We’re Number 4!

We’re Number 4!

We’re Number 4!

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 31 2005 5:10 PM

We’re Number 4!

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Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

At the end of the year, many people make lists.

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Well, so did Science magazine, and they picked Swift's observation of short gamma-ray bursts as their 4th biggest breakthrough of the year. Since I work on Swift, I feel the need to crow a little (and also to point out that the two artists whose illustrations are used for the articles are both friends of mine; Aurore is a co-worker and I've known Dana for many years; he does a lot of illustration work for Hubble).

I was going to write a description of what short gamma-ray bursts are, but it turns out I had to do this for my day job first! We put out a quarterly newsletter about Swift, and I wrote an article explaining what happens when a black hole tears a neutron star apart. Check it out.

One thing I didn't mention in the article, though, is that the energies involved are scary, very very scary. A neutron star has a surface gravity that may be a billion times the Earth's-- yes, you read that right. On a neutron star, I would weigh 170 billion pounds, about as much as a small mountain 300 meters (1000 feet) high! It would take a huge amount of energy just to lift a marshmallow off the surface of a neutron star, yet the tides from a black hole can shred one, vaporizing it.

Yikes.

Before Swift (and it's sister satellite, HETE-2) we only had theories about these events, but now we have data, and it fits the theory beautifully. So I agree with Science magazine: Swift has been one of the better things to come along in 2005.'