Groundbreaking gravitational wave discovery shows Einstein’s brilliance yet again

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Groundbreaking gravitational wave discovery shows Einstein’s brilliance yet again

"Oh, yes, look! I'm right again."“Oh, yes, look! I’m right again.”

Image: Central Press/Getty Images

Even 100 years after the fact, Albert Einstein is still getting his due. 

On Monday, more than a thousand astronomers and physicists around the world celebrated the announcement of a landmark discovery. For the first time, researchers saw the immediate aftermath of the merger of two neutron stars — leftover stellar remnants packed with more mass than our sun but with the diameter as small as the city of Boston.

Researchers detected both the ripples in space and time sent out by the colliding neutron stars as well as the light signature from the event. This marks the first time a cosmic collision has been seen in both light and gravity. 

It also represents another passing grade for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which he developed in 1915.

On the morning of August 17, the two LIGO detectors in Washington and Louisiana, as well as the Virgo detector in Italy, felt the subtle distortion of the fabric of space and time caused by the ripples — or gravitational waves — sent out by the colliding neutron stars. This collision created heavy elements like gold, platinum, and lead.

“What’s amazing with this discovery is that theoretically all of this that was observed on August 17th was actually predicted. Over a century ago, Einstein predicted that two orbiting objects will emit gravitational waves as they spiral in, and astrophysicists predicted that as two compact objects — especially neutron stars — collide, they should emit gamma-rays in jets,” LIGO scientist Vicky Kalogera said during a press conference.

“And the cascade of light across the whole electromagnetic spectrum was predicted, and the production of heavy elements that might include gold and platinum should be produced,” she added. 

“So it’s amazing to think that in one day, in a few hours and the weeks that followed, all of these predictions were confirmed.”

“So it’s amazing to think that in one day, in a few hours and the weeks that followed, all of these predictions were confirmed.”

Einstein’s theory offers an elegant explanation for these gravitational waves.

Think of our universe as a topsheet laid across a bed. If you put two large objects on that sheet, it would create an indentation.

Our universe is similar. Massive objects like stars or black holes depress parts of the fabric of our universe. When two of these objects — like the two neutron stars — orbit one another, falling in toward each other and eventually merging, it can ripple that fabric, sending those waves out into the universe. 

Artist's illustration of the neutron star collision.

Artist’s illustration of the neutron star collision.

Scientists had previously spotted gravitational waves sent out by black holes, but the August detection marks the first time LIGO or Virgo has observed colliding neutron stars.

At nearly that same time as LIGO and Virgo were riding the colliding neutron stars’ gravitational wave, scientists also caught sight of a gamma-ray burst associated with that collision.

This is very strong evidence that light and gravitational waves move at the same speed, something else that Einstein originally predicted.

Being able to observe cosmic events in light and gravitational waves is a huge deal for researchers. 

While gravitational waves carry with them signatures of the objects that created them, being able to use more traditional observatories to see the event using light — whether it be in the infrared, X-ray, visible, or ultraviolet spectrum — can let scientists gather more information than ever before. 

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A neuroscientist explains how to fix your bad habits and save more money

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Wolf of Wall Street Money Leo Dicaprio

Budgeting apps and spreadsheets may help people get their finances in order, but neuroscientist Moran Cerf says there is a simpler way to save more money: Live life on one financial timeline.

Consider a typical American consumer. She gets paid twice a month, pays her bills once a month, goes grocery shopping maybe four times a month, eats three meals a day, and pays off her college loans over 20 years.

"All those metrics confuse our brain," Cerf, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University, told Business Insider.

Cerf’s solution is for people to experiment with different timescales — days, months, quarters, even years — to eventually find just one that works for most purchases.

One person, for example, might decide he needs to give himself a daily allowance and that’s it. Once he sets aside the money he’ll need for fixed costs, such as bills and loans, he allocates the remainder as a per-diem. Every purchase gets filtered through the lens of "Can I buy this today?" If the answer is consistently yes, he’ll never go over-budget for the month.

Someone else, meanwhile, might find she needs to think on the order of every month, or quarter. Maybe she has a tough time sticking to cooking her own meals and eats out a lot. As long as she comes under-budget for her food costs over that month (or three months), then the system works. The cost of each individual meal is irrelevant.

Cerf acknowledged the method takes some getting used to, but he encouraged people to think like a scientist and experiment with different timescales. 

