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Professor makes black hole breakthroughs, ballads

  • Story Highlights
  • Astronomer Alan Marscher of Boston University writes songs about science
  • His team's research on black holes contributes significantly to the field
  • The black hole he studies has jet streams of high-energy radiation shooting out of it
  • A NASA observatory set to launch next month could further support the results
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By Elizabeth Landau
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(CNN) -- "Attracted by your gravity, your body's so compact / Pulling me inward, prepare for close contact," Boston University astronomer Alan Marscher sings in his song about a deep-space object known as a black hole.


Alan Marscher, professor at Boston University, sings about black holes and other astronomy concepts.

Marscher once used other rock groups' songs to illustrate scientific concepts for his students, such the Einsteinian "'39" by Queen.

Then he began writing his own songs tailored to specific lectures like "Superluminal Lover," a black hole ballad full of physics and innuendo. Video Watch him sing "Superluminal Lover" »

The song may not have won him much fame, but an international team of researchers that Marscher leads has just published some breakthrough research on the same black hole phenomena he sings about.

Black holes are somewhat like vacuum cleaners in space. These collapsed stars suck in anything and everything in their immediate vicinities and don't let anything escape, not even light.

The vacuum cleaner idea of a black hole isn't perfect. Astronomers have also detected jet streams of particles traveling at nearly the speed of light, as well as X-rays and gamma rays, shooting out from black holes.

Using radio telescopes set up all over the world, Marscher and colleagues studied a black hole nearly 1 billion light years away (one light year is about 5.9 trillion miles). They found evidence supporting one theory of why the black hole has these jet streams.

As matter falls into a black hole, it swirls around like water going down a drain, Marscher said. The closer things get to the black hole, the faster they begin to orbit.

The magnetic field then twists, like a spring that coils up, he said. This magnetic field propels particles along the black hole's rotational poles.

Marscher's team found direct evidence to support this explanation, detecting the twisted magnetic field and the polarized light that results from it.

"This paper represents a significant advance in the field," said Marc Lacy, an associate research scientist at Caltech's Spitzer Science Center. "The authors make a convincing case that what they'd see is what you'd expect to see in this model of jet formation."

Lukasz Stawarz, a researcher at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, said Marscher's team's observations contribute significantly to our understanding of this type of black hole and provide evidence of a model that had little confirmation before.

"Observations reported by Alan Marscher and collaborators, although not definitive, are very convincing and novel in this respect," he said.

The researchers eagerly await results from NASA's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, a space observatory that may provide even more insight into black holes' jet streams. The spacecraft will launch no later than June 3, NASA said.

Black holes cannot be seen because they do not emit any light, but astronomers have found substantial evidence of them. Still, no existing telescope is powerful enough to observe exactly what goes on so close to a black hole, Lacy said.

"These are very rare objects, and so it's not until we look a great distance away that we see one whose jet pointing almost right at us," Marscher said. "Then, when we see a jet pointing almost right at us, the jet beams its radiation, like a halogen flashlight."

Although astronomers have detected black holes only in deep space, there is speculation that a black hole could be generated at the Large Hadron Collider, the multibillion-dollar particle accelerator under development at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland.

The idea that a black hole could emerge in these experiments is far-fetched, Marscher said. But even if the accelerator did create a black hole, it wouldn't necessarily be harmful, he said. See what's planned for the collider »

"If you made a little tiny black hole in a laboratory, it wouldn't have that much gravity. It wouldn't suck in everything that's on the Earth; it would just suck in stuff that's within, say, a few millimeters of it," he said. "It wouldn't be the devastating danger that science-fiction writers would say, because it'd be a real tiny mass."

Still, even a laboratory-made black hole shouldn't be kept around for long. By its nature of sucking things up, it could just grow and grow, accumulating more mass and more power to pull in more things.

"I think I would put it into something that had a lot of mass and then just toss it off into space, so it wouldn't come into contact with very much matter so it wouldn't grow." Marscher said.

From the time he was a pre-teen, he was interested in astronomy. But he didn't think he could do it for a living, so he signed up for engineering at Cornell University.


Still, he ended up in astronomy, despite the low odds of making it into graduate school and earning a faculty position.

"My philosophy has always been that even if you have only a low probability of succeeding in a career, you should try anyway, so that you don't wake up when you're middle-aged and wonder what could have been," he said.

Though he was in a rock band in high school, Marscher wasn't too tempted to become a professional musician. He wrote his dozen science songs to complement his teaching in a course called "The Evolution of the Physical Universe and of the Earth," part of Boston University's core curriculum for undergraduates.

"Anybody's attention span during an hourlong period doesn't really focus on someone just lecturing," he said. The music "really does help to liven up the lectures."

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