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15Dec 2013

Chasing Avi through Outer Space Media reveals All-Purpose Astrophysics Source

Charlie Petit
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Source Fermilab www-astro-theory.fnal.gov/

  (This post's theme is in part an excuse to list some media accounts on a wide range of astrophysics news...Onward.)

   An essential advantage of science writers who didn't just start yesterday is the accumulated list, in memory or in a well-organized file, of reliable sources to call and to get an explanation from an outside perspective of some bit of news. Those who cover astronomy and astrophysics typically may have - going off the top of my head here - such scholars as Brian Greene, Neil deGrass Tyson, Sean M. Carroll, Lawrence Krauss, and if it's planets in play, Geoff Marcy. Brits and Aussies and Indians and other sci journos around the world have similar lists suited to their own regions.

   Most of the above worthies are what might be called public scientists, people who somewhat systematically reach out to explain things to the general citizenry. I just this week tumbled to another person who, though not quite that sort of public figure, may already be on some emergency rosters of those to call in a deadline panic when strange space physics or oddball stellar objects have one stumped or stalled: Harvard's and its (with the Smithsonian) associated Center for Astrophysics's  Abraham (Avi) Loeb. He is chair of the astronomy dept. I just checked for stories by using him as a search term. What a haul.

    As it happens, I tend to notice his name because I have interviewed him myself, first in 2008 for a Science News story on ultramassive blackholes, and two years later for another story in the same pub on ambitions for a globe-spanning virtual millimeter-wave instrument called the Event Horizon Telescope.  Both those links will spare you the bulk of my prose unless you pungle up and get through a pay wall. Anyway, the EHT is a proposed interferometer, already tested in reduced form, lashed up from scores of separate receivers around the world. It should within a few years' recruitment of more observing sites produce collective images of the silhouettes of massive black holes lurking like Smaug in Galactic cores.  Loeb was a fine and patient interview and willing to fact-check my efforts to put things in plain English. At the time I figured he was mostly a black hole guy. I had not realized how well he hits to all fields. Not that I want everybody to swamp him with random queries - maybe it'd be best for first time callers to reach him via a press officer. For all I know he greatly prefers to comment on work by groups to which he belongs. This post cannot be taken for a rounded profile of Avi Loeb. It is a compilation of his public pers0na as filtered through media mentions. But man, what a variety of astronomy and physics topics on which his name pops up.

   What brought him to mind a few days ago is this:

  • Universe Today - Shannon Hall: Fast Radio Bursts May Originate Closer to Home Than Previously Thought ; Tag line says writer Hall is an "aspiring science journalist," and hooray for that. Hall will surely develop a bolder approach to lede paragraphs, to add some snap. But as is this is a well-explained story (and dependent at least in part on a Harvard-Smithsonian CfA press release). The story also circulated widely via aggregator and churnalism sites that re-posted the news release.

   The topic here is a cosmic puzzle - millisecond-long blasts of radio noise - that had been thought to arise at cosmological distances that disperse these chirps in time, spreading them out by frequency, as they pass through the thin intergalactic medium. A new proposal from Loeb at al says maybe the relatively dense plasma atmosphere of source stars in our own galaxy would almost instantly do the same thing to intense crackles of radio noise arising from large flares. Pretty arcane, no? I thought, on reading the story, nothing here about black holes and Hey! didn't I just see Loeb's name in another round of news on a totally different and whacko-ish and insanely obscure topic of able to inspire deep imagination but of neither practical use nor way to test its reality? Yes indeed:

   Stories this month on how life may have arisen in the really early universe when the Big Bang was still warm:

  • Nature.com News - Zeeya Merali: Life possible in the Early Universe ;  Inspired by a short, thought-experiment paper Loeb has online at arxiv.org. The idea is that if stars formed, complete with planets, so long ago the whole universe was warm enough for liquid water and thus be one ginormous habitable zone, life may have followed. The window lasted a few hundred million years. Merali finds a few sources who say, while it may be possible for life to have arisen just a few million years post-bang, it looks very unlikely. One (I) also supposes that any life that so arose likely soon died out as temperatures plummeted and as those massive first stars expired into supernovae and other unfriendly things.  Direct evidence for this era of early biology might be gone, leaving it beyond scientific confirmation.
  • New Scientist - Jacob Aron: Alien life could have basked in big ban's afterglow ; Makes much of the hypothesis's relevance to the anthropic principle, a connection I do not quite grasp.
  • Forbes - Bruce Dorminey: Complex Life Possible Within Cosmos' First Billion Years ;
  • Bonus! (or, nobody should expect scientists never to change their minds. Here's one from when Loeb hadn't fully thought through conditions for life in the young universe) : Universe Today (Jan 7, 2004) Fraser Cain: Lifeless Suns in the Early Universe ;

That's hardly all, lately or further back, some to do with black holes and some not:

 Derring Do. You want a real profile of the man? This one says he is a former tanker and airborne soldier:

 

Comments

Also posted recently: This profile of Avi in Science, for which he gave me about six hours of his time before and after the AAAS meeting in Boston this past February.

(Paywall): http://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6129/136.full

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