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A black hole from the dawn of light

Artist’s conception of the most-distant supermassive black hole ever discovered.
Artist’s conception of the most-distant supermassive black hole ever discovered. Illustration: Robin Dienel / Carnegie Institution for Science

Astronomers have found a black hole with a mass 800 million times greater than that of the Sun. The finding from 690 million years after the Big Bang, reported today in the journal Nature, may help scientists to better understand the evolution of the early universe when the first galaxies, stars and elements formed.

“It was the universe's last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics," astronomer Eduardo Bañados from the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science said in a press release.

Some history: After a rapid phase of expansion immediately after the Big Bang, the plasma of electrons and protons in the universe began to cool about 400,000 years later and the particles clumped together to form neutral hydrogen gas. There was no light in the universe then until gravity formed matter into the first stars and galaxies. Their birth released ultraviolet light that pushed electrons out of the neutral hydrogen gas, putting it in the form we still see the gas in today — and the universe in a new phase where it was transparent to light.

What they saw: Using NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and ground-based telescopes in Chile and New Mexico, they detected light from a quasar, bright disks of gas and dust that form as black holes draw in matter. The spectrum of light emitted indicated neutral hydrogen surrounds it — placing it in one of the universe'se key transitions.

"We have an estimate now, with about 1 to 2 percent accuracy, for the moment at which starlight first illuminated the universe," MIT's Rob Simcoe, an author of the study, told NPR.

It's size, given the universe was just 5% of its current age, is also confounding. “This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form," study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a press release.

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The worst flu season in eight years

Note: Activity levels are based on outpatient visits in a state compared to the average number of visits that occur during weeks with little or no flu virus circulation; Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

This year's flu season caught many experts off guard with both its sustained prevalence and its virulence. At its peak, there was a higher level of flu-like illnesses reported than any other year during the past eight years. Watch in the visual as it hits its peak around Week 18.

Why it matters: Public health officials try to capture this data when developing the next year's vaccines. And, of course, they want to find better ways to prevent severe flu seasons. There's a "Strategic Plan" to develop a universal vaccine to protect against a wider range of influenza viruses, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios.

Steve LeVine 14 hours ago
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The stakes for who wins the AI race

A sentient computer saying 'Hello World' in English, Chinese and Russian.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

One of the most urgent themes in technology is the global rivalry for dominance of the evolving sector of artificial intelligence — geopolitical and economic supremacy is said to be at stake. Experts view the U.S. and China as the top contenders, but other nations, including Russia, are working on AI, too.

What it means: In its latest edition, the Economist draws a sharp line as to the extraordinary ramifications of the race. "The global spread of a technosystem conceived in, and to an unknown extent controlled by, an undemocratic, authoritarian regime could have unprecedented historical significance," the magazine wrote.