A Supermassive Black Hole The Mass Of 30 Billion Suns

12:08 minutes

A model of the Hubble Space Telescope viewing the light from a more distant object as it is bent and magnified by the supermassive object in the foreground.
A model of the Hubble Space Telescope viewing the light from a distant object as it is distorted by a supermassive object in the foreground. Credit: Durham University

This week, astronomers reported that they may have found signs of one of the largest black holes ever detected–a space behemoth the mass of some 30 billion suns. The supermassive black hole, located in part of the Abell 1201 galaxy cluster, was detected using a combination of gravitational lensing and supercomputer simulations.

First, the astronomers observed how the images of other more distant objects viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope were warped by the vast gravitational well produced by the black hole. They compared those images to thousands of simulations created via a supercomputer, and found that a simulation containing a supermassive black hole matched the real-world images. The work was reported in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins SciFri’s Kathleen Davis to talk about the finding and other stories from the week in science, including the FDA’s approval of over-the-counter Narcan, the real-world challenges of EV charging, and the creation of a meatball–made of mammoth.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

SHAHLA FARZAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Shahla Farzan, and I’m a science editor with American Public Media.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m SciFri producer Kathleen Davis. We’re filling in for Ira this week.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Later this hour, the medical mysteries of mumps and why there are more infections these days. And what happens to the bees, birds, and butterflies when spring springs a little earlier?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: But first, if you’ve been feeling that things are spiraling a bit out of control this week, IT may not just be you. This week astronomers reported that they may have found signs of one of the largest black holes ever detected, a space behemoth the mass of 30 billion suns. Joining me now to talk about that and other science stories of the week is Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox, based in Washington DC. Welcome back, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So tell me more about this black hole. 30 billion suns– it really sounds like a lot.

UMAIR IRFAN: It Is. And what’s surprising about this, it was actually hard to observe. The thing is, when we observe black holes, usually when they’re millions of light years away, we have to look for signals that they’re actually in the process of devouring something, eating a nearby star or a planet. And as they take that matter in and they compress it under that immense gravity, it gives off X-rays and light that we can detect.

When black holes are far away from any bits of matter, they’re really hard to see because they’re not giving off that level of radiation even if they’re huge and massive. And so what scientists used here was a technique called gravitational lensing. And rather than looking for the black hole itself, they looked for signs that light was bending around this black hole. Scientists started observing this kind of pattern here around this particular black hole around 2004. And only recently did the advances in observation and supercomputing technology catch up for them to actually calculate and determine that something was there.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So this sounds really interesting. But does this get us anything beyond just another addition to the list of really big black holes?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it shows us what’s possible. Just seeing something this massive that could still be hidden from our sight shows that we need to look for these kinds of things in other places. And we have a better understanding of just how to find perhaps other ultra massive black holes that may be lurking out there.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So let’s stay in space for a moment. A few weeks ago, we talked about the fact that a leaking Soyuz craft might mean that astronauts on board the International Space Station might have to stay up there for longer. That leaky capsule returned to Earth empty this week. Tell me what’s going on there.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. American astronaut Frank Rubio was supposed to return home and instead is going to be staying until September. And that will likely make him the American with the longest stay in space. But that’s going to have some interesting effects for science because now scientists can study effects of space over long periods of time. And one thing that they’re starting to study more is aging.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: That brings us to our next story, which isn’t about Frank Rubio specifically, but, yes, is about aging. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. I read this article in Inverse by John Kelvey, and it looks at this new study that examines biomarkers for aging in space. Basically scientists have found that when astronauts come back from space, they have all these aging-related biomarkers that seem to indicate that they’re aging prematurely, but they weren’t quite sure of what the mechanism was. And so this team of researchers, they started studying this protein called SUMO, which stands for Small Ubiquitin-like Modifier.

And they found that under normal gravity conditions, SUMO is known to respond to stress and play roles in repairing DNA. But in microgravity when they engineered yeast to produce this protein, they found that it actually increased the abundance of certain kinds of protein by more than 50% compared to normal gravity. And they’re not quite sure exactly what this is doing, but it helps put a link in the chain of what is causing this sort of premature aging signs here.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So this isn’t quite like the movie Interstellar, but it may bring us a little bit closer to understanding aging?

UMAIR IRFAN: A little bit. In Interstellar, the whole thing there was about relativity, that when you’re moving really fast in space, time effectively for you move slower than it does for people on Earth. And it seems like, well, that dividend with aging may be counteracted in other ways. The microgravity could be accelerating the aging on your body, and that may not necessarily end up helping you over the long term.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: OK, let’s go back down to Earth for health news of a different kind. The FDA gave approval for the drug Narcan to be sold over the counter. First, Umair, give us a quick rundown of what Narcan is, and tell me why this is such a big deal.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Narcan is a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. It’s administered as an injectable or as a nasal spray. And it’s fairly simple to use, and it’s fairly effective.

And it’s just in time because in the US, opioids have killed about 80,000 people per year in recent years. And we’ve seen a spike in deaths related to fentanyl, another opioid that’s been spreading throughout different parts of the US as well. And this seems to be a very critical backstop to be able to prevent some of the worst effects of opioid overdoses.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It sounds to me like making this over the counter is an undeniable win.

UMAIR IRFAN: It is, but it doesn’t solve the entire problem because, while it is over-the-counter, insurance companies may not necessarily pay for it. And right now it costs about $38 per dose out of pocket. And that could deter people from buying it or keeping it on hand in case of emergencies.

