Nova (1974–…): Season 29, Episode 1 - Death Star - full transcript

Astronomers struggle for decades to determine where gamma ray bursts are coming from unsure whether they are nearby or half way across the universe. Once that is pinned down an even bigger question arises, what could possibly produce them.

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Peering into the
depths of space, astronomers

depths of space, astronomers
glimpse something astounding:

glimpse something astounding:
the most powerful explosions

the most powerful explosions
since the creation of the

since the creation of the
universe.

- Universe.
- There's just

There's just
nothing we know of in the

nothing we know of in the
universe that comes anywhere

universe that comes anywhere
close.

- Close.
- Explosions that

Explosions that
released more energy than ever



released more energy than ever
thought possible.

- Thought possible.
- This is the kind

This is the kind
of energy you need if you took

of energy you need if you took
the mass of our Sun... our Sun...

The mass of our Sun... our Sun...
And turned it into energy in ten

and turned it into energy in ten
seconds... pure energy, e=MC2

seconds... pure energy, e=MC2

Their deadly

Their deadly
radiation flared through entire

radiation flared through entire
galaxies.

Galaxies.
What would happen if such an

What would happen if such an
event took place near Earth?

- Event took place near Earth?
- It would be

It would be
sort of like Hiroshima going off



sort of like Hiroshima going off
all over the world all at one

all over the world all at one
time.

- Time.
- For decades,

For decades,
scientists have searched for the

scientists have searched for the
cause of this phenomenal

cause of this phenomenal
violence.

Violence.
What is the source of these

What is the source of these
explosions that go back to the

July, 1967, an
American satellite is on the

American satellite is on the
lookout for nuclear blasts

lookout for nuclear blasts
coming from the far side of the

coming from the far side of the
moon.

Moon.
It sounds like the plot of a

It sounds like the plot of a
Cold War thriller, yet with

Cold War thriller, yet with
Russia and America locked in an

Russia and America locked in an
arms race, the U.S. military

arms race, the U.S. military
perceived a very real threat.

Perceived a very real threat.

Seven years earlier, both

Seven years earlier, both
countries had signed a treaty

countries had signed a treaty
forbidding the testing of

forbidding the testing of
nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons.
But with Russia able to send

But with Russia able to send
rockets into space, the U.S.

rockets into space, the U.S.
feared they had a way to cheat.

- Feared they had a way to cheat.
- The

The
possibility of hiding a test in

possibility of hiding a test in
outer space afforded Russia an

outer space afforded Russia an
opportunity to gain an

opportunity to gain an
advantage.

Advantage.
And the United States had no

And the United States had no
means to determine whether a

means to determine whether a
clandestine test was being

clandestine test was being
performed.

- Performed.
- The Americans knew

The Americans knew
that if the Russians detonated a

that if the Russians detonated a
bomb into space, they could hide

bomb into space, they could hide
the initial explosion behind a

the initial explosion behind a
shield, or even the moon itself.

Shield, or even the moon itself.
So the U.S. military set out to

So the U.S. military set out to
design spy satellites that could

design spy satellites that could
pick up traces of a blast that

pick up traces of a blast that
could not be hidden.

Could not be hidden.

The satellites would search for

The satellites would search for
the most long-lasting radiation

the most long-lasting radiation
emitted by an atom bomb... gamma

emitted by an atom bomb... gamma
rays.

Rays.
A nuclear explosion doesn't just

A nuclear explosion doesn't just
produce a bright flash of

produce a bright flash of
visible light, it generates

visible light, it generates
radiation across the entire

radiation across the entire
electromagnetic spectrum.

Electromagnetic spectrum.
A powerful pulse of long

A powerful pulse of long
wavelength radio, or microwaves,

wavelength radio, or microwaves,
can destroy electronic circuits.

Can destroy electronic circuits.
Infrared heat radiation can

Infrared heat radiation can
trigger flash fires.

Trigger flash fires.
Then, there are the wavelengths

Then, there are the wavelengths
shorter than visible light...

Shorter than visible light...
Ultraviolet radiation and

ultraviolet radiation and
X-rays can lead to cancer.

X-rays can lead to cancer.
But the most deadly of all are

But the most deadly of all are
gamma rays, emitted by the

gamma rays, emitted by the
expanding radioactive cloud that

expanding radioactive cloud that
remains long after the visible

remains long after the visible
light of a nuclear explosion has

light of a nuclear explosion has
faded.

Faded.
If the Soviets were violating

If the Soviets were violating
the Test Ban treaty, the

the Test Ban treaty, the
American satellites would pick

American satellites would pick
up the gamma rays.

Up the gamma rays.
For two years, engineers at a

For two years, engineers at a
top-secret laboratory at Los

top-secret laboratory at Los
Alamos worked on the satellites.

Alamos worked on the satellites.
Soon they were ready for launch.

Soon they were ready for launch.
Code-named VELA, Spanish for

Code-named VELA, Spanish for
watchman, they hunted in pairs,

watchman, they hunted in pairs,
searching for gamma rays.

Searching for gamma rays.
On July 2, 1967, they got their

On July 2, 1967, they got their
first bite.

- First bite.
- It consisted

It consisted
of two bursts, and it was

of two bursts, and it was
reproduced very accurately

reproduced very accurately
between the records of the two

between the records of the two
spacecraft.

Spacecraft.
Clearly, it was something of

Clearly, it was something of
interest.

Interest.
On the other hand, it was,

On the other hand, it was,
almost as clearly, was not the

almost as clearly, was not the
response to a nuclear

response to a nuclear
detonation.

- Detonation.
- The satellites had

The satellites had
recorded thousands of bursts of

recorded thousands of bursts of
radiation, but nothing came

radiation, but nothing came
close to the brightness of these

close to the brightness of these
gamma rays.

Gamma rays.
They must have been produced by

They must have been produced by
a violent explosion.

A violent explosion.
If a nuclear bomb wasn't

If a nuclear bomb wasn't
responsible, then what could

responsible, then what could
have triggered them?

Have triggered them?
Solar flares erupting from the

Solar flares erupting from the
sun can shoot out intense gamma

sun can shoot out intense gamma
rays.

Rays.
Other high-energy events in the

Other high-energy events in the
universe might also produce this

universe might also produce this
radiation.

Radiation.
But Ray Klebesadel could find

But Ray Klebesadel could find
nothing to coincide with the

nothing to coincide with the
gamma-ray bursts he detected.

Gamma-ray bursts he detected.

Another 12 were discovered, and

Another 12 were discovered, and
according to the VELA

according to the VELA
satellites, they came from

satellites, they came from
random directions around the

random directions around the
Earth.

Earth.
For years, the mysterious bursts

For years, the mysterious bursts
were known only to the

were known only to the
scientists at Los Alamos.

Scientists at Los Alamos.
By 1973, it was time to share

By 1973, it was time to share
their existence with the world.

It was a couple of
months after Ray Klebesadel and

months after Ray Klebesadel and
the scientists at Los Alamos had

the scientists at Los Alamos had
announced their discovery.

Announced their discovery.
And so I went on out there, met

And so I went on out there, met
Ray, and learned all about the

Ray, and learned all about the
bursts.

- Bursts.
- Like many of his

Like many of his
colleagues, Don Lamb... marathon

colleagues, Don Lamb... marathon
runner and astrophysicist... was

runner and astrophysicist... was
perplexed.

Perplexed.
I knew it was a mysterious

I knew it was a mysterious
phenomenon, but I think no one...

Phenomenon, but I think no one...
Certainly not myself... realized,

certainly not myself... realized,
at that time, what the depth of

at that time, what the depth of
the mystery really was.

- The mystery really was.
- The bursts of gamma

The bursts of gamma
rays were unlike anything else

rays were unlike anything else
known to astronomers.

Known to astronomers.
They lasted only a few seconds

They lasted only a few seconds
and were difficult to locate.

And were difficult to locate.
It took weeks to pinpoint their

It took weeks to pinpoint their
direction, and when astronomers

direction, and when astronomers
looked, all traces had

looked, all traces had
disappeared.

- Disappeared.
- So it would be like

So it would be like
you're in a completely darkened

you're in a completely darkened
room and you see, you know, a

room and you see, you know, a
flash over here, unexpected,

flash over here, unexpected,
from an unexpected direction,

from an unexpected direction,
then a flash over here, then

then a flash over here, then
maybe one in this direction, and

maybe one in this direction, and
then over here.