The method comes from neuroscience research showing decision-making can be exhausting. Each day, adults make tens of thousands of decisions, about 200 of which involve food alone. Cerf has claimed the best way to maximize happiness is to make smarter high-level decisions that eliminate the need for smaller decisions. (It’s for precisely this reason that Cerf always orders the second dish on a restaurant’s list of specials.)

One strategy is to be more intentional with who you spend time with. Cerf’s research has shown two people’s brain activity will become more alike when they’re in each other’s presence. The finding suggests that people can more easily reach their goals by spending more time with people already in that circle.

Since money is so often a point of frustration for people, Cerf realized people needed a way to make fewer money-related decisions, too. 

Setting a standard timeline for spending money falls under the umbrella of eliminating smaller decisions. Instead of debating whether you can afford something on a daily (or maybe even hourly) basis, Cerf’s suggestion is to figure that all out ahead of time and enjoy living with less financial worry.

SEE ALSO: A neuroscientist who studies decision-making reveals the 6 most important choices you can make

Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH: Samsung released the widest computer monitor you can buy — here’s what it’s like

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Colliding Neutron Star Discovery Could Solve This Mystery About Our Expanding Universe

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Image: PK Blanchard/E. Berger/Pan-STARRS/DECam

Today, physicists across the world celebrated as telescopes and observatories on Earth and in space captured a “kilonova.” Two neutron stars collided 130 million light years away, sending gravitational waves, x-rays, gamma-rays, radio waves, and light waves to the Earth. But these events also serve as a new kind of tool—a tool with the potential to answer one of the most fundamental questions in our universe: How quickly is it expanding?

The further out we look, the faster galaxies seem to be traveling away from us. This property comes with a number imprinted on the fabric of the universe: the Hubble Constant. But the problem (as we spoke about earlier this year) is that the Hubble Constant differs depending on how we measure it. Scientists can use these neutron star mergers as “standard sirens” and maybe one day confirm the true value of the Hubble constant.

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Humans don’t know much about the universe, but we do know that most of the gravity holding it…

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“We don’t understand all the details, there are many systematic uncertainties that we can’t really handle,” Imre Bartos, assistant professor at the University of Florida told Gizmodo. “Gravitational waves may be important to that.”

One way scientists measure the Hubble constant is by peering at the most distant light they can see: light from just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, which scientists call the Cosmic Microwave Background. The European Space Agency’s Planck Satellite used this light to measure the constant at around 68 km/(s*Mpc), meaning that for every additional megaparsec into the distance it looks, or three million light years, light sources move 68 km/s faster. But other experiments requiring a combination of lots of galaxy observations imply that the value is 73 km/(s*Mpc). Both measurements are precise enough that either one of them is broken, or the universe is much weirder than scientists previously thought.

Both measurements have their downsides—the first requires strong assumptions and the second introduces many potential sources for error, explained Anže Slosar, a scientist who studies this problem extensively with his group at Brookhaven National Lab. But scientists can use the new neutron star merger results to measure the value of the Hubble constant directly without a sort of ladder of different observations. They pulled data on the distance to the neutron stars based on the “GW170817″ gravitational wave event, and determined the velocity of the host galaxy, called NGC 4993, by analyzing the light.

The value they reported was 70 km/(s*Mpc)… plus or minus ten, according to the research published today in Nature. That means the error bars were so large that the researchers couldn’t determine which value, 68 or 73, was more accurate. That’s okay, though.

“It can’t tell us much, but it can give us a glimpse of the future,” said Slosar. “It works beautifully. Once we detect a number of these events we can pin this down. The era of multi-messenger astronomy beyond just light,” astronomy including gravitational waves, “has finally happened.”

Scientists are currently upgrading the gravitational wave detectors, including both LIGO machines as well as Virgo. But when all of the machines turn back on next year, researchers expect to see as many as one neutron star merger per month, as we reported today.

“For measuring the Hubble constant, what we got from the gravitational waves is not a huge deal—we didn’t change our understanding of how the universe expands,” said Bartos. “But it shows what we’ll be able to do very soon.”

[Nature]

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Scientists discovered new genes that make humans intelligent

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If you aced your SATs, you can thank at least a few of your genes. Scientist analyzed the DNA of 78,308 people. They discovered a link between intelligence and 52 specific genes.

The better individuals did in broad intelligence tests, the more frequently these genes appeared. But researchers aren’t sure what the correlations mean because they don’t know exactly what each gene does

Four of them control cell development. Three others control activities inside neurons.

