Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Galactic black holes, cosmic ray bubbles... and more science

 The BBC phoned earlier to ask me about the "gamma ray bubbles" a NASA space telescope observed, above and below the Milky Way's galactic core.  Extending 25,000 light years north and south, these giant features are very diffuse, but super-heated to incredible energies. What do they mean?  I'll explain!

First, when you see twin lobes of high energy, extending from the poles of a spinning stellar object, then it is a dead giveaway.  This happens when matter that's been captured by a black hole or neutron star spirals inward, via a swirling skirt called an Accretion Disk. As this matter pulverizes, compresses and heats up, the resulting super-energized plasma gets channeled into intense magnetic fields.  While some of the matter falls all the way into the singularity, some of the rest escapes via the only path available...

...straight up and out of the singularity's north and south poles. We've seen this happening in many parts of the universe, especially in light from galaxies in the wild early days of the cosmos.  So what does this have to do with today's "gamma ray bubble"?

The twin lobes we observe are fat spheroids, not narrow jets.  But that could have simply resulted from the jets striking matter as they speared outward from some event at the galactic center. What event? Well... clearly... the black hole down there had something to EAT, maybe 30,000 years ago!

We know all about the black hole, by the way.  It was only guessed-about, just 20 years ago.  Now we know its mass and location in exquisite detail, even though - because it is now quiet - it cannot be seen.  Because a dozen nearby stars are whirling around a particular point in space, like mad dervishes. The BH has a mass millions of times that of our sun... because it has had millions of meals before.  And, apparently, it had another, pretty recently.  About the time painters were drawing mastadons on the caves of Lasceaux.

I just got off the phone with Gregory Benford, who knows the galactic center better than almost anybody on Earth, having studied it as an astronomer and written the classic "Galactic Center" series of science fiction novels.  (Greg told me "you have it entirely right on all counts, David." Cool! ;-)  He also said that there is plenty of other evidence, supporting the supposition that the Black Hole gobbled up something big, a few tens of thousands of years ago.


=== MORE SCIENCE! =====

A NASA spacecraft sped past a small comet Thursday, beaming pictures back to Earth that gave scientists a rare close-up view of its rocky nucleus. (Once again proving my doctoral dissertation was correct!)

Since late last month, the world supply of Viagra ads and other e-mail spam has dropped by an estimated one-fifth. But with 200 billion spam messages in circulation each day, there is still plenty to go around. Moscow police authorities said Mr. Igor Gusev, 31, a suspected spam kingpin, was a central figure in the operations of SpamIt.com, which paid spammers to promote online pharmacies, sometimes quite lewdly. SpamIt.com suddenly stopped operating on Sept. 27. With less financial incentive to send their junk mail, spammers curtailed their activity by an estimated 50 billion messages a day.
Fermilab is building a holometer (holographic interferometer) to determine if all reality is really an illusion – that the universe is really two dimensional, and the third dimension is an illusion. “The universe-as-hologram theory is predicated on the idea that spacetime is not perfectly smooth, but becomes discrete and pixelated as you zoom in further and further, like a low-res digital image.”

A water dance: a mesmerizing slow motion video of water droplets bouncing off an array of hydrophobic (water-repelling) carbon nanotubes. Watch the climax as two drops collide and merge.

For a bit of humor: an ordinary day obeying the laws of physics, like it or not

From memristors to artificial cells to the semantic web. Fifty ideas to change science forever: Cast your vote for which will most profoundly affect our future:

On Society:
It’s not quite Star Wars, but science fiction is changing the modern battlefield: with the advent of spy saucers, big dogs, stealth ships, nuke proof tanks, airborne lighsaber, and a flying humvee.

A global gender gap: how do countries worldwide compare in empowering women? Based on data on wages, literacy, leadership and health, Yemen scores at the bottom, Norway at the top. Overall, gaps in health and education have narrowed more quickly than those in leadership & economic power.

