in the Gippsland Lakes. Phil Hart

Bioluminescent surf and the Milky Way in the Gippsland Lakes. Phil Hart

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Put a Scientist In Spring Street

Tim_Read_profileLast year I wrote about how proud I was to have a scientist doing ground-breaking work as my local Greens candidate. It wasn’t, however, very likely that Dr Tim Read was going to win Wills, a seat that stretches to places where the party is in single figures. Now Tim is running for Brunswick, and there is a real chance he could win, so it’s time to expand on why I think he is a truly great candidate.

I should say upfront that the most important thing for me is a candidate whose values I share. I would have a lot of difficulty voting for a bad Greens candidate, but I’d vote for a mediocre one over a     more impressive figure from another party.            However, that is not a problem I will have to face this time.

Having met Tim as my local doctor I consider his talent for listening to people’s problems, essential in a good GP, is one of the things that make him well suited to parliament.

Nevertheless, having got to know him later through the Moreland Branch I was surprised when Tim put his hand up to run. I thought he might make a good legislator, but he seemed too self-effacing for the media or public-speaking. The Wills campaign completely satisfied me on that account. Tim is great at communicating a message using a combination of clarity and sly, unexpected humour. Unsurprisingly, one-on-one those GP skills come through.

Tim has now moved into working on sexually transmitted diseases (and if you can make people comfortable in that clinical setting there is probably little that will faze you in politics). More significantly for me, in the course of his PhD he’s been doing cutting edge research on the effectiveness of the Gardasil vaccine (skip the first six paragraphs of the linked story if you just want a summary of his work). While I gave it a run in Australasian Science, I really wish there’d been a paper on this topic timed so I could write it up for I Fucking Love Science – its work that deserves global exposure.

As I discussed in the previous piece I think public health is a greatly undervalued field, and I’d love to see more people with a background there getting into parliament. However, even more, I value the sort of thinking that makes a good scientist.

Not all scientists make good politicians. Not only is there the question of values, but some people managed to gain a Bsc, or even postgraduate qualifications, having missed the whole bit about weighing evidence and attempting to move past prejudice.

Nevertheless, along with the necessary people skills and concern for the future of the planet, I think the capacity to be a really good scientist – to formulate a hypothesis and then develop and change it in the face of evidence – is something that we need much more of in parliament. Tim’s publication list speaks for itself on that account, even if he does like to say he “just got lucky” with the topic of his thesis.

I feel embarrassed that I haven’t done more for Tim’s campaign. A combination of my work for IFLS and student election administration, combined with other roles in the party will make it hard for me to step it up, but I hope that this post can be a small contribution in that direction.

Temporary Update: This post is getting a bit of a run online at the moment, so for the next few days I’ll take the chance to plug the fundraiser for Tim’s campaign on Friday August 1.

Permanent Update: Having accidentally used the photo without attribution I would like to try to make up for this by attributing twice – check out Melissa Davis‘ site – some superb photos there, including the one of Tim speaking at a candidate’s debate.

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A Quick I Told You So

My new job at IFLS doesn’t leave me much time for blogging, nor provide as many stories with alternative angles I can highlight here as Australasian Science did. However, I couldn’t resist the chance to point out that The Saturday Paper has picked up on something I argued last year: The Galilee Basin coal mines are very unlikely to be profitable, and this is part of a wider trend for coal.

They’ve explored it from a somewhat different angle from the one I took, and were aware of something I was not, that Gina Rinehart sold out of Galilee when the price was good. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to see your conclusions get a bit of back-up with more research behind it.

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Liberals Cutting Out the Middleman

This hasn’t got a lot of attention outside New South Wales, but today, while South Australia and Tasmania are almost certainly putting the Liberal Party back in power, there will be a by-election on Hurstville Council.

Now I will admit I wasn’t even aware of the existence of Hurstville Council before this, so we are not talking a centre of power. Nevertheless, what happened should really be national news. The former councillor, Andrew Istephan resigned from council after being convicted of five counts of assault on elderly people. The jury was deadlocked on seven others. Istephan is a dentist, and was deliberately damaging healthy teeth, without anesthetic of people in nursing homes so he could bill the government under a welfare program to fix the problems he had caused. Most of the patients he did this to had dementia and couldn’t give consent. Istephan claimed he believed the nursing homes had arranged for consent from the legal guardians, but given the unnecessary nature of the operations he was performing this seems improbable.

