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SN 2006gy: brightest supernova ever seen. OK, so whatís the big deal? The wonders of our Universe do not match my wonderment why we are able to see them, why we are able to think about them, or - more elementary - why we are in that Universe at all, all in all.

SN 2006gy

The top panel of this graphic is an artist's illustration that shows what SN 2006gy may have looked like if viewed at a close distance. The bottom left panel is an infrared image, using adaptive optics at the Lick Observatory, of NGC 1260, the galaxy containing SN 2006gy. The panel to the right shows Chandra's X-ray image of the same field of view, again showing the nucleus of NGC 1260 and SN 2006gy.

Credit: Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/UC Berkeley/N.Smith et al.; IR: Lick/UC Berkeley/J.Bloom & C.Hansen.

SN 2006gy

The process that triggered the explosion in SN 2006gy: When a star is very massive, its core can produce so much gamma-rays that some of the radiation is converted into particle and antiparticle pairs. The resulting drop in energy causes the star to collapse under its own huge gravity. After this violent collapse, runaway thermonuclear reactions ensue and the star explodes, spewing the remains into space.

Given the brute fact that we are a carbon-based form of life slowly evolved around a G-type star, there are some features of the Universe, some constraints on physical constants, which can be inferred quite straightforwardly. [...] But even if the constants are fixed throughout the Universe we can observe, could there in some sense be other universes where they are different? This idea was outlined by a biologist, C.F.A. Pantin. He said "the properties of the material universe are uniquely suitable for the evolution of living creatures. If we could know that our universe was only one of an indefinite number with varying properties we could perhaps invoke a solution analogous to the principle of natural selection, that only in certain universes, which happen to include ours, are the conditions suitable for the existence of life, and unless that condition is fulfilled there will be no observers to note the fact."

If someone walks into a clothing shop and buys a suit that is perfect fit to his or her body, there are two possibilities. Either the tailors who work in that shop have carefully measured that personís body and made a suit to fit it - bespoke tailoring - or the shop has such a large range of closing available, in all shapes and sizes, that the person in question has been fitted out from stock, off the peg. The idea that the Universe is in some way constructed for our benefit, or at least designed as a fit home for intelligence, corre-sponds to the first possibility. In many ways, the second alternative is more attractive; but it requires the existence of a vast array of alternative universes from which we have "chosen" by the fact of our existence. In this picture, there are myriads of other worlds in which the laws of physics and the constants of nature do differ, a little or a lot, from those we know. In most of the universes, life - certainly intelligent life - does not exist. Any universe in which our kind of intelligent life can arise must look rather like our Universe, since without the familiar coincidences and constants that life would not be there. We believe our Universe to be special because we inhabit it. But that does not mean that it is special in any deeper sense of the word.

A useful analogy is with a lottery. Suppose a million lottery tickets are sold, and then one number out of that million is selected. The holder of that number wins the prize, so that number seems special. But in a deeper sense it is no more special than any of the other numbers in the lottery. By the nature of the lottery, somebody must win, and each of the numbers has an equal chance of winning. It is only after the event that one number gains a special status. The holder may feel lucky as a result; but somebody had to get lucky!

Maybe the world is like that. There may be a multitude of universes that all start sterile. Intelligence appears in some (or perhaps only one) of those universes as a result of the accumulation of random coincidences ("luck"). But there is no meaning to the coincidences, and that universe stands out from the rest as special only with hindsight, once intelligence has appeared to wonder over its own origins.

J.Gribbin and M. Rees: Cosmic coincidences, Bantam Books, New York, 1989.

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