The Care and Feeding of Black Holes

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Part 2 of my 4-part series on black holes for Medium members is up; you can read part 1 here. If enough of you read, they may keep me around to write more, so please read and share!

The Care and Feeding of Black Holes

How intrinsically invisible objects become the brightest things in the universe

For Medium:

In the late 1950s, astronomers began spotting a number of bright sources of radio waves and visible light. These sources were pinpoints resembling blue stars, but further investigation showed they had to be something very different. For one thing, these quasi-stellar objects, as they were known then, were extraordinarily distant, much farther than any single star would be visible.

The spectra of these new quasi-stellar objects, or quasars, as physicist Hong-Yee Chiu abbreviated their name in 1964, showed they were emitting light through a completely different mechanism than starlight. The quantity of light quasars emitted to be visible across the universe meant they had to be driven by gravity.

Based on the data, astronomers concluded that each quasar was powered by a black hole millions or billions of times the mass of our sun. These supermassive black holes pull huge amounts of matter onto themselves, accelerating it until it glows very brightly. Additionally, the black hole jets a lot of matter away from itself rather than eating it, and those jets also glow intensely. These processes turn the ordinarily invisible black hole into something bright enough to see from billions of light-years away, outshining whole galaxies.

[read the read at Medium…]


No quantum foam seen in the cosmic beer glass

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Light from distant black holes doesn’t surf on waves of quantum foam

Strongest check yet on quantum gravity effects in astronomy turns up nothing

For Ars Technica:

Quantum gravity is notoriously slippery. While the Standard Model successfully describes three forces of nature, it doesn’t include gravity, so gravity still has no consistent quantum theory. To make matters worse, gravity is so weak that it’s difficult to probe at the sorts of energies where any minuscule quantum effects would pop out. However, some researchers predict that those tiny effects could accumulate over cosmological distances: light traveling from far-off quasars would be changed by the “quantum foam” of spacetime, producing blurry images in our telescopes—or even making objects seem to disappear.

A new report by E. S. Perlman and colleagues examines the disappearance hypothesis using gamma-ray data from quasars. In particular, they investigated a possibility suggested by the holographic principle, the idea that all the information in the cosmos can be encoded on the two-dimensional boundary that encloses it. Disappointingly for fans of quantum foam, the gamma ray data did not show any measurable fading or blurring of the quasars.

As the authors point out, these results don’t rule out anything general regarding quantum gravity, quantum foam, or the holographic principle. But they do provide the tightest constraint yet on cumulative effects of quantum foam on light traveling across the Universe. [Read the rest at Ars Technica…]

This metal plate is perforated with holes, each of which lines up with a galaxy or quasar. The BOSS survey maps the position and distance to a huge number of galaxies using many masks such as this. [Credit: moi]

This metal plate is perforated with holes, each of which lines up with a galaxy or quasar. The BOSS survey maps the position and distance to a huge number of galaxies using many masks such as this. [Credit: moi]

Far from being invisible, black holes are among some of the brightest objects in the Universe. The black holes themselves aren’t emitting light, but the matter they draw in heats up and much of it shoots back out in powerful jets. When that happens, the black hole is known as a quasar, and it can be visible from billions of light-years away. For that reason, mapping the distribution of quasars can help cosmologists understand the expansion rate of the Universe in an earlier era — and constrain the behavior of dark energy. My latest story in The Daily Beast explains:

If dark energy will be the same in billions of years as it seems to be today, the future will be dark and empty, as galaxies continue to move apart from each other at ever-faster rates. If dark energy comes and goes, though, maybe the rate of expansion will slow down again. All of this is a long time from now—trillions of years after the death of the Sun—but we might see hints about it today. We hope to see signs of what is to come by looking at how dark energy behaves now, and how it has acted in the past. Similarly, if dark energy is stronger in some parts of the cosmos, then certain pockets of the Universe would grow faster than in others. That also has implications for how the future cosmos looks. [Read more…]

Using Black Holes to Measure Dark Energy, Like a BOSS

Astronomers measured the rotation of a black hole from halfway across the Universe.

What, I need to say more?

