Impossible cosmic rays are shooting out of Antarctica

No particle we know of can explain what's going on.

ANITA-IV after a mission
(NASA)
  • Cosmic rays have been discovered coming out of Antarctica.
  • No high-speed particle we know of could possibly go in one side of the earth and come out the other.
  • All of the proposed explanations are exciting, especially the most likely one.

Meet ANITA. ANITA stands for "Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna." It seeks out cosmic rays from space as while hanging from a balloon suspended over Antarctica. In the last two years, though, it has twice detected cosmic rays coming from a direction no one expected: inside the earth. According to the Standard Model (SM) of physics, this shouldn't be possible.

ANITA, foreground, and its balloon, background(NASA)


And guess what? ANITA’s not alone

In September, a paper was submitted for peer review by astrophysicists at Penn State led by Derek Fox. "I was like, 'Well this model doesn't make much sense,'" Fox tells Live Science, "but the [ANITA] result is very intriguing, so I started checking up on it. I started talking to my office neighbor [and paper co-author] Steinn Sigurdsson about whether maybe we could gin up some more plausible explanations than the papers that have been published to date." Lacking any, they looked for other similar events and found three. They'd been detected by a surface-based Antarctic neutrino detector called, sensibly enough, IceCube. And when the data from ANITA and IceCube when combined, the Penn State scientists started getting excited. They calculate that whatever kind of particle is flying up and away from Earth has a less than 1-in-3.5 million chance of being any of the particles predicted by the Standard Model. Obviously, this has physicists scratching their heads trying to figure out what on earth is going on.

IceCube

(University of Wisconsin-Madison)

How cosmic rays are supposed to behave

First of all, of course, cosmic rays are supposed to come from out there somewhere, not here. The earth is bombarded with them all the time. The suspicion is that the newly detected particles are cosmic rays slamming into the earth on one side and somehow making it out the other.

Cosmic rays, though, are high-energy particles with relatively wide cross-sections that lead to their demise by causing them to crash into matter inside the Earth. They're "mainly (89%) protons — nuclei of hydrogen, the lightest and most common element in the universe — but they also include nuclei of helium (10%) and heavier nuclei (1%), all the way up to uranium particles," according to CERN. Low-energy neutrinos, on the other hand, can pass through the earth's rocky mass, but they're not involved with cosmic rays.

Both ANITA and IceCube track neutrinos indirectly by detecting their remains, if you will. They detect the particles neutrinos produce when they decay post-collision. Since neutrinos can't get through the earth, though, something else is producing these particles. But what?

Artist rendition of cosmic rays

(koya979/Shutterstock)

They could be a new kind of particle…

One candidate put forward as responsible for the event is the elusive "sterile neutrino," first hinted at by evidence captured in the mid 1990s at the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) at Los Alamos. The data was interpreted as suggesting a weird kind of high-speed neutrino that simply passes through matter without any interaction. No one else was able to reproduce the result, and the idea fell out of favor. Until this last spring, that is, when MiniBooNE at Chicago's FermiLab captured new signs that it might exist. The sterile neutrino would break the Standard Model if confirmed, which is one of the things that make MiniBoonE's data exciting. "That would be huge," says Duke physicist Kate Scholberg, who wasn't involved with the research, "…that would require new particles ... and an all-new analytical framework."

Others have suggested that it could be a product of dark matter. Cool as either of these ideas would be, perhaps the strongest reason for the detected upward cosmic rays is even more thrilling.

…or they could be long-sought supersymetrical particles

According to the Standard Model, every particle has a symmetrical partner, but the particles we know about don't match up. To resolve this apparent imbalance, a class of thus-far-hidden "supersymmetrical" particles has been proposed. It was hoped that the Large Hadron Collider could detect these mysterious — and so far just theoretical — particles, but no. Since 2012, when the last known particle predicted the Standard Model, the Higgs-Boson, was detected, nothing new's been found.

Until, maybe, now.

What the Penn paper proposes

The Penn State paper suggests these South Pole upward cosmic rays could be our first sign of supersymmetricals, specifically the partner of the Standard Model's tau leptons. With a a couple of "S"es added to signify supersymmetry, they'd be stau sleptons.

Others agree that they could be the first actual evidence of supersymmetry. Los Alamos physicist Bill Louis tells LiveScience, "I think it's very compelling," though he adds that the pinpointing of a stau slepton is "a bit of a stretch."

Fox admits he certainly can't be sure, but that, "From my perspective, I go trawling around trying to discover new things about the universe, I come upon some really bizarre phenomenon, and then with my colleagues, we do a little literature search to see if anybody has ever thought that this might happen. And then if we find papers in the literature, including one from 14 years ago that predict something just like this phenomenon, then that gets really high weight from me." And, guess what, he did find a prediction from 2003 of stau sleptons showing up just like this.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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