Then over here.
And after the flash was gone,

And after the flash was gone,
you'd look with the most

you'd look with the most
sensitive telescopes, whether

sensitive telescopes, whether
from the ground or from space,

from the ground or from space,
in that direction, and try to

in that direction, and try to
see something, and you could

see something, and you could
never find anything that you

never find anything that you
could be sure was associated

could be sure was associated
with that flash, with that

with that flash, with that
burst.

- Burst.
- The bursts were so

The bursts were so
elusive, that many astronomers

elusive, that many astronomers
were unwilling to devote time to

were unwilling to devote time to
studying them.

Studying them.
There were exceptions.

Jerry Fishman and Chip Meegan
were two of the first

were two of the first
astronomers to take a serious

astronomers to take a serious
look at the bursts.

- Look at the bursts.
- The early data

The early data
for gamma-ray bursts were so

for gamma-ray bursts were so
sketchy.

Sketchy.
And gamma-ray bursts can be

And gamma-ray bursts can be
produced by any one of any

produced by any one of any
variety of things so that almost

variety of things so that almost
anything goes; you get all kinds

anything goes; you get all kinds
of crazy ideas.

Of crazy ideas.
The "National Enquirer" thought

The "National Enquirer" thought
that maybe we were seeing alien

that maybe we were seeing alien
civilizations warring with each

civilizations warring with each
other and throwing nuclear

other and throwing nuclear
explosions, nuclear bombs at

explosions, nuclear bombs at
each other.

Each other.
We really couldn't refute that,

We really couldn't refute that,
nobody could refute that.

Nobody could refute that.
They even got some respectable

They even got some respectable
scientist to say, "Well, yeah, I

scientist to say, "Well, yeah, I
guess that's a possibility."

- guess that's a possibility."
- I complained

I complained
that that wasn't at all what I

that that wasn't at all what I
said, but nevertheless, it got

said, but nevertheless, it got
published in just the form he

published in just the form he
read to me.

- Read to me.
- I got a phone

I got a phone
call once from a guy who said

call once from a guy who said
that he not only knew what was

that he not only knew what was
causing the bursts, but how to

causing the bursts, but how to
stop them.

Stop them.

And I just said, "Oh, well, I've

And I just said, "Oh, well, I've
got to go to a meeting now."

- got to go to a meeting now."
- Whatever was

Whatever was
creating the bursts, it was

creating the bursts, it was
difficult to see.

Difficult to see.
But Don Lamb and other theorists

But Don Lamb and other theorists
knew of an object that just

knew of an object that just
might fit the bill.

- Might fit the bill.
- I was one of the

I was one of the
first people to put forward a

first people to put forward a
model about gamma-ray bursts,

model about gamma-ray bursts,
and my first instincts were that

and my first instincts were that
they might be coming from

they might be coming from
neutron stars.

- Neutron stars.
- Shining throughout

Shining throughout
the universe are huge stars some

the universe are huge stars some
ten times the mass of our sun.

Ten times the mass of our sun.
When one dies, it dies violently

When one dies, it dies violently
in a brilliant explosion called

in a brilliant explosion called
a supernova.

A supernova.
It blasts away most of the star,

It blasts away most of the star,
leaving just a tiny core of

leaving just a tiny core of
dense nuclear material... a

dense nuclear material... a
neutron star.

Neutron star.
Into this sphere, just a few

Into this sphere, just a few
miles across, is crammed the

miles across, is crammed the
mass of two suns.

Mass of two suns.
The density creates incredible

The density creates incredible
gravitational energy that might,

gravitational energy that might,
under some circumstances,

under some circumstances,
trigger gamma-ray bursts.

- Trigger gamma-ray bursts.
- There were even

There were even
ideas that perhaps neutron stars

ideas that perhaps neutron stars
had comets orbiting around them

had comets orbiting around them
just like the sun does, and

just like the sun does, and
occasionally a comet actually

occasionally a comet actually
crashes into the sun.

Crashes into the sun.
And the idea was here that

And the idea was here that
perhaps some material could fall

perhaps some material could fall
onto the neutron star and it

onto the neutron star and it
would hit the neutron star at a

would hit the neutron star at a
third of the speed of light

third of the speed of light
because the gravity was so

because the gravity was so
strong; and produce an

strong; and produce an
explosion.

- Explosion.
- Another of the

Another of the
favorites was the neutron star

favorites was the neutron star
quake model, something quite

quake model, something quite
popular here in California, that

popular here in California, that
the neutron star crust might

the neutron star crust might
crack; and something resembling

crack; and something resembling
an earthquake.

An earthquake.
But because the gravitational

But because the gravitational
field of the neutron star is so

field of the neutron star is so
powerful, the energy released in

powerful, the energy released in
a quake can be enormous.

A quake can be enormous.
And so there were all sorts of

And so there were all sorts of
variations that involved getting

variations that involved getting
energy out a neutron star.

- Energy out a neutron star.
- One might say it

One might say it
was a golden age of theories in

was a golden age of theories in
gamma-ray bursts because the

gamma-ray bursts because the
constraints from the

constraints from the
observations were so sparse,

observations were so sparse,
were so limited, that it gave

were so limited, that it gave
free reign to the imaginations

free reign to the imaginations
of theorists in this era.

- Of theorists in this era.
- But without more

But without more
data, there was no way to prove

data, there was no way to prove
any theory.

Any theory.
Fishman and Meegan went

Fishman and Meegan went
searching for more bursts.

Searching for more bursts.

The first

The first
instruments that saw these

instruments that saw these
bursts were very small.

Bursts were very small.
We knew if we could put together

We knew if we could put together
even a simple detector system,

even a simple detector system,
but make it big, that we had a

but make it big, that we had a
good chance of seeing many of

good chance of seeing many of
these gamma ray bursts on even

these gamma ray bursts on even
an eight- or ten-hour balloon

an eight- or ten-hour balloon
flight.

- Flight.
- They sent their

They sent their
detectors to the edge of our

detectors to the edge of our
atmosphere to see if they could

atmosphere to see if they could
discern a pattern in the blasts.

Discern a pattern in the blasts.
Our galaxy is a flattened disc,

Our galaxy is a flattened disc,
and earth lies at its edge.

And earth lies at its edge.
When we look up at the night

When we look up at the night
sky, we see it as a band of

sky, we see it as a band of
bright stars: the Milky Way.

Bright stars: the Milky Way.
If the bursts were created by

If the bursts were created by
neutron stars in our

neutron stars in our
neighborhood, Fishman and Meegan

neighborhood, Fishman and Meegan
expected to see them coming from

expected to see them coming from
the direction of the Milky Way.

The direction of the Milky Way.
In the end, they found only

In the end, they found only
one... and it wasn't where they

one... and it wasn't where they
expected.

- Expected.
- If the gamma-

If the gamma-
ray bursts were in the galaxy,

ray bursts were in the galaxy,
you would expect most of them to

you would expect most of them to
be right along the plane of the

be right along the plane of the
Milky Way, within the galaxy.

- Milky Way, within the galaxy.
- Even the weak

Even the weak ones.

- Ones.
- Hmm-mm.

Hmm-mm.
Especially the weak ones.

Especially the weak ones.
And this was one of the weakest

And this was one of the weakest
ones that was ever seen, and yet

ones that was ever seen, and yet
it was out of the plane.

It was out of the plane.
It caused us some puzzlement,

It caused us some puzzlement,
but not enough to really come to

but not enough to really come to
any conclusion.

- Any conclusion.
- As more gamma-ray

As more gamma-ray
bursts were located, they, too,

bursts were located, they, too,
came from random positions

came from random positions
around the sky.

Around the sky.
Most astronomers believed they

Most astronomers believed they
simply weren't seeing far enough

simply weren't seeing far enough
into our galaxy to detect the

into our galaxy to detect the
full extent of the Milky Way.

Full extent of the Milky Way.
But one man thought the bursts

But one man thought the bursts
were further than they could

were further than they could
possibly imagine.

Possibly imagine.
Bohdan Paczynski thought

Bohdan Paczynski thought
everyone was thinking small.

- Everyone was thinking small.
- When I was

When I was
first interested in gamma-ray

first interested in gamma-ray
bursts, they were generally

bursts, they were generally
believed to be in our galaxy.

Believed to be in our galaxy.
However, the single most clear

However, the single most clear
evidence of them being in our

evidence of them being in our
galaxy... our Milky Way... was

galaxy... our Milky Way... was
missing.

