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Astrophysicists Detect Gravitational Waves Once Again

The hat-shaped Sombrero galaxy was not involved in the gravitational wave research, but it is lovely. Seen edge-on, it features an unusually large and extended central bulge composed of billions of old stars, while its dust rings harbor many younger and brighter stars. Its center is thought to house a large black hole. Image credit: NASA/Hubble Heritage Team

Just four months after the announcement of the first detection of gravitational waves, physicists say they’ve recorded another burst of these elusive ripples in space-time, again coming from a merging pair of black holes, far beyond our galaxy.

The first gravitation wave detection, announced with great fanfare in February, was sparked by a signal recorded at the twin LIGO detectors on September 14 of last year; this latest signal tripped the detectors on December 26. (The acronym stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory.)

“We now know that the first detection wasn’t just luck,” LIGO team member Duncan Brown, of Syracuse University, tells mental_floss. The odds of the earlier signal being a false alarm were on the order of a million to one—but, notes Brown, “people do win the lottery sometimes.” This second detection clinches it, he says. “This tells us that we will be making regular detections of binary black holes” in the coming years.

The LIGO team announced the discovery today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego. Their paper will be published in the journal Physical Review Letters

The paper, which examines data collected by LIGO from September 2015 to January 2016, also hints at a third gravitational wave event, recorded last October, although that event is less certain (and is being described only as a “candidate signal,” and not necessarily a “detection”).

Black holes form when massive stars collapse in the final stage of their evolution. Occasionally black holes end up orbiting other black holes, their orbits gradually shrinking as the system loses energy. Eventually they accelerate and merge, sending a blast of gravitational waves out across the universe.

Until this year, gravitational waves were purely theoretical, a prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published 100 years ago.

NASA created this visualization of two black holes merging when the discovery of gravitational waves was announced earlier this year.

The black holes that caused the December signal are smaller than those responsible for the earlier event; in this case their masses are believed to have been about 14 and about 17.5 times the mass of the Sun (in the earlier case, they were 29 and 36 times as massive as the Sun). Because of their smaller size, they took longer to execute their final orbits, Brown says. As a result, while the earlier signal was a mere blip, lasting about one-tenth of a second, this event lasted for a relatively leisurely 1.5 seconds. During that time, the two ultra-dense stars, having orbited each other for perhaps 100,000,000 years, performed their final loops. “This time we saw about 30 orbits, before they finally crashed into each other and merged,” Brown says.

The result is an even bigger black hole—though not quite as large as you’d expect by just adding up the masses of the two black holes that gave rise to it. That’s because roughly one solar mass was converted into energy, via Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2. The magnitude of the explosion boggles the imagination. “When a nuclear bomb explodes, you’re converting about a gram of matter—about the weight of a thumbtack—into energy,” Brown explains. “Here, you’re converting the equivalent of the mass of the Sun into energy, in a tiny fraction of a second.”

As powerful as the blast was—for an instant, it would have produced more energy than all the stars in the universe—the ripples it unleashed were almost vanishingly small by the time they reached the Earth, having traveled across some 1.4 billion light years of space.            

For now, scientists can only estimate what direction these signals have come from; however, their ability to “triangulate” locations will greatly improve when another gravitational wave detector, Italy’s Virgo facility, is incorporated into the network of detectors, possibly as early as this autumn. India and Japan are also set to bring gravitational wave detectors online in the years ahead.

LIGO began operation in 2002, but with only a fraction of its current sensitivity. The detectors, located in Louisiana and in Washington state, were upgraded last fall in an effort known as “Advanced LIGO.” The facility is still operating at just one-third of its potential maximum sensitivity, Brown says.

As gravitational wave observations become routine, physicists will be able to tackle some of the outstanding problems in astrophysics and cosmology—many of which involve the puzzling properties of black holes, as University of Florida physicist Clifford Will tells mental_floss: “Where do black holes come from? Were they born small, and then grow? Or are there mechanisms that can produce 30 or 40 stellar mass black holes from the get-go? Did they form within binary systems? Or did one black hole capture another, later in life? These are the questions that astronomers and astrophysicists will be thinking about.”

Adds Brown: “The field of 'gravitational wave astronomy' is now open for business.”

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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