How did the biggest black holes form?

X-ray image of two black holes in the galaxy NGC 6240. Binary systems like this are possibly the origin of the most massive black holes in the cosmos. [Credit: NASA/CXC/MPE/S.Komossa et al. ]

X-ray image of two black holes in the galaxy NGC 6240. Binary systems like this are possibly the origin of the most massive black holes in the cosmos. [Credit: NASA/CXC/MPE/S.Komossa et al.]

The most massive known object in the cosmos is the black hole at the center of M87, a huge galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. While most large galaxies (including the Milky Way) harbor supermassive black holes, the very largest are interesting. That’s because galaxies and their black holes seem to share a history, based on the relationship between the mass of the black hole and the mass of the galaxy’s central region. Since large galaxies grew by devouring smaller galaxies, or by two galaxies merging into a larger one, it’s very likely the biggest black holes followed a similar process. My latest piece for Nautilus examines how this process might have taken place, and what it could reveal about the black holes themselves.

Earth emits gravitational waves as it orbits the Sun, though the amount of energy lost is imperceptible over the lifetime of the Solar System. Binary black holes are a different matter: Once they are relatively close, they shed a tremendous amount of energy, bringing them closer together with each orbit. (Binary black stars are thought to emit more gravitational energy as they merge than regular stars emit in the form of UV, IR, and visible light over their entire lifetimes of billions of years.) Eventually their event horizons will touch, and the system emits a lot more gravitational waves in a phase known as “ring-down,” as the lumpy, uneven merged mass becomes a smooth, perfectly symmetrical black hole. [Read more…]

O, what entangled photons we weave!

(OK, it doesn’t scan. So sue me.) Quantum entanglement is a challenging topic, and one which has tripped up a lot of people (including many physicists!) over the decades. In brief, entanglement involves two (or more) particles constituting a single system: measurement on one particle instantly determines the result of similar measurements on the second, no matter how far they are separated in space. While no information is transferred in this process, it’s still at odds with our everyday experience with how the world should work. I updated my earlier explanation of entanglement, which hopefully can help clear up some of the confusion.

Recent work either assumes entanglement is real and probes some of the more interesting implications, or tests some mathematical relations known as Bell’s inequalities. The latter are aimed at quantifying the difference between the predictions of quantum physics and certain alternative models. In that spirit, a group of researchers proposed using light from quasars to randomize the measurement apparatus in entanglement experiments, to eliminate the tiny possibility of a weird loophole in quantum theory.

If a detector has some correlation with the hidden variables of the particles being measured, then the two detectors don’t act independently. That’s true even if only a very tiny amount of information is exchanged less than a millisecond before measurements take place. The interaction would create the illusion that the particles are entangled in a quantum sense, when in fact they are influencing the detectors, which in turn dictate what measurements are being taken. This is known as the “detector settings independence” loophole—or somewhat facetiously as the “free will” loophole, since it implies the human experimenter has little or no choice over the detector settings. [Read more…]

Final note: this is probably the first paper I’ve covered that involves both my undergraduate research focus (quantum measurement) and my PhD work (cosmology), albeit in a much different way than both.

The Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. [Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO]

The Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. [Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO]

Nearly every atom of your body was forged in a supernova explosion and dispersed into space. But how do massive stars explode? The details are complicated, pushing the limits of computer simulations and our ability to observe with telescopes. In the absence of very close-by events, the best data come from supernova remnants: the still-glowing gas ejected during the explosion. A new set of observations of X-ray emissions from radioactive titanium in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant show that it was a lumpy space princess highly asymmetrical explosion. That agrees with theory, but the researchers also turned up an odd disconnect between the titanium and other materials.

Cassiopeia A (abbreviated Cas A) is a historical oddity. The supernova was relatively close to Earth—a mere 11,000 light-years distant—and should have been visible around CE 1671, yet no astronomers of any culture recorded it. That’s in stark contrast to famous earlier explosions: Tycho’s supernova, Kepler’s supernova, and of course the supernova that made the Crab Nebula. This mysterious absence has led some astronomers to speculate that some unknown mechanism diffused the energy from the explosion, making the supernova far less bright than expected. [Read more…]

Supernovas: mysterious and lumpy space explosions

Calvin has it right.

“Dark energy” is one of the more unfortunate names in science. You’d think it has something to do with dark matter (itself a misnomer), but it has the opposite effect: while dark matter drives the clumping-up of material that makes galaxies, dark energy pushes the expansion of the Universe to greater and greater rates. Though we should hate on the term “dark energy”, we should respect Michael Turner, the excellent cosmologist who coined the phrase. He is also my academic “grand-advisor”: he supervised Arthur Kosowsky’s PhD, and Arthur in turn supervised mine.

