Ask Ethan: Did We Just Find The Universe’s Missing Black Holes?
“As interesting as this new black hole is, and it really is most likely a black hole, it cannot tell us whether there’s a mass gap, a mass dip, or a straightforward distribution of masses arising from supernova events. About 50% of all the stars ever discovered exist as part of a multi-star system, with approximately 15% in bound systems containing 3-to-6 stars. Since the multi-star systems we see often have stellar masses similar to one another, there’s nothing ruling out that this newfound black hole didn’t have its origin from a long-ago kilonova event of its own.
So the object itself? It’s almost certainly a black hole, and it very likely has a mass that puts it squarely in a range where at most one other black hole is known to exist. But is the mass gap a real gap, or just a range where our data is deficient? That will take more data, more systems, and more black holes (and neutron stars) of all masses before we can give a meaningful answer.”
Last week, an incredible new story came out: scientists discovered a massive object some 10,000 light-years away that emits no light of its own. From the giant star in orbit around it, we were able to infer its mass to a well-constrained range, with the mean value hovering right at 3.3 solar masses.The lack of X-rays from it, based on the field strength associated with neutron stars and the orbit of the giant star itself, very strongly indicates that this object is not a neutron star, but a black hole.
Does this mean we’ve discovered a black hole in the so-called “mass gap” range? Yes! But does it disprove the existence of a mass gap overall? Not so much. Come get the full story on this edition of Ask Ethan!
Cosmology’s Biggest Conundrum Is A Clue, Not A Controversy
“This is not some fringe idea, where a few contrarian scientists are overemphasizing a small difference in the data. If both groups are correct — and no one can find a flaw in what either one has done — it might be the first clue we have in taking our next great leap in understanding the Universe. Nobel Laureate Adam Riess, perhaps the most prominent figure presently researching the cosmic distance ladder, was kind enough to record a podcast with me, discussing exactly what all of this might mean for the future of cosmology.
It’s possible that somewhere along the way, we have made a mistake somewhere. It’s possible that when we identify it, everything will fall into place just as it should, and there won’t be a controversy or a conundrum any longer. But it’s also possible that the mistake lies in our assumptions about the simplicity of the Universe, and that this discrepancy will pave the way to a deeper understanding of our fundamental cosmic truths.”
In science, if you want to know some property of the Universe, you need to devise a measurement or set of measurements you can make to reveal the quantitative answer. When it comes to the expanding Universe, we have many different methods of measuring light that fall into two independent classes: using the imprint of an early relic and using the cosmic distance ladder. These two techniques each give solid results that are mutually inconsistent: the distance ladder teams find results that are higher than the early relic teams by about 9%. Since the errors are only about 1-2% on each measurements, this has been dubbed cosmology’s biggest controversy.
But perhaps it’s not about “who is right,” but rather about “what is the Universe doing?” Perhaps it’s a clue, not a controversy. Come learn about the cutting-edge science behind this fascinating and unexpected result.
What Was It Like When The First Stars Died?
“It’s theorized that this is the origin of the seeds of the supermassive black holes that occupy the centers of galaxies today: the deaths of the most massive stars, which create black holes hundreds or thousands of times the mass of the Sun. Over time, mergers and gravitational growth will lead to the most massive black holes known in the Universe, black holes that are millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun by today.
It took perhaps 100 million years to form the very first stars in the Universe, but just another million or two after that for the most massive among them to die, creating black holes and spreading heavy, processed elements into the interstellar medium. As time goes on, the Universe, at long last, will begin to resemble what we actually see today.”
Our Universe, shortly after the Big Bang, proceeded in a number of momentous steps. The first atomic nuclei formed just minutes after the Big Bang, while neutral atoms took hundreds of thousands of years. It took another 50 to 100 million years for the very first star to be created, but only, perhaps, a million or two years for the most massive among the first stars to die. They may have been short-lived, but the first stars were truly spectacular, and their deaths set up the first steps in a changing Universe that would take us from a pristine set of materials to, eventually, the Universe as we know it today.
Take a major step in the cosmic journey of how we got to today by looking at what it was like when the first stars died!
This Is Why Dark Energy Must Exist, Despite Recent Reports To The Contrary
“We do not do science in a vacuum, completely ignoring all the other pieces of evidence that our scientific foundation builds upon. We use the information we have and know about the Universe to draw the best, most robust conclusions we have. It is not important that your data meet a certain arbitrary standard on its own, but rather that your data can demonstrate which conclusions are inescapable given our Universe as it actually is.
Our Universe contains matter, is at least close to spatially flat, and has supernovae that allow us to determine how it’s expanding. When we put that picture together, a dark energy-dominated Universe is inescapable. Just remember to look at the whole picture, or you might miss out on how amazing it truly is.”
20 years ago, the supernova data came back with an extraordinary surprise: it looked like the Universe wasn’t just expanding, but that the expansion rate was increasing as we head further into the future. While there were many dark energy skeptics to start, the increased flow of improved data from many lines of evidence that all kept pointing to the same conclusion has led to a cosmological consensus: dark energy dominates the Universe today. Last week, a story made waves, as Subir Sarkar and collaborators published their second paper (the first was in 2016) claiming that the evidence from supernovae is not good enough to support the existence of dark energy, and our cosmological foundation for it is extraordinarily shaky.
This is not true. This is demonstrably untrue. And the claim shows a deliberate unwillingness to pay attention to the rest of the field. Find out why dark energy must exist, despite recent reports to the contrary.