Clearly Istephan is a truly evil individual. However, every party sometimes makes a mistake in preselection, and psychopaths are often good at being charming. One can certainly imagine someone capable of performing these acts slipping through. Parties have run child molesters before. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on the party as a whole.

But that wasn’t the case with Istephan. He was elected in 2012, not only after these crimes had been committed, but after he had been charged and the fact reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. That is the Liberal Party endorsed a candidate who had done these things, and then once he was elected to council his colleagues got together and made him Deputy Mayor. It is very hard to imagine this was a purely local decision, and that state office was not aware of, and endorsing, running him.

Now I understand that at the point the Liberals were showing this level of faith in him these were just charges, he hadn’t been convicted. Hypocritical it might have been for them to hold the principle of innocence until proven guilty while denying it to Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, but innocent he was in the eyes of the law.

However, there is a difference between holding that someone is innocent until proven guilty and backing them to this extent. If someone has been charged with a serious crime surely there is a precautionary principle that means one doesn’t place them in positions of too much power until those charges have been tested. Just as Istephan wasn’t allowed to practice dentistry until the case came to court, it is reasonable to think a party wouldn’t want to announce him as the best person to represent a ward of 20,000 people.

Even once he had been convicted his fellow Liberals on council, and the independents, rallied to his defense as a fit and proper person to hold his position. It’s likely that at least some of them didn’t really see what was so bad about what he had done. After all, these are people who endorse what is being done to innocent people on Manus – Istephan was just cutting out the middle man, although he made the mistake of doing to Australian citizens, rather than those who want to gain that status.

Istephan’s ward is in the seat of Banks, which the Liberals narrowly won at the last election for the first time since its creation. Parts of Hurstville fall into Barton, another Liberal pick up in September.

All this gets back to the point I keep making. The declining membership of political parties means that an increasing proportion will be sociopathic monsters driven less by political ideology, and not at all by a desire to help people, and more by their own agenda to get ahead. Combine that with the Randian views that are so popular within the Liberals these days and these sorts of chancers are going to crop up rather a lot. Places like Western Sydney will be particularly vulnerable, as they are where the membership is weakest. I said before that Jaymes Diaz is the Liberal Party’s future, but in some ways he is the better side – a big part of their future is actually going to be Andrew Istephan, and people who don’t have a problem with injuring elderly people for fun and profit.

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Safety In Numbers

Reading Australian political news at the moment is like drinking from a toxic firehose. The sheer awfulness of the federal government, and many of the states, means that it is easy to miss many of the things they are doing that in another era would be the horror of the year. However, in all of this the Queensland “so called anti-bikie” laws still manage to stand out.

These laws mean that even relatively minor violent crimes (eg shoving away someone who got too close) carry an automatic minimum sentence of 15 years in prison if the person responsible is a member of a prescribed organisation. The onus of proof is reversed where people have to prove they are not associated with organisations once alleged. Special bikie-only prisons will be built, where practices of deliberate humiliation will be imposed on even the most minor offenders and people suspected of association with bikie gangs will be banned from certain lines of work. Not only does the last part resemble historical bans on Jews, it also pretty much guarantees that people will be forced into lives of crime if they can’t use their acquired skills lawfully.

The legislation does not actually mention bikies anywhere, and could be applied to the local football club should the minister take a dislike to them. Nevertheless, the provision that members of targetted organisations may not gather in groups of three or more (a rule which seems to be copied from historical South African attempts to suppress opposition to Apartheid) has been used to intimidate members of social motorbike clubs, who have been harassed by the police.

I came across a scientific connection to this nightmare recently. Dr Vanessa Beanland of the ANU school of psychology found that cyclists, and motorcyclists, are much safer in groups than on their own.

“When motorcycles were high frequency, drivers detected them on average 51 metres further away, compared to when they were at low frequency,” Beanland said. “At a driving speed of 60 km/h, this allowed the driver an extra three seconds to respond.”

It is actually possible to imagine that lives will be lost if motorcyclists continue to go for rides, but avoid travelling in packs to escape the attention of the Qld police. While the danger is small compared to the certain assault on our civil liberties, it is a somewhat symbolic example of how disgusting this legislation really is.

On a positive note, the legislation is losing support. While still probably attracting more voters than it repels, there is definitely more passion among the opponents, who extend from lawyers through to people with the most peripheral connection to motorbike riders.

