Massive Measurement – Calculating the Size of Supermassive Black Holes

NGC 1097 observed in optical  light (ESO/R. Gendler)

NGC 1097 observed in optical light
(ESO/R. Gendler)

Astronomers recently measured the mass of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy located approximately 45 million light-years away.

They used a new technique and one of the highest observatories in the world – the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). In the process, they expanded the set of tools needed to understand how black holes influence galaxy formation.

The heart of a galaxy
Supermassive black holes are gargantuan – millions of times the mass of the Sun. Astronomers now believe that there’s a supermassive black hole at the center of every large galaxy. Some studies have found that their mass is correlated to the mass and to the orbital speeds of the galaxies that surround them.

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Magnetosphere Movies – Imaging Plasma Structures in 3D

Artist's impression of tubular plasma structures (CAASTRO/Mats Bjorkland)

Artist’s impression of tubular plasma structures (CAASTRO/Mats Bjorkland)

“First ever” astronomy discoveries can come from new instruments, like the James Webb Space Telescope or the European Extremely Large Telescope (both still under construction).

They can also come from novel uses of existing instruments.

A team of astronomers has recently detected the existence oftubular plasma structures in Earth’s magnetosphere. And, through clever use of a radio telescope, they imaged these tube structures in 3D, verifying a 60-year-old theory.

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Defrosted Digs – Archaeology in a Time of Climate Change

Excavation of the Kuukpak sod house (Max Friesen)

Excavation of the Kuukpak sod house
(Max Friesen)

Climate change doesn’t offer much that’s positive, but a small gift to science may be the archaeological artifacts that are exposed when ice melts. Dwellings, tools, and human remains, undisturbed for thousands of years, are suddenly accessible to study. Ötzi the Iceman was a prime example, found after 5,300 years when hikers stumbled on his body in a glacial gully of the Ötztal Alps. Such finds are valuable glimpses into ancient worlds.

Sites that are discovered because of a warming earth, however, come with a scientific expiration date. Once exposed to the elements, these finds can deteriorate or scatter, pushing archaeologists to work fast to study and preserve them before they’re gone.

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Sounds of the Scythians – Greek Inscriptions Reveal Ancient Names


Scholars can glean information about the ancient Greeks by examining the images and writings on their pottery.  Some vases contain nonsense inscriptions, however: combinations of Greek letters that don’t translate to any known words.  One scholar played a hunch about these gibberish words and, in the process, gave voice to languages that hadn’t been heard for thousands of years.

Nonsense words
The work began with a study of 12 Greek vases in Athens from the period 550 B.C. to 450 B.C. Stanford University Research Scholar Adrienne Mayor and J. Paul Getty Museum Assistant Curator David Saunders translated inscriptions next to scenes of Amazons fighting, hunting, and shooting arrows.  The inscriptions were written in ancient Greek but didn’t form Greek words, so they could only be transcribed by sounding out each letter.

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Better Building Biology


Bacteria are a familiar part of indoor environments – always present, difficult to remove – and a lot of those microbes aren’t friendly (remember Legionnaire’s Disease?).  While cleaning is often ineffective – and can even be counterproductive – there are solutions to keeping buildings healthy.  New research is looking into design methods that cooperate with biology, rather than fighting it. In the process, this work could bring microbe management into mainstream architectural design.

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Diagnosing the Sea – Proteins and Ocean Health

Collecting water samples (Brian Dimento, UCONN)

Collecting water samples (Brian Dimento, UCONN)

Proteomics is the study of cellular proteins and their functions. It’s a relatively new science but a productive one, yielding insights into maladies like tumors, cancers, and renal disease. Proteomic analysis is becoming an essential tool in the study of human health.

Now, a team of scientists has extended proteomics to the study of ocean health.

In a recent paper published in Science, the team described how they identified and measured proteins in the ocean to determine the responses of single-celled organisms to their environment. Proteomics is bringing a new perspective to the understanding of ocean ecosystems.

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