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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.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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