Missing.
They were not seen against our

They were not seen against our
Milky Way, they were everywhere,

Milky Way, they were everywhere,
all over the sky.

All over the sky.
And that left just two

And that left just two
possibilities: either they were

possibilities: either they were
very, very close to us, so close

very, very close to us, so close
that Milky Way is too far to be

that Milky Way is too far to be
seen; or just as well, they

seen; or just as well, they
could have been very, very far

could have been very, very far
away, and that's what I decided

away, and that's what I decided
to go for.

- To go for.
- Paczynski's point

Paczynski's point
was simple: although objects in

was simple: although objects in
our galaxy tend to cluster along

our galaxy tend to cluster along
the Milky Way, those that are

the Milky Way, those that are
farther away will be seen

farther away will be seen
equally in all directions.

Equally in all directions.
So if the bursts were coming

So if the bursts were coming
from distant galaxies, they

from distant galaxies, they
would appear randomly

would appear randomly
distributed across the sky.

- Distributed across the sky.
- So a

So a natural suggestion is that

natural suggestion is that
gamma-ray bursts were coming to

gamma-ray bursts were coming to
us from so-called cosmological

us from so-called cosmological
distances, which basically means

distances, which basically means
huge, huge distances from the

huge, huge distances from the
far end of the universe, you

far end of the universe, you
could say.

- Could say.
- But that posed a

But that posed a problem.

Problem.
The further away the bursts, the

The further away the bursts, the
more powerful they had to be to

more powerful they had to be to
reach us.

Reach us.
And for them to come from the

And for them to come from the
edge of the universe, invoked

edge of the universe, invoked
energies beyond what a neutron

energies beyond what a neutron
star could produce.

- Star could produce.
- Is it a billion

Is it a billion
times further away?

Times further away?
Must not be a million, must be

Must not be a million, must be
about 100 million.

- About 100 million.
- The kind of energy

The kind of energy
that still leaves astrophysicist

that still leaves astrophysicist
Stan Woosley staggered.

- Stan Woosley staggered.
- Even in the

Even in the
models that had gamma-ray bursts

models that had gamma-ray bursts
in our own galaxy, we needed

in our own galaxy, we needed
things that were a million times

things that were a million times
more luminous than the sun.

More luminous than the sun.
But in order for them to be a

But in order for them to be a
million times further away... as

million times further away... as
the cosmic models would

the cosmic models would
require... the luminosity would

require... the luminosity would
be like a billion, billion times

be like a billion, billion times
the luminosity of the sun.

- The luminosity of the sun.
- This energy problem

This energy problem
put Bohdan Paczynski out on a

put Bohdan Paczynski out on a
limb.

- Limb.
- If you had

If you had
a crowded field in one part, and

a crowded field in one part, and
complete emptiness in the other,

complete emptiness in the other,
I would rather go for the

I would rather go for the
uncrowded area.

Uncrowded area.
But there is a price to be paid.

But there is a price to be paid.
If you are in the sufficiently

If you are in the sufficiently
uncrowded area, you may look

uncrowded area, you may look
like a crackpot.

Like a crackpot.
And indeed, how do you know that

And indeed, how do you know that
you are not a crackpot?

- You are not a crackpot?
- Fishman and Meegan

Fishman and Meegan
went hunting for gamma ray

went hunting for gamma ray
bursts again, this time with the

bursts again, this time with the
largest space telescope ever

largest space telescope ever
built: The Compton Gamma Ray

built: The Compton Gamma Ray
Observatory.

Observatory.
The gamma ray detectors onboard

The gamma ray detectors onboard
were the most sensitive ever

were the most sensitive ever
designed.

Designed.
If there were a burst anywhere

If there were a burst anywhere
in the universe, the Compton

in the universe, the Compton
would find it.

- Would find it.
- About once a

About once a
day, it would see a tremendous

day, it would see a tremendous
flash of gamma rays, and it

flash of gamma rays, and it
would show up in three or four

would show up in three or four
or sometimes more detectors.

- Or sometimes more detectors.
- The results were

The results were clear.

Clear.
117 bursts scattered all over

117 bursts scattered all over
the sky outside the Milky Way.

The sky outside the Milky Way.
Fishman and Meegan were stunned.

- Fishman and Meegan were stunned.
- We knew that

We knew that
it had major implications for a

it had major implications for a
lot of theorists that had been

lot of theorists that had been
working on the puzzle of gamma-

working on the puzzle of gamma-
ray bursts over the previous ten

ray bursts over the previous ten
or 15 years, and that this would

or 15 years, and that this would
throw out a lot of their

throw out a lot of their
theories.

Theories.
So we really wanted to proceed

So we really wanted to proceed
cautiously.

- Cautiously.
- We wanted to

We wanted to
turn that whole thing upside

turn that whole thing upside
down, it's sort of the... the

down, it's sort of the... the
old slogan that "everything you

old slogan that "everything you
know is wrong."

- know is wrong."
- When the news was

When the news was
announced, it was a moment of

announced, it was a moment of
triumph for Bohdan Paczynski.

- Triumph for Bohdan Paczynski.
- That was

That was
for me quite an emotional

for me quite an emotional
experience.

Experience.
To see 50% of the people

To see 50% of the people
instantly accepting the obvious

instantly accepting the obvious
consequences and saying, "Okay,

consequences and saying, "Okay,
we goofed for ten years, now we

we goofed for ten years, now we
decided the data is unambiguous.

Decided the data is unambiguous.
Bursts are at cosmological

Bursts are at cosmological
distances."

distances."
That was, sort of, rational for

That was, sort of, rational for
me.

- Me.
- But his triumph was

But his triumph was
diminished by the lingering

diminished by the lingering
resistance to his big idea.

- Resistance to his big idea.
- What was

What was
truly amazing was another 50% of

truly amazing was another 50% of
the audience was unmoved.

- The audience was unmoved.
- It took me and

It took me and
the rest of the community a

the rest of the community a
while to get used to the idea

while to get used to the idea
that the bursts just weren't

that the bursts just weren't
going to follow a galactic

going to follow a galactic
distribution.

Distribution.
By 1993, I'd say, the

By 1993, I'd say, the
handwriting was on the wall.

Handwriting was on the wall.
And so it was getting very hard

And so it was getting very hard
to hold on to the neutron star

to hold on to the neutron star
model.

- Model.
- Now astronomers

Now astronomers
found themselves in a quandary.

Found themselves in a quandary.
It seemed probable that the

It seemed probable that the
bursts were coming from far

bursts were coming from far
across the universe.

Across the universe.
And if this were true, neutron

And if this were true, neutron
stars could not explain them,

stars could not explain them,
for they couldn't generate

for they couldn't generate
enough energy to send gamma rays

enough energy to send gamma rays
across such vast distances.

Across such vast distances.
As many astrophysicists looked

As many astrophysicists looked
for other explanations, Don Lamb

for other explanations, Don Lamb
searched for a way to hold on to

searched for a way to hold on to
his ideas about neutron stars.

- His ideas about neutron stars.
- Look, we know

Look, we know
objects... neutron stars... that

objects... neutron stars... that
produce bursts just almost

produce bursts just almost
exactly like this, not

exactly like this, not
completely, but almost

completely, but almost
completely like this.

Completely like this.
We're just lacking a population

We're just lacking a population
of those neutron stars which

of those neutron stars which
could account for the sky

could account for the sky
distribution.

- Distribution.
- Don Lamb reasoned

Don Lamb reasoned
that if there were a population

that if there were a population
of neutron stars in a halo

of neutron stars in a halo
surrounding our galaxy, then

surrounding our galaxy, then
that might account for the

that might account for the
random pattern of bursts seen by

random pattern of bursts seen by
the Compton.

The Compton.
But whether astronomers believed

But whether astronomers believed
the bursts were close by or

the bursts were close by or
coming from far away, no single

coming from far away, no single
theory made complete sense.

- Theory made complete sense.
- When you're on the

When you're on the
very frontier of science,

very frontier of science,
everything's chaos... confusing.

Everything's chaos... confusing.
You have one observational

You have one observational
result that completely conflicts

result that completely conflicts
with another observational

with another observational
result, and each scientist is

result, and each scientist is
using their own experience,

using their own experience,
their own intuition, trying to

their own intuition, trying to
figure out how much am I going

figure out how much am I going
to weigh this result which

to weigh this result which
clearly conflicts with this one?

