The mysterious black behemoths controlling our galaxies
By Anthony King
It was only last year that astronomers were finally able to unveil the first pictures of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. But you couldn’t actually see the black hole itself, not directly. That’s because it is so dense that its gravitational pull prevents even light from escaping.
But the image of Sagittarius A, as our galaxy’s black hole is known, revealed a glowing halo of gas around the object – an object that we now know has a million times more mass than our Sun.
Recent discoveries like that, as well as many others, have astonished astronomers.
‘Over the last few years, everything we thought we knew about black holes now comes with a question mark,’ said Professor Michela Mapelli, an astrophysicist at the University of Padua in Italy.
Everyone has heard of black holes. Few people, though, realise just how much these weird objects continue to vex astronomers.
One black hole announced itself to astronomers last year when it shredded and then swallowed a star that had wandered too close. Another was described as the fastest-growing black hole ever observed, devouring the equivalent mass of one Earth every second. As a result, it’s already 3 billion times more massive than our Sun.
Mapelli studies stellar black holes, which form when a large, fast-burning star collapses in on itself. Compared to the supermassive ones, these black holes are cosmic minnows.
Astronomers had expected such black holes to possess between five to 10 times the mass of our Sun.
But the truth is that these types of black hole come in a much wider range of sizes. In recent years, some have been discovered that are up to about 100 solar masses, as well as one as small as 2.6.
‘We have discovered features and a mass range of black holes that we could not even imagine before the recent observations,’ Mapelli said.
One system that intrigues her is known as binary black holes – where two orbit one another. This can happen when two stars that orbit each other both end their life as black holes.
Then again, there could be many other ways to form binary black holes and this is something that Mapelli studies in her DEMOBLACK project, funded by the European Research Council.
‘Seven years ago, most people were sceptical about the existence of binary black holes,’ she said. ‘Even theorists were not convinced about their existence.’
Now, Mapelli said, almost 100 of them have been discovered. They spew out gravitational waves, ripples in space-time that can be snagged by sophisticated detectors at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the US and Italy’s Virgo interferometer.
Most astrophysicists, according to Mapelli, doubted that two black holes could get intimate enough to merge, but then gravitational waves began signalling the collision of black holes. One peculiar merger event in 2019 happened between black holes 60 and 80 solar masses.
Whether these black holes formed directly from stars isn’t known. This is because the assumption that stellar-born black holes were between five and 10 solar masses has now been sunk.
‘There is a really big question mark over whether the maximum mass of a stellar black hole is just 60 solar masses, or could it be 90, or even 300?’ said Mapelli. ‘I feel guilty about this large uncertainty because I personally helped cause this situation.’
The biggest beasts lie at the centre of almost every galaxy. Nearly all are active, with gravity-sucking hot gas inside them. Some of these black holes have masses up to 10 billion times the mass of our Sun.
‘These are real monsters,’ said Professor Christopher Reynolds at the University of Cambridge in the UK. ‘Their influence in a galaxy can extend 100, even 200, light years out.’
Even at those astronomical distances, stars and galaxies still feel the gravitational tug of these black holes. But their energy blasts as they consume matter can be felt even farther out, as far as 100 000 light years or more.
In the EU-funded DISKtoHALO project, Reynolds is investigating how these supermassive black holes grow, suck hot gas inside them and generate explosions of energy outwards.
‘We know these black holes produce jets of energy, sending shocks outwards,’ he said.
One thing that astrophysicists haven’t been able to figure out yet is why gas in the core of some galaxies can be so hot – up to 10 to 100 million °C – yet the systems are billions of years old and therefore should have had plenty of time to cool down.
How the black holes interact with their immediate surroundings and distant parts of their galaxy is an extremely taxing conundrum. Computer models struggle to help because this requires insight into relatively small scales as well as ginormous scales measured in light years.
‘You are talking about something the size of a tennis ball regulating something that is Earth’s size,’ Reynolds said.
One way to study these supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxy clusters is to examine the hot gases in their vicinity. It is impossible to see these gases with a telescope, but their energy is observable via the X-rays they send out because they are so hot.
Again, it remains unknown why the hot gas doesn’t cool down and coalesce into stars.
‘You need a heater to send out energy in the middle of the cluster and the only heater powerful enough are supermassive black holes,’ Reynolds said.
