Ruminations

Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, February 28, 2013

  • How did supermassive black holes get so big? New data give a clue.

Scientists have now measured the spin of a supermassive black hole, describing the rate in terms of the energy needed to sustain the spin. These black holes are thought to occupy the center of virtually every galaxy.

By Staff writer / February 28, 2013
An artist's illustration shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun at the center, surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk in this NASA illustration released on Wednesday.
Courtesy of JPL-Caltech/NASA/Reuters

Supermassive black holes are thought to occupy the center of virtually every galaxy in the universe. They tip the cosmic scales at millions or billions of times the sun's mass.

The supermassive black hole in question spins furiously at the center of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, formally known as NGC 1365. It lies some 56 million light-years away in the constellation Fornax. The black hole at its center has 2 million times the mass of the sun.

Putting a miles-per-hour number on the rate of the spin is tough because a black hole has no real surface and no timing markers, explains Fiona Harrison, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the lead scientist behind NASA's NuSTAR orbiting X-ray telescope, one of two X-ray telescopes that contributed to the discovery.

Instead, scientists describe the rate in terms of the energy needed to sustain the spin. This black hole's spin is sustained by an amount of energy equivalent to the energy released by a billion stars shining for a billion years, says Dr. Harrison, who is a member of a team reporting the results in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

"That's a huge amount of rotational energy," she says.

Indeed, it represents 84 percent of the maximum spin rate predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity, adds Guido Risaliti, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who was the lead author of the paper in Nature.

The supermassive black hole's high spin rate provides a direct clue as to how it grew, researchers say.
"We believe that these black holes were born when the universe was only about 10 percent of its current age," said Arvind Parmar, mission manager for the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton orbiting X-ray telescope, during a press briefing Thursday afternoon. Back then, Dr. Parmar says, these objects would have tipped the cosmic scales at 20 or 30 times the sun's mass.
They can grow as galaxies collide and their central black holes merge. If both black holes are spinning in the same direction, the merger would result in a black hole with amped-up spin. Likewise, if the black hole continuously feeds on material in its host galaxy in what's called ordered accretion, the spin would accelerate as well. If feeding is random, however, spin rates would be relatively slow.

Thus, for this black hole, the results imply either constant feeding, a merger, or both, Parmar suggests.

Now that researchers have demonstrated that a supermassive black hole's spin can be measured, the next step is to observe these objects in ever more-distant galaxies that span a large stretch of cosmic time.

"This will allow us to probe the importance of accretion and the importance of mergers in creating the universe we see today," he says.

Measuring a supermassive black hole's rate of spin represents a 20-year-old problem in astrophysics that researchers were able to solve with three days' worth of observations from NuSTAR and XMM-Newton.

The X-rays appear thanks to energetic charged particles that are accelerated by a black hole's magnetic field. The particles form into jets that vault into space from the black hole's north and south poles, streaming for distances that can top 1 million light-years.

The region of a jet with the most intense X-ray emissions lies at the end nearest the black hole. These X-rays can in effect be reflected by the swirling disk of material falling into the supermassive black hole.

Meanwhile, the black hole's enormous gravity tugs on the very fabric of space-time itself as the object spins, distorting the disk of infalling material. The largest amount of distortion appears in the region nearest the black hole's event horizon – the point of no return for infalling material. This distortion shows up in the spectra of the disk material, carried by the X-rays that the material reflects. The brightest, most distorted spectra provide a measure of the black hole's spin.

Between the two telescopes, the researchers were able to measure iron's X-ray spectra from the black hole's vicinity with higher precision, in more detail, and over a wider range of X-ray energies than previous instruments could. This not only allowed them to zero in on emissions closest to the black hole, but it also allowed them to rule out competing explanations for the spectra they recorded.

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Immutable Qualifications

"Everybody's been struck by how quickly Rome responded. Clearly, Rome saw that there was sufficient substance to the allegations. They would not have told him to stand down unless they thought there was something worth investigating."
Austen Ivereigh, director, British church advocacy group Catholic Voices
"Other people will be under greater pressure to stay away. There has been nothing like this before. It is almost as if the fact that the Pope resigned rather than dying in office has created a degree of instability in the Catholic Church."
Michael Walsh, author The Cardinals
Taking support from Keith Cardinal O'Brien's tendering of his resignation as archbishop of St.Andrew's and Edinburgh, and stating he would wish not to become a distraction, and therefore he would not take part as one of the 118 cardinals assigned to select a new pope, support groups for victims of pedophiliac priests have seen their campaign taking on new life.

They are now renewing their calls for the Roman Catholic Church to take up its responsibility to its injured flock. To rescue themselves from the obloquy of public disgust to and the distressed distrust of the faithful by having Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, Justin Francis Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, Godfried Cardinal Danneels of Belgium and Sean Cardinal Brady of Ireland, stand aside.

In the process come to the realization, long overdue, that celibacy offends nature. The deliberate distortion of human desire creates a degraded soul. "Many priests", informed Cardinal O'Brien in a BBC interview, "have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion"; the isolation is soul-deadening.

He has his own history pre-dating his elevation in the church hierarchy. Three priests and a former priest had complained to Pope Benedict XVI's representative in Britain of "inappropriate contact", and an "inappropriate approach". Which the Cardinal himself rejects as a reflection of reality.

Yet, celibacy is a concept alien to human nature, and some theorize it attracts men whose confused and guilt-laden reaction to their homosexual tendencies feel it offers redemption for them. That becoming part of the church will alleviate in some miraculous way their fascination with a forbidden attraction.

There are those church experts who believe a disproportionate percentage of gay men are represented in the priesthood. Their religious beliefs inform them that their attraction to men will doom them forever as outcasts, and to join the church which welcomes them yet straitjackets their sexual impulses will result in their being saved from themselves.

The best laid plans of men are as nothing to nature. Many mental health professionals are also of the opinion that men grappling with a sexual attraction to children might also end up in the priesthood in the all-too-often vain expectation that the saintliness that would descend upon them would aid them in denying their debased attraction.

This is a societal problem of painfully far-reaching proportions. And it is a particularly acute problem for the Roman Catholic Church which imposes upon its shepherds the faith obligation to be true to a sacrament that the orthodox, conventional Church has invested itself in as the first order of qualifications for those answerable directly to Christ and to tend gently to the laity entrusted to them.

