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September 2019

Reading Astronomy News: Our Galaxy’s Black Hole Suddenly Lit Up and Nobody Knows Why

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Stacy Palen

Sgr A* is flaring to twice peak historical levels, possibly because of gravitational disturbance from S0-2. This particular article from Vice News provides a good opportunity to help students see when they are being “click-baited,” since “Nobody Knows Why” is a bit of a tease. There are actually several explanations for why this might happen, as the article later explains.


1) “Flux” may be a new vocabulary word, particularly in this context. Look it up and summarize the definition that is relevant to this article in your own words.

Flux is the light emitted per second per square meter.


2) The article states that we have been monitoring Sgr-A* for about 20 years. What technological improvements made a monitoring campaign like this one possible?

We needed to be able to observe in the infrared at high enough resolution to avoid confusion of sources in this tightly packed region of the Galaxy.


3) What possible causes for the flare are given in the article?

A close pass of SO-2 may have disturbed the gas near the black hole. We may be seeing a delayed reaction from a dust cloud that passed by and was torn apart.


4) Notice the article’s title: “…and Nobody Knows Why”. Do you think that this is an accurate characterization of what astronomers know about this flare? Why do you think the article’s title was written in this way?

Answers will vary for the first question; the second answer should include something about baiting people to click on the story.

Reading Astronomy News: Lost Cities and Climate Change

By Stacy Palen

Remnants of the lost city of Cahokia. Credit: Steve Moses/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


In this article from Scientific American, a climate scientist talks about why she is not reassured by the idea that “the climate has changed before.” This is an opinion piece, but it is worth a read if you have students who raise this argument.


1) The author points out that climate has changed many times in the past. Does that imply that Earth’s climate is sensitive to small changes or insensitive to small changes?

It implies that Earth’s climate is very sensitive to small changes.


2) This scientist is making the case that historical climate change has had dramatic and long-lasting effects on human communities. Do they provide evidence to support this argument?

Yes. The author mentions many examples, from both prehistoric and historic times.


3) The author also makes the case that many factors contributed to these effects. Identify an example of a pre-existing condition that was made worse by natural climate change.

Answers vary, but the overextended Roman empire or inequality in France might be mentioned.


4) Do you see any evidence for a similar pre-existing condition in the country today? Explain.

Answers will obviously vary depending on where you live. This is a small test of how well-informed students are about what’s happening in the larger society.


5) Describe how climate change might impact the condition you noted in (4).

Answers will vary, but should be consistent with their answer to 4. So, for example, if they mention immigration, they might include here a mention of how drought drives migratory patterns.


6) In your own words, explain the argument this scientist proposes that historical climate change should be seen as concerning rather than reassuring.

Answers will vary based on the students’ comprehension of the post.


Posters Celebrating Women in STEM


By Stacy Palen

This set of nifty (free!) posters came through my inbox over the summer. We printed some of them to hang around the Physics Department, and the College of Science more generally.

In addition to raising awareness of the contribution of women, they raise awareness of the contribution of other marginalized groups as well.

Take a look!