How precisely this heater works continues to mystify him and his colleagues. It is clear, however, that supermassive black holes do not live tranquilly.
‘These black holes are not even spherical, but they spin themselves into a disc that is rife with instabilities,’ Reynolds said.
Despite new insights into these strange galactic creatures, the true nature of black holes remains obscure. Past assumptions have been shaken.
What we can be sure of is that black holes will continue to puzzle the brightest minds in astronomy.
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council (ERC). This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Accelerating the Use of Digital Technologies is Key to Boosting Economic Growth in Africa
With Africa’s share of the global workforce projected to become the largest in the world by 2100, it is critical for African countries to increase the uptake of digital technologies* to drive employment growth for the more than 22 million Africans joining the workforce each year, emphasizes a new report released today.
The “Digital Africa: Technological Transformation for Jobs” report provides a comprehensive analysis of how digital technologies can enable economic transformation and boost jobs in the region. It also sheds light on how policy and regulatory reforms can widen the availability and increase usage of digital technologies.
Of all the regions in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) displays the largest gap between the availability of digital infrastructure and people’s actual usage. On average across countries in SSA, 84% of a given country’s population had at least some level of 3G mobile internet availability and 63% had some level of 4G mobile internet services, but only 22% were using mobile internet services at the end of 2021, according to numbers collected by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association using a methodology focused on unique subscribers. Usage rates range from a low of 6% in South Sudan to 53% in South Africa, underscoring the heterogeneity of average use and the need for differentiated policy reforms across countries.
“The minimal usage of mobile internet is a lost opportunity for inclusive growth in Africa,” said Andrew Dabalen, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa. “Closing the uptake gap would increase the continent’s potential to create jobs for its growing population and boost economic recovery in a highly digitalized world.”
Even though technology and innovation are known to drive long-term economic growth and can lead to much-needed modernization in economic activities across agriculture, manufacturing and services, the digital divide continues to grow between large formal and micro-sized informal enterprises, between young men- and older women-owned enterprises, and between richer, urban, and more educated households and poorer, rural, and less educated households. Only 2% of micro-sized firms owned by young women and 8% of micro-firms owned by young men use a computer.
The report highlights evidence that internet availability has a positive impact on creating jobs and reducing poverty in African countries. For example, in Nigeria, labor force participation and wage employment increased by 3 and 1 percentage points, respectively, after three or more years of exposure in areas with internet availability. Job estimates for Tanzania found that working-age individuals living in areas with internet availability witnessed increases of 8 percentage points in labor force participation and 4 percentage points in wage employment, after three years of exposure. Moreover, the proportion of households falling below the national basic need poverty line dropped by 7 percentage points.
“To transform internet availability into productive usage and job growth, the region needs affordable access, digital skills and digital technologies that meet the needs of Africans,” said Christine Zhenwei Qiang, World Bank Global Director for Digital Development. “Continuous sector reforms and targeted public investments that support digital economy foundations and digital uptake can help close the digital divide and unleash tremendous potential for more and better jobs for Africa’s growing population.”
For the 40% of Africans who fall below the global extreme poverty line, the cost of basic mobile data plans is often out of reach. Small and medium-sized businesses in Africa also face more expensive data plans than businesses in other regions. To bring down costs, governments should aim to promote competition in the provision of digital infrastructure and reduce operational costs.
To boost productive usage, governments should implement policies that support the development of more attractive digital solutions geared to the skills and productive needs people have while building broader awareness and education. Policies that foster innovation and support digital start-up entrepreneurs are essential to ensure that more Africans use the internet for jobs and learning, which will lead to higher standards of living. When digital technologies better meet the needs of people, households and firms, demand for their use will also increase, making internet expansion more commercially viable, and supporting a virtuous cycle of technology-led transformation.
*For the purposes of the report, digital technologies are defined broadly to include not only digital and data infrastructure, broadband internet, smartphones, tablets, and computers, but also a wide range of more specialized productivity-enhancing digital solutions ranging from communications, management upgrading, and worker training to procurement, production, marketing, logistics, and financing.
Curbing crime with 3D avatars and intelligent design
Reducing everyday offences may depend on harnessing the power of virtual reality, conscious design and community spirit.
By Alex Whiting
Picture a young offender with a headset immersed in a virtual room, coming face to face with an avatar of his or her future self.