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Mars May Get Hit By a Comet in 2014

Mars in the crosshairs
Mars is due for what may be an unwelcome visitor in October 2014.
Image credit: Mars: NASA/JPL/MSSS; Comet Halley: Hale Observatory; composite: Phil Plait


In case you just can’t get enough impact news, it looks like Mars may actually get hit by a comet in 2014! As it stands right now, the chance of a direct impact are small, but it’s likely Mars will get pelted by the debris associated with the comet.

I know. This is pretty amazing. Still, let me preface this with a caveat: Trying to get precise predictions of comet orbits can be difficult, and for this one we’re talking about a prediction for 20 months from now! Things may very well change, but here’s what we know so far.

Comet What May
The comet is called C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), discovered on Jan. 3, 2013 by the Australian veteran comet hunter Robert McNaught. As soon as it was announced, astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey looked at their own data and found it in observations from Dec. 8, 2012, which helped nail down the orbit (I explain how that works in a previous article about asteroid near-misses).

Extrapolating its orbit, they found it will make a very near pass of Mars around Oct. 19, 2014, missing the planet by the nominal distance of about 100,000 kilometers (60,000 miles).
Observations taken at the ISON-NM observatory in New Mexico just this week have tightened up the orbit a bit more, allowing for better predictions. Given this new data, the comet may actually pass closer to Mars; another veteran comet hunter, Leonid Elenin, predicts it may get as close as 37,000 km (23,000 miles) of the surface of Mars!

That’s pretty dang close. But this gets even more interesting.
orbiotal diagram for comet Siding Springs
Orbital diagram for the comet. The inner planets are labeled, and the comet's path is in blue (dark blue for when it's below the solar system's average plane, and light blue above). This shows the comet's position a few days before it passes Mars.
Image credit: NASA/JPL

Ice to See You
Comets are similar to asteroids: Big chunks of interplanetary debris, mostly rock, that orbit the Sun. Comets, though, have a lot of ice in them—what we normally think of as gases and liquids on Earth like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and water. But in deep space, these are frozen (making up much of the solid part of a comet, called the nucleus). As the comet nears the Sun it warms up, and these substances sublimate; that is, turn directly from a solid into a gas. They can exist on and below the comet’s surface, so when they sublimate they can erupt from vents like geysers. These vents act like rockets, gently pushing on the comet nucleus. Over time, this can change the comet’s orbit a bit, which is why I said above that making accurate predictions of a comet’s position over very long periods of time can be difficult.

Comet Hartley 2
A closeup of the comet Hartley 2, visited by the EPOXI spacecraft in 2010. You can see several vents along the middle and end of the comet nucleus.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Right now, the comet is over a billion kilometers from the Sun, and is (pardon the expression) stone cold. Still, a small amount of coma activity has been seen (see the picture below), and as it gets closer over the next year or so, it may very well vent more gas. If it does, its orbit may change enough to push it farther from Mars. Or it may push it right into the planet’s path. We won’t know for sure until at least late summer 2013, when more observations are possible (it’s about to get too close to the Sun from our viewpoint here on Earth to observe).
Let me be very clear: We are in no danger here on Earth. The nudges in orbit I’m talking about are pretty small, and it will be many millions of kilometers from Earth at closest. We’re safe.

Slipping into the Coma
And there’s still more. Comets aren’t generally very solid; you can think of them as loose piles of rubble held together by those ices. As the ice sublimates, the comet dissolves a little, and that rubble can escape. This material, usually objects the size of grains of sand up to small rocks, orbit along very nearly the same path as the comet nucleus itself (which is why we get meteor showers). The gas expands into a large fuzzy cloud around the nucleus, called the coma (which is Latin for hair). Although the nucleus may be a few kilometers in diameter, the coma can be several hundred thousand kilometers across!

What makes this so very interesting is that the coma can be bigger than the predicted distance by which the comet will pass Mars. This means it’s entirely possible, even likely, Mars will pass right through this cloud of material. And the closer the comet gets, the more likely it is Mars will get pelted by the debris set loose from the nucleus itself.

If that does happen, it’ll be the gods’ own meteor shower for the red planet.
I’m not entirely sure what we’ll be able to see from Earth should this happen. Mars will be well-placed in the night sky, so we’ll have a decent view. But most of the debris would be pretty small, so the odds of seeing much are low. Plus, there will be a big honking fuzzy comet in the way, obscuring the view!

Mars has two small moons, potato-shaped lumps a few kilometers across. I’ll be very curious to see comparisons of before-and-after pictures, to see if they get any new impacts on them.

Deep Impact
If the nucleus does hit the planet, well.
That will be amazing, and by “amazing” I mean “apocalyptic”. The nucleus size is not well known, but may be as small as 15 kilometers (9 miles) or as big as 50 km (30 miles). Even using the small number means Mars would be slammed by an unimaginable impact. The comet is orbiting the Sun backward (more on that in a second), so it will be moving at a speed of about 55 kilometers per second (120,000 miles per hour!) upon impact. That means the comet has a huge amount of kinetic energy, the energy of motion. That energy will be released at impact as an explosion. A big one.
A really big one.

Doing a rough calculation, I get an explosive yield of roughly one billion megatons: That’s a million billion tons of TNT exploding. Or, if you prefer, an explosion about 25 million times larger than the largest nuclear weapon ever tested on Earth.

So, yeah.            
The crater left behind would be hundreds of kilometers across, and be the largest impact Mars has seen in a long, long time. Mind you, once again, there is no guarantee this comet will hit Mars. The most likely scenario is a close pass, which is still incredible.

In one sense, an impact would be pretty bad for us on Earth: we’d almost certainly lose all our robotic probes in orbit and on the surface. An impact that size would blast debris all over the planet, and the rovers could be damaged or destroyed. Even something in orbit wouldn’t be safe; the ejecta would come screaming off the planet and sent every which way in orbit around Mars. It would be like orbiting into a shotgun blast.

Even a near miss may prove dangerous for the probes, since as I pointed out there will be debris anyway. If we’re lucky, they’ll make it through this just fine, and we may very well get some spectacular images from them (as usual, Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog has that story). We’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the next few months.

