The Rigakubu News

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The Unintelligible English Story (Betelgeuse)

Hideyuki Umeda, Associate Professor, Department of Astronomy

It is often the case that English is not understood by local people, and I sometimes think that one of the main reasons for this is the presence of katakana in Japan. Katakana makes people think they know English, so when it comes time to say something, they sometimes realize that they do not know English. Betelgeuse is a famous star in the constellation of Orion.

When I was in the U.S. before (when there were no smart phones), I wanted to talk about this star, but I did not know the correct pronunciation. I predicted that people would not understand me even if I said it in katakana, so I tried to say it with English-like intonation, but as I expected, they did not understand me at all. I tried to tell him that it was one of the stars in the quadrilateral of the constellation Orion and that it was located on the opposite side of Rigel, but he looked at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about. He looked at me like, "What is it?

Finally, I found out (after drawing a picture, etc.) that it is pronounced like Beetlejuice, and unless I say it like the star opposite Rigel in the constellation of Orion, he cannot understand it at all.

I thought "Beetlejuice" sounded like beetle juice, but it seems that Americans also thought so, and a horror comedy with such a title was made. By the way, I also thought that "Orion" sounded like "Lion," but I must have been the only one who thought so, because I mistook R for L. Not being able to distinguish R and L is probably one of the biggest reasons why Japanese people are not good at English. I sometimes think that hiragana should be left as it is, but it would be better to create two different characters for the katakana "La" line, one for L and one for R. I don't know the reason why this kind of proposal has not been made. I don't know why this kind of proposal has not been made, but I think that just by doing so, children's English ability would be considerably improved.

© National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

Now about Betelgeuse getting fainter: it fades from magnitude 0.5 to magnitude 2 from the end of 2019 to February of the following year. If this progresses, the famous Winter Triangle could be in jeopardy. I saw the darkening with my own eyes, and I could understand a little why the ancients were so anxious about the eclipse. At that time, there was some excitement that it might soon explode as a supernova, but it subsequently began to brighten and returned to almost its original brightness around April 2020.

Unlike eclipses, the reason why a star like Betelgeuse changes its light is not exactly understood. At the very least, predicting future cataclysms is currently completely impossible. This is just one example of how much work remains to be done by astronomers. According to standard theory, surface changes of stars are independent of supernova explosions. In recent years, however, some observational indications to the contrary have been found. Some researchers believe that Betelgeuse will not explode for the next 100,000 years, but what is really going on? I recently conducted a study with a group of graduate students at a university, and we concluded that there is a possibility that Betelgeuse could explode tomorrow, given the star's color, brightness, and surface composition (paper pending).

If a supernova explosion occurs, I am also interested in a joint research project that Super-Kamiokande could observe precursor neutrinos a few days before the supernova explosion. It is unfortunate that one of the winter triangles will be lost, but if it explodes, it will certainly have a tremendous impact on astronomy.

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Published in the September 2021 issue of Faculty of Science News

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