Hoping Tom Lehrer saw the item

Great news. There is now a proper explanation for short gamma-ray bursts. In case you missed out, these are short bursts of high-energy radiation from somewhere in the sky, which satellite devices started picking up several years ago; the atmosphere blocks the gamma radiation from getting down here. While it's flashing ("short" means less than two seconds), a burst is as bright as 100 quadrillion Suns.

BTW, this is the second time in a couple of days that I've seen a number like "100,000 trillion". What gives? Thousand million and million million have passed pretty well out of the language, especially since England decided to join Germany and the USA in defining billion and trillion, eliminating a possible ambiguity. Can it be that the reader isn't expected to know what a quadrillion is? Answer, I suppose: Until recently, trillions were something a person just hadn't heard of, except perhaps in the number of miles in a light-year; the latter was usually called six million million miles when I first heard the number, fifty-some years ago (finding the locution annoying even then). What with GDPs and national debts and national budgets, not to mention big amounts of money denominated in Yen, trillions are now considered familiar enough to use, but it will be a few years before even the US war budget hits a quadrillion Yen.

Oh, right, you want to know what does cause these things. Colliding neutron stars, according to the paper coming out today in Nature. (Subscription required, of course.) There's a mind-blowing thought. Also, a good name for a rock group.

It has been known for some time that these big explosions were a long way off. Good thing. If one happened in our galaxy, and the beam of gamma radiation happened to point our way, it could knock out the ozone layer completely, causing us all to be fried with short-wave unltraviolet from our friendly neighborhood Sun. Unlikely, however, so "don't buy gamma ray burst insurance," says Edward "Rocky" Kolb of Fermilab.

No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance,
Lloyd's of London will be loaded when they go.

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