Supernova story continues, just like science journalism

Some stories are just too good to let go. Ian Shelton first spotted supernova 1987A on the evening of Monday, February 23, 1987. A notice announcing the discovery appeared in the issue of Science News that went to the printer that Wednesday — and articles followed in each of the next three issues, with more than a dozen stories about the stellar explosion over the course of the year. “It’s like Christmas,” said astrophysicist Stanford Woosley. “More exciting than Woodstock,” said astrophysicist John N. Bahcall. Thirty years later, we are still writing about 1987A, because there’s still so much to say. “The primary ring has only gotten more intriguing with age,” Christopher Crockett writes in our anniversary package.

Reading through the 1987A coverage from that first year is like tailing a team of detectives as they pull together disparate details to solve a crime. The first observers thought the exploded star was Sanduleak -69° 202, but by March 7, astronomers were considering a companion star as the culprit. By May, general agreement settled back on Sanduleak. It was also unclear, at first, whether the event was a type 2 supernova or the less common type 1a — the explosion of a matter-thieving white dwarf. Neutrinos emitted from the supernova and detected on Earth presented their own puzzles: Why was there a five-hour time difference between detections at Mount Blanc in Europe and at the Kamiokande detector in Japan? And could the flight time of 1987A’s neutrinos reveal whether the particles have mass? (Today we know they do.) Together those early stories are a study in how science progresses. And our reporters were there, doggedly following every lead.

It’s a quality that has always distinguished Science News, and this issue is no exception. Susan Milius covers the latest update in the saga over fairy circles. Termite warfare might be responsible for these desert bald spots, where vegetation doesn’t grow, or they could form as plants monopolize water, preventing others from moving in. Recent work proposes a combination of the two ideas, but advocates of each are not yet convinced. Physics writer Emily Conover writes about the latest claim for metallic hydrogen. The topic was hot in the 1970s, and Science News has been watching closely ever since.

Here at Science News, there’s a story behind every story. The writers have changed, but their shared commitment to science journalism, not fluff or hype but the real-deal and sometimes incremental advances, creates a continuity across the years.

The same is true for editors. As I work with the team at Science News to finish this issue, my first as acting editor in chief, I am awestruck by the tremendous body of knowledge that has been amassed over the last 90-plus years by team after team of curious, clever and intrepid journalists. There are dozens of stories that span decades. There are stories that are far from over and stories that are just beginning. I am also grateful for the precedents set by those who have come before me. Their hard work and dedication to journalism offers the clues needed to know what’s ahead. And so we continue on. There’s much more work to be done.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

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