Sifting through a trove of radio telescope data in 2007, Duncan Lorimer, an astrophysicist at West Virginia University, spotted something unusual. Data obtained six years earlier showed a brief, energetic burst, lasting no more than 5 milliseconds. Others had seen the blip and looked past it, but Lorimer and his team calculated that it was an entirely new phenomenon: a signal emanating from somewhere far outside the Milky Way.
The team had no idea what had caused it but they published their results in Science. The mysterious signal became known as a “fast radio burst,” or FRB. In the 13 years since Lorimer’s discovery, dozens of FRBs have been discovered outside of the Milky Way — some repeating and others ephemeral, single chirps. Astrophysicists have been able to pinpoint their home galaxies, but they’ve struggled to identify the cosmic culprit, putting forth all sorts of theories, from exotic physics to alien civilizations.
On Wednesday, a trio of studies in the journal Nature describes the source of the first FRB discovered within the Milky Way, revealing the mechanism behind at least some of the highly energetic radio blasts.
The newly described burst, dubbed FRB 200428, was discovered and located after it pinged radio antennas in the US and Canada on April 28, 2020. A hurried hunt followed, with teams of researchers around the globe focused on studying the FRB across the electromagnetic spectrum. It was quickly determined that FRB 200428 is the most energetic radio pulse ever detected in our home galaxy.
In the suite of new papers, astrophysicists outline their detective work and breakthrough observations from a handful of ground- and space-based telescopes. Linking together concordant observations, researchers pin FRB 200428 on one of the most unusual wonders of the cosmos: a magnetar, the hypermagnetic remains of a dead supergiant star.
It’s the first time astrophysicists have been able to finger a culprit in the intergalactic whodunit — but this is just the beginning. “There really is a lot more to be learned going forward,” says Amanda Weltman, an astrophysicist at the University of Cape Town and author of a Nature news article accompanying the discovery.
“This is just the first exciting step.”
To understand where FRB 200428 begins, you have to understand where a star ends.
Stars many times larger than the sun are known to experience a messy death. After they’ve exhausted all their fuel, physics conspires against them; their immense size places unfathomable pressure on their core. Gravity forces the star to fold in on itself, causing an implosion that releases huge amounts of energy in an event known as a supernova.
The star’s crumpled core, born under extreme pressure, is left behind. Except now it’s very small, only about the size of a city, and around 1 million times more dense than the Earth. This stellar zombie is known as a neutron star.
Some neutron stars have extreme magnetic fields, about 1,000 times stronger than typical neutron stars. They’re a mysterious and intriguing class unto themselves. Astronomers call them “magnetars,” and they’re as curious as FRBs, with only about 30 discovered so far.
One such magnetar in the Milky Way is officially known as SGR 1935+2154, which refers to its position in the sky. To make things easier, let’s nickname it Mag-1. It was first discovered in 2014 and is located around 30,000 light-years from Earth. On April 27, 2020, NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope picked up a spike in X-rays and gamma-rays emanating from Mag-1.
The next day, two huge North American telescopes — the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) and the Survey for Transient Astronomical Radio Emission 2 (STARE2) — picked up an extremely energetic radio burst coming from the same region of space: FRB 200428. The FRB and Mag-1 were in the exact same galactic neighborhood. Or rather, they seemed to be in the same galactic house.
“These observations point to magnetars as a smoking gun of an FRB,” says Lorimer, lead author on the 2007 discovery of the first radio burst. Magnetars had been theorized as potential FRB sources previously, but the data provides direct evidence linking the two cosmic phenomena together.
However, just co-locating the burst with the magnetar doesn’t explain everything.
“Magnetars occasionally produce bursts of bright X-ray emission,” says Adam Deller, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, “but most magnetars have never been seen to emit any radio emission.”
Don’t stop me now
Associating Mag-1 with FRB 200428 is just the beginning of a long-term investigation.
In the cosmic whodunit, astronomers have found a culprit, but they’re not exactly sure of the murder weapon.
Studying the FRB, researchers were able to determine it was highly energetic but paled in comparison to some deep space FRBs previously discovered. “It was almost as luminous as the weakest FRBs we’ve detected,” says Marcus Lower, an astronomy Ph.D. at Swinburne University studying neutron stars. This suggests magnetars may be responsible for some FRBs but not all of them — some seem far too energetic to be produced in the same way FRB 200428 was.
Another paper in Nature on Wednesday sees researchers using China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) to study Mag-1 during one of its X-ray outbursts. The telescope did not pick up any radio emission from the magnetar during its outbursts. That means it’s unlikely such an outburst, alone, is responsible for spewing highly energetic FRBs. “It’s definite that not every magnetar X-ray burst fires off an accompanying radio burst,” says Deller.
