March 19th, 2011
OK, this is the kind of thing that strikes me as funny, but you need some background to appreciate this. It’s a little over-the-top gross as well. I’m afraid the combination of scatalogical humor with a detailed background of my sub-field in astronomy will make this fall flat, but bear with me and we’ll see.
I work on quasar spectral energy distributions, which is basically a complicated way of saying I study quasars with every sort of telescope I can get my hands on (in real life or virtually), and see what they look like in the radio, X-ray, optical, ultraviolet, infrared, etc. Combining this information gives us what is called a “multi-wavelength study.” Writing proposals for multi-wavelength studies is getting easier now, but in the past a lot more astronomers specialized and it was challenging to get a radio astronomer to care about optical information, or an X-ray astronomer about the infrared. There was a metaphor many of us employed so often that it is now almost a cliche. It is the story of the blind men and the elephant.
Basically, the individual parts of an elephant differ significantly. To a blind man who can touch only part of the animal, the tail is like a rope. The tusk is like a spear. The leg is like a pillar. The body is like a high wall. Etc. If you can’t see the whole animal at once, your perspective is biased and you really don’t know what an elephant is, even if you’ve examined one part in close detail.
I’ve posted before about quasars, my specialty. They’re the active nuclei of distant galaxies, the most energetic and luminous objects in the universe. They also have a lot of parts, and these parts most clearly show themselves in different parts of the spectrum. In the radio, quasars look like giant high-speed jets extending far beyond their host galaxies. In the infrared, donuts of dust light years across. In the optical and ultraviolet, they’re bright, variable, and unresolved (starlike), and in the X-rays even smaller and more variable. We’ve been able to infer many things about the energy production mechanisms arising from different parts of the things we call quasars. Ultimately, we’re pretty sure that the primary driving force is a super massive black hole at the center of everything.
I’ve been getting into a subfield of quasar astronomy trying to measure the masses of these black holes using a technique called reverberation mapping.
Now, keep this all in mind, as it was in my mind when I saw this video:
So, if I keep up with this new area, measuring quasar black hole masses, does that make me a hyena?
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