It is amazing that in the same week, it was science — not necessarily politics — that stole headlines: We took a photo (so to speak) of a black hole; and we found some distant human relatives.
Scientific breakthroughs are always exciting. But it is rare (almost as rare as finding a black hole or a distant species) to make such breathtaking discoveries.
Fossil bones and teeth found in the Philippines have revealed a long-lost cousin of modern people, which evidently lived around the time our own species was spreading from Africa to occupy the rest of the world.
It’s yet another reminder that, although Homo sapiens is now the only surviving member of our branch of the evolutionary tree, we’ve had company for most of our existence.
And, it makes our understanding of human evolution in Asia “messier, more complicated, and whole lot more interesting,” says one expert, Matthew Tocheri of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
In a study released Wednesday by the journal Nature, scientists describe a cache of seven teeth and six bones from the feet, hands and thigh of at least three individuals. They were recovered from Callao Cave on the island of Luzon in the northern Philippines in 2007, 2011 and 2015. Tests on two samples show minimum ages of 50,000 years and 67,000 years.
The main exodus of our own species from Africa that all of today’s non-African people are descended from took place around 60,000 years ago.
Analysis of the bones from Luzon led the study authors to conclude they belonged to a previously unknown member of our “Homo” branch of the family tree. One of the toe bones and the overall pattern of tooth shapes and sizes differ from what’s been seen before in the Homo family, the researchers said.
They dubbed the creature Homo luzonensis. It lived in eastern Asia at around the same time as not only our species but other members of the Homo branch, including Neanderthals, their little-understood Siberian cousins the Denisovans, and the diminutive “hobbits” of the island of Flores in Indonesia.
Then, in a galaxy far, far away …
In a breakthrough that thrilled the world of astrophysics and stirred talk of a Nobel Prize, scientists released the first image ever made of a black hole, revealing a fiery doughnut-shaped object in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth.
“Science fiction has become science fact,” University of Waterloo theoretical physicist Avery Broderick, one of the leaders of the research team of about 200 scientists from 20 countries, declared as the colorized orange-and-black picture was unveiled.
As one article noted, “Humanity got its first glimpse Wednesday of the cosmic place of no return: a black hole. And it’s as hot, as violent and as beautiful as science fiction imagined.”
The image, assembled from data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, shows light and gas swirling around the lip of a supermassive black hole, a monster of the universe theorized by Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by observations over the decades.
Supermassive black holes are situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, and are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull. Light gets bent and twisted around by gravity in a bizarre fun-house effect as it gets sucked into the abyss along with superheated gas and dust.
The new image helps confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein even predicted the neatly symmetrical shape that scientists just found.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” announced Sheperd Doeleman, of Harvard, leader of the project.
Jessica Dempsey, another co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery circle reminded her of the flaming Eye of Sauron, also from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Three years ago, scientists using an extraordinarily sensitive observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Einstein predicted. The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world, adds light to that sound.
Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel, just like the gravitational wave discovery.
Certainly, this is the kind of news we all needed — a distraction from the endless political droning on. It is exciting to know we can exceed our capacities and amaze ourselves through science and creative thinking.
Now, if we could just pool our knowledge and resources to fix a few other things, like potholes.