At the end of the year, many people make lists.
Well, so did Science magazine, and they picked Swift’s observation of short gamma-ray bursts as their 4th biggest breakthrough of the year. Since I work on Swift, I feel the need to crow a little (and also to point out that the two artists whose illustrations are used for the articles are both friends of mine; Aurore is a co-worker and I’ve known Dana for many years; he does a lot of illustration work for Hubble).
I was going to write a description of what short gamma-ray bursts are, but it turns out I had to do this for my day job first! We put out a quarterly newsletter about Swift, and I wrote an article explaining what happens when a black hole tears a neutron star apart. Check it out.
One thing I didn’t mention in the article, though, is that the energies involved are scary, very very scary. A neutron star has a surface gravity that may be a billion times the Earth’s– yes, you read that right. On a neutron star, I would weigh 170 billion pounds, about as much as a small mountain 300 meters (1000 feet) high! It would take a huge amount of energy just to lift a marshmallow off the surface of a neutron star, yet the tides from a black hole can shred one, vaporizing it.
Before Swift (and it’s sister satellite, HETE-2) we only had theories about these events, but now we have data, and it fits the theory beautifully. So I agree with Science magazine: Swift has been one of the better things to come along in 2005.’