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Confirmed: The Milky Way's monstrous black hole

A young star and a belt of gasses give the game away.

(Triff/ESO/Big Think)
  • Scientists have provided the first confirmation that what's at the center of the Milky Way is a supermassive black hole.
  • The discovery caught the interaction of gasses and a small star spinning around the mysterious object.
  • This is thought to be compelling proof of the black hole's central role in a galaxy.

At the center of the Milky Way, about 25,000 light years away, is a faint source of radio noise. It's huge, estimated to weigh the equivalent of the 4.14 million suns. Astronomers have long suspected it's a supermassive black hole, and they've named it "Sagittarius A*." This week, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that an international collaboration led by Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) has collected the most definitive proof that this is exactly what Sagittarius A* is.

While astronomers can't directly observe a black hole — light doesn't escape it — they might, however, be able to see some of what goes on around one. Genzel and other scientists across the globe collected information regarding a small star called "S2" and the belt of gas, or accretion disc, that spin around Sagittarius A*. It's in the interaction between the two that the new discovery lies, and it was made possible by a breakthrough in imaging.

The imaging breakthrough

Photo credit: MPE/GRAVITY team

The ESO has a four-telescope array, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the Paranal Observatory, rising 2635 meters above sea level in Chile's Atacama Desert. The amazing device that ultimately allowed the team to confirm Sagittarius A*'s identity leverages the Paranal telescopes. It's called "GRAVITY," and it combines all four in a single interferometer that has the resolution of a single mirror resolution of a single mirror 130 meters in diameter. "All of the sudden, we can see 1,000 times fainter than before," said Genzel when GRAVITY went into use.

S2 and the redshift

Image source: ESO/MPE/S. Gillessen

Every 16 years, a young blue star dubbed "S2" or S-02"completes an elongated orbit that brings it perilously close to Sagittarius A*, about 11 billion miles.

Many scientists feel that black holes — of which Einstein himself was unconvinced — are predicted by general relativity. (They were only finally confirmed a couple of years back when two black holes collided.) Einstein's theory, though, also predicts that if S2 is indeed orbiting a black hole, the speed of the light waves bouncing off it when it draws Sagittarius A*near should slow down, shifting the light it reflects to a more reddish hue.

In July of this year, Genzel's team announced that they had observed via GRAVITY the center of the Milky Way, and had seen the predicted redshift, allowing them to pinpoint S2's closest approach to Sagittarius A*. New York Times reports that as the results were being read off at the Munich announcement, the room broke out into applause.

Accretion disc flares

Also spinning around Sagittarius A* is an accretion disc that travels at nearly 30 percent the speed of light, zooming 150 million miles around the object every 45 minutes. According to relativity, whenever S2 — or any hot object — reaches its innermost, or stable, orbit, bits of it should cross the event horizon and be instantly vaporized as they fall into the black hole, sparking brief infrared flares.

Thanks to GRAVITY, the MPE scientists have been able to see that this actually happens at S2's closest fly-by. "GRAVITY's tremendous sensitivity has allowed us to observe the accretion processes in real time in unprecedented detail," another MPR scientist, Oliver Pfuhl, tells ESO. "It's mind-boggling to actually witness material orbiting a massive black hole at 30 percent of the speed of light."

The predicted flares were spotted, actually, as the MPE team was observing S2 in the research that led to July's announcement, though it took until now to prepare supporting materials for publication. "We were closely monitoring S2, and of course we always keep an eye on Sagittarius A*," Pfuhl recalls. "During our observations, we were lucky enough to notice three bright flares from around the black hole — it was a lucky coincidence!"

Now we know what lies at the center of the Milky Way

Image source: ESO

Genzel refers to the discovery of the flares as a "resounding confirmation of the massive black hole paradigm." Astronomers believe that black holes likely lie at the core of other galaxies as well, so this announcement has far-reaching implications. "This always was one of our dream projects but we did not dare to hope that it would become possible so soon," he concludes.

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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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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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