Comet Siding Spring
The comet seen using the Vatican Observatory VATT on Jan. 20, 2013, when it was still over a billion kilometers away from Earth. It was already showing a small amount of activity.
Image credit: Carl Hergenrother
Grabbing a Comet by the Tail
Even if this comet weren’t getting anywhere near Mars, it’s worth studying. For one thing, as far as we can tell right now its orbit is hyperbolic. Assuming the observations are accurate, that means that it’s actually traveling faster than the Sun’s escape velocity. It probably came from very deep space, well outside the orbit the Neptune, probably from the vast cloud of comets surrounding the Sun called the Oort cloud. It may have gotten a kick from some outer planet (Jupiter is the usual culprit), giving it a bit of extra speed.

This is pretty rare, with only a few dozen comets known with hyperbolic trajectories. If it survives the encounter with Mars, it’ll head back out into deep space, almost certainly never to return. This will be our only chance to observe it.

And what will this look like late next year, when the comet is so close to Mars in space as well as in our sky? It’s hard to say, but the comet may actually be brighter; the gas particles are highly reflective, and may form a cloud far larger than Mars itself. So what we might see is a bright dot (or maybe even a disk if the coma is large enough), slowly encroaching on the ruddy bright star-like point of Mars. Over the course of a few weeks they’ll get closer, and closer…and for a day or so you might actually need a telescope to separate the two.

And then my best guess is that we’ll then see them pull apart, as the comet heads back out into the frozen vault of deep space, with Mars little worse for the wear.

But we’ll see.

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In Scientific First, Researchers Link Two Rats' Brains via Computer

Brain_to_Brain_interface
Researchers used one rat's brain waves to influence a second rat's actions. Illustration courtesy of Duke University


It's not exactly rat telepathy. Let's call it a computer-mediated rat mind-meld.
In a lab in Brazil, a rat faced an opening in the wall of its enclosure, and two levers. If it detected with its whiskers that the opening was narrow, it was supposed to press one lever. If the opening was wide, it was supposed to press the other. Choose the right lever, and it would be rewarded with a sip of water.

With practice, the rat learned to press the correct lever 95 percent of the time. Then came the remarkable part.

Researchers implanted one set of electrodes in the brain of the rat in Brazil, and another set of electrodes in the brain of a second rat at Duke University. Via an Internet connection, they set it up so that a signal from the brain of the rat in Brazil would be sent, in simplified form, directly to the brain of the rat in North Carolina. The rat in North Carolina also faced two levers, but had no information to go on as to which one to press—except for the signal coming from the first rat's brain.

The test: Could the rat in North Carolina press the correct lever, based on the width of the opening in the enclosure of the rat in Brazil? Six or seven times out of 10, it did.


The study, published Thursday morning in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, appears to be the first to allow animals to communicate via a brain-to-brain computer interface. The researchers, led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke, say the feedback actually went both ways: When the second rat chose the correct lever, the first rat got an additional reward, which apparently encouraged it to send a clearer and stronger brain signal the next time. If that's true, it would amount to not only communication, but a form of cooperation.


Nicolelis believes this opens the possibility of building an "organic computer" that links the brains of multiple animals into a single central nervous system, which he calls a "brain-net." Are you a little creeped out yet? In a statement, Nicolelis adds:
We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.
That sounds far-fetched. But Nicolelis' lab is developing quite the track record of "taking science fiction and turning it into science," says Ron Frostig, a neurobiologist at UC-Irvine who was not involved in the rat study. "He's the most imaginative neuroscientist right now." (Frostig made it clear he meant this as a compliment, though skeptics might interpret the word less charitably.)


Nicolelis previously made headlines in 2008 when he used brain signals from a monkey in North Carolina to operate a pair of robotic legs in Japan. The ultimate goal is to allow paralyzed people to use their minds to control robotic limbs as if they were their own appendages.


The potential applications of brain-to-brain interfaces for humans aren't entirely clear. Few people today are eager to have electrodes implanted in their brains. And the brain signals that the rats transmitted were relatively simplistic, so there's no guarantee that the technology would ever work for the transmission of anything as complex as abstract thoughts or memories.

Still, Frostig says the rat study creates exciting possibilities for future research. "We can't yet say how this will help people. But this is the first time that it's been proven that something like this can be done at all. I think it's wonderful."

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US private sector hopes to send older couple to Mars

Watch millionaire Dennis Tito's journey from space tourist to mission head
A team led by millionaire and former space tourist Dennis Tito plans to send a "tested couple" to Mars and back in a privately funded mission.

The Inspiration Mars Foundation plans to start its one-and-a-half-year mission in January 2018.
The foundation has carried out a study which it says shows that it is feasible to achieve such a mission using existing technology.

The group still has to raise funding for their mission.

Among those involved in the project is Jane Poynter, who spent two years locked away in a sealed ecosystem with seven other people in 1991 which she described as a "New Age Garden of Eden".
She told BBC News that the mission planners wanted the crew to consist of an older couple whose relationship would be able to withstand the stress of living in a confined environment for two years.
"I can attest from personal experience from living in Biosphere 2 that having somebody that you really deeply trusted and cared for was an extraordinary thing to have," Ms Poynter explained.

Ms Poynter, who ended up marrying one of those involved in the Biosphere 2 project, Taber Macallum, admitted that it could be "challenging" for the couple. But said that the selection process would attempt to find "resilient people that would be able to maintain a happy upbeat attitude in the face of adversity".

The plan was to choose a middle-aged couple because their health and fertility would be less affected by the radiation they would be exposed to during such a long space mission.
Dennis Tito: "It's been outstanding from a scientific standpoint. We have not made nearly the same progress in human space flight"

The couple would receive extensive training and would be able to draw on psychological support from mission control throughout the mission.

Ms Poynter's expectation is that a couple journeying to Mars would be "inspirational".
"We want the crew of vehicle to represent humanity," she said. "We want the youth of the world to be reflected in this crew and for girls as well as boys to have role models".
Space historian, Prof Christopher Riley of Lincoln University, believes that sending a couple to Mars might be a good idea.

"The idea of sending older astronauts on longer duration missions, after they have had children, has been around for a while. The reasoning is that such a long duration mission, outside of the protective magnetosphere of the Earth, could leave them infertile," he said.