The ALP has refused to commit to overturning the legislation, but in the Redcliffe by-election an independent running against it scored an impressive 10.3% while four other independents managed 4% between them. The swing against Newman wasn’t a patch on what O’Farell suffered a few months ago, and he is still pretty much guaranteed to win the next election but it is possible that this is the first time in Australian history than being tough on law and order has become a vote loser for a state government.

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First Review – Enemies of Science

Last year I promised to review The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science on this blog. I actually wrote half a review but never finished it. I don’t have experience writing reviews, but I think this is also a hard one to start off with. It tackles a hugely important subject – arguably the most important subject in the world today – and there is much to like about the way it goes about it. Nevertheless, I found it ultimately frustrating.

However, I am about to be much busier and if I am ever going to get the review posted it had better be now.

storrAs regular readers will know, I’m fascinated (some would say obsessed) with the topic of science’s enemies. So I was very interested when I heard about Will Storr’s book on the topic. We were offered a review copy at Australasian Science. I explained that AS doesn’t do reviews, but if they sent me a copy I’d review it here, noting the audience would probably be tiny. They sent me a copy anyway.

It’s a very interesting, if at times frustrating, book. It also has one serious error, which I feel the need to mention.

Storr certainly writes well, and he’s quite courageous in his ability to brave people who are often barking mad in their homes and workplaces, first giving them a chance to speak their mind, then confronting them with rather disconcerting facts. At least facts that should be disconcerting, but seldom seem to be to the people he is talking to. He even goes on a tour of Holocaust sites with David Irving and a band of deniers, some of whom might actually have killed him if they had known who he was.

Other aspects to praise are the way Storr links together various anti-science cults, from creationists and global warming deniers to people who believe meditation can cure any disease (except AIDS apparently) and UFOlogists. He doesn’t pretend these are the same thing, and in some cases acknowledges the evidence is not cut and dried, while in others in pretty much is. There’s a particularly good chapter where he interviews Lord Monkton, and largely lets some of his lesser known, and particular crazy, ideas discredit the ones his supporters prefer to trumpet.

Storr is also interesting on himself. He doesn’t pretend to be objective, and talks fairly candidly about his own history of mental illness and the often irrational ways he has taken sides in debates in the past. In some cases he reveals that he aligned himself with the scientific side of a debate having completely misunderstood the science – for example thinking creationists were wrong, but basing his conclusions on a complete misunderstanding of how evolution actually works. He is also ruthless in exposing the way even those seen as staunch defenders of science, such as James Randi, sometimes turn to the sort of behaviours they despise in others when something challenges their worldview

The frustrating aspects come in two forms. The one is that Storr sometimes misses golden opportunities to put the people he is meeting on the spot. For example, when interviewing creationist John Mackay he wields a series of claims that were never really like to challenge Mackay. What I wanted him to do was try out something along the lines of the “Why Can’t I own Canadians” letter that has become very popular among liberals online, and received a marvelous (although abridged) outing on The West Wing. I’ve always wondered how a leading advocate of biblical literalism would respond when confronted with examples of biblical injunctions they cannot possibly defend. If the Bible is not inerrant morally it is hard to see how it could be inerrant scientifically. Storr fluffs the chance.

Likewise, in bringing out the evidence for the fundamentally irrational nature of much of our decision making process Storr gives the impression – one provided all too often – that all our decisions are irrational. But this clearly isn’t true. Most of us at one point believed in Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy or both. We have fairly powerful incentives to keep on believing in these things and yet, confronted by sufficient evidence and authority we stopped. This happens in smaller ways all the time. Confronted with evidence pretty much everyone eventually adjusts their position on at least some things – those who don’t end up not coping very well with life. Storr partially acknowledges this, but it is certainly not the impression one comes away with from reading the book.

For example, (p. 276) he refers to research purporting to show that intelligence is no defence against irrationality at all. In this study a group of people were asked to produce arguments for and against particular positions. Naturally, everyone could produce more arguments for the side they supported. And intelligent people could produce more on that side than people of lower intelligence. But, Storr says, they could produce no more arguments for the other side than people of lower intelligence.

Now I realise that I am the last person who should be using personal anecdote against peer reviewed research, but bear with me here. My sister, who is on any measure you choose someone of staggering intelligence, had a favourite trick to humiliate me as a child. She would take some deeply held personal belief of mine and throw at me one reason after another as to why I was wrong. I would almost always find myself unable to make a convincing case against her. Sometimes I would stomp away, convinced I was right but knowing that any impartial witness would have sided with her. Other times she would actually change my mind, at which point she would simply turn around and bring out all the arguments for the side I had supported in the first place that I had not been able to think of, leaving me utterly bewildered as to what to think and, as I said, humiliated.