Astronomers have now used gravitational magnification to measure the rotation rate of a supermassive black hole in a very distant galaxy. From four separate images of the same black hole, R.C. Reis, M.T. Reynolds, J.M. Miller, and D.J. Walton found it was spinning nearly as fast as possible. That likely means it was spun up by a small number of mergers with other black holes rather than a gradual increase from eating smaller amounts of mass.

This marks the first measurement of black hole rotation outside the local Universe…. [Read more]

Measuring black hole rotation halfway across the Universe

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.


A quasar (the bright circle at the image center) is illuminating a cosmic filament, marked out in blue. [Credit: S. Cantalupo]

A quasar (the bright circle at the image center) is illuminating a cosmic filament, marked out in blue. [Credit: S. Cantalupo]

Astronomers have identified a filament in the cosmic web, which is the pattern formed by dark matter. That web in turn dictates the distribution of galaxies, since the dark matter attracts ordinary matter — atoms — through its gravity. However, it’s hard to spot the filaments connecting the different halos of dark matter, because they are far less massive and contain less gas than galaxies. The trick in this new study was to spot the faint glow of gas as it was lit up by a quasar: a bright energetic black hole in a nearby galaxy.

Sebastiano Cantapulo and colleagues observed the light emitted by the filament’s gas as it glowed under bombardment from a quasar, a powerful jet of particles propelled from a massive black hole. However, the researchers also found at least ten times more gas than expected from cosmological simulations, which suggests that there may be more gas between galaxies than models predict. [Read more….]

A glowing filament shows us where the dark matter hides

The term “quasar” describes a behavior rather than an object: when a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of a galaxy gorges on gas, the infalling matter produces a lot of light. While most galaxies are known to have SMBHs, not all of those exhibit quasar behavior. Similarly, black holes created from the deaths of massive stars—the stellar mass black holes—don’t generally consume matter at a rapid rate. However, a few do, and those are known as microquasars. Four microquasar candidates have been found in the Milky Way, and now one has been located in M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Unlike microquasars in the Milky Way, those in other galaxies potentially provide an unimpeded view of the black hole accretion process. This will allow astronomers to test whether microquasars are miniature versions of their supermassive cousins, and measure the accretion mechanism in unprecedented detail. Since the nearest “regular” quasars are much farther away than M31, a nearby microquasar provides a beautiful target for observations of how black holes beam infalling matter into jets, and the specific processes are by which they make their intense light. [Read more…]

A miniature quasar in Andromeda Galaxy

The moments after the Big Bang left the Universe very hot and dense. In that violent environment, the first nuclei came to be: hydrogen, helium, and lithium…but nothing heavier. The elements more massive than helium (which astronomers perversely refer to as “metals”) were forged by stars and spread through the Universe as those stars died. That means if we look far enough back in time, we should be able to see the era of transition: when the first metals in the Universe came to be. A new observation of the environment surrounding a quasar shining a mere 772 million years after the Big Bang has revealed a metal-free cosmos.

Modern galaxies like the Milky Way contain populations of stars that we can divide based on their metal content. The Sun is a Population I star, with a relatively high metal abundance; older, Population II stars near the galactic center are metal-poor. However, the earliest, metal-free stars—known as Population III—are still hypothetical. According to widely accepted models, Population III stars were massive and therefore short-lived, going supernova and spreading the first metals into interstellar space.

When did these first stars form, and did they actually correspond to our models? These questions are still unanswered. The crucial period of time when the first stars must have formed is still marked by a paucity of data. [Read more…]

Early quasar illuminates a Universe without metals

Quasars are some of the brightest objects in the Universe—powerful jets emanating from supermassive black holes as they gorge on gas. However, their light is irregular, both varying in brightness between different quasars and fluctuating in time. A new analysis may have found regularities within those fluctuations, which might allow them to be used as standard candles: objects whose intrinsic properties are known, and therefore can be used to measure large distances in space.

The researchers then fitted straight lines to periods of flux increase and decrease longer than 90 days. They found the slopes of these lines to be nearly the same. While the amount and duration of the change in flux differed, the rate of change in flux was similar. (This is analogous to comparing several cars with different top speeds, but the same acceleration capabilities). The data points were scattered, but still showed a clear trend: the quasars all seemed to vary in their light output at a certain rate, independent of their distance from Earth. [Read more….]

Could quasars be standard candles?