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The universe is dying, new study confirms

Star production peaked three billion years after the Big Bang.

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 source: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
  • 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.

Counting starlight

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
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000 photons.

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."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health
Videos
  • When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
  • "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
  • Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.
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