The centers of our Universe’s myriad galaxies rage with brilliant, roiling fires that hide, within their blinding glare, the darkest of hearts. These hearts of darkness are supermassive black holes, and they wait in sinister secret for their dinner–screaming, shredded stars; doomed, wandering clouds of gas; and anything else that is unfortunate enough to travel too close to where these cosmic beasts lurk–lost as they are in the enveloping brilliance of a surrounding swirling, whirling accretion disk of incandescent gas. Many mysteries surround these strange beasts, inhabiting the Universe’s exotic zoo populated by some undeniably bizarre entities. In January 2018, a team of scientists proposed a new theory that may have solved one of them–the puzzling origins of molecules, dancing within destructive cosmic outflows, that blow around in the raging winds powered by these supermassive beasts. The existence of large numbers of these molecules has puzzled astronomers ever since they were first discovered more than a decade ago–the question is how could anything survive the extreme heat of these energetic outflows?
In 1916, Karl Schwarzschild derived the first modern solution of the Theory of General Relativity that could describe a black hole. But its definition as a region of space, from which nothing could ever return, was not truly understood for another forty years. For decades, black holes were considered to be a mere mathematical quirk, and it was not until the 1960s that theoretical studies revealed that black holes truly are a generic prediction of General Relativity.
Molecules trace out for astronomers the most frigid regions of space. However, the enormous black holes inhabiting the hearts of galaxies are far from cold, and are the most energetic phenomena in the Cosmos. Indeed, finding these molecules in black hole winds is a little like detecting ice in a camp fire. The new theory, proposed by researchers in Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Exploration in Astrophysics (CIERA) in Evanston, Illinois, now offers a solution to this mystery. The theory predicts that these molecules are not survivors of these searing-hot and raging winds at all, but are instead newborn molecules that have formed in these fierce winds, and now display some very unique attributes. These unique properties enable the newborn molecules to adapt and thrive in the extremely hostile environment of the supermassive beast’s raging, roaring, and searing-hot winds.
A paper describing this new theory, published in the March 1, 2018 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) in London, is the work of Lindheimer post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Alexander Richings. Dr. Richings is responsible for developing the computer code that, for the first time, modeled the detailed chemical processes that occur in interstellar gas that is accelerated by the radiation being emitted during the growth of supermassive black holes. Dr. Claude-Andre Faucher-Giguere, who is a researcher studying galaxy formation and evolution as an assistant professor in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is a study co-author.