Single Atom X-rayed For First Time in Breakthrough That Will ‘Transform the World’
Many laymen will not be aware that science has never been able to X-ray a single atom.
The best that current state-of-the-art synchrotron scanners can manage is to X-ray an attogram—about 10,000 atoms—but the signal produced by a single atom is so weak that conventional detectors cannot be used. Until now.
This landmark feat was achieved thanks to a purpose-built synchrotron instrument at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois using a technique known as SX-STM (synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy).
The researchers behind the breakthrough say it paves the way for finding cures for major life-threatening diseases, the development of superfast quantum computers, and other advancements in materials and eco-science.
Atoms are the particles that build molecules, and the limit to which any substance can be broken down chemically. There are as many in a golf ball as golf balls would fit into Earth.
SX-STM can now measure them to an infinitesimal degree. The feat has been described as the ‘holy grail’ of physics, and a long-standing dream of Professor Saw Wai Hla of Ohio State University, the lead author on the paper explaining the discovery.
“Atoms can be routinely imaged with scanning probe microscopes—but without X-rays one cannot tell what they are made of,” explained Dr. Hla. “We can now detect exactly the type of a particular atom, one atom-at-a-time, and can simultaneously measure its chemical state. This discovery will transform the world.”
Since its discovery by Roentgen in 1895, X-rays have been used in dozens of applications and fields, from medical examinations to security screenings in airports.
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NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is equipped with an X-ray device to examine the composition of the rocks.
An important usage of X-rays in science is to identify the type of materials in a sample. Over the years, the quantity of materials in a sample required for X-ray detection has been greatly reduced thanks to the development of synchrotron X-rays.
SX-STM collects excited electrons, particles on the outside of an atom that move around the protons and neutrons inside, and the spectrum thus produced is like a fingerprint that enables the precise detection of what the atom is.
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“The technique used, and concept proven in this study broke new ground in X-ray science and nanoscale studies,” said first author Tolulope Michael Ajayi, a PhD student at Ohio.
“More so, using X-rays to detect and characterize individual atoms could revolutionize research and give birth to new technologies in areas such as quantum information and the detection of trace elements in environmental and medical research, to name a few.”
“This achievement also opens the road for advanced materials science instrumentation.”
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Astronomers Discover Hundreds of Mysterious Filaments Pointing Towards Our Milky Way’s Massive Black Hole
Astronomers have found hundreds of mysterious filaments pointing towards the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, which could uncover fresh secrets about the dark abyss at the centre of our galaxy.
The strange horizontal strands are 25,000 light years from Earth and have been likened to spokes spreading out on a wheel.
“It was a surprise to suddenly find a new population of structures that seem to be pointing in the direction of the black hole,” said Professor Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, of Northwestern University.
“I was actually stunned when I saw these. We had to do a lot of work to establish that we weren’t fooling ourselves. And we found that these filaments are not random but appear to be tied to the outflow of our black hole.
“By studying them, we could learn more about the black hole’s spin and accretion disk orientation. It is satisfying when one finds order in a middle of a chaotic field of the nucleus of our galaxy.”
Known as Sagittarius A*, the black hole is a staggering four million times the mass of our Sun.
Positioned radially, the filaments measure less than 10 light years in length and look like the dots and dashes of Morse code, punctuating only one side of Sagittarius A*.
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The new discoveries are being made possible by enhanced technology, particularly from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (SARAO) MeerKAT telescope.
To uncover the filaments, estimated to be about six million years old, the researchers used a technique to remove the background and smooth the noise from images to isolate them from surrounding structures.
“The new MeerKAT observations have been a game changer,” said Prof. Yusef-Zadeh, lead author of the paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. “The advancement of technology and dedicated observing time have given us new information. It is really a technical achievement from radio astronomers.”
He believes the filaments, pointing radially toward the black hole, appear to be tied to activities in the galactic center.
They appear to emit thermal radiation, accelerating material in a molecular cloud. There are several hundred vertical compared to just a few hundred horizontal.
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The new discovery is filled with unknowns and work to unravel its mysteries has just begun. For now, he can only consider a plausible explanation about the new population’s mechanisms and origins.
“We think they must have originated with some kind of outflow from an activity that happened a few million years ago.
