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When Everything is Telling You Something – Our Wide Sky

When Everything is Telling You Something

August 1, 2018

Last year an excited group of scientists announced the discovery of gravity waves. These had long been predicted and massive instruments were built to detect them, and finally, not long after one of the massive instruments came online, one was found.

Two neutron stars had collided 130 million light years away and sent their messages across the universe. Apart from the few photons and electrons that we collected here on Earth, these messages are still travelling, at the speed of light across the universe.

One of the amazing things about this discovery was the collaboration of all kinds of scientists. The story will be written in a book one day soon, and there is still a lot of science to do on the data, but many astronomers, astrophysicists, engineers and technicians worked to gather the data of the first gravity waves.

As soon as something was detected, messages went out to the networks of astronomers and everyone went to work. The idea was to find the source and observe it in every different wavelength. In the end visual, radio, and xray were observed, and a great deal can be learned from combining these observations. 

This is "multi messenger" science. 

And now there is another announcement of a predicted discovery of a specific phenomena at an incredible scientific instrument. 

Neutrinos are not new, but they are difficult to catch, and the source of the most energetic ones (there are neutrinos created by our Sun) was not confirmed. 

Neutrinos don't interact with anything, not even magnetic fields so they need incredibly sensitive instruments to find them. The IceCube instrument picks up just 100 or so neutrinos every year, identified by the rare collision with an atomic neucleus.

When it picked up one of these in September last year the word went out to the astronomy community. Other telescopes studied the area where the neutrino was coming from and determined that the source was a blazar, a type of very bright galazy, over 4 billion light years away. 

Scientists went on a search through data archives to confirm other neutrinos from this source and when they did they announced the results. 

Another "mulit-messenger" success. 

This kind of science is exciting because it involves collaboration, of scientists in different fields and internationally. It elevates the scope of the science that is done by expensive instruments and justifies expenditure on basic science. 

It also broadens the appeal of discoveries to ordinary humans. If it was just a neutrino, then some of us would be interested, but because it is a neutrino, its source, a mighty galaxy, because it uses space telescopes, land based instruments and records are made of all kind, and because a variety of science, more of us will be interested, we may not understand all of it, but we can understand part of it. Space becomes more accessible to everyone.


The era of multimessenger astrophysics is here. Each messenger — from electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves and now neutrinos — gives us a more complete understanding of the universe and important new insights into the most powerful objects and events in the sky."

France Cordova, NSF Director


The Neutrino Source Discovery

The Gravity Wave Story

This is a long video, but it is a great lecture by one of the scientists who was involved in the LIGO gravity wave discovery. I attended this lecture and think of it often. 

LIGO infographic

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