And of course, I worked on dark energy as a major part of my PhD research. In my latest piece for Slate, I describe a bit of my dysfunctional relationship with cosmic acceleration, and why after 16 years dark energy is still a matter of frustration for many of us.

Because dark energy doesn’t correspond easily to anything in the standard toolkit of physics, researchers have been free to be creative. The result is a wealth of ideas, some that are potentially interesting and others that are frankly nuts. Some string theorists propose that our observable universe is the result of a vast set of parallel universes, each with a different, random amount of dark energy. Other physicists think our cosmos is interacting with a parallel universe, and the force between the two drives cosmic acceleration. Still others suspect that dark energy is a sign that our currently accepted theory of gravity—Einstein’s general theory of relativity—is incomplete for the largest distances. [Read more…]

My dysfunctional relationship with dark energy

Stephen Hawking, black holes, and scientific celebrity

The active galaxy Centaurus A, rendered in several different types of light. Note in radio waves (the central image at right), the galaxy itself seems to disappear, replaced by crossing jets of radio-emitting jets. Those are produced by the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core.

The active galaxy Centaurus A, rendered in several different types of light. Note in radio waves (the central image at right), the galaxy itself seems to disappear, replaced by crossing jets of radio-emitting jets. Those are produced by the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core.

For the upcoming ScienceOnline 2014 meeting, I’m leading a session titled “Reporting Incremental Science in a World that wants Big Results“. It’s an important topic. We who communicate science to the general public have to evaluate stories to see if they’re worth covering, then translate them in such a way that conveys their significance without hyping them (ideally at least). That’s challenging to do on deadline, and we’re not always or maybe even usually experts on the topics we report. I know a fair amount about cosmology and gravitational physics, but very little about galactic astronomy or planetary science — yet I must write about them, because it’s my job.

So Stephen Hawking’s recent talk on black holes is an interesting case study. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but I wrote not one but two articles on the subject yesterday. Article 1 was in Slate:

Hawking’s own thinking about black holes has changed over time. That’s no criticism: Evidence in science often requires us to reassess our thinking. In this case, Hawking originally argued that black holes violated quantum mechanics by destroying information, then backed off from that assertion based on ideas derived from string theory (namely, the holographic principle). Not everyone agrees with his change of heart, though: The more recent model he used doesn’t correspond directly to our reality, and it may not have an analog for the universe we inhabit. The new talk suggests he has now moved on from both earlier ideas. That’s partly what raises doubts in my mind about the “no event horizons” proposal in the online summary. Is this based on our cosmos or yet another imaginary one of the sort physicists are fond of inventing to guide their thinking? In my reading, it’s hard to tell, and in the absence of a full explanation we are free to project our own feelings about both Hawking and his science onto the few details available. [Read more…]

Article 2 was a follow-up on my own blog:

But at the same time, we have to admit that nobody—not Nature News, not Slate.com—would have covered a paper this preliminary had Hawking’s name not been attached. Other people are working on the same problem (and drawing different conclusions!), but they can’t command space on major science news sites. So, by covering Hawking’s talk, we are back on that treacherous path: we’re showing how science works in a way, but we risk saying that a finding is important because somebody famous is behind it. [Read more…]

Chandra space telescope image of an X-ray binary system containing a neutron star. [Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA]

Chandra space telescope image of an X-ray binary system containing a neutron star. [Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA]

About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe cooled off enough for stable atoms to form out of the primordial plasma. However, sometime in the billion years or so after that, something happened to heat the gas up again, returning it to plasma form. Though we know reionization (as it is called) happened, that epoch in the history of the cosmos is hard to study, so we don’t know exactly when and how the reheating happened. If a new proposed model is correct, though, ionization happened close to the end of that era, and was driven by binary systems containing a black hole or neutron star.

One new model, proposed by Anastasia Fialkov, Rennan Barkana, and Eli Visbal, suggests that energetic X-rays could have heated the primoridal gas to the point that reionization happened relatively rapidly. That’s in contrast with other hypotheses, which predict a more gradual reionization process. The X-rays in the new model were emitted by systems that include neutron stars or black holes. The nicest feature of the new proposal is that it predicts a unique pattern in light emission from the primordial gas, which could conceivably be measured by current radio telescopes. [Read more….]

Ionizing the Universe with black holes and neutron stars