“It seems to be the result of an interaction of that outflowing material with objects near it. Our work is never complete. We always need to make new observations and continually challenge our ideas and tighten up our analysis.”
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Black holes are formed when a dying star collapses inward under the pressure of its own weight. The pull of gravity is so strong that even light can’t escape. This is what makes them invisible. This leads to a supernova, a star’s extremely powerful explosion.
Supermassive black holes can be billions the size of our sun and astronomers believe they can be found at the centre of all large galaxies.
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EarthSky | Will Betelgeuse explode in tens of years?
Betelgeuse due to explode soon?
Betelgeuse is the nearest red supergiant star to Earth. Distance estimates vary, but it’s probably within 1,000 light-years of Earth … a hop and a skip in galactic terms. Someday, Betelgeuse will explode as a supernova. When it does, it might become as bright as a full moon. It might even be visible in broad daylight! But when will Betelgeuse explode? A decade ago, this question was interesting but academic. The answer was: Maybe today. Maybe a thousand years from now. Few imagined it would be today. But now there’s been a noticeable uptick in the brightening and dimming of Betelgeuse. And a new paper – published this week (June 1, 2023) – suggests not thousands of years but “tens of years” as Betelgeuse’s explosion timescale.
The paper focuses on the concept of stellar nucleosynthesis, the process that enables stars to shine. Inside stars, simple atoms fuse to make more complex atoms, with energy as a by-product. It’s when a star’s nuclear fuel runs out, that a supernova occurs. Arxiv.org, an open-access repository, published the new study on June 1. It’s called The evolutionary stage of Betelgeuse inferred from its pulsation periods. The scientists said:
We conclude that Betelgeuse is … a good candidate for the next galactic supernova.
The first author is Hideyuki Saio from the Astronomical Institute, Graduate School of Science, at Tohoku University in Japan. The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomy Society has accepted the paper for publication.
It’s got people talking
Let’s be clear. The history of observations of supernovae within our own Milky Way is sketchy. But we’d surely be lucky to see any galactic supernova, much more one as nearby as Betelgeuse, in our lifetimes.
And Betelgeuse exploding in just tens of years? That’s an amazing thought, and has people talking!
But is it realistic?
Tens of years?!
What follows are a couple of tweets that have set off a new round of chatter on Twitter. The first – from Friday, June 2 – points to the “tens of years” scenario.
Yikes – serious scientific evidence that Betelgeuse might explode within “tens” of years.https://t.co/bgRqK9l97u
— Dr Jan Eldridge (@astro_jje) June 2, 2023
An almost 50% brightness increase
A second notable tweet – from @Betelbot on Twitter, which provides daily status reports on the star – is from May 18, 2023. It points to a recent almost 50% brightness increase for the star! Note that Betelgeuse is behind the sun in summer. So, until it emerges before dawn in late summer, we won’t know what it’s doing.
Now at 142% of my usual brightness! #Betelgeuse pic.twitter.com/S7TuFTcjdj
— Betelgeuse Status (@betelbot) May 18, 2023
The background buzz on Betelgeuse
Stars shine because they undergo thermonuclear fusion reactions in their interiors. Simply put, they fuse simple elements (like hydrogen) to create more complex elements (like helium), with energy as the by-product. As massive stars (eight or more solar masses) age, they run out of the simplest fuels, but progressively burn more complex fuels until ultimately their cores are made of iron … and then nuclear burning ceases. At that point, with no more fusion taking place, the high temperatures in a star’s interior drop. And that means the high pressures in the star’s interior drop too. The star begins to collapse on itself. It collapses … then rebounds in a terrific explosion, a supernova.
So, massive stars like Betelgeuse explode as Type II supernovae – collapsing rapidly and exploding violently – after they exhaust their fuel supply.
And so, when a star explodes depends on what’s going on inside the star, on how much fuel it has left, and on how close it is to collapse.
But what’s going on inside Betelgeuse?
The new online study said:
We conclude that Betelgeuse is in the late stage of core carbon burning …
And the carbon burning phase for a massive star like Betelgeuse lasts around 1,000 years. If we are “near the end” of that stage, then Betelgeuse has neared the end of its lifetime and may be about to explode, perhaps even in “tens of years.”
