No Foolin'

2 April 2021

April Fool’s Day was yesterday, and with it came a flurry of internet nonsense. But with that done, we can once again look to science topics that are no joke, even though some of them are very strange.

Naming Names

In the spirit of April Fools, a team of scientists decided to test Newton’s law of gravity. Sure, everyone has been saying it’s true for centuries, but a good scientist looks to the evidence. In this case, they tested the gravitational attraction between extremely small masses and found that gravity still works.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has also been assigning official names to certain stars. Most of the star names we know are from Arabic, Latin, or Greek, but the IAU is recognizing names from all over the world, including some of the Wardaman people of Australia, which are some of the oldest human names for stars we still have.

Dark Stars

Black holes were in the news quite a bit. Last year astronomers captured the first direct image of a black hole, and they are now starting to map the magnetic field of the region near the black hole. Scientists have also analyzed data from the IceCube neutrino detector in Antarctica, and have found that active black holes known as quasars produce the most energetic neutrinos we’ve ever detected.

On the more speculative side, a group of astronomers has been searching for evidence of primordial black holes. These hypothetical black holes would have the mass of a planet or less, and if they exist they might sometimes collide with neutron stars, causing them to collapse. They looked for these collision events but didn’t find any.

And what if many black holes aren’t black holes after all? A few groups have been looking for an exotic type of star known as a boson star. These would be nearly as dense as black holes but without the usual event horizon. There’s no evidence for them yet, but it is an interesting idea.

Alien Nation

Back in 2017, our solar system was visited by an object from another star system. Recently a Harvard astronomer claimed the object was an alien spacecraft or probe. It wasn’t, but the real story is still interesting. It turns out the object, known as Oumuamua, was likely a piece of a planet similar to Pluto. So no aliens yet, but if they are out there it would be nice to communicate with them. It’s hard to communicate over interstellar distances, but a research team has how it might be done using the Sun as a gravitational lens.

If Only…

Finally, let’s look at some ideas that are really out there. Back in 1994 Miguel Alcubierre published a paper on how warp drive might work in general relativity. Even Alcubierre has said warp drive is probably impossible, but new research shows it might be less impossible than we thought.

Wormholes have long been proposed as another way to reach the stars. Even if wormholes existed, we figured they wouldn’t be traversable. But now it looks like they might be traversable by objects in a quantum state. Maybe. If certain theories extending general relativity are true.

Finally, there’s been another search for exotic particles known as magnetic monopoles. Unlike regular magnets, these particles would only have a north or south magnetic pole, not both. If they exist, it would solve several problems in cosmology and physics.

Thanks for reading. As always, if you like getting these newsletters, be sure to tell your friends and neighbors. I’m grateful to everyone who supports and subscribes to the site. No fooling, I wish you all the best.