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As astronomers continue to take stock of the universe’s black holes, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they’re missing something big. The cosmic dead ends come in two sizes, small and impossibly large, with a glaring gap in the middle.
Researchers tally up the pipsqueak “stellar mass” black holes, which weigh dozens of times the mass of our sun, primarily through the spacetime ripples sent out when pairs collide. These black holes are the familiar tombstones left behind after stars die and explode as supernovae.
And astronomers can’t miss the “supermassive” black holes at the other end of the scale. These monsters anchor entire galaxies, packing millions to billions of suns’ worth of mass into an area the size of our solar system. They also shoot out unmistakable jets of energy that are among the cosmos’s most brilliant spotlights.
[Related: Something sent one of the universe’s heaviest black holes flying]
A third group must plug in the hole, many researchers believe: so-called “intermediate mass” black holes weighing in the thousands to hundreds of thousands of solar masses range. While bulky enough to merge to form supermassive black holes, these bloated brutes would be nearly undetectable. Their mergers don’t rattle current gravitational wave observatories, and they don’t churn out blazing jets. Astronomers have noticed hints in odd x-ray flares, but nothing conclusive.
Now, a trio of Australian researchers may have found a way to finally get a handle on these cosmic phantoms. If they’re right, astronomers have unwittingly had the crucial evidence for decades. By searching an old NASA catalog of energetic flares from the 1990s, the team turned up one intriguing signal, an odd double flash of gamma rays suggesting that intermediate black holes are not only real, but common.
“The data has been sitting there for quite a long time,” said Rachel Webster, the head of astrophysics at the University of Melbourne who co-authored the research.Seeing double
Webster has been thinking about this method of seeing the invisible for 30 years. Back then, the big mystery in astronomy was gamma ray bursts—unthinkably powerful blasts of high-energy light. No one knew what was causing them, but the bursts seemed to be coming from every direction. If they were beacons from across the universe, Webster and a colleague reasoned in 1992, maybe astronomers could use them to probe the intervening darkness.
The idea is to look for repeat offenders. Gamma ray bursts, which astronomers now know come from cataclysmic stellar explosions and neutron star collisions, are messy events. No two are exactly alike. But if some gob of matter—like, say, an intermediate mass black hole—interfered with the rays as they raced across the universe, it could play a cosmic prank. Its gravitational pull could draw some rays into taking a detour. This light might arrive at Earth late, and astronomers would see two identical flashes.
[Related: Astronomers used telescopic ‘sunglasses’ to photograph a black hole’s magnetic field]
When Webster’s graduate student, James Paynter, wrote software to sift through a database of 2,700 gamma ray bursts collected by NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory in the 1990s, one pair of bursts leapt out. More than 20 years ago, the satellite saw one flash. A few seconds later, it saw the same burst again. The 2.7 second delay implied that some of the gamma rays had run into a roadblock—an invisible mass weighing 55,000 suns.
An intermediate mass black hole isn’t the only explanation. Other dark and massive objects could have delayed the gamma rays too, such as a star cluster or a patch of dark matter. But such star clusters are rare, and billowy clouds of dark matter tend to bend light differently. So the team feels that an intermediate mass black hole is the most likely culprit. They published their results on Monday in Nature Astronomy.One of a crowd
The research team, which includes Monash University astrophysicist Eric Thrane, extracted all the information possible from the event. Other whispers of intermediate mass black holes have boosted confidence that the fabled objects exist, but identifying double gamma ray bursts is the first way to study the whole group.
“The real power of our discovery is not only that we can provide an estimate of the mass,” Webster said, “but we can also estimate their space density.”
The fact that the team saw just a single double-flash in a batch of thousands is telling. Intermediate black holes (or similarly sized dark objects) aren’t a dime a dozen, or Paynter would have found a bunch. They also aren’t exceedingly rare, because he didn’t have to search through a million bursts. The one-in-a-few-thousand rate suggests that a cube three million light years across should contain more than 2,000 intermediate black holes. And our own Milky Way, the researchers figure, might harbor roughly 45,000 such grande black holes.