The person tells the avatar about his or her lifestyle, substance abuse, debts or time hanging out with delinquent friends. Then the person travels forward through a 3D representation to become a future self and give the younger one advice.
Facing the future
Enabling people to speak to their future selves and ask for advice could help them make better choices today, some scientists say.
‘If people care more about their future selves, we think they will be less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour in the present,’ said Jean-Louis van Gelder, a professor of criminology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is also director at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law.
Van Gelder and other researchers in the EU are taking inspiration from the world of gaming to help bring home to young offenders the longer-term consequences of their choices. Although the technology is still being tested, the early signs are that these 3D virtual representations could help change behaviour for the better.
It’s one of many crime-prevention techniques being developed across Europe.
People who live in a day-to-day survival mode are more likely to commit crime or to abuse drugs and alcohol. That’s because these types of behaviour deliver immediate, albeit small, benefits. The severe costs – including prison – are often in the distant future.
Such short-term mindsets can result from harsh or unpredictable parenting and exposure to delinquent friends or poor role models, according to Van Gelder.
Short-sightedness and impulsivity are often believed to become relatively fixed in children by the age of 10 years, and it is hard to change. But what scientists are beginning to discover is that it can in fact be worked on, opening up the potential to help people stop committing crimes.
He tested the virtual-reality technology with 24 young offenders as part of an EU-funded research project called CRIMETIME, which runs through March 2024.
‘The interesting thing is that people give themselves very sound advice generally,’ said Van Gelder, who coordinates the six-year project supported through the European Research Council. ‘People tend to tell themselves to stop committing crime or to be more disciplined or to look for a job.’
Participants were asked about their behaviour and attitudes in the week before and after the session. The majority reported less harmful or criminal behaviour and greater awareness of their future selves after the session.
It’s extremely difficult to change people’s behaviour, according to van Gelder.
‘The changes were not large, but we saw a reduction, which tells us that we’re on the right track,’ he said. ‘So our hope is that getting advice from themselves will be more convincing than getting advice from other people.’
The next step is to develop a mobile phone app that will give them a similar experience and could be used every day for several weeks.
‘The more they do the exercise, the more vivid their future self becomes,’ said Van Gelder.
And the more connected they feel with their future selves, the more marked the impact on behaviour.
An EU-funded project called Cutting Crime Impact (CCI), which ran for three years until end-2021, focused on more practical ways of preventing crime. These include making buildings, benches, bags and the like harder to target.
‘You can actually design out crime,’ said Professor Caroline Davey, director of the Design Against Crime Solution Centre at the University of Salford in Britain.
She coordinated CCI, which covered seven European countries: Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK.
Since the 1990s, theft from homes and cars has fallen with the design of more secure doors, windows and burglar alarms.
‘We’re always trying to encourage designers to think about the risks associated with their particular products,’ said Davey. ‘It’s not rocket science – it’s fairly easy to predict what will be attractive to potential offenders.’
For example, the back of a bench that has gaps large enough to put two fingers through to reach someone’s pocket or bag will encourage pickpockets. By contrast, designing buildings so that neighbours overlook each other deters burglaries.
Researchers have worked with Britain’s Greater Manchester Police to develop a service to advise architects, urban planners and property developers on crime prevention.
‘They highlight the risks in a particular area and advise them on how they can reduce those risks,’ said Davey.
Similar approaches were crafted under CCI with law-enforcement agencies in most of the participating countries. Police in Estonia’s capital Tallinn took part. They report that crime has plummeted in Tondiraba Park – a large public space in the city – since it was revamped in cooperation with the police.
Kelly Miido, senior superintendent in charge of community policing in Tallinn’s Mustamäe-Kristiine district, said she and her colleagues had to work hard to get local authorities and urban planners to think about potential security risks in their designs and ways to remove them.
‘We had to constantly remind planners that we wanted to be part of the process,’ Miido said.
Now, however, planners and local authorities approach her team to ask for design help.
‘They have found that, if they involve us, they have fewer problems in the long run,’ Miido said.
Before the redesign, the local police had to send a patrol every day to the park during the summer. Now they are called out two or three times a week.
One of CCI’s most important results is a handover process for when community police officers are redeployed, according to Davey, who coordinated the project.
Such patrollers, who walk the streets and get to know locals, play an important role in preventing crime. Because people can talk to them informally, these officers learn a lot about neighbourhood concerns and troubles, including in relation to social vulnerability and radicalisation.
