from the world's big
The universe is dying, new study confirms
Star production peaked three billion years after the Big Bang.
- Scientists track gamma rays across the universe's extragalactic background to calculate all of the starlight ever produced.
- For 10.8 billion years, star production has been decelerating.
- The research team measured nine years worth of data from the universe's 739 known blazars.
The good news is that scientists believe they've figured out how much starlight the universe has ever produced since the Big Bang. Exciting. The bad news? Well, apparently star production peaked a long, long time ago, and ever since, the universe has been in the process of dying. Only seven new stars are born a year these days. You can keep buying green bananas, though; there's time: We still have many billions of years before the stars that already exist go dark and cold.
In Science, the Fermi-LAT Collaboration published, on November 30, a new inventory and history of the universe's light. So, how much light has the universe produced? 4 × 10⁸⁴ photons. To spell that out, that's 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
The lead study author of the study, astrophysicist Marco Ajello, said his team was able to measure the entire amount of starlight ever emitted using the Fermi telescope.
"This has never been done before," he told Clemson University's the Newsstand. "Most of this light is emitted by stars that live in galaxies. Every single star that has existed has contributed to this emission, and we can use it to learn all the details about star formation and evolution and galaxy evolution."
The Fermi team has been measuring nine years worth of data from the universe's 739 known blazars.
This map of the entire sky shows the location of 739 blazars used in the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope's measurement. Brighter areas have stronger gamma rays.
Image: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
What the blazar is a blazar?
As galaxies spin around a supermassive black hole at their center, charged particles circling the event horizon develop strong magnetic fields that further excite the particles, causing them to emit radiation at very high energies. Such galaxies produce a great deal of light at their centers, and they're referred to as "active galactic nuclei" (AGN). Some AGNs seem brighter than others from here on Earth. They're not really — they're just the ones pointed straight at us.
Jets of material shot out of such AGNs are called "blazars." The quasar sound-alike name gets its "Bl" from "BL Lacertae," after the constellation in which the first recorded one, back in 1929, originated. Blazars travel at near light speed, and within them are gamma-ray photons the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is designed to detect.
Artistic rendering of a blazar accelerating protons that produce pions, which produce neutrinos and gamma rays. Image source: IceCube/NASA
Encounters with the EBL
As they travel across space, blazar gamma-ray photons collide with the universe's extragalactic background (EBL), the background radiation produced by star formation. Says Ajello, "Gamma-ray photons traveling through a fog of starlight have a large probability of being absorbed. By measuring how many photons have been absorbed, we were able to measure how thick the fog was, and also measure, as a function of time, how much light there was in the entire range of wavelengths." He adds, "It's like following the rainbow till the end and finding the treasure. That's what we found."
In terms of the blazars, NASA columnist Ethan Seigel writes, "The closest one comes to us from just 200 million years ago; the most distant has its light arriving after a journey of 11.6 billion years: from when the Universe was just 2.2 billion years old."
Artist's conception of a blazar. Image source: JPL
The timeline behind and ahead
The study's Vaidehi Paliya says, "By using blazars at different distances from us, we measured the total starlight at different time periods. We measured the total starlight of each epoch — 1 billion years ago, 2 billion years ago, 6 billion years ago, etc — all the way back to when stars were first formed."
The notion that the universe is "dying" is due to the fact that star production, which is decreasing, is a grand recycler of energy, matter, and elements that "nourish" the universe. Our survival relies, quite literally, on starlight and its generation. As Dieter Hartmann, another author of the study, says: "Without the evolution of stars, we wouldn't have the fundamental elements necessary for the existence of life."
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
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