If they’re right, this detection could be just the tip of a dark iceberg. Next, Webster plans to “race through” other inventories containing thousands of unanalyzed gamma ray bursts, which should be more than enough to find another pair of flashes in the dark.
“That would really put a nail in it,” Webster says. “You can always think of ways out of one. It’s harder to think of ways out of two.”
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In the grand scheme of the cosmos, life on earth might have popped up far sooner than it should have.
A team led by Harvard astronomy department chair Avi Loeb crunched some numbers comparing the size of stars to how soon life should form on the habitable planets that surround them. The team predicts that the odds of life developing around the more common and smaller red dwarf stars will increase drastically in the future. In other words, when it comes to life, maybe we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Life has lots of prerequisites. It starts with a planet orbiting a star, so the star’s energy can fuel the life-inducing chemical reactions. Those reactions generally occur in liquid water, so the planet needs to sit in a so-called habitable zone, a distance from the star where the planet is too warm for water to freeze and too cold for water to boil. The planet also needs to have oxygen, carbon, and other elements, and weigh enough so that its gravity can hold onto an atmosphere. But are those conditions unique to the Earth?
“The general idea that many people subscribe to is that, since we exist next to a star like the Sun in a galaxy like the Milky Way, for life to exist you need these conditions,” Loeb told Popular Science. “But in fact, low-mass stars are much more common than the Sun. The sun isn’t a typical star. Low-mass stars are very long-lived; they can live 1,000 times longer.”
The team combined theories and data on stars’ sizes and the exoplanets in their habitable zones to calculate the probability that life would form at a given time. They predict that a planet orbiting a star the size of our sun or bigger would develop life just around now. Stars larger than three times our Sun are generally too short-lived for life to evolve. But life won’t spring up around more common, smaller red dwarves for another ten trillion years or so. As a reminder, our universe is currently only 14 billion years old, so it might be a while until any cool alien dudes pay us a visit.
The calculations assume that life could form at all on planets in habitable zones surrounding stars as small as 8 percent the size of our sun, but that might not be the case. “There’s a lot of papers that say that life may be suppressed around those stars,” James Kasting, geoscientist and exoplanet researcher at Penn State, told Popular Science. “My guess is that very few of them have habitable planets.” The habitable zone around these small stars would be much closer in, so any planets might be more vulnerable to harmful radiation shooting off of the star. Even worse, the star’s gravity could pull much harder on one side of the planet, causing more volcanic activity that could lead to runaway greenhouse effect and the oceans boiling off, according to a paper published by researchers Rodrigo Luger and Rory Barnes.
Loeb agreed that these theories were important, but they don’t preclude the search for life on smaller stars. Other papers have postulated ways for life to form on those planets despite those constraints, and there are so many exoplanets, at least 100 billion in the Milky Way, that some percentage might become the exception to any rule.
The true importance of the research is to figure out just how weird earthlings really are. If red dwarves could host life, then we’re a few trillion years early to the ballgame. “This research has a bigger significance,” said Loeb: “whether we’re special or typical.”
What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Anchor, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.FACT: You used to be able to die “by planet”
By Sara Chodosh
I’ve spent more time than most looking at death statistics. It’s kind of an occupational hazard of being both a health/science person and a data person. I am generally used to them being both quite depressing and pretty mundane—in the modern era in the US the vast majority of deaths are from cancer and heart disease, followed by accidents and respiratory issues. Elsewhere in the world it’s less mundane but much more depressing (read: lots of deaths due to preventable diseases that we largely don’t suffer from in high-income countries).
So it was something of a pleasant surprise to come across “The Diseases, and Casualties this year being 1632” (strange comma included). I think because the causes of death listed here—Affrighted, Made away themselves, Suddenly—are so removed from how we quantify death today this whole list kind of comes across as funny, or at least amusing. And really what’s ultimately most amusing is the total lack of understanding of disease. “Suddenly” is not an acceptable item on a death certificate in the 21st century because even if someone did drop dead suddenly we could do an autopsy to figure out what actually happened. A stroke, perhaps, or a heart attack. But in the 17th and 18th centuries you just…died. You often did so at home or maybe at work, and the person who came to pick up your body for burial probably knew about as much about why you died as did the person who saw you die in the first place, which is to say: not a lot.