‘Community policing is so important, but is often undermined by lack of funding and appreciation for what these officers do,’ said Davey.
That is reflected in the way that officers can be redeployed with no handover process. Relationships built up over years with a community can be lost overnight.
‘The community aren’t told about the change and often organisations the police officer works with – like social services and schools – don’t know,’ said Davey. ‘This can have a significant impact on people’s trust in policing and, ultimately, their quality of life.’
A handover system addresses the matter with relative ease and at low cost. It involves the redeployed officer and his or her replacement walking the area together and meeting key people.
‘It captures something very human and important, which is the relationships that exist between community police officers, local people and local organisations,’ said Davey.
The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
The Reason Why Europe’s “Right To Be Forgotten” Hasn’t Made it To The United States
In the digital age, an individual’s data can be searchable and accessible at the speed of one click. The more someone interacts with the Internet, the bigger their digital footprint becomes. This footprint is collected, analysed and passed around by countless third parties without the owner’s explicit consent. In addition to companies making a profit from personal data, there’s a high risk of falling victim to leaks and harmful activity. In Europe, the “right to be forgotten” seeks to ensure its citizen’s digital privacy in the data mining economy. In the United States, the concept has drawn both interest and criticism.
What exactly is the right to be forgotten?
The right to be forgotten appears in Article 17 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), stating that the “data subject shall have the right to obtain from the controller the erasure of personal data concerning him or her without undue delay and the controller shall have the obligation to erase personal data without undue delay.” In other words, an individual has the ability to request search engines like Google to delist certain results linked to their name and remove sensitive data from public record databases.
To date, the right to be forgotten is only applicable to residents of the European Union and the European Economic Area. However, it is not an absolute right and it is only valid under specific circumstances, including cases where an organisation has unlawfully processed a person’s data, the data has become irrelevant to the organisation or where the collected data belongs to a child.
While the right to be forgotten was not a GDPR’s invention — it had been present in several jurisdictions in Europe — it gained significantly more traction after the 2014 Google vs. Spain case. The case related to a lawyer whose bankruptcy records had been published on a website that was accessible via Google. The Court ruled in favour of the plaintiff, radically changing the way Europe dealt with digital privacy.
Barriers in the United States
Even though the right to be forgotten only applies to European residents to date, the concept has been gaining ground worldwide. From Argentina to Canada and Japan, policymakers, courts, companies and digital privacy activists have debated whether the right should be incorporated into their nations’ laws. In countries like the Philippines, there is already a version of the right to be forgotten, granting people the ability to order the blocking, removal or destruction of their personal data.
What about the United States? To date, there are no all-encompassing laws or regulatory requirements regarding the blocking or removal of personal information from Google’s search results or online databases in the North American nation. While several states have considered laws similar to the right to be forgotten, none of them reach the scope of Europe.
Critics of the right to be forgotten argue that it contradicts the First Amendment, which grants American citizens the right to free speech. It is believed that the implementation of such a law would contribute to a widespread erasure of digital content that would negatively impact freedom of expression and other human rights. However, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, 74% of U.S. adults support the idea of preventing personal information from being accessible online, while only 23% of respondents favour the ability to discover useful information about others.
Current privacy protection laws and resources in the United States
American privacy protection laws differ from Europe in the sense that there is a lack of a single, comprehensive federal law like the GDPR. By contrast, the U.S. has numerous federal and state laws that offer varying degrees of protection to specific groups of people and focus on specific types of data. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), for example, imposes certain limits on companies’ data collection of children under 13 years old, while the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) grants California residents the right to ask businesses to disclose what personal information they have collected and to delete said information.
The official website of the U.S. government encourages citizens to find out from their state or local consumer agency whether their state has laws to protect their privacy. In addition, they recommend adopting preventive measures, including reading companies’ privacy policies, encrypting Internet connection via a VPN, disabling cookies, and opting out of companies’ mailing lists.
Service providers have also sought to address the privacy question, as evidenced by a surge in automated tools and software that facilitate digital data removal. Companies such as Incogni can have their subscribers’ names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, and other sensitive information removed from market-leading data collection sites.
Going forward, in spite of the scepticism toward the EU’s right to be forgotten, the prevalence of the data mining economy will continue generating discussions on digital privacy protection.
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