But it isn’t clear how the others could make you smart. Scientists want to experiment with brain cells to find out.

One method would take cells from people of differing intelligence and have those cells create neuron clusters.

By studying the way the neuron clusters interact, they could determine how their genetics affect neuron development.

But researchers stress genetics alone won’t make you Einstein. The genes only accounted for 5% variation in intelligence scores.

Environmental factors also play a big role. So don’t think you can skip school, just because your parents are rocket scientists.

Join the conversation about this story »

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Space out with planets in Google Maps

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Twenty years ago, the spacecraft Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral on a journey to uncover the secrets of Saturn and its many moons. During its mission, Cassini recorded and sent nearly half a million pictures back to Earth, allowing scientists to reconstruct these distant worlds in unprecedented detail. Now you can visit these places—along with many other planets and moons—in Google Maps right from your computer. For extra fun, try zooming out from the Earth until you’re in space!

Moons 1

Explore the icy plains of Enceladus, where Cassini discovered water beneath the moon’s crust—suggesting signs of life. Peer beneath the thick clouds of Titan to see methane lakes. Inspect the massive crater of Mimas—while it might seem like a sci-fi look-a-like, it is a moon, not a space station.  

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Special thanks goes to astronomical artist Björn Jónsson, who assembled the planetary maps of Europa, Ganymede, Rhea, and Mimas by working with imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency.

The fun doesn’t stop there—we’ve added Pluto, Venus, and several other moons for a total of 12 new worlds for you to explore. Grab your spacesuit and check out the rest of this corner of the galaxy that we call home.

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Don’t Panic, But Wi-Fi’s Main Security Protocol Has Been Broken

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Image: Getty

A major vulnerability has been discovered in the protocol governing basically all modern wi-fi routers. Here’s what we know so far.

If you’ve set up a home wi-fi network, at some point you’ve encountered one or more screens concerning WEP and its successor WPA2. Both are security protocols created by the Wi-Fi Alliance that keep strangers from eavesdropping on what websites your computer is trying to access.

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WEP was deemed insecure in 2003 and replaced, and it looks like WPA2 is also headed for the dustbin of history now that researcher Mathy Vanhoef has revealed a major flaw in the protocol, which he’s calling KRACK—for Key Reinstallation Attacks. This weak link in WPA2 not only allows “man-in-the-middle” eavesdropping attacks, it also opens up wi-fi networks for ransomware and other malicious code injections. According to Vanhoef’s findings, KRACK “can be abused to steal sensitive information such as credit card numbers, passwords, chat messages, emails, photos, and so on.”

Essentially, WPA2 has devices go through a four-way handshake, and KRACK forces part three to be resent, over and over again, while your WiFi access point looks for a response from the device. Though an exceptionally clever attack on a protocol, KRACK appears to require attackers be close enough to a router’s signal to connect to it, like any normal sign-in to a wi-fi network.

Android and Linux users are in an especially bad position, as KRACK is highly effective against devices running those operating systems according to Vanhoef, and some have suggested Android users turn wi-fi capabilities off until the issue is patched. Here’s video of the exploit hitting an Android device.

So what’s the good news, exactly? First, patches for this issue are already rolling out. Companies know how serious this protocol breach is and are doing what they can as fast as they can. According to a statement by the WiFi Alliance “This issue can be resolved through straightforward software updates, and the Wi-Fi industry, including major platform providers, has already started deploying patches to Wi-Fi users.”

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Second, the handshake your computer and a given website go through with WPA2 is just one countermeasure against ne’er-do-wells. So far it seems secure sites—distinguished by having HTTPS before the URL—are, well, still secure.

And, again, it appears that gaining access to a given wi-fi network still requires physical proximity to the router, so KRACK targets can’t be hit from anywhere in the world, unlike hacks that have no proximity requirements.

For the next couple days, avoid public wi-fi, try to stick with HTTPS sites, and remember to install all patches on your devices as they’re made available.

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We’ve reached out to Vanhoef for additional comments and will update if we hear back. In the meantime, his full paper on KRACK is available to read online.

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Observatories Across the World Announce Groundbreaking New Gravitational Wave Discovery

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From LIGO: “Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The narrow beams represent the gamma-ray burst while the rippling spacetime grid indicates the isotropic gravitational waves that characterize the merger. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars are a possible source of the light that was seen at lower energies.” Image: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

Vicky Kalogera, a Northwestern University physicist, took her week of much-needed vacation in Utah this past August. She promised her family she’d stay off of email for a week. It wasn’t a real promise, of course, but she was going to try. She’d arranged the perfect day for August 17. Her husband was going to take the kids hiking in Arches National Park while she’d spend the whole day at the spa. Right as she left her room, she just had to give her email a peep. The deluge brought the news: Telescopes and detectors across the world were making a monumental observation.

