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Astronomers see a black hole ‘spaghettify’ a star in real time

Artist’s impression of star being tidally disrupted by a supermassive black hole.  


ESO/M. Kornmesser

It’s one of those astounding events that sounds like science fiction, but is just plain science. Astronomers say they were able to capture in unprecedented detail the process of a star being ripped into strips and devoured by a black hole. 

The powerful phenomenon caught the attention of scientists when a new blast of light near a known supermassive black hole was spotted by telescopes around the world. Months worth of follow-up observations made it clear they were seeing the destruction of a far-off sun as it happened.

“In this case the star was torn apart with about half of its mass feeding — or accreting — into a black hole of one million times the mass of the sun, and the other half was ejected outward,” explained astronomer Edo Berger from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a statement.  

The violent scene is what astronomers call a tidal disruption event, which happens when a star comes too close to a black hole and gets shredded through a process of spaghettification — basically, the gravity of the black hole is so intense that it stretches whatever comes near vertically into long, thin shapes like pieces of spaghetti as it swallows it all up. 

The event, which goes by the catalog entry AT2019qiz and is the closest such flare ever seen at just 215 million light-years away, was caught early enough that scientists have been able to get a relatively unobscured view of the cosmic carnage before a cloud of star guts pulls a veil over the region.

“We could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to 10,000 km/s (22 million miles per hour),” explained Kate Alexander, a NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University. “This is a unique ‘peek behind the curtain’ that provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real time how it engulfs the black hole.”

A paper on the discovery was published Monday in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

The event is so close and clear that Berger says it will help scientists learn more about the powerful forces at work, particularly the simultaneous pull of the shredded star into the black hole and the outward explosion of material from the star. 

“Until now, the nature of these emissions has been heavily debated, but here we see that the two regimes are connected through a single process.”

The hope is that AT2019qiz could be a sort of Rosetta stone for studying and interpreting what black holes have for lunch in the future. One distant day, intergalactic space travelers may even give thanks that this discovery regularly allows them

Science May Be The Real Winner In 2020 Polls

As the 2020 election looms, an intriguing new poll shows that Americans agree on one key issue: science. The survey published by Research!America shows that Americans overwhelmingly support science, regardless of their political parties.

According to the survey analysis, a strong majority of Americans agree that “the Covid-19 pandemic is a disruptive event and requires urgent refocusing of America’s commitment to science.” 88% believe that science benefits them and 89% believe that America should maintain its global leadership in science. Exactly. 

The unprecedented avalanche of misinformation that has been spread during the Covid-19 pandemic has been discouraging to both scientists and the public they serve. As people struggle to find the information they need to make decisions about life in the pandemic, the survey indicates that they still consider science the standard. 

Not only were survey participants committed to science, they were committed to funding for scientific research. Regardless of political affiliation, 66% of respondents were willing to pay $1 more a week in taxes to support scientific research. And that funding is needed because according to a recent report the U.S. is spending less and less on research. In fact, America is now in tenth place among other OECD nations for the share of GDP spent on research and development. 

“The level of bipartisan public consensus in this survey shows that support for science is much more than an agreement; it’s a mandate to elected officials to do more. It’s time for a national refocus on science so we may address the issues top of mind for Americans and live up to our full potential as a science-strong nation,” said Mary Woolley, Research!America President and CEO and a co-chair of the working group in a press release. 

Do Americans still value science? 

Recent events and decreases in funding has led to doubt about how much Americans supports science. So Research!America commissioned the nationwide survey on behalf of a working group formed to assess America’s commitment to science. The survey was run by Zogby Analytics in August and included 1,025 adults with an additional sample of 869 adults for minority oversampling.

The results were impressive: Americans are committed to science and they want their representatives to reflect that. 80% believe that it is important for elected officials listen to scientists, and 81% believe that it is important for scientists to talk to officials. 82% also want scientists to talk to the public. 

Beyond this, 76% think that federal government funding for basic science research matters to private sector innovation. 83% said they would strongly or somewhat recommend that their child, family member, or other young person enter a STEM field. 

Concern about climate change is also up by 10 points, as 66% say that climate change is impacting their own health compared to 56% when asked the same question in January 2020.

“All elected leaders should take note of the high expectations and enormous support for science held by the

‘Real and imminent’ extinction risk to whales

Humpback whale
A humpback whale jumps to the surface of the Pacific Ocean

More than 350 scientists and conservationists from 40 countries have signed a letter calling for global action to protect whales, dolphins and porpoises from extinction.