On Fiction:
A mathematician weighs in on the contrasts between stories and statistics. Stories tend to focus on atypical individuals, peculiar circumstances, random occurrences… and the occasional improbable coincidence (or even a deux ex machina). And yet the author tries to populate stories with realistic details and true-to-life characters – to help the reader suspend disbelief.

Twenty fictional librarians who save the world.
A few ‘forgotten’ classics of science fiction. The list includes some of my favorites... and some lost classics of science fiction that I never read, or never even heard of.  I have a few lost classics of my own, such as THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, by Frederik Pohl, which contains the only pre-1980 futuristic portrayal of citizens carrying around (very) smart computer phones in their pockets. Others would include Poul Anderson's BRAIN WAVE, and John Boyd's THE LAST STARSHIP FROM EARTH. 


From The Economist: a report on smart systems: “What if there were two worlds, the real one and its digital reflection? The real one is strewn with sensors, picking up everything from movement to smell. The digital one, an edifice built of software, takes in all that information and automatically acts on it. If a door opens in the real world, so does its virtual equivalent…..The real and digital worlds are converging, thanks to a proliferation of connected sensors and cameras, ubiquitous wireless networks, communications standards and the activities of humans themselves.”

Project M may put Avatars on the Moon: A rogue group of NASA engineers proposes landing a humanoid robot on the moon in 1000 days – for a fraction of a manned mission cost. The bot - controlled by scientists on earth using telepresence suits - may be a version of Robonaut2 set for launch to the ISS. No life support or return trip necessary. Two legs may not be the best design -- lower to the ground may be more stable

Ten strange and mind-boggling things about the universe: Negative energy, frame dragging, relativity of simultaneity, black strings, geon, Kerr black hole, quantum tunneling, cosmic strings, antimatter retrocausality….

Eight ways in which the human condition is improving: World GDP per capita is increasing, the number of people in extreme poverty is decreasing; life expectancy is steadily increasing; infant mortality is declining….

Five misconceptions about the CERN Large Hadron Collider.


The $1.1 million “Hundred Year  Starship” project is a yearlong study for a multigenerational mission which is yet to be named … and for which humans might need to be re-engineered. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, created a stir last month at a conference sponsored by the Long Now Foundation when he mentioned that the space agency was kicking in an extra $100,000 to the project, sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Why a newfound love of of science fiction might help Africa to transform itself.

 ...and this vital reminder...

"I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We're still just a child creature, we're still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We're growing up, we're moving into adolescence now. When we grow up – man, we're going to be something!"
- Gene Roddenberry, Hollywood Blvd. "Star" ceremony acceptance speech, 9/4/85


Chris Moag said...

Sounds like Proof of Xeelee to me!

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Tim H. said...

Cringely had something interesting about printable photovoltaics a few days ago, looks good, if all goes well:
Coupled with a big inverter and a lot of golf cart batteries, could give a measure of energy independence.

Ilithi Dragon said...

The Fermilab holometer link doesn't work.

This one should, though.

Also, on Monday evening a mysterious missile launched off the coast of California, about 35 miles west of LA. Nobody in the U.S. military is claiming knowledge of what it was, though some have speculated that it was an ICBM test launch to demonstrate to Asia that we had the capability.

I doubt it wasn't ours; if it was a foreign missile launch, the sound of bricks being shat by military and defense authorities would have been deafening.

John Kurman said...

Based upon the size and velocities of the gamma ray bubbles, I can tentatively track back to when the gas jets originated.

It was a Wednesday.

Which makes sense, as that is Trash Pickup Day.

Robert said...

Here's an interesting article about how whales are suffering from sunburns, probably as a result of the diminished thickness of the ozone layer. One interesting thing is that, much like people, darker-skinned whales suffer less burns than lighter-skinned whales. There's no research yet on if the sunburns can lead to skin cancer in whales, however.

I do have to wonder if anyone has done an experiment concerning artificial replenishment of the ozone layer. Really, all you would need for the experiment is a weather balloon, a canister of compressed air filled with ozone, and a release mechanism that activates when the weather balloon reaches the proper height so it's within the region of the ozone layer.