The Simplest Solution To The Expanding Universe’s Biggest Controversy
“This is how dark energy was first discovered, and our best methods of the cosmic distance ladder give us an expansion rate of 73.2 km/s/Mpc, with an uncertainty of less than 3%.
If there’s one error at any stage of this process, it propagates to all higher rungs. We can be pretty confident that we’ve measured the Earth-Sun distance correctly, but parallax measurements are currently being revised by the Gaia mission, with substantial uncertainties. Cepheids may have additional variables in them, skewing the results. And type Ia supernovae have recently been shown to vary by quite a bit — perhaps 5% — from what was previously thought. The possibility that there is an error is the most terrifying possibility to many scientists who work on the cosmic distance ladder.”
We live in an expanding Universe that’s 13.8 billion years old, full of two trillion galaxies, containing dark energy, dark matter, normal matter and radiation. For decades, we’ve been refining and better-understanding this cosmic picture, with one of the goals of modern astrophysics to measure the rate of expansion. Right around the year 2000, results from the Hubble key project, the scientific reason the Hubble space telescope was built, indicated that the expansion rate was 72 km/s/Mpc, with an uncertainty of around 10%. Now, we have multiple independent ways to measure that rate to even greater precision, but the problem is that two different groups no longer agree. One claims a rate of 73.2 km/s/Mpc, and the other claims a rate of 67.4 km/s/Mpc. The claimed uncertainties are small, and do not overlap.
Is this a crisis for cosmology? Or is one group simply mistaken due to an unidentified error? Is this a loose OPERA cable all over again? Here’s the big question keeping scientists up at night.
The Scientific Story Of How Each Element Was Made
“Neutron star mergers create the greatest heavy element abundances of all, including gold, mercury, and platinum.
Meanwhile, cosmic rays blast nuclei apart, creating the Universe’s lithium, beryllium, and boron.
Finally, the heaviest, unstable elements are made in terrestrial laboratories.
The result is the rich, diverse Universe we inhabit today.”
When the Big Bang first occurred, the Universe was filled with all the various particles and antiparticles making up the Standard Model, and perhaps still others yet to be discovered. But missing from the list were protons, neutrons, or any of the atomic nuclei key to the life-giving elements in our Universe today. Yet the Universe expanded, cooled, antimatter annihilated away, and the first elements began to take shape. After billions of years of cosmic evolution, we arrived at a Universe recognizable today: full of stars, planets, and the full complement of elements populating the periodic table. More than 100 elements are known today, 91 of which are found to occur naturally on Earth. Some were formed in the Big Bang, others were formed in stars, still others were formed in violent cosmic cataclysms or collisions. Yet every one has an origin whose story is now known, giving rise to all we interact with today.
Come get the full story behind how all the elements were made in some fantastic pictures, visuals, and no more than 200 words on this edition of Mostly Mute Monday!
Is there really a cosmological constant? Or is dark energy changing with time?
“The Kilo Degree Survey (KiDS) has gathered and analyzed weak lensing data from about 15 million distant galaxies. While their measurements are not sensitive to the expansion of the universe, they are sensitive to the density of dark energy, which affects the way light travels from the galaxies towards us. […]
The members of the KiDS collaboration have tried out which changes to the cosmological standard model work best to ease the tension in the data. Intriguingly, it turns out that ahead of all explanations, the one that works best has the cosmological constant changing with time. The change is such that the effects of accelerated expansion are becoming more pronounced, not less.”
We normally assume that the fundamental constants of the Universe are actually constant, but they don’t have to be that way. They could vary in space, in time, or with the energy density of the Universe, in principle. Before believing in such an extraordinary claim, however, you’d need some remarkable evidence. It’s arguable that exactly that sort of evidence is emerging: from the tensions in the expansion rate of the Universe. If you measure the expansion rate from the cosmic microwave background, you get a value for the expansion rate of 67 km/s/Mpc. But if you measure it from the traditional cosmic distance ladder, you get a value closer to 74. This tension could be a systematic error in the measurement, but it could also point towards the value of dark energy changing with time. Interestingly, a large survey independent of the Universe’s expansion but dependent on weak lensing shows an increasing dark energy might be the answer.
It could all be systematic errors, of course, but if the effect is real, it could revolutionize how we understand the Universe. Sabine Hossenfelder explains.
Closest Supernova In Years Brings Cosmic Fireworks To Earth’s Skies
“Cosmic fireworks like these don’t truly happen at random; they are clustered in time and space around the most massive, intense star-forming regions of all. You can’t have a bigger star-forming region than one that includes the entire galaxy, and the sweeping, grand, irregular arms of the Fireworks galaxy are as good as they come. Based on what we see, we expect this elevated rate to continue for more than a million years.”
Every once in a while, a new light appears somewhere in the night sky: the result of a massive star reaching the end of its life. From many millions of light years away, the brilliance of a supernova shines across the cosmos. Just a few days ago, a new light was discovered in a galaxy only 22 million light years away, making it the closest supernova discovered in three years. The galaxy housing it is a hotbed of supernova formation, having been home to ten such explosions in the past 100 years: more than we’ve found in any other galaxy. The reason? This entire galaxy, despite having only half the stars of the Milky Way, is a giant star-forming region. Starburst galaxies like this are the best place to look for cataclysmic events like this, and NGC 6946 is maybe the best example of all.
Come see the night sky’s newest, closest supernova, and learn how to see it for yourself!