Marching Into Spring

2 March 2021

This month Spring will officially arrive in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s still plenty of time for snow, but hints of warmer weather are starting to show in my area. I’m certainly looking forward to more outdoor activities.

About the X

X-ray astronomy was popular in February. There was a study on Cygnus X-1, which was the first astronomical x-ray source to be discovered back in 1964. We’ve known for a while that Cygnus X-1 is powered by a stellar-mass black hole, but this latest study shows it is a bit more distant and a bit more massive than we’d thought. Another x-ray study looked at a highly magnetic neutron star known as a magnetar. The team studying it observed an x-ray burst from the magnetar just as it emitted a fast radio burst (FRB), which shows that some FRBs are caused by magnetars.

Keeping it Low

In radio astronomy, black holes were a popular topic. The Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR) released its first survey of the sky at the lowest radio frequencies we can observe. The map shows more than 25,000 supermassive black holes. They are points of radio light against a dark background, so they look like stars on the map. A cluster of black holes was also found in the globular cluster NGC 6397. This discovery was rather surprising since it showed that they haven’t merged into a single intermediate-mass black hole.

Don’t Talk to Me About Life

Exoplanets were also in the news, including one study about how some of them can form. Super-Earths are worlds that are larger than Earth, but smaller than gas dwarfs such as Uranus. We have thought they form when a small gas world is stripped of much of its atmosphere, leaving a mostly rocky core. But a new study shows that rocky Super-Earths and small gas dwarfs form differently. This means there is a clear divide between the way terrestrial and gas planets form and evolve. There’s also a great deal of interest in looking for exoplanet life, particularly detecting organic compounds in their atmospheres. But a study of Venus shows that could prove difficult. Recently there was evidence of the biomarker phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere, which would point to life on Venus. Upon closer examination, the phosphine signal isn’t really there, but is rather an artifact of the way radio telescopes work. It just goes to show how difficult exoplanet research can be.

Mysteries of the Cosmos

Cosmology continues to present theoretical challenges, and several teams have been tackling them this past month. One study proposed a way to test quantum gravity, using a super-cold material known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Another looked at whether a type of hypothetical particle known as sterile neutrinos could explain dark matter, and a group of experimentalists have simulated a black hole using water. They observed an effect known as backreaction for the first time.

Quiet Time

In addition to the science posts, I also wrote about a movement pushing back against the loud, ad-driven Internet that so dominates our culture. This Quiet Web movement takes a bit of getting used to, but it is worth seeking out. I give some starter links in the post, and I encourage you to explore. Because they don’t plaster their sites with ads, they are often ignored by certain popular search engines.

I hope you enjoy these posts. If you do, be sure to tell your friends. Word of mouth is the only way the site grows. There’s lots more coming this month, so until next time I wish you all the best.