It would be especially interesting to do this in the southern pole region, where we have an established hole in the ozone layer and satellites that measure it. Release a burst of ozone into the ozone layer and then measure how long it takes that "blob" of ozone to spread out... and its effect on the hole.

Yes, it's a form of geoengineering, but I have never understood why we don't work to replenish the ozone that's up there, seeing that we create ozone down here with our pollution, lightning strikes, and the like. Heck, it's even used in water purification. So why not an experiment to see what the effect would be in a region that has the least level of ozone?

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

hysmith said...

That project M link is fascinating.

I was touring Johnson Space Center last weekend and--while walking through the Mission Vehicle Simulation Facility got a couple of photographs of a small corner containing most interesting robots. Of particular relevance was a centaur-like 'bot which looked like the top half of Robonaut attached to a six-wheeled rover-like vehicle...

Gilmoure said...

Robert said...
Here's an interesting article about how whales are suffering from sunburns...

I can't help but picture Ahab going after the Great Pink Whale. Yeah, too much Futurama/Simpson encoded into the ole' grey matter.

glamorts: Scary bad guys covered in sparkles

David Brin said...

The missile launch off the LA coast was very very strange.

My crank hypothesis? Well, let's be imaginative. Suppose that someone snuck a missile very close to us, left it there on a timer on the ocean bottom while the ship went away. Then, at a signal or chosen time, it floated up and launched. A warning. A slap in the face.

But then, it is my JOB to come up with the theory no one else has thought of....

Jonathan S. said...

Well, according to this morning's papers, the "theory no one else thought of" was that it was an optical illusion - what was seen was in fact (they say) a jet contrail, which due to its angle appeared to emerge from sea level and shoot up into the sky.

Of course, we really know that was a missile shot from SCPS Cyclops to contain an outbreak of SCP-008, escaped news footage of which was dismissed as location shots for a new show called The Walking Dead...

(Don't know how to format link tags, but for more info about the SCP Foundation, check here: http://scp-wiki.wikidot.com/ It's fun, although some of the fic writers need to work on verb/tense agreement and similar basics.)

THeMadLibrarian said...

Thanks for the librarian shoutout, although some of the RL ones are just as fantastic. I've always been a big Barbara Gordon fan.


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Ilithi Dragon said...

Okay, the guys over at Stargate Command responsible for making up the cover stories for crap like this are really phoning it in today...

David Brin said...

Why would the part of the contrail that is on the horizon be so much FATTER than the later, much nearer part?

And not from any visible distortion.

Also, the excuse that "rockets don't move that slow" is telltale fabulation talk that lessens the story's credibility, since along the foreshortened path of a rocket departing away from your POV, the rates tend to be very similar to what we see here.

Look, if something scary did happen, I don't blame the feds for coming up with this stuff. There are times when tactical obscurity is necessary... Anyway, I am just poking. Maybe it's a contrail, after all.

(But would they not by now have pinned it to a specific flight?)

Robert said...

I'm betting on an amateur rocket launch. That said, what I am curious about is just what was the initial military reaction. If they didn't blink an eye, then it was likely a military operation, and one they didn't realize (or care) that it would be visible from shore.

I guess this is a legitimate UFO though? ^^;;

Rob H.

William said...

"... THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, by Frederik Pohl, which contains the only pre-1980 futuristic portrayal of citizens carrying around (very) smart computer phones in their pockets."

I recently read Clarke's Imperial Earth (1976), in which he describes a device that made me think "Heh, that's basically an iPhone." Not very pre-1980, but still.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Well, jet contrails CAN get pretty wide. The thing is, though, that by the time they actually GET that wide, they're pretty translucent and patchy; this one is obviously still pretty dense at the thicker parts. I'm also curious about the glowing part we see at the lead of the trail. Where's the sun at, and would it be able to generate a reflection like that, at that angle?

