New freelance writings: Planet Nine or Planet Nein, climate deniers spreading influence, and the first giant black hole

In case you missed them, here’s a few new stories I’ve published recently. Thanks as usual to all my excellent editors. For the Atlantic piece, I included a paragraph (in parentheses) that didn’t make the final cut.


Is Planet Nine Even Real?

A year and a half after it was proposed, astronomers are still debating whether the giant mystery planet actually exists.

An artist’s impression of Planet Nine. (Credit: ESO / Tom Ruen / nagualdesign)

When Mike Brown first proposed that a hidden, massive planet lurks in the outer reaches of our solar system, he was confident someone would prove him wrong. “Planet Nine,” as the hypothetical world was nicknamed, was his explanation for the strange movements of half a dozen distant, icy planetoids that are farther away and smaller than Pluto: In theory, this huge, somehow-undiscovered planet could sway their orbits. But surely astronomers would be quick to find a more obvious explanation.

“Shockingly, in a year and a half, nobody has,” says Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. “There have been so many claims of planets in the last 170 years, and they were always wrong. But I’m clearly a true believer at this point.”

Brown, the self-titled “Pluto Killer” who led the campaign that demoted the dwarf planet, and Konstantin Batygin, his coauthor at Caltech and a young star who plays in his own rock band, know how to spark debate. Since their proposal about Planet Nine, the lack of definitive evidence for or against its existence has divided the planetary community. Other astronomers have put forth alternative explanations, and some contend Brown and Batygin’s data are biased. Until someone clearly spots the new mystery planet in a telescope, they’ve come to an impasse…

Incidentally, both Batygin and Madigan invoke the principle of Occam’s razor, the notion that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one. But they come to completely different conclusions, highlighting that this seemingly straightforward principle is actually rather complicated, with no clear answer yet in sight.

(In a historical parallel, Brown and Batygin are about the same age as Niels Bohr, already a Nobel laureate, and Werner Heisenberg, an up-and-coming physicist trying to make a name for himself, when they famously clashed with Einstein about how to interpret bizarre observations in quantum mechanics. Bohr’s view ultimately became the “standard” one, but a few holdouts still follow Einstein’s. Nearly 90 years later, some say the dispute remains unresolved.)

[Read the entire piece on The Atlantic, published on 8 December.]


These people think Trump is too liberal on climate

In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate agreement, scrapped the Clean Power Plan that sought to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power generation, pushed to open up new areas of the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling, and blocked government climate scientists from presenting at professional conferences.

But for fossil fuel advocates, deregulation crusaders and climate skeptics who gathered in Houston last week for the Heartland Institute’s America First Energy Conference, Trump has still not gone far enough.

What Heartland, a free-market think tank based in Chicago, really wants is to revoke the “endangerment finding,” which since 2009 has served as the basis for climate policies and regulations.

That includes the Clean Power Plan, the main plank of Barack Obama’s climate program, which would have brought the United States within reach of meeting its commitments to the Paris agreement.

So far, however, Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have not tried to overturn the endangerment finding. And that is a mistake, according to several people at the Heartland conference…

[Read the entire piece on Washington Post, published on 13 November.]


Gargantuan Black Hole Discovered in the Young Universe

The giant black hole is one of the biggest ever observed from this far back in time.

Black holes are a bit like children — the older they are, the more time they have to grow big. But in a rare find, astronomers have just discovered a colossal black hole that’s, cosmically speaking, still a youngster. Weighing in at about 800 million times as massive as our sun, it presents a puzzle to scientists trying to figure out how it could have grown so big so fast.

The so-called “supermassive” black hole is the most distant such object ever observed, which means it dates back to the universe’s early years. It powers an extremely bright quasar, a luminous and remote celestial object that emits enormous amounts of energy, which is how astronomers searching for such quasars with the Magellan Baade telescope in northern Chile were just barely able to spot it in the middle of a galaxy. The black hole reached its enormous size when the universe was just 690 million years old, only 5 percent of its current age. The team published their work in Nature on Dec. 3.

“These [black holes] are super rare. There could be between 10 and a hundred in the whole sky, and the universe is big, so this is really like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Eduardo Bañados, lead author of the study and an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California. “People have been looking for objects like this for decades.”

As long as matter like gas, dust and stars from the host galaxy keeps getting pulled into such a black hole, it gives off bright light in the form of a quasar — in this case as dazzling as 40 trillion suns. But once the fuel runs out, it shuts off, making the discovery all the more fortunate.

Scientists expected that such a giant black hole would have needed a longer time to develop. The very first galaxies could have assembled when the universe was 180 million years old, meaning this black hole and others like it in the early universe would have had little time from a cosmic perspective to become such behemoths…

[Read the entire piece on Inside Science, published on 6 December.]

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