They say more than half of all species are of conservation concern, with two on the “knife-edge” of extinction.

Lack of action over polluted and over-exploited seas means that many will be declared extinct within our lifetimes, the letter says.

Even large iconic whales are not safe.

“Let this be a historic moment when realising that whales are in danger sparks a powerful wave of action from everyone: regulators, scientists, politicians and the public to save our oceans,” said Mark Simmonds.

The visiting research fellow at the University of Bristol, UK, and senior marine scientist with Humane Society International, has coordinated the letter, which has been signed by experts across the world.

Growing threats

“Save the whales” was a familiar green slogan in the 1970s and 1980s, part of a movement that helped bring an end to commercial whaling.

While stricken populations in most parts of the world have had a chance to recover from organised hunting, they are now facing myriad threats from human actions, including plastic pollution, loss of habitat and prey, climate change and collisions with ships.

By far the biggest threat is becoming accidently captured in fishing equipment and nets, which kills an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises a year.

Rally in Mexico to draw attention to the vaquita
Rally in Mexico to draw attention to the vaquita

Hundreds of scientists have expressed the same concern – that we are moving closer to a number of preventable extinctions. And unless we act now, future generations will be denied the chance to experience these intelligent social and inspiring creatures.

They point to the decline of the North Atlantic right whale, of which only a few hundred individuals remain, and the vaquita, a porpoise found in the Gulf of California, which may be down to the last 10 of its kind.

And they say it is almost inevitable that these two species will follow the Chinese river dolphin down the path to extinction. The dolphin, also known as the baiji, was once a common sight in the Yangtze River but is now thought to have died out.

The letter, which has been signed by experts in the UK, US, Mexico, South Africa and Brazil, among others, points out that these “dramatic” declines could have been avoided, but that the political will has been lacking.

Dr Susan Lieberman of the Wildlife Conservation Society said she signed the letter to help scientists raise these issues more widely.

“It is critical that governments develop, fund, and implement additional needed actions to better protect and save these iconic species – so they don’t end going the way of the baiji,” she told BBC News.

Dolphin chasing sardines off South Africa
Dolphin chasing sardines off South Africa

The scientists say that more than half of the 90 living species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, are of conservation concern, and

Who Is Leif Erikson? Yes, SpongeBob SquarePants’ Favorite Holiday Is Real

October 9 is a special holiday–even if it isn’t widely celebrated. Friday is Leif Erikson Day, but some people might not know what exactly is being celebrated. Some may even be surprised to learn that one of SpongeBob SquarePants’ favorite holidays is real.

Leif Erikson is believed to be the first European to discover the continent of North America.

Leif Erikson Day has been celebrated in the U.S. since 1964. Every president makes an annual proclamation on the holiday, and they use it to highlight current events as well. In 2019, President Trump connected Erikson’s bravery to the mission to explore Mars:

Leif Erikson’s undaunted life of exploration began in Iceland — the same location where the Apollo 11 crew trained for its historic journey to the surface of the Moon.  The bold spirit that propelled Erikson and his fellow mariners across an unknown ocean is the same spirit that carried our brave astronauts into space 50 years ago, and it is what continues to fuel our desire to unlock the mysteries of the universe and pursue the exploration of Mars.

The U.S., Canada and Iceland all celebrate Leif Erikson Day.

Erikson is believed to have lived from 970 to 1020, long before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. His father, Erik the Red, is said to have founded the first European settlement in Iceland, according to History. After visiting Norway, where he was born, King Olaf I Tryggvason assigned him to convert Greenland from paganism to Christianity.

There are two legends that go with Leif Erikson. The first is the “Saga of Erik the Red,” which claims he found North America by accident after sailing off-course. The second is “Saga of the Greenlanders,” which claims it was very intentional.

He got a ship and a crew, and they lived in Newfoundland for the winter, enjoying much milder weather. They had many violent interactions with Native Americans, however, which is thought to be part of why they returned to Greenland. However, many other Vikings left Greenland for other parts of North America after hearing of Erikson’s journey.

Leif Erikson Day is celebrated on Oct. 9 because the ship Restauration arrived from Norway at New York Harbor on Oct. 9, 1825. It kicked off a huge wave of Norwegian immigrants arriving in the states.

Leif Erikson Painting of Norwegian explorer Leif Erikson (c. AD 970 – 1020) on board a ship ‘discovering America,’ by Per Krohg (1889 – 1965). Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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