Also, I've never seen a contrail get that big before, not on the horizon, and we had plenty of military and civilian jets flying overhead at my parents' house; if it really is as far away as the 'official' story says, that contrail would be, what, a hundred or so miles wide? Dozens, at least.

I'm personally doubting that it was a foreign launch or any kind of launch that the military didn't already know about; a rocket like that going up that close to the mainland U.S. would have had bricks hitting the ground in stacks, and I would think that some word of the immediate response that would generate would have leaked out.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Compare this contrail to the mystery trail.

David Brin said...

This event's "plane" slows down its apprent progress across the sky as it moves toward the zenith... exactly what you'd expect from a climbing rocket...

...and the opposite of what a a plane would do, when passing overhead... which is when its angular apparent velocity would be highest.

Robert said...

Yes, but that could also be an optical illusion. If it was a rocket from another nation, then our country would be up in arms at the moment. If it was one of our own rockets fired to let the East know that we're still viable, then wouldn't the military 'fess up as they'd want it known they launched a rocket? That leaves a private rocket, which is doubtful as the military still would have responded, or an optical illusion of a jet contrail.

Rob H.

rewinn said...

My snap reaction to reports of a rocket launch in waters that are international but way, way to close to our shores was that Obama's tour of South/East Asian democracies generated an overreaction from an East Asian nondemocracy.

After all, a rocket that starts way too close to you and deliberately arcs away is just as good a warning as one that arcs towards you, and carries a lesser risk in case of accident.

I'm relieved at reports that this was a contrail-related thing; I'd assumed that our ASW was plenty good enough to control that far out and much farther. But ... my pet crank theory ... a Russian sub crew decided to do something in reaction to not getting paid for years.

Tony Fisk said...

Airplane con-trail.

Look at the lighting on the trail: although conditions are hazy, the trail is fully lit for its entire length, even at the 'lower' parts. This suggests it is at a high altitude. Also the trail is breaking up in a manner suggestive of lateral shear, which you'd expect in the stratosphere.

(Oh, all right! Maybe it is an initial deployment of orbital mind control las...*zap*...aircraft con-trail)

re: galactic black holes: it hungers still... maybe we need to be looking for a decent scrith shield out there.

Meanwhile, WISE discovers a 'pale green dot'

re: holometers and dimensions:
Size has long struck me as a useful depiction of an extra dimension. Watching a news report on the LHC attempt to recreate the Big Bang, I was taken by an off the cuff remark: 'Small dimensions are the domain of high energies'

re: human condition improving.
This leads to what has become known as 'the Environmentalists' Paradox': how can things be improving if things are getting worse. (Two answers: different measurements, and overdrafts)

Robert said...

After looking at another news article on the "missile" contrail I found out an important piece of information: the footage was filmed from a helicopter. The different angle of the camera (compared to on the ground) makes it much more likely to be an optical illusion of a jet contrail that wouldn't be visible from the ground as easily. Given the lighting of the contrail as well, it seems quite likely to be a jet, not a missile.

Rob H.

Robert said...

It appears that Pluto has regained its place as the largest planetary body in the Kuiper belt (outside of Neptune when it goes beyond Pluto's orbit). Recent occlusion measurements of Eris show it may be in fact a tiny bit smaller (as in tens of kilometers) in diameter as Pluto.

Take that, you Pluto naysayers. I say he put Pluto back where it belongs: as a real planet. ;)

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

It was a plot hatched by the Galileans to keep the pipsqueak wolfling upstart on the outside.

Magento Themes said...

It is really frightening for me when we listen about black holes where many stars like billions of stars like sun disappearing, and sun is too big even some says light can't escape from black holes.

- John Devis
Magento Themes

accessories for ipad said...

That project M link is fascinating.

I was touring Johnson Space Center last weekend and--while walking through the Mission Vehicle Simulation Facility got a couple of photographs of a small corner containing most interesting robots. Of particular relevance was a centaur-like 'bot which looked like the top half of Robonaut attached to a six-wheeled rover-like vehicle...

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