But are there other possibilities? Of course there are.
UniverseToday published a great story on Betelgeuse on Friday, June 2, 2023, that explains some of the science involved with drawing any conclusion about whether Betelgeuse will explode soon. The author pointed out that:
… What hasn’t attracted as much attention is the following part of the paper.
‘In fact, it is not possible to determine the exact evolutionary stage, because surface conditions hardly change in the late stage close to the carbon exhaustion and beyond,’ the researchers write. Astronomers can only see the surface, but it’s what’s happening deep inside the star that tells the tale.
The authors of the paper are really saying that according to observations, data, and modelling, Betelgeuse could explode sooner than thought. But – and this is critical – they don’t know what stage of core carbon-burning the star’s in. Carbon burning could go on for a long time, according to some of the models that fit the data.
So, basically, we’re back to square one. Betelgeuse might explode tomorrow. It might explode in “tens of years.” Or it might explode in a thousand years.
But why did Betelgeuse dim in 2019?
In late 2019, Betelgeuse sparked excitement around the world when it began dimming noticeably. Astronomers now refer to this event as the Great Dimming of Betelgeuse. As it was happening, many believed (and hoped!) the big event – the explosion of this relatively nearby star – was close at hand.
Of course – although Betelgeuse since regained brightness, then dimmed again, now brightened again, and so on – it has not exploded yet.
So why did it dim?
Analyzing data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and several other observatories, astronomers concluded that the bright red supergiant star Betelgeuse quite literally blew its top in 2019. Betelgeuse lost a substantial part of its visible surface and produced a gigantic Surface Mass Ejection (SME). This is something never before seen in a normal star’s behavior.
Our sun routinely blows off parts of its tenuous outer atmosphere, the corona, in an event known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). But the Betelgeuse SME blasted off 400 billion times as much mass as a typical CME!
Read more: Betelgeuse is recovering from blowing its top
So, the Great Dimming of Betelgeuse in 2019 was apparently caused by a cloud of hot gas, expelled by the star, that temporarily blocked some of the star’s light.
Clearly, some game is afoot at Betelgeuse!
Will its supernova destroy Earth?
Whenever Betelgeuse does blow up, our planet Earth is too far away for this explosion to harm, much less destroy, life on Earth. Studies indicate we’d have to be within 160 light-years of a supernova for it to harm us. And Betelgeuse is perhaps four times this distance.
Instead, anyone alive on Earth when Betelgeuse does finally explode will see an amazingly beautiful sight in the night sky – a very, very, very bright star.
And professional astronomers will be happy to have an exploded Betelgeuse so close. They’ll be able to study the star post-supernova.
Meanwhile, amateur astronomers and casual stargazers will enjoy the explosion, too. But the many who enjoy seeing Betelgeuse as Orion’s bright red star will dearly miss it when it’s gone!
Betelgeuse in the night sky
At mid-northern latitudes, around the first of every year, Betelgeuse rises around sunset. The star is prominent on January and February evenings.
By the beginning of March, this star is due south in early evening. By mid-May, it is briefly visible in the west after sunset. Betelgeuse is traveling behind the sun in early summer, but it returns to the east before dawn by about mid- to late July. Certainly, by early August, you can see Betelgeuse in Orion in the east before sunrise, where the constellation is known as the ghost of the summer dawn.
The star Betelgeuse has a distinctive muted orange-red color. It’s ideal for convincing non-believers that stars do, in fact, come in colors.
Stars designated as Alpha are typically brightest in their constellations. But Betelgeuse is Alpha Orionis, despite the fact that it’s fainter than Orion’s other bright star, Rigel.
Betelgeuse is the 10th-brightest star in the sky overall, and it’s the 7th-brightest star visible from most of the U.S., Canada, Europe and the majority of the Northern Hemisphere.
Pop culture, history and mythology
Remember the movie Beetlejuice? This star’s name is similar to that.
The proper names of many bright stars are Arabic in origin. This fact reflects the dominance of Arabic astronomers and astrologers during Europe’s Dark Ages. The name Betelgeuse is derived from an Arabic phrase that is usually translated as The Armpit of the Giant. Of course, the Giant refers to Orion, but – rather than an armpit – some authors see Betelgeuse as representing a hand or sometimes a shoulder. While it is not entirely clear what the name means, Betelgeuse marks the right shoulder of Orion in many old star maps.