- Clearly conflicts with this one?
- The more scientists

The more scientists
found out about gamma-ray

found out about gamma-ray
bursts, the more intrigued they

bursts, the more intrigued they
became.

Became.
Don Lamb, and others, needed a

Don Lamb, and others, needed a
way to prove their theories

way to prove their theories
right... or wrong.

News was spreading fast that the
mysterious bursts were coming

mysterious bursts were coming
from beyond our galaxy.

From beyond our galaxy.
They were far more powerful than

They were far more powerful than
anyone had imagined, and

anyone had imagined, and
astronomers began to see them as

astronomers began to see them as
a cosmological sensation.

A cosmological sensation.
For 25 years, a small group had

For 25 years, a small group had
had the field to themselves.

Had the field to themselves.
Now others were joining the

Now others were joining the
hunt.

Hunt.
Dale Frail had access to the

Dale Frail had access to the
largest radio facility in the

largest radio facility in the
world, the Very Large Array.

- World, the Very Large Array.
- There was an

There was an
established community of people

established community of people
working on this problem for a

working on this problem for a
good 20 years.

Good 20 years.
I'm a radio astronomer, I work

I'm a radio astronomer, I work
at the other end of the

at the other end of the
spectrum, so I felt that I had

spectrum, so I felt that I had
something to contribute that was

something to contribute that was
unique and distinct from what

unique and distinct from what
they had... previously had done.

- They had... previously had done.
- It was now obvious

It was now obvious
that the bursts were randomly

that the bursts were randomly
distributed across the sky.

Distributed across the sky.
But how far away were they?

But how far away were they?
The distance was critical

The distance was critical
because the further away they

because the further away they
were, the more powerful they had

were, the more powerful they had
to be to reach us.

To be to reach us.
If the bursts were coming from

If the bursts were coming from
the outer limits of the

the outer limits of the
universe, then the forces that

universe, then the forces that
created them would be truly

created them would be truly
stupendous.

Stupendous.
Surely, such violent explosions

Surely, such violent explosions
would leave a trace, a lingering

would leave a trace, a lingering
afterglow.

- Afterglow.
- The afterglow

The afterglow
idea is very simple.

Idea is very simple.
You release a large amount of

You release a large amount of
energy, there has to be some

energy, there has to be some
glowing embers left over of that

glowing embers left over of that
explosion.

Explosion.
We were looking for the

We were looking for the
aftermath of that explosion so

aftermath of that explosion so
we had very much, as radio

we had very much, as radio
astronomers, an idea of how to

astronomers, an idea of how to
go about doing that.

- Go about doing that.
- The key to solving

The key to solving
the riddle of the bursts was to

the riddle of the bursts was to
catch an afterglow.

- Catch an afterglow.
- The reason we

The reason we
really wanted to do that, to

really wanted to do that, to
find the counterpart, the object

find the counterpart, the object
that had made the gamma ray

that had made the gamma ray
burst, was that maybe we could

burst, was that maybe we could
out find how far away it was.

Out find how far away it was.
We didn't know whether these

We didn't know whether these
firecrackers were going off next

firecrackers were going off next
door, or out in the comet cloud,

door, or out in the comet cloud,
or in the halo of Milky Way, or

or in the halo of Milky Way, or
at the edge of the universe.

- At the edge of the universe.
- But in 25 years, no

But in 25 years, no
one had ever caught an

one had ever caught an
afterglow.

Afterglow.
They must be fleeting.

They must be fleeting.
Astronomers needed to train

Astronomers needed to train
their telescopes at the bursts

their telescopes at the bursts
much more quickly.

Much more quickly.
They pinned their hopes on an

They pinned their hopes on an
explorer satellite called HETE.

- Explorer satellite called HETE.
- So the key ideas

So the key ideas
about the High Energy Transient

about the High Energy Transient
Explorer, HETE, were that it

Explorer, HETE, were that it
would very accurately pinpoint

would very accurately pinpoint
the locations of the bursts and

the locations of the bursts and
then share that with the

then share that with the
community in near real time.

- Community in near real time.
- So they'd detect

So they'd detect
the gamma-ray burst, then give

the gamma-ray burst, then give
us a position accurate enough to

us a position accurate enough to
point our very best telescopes

point our very best telescopes
at that position.

At that position.
So we could bring out our big

So we could bring out our big
guns, if you like.

- Guns, if you like.
- After years of

After years of
arguing over the origin of the

arguing over the origin of the
bursts, astronomers thought HETE

bursts, astronomers thought HETE
was the tool they needed to end

was the tool they needed to end
the debate.

The debate.
30 seconds and counting, this

30 seconds and counting, this
is Pegasus control...

- is Pegasus control...
- In November, 1996,

In November, 1996,
HETE took off from an airbase in

HETE took off from an airbase in
Virginia.

Virginia.
To the dismay of HETE

To the dismay of HETE
scientists, NASA insisted on

scientists, NASA insisted on
deploying the satellite from a

deploying the satellite from a
Pegasus rocket strapped to the

Pegasus rocket strapped to the
belly of a converted airliner.

- Belly of a converted airliner.
- In previous

In previous
launches, the Pegasus rockets

launches, the Pegasus rockets
had suffered a 40% failure rate.

- Had suffered a 40% failure rate.
- We said, "Look,

We said, "Look,
we've spent a decade designing

we've spent a decade designing
and building the satellite and

and building the satellite and
now you're asking us to take a

now you're asking us to take a
launch on a rocket that's shown,

launch on a rocket that's shown,
so far, to be very unreliable."

so far, to be very unreliable."
And the answer came back from

And the answer came back from
NASA that, "You either take the

NASA that, "You either take the
ride now, or we close the

ride now, or we close the
program."

program."
So the moment came when the

So the moment came when the
aircraft, you know, says, "On my

aircraft, you know, says, "On my
mark, launch... three two one..."

mark, launch... three two one..."
Three, two, one, drop.

- Three, two, one, drop.
- The rocket had just

The rocket had just
dropped from the aircraft, and

dropped from the aircraft, and
your heart's pounding, and

your heart's pounding, and
you're waiting, because it will

you're waiting, because it will
only ignite five seconds later,

only ignite five seconds later,
so you're counting to yourself.

So you're counting to yourself.
Pegasus is away, standing by

Pegasus is away, standing by
for ignition.

For ignition.
And Pegasus is up and burning.

And Pegasus is up and burning.

Wow, you know that the first

Wow, you know that the first
stage is ignited and it's headed

stage is ignited and it's headed
for orbit.

For orbit.
So everything was going well and

So everything was going well and
we were hearing, "We have first-

we were hearing, "We have first-
stage burnout."

stage burnout."
Burn out in approximately...

Burn out in approximately...
Now.

- Now.
- "We have second

"We have second
stage separation, we have second

stage separation, we have second
stage ignition."

stage ignition."
And everything, all the

And everything, all the
telemetry, and you hear all

telemetry, and you hear all
these voices of all the mission

these voices of all the mission
controllers who are monitoring,

controllers who are monitoring,
telling you how things are going

telling you how things are going
and we had third-stage

and we had third-stage
separation, and just as that

separation, and just as that
happened, I just caught... some

happened, I just caught... some
person in the control room said,

person in the control room said,
"We have an anomaly in the

"We have an anomaly in the
third-stage bus."

third-stage bus."
This is Pegasus launch stat.

This is Pegasus launch stat.
It looks like the transient bus

It looks like the transient bus
has gone down.

- Has gone down.
- The other people in

The other people in
my office didn't understand what

my office didn't understand what
was going on, so they were still

was going on, so they were still
excited, and yet I was starting

excited, and yet I was starting
to feel this dread that

to feel this dread that
something was terribly wrong.

Something was terribly wrong.
And we appear to have a

And we appear to have a
problem in the electrical

problem in the electrical
system that fires the

system that fires the
pyrotechnics that separates the

pyrotechnics that separates the
spacecraft from the third

spacecraft from the third stage.

- Stage.
- A flat battery

A flat battery
prevented the payload doors from

prevented the payload doors from
opening.

Opening.
HETE was in orbit and fully

HETE was in orbit and fully
operational and trapped inside

operational and trapped inside
the rocket.

- The rocket.
- They could tell

They could tell
that HETE had turned on and was

that HETE had turned on and was
inside the canister, couldn't

inside the canister, couldn't
get out, but had tried to extend

get out, but had tried to extend
its solar panels and tried to

its solar panels and tried to
turn and orient itself to the

turn and orient itself to the
sun.