"Married couples have occasionally flown in space before, on short flights, and it seemed to work well, so why not."

However results emerging from the so-called Mars500 project suggests that even carefully screened individuals are likely to suffer from psychological problems from a prolonged space mission.
The mission will be a straightforward flight to the Red Planet and return without landing. This greatly reduces the cost of the mission. The Mars Inspiration team believe that it is technically possible to launch such a mission in five years' time.

The Mars Inspiration team is aiming for a January 2018 launch because it coincides with a close alignment of Mars and Earth, such that a round trip would take about a year-and-a half, or 501 days - whereas outside of this window such a trip might take two or three years .

Many believe that new technologies will need to be developed to deal with the extended periods of radiation such a trip would involve and to cope with supplying food and water for the crew.
The Mars Inspiration team says that it has carried out a feasibility study for the mission which it plans to release on Sunday. Anu Ojha, from the British National Space Centre in Leicester has seen the study.

He says that it is theoretically possible to go to Mars and back using the Dragon and Falcon Heavy systems manufactured by California-based firm SpaceX.

But conditions would be squeezed and spartan, with no room for pressurised space suits. The report suggests that 1,360kg of dehydrated food will be enough to last the journey and the manifest includes 28kg of toilet paper for a crew of 2 for 500 days.

But the issue of radiation protection according to Mr Ojha is "glossed over" with the recognition that more work and "creative solutions" need to be explored. More work will also need to done to improve recycling technologies to convert urine into water.

The man leading the venture is Denis Tito, who paid 20 million dollars to become the first "tourist" in space. He spent six days on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001.

The millionaire is financing part of the project but much more money needs to be raised. The organisers have not stated how much the mission will cost nor how much they need to raise, saying only that it is much cheaper than one would imagine a Mars mission to be. Ms Poynter did however confirm that a significant amount of money still needed to be raised.

Anu Ojha believes that unless the venture is 100% underwritten at this stage it won't get off the ground.

"If a bunch of billionaires have committed the approx $1-2bn required, then we could see history being made in under five years. If (at the) the press conference they say 'we have this fantastic concept but need the money - please give generously' then it's dead in the water," he told BBC News.
However Prof Riley is more optimistic. "There are lots of big ifs in trying to achieve this epic endeavour, but none which are totally insurmountable given enough money and assistance, and the will to do it," he said.

"It takes mavericks like Tito to create such pivot points in history where significant things happen, and such a trip would be as significant as Apollo 8's first circumnavigation of the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968, when the world listened in to the reflections of the first human beings to orbit another world.

"Perhaps fifty years later, on Christmas Eve 2018 we might be all tuning in to a similar broadcast from Mars. I hope so!"

The effort represents the latest development in private sector companies moving into space exploration. Last December, one of the last men on the Moon, Harrison Schmitt, told BBC News that he believed Nasa and other government run space agencies were "too inefficient" to be able to send astronauts back to the Moon.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hollywood Zeitgeist

As photogenic celebrities go, she is at the pinnacle. Not only is she very visible and accessible, but she is also the First Lady of the land, wife of the President of the United States of America. Poised, articulate, passionate, intelligent, a professional in her own right, and high-earner to boot. That she has been genetically endowed with grace and beauty, and is engaged in acting as a symbol and a model wife, mother and businesswoman to her fellow countrywomen, is a plus in her favour.

She has pioneered a new role for her successors, many of whom will have no wish to emulate her. Most of whom would not be capable of doing so. Her style and flair are all her own. She enjoys being a person of ability, one whose exploits and fashionable appearances are followed by so many who approve of anything and everything she does.

Is she overexposed in her role as First Lady, a complementary presence to her husband, no slouch at commanding attention himself, aside from his role as Commander in Chief of all that is America for the time being - perhaps, perhaps not. She is not someone whose presence can be ignored; she attracts notice just as a magnet attracts iron filings. A natural force of nature, in other words.

A kind of grand majesty all her own.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama announces the winner of the best picture Oscar via video link at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Reuters, Mario Anzuon

"So when Michelle Obama suddenly takes the focus in an electronic age that we have on all levels -- social media and public TV -- I think it's very appropriate that she plays the role that she does because she not only gains credibility for the programs that she promotes, but at the same time she says 'I don't just sit in the office and knit."
"That said, what I think has made her critics come alive even more [Sunday night] is the fact that Obama seems to have engendered almost exclusively solid support from the Hollywood camp."
Gerald Shuster, professor political communication, University of Pittsburgh

That, without one scintilla of a doubt.

Will her larger-than-life persona in the public eye distort her self-regard, or is it already sufficiently hubristic?

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Culpable Homicide

"You can't shoot through a closed door. People who own guns and have been through the training, they know that shooting through a door is not going to go through South African law as an accident. There is no situation in South Africa that allows a person to shoot at a threat that is not identified. Firing multiple shots, it makes it that much worse. ... It could have been a minor -- a 15-year-old kid, a 12-year-old kid -- breaking in to get food."
Andre Pretorius, president Professional Firearm Trainers Council, South African firearms instructors regulatory body
 Oscar Pistorius wrote in an affidavit to the magistrate who allowed him to go free on bail that he believed an intruder had penetrated his home. Where the gated community he lived in was guarded, had walls topped by electrified fencing. But, he claimed, he was convinced there was an intruder in his home, someone who meant to do him harm. Who would also, incidentally, pose harm to his house guest.

Whom, despite his reasoning, he hadn't ensured was not next to him in the bed they were sharing that night. Despite which, he carefully reached under the bed for a firearm that he kept there, in case of just such emergencies. The gun was positioned, according to the claims of the police investigators, under that side of the bed where the eventual victim, Reeva Steenkamp, would have been.