In the ancient myths, Orion is most often associated with a giant, a warrior, a hunter, a god or some other anthropomorphic or animal figure, so it is not surprising that most depictions of Betelgeuse have an anatomical connection. The Sanskrit name signified an arm, too, for example, although it likely was really the leg of a stag. In parts of Brazil, Betelgeuse was seen as the hind leg of a caiman (crocodilian) or the foreleg of a turtle. On the other hand, in ancient Japan, Betelgeuse was considered to be part of the rim of a ceremonial drum. In Peru, it was one of four vultures about to devour a criminal.
The position of Betelgeuse is RA 05h 55m 10.3053s, dec +07° 24′ 25.4″.
Bottom line: Betelgeuse is due to explode as a supernova someday, although maybe not soon on a human timescale. When it does explode, it’ll be bright enough from our earthly vantage point to shine during the day. But it’s far enough away that Earth won’t be in any danger.
Source of “tens of years” paper: The evolutionary stage of Betelgeuse inferred from its pulsation periods
Read more: Colors of Betelgeuse in a star collage
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First Recorded Stand-Up Comedy Sketch from 500 Years Ago Discovered in 15th Century Manuscript
While this old parchment page may look like one out of a wizard’s spellbook, it’s actually what scholars believe to be the world’s oldest recorded stand-up comedy routine.
In the year 1,480, a household cleric and tutor to a noble family named Richard Heege went to a feast where there was a minstrel performing a three-part act. Heege recorded as much as he could remember, opening with “By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”
That is illustrative of where the story goes from there—a performance relevant to the humor enjoyed in Britain today, and one which colors the high Middle Ages as a time of artistic liberty, social mobility, and vigorous nightlife.
Heege’s booklet contains three texts gleaned from the jester’s material: a Hunting of the Hare story featuring a killer rabbit, a mock sermon in prose in which three kings eat so much that 24 bulls explode out of their stomachs and begin sword fighting, and an alliteration nonsense verse entitled The Battle of Brackonwet.
Reminiscent of Geoffrey Chaucer’s writings, or Monty Python’s killer rabbit of Caerbannog sketch in their film Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Hunting of the Hare is a rhyming burlesque romance, meaning the frivolous is important and the serious is treated lightly.
In it, two fictional peasants get involved with a series of hijinks that includes a cany coney who kicks one of them in the head.
In The Battle of Brackonwet, Robin Hood, killer bumblebees, and jousting bears color a tale full of nonsense within what would have been Mr. Heege and the minstrel’s local neighborhood on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire where Mr. Heege lived.
The texts were found in the National Library of Scotland by Dr. James Wade, of Cambridge’s English Faculty, who recently wrote a paper on them explaining that such material is extremely rare, but offers a wondrous glimpse into life not only among England’s medieval middle-class, but the skill and appreciation for minstrels.
“Here we have a self-made entertainer with very little education creating really original, ironic material. To get an insight into someone like that from this period is incredibly rare and exciting,” Dr. Wade said.
“You can find echoes of this minstrel’s humor in [today’s] shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies, and slapstick. The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy.”
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During the Middle Ages minstrels roamed between fairs, taverns, and baronial halls to entertain with songs and stories either across the country or along a local circuit. Many had day jobs, such as a plowman or peddler, but gigged through the nights and weekends.
“These texts remind us that festive entertainment was flourishing at a time of growing social mobility,” said Dr. Wade. “[They] give us a snapshot of medieval life being lived well.”
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“People back then partied a lot more than we do today, so minstrels had plenty of opportunities to perform. They were really important figures in people’s lives right across the social hierarchy.”
It also shows that what we sometimes think of as a society of science-denying religious tyranny created not only these talented comics but people who enjoyed their work enough to copy it down.
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Mr. Heege worked for a noble family and would have been considered right and proper, yet he appears to have had a sense of humor and to have enjoyed literature that others may have dismissed as too lowbrow to preserve.
What else can we conclude when the man committed the minstrel’s rhymes of “Drink you to me and I to you and hold your cup up high — God loves neither horse nor mare, but merry men that in the cup can stare” to memory well enough to write it down?
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