“I canceled everything and ended up working nonstop since that moment,” she told Gizmodo.

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Today, physicists and astronomers around the world are announcing a whole new kind of gravitational wave signal at a National Science Foundation press conference in Washington, DC. But it’s not just gravitational waves. That August day, x-ray telescopes, visible light, radio telescopes, and gamma-ray telescopes all spotted a flash, one consistent with a pair of neutron stars swirling together, colliding and coalescing into a black hole. The observation, called a “kilonova,” simultaneously answered questions like “where did the heavy metal in our Universe come from” and “what causes some of the gamma-ray bursts scientists have observed since the 60s.” It also posed new ones.

“We’re going to have a lot more to do moving forward,” said Kalogera.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space telescope started the dominos at 8:41 am EDT, detecting what NASA astrophysicist Julie McEnery called a “perfectly normal short gamma-ray burst,” a quick flash of invisible light from some distant source. Scientists have known about short and long gamma-ray bursts for a long time, surmising that the short ones must come from colliding neutron stars, but weren’t sure. McEnery then received an email with a subject line in all caps—the bursts had a friend. Two seconds earlier, one of the two Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatories (LIGO), the one in Washington State had set off an alert from receiving a gravitational wave signal (folks received the alert after the Fermi announcement). Analysis later revealed that the other LIGO detector in Louisiana also heard the signal but glitched and didn’t report it.

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LIGO’s detectors consist of two L-shaped arms, each several kilometers long. They split laser light into two beams, send them down the arms into mirrors, and merge them back onto a detector. A gravitational wave, a tiny ripple in the shape of spacetime itself, makes the two light beams move in and out of phase with one another as it passes, causing the beams to cancel out and then amplify repeatedly in a wave-like pattern. You may remember back in 2016, the two LIGO detectors reported a waveform that sounded like water dripping from a faucet, the result of colliding black holes. This time, they reported a two-minute-long increase in frequency that took two minutes to finally stop.

Image: LIGO

This wave would be perfectly explained by a collision 130 million light years away between two neutron stars, dead stars so dense that a spoonful would weigh something like the combined weight of all of the humans on Earth. Each star probably had a mass between one and two times that of the Sun, resulting in a black hole a little less than three times the mass of the Sun. They named the event GW170817. The collision would have sent a bright beam of radiation outward in an explosion, called a kilonova, and gravitational waves towards the Earth. The third gravitational wave detector currently sensitive to astronomical sources, Virgo in Italy, did not hear the waves since they were in the detector’s blind spot. This helped the researchers better determine the stars’ location in the sky.

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“It’s the equivalent of what happens when we drive and use a rearview mirror to see cars behind us,” said Kalogera. Knowing there’s a car, but not seeing it in your rearview, means it must be in your blind spot.

Immediately, astronomers brought in other telescopes like the Dark Energy Camera in Chile to locate the flash’s source galaxy—this wide-angle camera could image lots of the sky at the same time. They also brought others like the Very Large Telescope in Chile, the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Hubble to answer more specific questions. The color spectrum from the optical light observations, for example, revealed a direct fingerprint that the two stars left behind an enormous cloud of elements like gold, platinum, and uranium, whose origins were previously unconfirmed, Harvard astronomer Edo Berger told Gizmodo. The radio waves and x-rays let scientists know that the gamma-ray burst was joined by a high-energy jet of particles.

“We saw everything from radio waves to gamma-rays—that was surprising and astounding,” said Berger. “Every part of the spectrum tells us something different about the merger. We’re getting this complete picture of everything going on from the moment the neutron stars smashed into each other.”

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The source flashing and disappearing between the yellow lines (Image: P.S. Cowperthwaite/E. Berger/DECam/CTIO)

But questions remain. “What we thought we knew about short gamma-ray bursts might not be the full story,” McEnerey told Gizmodo. The gamma-rays weren’t as strong as they should have been, for example—but other measurements confirmed that the neutron stars were surprisingly close. Maybe we just weren’t in the jet’s line of fire. This would be bolstered by the fact that neutrino detectors didn’t spot any of their tiny, charge-less particles. Physicists also wondered why there haven’t been any black holes between three and five solar masses, or what happened after the neutron stars collided—did they immediately collapse into a black hole, or stick around as a larger neutron star for a little while?