Of course the more I dug into this list the less funny it became. Death is death, and the more you think about what life was actually like for these people the sadder the whole thing gets. I highly recommend reading the paper I found explaining all the terms—it’s a fascinating look at birth and death, and at how much has changed in just a few hundred years. And we could all probably use a reminder right now of how much better life is today than it used to be.FACT: This ferret named Felicia is a scientific hero
By Rachel Feltman
Some listeners may recall that in 2023, the Large Hadron Collider, which is a big ol’ particle collider in Switzerland, shut down because of a weasel. There was a massive power outage that turned out to be the result of a small mammal now thought to be a marten weasel, which chewed through some power lines and sadly died, but not before taking the LHC with it, albeit temporarily.
Animals are not infrequent sources of trouble in these facilities. In 2009, a soggy baguette caused an electrical short at the LHC, and the prevailing theory is that a passing bird dropped it down into the equipment. In 2006, a Fermilab newsletter even recounted an only somewhat facetious report of a “coordinated attack” on the facility by a family of raccoons.
But speaking of Fermilab, and back to ferrets, I want to talk about a more positive animal interaction at a particle collider.
So, in the early 70s, back when Fermilab was still called the National Accelerator Laboratory, engineers couldn’t get the particles up to the necessary speed without the magnets inside shorting out. Eventually, they figured out that tiny metal shavings left behind by the construction of the tube were interfering.
But how do you clean out a ring-shaped tube that stretches for something like four miles?
They found their solution in Felicia, the smallest available ferret from a fur farm in Minnesota, and purchased her for $35. For more on how she helped change the particle physics game, listen to this week’s episode.FACT: Swedish scientists once crafted a crash test dummy shaped like a moose
By Mary Roach
When to swerve, and when to hit? Most drivers now know that when it comes to deer, the safest thing to do is to simply collide with the unfortunate animal. But when large animals like moose and camels come into play, the potential consequences of a run-in become much more dire—and the choice to swerve becomes the smarter option. For more on the scientific investigation into moose jaywalkers, check out the latest episode of Weirdest Thing—and my latest book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.
If you like The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, please subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts. You can also join in the weirdness in our Facebook group and bedeck yourself in Weirdo merchandise (including face masks!) from our Threadless shop.
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Today, Google rolled out a new ability for the Google Assistant. The helpful, disembodied entity that lives inside smartphones and Google Home devices can now interpret two languages at the same time, including French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian and English. It’s a useful new function for the Google Home, especially as the number of multilingual homes increases. But, how will users know about it?
It’s a question I recently encountered in my own personal experience.
A few weeks ago, the familiar command that turns my Philips Hue lights on and off stopped working.“OK, Google, turn off the light in the living room.” The lights didn’t budge. I spent 20 minutes repeating the command and digging into the Google Home app, which I hadn’t opened in quite some time—after all, that’s why I have a voice assistant in the first place, right?
Hearing my repetitive commands, my wife yelled from upstairs, “You have to say ‘turn off the living room lights’ now—plural. It updated” She was right. It worked.
All of this raises an important question about how we communicate with our digital assistants: How do we know when a voice assistant updates and changes the commands we rely on to trigger actions that are increasingly central to our daily routines? It’s still a work in progress.Keeping up with the updates
“In general, our strategy is to launch updates through experimentation, which we use to understand how users respond to new features we add to the product,” Prabhu Balasubramanian, Product Manager on the Google Home team, says via email. “Experiments are running all the time, and the tests that yield good results are rolling out to all users on a regular basis.”
This is the Google Home Max that didn’t want to turn off my lights until I asked correctly. Stan Horaczek
I asked both the Alexa and Google Assistant teams how to find out about updates to their digital assistants. It came down to three basic methods:
Subscribe to a newsletter that shares new features
Monitor new abilities through updates in the companion apps
Ask the assistants directly what’s new
For Alexa, this means signing up for the Echo newsletter, visiting the Things to Try section of the app, or asking specifically, “Alexa, what are your new features?” or “Alexa, what are your new Skills?” That wording comes straight from Amazon.
