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Wandering Genes and "Seeing" a Black Hole
CHAPTER 103 Teamwork in Spades
Normally, I would not have been especially attracted to an article in my March 15 issue of Science titled "The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years" by lead author Iñigo Olalde and others. However, how could I ignore it when the others were something like 110 coauthors!! As might be expected for an article on the Iberian Peninsula, there were workers from Spain and Portugal, but Olalde is from Harvard Medical School and there were individuals from Penn State, University of Iowa, Australia, the UK, Germany, Austria, etc. Who would get the Nobel if this work should win the prize? Highly unlikely that this paper would be so honored thought I, but then I started Googling Olalde and found that the paper has already been the subject of articles in various publications, including the New York Times.
The article describes research involving the analysis of genes from over 350 ancient skeletons ranging back to about 2500 B.C. and comparing the results with data on current residents of the Iberian peninsula. The most noteworthy conclusion seems to be that in about 2500 B.C. people from the Steppe region in what is now Russia began a movement that took them all the way to what is now Spain and Portugal. They also show that, during the Roman period, migration from North Africa also came into play. There is speculation that the Steppe people, coming from a Bronze Age period, may have arrived on horseback carrying bronze weapons. Indeed, it was around this period that the Bronze Age came to the Iberian Peninsula. The paper also notes that today's Basque population carries Bronze age genetic characteristics, unlike the rest of the Iberian population.
Would you believe that, when I Googled Olalde I found a reference to another publication in the journal Nature and this paper had 144 authors! Olalde was again the lead author. I would have had to pay to read the full Nature article but gather that the researchers did much the same kind of genetic analysis on skeletons from other parts of Europe and correlated their results with a type of pottery known as Bell Beaker pottery. This pottery appeared in the period around 2750 to 2500 B.C. and was correlated with migration from the Steppe. Those Steppe guys overran Europe. Do I carry some of their genes today?
Whoa! How could I have been so impressed with papers authored by a mere 110 or 144 authors? I got an email from Discover that led me to a paper, actually 6 papers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. I didn't have the stamina to count the number of authors of the first paper but estimate it is over 300! If you've watched the news, read the newspapers, or followed any of the other media recently, you have seen the object of all this effort. We have seen the unseeable, a black hole! While I'm dubious that the Steppe work will garner a Nobel Prize, I'm absolutely sure that this black hole work deserves one and I don't have the foggiest idea as to who among the hundreds of workers should get the award. Actually, I do have an idea. I suggest that the Nobel Prize committee deviate from the rule that the prize has to go to a living individual and correct what I consider to be the biggest mistake in Nobel Prize history. Let's finally give the prize to Einstein for his general theory of relativity, which predicted the existence of the black hole, just one of the theory's monumental achievements.
But, you say, how is it possible to see a black hole? Actually, it's what is being called the "shadow" of a black hole. The pictures we've seen in the media show a colorful bunch of stuff surrounding a circular dark region in the distant M87 galaxy, some 53 million light-years away from us. What we're seeing is the stuff orbiting around the event horizon at speeds approaching the speed of light. Once something, even light, passes through the event horizon it can no longer be seen and heaven knows what happens to anything after it falls into a black hole. The diameter of the event horizon of this supermassive black hole in M87 is roughly the size of our solar system and the mass of this black hole is over 6 billion times the mass of our sun! One thing should be noted. The media coverage I saw on TV did not mention that the images you've seen have been "colorized" to make them visible. The scientists detected the black hole using a wavelength of 1.3 millimeters, which is in the radio wave range of the spectrum. We can't see radio waves so, without some form of colorizing, we could not see the images.
Why those hundreds of authors? Well, the researchers did not just point a telescope at the M87 galaxy and take a picture to get the image of the black hole shadow. The telescope was the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which actually consisted of 8 different telescopes situated in six different locations around the world including Antarctica, Chile, Arizona, Hawaii, Mexico and Spain. After writing the above, I began to get an idea as to who might be one to share the Nobel Prize with Einstein. I came upon a rebroadcast on the Internet of what I thought was the press conference at the National Science Foundation announcing the seeing of the black hole in M87. (Actually I learned later that there were six or seven simultaneous press conferences on four continents!) Only fitting given the multitude of collaborators around the world. Among the handful of speakers at the press conference I saw was Sheperd (Shep) Doeleman Director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. Our StocksandNews editor, Brian Trumbore, also called my attention to an article by Sam Walker in the Wall Street Journal April 20, 2019 describing Doeleman's role in the EHT project.