M-Net Carte Blanche/The Associated Press/File
M-Net Carte Blanche/The Associated Press/FileIn this frame grab from CCTV footage leaked to M-Net's Carte Blanche program which viewed Sunday Feb 24, 2013, shows Reeva Steenkamp entering the secured access to the Silverwoods housing estate, home of Olympian athlete Oscar Pistorius, some hours before she was shot and killed at Pistorius' home. 
Firearms and legal experts in South Africa believe that the country's star athlete had acted impulsively perhaps without intent, succumbing to fear at best, carrying out a devious plan at worst, violating basic gun-handling rules. That by shooting into a closed door without knowing who might be behind it, he laid himself open to a homicide charge.
In purported fear of a nighttime intruder, but without knowing without a shadow of a doubt that an intruder had infiltrated the secure compound and his home, he repeatedly shot at a closed door. The 'intruder' whose malevolent intent he feared was Reeva Steenkamp, in the toilet cubicle. And when Oscar Pistorius fired that 9mm pistol she died almost immediately.
The use of lethal force for self-protection comes with legal guidelines. To qualify for a firearm permit, applicants must be aware of rules for gun ownership and use of a lethal weapon.  One of the cardinal rules, aside from the demonstration of proficiency in safe weapons-handling is that a firearm is never, ever fired at a closed door without certain knowledge of what is behind that door.
Firing blindly at a closed door rather than at a clearly defined and identified target represents a clear violation of basic gun-handling rules.  Oscar Pistorius's family is confident that evidence will more than adequately prove the death of Reena Steenkamp represented "a terrible and tragic accident."
But experts in South African criminal law feel that even if the prosecution fails in its effort to prove premeditated murder, the firing of several shots through a closed door should bring a conviction for the serious charge of culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of a manslaughter charge - unintentional death through negligence.
South African legislation permits gun owners the use of lethal force only if they believe a serious and direct attack or threat of attack is imminent. One that would cause death or grievous injury to themselves. And according to Johannesburg lawyer Martin Hood, whose specialization is firearm law, and who is a spokesman for the South African Gun Owners' Association, Mr. Pistorius "did not meet those criteria". 

"If he fired through a closed door, there was no threat to them. It's as simple as that. He can't prove an attack on his life...  In my opinion, at the very least, he is guilty of culpable homicide."

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This burlesque of an argument first surfaced in a New York Times op-ed that claimed that Israel's positive approach to gay rights is "a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violation of Palestinians' human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life." In other words, the Jew among nations is now being accused of feigning concern over the rights of gay people in order to whitewash – or in this case pinkwash – its lack of concern for Palestinian people.
The core characteristic of anti-Semitism is the assertion that everything the Jews do is wrong, and everything that is wrong is done by the Jews. For the anti-Semite every rich Jew is exploitive, every poor Jew a burden on society. For the anti-Semite, both capitalism and communism are Jewish plots. For the anti-Semite, Jews are both too docile, allowing themselves to be led to the slaughter like sheep, and too militant, having won too many wars against the Arabs. For the anti-Semite, Jews are too liberal and too conservative, too artsy and too bourgeois, too stingy and too charitable, too insular and too cosmopolitan, too moralistic and too conniving.

To the anti-Semite, every depression, war, social problem, plague must have been the fault of the Jews. Whenever the Jews appear to be doing something good – giving charity, helping the less fortunate, curing the sick – there must be a malevolent motive, a hidden agenda, a conspiratorial explanation beneath the surface of the benevolent act.

Now the very twisted illogic that has characterized classic anti-Semitism is being directed at the Jewish state, which for the anti-Semite has become "the Jew" among nations. When Israel sent help to tsunami and hurricane victims, the Jewish state was accused of merely trying to garner positive publicity calculated to offset its mistreatment of Palestinians. When Israeli medical teams save the lives of Palestinian children, they must be up to no good. When it was disclosed that the Israeli army has the lowest rate of rape against enemy civilians, radical anti-Zionists argued that this was because Israeli soldiers were so racist that they did not find Palestinian women attractive enough to rape! Nothing the Jew or the Jew among nations does can be praised, because its purpose is always to "manipulate," to "conceal," to "divert attention away from" or to "distort" the evil that inheres in all Jewish actions and inactions.

That is the bigoted thesis of a new anti-Israel campaign being conducted by some radical gay activists who absurdly claim that Israel is engaging in "pinkwashing." This burlesque of an argument first surfaced in a New York Times op-ed that claimed that Israel's positive approach to gay rights is "a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violation of Palestinians human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life." In other words, the Jew among nations is now being accused of feigning concern over the rights of gay people in order to whitewash – or in this case pinkwash – its lack of concern for Palestinian people.

How this pinkwashing is supposed to work, we aren't told. Is the media supposed to be so obsessed with Israel's positive policies toward gays that it will no longer cover the Palestinian issue? If so, that certainly hasn't worked. Are gays around the world supposed to feel so indebted to Israel that they will no longer criticize the Jewish nation? That surely hasn't worked, as evidenced by increasingly rabid anti-Israel advocacy by several gay organizations.

Well, to the unthinking anti-Semite, it doesn't matter how the Jewish manipulation works. The anti-Semite just knows that there must be something sinister at work if Jews do anything positive. The same is now true for the unthinking anti-Israel bigot.

In Israel, openly gay soldiers have long served in the military and in high positions in both government and the private sector. Gay pride parades are frequent. Israel is, without a doubt, the most gay friendly country in the Middle East and among the most supportive of gay rights anywhere in the world. This, despite efforts by some fundamentalist Jews, Muslims and Christians to ban gay pride parades and legal equality for gays. In contrast to Israel are the West Bank and Gaza, where gays are murdered, tortured and forced to seek asylum – often in Israel. In every Arab and Muslim country, homosexual acts among consenting adults are criminal, often punishable by death. But all this doesn't matter to the "growing global gay movement" against Israel, which according to The New York Times op-ed, regards these positive steps as nothing more than a cover for malevolent Israeli actions.
The pinkwash bigots would apparently prefer to see Israel treat gays the way Israel's enemies do, because they hate Israel more than they care about gay rights. Nor do these pink anti-Semites speak for the majority of gay people, who appreciate Israel's positive steps with regard to gay rights, even if they don't agree with all of Israel's policies. Decent gay people who have themselves been subjected to stereotyping, recognize bigotry when they see it, even – perhaps especially – among other gay people. That's why so many prominent gay leaders and public officials have denounced this "pinkwashing" nonsense.

