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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #14

Information regarding a major breakthrough in subatomic physics was released last week. Neutrinos are particles so small that trillions of them are passing through your body as you read this. Fortunately, they rarely collide with anything. So they don’t cause any problems.

But what are they?

In an effort to track down an answer, the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory was established a few years ago at the South Pole. Thousands of sensors were placed within a cubic kilometer of ice. Neutrinos have a ghostly presence. They pass through the ice, and the Earth, and us without anyone noticing. They can only be detected on those rare occasions when they collide with an atom. What produces them? No one knows. They are accelerated and launched by black holes, but we’ve no idea how they originate.

Occasionally, one will hit an atomic nucleus, producing a blue light, known as Cerenkov radiation. It is the radiation that the detectors can pick up.

For the first time, we were able to trace the one that arrived last year to its origin. That was the galaxy TXS 0506+056, now known as “The Texas Source.” It’s four billion light years away. The black hole that launched it was very likely at the center of the galaxy, and would have been about a billion times the mass of the sun.

We marvel at the range of distances in the universe. But whenever some of these details emerge about black holes, I can breathe more easily knowing they are so far away.

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