For Google Home, you can sign up for the email newsletter, check the Discover tab in the Home app, or or directly ask, “Hey Google, what can you do?” Google also suggests you could pay attention to its marketing campaigns to learn about new features in Assistant. Nice try!
Siri updates, however, are more closely tied to iOS updates, which you can monitor via the app store, whether it’s on your phone or your computer.A little more conversation
The companies behind the assistant believe, to an extent, that the solution lies in a more regular and human-like conversation between users and assistants.
“The data clearly shows that people expect a much more conversational experience with the Assistant than with Google Search” says Balasubramanian, citing a Google blog post. “Assistant queries are 200 times more conversational than on Search. We think this is a trend that will continue, as people’s expectations for the Assistant continue to go up.” Instead of users barking questions and commands as they would type them, digital assistants are increasingly designed for human-style interaction.
The Google Home app adds suggestions for Assistant features you might find helpful. Google
This push toward conversational interactions is already in the works and making Google Assistant better. In fact, the update that changed the way my lights work also made it so I can now ask the lights to perform several commands in a row. Now that I understand it, it’s great, but the communication breakdown made it painful.
Interestingly, Amazon specifically includes features and commands meant to be discovered by trial and error. “We are still at the very tipping point of conversational AI and we’re far off from achieving a true human-to-human interaction,” an Amazon rep said via email. “But it’s exciting – even just for the future of AI—to see customers reacting to Alexa in this way, and we’re working hard on even the little responses, Easter eggs and nuances to make Alexa more personable, humble and helpful every day.” Sure, there’s a lot of marketing speak in there, but it clearly lays out the fact that Amazon sees these “discoveries” as a fundamental part of conversing with Alexa.It’ll get more complicated before it gets simpler
While the digital assistant companies are honing their strategies, smart homes provide a rather large set of variables they need to address. The assistants need to update, but so do the devices they control. Every couple months I get the somewhat surreal experience of updating the lightbulbs in my house—a process which involves blasting every light source in my home while waiting for a progress bar to crawl across an app screen. When it’s done, it can be unclear how the updated software will interact with the digital assistant meant to boss it around.
In the future, it seems a safe bet that you can expect the assistants to talk more. The “sorry, I can’t do that right now,” message could eventually expand into more helpful statements with suggestions for possible solutions or diagnostic information about the problem. For now, your best bet is still to keep up the old fashioned ways if you want to get the most out of your smart assistant. And don’t get too attached to the commands you say every day—because they might change and you’ll find yourself yelling at a light switch at 11:30 PM on a school night.
The Weekender: May 2 to 5 Cinco de Mayo festivities, free comic books, a food tour, and more
Eat, Shop, Go
It’s the last weekend of the spring semester (finals start May 7). For many students, that means a last chance to get out and enjoy the city. And there are lots of events designed to give you a break from the stress of cramming for exams. How about taking in a comedy show featuring some of the nation’s best female stand-ups or treating yourself to a free comic book? Or celebrate Cinco de Mayo at a great local Mexican restaurant. Those events and more are featured in “The Weekender,” our weekly guide to goings-on about town. If you have suggestions for events or places we should feature, leave them in the Comment section below.
It’s Cinco de Mayo this Sunday, the annual holiday that marks the anniversary of the Mexican army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, during the Franco-Mexican War. Here in the United States, the day has become an occasion to celebrate Mexican culture. Join in the fun and stop by the Painted Burro in Somerville for some delicious authentic Mexican cuisine. This Davis Square hotspot is famous for its weekend brunch, which includes classics like huevos rancheros and a tres quesos omelet. Dinner is great too, offering an awesome selection of dishes like carne asada, and a wide selection of tacos, enchiladas, and tortas. Wash it all down with one of the Painted Burro’s eight different margaritas. We recommend the spicy el diablo, made with jalapeño-infused tequila, Combier, lime, and simple syrup. And in honor of Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant will offer a variety of specials, listed here.
The Painted Burro, 219 Elm St., Somerville, is open for dinner Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 4 to 11 pm. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 3 pm, and the bar is open nightly until 1 am. Take an MBTA Red Line train to Davis Square.
