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BunsenBwog: Diet of the Stars

Some galaxy somewhere

After a brief hiatus, BunsenBwog is back, bringing you the best science happenings at Columbia. This week, Bwog’s resident stargazer Zach Kagan discovers that when you stare into a black hole, it stares back into you.

While Columbians have been bogged down with hurricanes, blizzards and midterms, NASA’s plucky  NuSTAR X-ray telescope has been enjoying clear skies in orbit 550 km above Earth’s surface. BunsenBwog has been keeping close tabs on NuSTAR because A) it’s awesome and B) Columbia Engineers are responsible for the device that allows the telescope to focus and amplify X-rays as they are collected. Now NuSTAR has been directed at the center of our galaxy, to observe the massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. To be more accurate, it’s aimed at Sagittarius A*, a very compact radio-source that is thought to be a black hole.

However, Sgr A* doesn’t act like black holes in neighboring galaxies, which have a habit of gobbling up whatever star or gas cloud passes too close to their event horizon. That cosmic consumption results in temperatures of over 100,000 million degrees Celsius and massive emissions of radiation, but scientists haven’t seen the same behavior from Sgr A*. Then again, there’s been no way to directly measure the X-rays created during such events, until now. NuSTAR is already  collecting X-ray data from Sgr A*  which will allow astrophysicists to learn more about the eating habits of black holes. According to Columbia’s Professor Chuck Hailey, “astronomers have long speculated that the black hole’s snacking should produce copious hard X-rays, but NuSTAR is the first telescope with sufficient sensitivity to actually detect them.”

Chances are that a combination of sleeping in during long weekends and staying up all night cramming for midterms has left you with a sleep schedule so unhealthy it’s denied health insurance.   But it turns out that erratic sleep patterns don’t just affect your mood; they screw with your appetite too. A joint team of researchers from Columbia and St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital have found that when you get less sleep you’re more likely to be hungrier and crave more sweet and salty foods. That means the longer you spend up all night procrastinating the more you are contributing to your gut.

But when it comes to unhealthy habits that Columbians indulge in during midterm season, smoking just keeps getting worse. On top of putting up with the cold outside, teeth staining, and looming risk of cancer, smoking as been now shown to increase the virulence of Staphylococcus aureus. You didn’t read that wrong—Ritwij Kulkarni and a team of CU colleagues have found that smoking doesn’t just make lungs more susceptible to infection, but also actually boosts their infectious ability. The reason for this is that smoking creates reactive chemical compounds (such as H2O2) in the respiratory tract, which aid in the growth of biofilms. For those not in the know, a biofilm is a slimy, thin surface made up on bacterial colonies which have grown together. It turns out that biofilm production is a big plus when it comes to starting infections—just one more reason that smoking is gross.

Three Columbia scientists are participating in PBS’s latest Nova web series: “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.” The video series plans to give you an inside look at what happens when “the lab coats come off.” Representing Columbia is self-professed “microbe-hunter” W. Ian Lipkin who shows off his role as Hollywood consultant for the pandemic thriller Contagion, neuroscientist David Sulzer who taught elephants to play music in Thailand, and geology Ph.D. candidate Adrienne Block who plays bassoon. They join a growing list of personalities including an evangelical climate scientist, a cancer researcher who moonlights as a shofar player, a theoretical physicist who pilots plane gliders, and a microbiologist and part-time female professional wrestler under the stagename of “Mischief.” Of course, PBS mainstays such as Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson make appearances (although “cosmic tie collector” seems like a bit of a stretch for a secret life there, Neil).

A land far, far away via Shutterstock


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  • Spelling Nazi says:

    @Spelling Nazi respiratory tract*

  • Star Gazer says:

    @Star Gazer I don’t get it, is there something wrong with our center? While other galaxies have central black holes that emit copious amounts of radiation, our Milky Way’s black hole in the direction of Sagittarius A is quiet. Can a black hole die if it’s not feed? Are we better off or worse off? Should I worry?

  • Little Miss Grammar says:

    @Little Miss Grammar Isn’t Lipkin a “self-professed” microbe hunter and not a “self-processed” one? It’s not that I understand either term but there seems to be more talk and less action in a movie like “Contagion.” Actually, I haven’t seen it but when I was a kid, I was scared by the “Andromeda Strain” which has nothing to do with that galaxy or its overactive black hole center.

    1. Zach says:

      @Zach Welcome to BunsenBwog, where the words are interchangeable and grammar doesn’t matter! Oh well, we fix these things when we notice them.

  • Marlboro Man says:

    @Marlboro Man Joe Camel and I used to hob nob about the campus but now we slink among the shadows since Bloomberg and the University have banned our proclivity. I know nothing about biofilms, but sleep deprivation is our way of life and we are slim as rails. Join us sometime at the Crypt as we recite lines and puff weed.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Focusing X rays device must be a masterpiece of engineering. Go NuSTAR to infinity and beyond..

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