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The Taurus Molecular Cloud is the dark region in the upper left of the image, where gas and dust are blocking the stars behind the cloud. Photo: Brett A. McGuire / National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Erin Ross writes: For the first time, scientists have identified a complex molecule in a distant part of the solar system, according to research published Thursday in Science. The find brings scientists closer to solving a 30-year-old astronomical mystery.
Why it matters: The researchers identified benzonitrile, a molecule made of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, which is thought to be a building block for two other types of molecules that are possible precursors for life on Earth.
By finding it — and developing a technique precise enough to identify specific molecules in distant space — scientists are closer to understanding the types of material that may form planets and the composition of our universe.
The next generation of powerful telescopes will scan millions of stars and generate massive amounts of data that astronomers will be tasked with analyzing. That's way too much data for people to sift through and model themselves — so astronomers are turning to artificial intelligence to help them do it.
Yesterday at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society, a series of talks about how machine learning is being used in astronomy and astrophysics offered standing room only. "They are realizing they need to use these techniques to get information from the data," says organizer Aneta Siemiginowska, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The bottom line: Algorithms have helped astronomers for a while, but recent advances in AI — especially image recognition and faster, more inexpensive computing power —mean the techniques can be used by more researchers. “The mode of operation has to change because there is no way we can handle those data flows,” says astronomer Derek Buzasi from Florida Gulf Coast University.
When male Birds of Paradise spread their deep black feathers, it is like looking into a void. Nearly all light — 99.95% of it, to be precise — is lost.
"This black is so dark that your eyes cannot focus on its surface; it looks like a cave, or a fuzzy black hole in space," Harvard University's Dakota McCoy, one of the study's authors, writes in The Conversation.
How it happens: At the nanoscale, the structure of their black feathers is different from those of other species. They're barbed in a way "reminiscent of dried oak leaves" that produces an "array of deep, curved cavities," which scatter light in different directions and trap it, the researchers write. When they coated the Birds of Paradise feathers with gold dust, they remained black, indicating the structure is responsible for absorbing light.
Why it matters: Black is useful for humans, too. Man-made Vantablack, which is just 0.1% darker than these feathers thanks to vertically arranged carbon nanotubes, is used to line space telescopes and for solar cells. The researchers suggest the birds' feathers could be another biological inspiration for such materials.
For the birds, it may be useful, too. Super black plumage is next to vibrant colored feathers, which appear all the more brilliant and attractive to potential mates as a result.
Go deeper: Wired's Matt Simon has the dark details.