Episode 5 - Can AI Uncover the Origins of the Biggest Black Holes?

Guest: Dr Becky Smethurst

For thousands of years we earthlings have been fascinated with the night sky and its myriad stars.

Beginning with Galileo’s first telescope and accelerating ever since, astronomical instruments have dramatically expanded our ability to examine the things we see in the night sky.

For example, an old issue of Scientific American published near the end of the First World War contains an article entitled “The Heavens in August, 1918”. It reports on a “great new nova” in the constellation Aquila. A nova is a star that suddenly, and for a relatively short time, becomes much brighter than in the past. This report notes that the only other nova of modern times had been discovered seventeen years earlier, in 1901.

In a YouTube video dated 22 July 2021, our guest for this episode, Dr. Becky Smethurst, explains that the classic type of supernova is “a massive star, ten times the size of our sun, that runs out of fuel at the end of its life.” Essentially gravity starts to crush it inwards. Finally, all of the outer layers of the star rebound off the inner core and get thrown out in a huge explosion.

Today, the rate of discovery of novas has increased dramatically. One of the reasons: our instruments survey so much more of the sky, both in angular area and depth, which means we capture more such events. Greater depth means further away in space, and thus further back in time. For example, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory telescope, is scheduled to be launched in October of 2022 and to become operational about a year later. It is estimated that the Rubin telescope will photograph the entire available sky every few nights. Experts predict that it will discover three to four million supernovas over its projected ten-year service life.

This deluge of data has exceeded the capacity of traditional astronomical analytic processes, in which trained experts, usually graduate students, pore over and analyze the raw data. Astronomers and astrophysicists have lately been exploring two new pathways: [1] crowd sourcing using systems like the Galaxy Zoo and [2] Artificial Intelligence.

The flood of recorded observational data enables us to ask questions about the stellar universe or cosmos that 100 years ago would have been incomprehensible to anyone hearing them: like which comes first – the formation of a galaxy or of a black hole within it? In this episode of Mind the Gap: dialogs on AI we talk with Dr. Becky Smethurst, a research fellow at Christ Church College, Oxford University whose research concerns questions like, do galaxies and black holes evolve together? And, what influence does a supermassive black hole have on matter near its event horizon and on the galaxy it is at the center of? We are particularly interested to ask her how astronomers are contemplating the use of AI to sort through and analyze the data.

Dr. Smethurst is at the leading edge of the use of artificial intelligence in astronomical research. We encourage you to take an evening and read her short book, Space – 10 Things You Should Know. Or watch some of her YouTube videos, published weekly, that explore questions about stars, galaxies, and black holes.

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