Painting a White Dwarf on Earth
UT-Austin Astronomer Inspires Art With Stellar Physics
In Albuquerque, NM, on the grounds of Sandia National Laboratories, there exists a machine that can release more energy than all the world’s power plants can create six times over. It’s called the Z Machine, and scientists are trying to create a white dwarf inside of it. In Austin, TX, it’s image inspired an artist.
The Z Machine can only create that immense amount of energy for a few nanoseconds at a time, but when it does, seismic waves ripple in circles through the desert and electrical arcs shoot from every surface in the room. Inside, threads of tungsten are vaporized into a plasma and an immense magnetic field is created. This incredibly dense, hot plasma can reach peak temperatures of 6.6 billion˚F, nearly as hot as the center of our Sun. Hydrogen atoms can fuse to deuterium, and x-rays beam from within.
That plasma is what is found in white dwarf stars across the universe. By understanding how it is created and how it cools, Professor Don Winget hopes to learn more about the age and evolution of our universe.
Leah Flippen is a studio art major who took Dr. Winget’s astronomy class. When she saw the Z Machine and its storm of stellar lightning, she knew she had to paint it. For her, it became a way to engage with the process of creation and immersing herself in science. For WInget, the Z Machine turns astronomy from an observational science to an experimental one. A superb cross-contamination of ideas, from plasma to paints.
Here on Earth, for nanoseconds at a time, we are recreating dwarf stars. What else can we create with the inspiration this science provides us?
(This video was produced by Daniel Oppenheimer and UT’s College of Natural Sciences. For more, check out the accompanying article.)