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The astonishing first photo of a black hole, revealed Wednesday by the team behind the Event Horizon Telescope, opens up new avenues for researchers to probe more deeply into the inner workings of these extreme and fundamental aspects of our universe.
Why it matters: The major announcement that scientists have finally caught one on camera, so to speak, paves the way for the pursuit of new avenues in astrophysics that will probe the nature of gravity, scientists tell Axios. This work may reveal limits to Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.
Details: One focus for scientists going forward will be trying to observe and understand the powerful jets of radiation and ultra high-speed particles that are ejected from near the black holes at close to the speed of light. It's thought that black holes are the source for some of the most energetic particles in the universe, known as cosmic rays.
Context: The photo, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, shows the shadow of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy's supermassive black hole surrounded by a ring of light near the object's event horizon — the point at which nothing, not even light, can escape the gravitational pull of the black hole.
What's next: Sera Markoff, a member of the EHT science council and theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam, tells Axios that even with the new discovery, scientists are still limited in their understanding of black holes.
"I’m very interested in this interface with theoretical physics, and what are black holes really?" Markoff tells Axios.
"We know that Einstein was right in a general sense, but we don’t actually understand why gravity works the way it does on a really microscopic level. How does it function? Gravity is not a force like the others … general relatively explains how it works, but it doesn’t answer the why."— Sera Markoff
Markoff says the jets that are "literally rooted in the black hole" could be used to figure out something fundamental about the nature of space-time. "So we’re not there yet, but there’s just so much that’s going to come out of this," she says.
The intrigue: "The most exciting thing we could possibly do would be to supplant Einstein, to find that in this extreme gravitational laboratory that there’s something a little new," Avery Broderick, an astrophysicist with the EHT team, said at the press conference.
Where it stands: Currently, EHT consists of 9 radio telescopes at 7 sites, including those in Antarctica and Greenland.
EHT project director Sheperd Doeleman, University of Arizona's Dan Marrone, Avery Broderick and Sera Markoff (l to r) at April 10 news conference. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
"Sometimes the math looks ugly. But really, there’s a strong aesthetic in theoretical physics ... and the Einstein equations are beautiful. And so often in my experience, nature wants to be beautiful."— Avery Broderick
Context: Broderick was speaking at the press conference about how the EHT's results proved Einstein right yet again. Even though Einstein did not believe black holes existed, his theory of general relativity describes how they function.
Why it matters: This reveals how theoretical physicists like Broderick view Einstein's theory of general relativity, and how it's held up over time. He went on to say that further exploration of black holes, using the EHT, may yield new information that runs counter to Einstein's findings.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
An important way to prevent depression relapse could be to figure out how to maintain parts of neurons in the brain known as dendritic spines, according to a study out today, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.
The study in mice, published in the journal Science, examines ketamine, an antidepressant that's getting a lot of buzz.
Why it matters: Depression affects nearly 20% of Americans — 80% of whom will endure a relapse after remission and 30% of whom will have treatment-resistant depression.
What they did: Study author Conor Liston tells Axios the research team essentially did two experiments after the first one found "the formation of synapses are important ... but not in the way we thought."
What they found: Stress caused the mice to lose some synapses in their brains, but these were mostly restored after given ketamine, Liston says. The tool then erased the newly formed synapses to see how behavior changed — and the mice reverted to their prior "depressed" behavior.
What they're saying: Liston says the findings indicate that ketamine's antidepressant effect could last longer if interventions can be created that enhance and protect the new synapse formation.
The Arctic region has been pushed into an entirely new climate, one that's outside the experience of longtime residents and native wildlife, shows a new report in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Why it matters: The far north is undergoing profound changes that are affecting the rest of the world, from the melting of permafrost, which releases greenhouse gases, to the disappearance of sea ice.
The big picture: To understand how unusual and consequential Arctic warming is, one need only to look at recent events in Alaska, which this year experienced its warmest March on record, and warmest October through March. In fact, Alaska has had its warmest 6 years on record, too.
Details: People across the state are coping with an unusually early start to spring, according to Dave Snider, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Alaska.
Between the lines: In Talkeetna, north of Anchorage, workers who produce birch syrup had to be called in on an emergency basis, several weeks earlier than normal, because temperatures were rising so quickly, Snider says.
March is no fluke. “It doesn’t appear to be a one-off if you do the stats,” Snider says.
The bottom line: A new Arctic has emerged during the past 40 years, and Alaska is experiencing that firsthand.
Scientists announced a preliminary success in devising a cancer "vaccine" that was able to help prime the immune system to attack lymphoma cancer tumors in some patients, leading to a period of remission, according to a small clinical study, Eileen writes.
Why it matters: Indolent non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (iNHL) tends to be a slow-growing cancer that is incurable with standard therapy and responds poorly to a newer type of treatment called checkpoint blockade.
Background: Dendritic and T-cells both play powerful but distinct roles in the immune system. Dendritic cells detect an infection or cancer cells and alert the T-cells to attack en masse.
What they did: The trial, which began in 2013 and was published in Nature Medicine Monday, tested a three-pronged attack as part of the treatment. The tests were done first in animals and then in 11 human patients, most of whom had iNHL, says study author Joshua Brody, director of the lymphoma immunotherapy program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
How it works: Each of the 3 components in the treatment plays an important role, Brody says. Separately, each have shown modest improvements in patient outcomes, but together they show a stronger impact.
What they found: The mouse trial was robust and successful, while the trial in the human participants showed a strong response in some, but not all, patients.
What they're saying: Several experts who were not part of this study tell Axios it shows some promising results, but also caution that the study was small and only helped some of the patients.
Go deeper: Read more of Eileen's story.
Beresheet looking back at the Earth after launch in March. Photo: SpaceIL/IAI
The Israeli Beresheet lunar lander didn't stick its potentially historic moon landing on Thursday, suffering from a main engine failure in the final moments of its descent.
Why it matters: Had it not crashed, Beresheet would have been the first privately funded spacecraft to land on the moon's surface and the first for Israel. In spite of the failure, this historic mission shows that space is slowly but surely becoming more and more accessible.
The big picture: SpaceIL — the non-profit behind the mission — wasn't backed by a government, but instead raised money for the mission through donations from wealthy philanthropists.
Background: SpaceIL originally conceived of the mission to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize — a $30 million contest to encourage private industry to pave a commercially-sustainable path to the moon. That contest ended without a winner in 2018.
What they're saying: Newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on hand for the landing. "If at first you don't succeed, you try again," Netanyahu said after the mission's failure.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios
Podcast: America's return to the moon (Dan Primack and Miriam Kramer)
"Cosmic cartography" gets a jump start (Miriam Kramer)
The new space race (Miriam Kramer)
A worldwide census from the sky (Kaveh Waddell)
Meet Katie Bouman, One Woman Who Helped Make the World's First Image of a Black Hole (Katy Steinmetz, Time)
A Mysterious Infection, Spanning the Globe in a Climate of Secrecy (Matt Richtel and Andrew Jacobs, NYT)
Earth’s grasslands are vanishing. See the wildlife that calls them home (Natasha Daly, NatGeo)
Aerial photo of wildflowers blooming in California's Antelope Valley in April. Photo: Jim Ross/NASA
Copious amounts of winter rainfall led to one of the biggest blooms of wildflowers in the California desert in years. The flowers were so abundant and bright that they were visible from space.
This photo, however, was taken at a far lower altitude, from aboard a NASA T-34 airplane flying above the Antelope Valley of California on April 2. It was published on NASA's main website on April 10 and shows both yellow wildflowers and orange poppies, which is the state flower.
Thanks for reading! See you back again next Thursday. Have a great week!