Sun.
It was horrible, it was like

It was horrible, it was like
HETE was in its coffin and it

HETE was in its coffin and it
was struggling, trying to get

was struggling, trying to get
out, and there was really no

out, and there was really no
hope of it.

- Hope of it.
- Buried alongside

Buried alongside
HETE were Don Lamb's hopes of

HETE were Don Lamb's hopes of
proving exactly where the bursts

proving exactly where the bursts
were coming from.

- Were coming from.
- I really thought

I really thought
that there was a very good

that there was a very good
chance that HETE might break

chance that HETE might break
open the mystery and tell really

open the mystery and tell really
us what was really going on.

- Us what was really going on.
- But on the other

But on the other
side of the Atlantic, another

side of the Atlantic, another
team had joined the hunt for an

team had joined the hunt for an
afterglow, and they didn't need

afterglow, and they didn't need
HETE.

HETE.
Paul Groot and Titus Galama were

Paul Groot and Titus Galama were
young, ambitious astronomers

young, ambitious astronomers
from the University of

from the University of
Amsterdam.

- Amsterdam.
- It's a scientific

It's a scientific curiosity.

Curiosity.
You know there is this problem

You know there is this problem
which has been there for 30

which has been there for 30
years, and we just came in to

years, and we just came in to
science basically, and of course

science basically, and of course
you're full of enthusiasm and

you're full of enthusiasm and
you want to see, okay, let's

you want to see, okay, let's
have a go at this and see if we

have a go at this and see if we
can crack this nut.

- Can crack this nut.
- And the Dutch

And the Dutch
thought they had just the

thought they had just the
nutcracker.

Nutcracker.
HETE had a ready-made

HETE had a ready-made
understudy; it came from Italy.

Understudy; it came from Italy.
BeppoSAX was an Italian

BeppoSAX was an Italian
satellite carrying Dutch

satellite carrying Dutch
instruments designed to study

instruments designed to study
X-rays.

X-rays.
But the satellite also carried

But the satellite also carried
instruments that could double as

instruments that could double as
crude gamma-ray detectors.

Crude gamma-ray detectors.
It wasn't as fast as HETE, but

It wasn't as fast as HETE, but
BeppoSAX gave the Italian and

BeppoSAX gave the Italian and
Dutch scientists the ability to

Dutch scientists the ability to
locate bursts relatively

locate bursts relatively
quickly.

- Quickly.
- BeppoSAX gave

BeppoSAX gave
us the position within a few

us the position within a few
hours after the event.

Hours after the event.
That was really critical because

That was really critical because
typically the afterglow fades

typically the afterglow fades
away very quickly in optical;

away very quickly in optical;
and so after a few days, it was

and so after a few days, it was
not detectable.

Not detectable.
You really need to be there

You really need to be there
within a few hours.

- Within a few hours.
- With HETE lost,

With HETE lost,
Dale Frail knew that if he was

Dale Frail knew that if he was
to stay in the race, he had to

to stay in the race, he had to
get his hands on the BeppoSAX

get his hands on the BeppoSAX
data.

- Data.
- Now, there's

Now, there's
always competition in a project

always competition in a project
such as this, when one is aiming

such as this, when one is aiming
for a certain thing, and it's a

for a certain thing, and it's a
good competition, it's healthy

good competition, it's healthy
competition.

- Competition.
- If you know that

If you know that
other people are looking for the

other people are looking for the
same thing at the same time,

same thing at the same time,
that drives you a bit harder and

that drives you a bit harder and
you try to get it.

- You try to get it.
- Yeah, a healthy

Yeah, a healthy
drive then, yeah.

- Drive then, yeah.
- Yes, absolutely.

- Yes, absolutely.
- Unwilling to give

Unwilling to give
up, Dale Frail made contact with

up, Dale Frail made contact with
the BeppoSAX controllers.

- The BeppoSAX controllers.
- January, 1997, I

January, 1997, I flew to Italy.

Flew to Italy.
I showed them our capabilities

I showed them our capabilities
that we had... the instruments

that we had... the instruments
that we had that we'd lined up

that we had that we'd lined up
for the HETE era... and struck a

for the HETE era... and struck a
collaboration.

- Collaboration.
- Not only did Frail

Not only did Frail
have the largest radio facility

have the largest radio facility
in the world, but his colleagues

in the world, but his colleagues
had the biggest optical

had the biggest optical
telescope, the Keck.

Telescope, the Keck.
That was crucial, because it was

That was crucial, because it was
only in visible wavelengths that

only in visible wavelengths that
the distance to an afterglow

the distance to an afterglow
could be measured precisely.

Could be measured precisely.

Unlike gamma rays, visible light

Unlike gamma rays, visible light
can be focused by telescopes and

can be focused by telescopes and
broken into a spectrum of

broken into a spectrum of
colors.

Colors.
As a beam of light passes

As a beam of light passes
through galaxies of dust and

through galaxies of dust and
gases, specific wavelengths are

gases, specific wavelengths are
absorbed, leaving a

absorbed, leaving a
characteristic pattern of dark

characteristic pattern of dark
lines in the spectrum.

Lines in the spectrum.
The further away the light

The further away the light
source, the more these dark

source, the more these dark
lines move toward the red,

lines move toward the red,
because as light travels through

because as light travels through
an expanding universe, it is

an expanding universe, it is
stretched and shifted towards

stretched and shifted towards
the longer wavelength of red.

The longer wavelength of red.
If the explosion that produced

If the explosion that produced
the gamma rays left an optical

the gamma rays left an optical
afterglow, Dale Frail's team

afterglow, Dale Frail's team
could use red shift to measure

could use red shift to measure
the distance.

The distance.
But first, the Italian satellite

But first, the Italian satellite
would have to catch one of the

would have to catch one of the
unpredictable gamma-ray bursts.

Unpredictable gamma-ray bursts.
Although the Dutch scientists

Although the Dutch scientists
didn't know it, the Italians

didn't know it, the Italians
agreed to give Dale Frail's team

agreed to give Dale Frail's team
their data.

Their data.
Soon after, BeppoSAX recorded a

Soon after, BeppoSAX recorded a
burst and Frail's telescopes

burst and Frail's telescopes
captured what appeared to be an

captured what appeared to be an
afterglow.

- Afterglow.
- We found

We found
something very interesting,

something very interesting,
something we hadn't seen before.

Something we hadn't seen before.
We thought we may have found an

We thought we may have found an
afterglow.

Afterglow.
It sort of fit the bill.

- It sort of fit the bill.
- The BeppoSAX

The BeppoSAX
satellite had traced the source

satellite had traced the source
of the burst to a patch of sky

of the burst to a patch of sky
in the constellation of the

in the constellation of the
Snake.

Snake.
When Frail studied the area, he

When Frail studied the area, he
discovered a faintly glowing

discovered a faintly glowing
source which he thought was the

source which he thought was the
afterglow.

Afterglow.
The source was in a distant

The source was in a distant
galaxy.

Galaxy.
It looked like final proof that

It looked like final proof that
the bursts were happening far

the bursts were happening far
across the universe.

Across the universe.
Working flat out, Frail prepared

Working flat out, Frail prepared
to reveal his findings in the

to reveal his findings in the
prestigious scientific journal

prestigious scientific journal
"Nature."

- "Nature."
- It was mentally

It was mentally
exhausting, the whole procedure

exhausting, the whole procedure
of writing the paper; keeping

of writing the paper; keeping
everything quiet for that long.

- Everything quiet for that long.
- At the last minute,

At the last minute,
he got bad news.

- He got bad news.
- And it was

And it was
accepted, waiting to go to

accepted, waiting to go to
press, and the Dutch team

press, and the Dutch team
announced a new position for the

announced a new position for the
object.

Object.
And there was no doubt in

And there was no doubt in
anyone's mind that we'd gotten

anyone's mind that we'd gotten
it wrong.

It wrong.
And this was a pretty big blow.

- And this was a pretty big blow.
- When the BeppoSAX

When the BeppoSAX
team calculated more precise

team calculated more precise
coordinates, the area was much

coordinates, the area was much
smaller than the original, and

smaller than the original, and
Frail's glowing source was

Frail's glowing source was
outside the new more accurate

outside the new more accurate
location.

Location.
Whatever he had found, it wasn't

Whatever he had found, it wasn't
an afterglow.

- An afterglow.
- You write this

You write this
nature paper, and at the very

nature paper, and at the very
last moment, the very last

last moment, the very last
moment, you have to retract that

moment, you have to retract that
it you must be really down,

it you must be really down,
really depressed, I can really

really depressed, I can really
imagine that.

- Imagine that.
- We expended all

We expended all
this energy trying to study this

this energy trying to study this
object and there it was, off

object and there it was, off
outside of the field of view of

outside of the field of view of
the gamma-ray burster, doing its

the gamma-ray burster, doing its
own little dance and mocking us,

own little dance and mocking us,
if you like, for our

if you like, for our
foolishness.

- Foolishness.
- When BeppoSAX

When BeppoSAX
caught its next burst, the

caught its next burst, the
timing couldn't have been worse

timing couldn't have been worse
for Dale Fail.

- For Dale Fail.
- This was almost

This was almost
at the lowest point for us.

At the lowest point for us.
We are completely exhausted from

We are completely exhausted from
the last event, the false event.

The last event, the false event.
We've worn ourselves out.

We've worn ourselves out.
We begin somewhat half-heartedly

We begin somewhat half-heartedly
to go after this next event.

- To go after this next event.
- The Dutch were also

The Dutch were also after it.

After it.
But back in Holland, things

But back in Holland, things
weren't much better.

Weren't much better.
The Italians were refusing to

The Italians were refusing to
hand over the coordinates they

hand over the coordinates they
needed.

- Needed.
- And then at

And then at
some point it turned out that he

some point it turned out that he
couldn't give me... this was a

couldn't give me... this was a
political decision made higher

political decision made higher
up, had to do with the Italian

up, had to do with the Italian
collaborators... that he couldn't

collaborators... that he couldn't
give me the position.

- Give me the position.
- With the afterglow

With the afterglow
fading, there was a string of

fading, there was a string of
frantic phone calls.

Frantic phone calls.
Dale Frail broke the deadlock.

- Dale Frail broke the deadlock.
- I felt very

I felt very
strongly that the best way to

strongly that the best way to
solve this problem was to indeed

solve this problem was to indeed
make the information public to

make the information public to
everyone; and I told the

everyone; and I told the
Italians this.

- Italians this.
- But the Italians

But the Italians
gave the coordinates to the

gave the coordinates to the
Dutch on strict conditions:

Dutch on strict conditions:
they had permission to look for

they had permission to look for
the afterglow at radio

the afterglow at radio
wavelengths only... not in the

wavelengths only... not in the
crucial optical wavelengths.

Crucial optical wavelengths.
As fate would have it, that very

As fate would have it, that very
night the Dutch had time booked

night the Dutch had time booked
at an optical observatory called

at an optical observatory called
La Palma.

La Palma.
Paul Groot had to decide whether

Paul Groot had to decide whether
to play by the rules.

- To play by the rules.
- We were in a

We were in a
dilemma, at that point, because

dilemma, at that point, because
we had our position and I

we had our position and I
realized that it was still

realized that it was still
visible but it would set shortly

visible but it would set shortly
below the horizon quite soon.

Below the horizon quite soon.
So then the question was, what

So then the question was, what
are we going to do?

Are we going to do?
Are we going to go wait till we

Are we going to go wait till we
get a call saying yes or no, or

get a call saying yes or no, or
are we going to go ahead and go

are we going to go ahead and go
for it?

For it?
And at that time, we thought,

And at that time, we thought,
"Well, this is science, we are

"Well, this is science, we are
never going to get this chance

never going to get this chance
again."

again."
So that's when we decided to

So that's when we decided to
call the telescopes on La Palma

call the telescopes on La Palma
and tell them go.

- And tell them go.
- To just try

To just try
whatever you can, so that's what

whatever you can, so that's what
we did.

We did.
That's the race.

- That's the race.
- And deal with

And deal with
any consequences later.

- Any consequences later.
- Two images, taken a

Two images, taken a
week apart, revealed a rapidly

week apart, revealed a rapidly
fading optical source: an

fading optical source: an
afterglow.

- Afterglow.
- That was just

That was just
amazing, at the point where...

amazing, at the point where...
that I remember very well, the

that I remember very well, the
point we were looking at that

point we were looking at that
screen and we saw that there was

screen and we saw that there was
this star, this little thing

this star, this little thing
there.

There.
And really, I realized

And really, I realized
immediately this must be it, I

immediately this must be it, I
felt that my intuition told me

felt that my intuition told me
this must be it.

- This must be it.
- Yes, absolutely.

- Yes, absolutely.
- And then I

And then I
really felt like this has been

really felt like this has been
30 years, and there it is.

- 30 years, and there it is.
- There it is.

- There it is.
- What was good news

What was good news
for the Dutch was a bitter blow

for the Dutch was a bitter blow
for Dale Frail.

- For Dale Frail.
- It was late at

It was late at
night; I was very tired.

Night; I was very tired.
I had already been punched once

I had already been punched once
from the previous burst and this

from the previous burst and this
was the second punch and this

was the second punch and this
was a bad, bad time.

Was a bad, bad time.
So I went home and threw the

So I went home and threw the
telegram on the table and told

telegram on the table and told
my wife, "It's over, it's all

my wife, "It's over, it's all
done."

- done."
- As more afterglows

As more afterglows
came in, it became clear that

came in, it became clear that
the bursts were coming from vast

the bursts were coming from vast
distances.

Distances.
Dale Frail's luck finally turned

Dale Frail's luck finally turned
when his team got a crucial

when his team got a crucial
red shift that precisely located

red shift that precisely located
one blast at a distance of nine

one blast at a distance of nine
billion light years from earth.

- Billion light years from earth.
- And that distance

And that distance
told us, unambiguously, that the

told us, unambiguously, that the
thing had to be outside of our

thing had to be outside of our
galaxy; in fact located at a

galaxy; in fact located at a
distance when our universe was

distance when our universe was
about half of its present age.

About half of its present age.
So these things were what we

So these things were what we
call cosmological, truly

call cosmological, truly
cosmological.

- Cosmological.
- This, of

This, of
course, was an hour of triumph

course, was an hour of triumph
for Bohdan Paczynski because he

for Bohdan Paczynski because he
had been championing the cause

had been championing the cause
of extra-galactic gamma-ray

of extra-galactic gamma-ray
bursts for many years.

Bursts for many years.
But this was such clear

But this was such clear
confirmation as a great victory

confirmation as a great victory
for him.

For him.
No longer the nut or the voice

No longer the nut or the voice
crying in the wilderness, but

crying in the wilderness, but
the seer of the future.

- The seer of the future.
- The debate was

The debate was over.

Over.
A neutron star couldn't create

A neutron star couldn't create
the energy to beam gamma rays

the energy to beam gamma rays
from such vast distances.

From such vast distances.
Don Lamb's theory was dead.

- Don Lamb's theory was dead.
- It was kind of like

It was kind of like
a triple whammy, the launch of

a triple whammy, the launch of
HETE failed and we lost HETE.

HETE failed and we lost HETE.
And after battling to get an

And after battling to get an
opportunity to be the team, even

opportunity to be the team, even
so to unravel the mystery,

so to unravel the mystery,
BeppoSAX turned out to be able

BeppoSAX turned out to be able
to do it, and then on top of all

to do it, and then on top of all
that, I turned out to be wrong

that, I turned out to be wrong
about the distance to gamma-ray

about the distance to gamma-ray
Bursts and what they are.

- Bursts and what they are.
- As we began to

As we began to
get red shifts for the gamma-ray

get red shifts for the gamma-ray
bursts, we were startled at how

bursts, we were startled at how
much energy was involved.

Much energy was involved.
We were expecting large numbers,

We were expecting large numbers,
but not this big.

But not this big.
I mean, to put it into

I mean, to put it into
perspective, when a rather large

perspective, when a rather large
nuclear bomb, say ten megatons

nuclear bomb, say ten megatons
goes off, less than one pound of

goes off, less than one pound of
matter is turned into energy in

matter is turned into energy in
that explosion.

- That explosion.
- This is the kind

This is the kind
of energy you need if you took

of energy you need if you took
the mass of our sun... our sun...

The mass of our sun... our sun...
And turned it into energy in ten

and turned it into energy in ten
seconds, pure energy... e=mc2.