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This detection still brought hints. “After the merger in optical, infrared and ultraviolet, we said, ‘this is more than we’d expected had the system collapsed into a black hole right away,’” Imre Bartos, assistant professor at the University of Florida told Gizmodo. “It’s possible that there was extra time the system took to collapse.”

The announcement was clouded in secrecy. Rumors swirled, and many thought another press conference held several weeks ago would hold today’s news (instead it just announced another black hole merger from August 14). Nature News correctly guessed the source in an article from August after a scientist leaked the information on Twitter. The papers, published in several journals including Nature, were not distributed to journalists prior to today’s press conference like they usually are, making it difficult to accurately report on the story. Promises to distribute any materials at all prior to the announcement were delayed.

Image: LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern

All in all, the discovery marks an important milestone in gravitational wave astronomy and proof that LIGO and Virgo do more than spot colliding black holes. At present, the detectors are all receiving sensitivity upgrades. When they come back online, they may see other sources like some supernovae or maybe even a chorus of background gravitational waves from the most distant stellar collisions. And physicists expect to see these types of neutron star events as often as once a month. “That’s both extremely exciting and really terrifying because of the amount of effort and energy to study just one of these events has occupied us for two months,” said Berger.

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Today, though, scientists are mainly celebrating. And Kalogera hopes to take that hard-earned vacation. “I intend to take more than a day off.”

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Astronomers just measured a whole lot more than gravitational waves

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A couple of weeks ago, the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and Virgo teams announced the detection of another set of gravitational waves — the fourth since LIGO’s first detection in September of 2015. The observations of these ripples in spacetime are extraordinary in and of themselves, no matter how many times we record them. However, while the first three sets of gravitational waves recorded were by the two LIGO observatories, the fourth was also detected by a newly established third — Virgo — located in Italy. And having three detectors allows researchers to triangulate the source of those waves with extraordinary precision.

The importance of that precision was made clear today when the LIGO and Virgo teams announced a fifth gravitational wave detection, the source of which was able to be quickly located. This allowed dozens of other observatories to hone in on it and collect additional data including visual, X-ray, infrared, ultraviolet and radio wave recordings — meaning researchers all around the world just collected, and are continuing to collect, a massive trove of information that has given us the most detailed look at a gravitational wave-generating event ever.

The previously recorded gravitational waves were caused by black holes merging many millions of light-years away. However, these new waves, recorded on August 17th, originated from the merging of two neutron stars — very small but incredibly massive stars. They’re what’s left over after a massive star collapses and all of the protons and electrons get packed tightly together. They’re around the size of a city, but 1.3 to 2.5 times the mass of our Sun. Just a teaspoon of a neutron star’s matter can weigh more than one billion tons. The gravitational wave recordings indicated that this latest event was much closer than previous ones, around 130 million light-years from Earth.

Around the same time that LIGO and Virgo picked up the signal, a bright flash of gamma rays was detected by NASA’s Fermi space telescope, and combined, those data allowed researchers to pinpoint which direction the waves were coming from. Armed with that knowledge, thousands of researchers around the world, manning more than 70 ground- and space-based observatories, were mobilized and all of them began collecting additional data from the neutron star merger. "This event has the most precise sky localization of all detected gravitational waves so far," Jo van den Brand, spokesperson for the Virgo collaboration, said in a statement. "This record precision enabled astronomers to perform follow-up observations that led to a plethora of breathtaking results."

This strategy, called multi-messenger astronomy, has been a goal of LIGO researchers from the very beginning because observing these sorts of events with gravitational waves and light at nearly the same time can provide far more detail than either can alone. "This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy," David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said in a statement. "It’s the first time that we’ve observed a cataclysmic astrophysical event in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves — our cosmic messengers. Gravitational-wave astronomy offers new opportunities to understand the properties of neutron stars in ways that just can’t be achieved with electromagnetic astronomy alone."

And the collection of data was truly a team effort. Once astronomers around the world were notified of the detection, the hunt began for the source. David Cook, a postdoc at Caltech, quickly made a list of 50 possible galaxies that could be hosting the neutron star merger. A few hours later the Swope Telescope located in Chile detected an optical signal that seemed to match the gravitational wave and gamma ray signals in a galaxy called NGC 4993. Shortly after that, the Gemini South telescope — also in Chile — detected an infrared signal from the same area.

