Fast Radio Bursts Flying Under the Radar

Back in the summer of 2014 I distinctly remember driving through the hinterland of northern Massachusetts and hearing a news story on the radio that simply blew my mind.  It was a Sunday morning and we were listening to an NPR report (this one, in fact) about mysterious signals from outer space that had astronomers scratching their heads. These signals were of extremely short duration but very, very powerful. Astronomers called them “fast radio bursts” and put forward a range of possible explanations, ranging from pulsars, black holes and solar flares to plain old cell phone interference. But nothing seemed to fit.

This kind of thing is catnip for me. A big dramatic scientific mystery, signals from outer space, the patina of a possibility of extraterrestrial life. The moment I got home I stayed up late searching the internet for more information. Surprisingly, there was very little even in the scientific press. But it was a recently discovered phenomenon, so I figured it would take some time to capture the public’s imagination. I set a Google alert for “fast radio bursts” and got by on the occasional update on the research.

There was a flurry of stories in late 2015/early 2016 when a repeating signal was found, and another round of stories when, in January of this year, some researchers announced that they had located the source of one of these signals. Contrary to expectation, it was coming from another galaxy three billion light years away. This meant that whatever was generating these bursts (and the researchers were able to shed no light on this) was putting a ginormous amount of energy into it.

As for what is actually causing this phenomenon, the latest hypothesizing is focused on a type of neutron star called a magnetar, but other theories abound. It is genuinely exciting to have a scientific mystery of this proportion that is the focus of such a wide variety of astrophysical speculation.

Despite all this, fast radio bursts never gained much traction as a topic of mainstream scientific interest, but I still find it fascinating. So earlier this week I was very happy to see Quanta Magazine publish an excellent blow-by-blow primer by Katia Moskvitch on this phenomenon that touches on all the most recent discoveries. It conveys some sense of the excitement surrounding this very young field of research.  To give a small taste, here’s how Moskvitch describes the moment in 2015 when researchers found a burst that repeated:

The discovery was “both amazing and terrifying,” Chatterjee said — amazing, because “everyone knew that FRBs don’t repeat,” and terrifying because of the gargantuan energy required to produce even one of these bursts. Perhaps the only thing fiercer than emitting the energy of 500 million suns is doing it again.

Every now and then it is good to be reminded that it really and truly is an exciting time to be alive.

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