UCD team finds galaxy of total violence


THE distinctly nasty and homicidal muggers of Washington DC are probably green with envy. Ruthless Colombian drug barons are considering calling - it a day and taking up gardening. Even those unsavoury types who frequent Dublin's O'Connell Street on Saturday nights can pack up their kit and go home to mother, for they now have serious competition in the violence stakes.

Scientists from University College Dublin's Department of Experimental Physics have located one of the most violent places in the universe - and it is nowhere near central Dublin.

The area in question is the Markarian 421 galaxy in the Great Bear constellation and it is unlikely to figure in transgalactic holiday plans for the fore seeable future. It is the Vinny Jones of galaxies, the Paul Gascoigne of interstellar domestic harmony.

Markarian 421 is safely tacked away some 400 million light years from Earth, so the violence there will not be of immediate concern. It is also unlikely to attract calls for tighter policing and the return of the birch because Markarian 421's difficulties, unlike those of other troubled areas, are caused by huge pulses of gamma rays.

Powerful bursts of high energy gamma rays are being triggered by what is believed to be a supermassive black hole, which this year produced an exceptionally short photon burst of 30 minutes, allowing the UCD team to infer the size of the region involved.

The region, called an active galactic nucleus, is less than the size of our solar system, yet contains an amount of matter equivalent to 100 million suns and which has gravitationally collapsed to form a supermassive black hole.

The photons coming from the core of this object are a million million times more powerful than the characteristic energy of visible light, the photons of light which enable us to see each other.

The UCD team developed a special imaging camera which enabled it to see the radiation emissions when used in conjunction with an optical reflector in Whipple Observatory, Arizona.

"Their violence and energy would be extremely unusual," said Dr Dave Fegan of UCD's experimental physics department. "This would be among the most violent places in the universe, although perhaps the most violent would be where a star collapses in on itself at the end of its life, becoming a supernova."

It is probably ironic that the tempestuous Markarian galaxy should have been noted by the UCD scientists. According to a survey conducted by the Young Progressive Democrats earlier this month, more than 50 per cent of UCD undergraduate students and 80 per cent of research students have used cannabis.

It appears that one of the most tension filled places ever seen by man has just been measured in one of the most laid back places.