It seems that when Doeleman was a doctoral student at MIT way back in the 1990s, he got the idea that it might be possible to take a picture of a black hole. It seemed ridiculous at the time. For one thing you would need a telescope with a dish the size of Earth! But Doeleman was familiar with something called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Using VLBI, he thought that instead of trying to take a picture with a single telescope, it might be possible to use existing telescopes to form a network that would in effect simulate a giant telescope roughly the size of the globe. He envisioned using this array of telescopes to detect signals from the electromagnetic waves "tumbling" around the black hole's invisible contours. The proposal was to then use imaging algorithms to put together data from these signals to construct a picture of the environment surrounding the black hole. This picture would essentially be seeing the event horizon.
Somehow, Doeleman managed to put together a team of some 200 scientists of all types of persuasions and managed to convince those responsible for running eight of the world's most powerful telescopes to go along and cooperate, not to mention raising the money to refit the telescopes with atomic clocks and all sorts of special equipment needed for the operation. High speed recorders were needed. I saw mention of many Gigabytes per second in one of the papers. I can't imagine the effort it must have taken to convince hundreds of people to risk spending years of their life in an endeavor that could be a complete flop! Things such as how to ship frozen hard drives from the South Pole and an amazing bunch of other stuff involving the utmost in cooperation -- and Luck! On four days in April 2017 the weather around the globe was unusually good for telescopic observations and four "pictures" were taken of MS87. The "pictures" at that point were petabytes of data. A petabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. All these data had to be transported and assembled and processed to make the pictures.
The monumental amounts of data included the very precise time data from the atomic clocks at each telescope were recorded and algorithms had to be constructed to massage the data to produce images. Such things as the earth's rotation during the measurements had to be taken into account. Various possible algorithms had been constructed that could be used and four different teams were assigned to the data from the four different days of observation. The teams were told to choose their own sets of algorithms and were not to contact any of the other teams so as to provide completely independent results. When the teams got together to share their results all four "pictures" of the black hole were virtually the same. I assume that the four pictures you saw on TV or print media were the results of these four teams efforts. I tried reading several of the 6 very long and detailed papers in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and was totally blown away by the effort and the calculations that had to be done to come up with those pictures. I didn't understand 99% of what I read. Normally, when I've looked at "Letters" in a journal they have been relatively short, but not these. They are huge!
The Acknowledgement sections of the papers were several pages long. Think of all the workers and contributors to 8 of the world's largest telescopes. One of the entities acknowledged is the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, he of Moore's Law known for predicting the increase in the number of devices on a silicon chip over the years. I was taken by acknowledgements to the John Templeton Foundation. Many years ago, Templeton was a guest on the Louis Rukeyser TV show on financial matters and Templeton recommended a stock, which I bought and made a nice profit when I sold it. The last sentence in one of the very lengthy Acknowledgment sections was "We acknowledge the significance that Maunakea, where the SMA and JCMT stations are located, has for the indigenous Hawaiian people." (I'm assuming that Maunakea is not a misprint but the term for Mauna Kea used by native Hawaiians.) I don't know what the current situation in Hawaii is but the native Hawaiians have not been happy with the construction of large telescopes on what they consider sacred land.
Until now, the black hole has been an object predicted in theory and certainly consistent with observations of what is going on in galaxies with stuff being sucked into what have been assumed to be black holes. Now, however, we have come as close as I imagine we'll ever come to actually proving the existence of the black hole. I like to imagine what Einstein's reaction would be if he could have lived to see these moments in the past couple of years "seeing" a black hole and the earlier detection of gravitational waves. Would he have reacted like Tiger after winning the Masters? I like to think so.
Finally, I was just looking through my latest issue of Time magazine that contains Time's annual choices for the 100 most influential people in the world and who should be one of them but Shep Doeleman! Lisa Randell, author of the piece on Doeleman, calls the picture of the black hole "a triumph of technology, ingenuity and perseverance." I couldn't agree more but I would add one more thing - teamwork. Would that our country's and our world's political leaders could learn from the scientific community how to work together, whether it be on tiny subjects such as genes or on the most massive, yet invisible objects in our universe.
Next column in the vicinity of June 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum