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Sensemaker: The big picture

Sensemaker: The big picture

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Ukrainian officials said they hoped to evacuate 38 wounded fighters from Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks in return for the release of Russian POWs. 
  • The UK’s foreign secretary said she may have “no choice” but to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol (more below).
  • Nepal’s Lhakpa Sherpa became the first woman to summit Everest ten times. 

The big picture

Astronomers have used very-long-baseline interferometry to assemble the first image of a supermassive black hole with a spherical event horizon, 27,000 light-years away at the heart of the Milky Way. It’s the closest black hole of its kind photographed in this way, and humans still can’t fathom what’s inside it. 

There is, in valet terms, a good deal to unpack here.

Who? 300 researchers from 80 institutions including universities in Taipei, Amsterdam and Arizona between them run the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT).

What?

  • ‘Event horizon’ is a term for the surface or boundary of a black hole, at which even light is bent back by gravity (hence ‘black’).
  • A spherical event horizon suggests a black hole as a spherical body, but Einstein and others say black holes are best thought of as regions of space-time where collapsed stars have left behind gravity so powerful that nothing can escape it. Or you can think of them as giant space Hoovers.
  • The EHT is a network of mainly high-altitude radio telescopes spanning the earth and pooling their data via supercomputers to operate like one telescope the width of the planet.
  • Very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) is the technique used to link up the EHT’s dishes and ratchet up the sharpness of their focus, by measuring minute differences in the time it takes for radio waves to reach the different dishes from the source being studied – in this case, the black hole known as Sagittarius A*. The EHT’s excellent website offers an audio analogy based on Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie.
  • Sagittarius A* is 4 million times more massive than the sun.

Where? Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* or sadge-ay-star for short) is “at the very centre of our galaxy,” the EHT’s announcement states, which is where it was expected to be given gravitational forces already observed on younger stars in the same cosmic neighbourhood. 

Why? The EHT team says its goals are to learn more about how black holes suck in matter and why they spit out jets up to 250,000 light-years long; and to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR). A key component of Sgr A* is its so-called emission ring, made of orbiting matter, and project scientist Geoffrey Bower said he was “stunned” by how closely the size of the ring – which is 63 million miles wide – matched predictions based on GR. 

When? The groundbreaking image of Sgr A* was released yesterday but took five years to assemble. Data for this image and one of a far bigger and more distant black hole called M87 were gathered in 2017, but fast-moving rings around Sgr A* made its close-up much harder to process.

Bower and his colleagues will now compare and contrast the emission rings round M87 and Sgr A*, to learn more about how galaxies evolve. 


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Civil service cuts
The Johnson government plans to cut up to 91,000 civil service jobs to shrink the service back to pre-Brexit dimensions and save £3.75 billion a year. Johnson and his Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, say taxpayers facing a cost of living crisis expect belt-tightening by the public sector too. Critics say the cuts will leave the civil service at its smallest size since World War Two. Before the EU referendum, and after years of austerity, there were 384,000 civil servants to run the UK’s machinery of government. They proved unable to cope with Brexit, let alone Covid, and are now struggling to produce detailed policies to seize the opportunities Rees-Mogg insists exist – for example in farming. Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, told yesterday’s Tortoise climate summit she was “appalled” by a post-Brexit farming strategy intended to prioritise the environment but so short on detail that it was “not fit for purpose”.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Tattered treaty
There was a phone call yesterday between Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, and Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s senior Brexit negotiator. It did not go well. Truss said she might be forced to act on (ie ditch) the Northern Ireland Protocol if the EU didn’t show more flexibility. The protocol provides for EU customs checks on goods moving from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, so they aren’t needed on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sefcovic reminded Truss the EU had already – last October – offered to scrap 80 per cent of food checks required by the protocol, and was still waiting for a response to more EU proposals made in February. Truss claims peace is at stake because unionists in the province won’t restart power-sharing until the protocol is torn up, but Brussels is in no mood to have its single market held to ransom by a minority regional party in a country that’s not even an EU member. Washington is running out of patience, too. Something will have to give, and so stubborn is the current UK government about Brexit that it may yet be the British union.

To note: Macron’s holding out for a European political confederation that could include countries like Ukraine and the UK, and some people at the Telegraph quite like the sound of it. “The gesture is an olive branch from Paris and should be taken as such,” writes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Brexit bible.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

155 mm artillery
Nato-standard M777 howitzers are at last arriving at the Ukrainian front line, the WSJ and FT report. The Pentagon promised 90 of the 155mm guns last month but many had to be flown in from California and Ukrainian troops had to be trained in their use in Germany before their deployment in the Donbas. They have a longer range (up to 25 miles) than the Soviet-era artillery being used against them, and the hope is this will enable Ukraine’s forces to switch from defence to attack in the East. US and UK intelligence assessments this week say Ukrainian forces are already pushing Russian troops back north of Kharkiv, and a Twitter thread by a young Ukrainian soldier about the destruction of up to 32 Russian military vehicles trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets river appears to have been confirmed by drone footage.


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

NK Covid
North Korea has finally caught up with the rest of the world – on Covid. The country’s news agency is reporting an “explosive” spread of the virus and Kim Jong-un has ordered a national lockdown to combat the “immediate public health crisis”. 350,000 people are reported to have shown signs of fever since cases escalated in April. Six people have died, including at least one person who caught Omicron. Evading the virus for this long has come at a price. None of North Korea’s 25 million population are vaccinated and restricted trade with China has exacerbated malnutrition. UN sanctions in response to nuclear testing haven’t helped, and the economy is tanking. It’s unlikely Kim will get through the crisis without outside help. Even announcing the outbreak could be seen as a (reluctant) appeal for aid. Korean outlets are reporting this as a chance to reset the US relationship, but American medical support seems unlikely given Biden’s failure to announce any new US funding at his own global Covid summit yesterday. South Korea may have got there first in any case. Yoon Suk-yeol, its new president, said this morning he was happy to send vaccinations north. 


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Blackrock rethink
Two years ago Larry Fink, head of the world’s biggest money manager, said “climate risk is investment risk” and told companies and governments to prepare for huge flows of capital towards climate-friendly investments. War changed all that. This week Blackrock, with $10 trillion in assets under management, said shareholder activist demands for big firms to divest from fossil fuels were not in “our clients’ long-term financial interests”. Translation: U-turn ahead. Energy security trumps all and current returns on oil and gas are simply too tempting to ignore. Fink’s not alone in nodding to the altered landscape. On Wednesday Mark Carney, convenor of the Gfanz initiative at Cop26 to harness trillions for the transition to clean energy, said Gfanz signatories should still be able to finance new coal and other fossil fuel projects. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images


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