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Astronomers Discover the Largest Pair of Supermassive Black Holes Ever Observed

Blackhole merger

Astronomers have made a groundbreaking discovery that sheds light on the formation of supermassive black holes, the most massive pair ever seen in the universe. These black holes, found 24 light years apart, have a combined mass of 28 billion solar masses, making them the heaviest pair ever observed.

Supermassive black holes are a common feature at the centers of most galaxies, but the process of their formation has long been a mystery to astronomers. One prevailing theory suggests that these black holes merge repeatedly to grow larger. The recent discovery of the massive pair of black holes supports this idea, offering valuable insights into the evolution of these enigmatic cosmic entities.

Black holes are regions of space where the gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. While the concept of black holes may seem complex, their significance in the study of astrophysics cannot be overstated. Supermassive black holes, with masses ranging from hundreds of thousands to billions of times that of the Sun, are believed to exist at the core of most massive galaxies.

Galaxy mergers are a common occurrence in the universe, and they often result in the formation of binary black hole pairs. These pairs consist of two black holes orbiting each other, eventually merging to form a single entity. While this merging process has never been directly observed, a recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal offers new insights into this phenomenon.

Magnetic fields mapped within the Whirlpool Galaxy. Credit: NASA, SOFIA science team, ESA, STScI

The team of astronomers, led by Tirth Surti, studied a binary black hole system within the elliptical galaxy B2 0402+379. Using data from the Gemini North Telescope, they were able to analyze the system in unprecedented detail. The black holes in this system are only 24 light years apart and have a combined mass of 28 billion solar masses.

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By studying the stars surrounding the black holes with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS), the team was able to measure their velocity. This velocity data not only helped determine the mass of the black hole pair but also provided insights into the mechanisms that delay and potentially stall their merging process.

The researchers found that B2 0402+379 is a “fossil cluster,” resulting from the merger of an entire cluster of galaxies. In such cases, the black holes do not collide directly but instead orbit each other in a bound system. As they pass each other, energy is transferred to nearby stars, gradually bringing the black holes closer together.

However, in the case of supermassive binary black holes, the sheer mass of the objects makes the merging process more complex. The team suggests that an abundance of surrounding stars would be necessary to slow down the black holes sufficiently for them to merge. The lack of sufficient matter in the vicinity of these black holes may prevent their orbits from decaying and merging.

It remains unclear whether the binary black holes in B2 0402+379 will eventually merge or continue orbiting indefinitely. If they do merge, the resulting gravitational waves could be exceptionally powerful, potentially exceeding the impact of stellar mass black hole mergers by hundreds of millions of times.

Source: Astronomers Measure Heaviest Black Hole Pair Ever Found

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Chats and reflections on the present moment.

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Lydia Polgreen

Credit…Will Heath/NBC, via Getty Images

It is a rare thing in our rapidly secularizing country to be confronted with piety and devotion in popular culture. So it was a surprise, and a balm, to watch a man who prays daily and talks openly about his devout faith storm a bastion of earthly godlessness: “Saturday Night Live.”

I am referring, of course, to the comedian Ramy Youssef, who hosted the show on what he described in his opening monologue as “an incredibly spiritual weekend,” noting Ramadan, Easter and the arrival of a new Beyoncé album.

“I’m doing the Ramadan one,” he quipped, to peals of laughter, unspooling a very funny bit about how loving Muslims are. Youssef has mined his experience as a believer among the profane in gentle standup specials and a namesake sitcom. His entire monologue glowed with a welcoming warmth — Muslims, he seemed to say: We’re just like you.

In a country that is supposedly obsessed with diversity and inclusion, it is remarkable how rare it is to hear from a practicing Muslim in America.

Surveys by the Institute for Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan research organization focused on Muslim Americans, have consistently found that Muslims are the most likely group to report religious discrimination in the United States. According to a Pew survey conducted in 2021, 78 percent of Americans said that there was either a lot or some discrimination against Muslims in our society. Muslims are no more likely to commit crimes than members of any other group, but crimes in which Muslims are suspects get outsized media coverage, research has shown.

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It is no surprise, then, that Islamophobia is perhaps the most tolerated form of religious prejudice. Right now, Senate Republicans appear to have persuaded several Senate Democrats to vote against a Muslim judicial nominee after smearing him, with no evidence at all, as an antisemite.

Many of the skits that toyed with religion on “S.N.L.” on Saturday were funny — Ozempic for Ramadan! Genius. But part of me winced through them as well, because I saw in Youssef something that other members of minority groups have had to do to “earn” their place in the safety of the mainstream: the performance of normalcy, of being nonthreatening and sweet, the requirement to prove that your community belongs in America just like everyone else’s.

I loved Youssef’s monologue, in which he bravely pleaded, “Please, free the people of Palestine. And please, free the hostages. All of the hostages.”

“I am out of ideas,” Youssef declared toward the end of his monologue. “All I have is prayers.”

To which this nonbeliever can only say: Same, Ramy. Same.

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