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Special report: the universe is savage

Every year there are at least 500 gamma-ray bursts in the universe. They destroy everything within a few hundred light years of the source. What do these extraordinary explosions mean for intelligent life in the cosmos?

By Oliver Morton   January 2000

High above the earth’s atmosphere, in one of Nasa’s most expensive spacecraft, sit eight crystal discs of sodium iodide. Now and then they are lit with the faintest of glows. The cause is a sudden surge of gamma rays-electromagnetic radiation like that which makes up visible light, but of shorter wavelength-sleeting through the spacecraft. Within seconds, if all works according to plan, news of the gamma rays’ passage bounces back down to Earth and on to the internet, so that other telescopes can seek out the rays’ source. To astrophysicists, the source of such gamma-ray bursts is one of the…

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