The days of the multi-messenger.

The days of the multi-messenger.

You probably heard of it, by now: a breakthrough in astronomy, announced today by the leaders of three major astro-particle-physics experiments in a joint press release in the US. Everyone in the world of physics was eagerly waiting for today’s news since a few days, when the first leaks went wild about a possible solution of Fermi Paradox.
Curious how partial the press release was, with respect to the credible rumors that had reached us in the meantime. But let’s go in the due order…

It all started almost one year ago, when a neutrino of monstrous energy (around twenty times more than the energy of the LHC beams) hit the Antarctic ice in correspondence of the so-called IceCube neutrino observatory. There was no natural explanation for such a gigantic energy.
And that’s not all.

The IceCube team could reconstruct the incoming direction of that monster neutrino with a precision of better than a quarter of a degree. A clear direction where to look at, for the conventional telescopes located around the world or on satellites. And in that direction, there was a “blazar”: an oddity of Nature, a place whose laws are still poorly known to us.
And that’s not all.

The team operating the MAGIC telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, announced that in coincidence with the arrival of that neutrino, our planet was invested by an anomalous flux of extremely high-energy gamma rays from the same source. The probability of a simple coincidence in direction and time is estimated as one out of thousand.
And that’s not all.

The IceCube team re-analyzed data from the previous years, to understand if this neutrino was the first signal arriving from the mysterious blazar. It was not. They found that starting in October 2014, for a duration of a few months, their apparatus had detected 13 anomalous neutrino events, all from the same direction in space. Individually, they were less spectacular than the monster of 2017, and that explains why they had not attracted the same attention, but taken together that flare of neutrinos was now realized to be statistically striking. A swift reanalysis of all optical observations found, in coincidence with the neutrino flare, also a flare of high-energy gamma rays from the blazar. It had escaped attention thus far because it was subtle: not an excess in number, but a modulation in energy. That correlated very well with the modulation in energy of the neutrinos.
And that’s what the press release recounted, more or less.
But that’s not all.

Some of the observatories involved in the follow-up of the blazar signals feature multi-disciplinary teams. A few of them are active in the SETI project, and include computer scientists, chemists and exobiologists.
The multi-disciplinary team on La Palma was the first to recognize that the pattern of modulations in the correlated neutrino / gamma-ray spectra, when transformed in an appropriate basis, could be used as a set of instructions to synthetize a new substance.
When they managed to create it in their laboratory, however, they were not sure of what to do with that. It was a glutinous liquid, uncannily resembling frog eggs.

But the data were noisy, after all, so before publishing they sent a request to other labs to try to reproduce their findings. Using an independent and rather different data-reduction method, a computer-science team in Wisconsin obtained a similar – but not identical – formula. The result was a more solid material, vaguely looking like a slab of red meat. They nicknamed it “Lord of the Flies”, because of its agitating effect on insects in its proximity.

Given the discording results of the two teams, it was apparently decided by the managers of the main experiments to keep the exobiology findings out of today’s press release. Rumors say that they are still waiting for a third team to settle the dispute: the crew biologists of the IceCube base in the Antarctica. They are known to have state-of-the-art equipment and more reliably controlled environmental conditions than the other teams, thanks to the isolation of their laboratory. However, for some reason, there are no news of the local crew since several days.

References:
“Neutrino emission from the direction of the blazar TXS 0506+056 prior to the IceCube-170922A alert”
“Multimessenger observations of a flaring blazar coincident with high-energy neutrino IceCube-170922A”
Preliminary exobiology data from Wisconsin
Preliminary exobiology data from Antarctica

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In case you are wondering why I chose Nikolai Vavilov as pseudonym, please google his name (together with Lysenko) and read the story of a hero of Science that would deserve to be more broadly known. He lost his status, then his freedom, and eventually his life, because he did not want to compromise scientific truth with political convenience.

“This is a complex matter. It is not to be solved by decree of even the Commissariat of Agriculture. We shall go to the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions. I tell you, in all frankness, that I believe and insist on what I think is right, and not only believe – because taking things on faith in science is nonsense – but also say what I know on the basis of wide experience. This is a fact, and to retreat from it simply because some occupying high posts desire it, is impossible.”