Deller also notes that FRB 200428 shows characteristics similar to those seen in repeating FRBs from outside the Milky Way.
This is important because, at present, astronomers have observed two types of FRBs in other galaxies. There are those that flash to life and disappear, and others that appear to be repeating with regular rhythm. FRB 200428 looks like a repeater, but much weaker. Further observations by the CHIME telescope in October detected more radio bursts from the magnetar, though this work hasn’t yet been published.
All in all, there’s still some uncertainty. “We cannot say for certain if magnetars are the sources of all of the FRBs observed to date,” Weltman notes.
Another question: How did Mag-1 generate the FRB? Two different mechanisms have been proposed.
One suggestion is magnetars produce radio waves just as they do X-rays and gamma-rays in their magnetosphere, the huge region of extreme magnetic fields surrounding the star. The other is a little more complex. “The magnetar could live in a cloud of material hanging around from previous outflows,” says Adelle Goodwin, an astrophysicist at Curtin University who was not affiliated with the study. This cloud of material, Goodwin notes, could then be slammed into by an X-ray or gamma-ray outburst, transferring energy into radio waves. Those waves then travel through the cosmos and ping Earth’s detectors as an FRB.
It’s not clear which mechanism resulted in FRB 200428 — or if something more exotic might be happening. Other researchers have suggested FRBs may even be caused by asteroids slamming into a magnetar, for instance. But one thing now seems certain: it’s not alien civilizations trying to contact us. Sorry.
There’s still a great deal of work to be done in unraveling the mystery of fast radio bursts.
For Deller, the hunt continues. Part of his work is focused on where FRBs originate. He says his team still needs to collect more data, but there’s a chance that repeating FRBs may inhabit different types of galaxies from those FRBs which don’t repeat. Weltman notes the search for other signals will also intensify, with astronomers looking for electromagnetic radiation and neutrinos that are generated from any magnetar-produced FRB.
The investigation will, ultimately, change the way we see the universe. Duncan Lorimer notes that if FRBs can be definitively linked to neutron stars, it would provide a way to take a census of those extreme cosmic entities. Current methods can’t identify neutron star types with great specificity — but FRBs could change that. And FRBs are already changing the way we see things. A study published in Nature earlier this year used FRBs to solve a decades-old problem about the universe’s “missing matter.”
Lorimer says many of the predictions his team made after discovering the first FRB in 2007 “have been realized in some way” and he always hoped FRBs could become part of the mainstream. As the mysteries deepen, they’ve surpassed his expectations. They’ve become one of astrophysics’ most perplexing but intriguing phenomena.
“It continues to be a fascinating adventure,” he says.
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Farrell calls for consideration of city bylaw to stop street harassment in Calgary – Calgary Herald
Article content continued
Some other Canadian cities have rules to deal with street harassment. In London, Ont., you can be fined for using “abusive or insulting language” in a public space.
Street harassment takes many forms, from unwanted sexual comments to whistling to flashing or groping, and it’s based on someone’s perceived gender or sexual identity. It’s a point of focus for gender equity advocates, as an example of how control tactics make people feel unsafe in public spaces.
Sagesse executive director Andrea Silverstone said Monday that street harassment can’t be dismissed as one-off comments or isolated incidents.
“It’s a structured pattern of behaviour that occurs in society that makes certain people feel unsafe,” she said. “Whether they’re women or 2SLGBTQ individuals or visible minorities feeling unsafe on the street.”
Jake Stika, executive director of Next Gen Men, said street harassment is a symptom of how boys absorb the message that being a man is about power and dominance, and they start defining their interactions that way.
Street harassment, he explains, is overwhelmingly perpetuated by men, but men are also key to stopping it.
“It’s not a women’s issue. Women are impacted by it … but what we need to do as guys is take this up as our issue,” he said. “We’re the problem, but we’re also the solution.”
Stika’s organization works to redefine manhood and masculinity with youth and community programs as part of working “upstream” to stop gender-based violence and improve men’s health and relationships.
AI Solves 50-Year-Old Biology 'Grand Challenge' Decades Before Experts Predicted – ScienceAlert
A long-standing and incredibly complex scientific problem concerning the structure and behaviour of proteins has been effectively solved by a new artificial intelligence (AI) system, scientists report.
All those incremental advancements were about much more than mastering recreational diversions, however.
In the background, DeepMind’s researchers were seeking to coax their AIs towards solving much more fundamentally important scientific puzzles – such as finding new ways to fight disease by predicting infinitesimal but vitally important aspects of human biology.
Now, with the latest version of their AlphaFold AI engine, they seem to have actually achieved this very ambitious goal – or at least gotten us closer than scientists ever have before.
