May 28th: Black hole lunchtime

Scientists have determined that the headline-making gamma ray burst that the Swift telescope observed back on March 28th in a distant galaxy was, in fact, a black hole shredding a passing star.

Star going down the cosmic drain (AP Photo / University of Warwick, Mark A. Garlick. Lifted without permission from

Some scientists initially thought the bright flash was a gamma-ray burst from a star collapsing, but flaring from such an event typically lasts only a few hours.

Instead of fading, the cosmic outburst continued to burn bright and emit high-energy radiation that could be observed even today.

Two separate teams pored through data and concluded that an unsuspecting star the size of our sun likely got sucked in by the powerful tug of a giant black hole. Until then, the black hole had been relatively inactive. The findings were published online Thursday in the journal Science.

As the black hole gobbled up the star, it streamed a beam of energy straight at Earth that was recorded by telescopes. The stellar feast occurred in the heart of a galaxy 3.8 billion light years from Earth. A light year is about 6 trillion miles.

This universe is awe-inspiring in its raw power. The power consumption of the average human life is infinitessimally small by comparison. When I see people thinking that the scale of our tiny pocket of this universe — the pocket that contains and sustains life — operates on a scale that comparable to that which produced this universe, I can only boggle. Our lot is so much more subtle than the scope of the rest of the universe that I can’t help but feel it has arisen, as I have suggested a number of times, as like a fractal — a happy accident, with our intricacies being linked only to the intricacies of the rest of this universe by virtue of the consequences of some interesting mathematics.

This happy accident is sometimes hard to explain for me; I often find words fail me when trying to describe the splendour of the staircase we have taken toward our existence. I’m sure I feel it every bit as strongly as someone else might believe that their god created them personally and that humanity is some sort of special creation. Knowing what I know about how this universe operates, and its sheer enormity, and how much of it would kill us given the chance, and how each step in the chain has happened mechanistically, flowing from some very coincidental sets of physical properties of matter, I see humanity as not an end point, but as another step in that staircase. And in the face of events like black holes and gamma ray bursts, all one can do is hope against hope that it will continue and that we will one day colonize other planets so no single event could eliminate mankind. It’s daunting, pushing down cosmic fears like this, but we cannot do otherwise.

May 28th: Black hole lunchtime

One thought on “May 28th: Black hole lunchtime

  1. 1

    ” when trying to describe the splendour of the staircase we have taken toward our existence”

    Oooooo, I like that. I like that imagery. Evocative. Trying to picture a splendid existence staircase…

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