So what have we learned from this event so far? Quite a lot actually, and more information is still being collected. The head of Caltech’s astrophysical data analysis group for LIGO, Alan Weinstein, said, "The detection of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star merger is something that we have spent decades preparing for. On that morning, all of our dreams came true."

One major finding was that neutron stars give off gamma ray bursts when they merge, which had only been theorized before. But Fermi’s initial recording, along with the confirmation from the European Space Agency’s INTEGRAL gamma ray observatory, have finally provided researchers with solid evidence.

Secondly, a big question about where the heavy elements of our universe come from may have been answered. The lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, are thought to have been formed during the Big Bang while heavier elements from lithium up to iron are generated by stars. But where most of the other elements come from has been a bit of an unknown. That is, until now. Infrared observations from the likes of the Gemini Observatory, the European Very Large Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope showed that the neutron star merger produced those heavier elements. "For the very first time, we see unequivocal evidence of a cosmic mine that is forging about 10,000 earth-masses of heavy elements, such as gold, platinum and neodymium," said Mansi Kasliwal, leader of the Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen project, a collaboration made up of dozens of astronomers and 18 telescopes on six continents.

There were a handful of surprises, though. The gamma ray signals that spewed out of the merger were surprisingly weak. And, even a week after the gravitational wave detection, researchers still hadn’t observed any X-rays or radio waves. X-rays were eventually detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory nine days after the merger. It took 16 days for the Very Large Array in New Mexico to pick up any radio waves. These delayed waves and wimpy gamma ray signals spurred Kasliwal and her colleagues to design an explanatory model wherein a pressurized cocoon-like structure forms during the merger that traps the waves.

While the radio waves may be the slowest to arrive, they stick around much longer than the others and bring with them a ton of information, which could include how much energy was in the explosion, how much mass was spewed out and whether the merger might have an impact on star formation. "The radio emission arrives last but persists much longer than emissions at other wavebands," said Caltech astronomer Gregg Hallinan. "Radio comes late, and it comes slow, but it brings amazing information about the cosmic cataclysm."

This event is the most intensively studied transient astronomical occurrence in history and it’s hard to overstate just how important it is. It has not only provided scientists with far more data than they’ve ever had on such an event, it demonstrated just how wildly effective multi-messenger astronomy is. With a global web of observatories all focused on the same target, we stand to make substantial advances in our understanding of how the universe formed and continues to evolve. "The story that is unfolding for this event is more complete than for any previous event in astronomical history," said Hallinan in a statement. "This complete story — both hearing and seeing the violent universe — is the gift of multi-messenger astronomy," he continued. Laura Cadonati, a physics professor at Georgia Tech and the spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration said, "This detection has genuinely opened the doors to a new way of doing astrophysics. I expect it will be remembered as one of the most studied astrophysical events in history."

The data described today in a handful of papers published in Science and Physical Review Letters are just the beginning. Observatories around the world will be releasing more findings in the weeks and months to come and many will continue to observe the effects of the neutron star merger for months, even years. And this is just one event. "We even more eagerly anticipate the detection of gravitational waves from different kinds of known, extremely energetic astrophysical objects, like rapidly spinning pulsars, supernovae and neutron star quakes," said Weinstein, "and, especially, from heretofore unknown astrophysical objects." It is truly an astoundingly exciting time.

Images: LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern (Stellar Masses); UC Santa Cruz and Carnegie Observatories/Ryan Foley (Swope Telescope Optical Image); LIGO-Virgo (Participating Observatories)

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Astronomers just proved the incredible origin of nearly all gold, platinum, and silver in the universe

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netron star collision merger gravitational wave illustration 20171012

  • For the first time ever, astronomers have detected a neutron star collision.
  • Gravitational waves picked up by the LIGO and Virgo detectors pinpointed the source to a galaxy 130 million light-years away.
  • The collision produced a radioactive "kilonova" that forged hundreds of Earths’ worth of platinum, gold, silver, and other heavy elements.

Platinum and gold are among the most precious substances on Earth, each fetching roughly $1,000 per ounce.

However, their allure may grow stronger — and weirder — thanks to a groundbreaking new finding about their violent, radioactive, cosmic origins.

On Monday, scientists who won a Nobel Prize for their discovery of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space, announced the first-ever detection of the collision of two neutron stars.