In some cases she might have been able to do this because she didn’t really care, but in most cases she did. She was passionate about many of the same issues I was. This example may be unusual, but it is not unique – I remember reading an account of a someone who did the exact same thing to a put upon sibling in a novel, and presumably the author had encountered such an event in real life, if not been the victim.

Obviously not all even highly intelligent people can do this, but some can. Whereas it is hard to imagine anyone of below average intelligence being able to do the same thing.

In other words, while intelligence may not count for much in the capacity to see both sides of a debate, it counts for something, sometimes.  This seems to be emblematic of the problems with Enemies of Science. Storr is so keen to convince us of the importance of irrational biases that he buries the fact that rationality still matters.

It must, because otherwise we would never progress. Kepler, it is said, adopted the view that the Earth went round the sun for wholly irrational reasons – he saw the sun as symbolic of God and thought the solar system should rotate around it. However, this view did not prevail because more people were born with an inclination to this previously unpopular view. It prevailed because the weight of evidence was sufficient to shift some previous opponents, and everyone entering the discussion without a fixed position. A hundred similar examples could be given.

It is important to acknowledge that none of us are as rational at sifting evidence as we might like to think, but it’s really dangerous to pretend that we are all equally prey to our own prejudices. Even before the development of science as a formal discipline bad ideas were dropped when the evidence against grew too strong. In recent centuries the process has accelerated. Our lives are twice as long, with infinitely more opportunities, because the Enlightenment allowed us to throw off some of the false beliefs that hampered progress. No longer do we blame the woman with too many cats for the fact that our child had grown ill, rather than the bacterial infection that could be cured with a dose of penicillin, nor think that ripping out the heart of our enemy on an altar will bring good rains for the next season.

As a society we have developed because some people, some of the time, abandoned the beliefs they once clung to in the face of evidence. In the meantime millions have died because not enough people did, and the survival of most of the species on Earth, humans perhaps included, depends on more people facing up to the evidence more quickly.

Consequently it is vitally important not only to understand the ways in which people resist evidence, but also what can ultimately bring most of them round. Storr is very good on the first part, terrible on the second.

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Nova and Supernova

The last two months have treated astronomers with two unusually bright arrivals in the sky, one a nova and the other a supernova. Each is interesting in its own right, but I find the comparison particularly attractive.

The first thing to note is that one was discovered by an amateur, while the other was a professional putting on a show for undergrads, rather than conducting research. Both hurried to alert the professional astronomical community. It is often said that astronomy is one of the few fields of science where amateurs still make a genuine contribution. As there become more and more professional telescopes scouring the sky one might expect this to stop being true, and in some areas it is – not long ago most comets were discovered by amateurs, while now the big search programs dominate.

It’s not clear to me whether the dramatic fall in the prices of larger home telescopes is keeping amateur contributions up, or whether these two discoveries were the late examples of a dying tradition, but I think for most people there is something romantic in the idea of the individual at home with his (or increasingly her) home scope coming up with something that expands our collective knowledge of the universe. Both events are bright enough that their eventual discovery was inevitable, but with short-lived features like this astronomers appreciate every extra hour of observing time, so early notice counts for a lot.

I can’t resist noting that the way amateur astronomers rush to report their discoveries so that professionals can verify them and start important work contrasts with the behaviour of “amateurs” in many other fields. Those who term themselves amateur climatologists or experts in vaccines do not feed in what they think they have learned to professionals for assessment, rather they announce that they know more than those who have spent their lifetimes studying the topic, often topped with accusations of fraud. An amateur astronomer whose report was found to be wrong would be more likely to express embarrassment for wasting people’s time than to go on the Internet and accuse government observatories of a cover-up.

Nova_Centauri_2013Back to the events, Nova Centuari saw out 2013 for southern hemisphere observers. It peaked at a brightness of 3.3, easily visible to the naked eye under dark skies if you knew where to look. However, at 59º south that was pretty much just southern hemisphere observers, and it only got high in the sky quite late during the night, so the number of people who got to see it was probably small. I was told there was a nova in Centauri, but it is a big constellation. I had a look, and no doubt saw it shortly after the peak, but could not be confident of recognising the new star in such a large constellation. If I had known how close it was to Beta Centauri I would have had no trouble picking it out. It should still be visible in a small telescope or even binoculars, particularly if you live outside the city.

