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Could ‘Planet 9’ actually be an ancient black hole?

A new paper suggests a primordial black hole may be making things weird at the edge of our solar system.

Image source: Vadim Sadovski /IgorZh/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • Though a Planet 9 has been hypothesized, we can't seem to find it, at least not yet.
  • The strange orbits of distant bodies and weird gravitational anomalies beg for an explanation.
  • Scientists propose a hunt for telltale gamma rays from a primordial black hole.

One of the more tantalizing mysteries of modern astronomy is figuring out just what it is that's distorting the orbits of objects out at the edge of our solar system. The most popular candidate is a large, unseen mystery planet, dubbed either "Planet 9" or "Planet X."

However, no such body's been observed.

Last June, new models from the University of Cambridge and American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, showed how there may be no need for a Planet 9 after all — a swarm of small, icy objects may be what's producing the weird orbits. A new study, however, says, nope, it is something big out there, and the reason we can't see it is that it's an ancient black hole.

Image source: pixelparticle/Shutterstock/Big Think

The team behind the new paper, Jakub Scholtz of Durham University in the U.K., and James Unwin of the University of Illinois at Chicago, are concerned not just with these odd orbits, but also with a set of gravitational anomalies observed by Poland's Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE). Both phenomena, the authors say, "can be simultaneously explained by a new population of astrophysical bodies with mass several times that of Earth."

Such a body might be a primordial black hole (PBH), created within the first second after the Big Bang, that's somehow been captured by our solar system. The authors consider this idea every bit as likely as a Planet 9, which would require a re-thinking of planetary formation given that it would be a free-floating member of a solar system. "A solution with an ordinary planet and a solution with an exotic compact object like a primordial black hole are very similar," says Unwin.

Intriguingly, the scientists say, the proposed PBH may ultimately be more observable than Planet 9 has proven to be, if indirectly.

How a black hole could be detected

Fermi Space Telescope

Image source: NASA

Scholtz and Unwin say confirmation of a PBH could be attained with the capture of gamma-ray signals from its microhalo composed of dark matter. While we currently have no way to directly observe dark matter, it's believed that the fatal interactions between dark matter and normal matter at the edge of the PBH would produce gamma "annihilation signals" that devices such as the Fermi Space Telescope or the Chandra X-ray Observatory could detect.

This microhalo might extend hundreds of thousands of miles from the black hole's center. "We actually expect [annihilation signals] to happen at quite a significant rate," says Unwin, "so these things have the potential to just be glowing sources in the sky."

Cutting it close

Image source: gurzart / Shutterstock

One obvious question a black hole inside our solar system would prompt is whether or not the system's planets would eventually be drawn into it. If it's located in the same area as the proposed Planet 9, it would be over 56 billion miles away from Earth. That's less than a single light year, 6 trillion miles, pretty close in astronomical terms. Should we be worried?

"For normal black holes," explains Scholtz, "you need to have at least a solar mass because it is created out of a star. These primordial black holes can be much lighter; for example, an Earth mass, or in fact, even lighter." In layman's terms, we can relax — this one would be tiny.

Adding to the conversation

The paper by Scholtz and Unwin is still under peer review and hasn't yet been published in its final form. It's a new idea, and possibly incorrect, but still worthy of consideration. "We're not saying that it can't be a planet," Unwin tells UIC Today. "We're saying it need not be a planet, and the important point is that this extends the experimental search needed to find this object we believe may be in the outer solar system."

How ‘The Goblin’ may unravel the mystery of Planet Nine

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.

  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

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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.
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