For about 50 years, researchers have strived to predict how proteins achieve their three-dimensional structure, and it’s not an easy problem to solve.
The astronomical number of potential configurations is so mind-bogglingly huge, in fact, that researchers postulated it would take longer than the age of the Universe to sample all the possible molecular arrangements.
Nonetheless, if we can solve this puzzle – known as the protein-folding problem – it would constitute a giant breakthrough in scientific capabilities, vastly accelerating research endeavours in things like drug discovery and modelling disease, and also leading to new applications far beyond health.
For that reason, despite the scale of the challenge, for decades researchers have been collaborating to make gains in developing solutions to the protein-folding problem.
A rigorous experiment called CASP (Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction) began in the 1990s, challenging scientists to devise systems capable of predicting the esoteric enigmas of protein folding.
Now, in its third decade, the CASP experiment looks to have produced its most promising solution yet – with DeepMind’s AlphaFold delivering predictions of 3D protein structures with unprecedented accuracy.
“We have been stuck on this one problem – how do proteins fold up – for nearly 50 years,” says CASP co-founder John Moult from the University of Maryland.
“To see DeepMind produce a solution for this, having worked personally on this problem for so long and after so many stops and starts wondering if we’d ever get there, is a very special moment.”
In the experiment, DeepMind used a new deep learning architecture for AlphaFold that was able to interpret and compute the ‘spatial graph’ of 3D proteins, predicting the molecular structure underpinning their folded configuration.
The system, which was trained up by analysing a databank of approximately 170,000 protein structures, brought its unique skillset to this year’s CASP challenge, called CASP14, achieving a median score in its predictions of 92.4 GDT (Global Distance Test).
That’s above the ~90 GDT threshold that’s generally considered to be competitive with the same results obtained via experimental methods, and DeepMind says its predictions are only off by about 1.6 angstroms on average (about the width of an atom).
“I nearly fell off my chair when I saw these results,” says genomics researcher Ewan Birney from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
“I know how rigorous CASP is – it basically ensures that computational modelling must perform on the challenging task of ab initio protein folding. It was humbling to see that these models could do that so accurately. There will be many aspects to understand but this is a huge advance for science.”
It’s worth noting that the research has not yet been peer-reviewed, nor published in a scientific journal (although DeepMind’s researchers say that’s on the way).
Even so, experts who are familiar with the field are already recognising and applauding the breakthrough, even if the full report and detailed results are yet to be seen.
“This computational work represents a stunning advance on the protein-folding problem, a 50-year old grand challenge in biology,” says structural biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.
“It has occurred decades before many people in the field would have predicted.”
The full findings are not yet published, but you can see the abstract for the research, “High Accuracy Protein Structure Prediction Using Deep Learning”, here, and find more information on CASP14 here.
A 'Beaver Full Moon' With Lunar Eclipse Happened This Morning—And Folks Took Some Stunning Photos – Good News Network
If you were up in the early hours of this morning, you may have noticed the full moon turning a shade or so darker and redder.
What you were seeing is called a penumbral lunar eclipse. Caused by the moon dipping behind the Earth’s fuzzy penumbra, or outer shadow, this subtle shading effect peaked at 4:32 am ET November 30, when—according to NASA—83% of the moon was in the shadow of our planet.
NASA has also given a list of the names November’s full moon is known by: The Algonquin tribes have long called this the Cold Moon after the long, frozen nights. Others know it as the Frost Moon, while an Old European Name is Oak Moon: perhaps because of ancient Druid traditions that involve harvesting mistletoe from oak trees for the upcoming winter solstice.
In America, the November full moon is perhaps still best known as the Beaver Moon—with Native Americans associating it with a time when the beavers are scrabbling to finish building their dens from mud and sticks and rocks in preparation for winter.
While this was the last penumbral eclipse of the year, don’t worry if you missed the occurrence due to sleep or clouds.
For those who didn’t get to witness the phenomenon in person, from San Francisco to Michigan to the Sydney Opera House, here are some stunning pictures of this year’s last partial lunar eclipse.
P.S. The next full moon will be the Cold Christmas Moon on December 29, 2020.
The full moon captured with the San Francisco skyline view at Alameda
A peaceful scene from Mackinac Island in Michigan
Surreal views from Joshua Tree
The Columbia River Gorge became a moonrise kingdom
Cool blue views were taken by this photographer in Northumberland, England
This photographer in Russia caught an image straight from a folk tale
Clouds added interest and atmosphere to these photos taken in Preston, England
A calming moment was captured on Rhode Island
The moon united photographers everywhere last night. Here’s a view from Sydney.
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