And then there’s also fears that it can create a moral hazard, that it might encourage more reckless behavior if this is more widely available. But health officials and public health researchers say that it’s actually a good idea to have more of these around to prevent deaths. And the company that makes them says that they will have more of them available on store shelves and even available to buy online later this summer.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So next up, you have a story about electric vehicles and the challenges that come with charging them when you’re on the go.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, I talked to a couple electric vehicle owners about some problems they’ve had at these charging stations specifically when it comes to superchargers. These are the charging stations that can deliver lots of power to a battery and charge you up in just a few minutes rather than the hours it typically takes when you use a wall outlet. The problem is, though, if something goes wrong, it can go really wrong. And the people that I talked to had their cars bricked. Essentially they wouldn’t work anymore.


UMAIR IRFAN: And in one case, the plug actually ended up welding to the car, and they had to pry it out with a crowbar. And the reason this is important is that EVs are now more popular than ever. Their ranges are longer than ever, and people are; starting to make road trips. But the infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up, and it’s not as reliable as it could be. And that might be deterring the adoption of EVs in the US.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So what’s the solution here– I mean, other than keeping these chargers in order?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, there are a few. One is that the government could potentially enforce uniform standards across EV Chargers and car makers so that the chargers and cars aren’t all speaking different languages. They stick to a consistent protocol and a standard, and that makes it a little bit easier and leaves less room for things to go wrong. There are also some EV charging companies that are developing chargers that have more fail safes built in.

Tesla said earlier this year that it’s going to be opening its supercharger network to other automakers as well. And so that’ll help bolster the number of EV charging stations that are out there. And I talked to a couple of companies that are building batteries into the EV chargers so that they don’t need to draw as much power from the grid, which means that they can deploy more quickly and with fewer permits and help get through some of the red tape that’s holding them back right now.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So let’s move on to a story that certainly put a smile on my face. I hope it did the same for you, Umair. There’s a new study out that shows that some dinosaurs had lips. Can you tell me about this?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. When you imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex or what you’ve seen in the movies, you see this snaggle-toothed dinosaur with teeth sticking out. Well, this team of researchers says that’s probably the wrong image, that dinosaurs, like a lot of modern lizards, probably had lips that covered their teeth. What they did was that they looked at this dinosaur called Daspletosaurus, which is a relative of the T-Rex. And they hypothesized that if the teeth were exposed to air, that would dry out those teeth and make the enamel on them brittle and prone to splitting and cracking.

And so they looked for signs of that on these dinosaur teeth. And they found that they actually looked like that they were very well protected, and that pointed them toward the direction that perhaps that there was a covering over them, maybe a set of lips. Then they also looked at modern lizards like Komodo dragons and monitor lizards and looked at how their teeth responded to having lips around them and saw that they had a lot in common with these fossilized teeth, pointing them in the direction that perhaps there were some lips covering these dinosaurs’. So they weren’t always baring their fangs.

But some scientists disagree, saying that the researchers didn’t account for changes in bone texture and differences between modern lizards and dinosaurs. But this is an intriguing finding because soft tissue is not something that’s fossilized. And so we have to use a lot of our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And just to be clear, I shouldn’t be imagining some big, juicy, red lips on a T-Rex.

UMAIR IRFAN: No, these dinosaurs were not getting filler. They were not using Instagram filters. They still looked like dinosaurs. They still looked mean and scary, but not with those sharp teeth sticking out.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, speaking of pointy things, you have a story about a biotech advance that uses bacteria as a syringe. Can you tell me about this?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. There’s been a lot of work recently about using microorganisms as tools, like using virus phages to attack bacteria or using good bacteria to treat illnesses. Well, one team of researchers, they found out that they could actually harness this particular feature of this bacterium called Photorhabdus. And what they found is that by engineering it, what it would do is that it would actually insert a tube into targeted cells and inject something. And what the scientists say is that effectively this becomes a syringe that can be used to inject medicine, protein, and even mRNA or other kinds of gene-editing tools to help deliver medicine or cause other kinds of modifications in a very targeted way.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So we have time for one more quick story. And it’s getting a little bit warmer outside, so if people are considering an early spring cookout, there’s some food news this week involving a mammoth meatball. Can you tell me about this?

UMAIR IRFAN: There’s this company in Australia called Vow, and they announced this week that they have successfully grown woolly mammoth tissue. And they turned it into a meatball, which seems like an odd thing to do when you’ve been able to engineer and grow an extinct animal. But they wanted to do this as a proof of concept. They were able to isolate the mammoth myoglobin gene, which gives meat its red distinctive taste and color. And they were able to also fill in the blanks using African elephant DNA, and they were able to grow this in a laboratory and grow enough of it that they could actually make a physical solid object out of this.

Now, I don’t think anybody is going to be eating this anytime soon. And it’s not clear exactly what direction they want to go in this. But lab-grown meat is proposed as one of the solutions to help deal with warming and some of the impacts of agriculture on the environment.

About 40% of the world’s methane comes from livestock production. But it’s also sort of a dicey area ethically. And also, regulators are still trying to figure out what they can do with this. Singapore right now is the only country in the world where you can actually get a mammoth meatball sub or, rather, a lab-grown meat.

But the US Food and Drug Administration is evaluating this as well. So you may not be able to buy a mammoth sandwich. But perhaps something else that was grown in a lab could be on your plate sometime soon.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, considering that I am not a billionaire, I probably will not be able to sink my teeth into a mammoth meatball. But I can only imagine that it tastes– I don’t even know what it would taste like.

UMAIR IRFAN: If you were given the opportunity, would you take one? Would you try one?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: You know what, I would maybe take a bite. And then I’d probably feel very ethically conflicted about it later. That’s all the time that we have for now. I’d like to Thank my guest Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox, based in Washington DC. Thanks so much for joining me.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure, Kathleen. Thanks for having me.

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