The team alerted astronomers all over the world to the event, helping them point telescopes directly at the crash scene, and recorded unprecedented observations of the aftermath in visible light, radio waves, X-rays, and gamma rays.

swope telescope gravitational waves neutron star collisionThese images revealed a radioactive soup giving birth to unfathomable amounts of platinum, gold, and silver — not to mention the iodine in our bodies, uranium in nuclear weapons, and bismuth in Pepto-Bismol — while blasting those materials deep into space.

The two neutron stars likely merged to form a black hole, though the tiny bit of neutron star that escaped could get recycled into planets like Earth, where creatures may eventually dig up the metals.

"The calculations we did suggest most of the matter that came out of this event was in a swirling disk around a black hole. Half of that matter fell in, and half of it got ejected," Brian Metzger, an astrophysicist at Columbia University one of roughly 4,000 researchers involved in the discovery, told Business Insider. "The matter that ended up in your wedding band could have just as well fallen in."

Astronomers detected the merger from 130 million light-years away in the galaxy NGC 4993 on morning of August 17.

"This is going to have a bigger impact on science and human understanding, in many ways, than the first discovery of gravitational waves," Duncan Brown, an astronomer at Syracuse University and a member of the research collaboration, told Business Insider. "We’re going to be puzzling over the observations we’ve made with gravitational waves and with light for years to come."

When two city-size atoms collide

Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century ago, but he didn’t believe they’d ever be detected due to their extraordinarily weak energies.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US defied Einstein in November 2015, when it "heard" the elusive phenomenon for the first time and proved its existence. Europe’s new Virgo gravitational wave detector has also come online since then and worked with LIGO to make this fifth detection possible.

Yet unlike the four previous events, the latest one wasn’t created by colliding black holes. Its signal was weaker, closer to Earth by hundreds of millions of light-years, and lasted 100 seconds as opposed to 1 second.

Brown and others think the new gravitational wave signal, dubbed "GW170817", is revolutionary because it provides clues about how the heaviest elements found on Earth formed in space. Iron and lighter elements, for example, are thought to form in giant stars that explode as supernovas — blasts that are brighter than billions of suns.

"Some of the heavy elements are made in supernova explosions, but it turns out this can’t explain the abundances," Brown said. "They didn’t appear to be coming from supernova explosions, and so people have wondered for a long time where they came from."

Researchers eventually hypothesized that pairs of colliding neutron stars could do the trick.

Most stars in the universe form in pairs, and the same is true of massive stars. Unlike the sun, however, big stars become supernovas when they die. And at that point, their own gravity crushes them into one of two forms: a black hole (if they’re heavier than about three suns) or a neutron star (if they’re between about 1.5 and three suns’ worth of mass).

Neutron star compared to Chicago skyline northwestern university

The latter is essentially one big atomic nucleus, since its gravity is powerful enough to squash all the particles together into an orb roughly the width of a metropolitan city — just one teaspoon weighs billions of tons.

"You smash these two things together at one-third the speed of light, and that’s how you make gold," Brown said. "Turns out it’s not the Philosopher’s Stone, it’s not the things alchemists were looking at thousands of years ago."

100 Earths of gold forged in 1 second

Metzger was among the first to seriously explore how this could happen.

He said a neutron star merger is a "messy process" that spills some of the stars’ guts into space, like "squeezing a tube of toothpaste" — and accelerates those particles to a fraction of the speed of light while heating them to 10 million degrees.

merging neutron stars illustration gold platinum jets torus fermilab"If you just ejected all of this stuff and it did nothing, it’d get extremely cold and we’d never be able to see it," Metzger said, though that’s not what happened on August 17, of course.

"The heaviest elements, you can’t create them through nuclear fusion in a star. The way you form them is through neutron-capture," Metzger said.

The process, known appropriately as the rapid process (or r-process), goes like this: As the two neutron stars spiral toward each other — each about 1.4 times the mass of the sun — they shed high-energy neutrons. Those neutrons smash into each other while moving outward, building giant atomic cores. But huge super-atoms are unstable, so they almost immediately break apart and decay into smaller atoms.

The same thing happens in nuclear reactors, which bombard uranium with neutrons to form the heavier element plutonium. A neutron star merger performs the r-process on a cosmic scale, bleeding off enough radioactive energy from decaying super-atoms to be visible from millions of light-years away.

In 2010, Metzger coined this flash of radioactive light a "kilonova" because calculations showed it’d be dimmer than a supernova yet about 1,000 times brighter than a nova (a flash that occurs when a star is born).

