This Week in Research: A Black Hole Eats a Star; A Bird Commits Adultery

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A computer simulation of the black hole chowing down on a red giant. Image courtesy NASA, S. Gezari (JHU) and J. Guillochon (UCSC)

To my mind, the only thing that sounds more intimidating than a black hole is a supermassive black hole — yes, that’s apparently a thing. If you’re not impressed, consider this:  Johns Hopkins astronomers recently caught a supermassive black hole devouring an innocent red giant that happened to orbit a little to close. And I’m not just saying “devour” because I went to school for writing and not astronomy — that’s the way the scientists describe it, too. The black hole in question literally consumed much of the star, shredding it apart in the process. “It’s a very messy process,” says Johns Hopkins astronomer Suvi Gezari.

This sort of predatory behavior is quite rare, occurring about once every 10,000 years per galaxy, so the evidence gathered by the Hopkins team is truly unprecedented. Because, of course, nothing emerges from beyond the event horizon of a black hole — not even light — it’s impossible to actually see what takes place inside. But Gezari and her colleagues tracked the black hole’s outburst, or the radiation flares at the edge of event horizon, they were able to figure out what was going on. An examination of the stellar debris around the scene indicates that the star (RIP) was a red giant, a particularly swollen, helium-heavy kind of star, which is what our own sun is slated to become in five billion or so years.

If this is the sort of thing that gives you nightmares, you can at least rest assured that it happened very, very far from us:  about two billion light-years away, to be exact(ish).
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First things first:  let’s agree not to draw any spurious conclusions about human behavior from this particular research about birds and adultery out of Towson University. Deal?

Okay, so it turns out that birds cheat on their bird-spouses — or at least wrens do. Notable for being one of those species that prefers pair-bonding (the avian equivalent of marriage, basically), wrens stay in a couple after mating and caring for their young. But extra-pair mating (read:  adultery) happens, too. The male birds do it to spread their DNA around — that’s easy enough to understand — but what’s in it for the female birds? According to biology professor Scott Johnson, cuckoldry (that is actually the technical term) might occur when female wrens encounter males that are markedly different from their mates, something they call the “tall, dark stranger effect.” The thinking is that these alluring strangers will offer some genetic traits that the female wrens aren’t getting with their regular partners, thus upping the chance that their offspring will have hearty immune systems. Female wrens also seem to prefer male wrens who are punctual. Understandable.



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