SN 2014J is quite a bit fainter, and while it is still brightening, it is never likely to be visible to the naked eye. Nevertheless, it is likely to be seen by quite a few more people – a product of being at 70º north, and therefore a possibility for anyone in the northern hemisphere with binoculars. The fact that it is located in a galaxy beloved of amateur astronomers will no doubt help, and being dubbed a supernova has a lot more cachet than a nova.

The fact that by the 21st of January we were up to J in the alphabet shows that supernova discoveries are not rare these days. However, two things make this special. The first is that Messier 82, the galaxy in which it is located, is a mere 11.5 million light years away. The second is that this is a Type 1a supernova, described by Dr Brad Tucker of the Siding Springs Observatory as “the golden goose egg”. I’m not sure if Tucker has his mythology right, but he was trying to get across that 1a supernova are poorly understood.

The nomenclature is confusing here. Type 1b and c share with 1a an absence of hydrogen in their spectrum. However, the processes that cause them are fairly similar to Type 2 Supernovae, that is a massive star ends its life with a bang not a whimper. Although there have been no supernovae of either sort in our galaxy since the invention of the telescope, 1987A gave us a close-up look at a Type 2 supernova. While much of the astronomical community would crawl over broken mirror glass for a front row seat with the benefit of the improved instrumentation of the last 30 years, the hunger is much greater for a nearby Type 1a.

2014J is the closest of its sort for 150 years, so while we wish it were closer still, it will have to do. As Tucker explained to me, “We’ve seen nearly 2000 type1a supernovae,” but none have been close enough to see what causes them. The theory is that this type of supernovae occurs when a white dwarf star lies close enough to a companion star to pull material off the companion (or should that be victim?) eventually exploding. However, this theory is largely a product of elimination – we haven’t been able to see the processes involved, it’s just the only thing we can think of that explains what occurs.

According to Tucker, we are particularly keen to learn about the nature of the unfortunate companion star. “It used to be thought that the companion was a red giant,” says Tucker. This is still what a lot of textbooks and popular science accounts will tell you. However, whenever we witness supernovae astronomers go hunting through previous images to find the progenitor stars. With type 2 and 1b/c we usually find something, at least if the source is close enough that a large progenitor could be detected. Not so with 1as. “No one expects to find the white dwarf,” says Tucker. However, in some cases explosions have been close enough that we would expect to have been able to see the red giant before it got stripped. We haven’t, so the thinking has turned to more ordinary sun-like stars, or possibly “subgiants”. Previous supernovae of this type have been too far away to pick up such stars, but Messier 82 is a different matter.

As well as tracking the light curve and analysing the spectrum for the elements present, astronomers are trying to place the event as accurately as possible. This will allow them to search old images for prospects. Give the star a couple of years to cool down and they will go back to look for stars that have moved. It is thought the explosion will shift the companion star noticeably, allowing us to identify it.

Why does it matter what sort of star is feasted upon to lead to such an explosion? Tucker says that we hope that by learning more about the star we can calibrate our models of the event itself. This is important, because 1a supernovae have a very important role in astronomy. They are used as what is called “standard candles” to give us a measure of the distance of the galaxies in which they occur, when these are too great to be measured in other ways. The speed with which 1a supernovae fade from their peak can be used to estimate their intrinsic brightness, which coupled with their measured brightness tells us how far away they are.

It was this measure that upended our understanding of the universe and won Brian Schmidt a Nobel Prize. By comparing the distances to galaxies in which 1a supernovae were observed, and the speed with which they are moving, Schmidt demonstrated that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing down as was previously thought. The finding was sufficiently robust that few now doubt the conclusion, or the existence of “dark energy” which this implies. However, the rate of expansion is still a rough estimate. A better understanding of the candles we are using should improve our precision.

Back to poor Nova Centauri. Besides being relegated to a neglected part of the sky, it lacks the same scientific significance. Nevertheless, Tucker says “anything new in the sky is of interest”. It is thought that similar processes were involved here, but instead of the white dwarf pulling off so much material the whole star explodes, mini explosions “like a string of fire crackers” are occurring as clumps of gas land on the dwarf’s surface, leading to fluctuations in its brightness despite the general downward trend. Learning more about this process will improve our understanding of white dwarves, and possibly the processes when they really go off, and being in our galaxy we get to see it about a thousand times closer than 2014J.

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