- Seconds, pure energy... e=mc2.
- If one mystery was

If one mystery was
solved, an even greater puzzle

solved, an even greater puzzle
had taken its place.

- Had taken its place.
- The entire sun

The entire sun
being turned instantly into

being turned instantly into
gamma rays, how on earth could

gamma rays, how on earth could
one possibly do that?

- One possibly do that?
- And this is

And this is
something that, well, we still

something that, well, we still
have a hard time getting our

have a hard time getting our
brains around, but we've come to

brains around, but we've come to
accept now that it's our brains

accept now that it's our brains
that are the problem and not the

that are the problem and not the
energies involved.

- Energies involved.
- Astronomers had

Astronomers had
finally revealed the true

finally revealed the true
enormity of the blasts creating

enormity of the blasts creating
gamma-ray bursts.

Gamma-ray bursts.
They are the most powerful

They are the most powerful
explosions since the Big Bang.

Explosions since the Big Bang.
But what object could release so

But what object could release so
much energy, defying all notions

much energy, defying all notions
of what was physically possible?

- Of what was physically possible?
- And we do

And we do
know from history that now and

know from history that now and
then a textbook truth, which was

then a textbook truth, which was
valid for, considered to be

valid for, considered to be
valid for hundreds of years, is

valid for hundreds of years, is
changed.

Changed.
We have either completely new

We have either completely new
interpretation, or we actually

interpretation, or we actually
find that the old one is

find that the old one is
fundamentally wrong.

Fundamentally wrong.
It happens.

- It happens.
- For 25 years,

For 25 years,
scientists had searched for the

scientists had searched for the
source of these powerful

source of these powerful
explosions.

Explosions.
They had turned to the sun and

They had turned to the sun and
found nothing.

Found nothing.
They had looked to the stars

They had looked to the stars
that surround our sun and found

that surround our sun and found
nothing.

Nothing.
They had scoured the very center

They had scoured the very center
of the galaxy and beyond.

Of the galaxy and beyond.
Now that they had finally found

Now that they had finally found
the explosions at the far

the explosions at the far
reaches of the universe, they

reaches of the universe, they
were desperate to understand

were desperate to understand
what objects might be capable of

what objects might be capable of
such staggering violence.

Such staggering violence.
The first clue was where the

The first clue was where the
bursts were found.

- Bursts were found.
- As time was

As time was
passing, we were finding that

passing, we were finding that
gamma ray bursts really did seem

gamma ray bursts really did seem
to happen not just randomly in

to happen not just randomly in
the galaxies where they

the galaxies where they
occurred, but in regions where

occurred, but in regions where
star formation was going on.

- Star formation was going on.
- In stellar

In stellar
nurseries throughout the

nurseries throughout the
universe, stars form where there

universe, stars form where there
are clouds of gas and dust.

Are clouds of gas and dust.
The denser clouds give rise to

The denser clouds give rise to
giant stars, ten times more

giant stars, ten times more
massive than our sun, that end

massive than our sun, that end
their brief lives with a bang...

Their brief lives with a bang...
As supernovae.

As supernovae.
It was now clear that these

It was now clear that these
explosions, and the neutron

explosions, and the neutron
stars they create, could not

stars they create, could not
themselves trigger the gamma

themselves trigger the gamma
rays scientists were detecting.

Rays scientists were detecting.
Stan Woosley asked what might

Stan Woosley asked what might
happen if the dying star wasn't

happen if the dying star wasn't
ten, but 30 times more massive

ten, but 30 times more massive
than our sun; exploding not as a

than our sun; exploding not as a
supernova, but as something

supernova, but as something
entirely different... a

entirely different... a
hypernova.

Hypernova.
Hidden within this fireball

Hidden within this fireball
would be an object far more

would be an object far more
powerful than a neutron star,

powerful than a neutron star,
with the most intense

with the most intense
gravitational field known to

gravitational field known to
science, a black hole.

- Science, a black hole.
- And then we

And then we
created a very interesting

created a very interesting
object.

Object.
You have a star that's made a

You have a star that's made a
black hole in its middle.

Black hole in its middle.
And what's the natural

And what's the natural
inclination is for everything to

inclination is for everything to
fall in the hole and you see the

fall in the hole and you see the
star and suddenly it disappears,

star and suddenly it disappears,
it's gone.

- It's gone.
- Stan Woosley's

Stan Woosley's
colleague, Andrew McFadyen,

colleague, Andrew McFadyen,
built a model depicting the last

built a model depicting the last
few seconds in the life of one

few seconds in the life of one
of these colossal stars.

Of these colossal stars.
ANDREW McFADYEN: This is a

ANDREW McFADYEN: This is a
star that's dying.

Star that's dying.
And the way that a star this big

And the way that a star this big
dies is that it makes a black

dies is that it makes a black
hole in its center.

Hole in its center.
And so this is the, in a way,

And so this is the, in a way,
the death cry of the star and

the death cry of the star and
it's the birth cry for the black

it's the birth cry for the black
hole.

- Hole.
- But even a star

But even a star
collapsing into a black hole

collapsing into a black hole
couldn't create a gamma-ray

couldn't create a gamma-ray
burst.

Burst.
There had to be a twist.

There had to be a twist.
ANDREW McFADYEN: Well, this

ANDREW McFADYEN: Well, this
whole star was spinning when it

whole star was spinning when it
was born and it's spinning now.

Was born and it's spinning now.
So this material that's falling

So this material that's falling
into the black hole, it's like a

into the black hole, it's like a
big electric motor in the center

big electric motor in the center
of a star, but incredibly

of a star, but incredibly
powerful.

- Powerful.
- In this cross

In this cross
section, the black hole is a

section, the black hole is a
speck at the center of the

speck at the center of the
screen.

Screen.
The red areas are the materials

The red areas are the materials
spinning around it.

Spinning around it.
The combination of the spin and

The combination of the spin and
the intense gravitational field

the intense gravitational field
converts huge amounts of matter

converts huge amounts of matter
into pure energy.

Into pure energy.
But the spin does something even

But the spin does something even
more remarkable, it focuses the

more remarkable, it focuses the
energy into two powerful jets.

Energy into two powerful jets.
ANDREW McFADYEN: What the

ANDREW McFADYEN: What the
blue stuff is, they're called

blue stuff is, they're called
jets, those blue things are the

jets, those blue things are the
things that take the energy from

things that take the energy from
near the black hole and

near the black hole and
transport it way far away from

transport it way far away from
the star and make the huge

the star and make the huge
gamma-ray burst.

Gamma-ray burst.
The gravity is insanely powerful

The gravity is insanely powerful
and much, much stronger than

and much, much stronger than
anything we're used to.

Anything we're used to.
That's the source of energy for

That's the source of energy for
these things.

- These things.
- If Stan and

If Stan and
Andrew's theory is right, then

Andrew's theory is right, then
every day in the universe a

every day in the universe a
massive spinning star collapses

massive spinning star collapses
into a black hole.

Into a black hole.
As the star is consumed by the

As the star is consumed by the
black hole at its center,

black hole at its center,
focused beams of intense energy

focused beams of intense energy
shoot into space.

Shoot into space.

These create the bursts of gamma

These create the bursts of gamma
rays seen from Earth.

Rays seen from Earth.
In seconds, the colossal star

In seconds, the colossal star
disappears; consumed by one of

disappears; consumed by one of
the most powerful explosions

the most powerful explosions
since the Big Bang.

Since the Big Bang.

As astronomers gather more

As astronomers gather more
evidence for this model, some

evidence for this model, some
wonder what would happen if a

wonder what would happen if a
hypernova went off near Earth.

At the University of Haifa, is a
man who has thought long and

man who has thought long and
hard about the affects of a

hard about the affects of a
direct hit on our planet.

Direct hit on our planet.
Arnon Dar is a professor of

Arnon Dar is a professor of
astrophysics.

- Astrophysics.
- The gamma-ray

The gamma-ray
bursts are the largest explosion

bursts are the largest explosion
in the universe after the Big

in the universe after the Big
Bang.

Bang.
And the amount of energy

And the amount of energy
released in such an explosion is

released in such an explosion is
a billion time a billion time a

a billion time a billion time a
billion of hydrogen bombs.

Billion of hydrogen bombs.
And this explosion is taking

And this explosion is taking
place in a short fraction of a

place in a short fraction of a
second.