Now this pinkwashing campaign is coming to the City University of New York. A pinkwashing conference is being sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Studies Center at The Graduate Center on April 10-11, 2013. It will be yet another hate-fest against Israel, but this time it will cross the line into classic anti-Semitic tropes. Don't be fooled by its benign pink hue, or its academic pretext. At its core, the newly-fashioned charge of pinkwashing is little different from the old-fashioned charges leveled by brown-shirted anti-Semites – namely, that neither the Jews nor the Jewish state ever does good things without bad motives. And this time, the hate conference is being co-sponsored by the Philosophy and Psychology Departments and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as by the Center for The Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University.
Shame on anyone who exploits his or her sexual orientation to promote anti-Semitic bigotry. And shame on anyone who sponsors those who practice pink anti-Semitism.
Related Topics:  Israel  |  Alan M. Dershowitz

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Take THAT, Alien Scum!

Image credit: Gerhard Hüdepohl/ESO

This is either:

a) The European Southern Observatory’s little known SHADO (Supreme Headquarters of the Alien Defence Organization) group preventing yet another alien invasion, or

2) A powerful laser beamed into the sky to help astronomers achieve higher-resolution images.
I’ll go with (2).

Which is true. The laser is shot into the sky, where, high above the Earth’s surface, it energizes a layer of sodium atoms. The atoms glow, mimicking the appearance of a bright, point-like star. Sensors on the telescope then use that artificial star to account and compensate for the boiling, roiling effects of the Earth’s air, which smears out images of cosmic objects. Using sophisticated computer techniques, the changing shape of the artificial star is used to calculate the amount of atmospheric distortion, and a mirror with pistons underneath is rapidly deformed to precisely compensate for it.

The result is far higher resolution observations, as well as the incredible coolness of being able to fire a powerful laser into the sky. The picture above, taken by Gerhard Hüdepohl, shows the laser blasting away from one of the Very Large Telescope’s four observatories to help the mammoth 8.2 meter mirrors see more clearly. The Milky Way hangs in the sky, nearly parallel to the beam.

Off to the side, you can also see the two small satellite galaxies to our Milky Way, called the Magellanic Clouds. It’s hard to spot in the small picture, but if you grab the much larger version and look just below the smaller of the two Magellanic Cloud, you’ll see a greenish dot with a fuzzy streak trailing off of it:

The Comet and the Laser
Comet Lemmon, visible from southern skies.
Image credit: Gerhard Hüdepohl/ESO


That’s the comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon, a relatively bright comet currently gracing the southern skies (sorry Northern Hemisphereans, but we can’t see it). 2013 may well be the Year of the Comet, with two more of the celestial intruders (Pan-STARRS and ISON) about to make themselves known. I’ll have more on these potentially very bright comets soon.

I’ll note you don’t need to worry about them impacting the Earth. Neither gets anywhere close enough to us to hurt us, but we are hoping they’ll put on a good show, getting easily bright enough to see.

And if they did get too close, well, we always have SHADO.

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The foreign Hindu monks at India's Kumbh Mela

BBC News online - 26 February 2013
Baba Rampuri Baba Rampuri zealously guards information about his past life
Amitava Sanyal reports from India's Kumbh Mela, the world's biggest religious gathering, on the stories of three foreigners who have become top Hindu monks.

JAMES MALLINSON

Sir James Mallinson is perhaps the only baronet to wear dreadlocks.
The fifth baronet of Walthamstow started growing his hair around the time he first travelled to India in 1988.

He had enrolled to study Sanskrit at Oxford University's St Peter's College because his only other option, Chinese, came with a "boring introduction".

At the end of his trip to India, he "fell in" with a group of Hindu monks in Kashmir and became fascinated with their way of life.

Sir James Mallinson James Mallinson was renamed Jagdish Das by his order
In 1992, Sir James was initiated into a Hindu order with the monastic name of Jagdish Das at Ujjain in central India. 

"I was kidnapped by some competing monks who wanted me as their student. Finally it was Ram Balak Das who got me initiated," he says.

Sir James received his doctorate - on a critical translation of a 14th Century Sanskrit text on yoga - in 2002 from Balliol College, Oxford.

In India, when not with Hindu monks, he runs a paragliding business in Bir in the western Himalayas.
Sir James was ordained a mahant, or abbot, of a Hindu religious order in early February at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

His friend from Eton, actor Dominic West of The Wire fame, had wanted to make a documentary on his work in India.

When Sir James offered his guru some money for the film crew's fortnight-long stay, he was offered the post of mahant.
"The word translates more as a military commander than an abbot," says the Sanskrit scholar.

Valery Victorovich Mintsev had an experience at the age of six that he could not quite articulate.
But it was inspiring enough to make him stand on a rock and tell his puzzled young friends "the ways of the universe".

It took the 46-year-old monk, who is the son of a Ukrainian typographer and Soviet Communist party member, another 10 years to "find the right words".

That was when he came upon the texts of Shankaracharya, an 8th Century Indian philosopher and Hindu revivalist.
Valery Victorovich Mintsev Valery Mintsev met a Hindu monk in 2006 who reinforced his ideas
 
While studying Cold War politics at the Kiev Higher Naval Political School, a belief that Russians and Indians are descended from the same Aryan ancestors became stronger.

"Why else do we have old Russian places named after Indian deities - like Ram and Sita lakes or Narada mountain?" asks Mr Mintsev.

A 2006 meeting with Pilot Baba, a Hindu monk who got his name because of his former career as a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, reinforced his ideas.

Three years ago, Mr Mintsev was initiated into a Hindu order with the monastic name of Vishnu Dev.
Later this year the Russian monk is planning to put up a Chinese-made, 18m (59ft) bronze statue of Dattatreya, the presiding deity of his sect, at his 1,000-acre retreat situated 600km (373 miles) east of Moscow.

Why did he choose to be a Hindu monk? "I have searched for freedom all my life and I got it in Hindu philosophy. It must be a great connection from a past life," is his explanation.

Baba Rampuri guards his personal history - his life before he came to India from the United States in 1970 - with a fierce zeal.

Not even those who have known him for decades know his real name. What is known is that he came from California.

But when asked to comment on reports that he is the son of a Jewish plastic surgeon, he laughs and says, "maybe I was his daughter who had a sex change."
Hindu naked holy men take part in a procession to the Sangam at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad The Kumbh festival is the world's largest religious gathering
 
Whatever his antecedents, Baba Rampuri is today one of the most successful Hindu monks from the US.

