Gamma ray bursts used to be very confusing. Giant bright spots of energy that appeared in the sky containing more energy that all the stars of a galaxy combined.
That wasn’t the confusing part so much, though. What confused us was learning just how far away those bursts of energy originated. After we realized the Soviet Union wasn’t launching a nuclear attack on us, we eventually thought these energy bursts were occuring very near the “edge” of the universe, some of the first matter to exist after the big bang.
To have something create that much gamma radiation at such an unbelievable intensity, considering the enormous distance it most certainly travelled to reach would require an emmission of energy that was far greater than was possible even using all the matter contained in a galaxy. Many thought this phenomena would break Einstein’s famous E=mc2 — as far more energy was produced than could be accounted for with any matter.
Then they figured out that the blast didn’t travel in all directions out like a normal blast. Instead, it was focused into a beam – or cone. This saved Einstein’s equation since the mass required to produce the energy was greatly lessened by the fact that the energy output was highly directionally limited.
It’s still a lot of energy, though. If a long burst (around 2 seconds) gamma explosion happened even within 6,000 or so light years of Earth, it would likely wreak havoc with our atmosphere, stripping the ozone layer, and would likey cause mass extinction. The center of our Milky Way galaxy is about 26,000 light years away.
As if comets, volcanos, earthquakes, floods and general stupidity surrounding the harmful substances we produce weren’t enough to worry about…
But happily, scientists are now thinking that the Milky Way galaxy may not be able to produce gamma ray bursts. They say this, even though they still don’t really know what is causing them. At least it’s thinking positively.
There have been many theories about what causes GRB’s. People have imagined it must surely be black holes colliding. Or neutron stars colliding. Or neutron stars colliding with black holes. Or super huge, very hot, wildly spinning stars dying and exploding with black holes at their centers – lighter metal stars. Stars that explode so violently in their core that the wave travelling forth practically destroys the matter of the star itself on the way out.
And now some of these theories might be playing out sensibly. With all the equipment we have up in space watching these things, not the least of which is Swift, and with people paying attention to seemingly unrelated, mad thinking, it appears that observable GRB’s have only originated from galaxies with very sub-standard levels of heavy elements. Our Milky Way has a good deal more heavy elements than these. At least that’s what the New Scientist reports.
So, at least we might not get vaporized by something blowing up billions of trillions of miles away. Maybe… 😉