Scientists have seen what they suspected were kilonovas before, but couldn’t confirm the masses of the two objects as happened with GW170817.

neutron star merger astronomica observations blue red galaxy ngc 4993 northwestern

Their observations of the recent kilonova revealed a striking tally of materials created: 50 Earth masses’ worth of silver, 100 Earth masses of gold, and 500 Earth masses of platinum.

The gold alone is worth about 100 octillion dollars at today’s market price, according to Metzger, or $100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 written out (1 followed by 29 zeroes).

"You’d need Captain Kirk to go and get it for you, though, so we’re not in any danger of disrupting the market right now," Brown said.

A new era of astronomy is beginning

In the worldwide call to arms on August 17, and in the days and months that followed, more than a third of all astronomers on the planet stepped up to help analyze and make sense of the event.

Vicky Kalogera, a member of the LIGO collaboration and an astrophysicist at Northwestern University, said she was one of nine people who wrote the main research study about the discovery. The writing process took the team two weeks of 12- to 16-hour international conference calls with hundreds of people from 910 institutions. The printed list of 4,000-or-so authors runs 28 pages long.

"It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life," Kalogera told Business Insider, and added that more discoveries are on the way.

"These are rare events. For a galaxy like the one we’re observing, it’s somewhere between 30 and 470 neutron star mergers per million years," Kalogera said. "But LIGO is not sensitive only to this particular galaxy. We should see a few per year, because we’re listening to millions of galaxies."

gravitational waves ligo

Brown said LIGO entered a planned year-long upgrade shortly after the experiment detected GW170817. (LIGO was last booted up in November 2016 and ran through August 2017.)

After the new work is finished in 2018, he said, LIGO should have a 50% boost in range — allowing it to gaze another 500 million light-years deeper into space and time. And in the early 2020s, a Japanese detector called KAGRA and perhaps an Indian detector will join forces to listen to even more of the universe.

Researchers hope these improvements will reveal the secrets of a nearby supernova — perhaps Betelgeuse, which could explode at any moment.

"In some sense, this is the next big undiscovered country for gravitational waves," Brown said. "But we’re only at the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy, and we’ve been rewarded with these incredible discoveries."

SEE ALSO: Scientists have cracked one of Einstein’s greatest mysteries — now a bizarre new form of astronomy is emerging

DON’T MISS: Physicists are listening for these 7 mysterious phenomena in space using gravitational waves

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NOW WATCH: Scientists won the Nobel Prize for detecting gravitational waves — here’s why that matters

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WD is developing 40TB hard drives powered by microwaves

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Western Digital (WD) may have lost a bid to buy Toshiba’s flash memory technology, but is still hard at work on its bread-and-butter hard drives. The company has unveiled a breakthrough called microwave-assisted magnetic recording (MAMR) that will allow ever-higher disk capacities, up to 40TB by the year 2025. "Commercialization of MAMR technology will pave the way to higher recording densities and lower cost per terabyte hard disk drives," said VP of research John Rydning in a statement.

If you’re wondering what microwaves have to do with hard drives, WD has a developed a new type of drive head called a "spin torque oscillator" that generates a microwave field. That allows data to be written to magnetic media at a lower magnetic field than with conventional disks, making it possible to pack more bits into the same space.

"As a result, Western Digital’s MAMR technology is now ready for prime time, and provides a more cost-effective, more reliable solution," the company said in a technical brief, adding that "MAMR also has the capability to extend areal density gains up to 4 Terabits per square inch." As with its current enterprise drives, WD’s MAMR drives will use helium instead of air to reduce internal turbulence.

So how "ready for prime time" is it? Western Digital says MAMR-based drives for data centers will appear in the market starting in 2019, and it will produce 40TB 3.5-inch disks by 2025, with "continued expansion beyond that timeframe." WD didn’t say what capacity early MAMR drives would pack, but it recently released its first 14TB drive via its HGST (formerly Hitachi) subsidiary, so we’d expect the MAMR variants to go beyond that.

Mechanical hard disk don’t have nearly the speed or reliability of SSDs, but the cost per gigabyte is multiple times lower. That’s crucial for data centers and cloud storage firms, especially since data-hungry AI software is becoming more and more pervasive. Don’t expect to see MAMR drives in your local media backup (NAS) drives right away, but it should trickle down fairly soon, giving you enough storage for future 8K HDR videos.

Source: Western Digital

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