New England Comics, 316 Harvard St., Brookline, is open Monday and Tuesday, noon to 7 pm, Wednesday, 11 am to 8 pm, Thursday and Saturday, 11 am to 7 pm, Friday, 11 am to 9 pm, and Sunday, noon to 6 pm. Take an MBTA Green Line C trolley to Coolidge Corner.
You’ll find plenty to laugh about this weekend when Bill’s Bar & Lounge in the Fenway hosts the Women in Comedy Festival’s best stand-up comics. From Thursday through Saturday, you can catch some of the funniest female stand-up comics in the country, many who have appeared on Comedy Central and shows like NBC’s Last Comic Standing and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Enjoy great pub food and $2 beers. The event is 21+.
The Women in Comedy Festival is at Bill’s Bar & Lounge, 5 Lansdowne St., Boston, Thursday, May 2, through Saturday, May 4. There are two shows on Thursday, at 7 and 9:30 pm. Shows Friday and Saturday are at 7 pm. Doors open at 6 pm. This is a 21+ event, so bring a valid ID. Purchase tickets ($10) for Thursday’s show here, tickets for Friday and Saturday’s shows ($15) here.
This TED event, on Friday, May 3, bills itself as the “premier evening event experience that celebrates the remarkable innovation, creativity, and inspiration found within the region and beyond.” Featuring six distinguished speakers and two live performances, it promises to be a fun and thought-provoking evening. Panelists include an evolutionary anthropologist, a behavioral scientist, a moral philosopher, and more. Find the full lineup here.
TEDxCambridge is Friday, May 3, at 7 pm at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston. Purchase tickets ($65 to $85) here. Take an MBTA Green Line train to Boylston.
In search of technological innovation? There’s no better place to find it than Cambridge’s Kendall Square, home to dozens of biotech and pharma companies. Each Saturday, this unique food tour offers guests a chance to learn about local history and the neighborhood’s latest innovations, while sampling food at some of the area’s hottest restaurants. The three-hour, seven-stop tour includes a visit to the Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame, a secret rooftop garden, and a chance to nosh on pizza, dumplings, and a specialty cocktail.
Senior Alex Pena (COM) can be reached at [email protected].
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The Weekender: May 11 to 14
May 11 to 14
Get ready to finish the semester strong and celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend. Check out the recently-opened School of Visual Arts BFA Thesis Exhibition or catch a home game at Fenway. Looking to get outside the city and see some art? Search no further than the West Roxbury Art Walk, which returns for its second year.
BFA students in the College of Fine Arts School of Visual Art will be displaying their thesis work in various spaces across campus. The exhibitions are on view through May 19, so this weekend is a perfect time to stop in. The graphic design exhibition is at the 808 Gallery and the painting, sculpture, and printmaking exhibition is at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery.
May 9 through May 19 at the 808 Gallery and the Stone Gallery. Gallery hours can be found here.
Are you a sophomore or junior looking to intern at a nonprofit? The Yawkey Nonprofit Internship Program can help you cover living expenses for unpaid internship positions and ensure that you make the most of your experience. Learn more about the program and how to apply at this virtual workshop. Important note: attending Funded Internship Programs 101 is required for those applying to the program.
Thursday, May 11, 12 to 1 pm on Zoom. Register here.
The West Roxbury Art Walk is opening for its second year. Visitors can peek into the windows of businesses throughout Main Street to see some amazing local artwork. Last year, more than 20 businesses participated, representing scores of artists.
Friday, May 12 through Sunday, June 4. More information here.
Celebrate the special lady in your life with a trip to the Mother’s Day Makers Market where you can browse works from 30 local, women-founded small businesses. If you get hungry while you shop, try some donuts from Lionheart Confections or get a drink from Koji Club, Boston’s only women-owned sake bar.
Sunday, May 14, 12. to 5 pm at the Charles River Speedway, 525 Western Ave., Boston. More information, including a list of vendors, can be found here.
There’s no better way to celebrate the end of the semester than going to a baseball game. You can root for the home team all weekend as the Red Sox face off against the Cardinals at Fenway Park. Tickets are still available for the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday games.
Friday, May 12 at 7:10 pm; Saturday, May 13 at 4:10 pm; and Sunday, May 14 at 7:10 pm, at Fenway Park. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.
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