Second.
Say that the gamma-ray burst

Say that the gamma-ray burst
occur in our galaxy, and lets

occur in our galaxy, and lets
say that it occurs in that

say that it occurs in that
direction, then the first thing

direction, then the first thing
that you would see when the

that you would see when the
flash of gamma rays arrive to

flash of gamma rays arrive to
our atmosphere, you see a big

our atmosphere, you see a big
flash of blue light; tremendous

flash of blue light; tremendous
effects which are very similar

effects which are very similar
to those which are when you are

to those which are when you are
standing very close to a nuclear

standing very close to a nuclear
explosion.

Explosion.
You would become blind in a very

You would become blind in a very
short time.

Short time.
Your skin will be completely

Your skin will be completely
burned.

Burned.
Your body will be burned and

Your body will be burned and
will be exposed to an enormous

will be exposed to an enormous
dosage of radioactive radiation

dosage of radioactive radiation
which will kill you in a very

which will kill you in a very
short time.

- Short time.
- And the same thing

And the same thing
would be happening

would be happening
simultaneously all around the

simultaneously all around the
planet.

Planet.
A tremendous shock wave causes

A tremendous shock wave causes
devastation.

Devastation.
The intense heat sparks flash

The intense heat sparks flash
fires.

Fires.
The sea boils.

The sea boils.
Hurricanes spread deadly

Hurricanes spread deadly
radiation around the globe.

Radiation around the globe.
All but the most sheltered

All but the most sheltered
species are destroyed.

Species are destroyed.
The ozone layer is blasted away.

The ozone layer is blasted away.
And unprotected, the Earth turns

And unprotected, the Earth turns
under a continuous barrage of

under a continuous barrage of
deadly cosmic rays.

- Deadly cosmic rays.
- If you had it

If you had it
within just a few hundred light

within just a few hundred light
years, it would be sort of like

years, it would be sort of like
Hiroshima going off all over the

Hiroshima going off all over the
world all at one time.

World all at one time.
But in the whole galaxy, there

But in the whole galaxy, there
is nothing within 1,000 light

is nothing within 1,000 light
years that we would expect to

years that we would expect to
produce a gamma-ray burst any

produce a gamma-ray burst any
time in the future.

Time in the future.
There are massive stars, but

There are massive stars, but
they don't seem to be the type

they don't seem to be the type
that would make gamma-ray

that would make gamma-ray
bursts.

Bursts.
So I personally don't think they

So I personally don't think they
are an astronomical hazard.

- Are an astronomical hazard.
- Most scientists

Most scientists
consider such a global

consider such a global
catastrophe unlikely.

Catastrophe unlikely.
But there is no doubt that

But there is no doubt that
anything caught in the beam of a

anything caught in the beam of a
nearby gamma-ray burst would be

nearby gamma-ray burst would be
destroyed.

Destroyed.
And with a destructive force

And with a destructive force
this powerful throughout the

this powerful throughout the
universe, Arnon Dar sees an

universe, Arnon Dar sees an
answer to one of the profound

answer to one of the profound
questions of our time.

- Questions of our time.
- There are many

There are many
stars with planetary systems

stars with planetary systems
where life could develop and

where life could develop and
precede us by billions of years.

Precede us by billions of years.
They are much more advanced

They are much more advanced
civilization; there may be much

civilization; there may be much
more advanced civilizations in

more advanced civilizations in
this universe.

This universe.
So the question: Where are they?

So the question: Where are they?
Why didn't they visit us?

Why didn't they visit us?
Why didn't they communicate with

Why didn't they communicate with
us?

- Us?
- With billions of

With billions of
galaxies, the laws of

galaxies, the laws of
probability seem to favor the

probability seem to favor the
existence of alien

existence of alien
civilizations.

Civilizations.
Yet, as far as we know, we are

Yet, as far as we know, we are
alone.

Alone.
Arnon Dar believes that gamma-

Arnon Dar believes that gamma-
ray bursts might explain this

ray bursts might explain this
paradox.

- Paradox.
- This phenomena of

This phenomena of
gamma-ray bursts is taking place

gamma-ray bursts is taking place
everywhere, in any galaxy in the

everywhere, in any galaxy in the
universe.

Universe.
And one by one, they sterilize

And one by one, they sterilize
life on all the planets in each

life on all the planets in each
galaxy.

Galaxy.
So this is a very effective

So this is a very effective
sterilization process.

- Sterilization process.
- If Dar is right,

If Dar is right,
then the objects that create

then the objects that create
gamma-ray bursts are truly death

gamma-ray bursts are truly death
stars, destroying life on a

stars, destroying life on a
galactic scale.

Galactic scale.
But other astronomers see these

But other astronomers see these
colossal stars as one of the

colossal stars as one of the
principle creative forces in the

principle creative forces in the
universe, forging new elements

universe, forging new elements
that are released as they die.

That are released as they die.
And a new race is on to study

And a new race is on to study
them in greater detail.

- Them in greater detail.
- HETE 2 was

HETE 2 was
successfully launched on October

successfully launched on October
9, 2000, and it's now detected

9, 2000, and it's now detected
and reported its first bursts.

- And reported its first bursts.
- So now instead of

So now instead of
being notified on a time scale

being notified on a time scale
of an hour, which is pretty good

of an hour, which is pretty good
four years ago, now I can be

four years ago, now I can be
told on a time scale of minutes

told on a time scale of minutes
to seconds after the burst has

to seconds after the burst has
gone off.

Gone off.
This opens up a whole new realm

This opens up a whole new realm
of physics, a whole new realm of

of physics, a whole new realm of
questions, and that's what gets

questions, and that's what gets
me out of bed at 2:00 in the

me out of bed at 2:00 in the
morning.

- Morning.
- The light from a

The light from a
recently detected burst began

recently detected burst began
its journey over 12 billion

its journey over 12 billion
years ago.

Years ago.
Such events are among the

Such events are among the
closest scientists have come to

closest scientists have come to
seeing back to the dawn of

seeing back to the dawn of
time... the Big Bang, some 14

time... the Big Bang, some 14
billion years ago.

Billion years ago.
After this primeval explosion,

After this primeval explosion,
there was no light, until clouds

there was no light, until clouds
of hydrogen and helium ignited

of hydrogen and helium ignited
to form the first stars.

To form the first stars.
They gave rise to new elements,

They gave rise to new elements,
even the iron that flows through

even the iron that flows through
our blood.

- Our blood.
- Everything that

Everything that
we're made of, carbon, nitrogen,

we're made of, carbon, nitrogen,
oxygen, silicone, iron,

oxygen, silicone, iron,
everything the earth is made of,

everything the earth is made of,
were formed in the furnaces of

were formed in the furnaces of
these massive stars.

These massive stars.
The bursts in gamma rays, if

The bursts in gamma rays, if
these ideas are right, would be

these ideas are right, would be
being produced by exactly those

being produced by exactly those
stars.

Stars.
So by observing the bursts, we

So by observing the bursts, we
could find out and determine the

could find out and determine the
moment of first light.

Moment of first light.
We could find out when the first

We could find out when the first
stars formed in the universe.

- Stars formed in the universe.
- Glimpsing this

Glimpsing this
"first light," scientists may

"first light," scientists may
gain new insights into how the

gain new insights into how the
universe evolved.

- Universe evolved.
- And there is

And there is
always a hope, expectation, that

always a hope, expectation, that
perhaps something very

perhaps something very
fundamentally new is being

fundamentally new is being
discovered.

Discovered.
Not just a twist on something we

Not just a twist on something we
already know, perhaps some

already know, perhaps some
completely new physics.

Completely new physics.
I mean, this would just be

I mean, this would just be
great.

- Great.
- It took 30 years to

It took 30 years to
track down the most powerful

track down the most powerful
events in the universe.

Events in the universe.
But as astronomers learn more

But as astronomers learn more
about gamma-ray bursts, they

about gamma-ray bursts, they
realize that their work has just

realize that their work has just
begun.

Explore one astronomer's
detailed analysis of what would

detailed analysis of what would
happen to our planet if a gamma

happen to our planet if a gamma
ray burst occurred nearby in

ray burst occurred nearby in
our own Milky Way galaxy.

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Next time on NOVA, a battle
over bones fuels; an
archaeological dispute.

Over bones fuels; an
archaeological dispute.
They were compassionate, they

archaeological dispute.
They were compassionate, they
were caring, they were human.

They were compassionate, they
were caring, they were human.
An evolutionary dead-end or

were caring, they were human.
An evolutionary dead-end or
our ancestors?