High drama, but there’s more. Gravitational wave telescopes can brag that they’re panoptical — meaning they’ll sense an event no matter which direction it comes from. The downside of this Cyclopean view is that it’s hard to pinpoint the source. Indeed, the LIGO-Virgo apparatus can certify only that this recent event occurred in an area of sky comparable in size to a small constellation. That’s a lot of sky to search, so it’s akin to hearing a shot without knowing where it came from.
But within seconds of the August detection, space-based gamma ray telescopes also registered bursts. Over the next several weeks, 70 optical and radio telescopes were able to pinpoint the source of the commotion — a brightening point of light near the galaxy NGC 4993. In these unremarkable voids, 50 times the distance of the well-known Andromeda galaxy, two unseen neutron stars had squalled their death into the cosmos.
They also made a contribution to humanity. The collision ejected, at ferocious speed, heavy elements like gold, silver, and platinum — materials that only the titanic explosions that mark the death of stars can create.
For years, astrophysicists have speculated that gamma-ray bursts — one of the most energetic of nature’s phenomena and a potential threat to life anywhere — might be due to colliding neutron stars. There’s now greater reason to believe that’s true. Dead stars do tell tales. And the observation is another clue that catastrophes matter. Gradualism doesn’t explain everything about the universe, just as it doesn’t explain everything about the evolution of species.
That bling you’re wearing? It came from a star’s demise, a death so violent it could shake the universe.
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