Change The Laws Of Physics? Probably Not

6:42 minutes

This week, researchers reported that a burst of particles emitted from two merging neutron stars did not actually travel four times faster than the speed of light, despite initial observations. The speed of the super-fast jet, the researchers believe, was instead an optical illusion produced by the motion of the stars and our own frame of reference here on Earth. The event, called GW170817, was the first documented merger of two neutron stars.

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, joins Ira to explain the illusion and other stories from the week in science, including Jocelyn Bell Burnell winning the $3 million Breakthrough prize, bad news about the common painkiller Diclofenac, and the strange story of a hole in the International Space Station.

Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a look at robots and how we live with them. But first, this week astronomers reported on the strange-sounding case of two colliding neutron stars and a blast from that merger that appeared to be traveling faster than the speed of light. Wow. We know how impossible that might sound, right? Time to change the laws of physics? Maybe not.

Here to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science is Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, back in our New York studios. Welcome back. Good to have you.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Nice having you, Ira. How’s everything going? Happy Rosh Hashanah–


RYAN MANDELBAUM: –everybody on the radio.

IRA FLATOW: Everybody who’s celebrating it. Let’s talk about these neutron stars. What happened?


IRA FLATOW: What was going on?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So I think a lot of the listeners will remember the colliding neutron stars that happened back in last August. There was gravitational waves at the same time as light beams. So these jets looked like they were– you know, when you looked up it looked like there was light traveling faster than the speed of light.

But that’s not really what happened. That’s actually an optical illusion. When the jet travels from there– you know, from the colliding neutron stars, in our direction but slightly askew, the jet is traveling at nearly the speed of light, as are the light beams, so the back of the jet’s light beams and the front of the jet’s light beams come to Earth. And, when you look up in the sky, it looks like it zips at faster than the speed of light, but it’s really an optical illusion.

What’s more interesting is that it proved that there was a jet that came out of these black holes, which is what scientists were excited about, out of these neutron stars.

IRA FLATOW: Oh. But something seemed off about the observation, right? There was a burst of particles out of the debris, or–?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So people were wondering whether– when they looked up, they noticed that these radio waves had been brightening in this collision for a couple of months. And so they thought maybe it was because there was a cocoon that was, like, choking this jet. But the jet must have broken through the cocoon, in order for scientists to have seen the faster-than-light motion.

IRA FLATOW: Well let’s move on to other cosmic news and a big prize. This is really an interesting story. Big prize to Jocelyn Bell Burnell?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, yeah. I mean, everybody’s heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s name. You know, she discovered pulsars. But, in 1974, the Nobel Prize in physics went to her advisor, Anthony Hewish, instead of to her. She was second on the paper. And a lot of people considered this a snub.

She said that she didn’t think it was such a snub, because she didn’t know if graduate students should get it, but, I mean, the pulsar discovery is certainly one of the most important discoveries in astronomy. I mean, neutron stars are just so ubiquitous in astronomy today. But she won the Breakthrough prize, $3 million. And she’s going to donate the entire sum of money to a fund for underrepresented students in physics.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and she’s very typical of a case of the underlings doing the real work and never getting the credit that they deserve. Right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: She was a very successful leader in physics. I mean, she was the first president, first female president, of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was a president of the Institute of Physics. She’s had a really incredible stint of leadership in astronomy. But her astronomy-changing discovery was what she did as a student.

IRA FLATOW: Because she just went through all the data and saw something that didn’t make sense, something had never seen before.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: A signal, a sort of kludge, that, every 1.3 seconds, this signal seemed to blip. And they thought that it was aliens. In fact, it’s the LGM signal, the Little Green Men signal. But, nope, it was pulsars.

IRA FLATOW: Huh! And pulsars are just rotating–?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yep– spinning neutron stars emitting a beam of light, sort of like a lighthouse.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. And it’s interesting, because I was reading her reaction to this. She says, OK, so I didn’t win the Nobel Prize. if I had, I would have been never heard from again. Right now, I’m racking up all these other prizes.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yep, and it’s definitely exciting to see her put the money to such a good cause.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s great. In other news, there’s a cautionary story about a popular painkiller.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yep. So diclofenac, which is a common NSAID, a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug, seems to be causing cardiovascular issues in those who take it in the first 30 days. People didn’t actually– they didn’t give more diclofenac, they looked, retrospectively, at a bunch of medical records, these Danish researchers, and found this increased risk. Now, I wouldn’t say that it’s– it’s not, like, an enormous risk that everybody who takes it is going to get sick, but it’s– you know, for every 1,000 people who take diclofenac and are at low risk for CV, for cardiovascular disease, maybe an extra four people would develop a major health problem.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’ve got to tell you, I never heard of this drug before.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I hadn’t heard of it either, until a bunch of our commenters said that they had taken it. And a lot of people really– around the world, this is a very popular, painkiller. So we haven’t heard of it, but a lot of people have.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s the kind of case where, oh, you know, the rate has doubled, or something like that. But then, when you look at the actual numbers, it’s still tiny, tiny, tiny.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. But it might explain some of the– some people do complain about things like chest pain when they’re on it, so it could potentially explain some of those issues.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Finally, one of the almost Cold War stories in a way–


–is that there was a hole in the space station, and the Russians think (OMINOUSLY) it’s sabotage.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: [LAUGH] That was one of the theories that they put forth, you know?

IRA FLATOW: They found a hole.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They found a hole–

IRA FLATOW: Go through the story.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. So you look at this– you see the picture of the hole. And at first, they were like, oh, maybe it’s a micro meteor. But, when you look at it, it actually looks like somebody had drilled into a panel– the drill slipped and then created a drill hole right through this panel. And it’s not in the ISIS itself, it’s in a Soyuz capsule that was docked to the ISIS.

When they looked at it, they thought, well what could have– it must have been a person, if it’s a drill hole. So some of the theories that they’ve put forth are, you know, maybe it was a manufacturing error. Or, during testing, somebody had made a mistake.

Sabotage is one of the theories. They’re not ruling anything out yet. Maybe it was from– on the ISS. Although you’d think that there’d be some record of that, if it was true.

One thing that’s important to note is that it will not harm the crew members. They’re not at risk. The hole’s been patched up. And–

IRA FLATOW: What did they use? Duct tape?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I think they used an epoxy.


IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] somebody pulled out the duct tape [INAUDIBLE].

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I wonder what the brand name of the epoxy was. I wonder if it was just Elmer’s glue.



IRA FLATOW: But, no, I love epoxy. But you absolutely look at it. Anybody who’s ever drilled a hole in metal could see that that’s a drill hole.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, exactly.

IRA FLATOW: –by a drill.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: But thankfully– like I said, when this pod returns to Earth, this is something that’s meant to burn up in the atmosphere. It’s not going to harm anyone. And it’s just great that it’s fixed.

But now the mystery is on. The detectives have to solve the case.

IRA FLATOW: Ah. Wow, so much mystery this week.


IRA FLATOW: [LAUGH] Thank you, Ryan.


IRA FLATOW: Happy holiday to you.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes, you too.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer at Gizmodo.

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