Part of his popularity flows from being one of the first Westerners to be initiated into the secretive Juna order of monks, the largest of the 13 powerful sects that control religious affairs at the Kumbh festival.

The publication of his book Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India, later added to the mystery.

In 2010, Baba Rampuri was made one of the three abbots of the order's international chapter and today he is one of the very few Hindu monks raising funds through internet-based social media.
He derives his monastic lineage from Keshav Puri, a monk buried outside Multan in Pakistan who is also called Multani Baba or Shamshad Tapa Rez.

"He is called a pir, a Sufi saint. And Muslims wearing black sit with Hindus wearing orange at his memorial meetings," says Baba Rampuri.

So possibly there was an undercurrent of commonness between the faiths that we deny today."
The belief is shared within his order but, like Baba Rampuri's own past, the real history is shrouded in mystery because of a lack of verifiable evidence.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Curious Aristocrat

P.T. Barnum had it right. But then, there are a lot of gullible people out there in the world. The three-dimensional world we know so well. We are not yet familiar with the four-dimensional world. But it is reputed to be out there. Who knows? We could be living simultaneous lives on a number of existential planes.

And then there are those planes that are lofted adrift in Outer Space timelessly flitting among Galaxies doing their social science research. From time to time visiting Planet Earth. Organisms of higher intellectual capability than mere humans aboard those orbs so popularly called 'flying saucers'. Who select specimens from among the human race to briefly study, then discard them.

Leaving no trace, and certainly no real memory in the recollection of most abductees who are briefly examined, then released back into the custody of their normal preoccupations and lifestyles, but with a niggling sense of something 'different' having occurred to them, a dim memory of something truly askew.

If you're an individual who as a young boy became fascinated with such accounts of alien abduction and unexplained phenomena, and urban legends like space ships being held in top-secret, highly confidential military confines so as not to alarm the public, such conspiracies are appealing. And if you eventually become an academic and that unshakable belief in the extraterrestrial visitors remains, you write a book.

Retired Montreal psychology professor Don Crosbie Donderi did just that. He wrote UFOs ETs and Alien Abductions, a Scientist looks at the Evidence.  Professor Donderi is convinced on the basis of his decades of research, that extraterrestrials do exist, that they have flown intergalactically, and have hovered above the globe, and have taken into custody human specimens to study.
"There is an entire chapter on six UFO abduction cases. Each of them has what you might call in common a touchstone. Every one of the people involved saw a close-up of a UFO. Every one of the people had missing time they could not account for, a period of an hour or more, maybe even two or three hours. After the initial sighting, they ended up driving down a road not knowing how they got there. In several other cases, people saw the UFO as well. Some of these people wound up with scars they could not explain."
Professor Donderi spent 47 years at McGill University, including as associate dean of the faculty of graduate studies and research. He submitted to an interview that was later published in a national Canadian newspaper.  He has no physical evidence to support his beliefs, but his knowledge of the human psyche leads him to believe that what he had recounted to him by those who believe they were abducted by extra-terrestrials establishes without a doubt his theories as fact.
"I was interested as a boy when this stuff started happening in 1947. I was old enough to read the newspapers. I'm a curious person and I was persuaded this was a curious phenomenon. Thirty years later, I had a university position. I had tenure. I could study things without worrying about what other people thought about them. This is a very liberating thing. Nobody except university professors have tenure in the world, it makes you an aristocrat right off the bat. You can do what you like as long as you do your work, which I always did."
Multiple photographs or photographs taken by gun cameras on fighter planes chasing UFOs, several examples of which the good professor is privy to, support his arguments, he says. Radar plots taken during a UFO chase. "...a tremendous amount of corroborative evidence".

This is not self-delusion, not waking nightmares, not intellectual and imaginative confusion, alcohol or drug-induced, or simply fanciful thinking. This.is.the.real.thing. Plausible, real.

Get your mind around that!

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Sensible Decision-Making

After years of considering the safety of GMO products through research and innovation, the European Commission concluded "there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms."

Genetically modified plants meant for human consumption have been viewed with suspicion by a great many environmental organizations, by many considering themselves health critics, by governments whom GMO critics advise.  GMO food production, however, has undeniably resulted in higher crop yields with the capability to feed more people than ever before.

The controversial environmentalist and author Bjorn Lomborg points out that opponents of genetically modified foods have been successful in keeping a new cultivar of rice, called "golden rice" from markets requiring them.  "Golden rice" is a biogenetically engineered type of rice scientifically geared to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

The point of producing this variety of rice was to produce a fortified food capable of acting as a dietary supplement in areas of the world where vitamin A is in short natural dietary supply.  Lack of vitamin A in countries like the Philippines puts children's health at risk. According to the World Health Organization vitamin A deficiency causes 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind every year.

Half of these children suffering from vitamin A deficiency will die. The medical journal The Lancet estimates its own figures, that vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of five globally, every year. Anti-GM campaigners refuse to accept that golden rice represents a solution to vitamin A deficiency in parts of the world where it is a dreadful health problem for children.

Because the rice has been genetically modified, these campaigners insist they should not be used, that other, more conventional supplementation programs can help to combat vitamin A deficiency; handing out vitamin pills or adding vitamin A to staple products.  The problem with these alternatives is that they are infinitely more expensive to launch and to put in place than the vitamin A-enhanced golden rice.

Worth noting is that there has never been any documented deleterious human-health effects associated with GM foods intake. Food scientists and nutritionists are constantly assuring the public that genetically modified foods are safe and effective, and just as nutritional if not more so than conventionally grown plants.

An understandable enough antipathy toward the producers of GM seeds, large multinationals who stand to gain financially through the replacement of conventional seeds by more expensive, but also more productive GM seeds, aids in suspicion of the seeds. But the thing of it is, there is so much immediate benefit to be had by implementing distribution of golden rice for vitamin A deprived children that its usefulness cannot be denied.

We should be vigilant about the replacement of conventional food products with engineered types. But we should also be rational and intelligent about our decision making and acceptance if and when it is warranted. As it most definitely appears to be now, in this particular instance, when golden rice has the potential to save children's lives.

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A Colorful Cloud Hints at a Very Violent Origin


Halfway across the galaxy sits a most unusual object. Given the mundane name W49B, you might not think much of it, but once you see its portrait, you’ll change your mind.

