Category Archives: Science

Decade of the Monster [Science]

Here’s my feature story in the March 29 Science on decade of the monster—new ways of studying the supermassive black hole that lurks at the center of our galaxy. Contains a scoop–first reporter to note that the collision between the gas cloud rushing headlong toward the black hole and the gravitational monster may not happen March 2014. Plus, here’s an interview with me about the story.

black holes
Credit: NASA

A New Test for Einstein with Free-floating Giant Black Holes [Science]

Are there massive black holes that move about the universe? In my recent article in Science notes, initial observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and follow-up data collection using NASA’s Chandra x-ray Observatory suggest this is the case. If so, then this would verify Einstein’s theory of general relativity under previously untested conditions.

Do Solo Black Holes Roam the Universe?

Even gravitational monsters can get the heave-ho. Two mysterious bright spots in a disheveled, distant galaxy suggest that astronomers have found the best evidence yet for a supermassive black hole being shoved out of its home.

Observations with NASA’s Chandra x-ray Observatory revealed that only one of the compact visible-light sources—a blob that lies about 8000 light-years from the galaxy’s estimated center—emits x-rays. The high-energy radiation is believed to be a sign that this blob is a supermassive black hole munching away on surrounding gas.

Even better than the image below, this short video explains how the big black hole may have formed.

Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/F. Civano et al./STScI/CFHT
Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/F. Civano et al./STScI/CFHT

Seeing Venus’ Silhouette [Science]

For the last time this century, Venus will pass across the face of the sun on June 5-6. Adorning the sun with a black beauty mark as big as a large sunspot, this 6.5-hour minieclipse (only part of which can be seen from the U.S. mainland) mimics the way most planets beyond the solar system are now detected. See my preview in Science magazine (pdf version available for those who do not subscribe).

Sound Historian’s Quest to Make Old Sounds New [Science]

Many people love an old recording, but few take their love as far as Patrick Feaster. In my Science article Archaeologist of Sound, Feaster’s work as a sound historian understanding and restoring the earliest known recordings is explored. From the article:

And now Feaster, a friendly but intense 40-year-old with a slender build and a photographic memory for anything phonographic, had first crack at helping bring back to life the lost sounds of 130 years ago. His 2-month stint in the “nation’s attic” had turned up undreamed-of finds, including long-lost cylinders recorded at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris and what may be the first-ever sound recording on a disk. Archives and artifacts, however, are only part of Feaster’s chosen work. Just as important, he says, is his mission of using modern technology to resurrect long-vanished voices and sounds—some of them never intended to be revived.

By then, Feaster and colleagues David Giovannoni, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey had formed, a group devoted to finding and disseminating the earliest sound recordings. The team had been nominated for a Grammy for its CD Actionable Offenses, a compilation of bawdy wax-cylinder recordings from the 1890s. Another CD, Debate ’08, reissued 22 recordings by presidential candidates William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan during the 1908 campaign—the first time sound bites were used in a presidential election, Feaster says.

“Today, we can listen—with a little work—to virtually any waveform we can see [Feaster] says. Two years ago, in some of his most far-ranging efforts to date, he applied his software to the musical notation found in a 10th-century manuscript of the Enchiriadis treatise, a medieval work on music theory. The result was a 7-minute sound file that Feaster calls “the closest thing you’re likely to hear to a 1000-year-old phonautogram.” Feaster has also applied software to “play” other historic musical notations—“as though a sound synthesizer were being programmed directly by medieval monks,” he says.

If you don’t have a Science account, you can read this pdf version of the full article about Feaster, the technology he uses, and some of his incredible finds.

Update: This article won the Acoustical Society of America’s Science Writing Award for 2011-2013.

Early phonograph patent diagram
Early phonograph patent diagram