Through FM Radio, The Sound Of The First Stars Forming

6:33 minutes

Scan your radio on the FM dial and you might come across a familiar sound: static. To most people, there’s nothing there to listen to. But astronomers reporting in the journal Nature this week show that a radio telescope in Australia picked up a signal in the FM static that could be a sign from some of the earliest stars formed in our universe. Ryan Mandelbaum joins Ira to discuss why the discovery has got astronomers buzzing.

[Anna Atkins, the first person to publish a book of photography, showed a predilection for botany.]

Plus, scientists discover a way to create a rare natural phenomenon—ball lightning—in the lab. And New York City braces for a possible outbreak of the measles.

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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. Scan your radio on the FM dial and you might come across a familiar sound.


No, not waves. Sounds like it’s static. Yeah. To you and I there’s nothing there to listen to, but astronomers report this week that a radio telescope in Australia has found something in the FM static that could be a signal from some of the earliest stars formed in our universe. Here to tell us about that story as well as other short subjects in science is Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo. Good to have you back, Ryan.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Hey Ira. Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re learning about the secrets of the universe over the radio waves. And I mean, that’s true every week on Science Friday, of course, but tell us what you mean. What did scientists discover here?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So using that small radio telescope, it’s essentially a shadow from the hydrogen gas that used to be, you know, diffuse across the universe about 100 million years after the Big Bang that’s being cast across over the cosmic microwave background, the earliest light that we can detect in the universe.

So this shadow signifies the beginnings of the first stars being formed, but it also– what was crazy was it was twice as cold as expected, which, when you have these unexpected things in physics, that means we don’t know something. And in this case, it might be dark matter.

IRA FLATOW: So wait, are you saying– so the shadow should be warmer because there’s sort of heat left over from the Big Bang Theory, but it’s colder than you expected?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, since it’s a shadow, it’s absorbing light–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Absorbing.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: –and then it’s absorbing twice as much light than you’d expect.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And so they’re hypothesizing that might be the dark matter in the universe.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It could be a hint of dark–

IRA FLATOW: Could be a hint–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: –matter interacting with the earliest hydrogen atoms in the universe. But what’s really– I mean, this is a first observation. There’s a lot more work that really needs to be done here, but it’s really tantalizing and a lot of astronomers are excited about this one.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And I understand that astronomers are also a excited– well, physicists are also excited about a discovery about ball lightning, that they’re sort of making it in their laboratory, something like it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. I don’t know if you’ve seen ball lightning, but it’s this bright flash. It’s very rare. It happens in the evenings. It sticks around a long time. It looks like a ball.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: So physicists created what is essentially a quantum simulation of what they think looks like ball lightning in the lab. And it’s this arrangement of particles called a skyrmion.

IRA FLATOW: A skyrmion.


IRA FLATOW: I’m writing that down to add to my bar talk tonight over a beer. Skyrmion.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: And so what is it? How do you get lightning out of a skyrmion?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So what– I mean it’s made from Bose-Einstein condensate, which is one of my favorite things in physics, which is these almost macroscopic systems of atoms like rubidium expressing quantum mechanical effects that can be observed.

And in this case, it’s this knotted structure in the magnetic field lines and electric field lines of these rubidium atoms. And you’ve got to see the pictures, because they’re really cool. And your mind will leak out of your ears when you actually see what these look like.

IRA FLATOW: I can see you’re a little excited about this. You love this kind of stuff.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I love those Einstein condensates. They’re my very favorite.

IRA FLATOW: And those are really in a cool, cold state, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They’re the coolest, actually.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, the coolest. Where’s my rim shots sound effects? OK.

Let’s move on to– next, public health experts are saying that the measles virus has come to New York for a visit.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Just one visit. A tourist from Australia was confirmed to have had it and visited a bunch of places in New York from February 16 to 21. Lucky for us, nearly 95% of people in New York have gotten the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, which is 97% effective against the measles.

But any time you see something like this, you worry about sort of the folks who haven’t been vaccinated– you know, the anti-vaccer movement is going on. And this is just a reminder that like, while measles has been pretty much eradicated from the US, it pops up. And if you’re not vaccinated, you’ll have a problem.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And that’s what’s different about the world we live in now is that people come in from all over the world. They travel by plane or whatever, where they weren’t traveling as much as they used to. So you can bring anything in from a country.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. I mean just because it’s been– just because the US isn’t seeing very many new cases of measles, doesn’t mean that measles is completely gone in the world.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to this really interesting story in the news that elephants blurred the lines a little bit in terms of the species they would mate with. Tell me about that one.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. Scientists did a super complex look at the history of elephants and found interbreeding between a couple of species like between the American woolly mammoth and the Columbia mammoth. But they also found places where the elephants wouldn’t interbreed where you’d expect, like the African forests and African bush elephants which look pretty similar but weren’t mating for quite a long time.

So it basically is just saying like we’re kind of the ones who have decided what a species is and the elephant will mate with whoever it wants.

IRA FLATOW: No one told the elephants.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. No one told the elephants.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s interesting that they actually thought they were interbreeding with woolly mammoths. That is–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: These are two different species of–


RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. Interbreeding in the elephants. Who knew?

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Who knew? Finally, I know this is a favorite of yours, Ryan, there. I know you’re a birder. We were talking about this before.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I love birds. Yep.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s this rare yellow cardinal. How can it be? Cardinals are red, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. But this is a yellow– same species as the red cardinal, but it is yellow. And it could have maybe a condition that’s causing it to express it or maybe it’s a mutation, but in Alabama there is a woman who’s got a yellow cardinal in her lawn and don’t– she hasn’t given out the location, so we shouldn’t go swarming there. But it’s there and it’s awesome looking. You should look it up.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You can look it– so the cardinal is hanging around and we don’t want to give it out, because she thinks all these birders will show up, won’t they?


IRA FLATOW: You’re a birder. You would go see that, wouldn’t you?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, Ira, there was once a bird in Pennsylvania where so many people came to visit it that they were able to calculate the economic impact of the bird’s visit and it was $220,000 based on the log that the people who had the bird in their backyard kept.

IRA FLATOW: Oh. That’s a lot of bird seed.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s a lot of hotel visits.

IRA FLATOW: Not to mention trampling on the grass.


IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo. And he’s here in our New York studios.

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