Chandra observation of W49B
The supernova remnant W49B, formed a thousand years ago in the titanic explosion of a massive star. Click to chandrasekharenate.
Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al.; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

This image, a combination of pictures taken in X-rays, infrared, and radio waves, is, obviously, very pretty. But it tells an interesting tale, one I haven’t been seeing in the press release or write-ups so far.
W49B is a supernova remnant, the expanding gas blasted out from an exploding star. Ignoring how long it took the light to reach us, the remnant is only about a thousand years old, making it roughly the same age as the more famous Crab nebula. The structure of W49B, though, is very odd.

The star that exploded probably had a mass of 25 times that of the Sun, which is pretty hefty, putting it in the top tier of stars in the galaxy. Not many get that big. As it neared the end of its life, though, it shed a lot of its mass (though not all) through a super-dense wind of material, like a solar wind turned up to 11 (or 11 million). Over the next few hundred thousand years, it actually lost a majority of its mass this way.

Eventually, though, the end came. The core of the star ran out of fuel, which it was using to generate energy, which in turn was what was holding the star up. When the fuel ran out, it was like a stool with the legs kicked out form under it: The core collapsed, plunging down into itself at huge speeds. As it dropped down, the material started to rotate rapidly, like (to use a cliché) an ice skater bringing her arms in and increasing her spin.

At this point we’re not precisely sure what happens, but the thinking goes like this. The material in the very center of the collapsed core formed a black hole. But material just outside the hole probably formed a dense disk of material whirling around the black hole at nearly the speed of light. This whipped up huge amounts of heat and magnetism, and through methods not entirely understood formed a pair of beams, like lighthouse beams, blasting outward from the poles of the disk. These screamed out, boring right through the material still falling inward from the star.

Now I want to take a moment to let that sink in. Imagine you are just above the core of the star. Beneath you, in a millisecond, poof! The core is gone, collapsed down into a tiny point a million kilometers below you. Looking up, you see an octillion tons of superheated matter crashing down onto your head.

Got that apocalyptic picture clear? Yes? Now look down again: Those two beams of matter and energy come screaming out of the collapsed core at nearly the speed of light with enough power behind them to bore through that infalling matter like a megawatt laser through a warm patty of butter.

So we’re talking fairly serious events here.

And this is when what was left of the star exploded. All that remained after that was a black hole in the center, and material moving violently outward at high speed. That material, though, was not expanding in a sphere, but instead was moving preferentially along the direction of those beams, up and down, if you will.

Now, a thousand years later, we see the effects. Along the middle of the remnant you can see a blue streak. In the false color image, those are X-rays from iron, created in the blast itself. You can see how elongated that structure is, not spherical at all. That’s a dead giveaway this explosion was asymmetric, that is, not spherical.

This type of supernova explosion is called a Type Ic. Technically, that means it doesn’t appear to have any hydrogen or helium in it, which is rare. But it happens when a very massive star sheds its outer layers shortly before exploding; all the hydrogen and helium were blown away before the explosion. By the time the star explodes, that material has moved well out from the star.

Hubble image of SN1987A
The three-ring circus of Supernova 1987A. Click to embiggen.
Image credit: Dr. Christopher Burrows, ESA/STScI and NASA
But it’s still there. Eventually, the matter blasting out from the explosion slams into the previously-shed outer layers of the star. We see that in the above image as well. The yellow and pink material is where the expanding debris is colliding with the slower moving gas, hitting it so violently that powerful shock waves are formed.

I’m fascinated by the shape of that outer region of this object. You can see that it’s barrel-shaped, tilted lower left to upper right. But there also appear to be rings of material there, perpendicular to the barrel. I’ve seen that before: Supernova 1987A was a very well-studied exploding star; I got my PhD examining it with Hubble. It has a three-ring system around it like an hourglass. How those rings formed is still debated, but we know they were created from a powerful wind of gas from the star millennia before it exploded. When the star did explode, it lit them up like a flashbulb, making the gas glow.

Was W49B once a multiply-ringed structure similar to SN1987A? I suspect it’s possible, judging from the image. There are several rings of material visible in the Chandra image. And as it happens, the expanding debris from SN1987A is also highly elongated, suggesting a similar explosion as W49B. You can see that in this sequence of Hubble observation over a decade, showing the debris expanding inside the dense ring of gas (the middle of the three rings):

Hubble observations of the expanding SN1987A debris.
The debris from the supernova 1987A expands inside a ring of older material, seen in observations by Hubble taken over nearly a decade.
Image credit: NASA/ESA, P. Challis, R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and B. Sugerman (STScI)

There are differences, mostly that the debris from the SN1987A explosion is apparently expanding preferentially in the same plane as the ring, which is not at all what I would expect. But SN1987A was always a weirdo, and you have to be careful when comparing one supernova to another in this case.

Also, very intriguingly, there is no clear leftover object in the center of W49B, no obvious highly dense neutron star (which would be very obvious in X-rays, even after a millennium). We think therefore it formed a black hole, which fits with the scenario I described above. But the same thing is true for SN1987A! We’ve been searching for years, but no neutron star is evident. It’s possible a black hole formed there as well. It seems unlikely, because the effects of a black hole forming should have been seen when SN1987A went off, but in my opinion that’s not nearly as weird as forming a neutron star that we can’t seem to find. Either way, like I said, SN1987A was bizarre no matter how you slice it.

But so is W49B. If it formed a black hole, it’s one of the youngest in the Milky Way, a whippersnapper at a thousand years young. But to me, that’s not the interesting story. What gets me is how the supernova exploded in the first place, with the spinning and the disk and the jets and the rings. That’s the real story here.

Plus one other thing, that is. When a black hole forms from an exploding star, and you get that spinning disk and high-energy pair of jets, you also get a tremendous flare of gamma rays, super-high-energy light. We call these events gamma-ray bursts, and they are the most energetic explosions in the Universe second only to the Big Bang itself. Was W490B such a burst? It turns out I’m not the only one to wonder about that. While we see GRBs all over the Universe, they tend to be very far away, which may mean they happened more when the Universe was young, billions of years ago. Yet there is some evidence they still occur today.

Perhaps that’s the biggest story here. As usual, with astronomy, when you observe a single object there is more than one tale to tell. But they’re all amazing, and all well worth hearing.

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