DIANA MAZZELLA: Think back. Do you remember what you did on July 24, 2001?
I remember that
summer. It was the period in which my aunt and uncle were bringing my baby
cousin from China to her forever home. It was also the only year I went outside
of North America on a family trip to Ireland.
And being an American, I remember what happened just after the summer was over. Sept.
But I couldn’t tell you what was happening in the physical world that year. It did
its thing. The sun rose, it set. Maybe it stormed. You know, it definitely stormed
every afternoon because I lived in Florida. If I looked up at the night sky, I
didn’t notice anything. I wasn’t looking for it.
My relationship to outer space was humming along as my uncle Andrew, an astrophysicist,
pointed out beautiful-sounding constellations like Cassiopeia or the Pleiades while
we were on vacation off the North Carolina coast. The only thing I can be reliably
counted upon to correctly find in the sky is sometimes Orion and mainly the moon.
From my childhood to well into my 30s, Uncle Andrew has taken me to the Museum of
Science in Boston where I have sat in rapt attention watching the planetarium show
of the night sky, and IMAX shows about black holes or whatever was on offer. I
can’t remember the details, but I remember the
That feeling when you have a piece of information. And you get an idea that leads
to more ideas. And you don’t know. Because nobody knows. Not with what would be
considered proof. So you take what you know and you believe and you find out more.
Like the event that happened on July 24, 2001 that lasted 5 milliseconds.
But what a 5 milliseconds.
I’m Diana Mazzella, and this is Sparked.
You’ll have noticed that this story has already lasted way longer than five
milliseconds. That’s kind of how it goes. There’s the event. And then there is
the proving that the five milliseconds are worth talking about. That they happened
and that they mattered. And
that part of it — that took years.
DUNCAN LORIMER: I can distinctly remember as a kid just sitting on my bed, bored
on a weekend, thinking about as many of us do, just the vastness of space.
What are we in right now? What is reality? Like those really fundamental questions
that prey on our minds. And I’ve never gotten past that.
MAZZELLA: Duncan Lorimer is used to searching. His life as an astronomer was built
on finding a kind of star called a pulsar. It’s the remains of a star that has
gone supernova and coalesced to become a dense neutron star. The stars are known
to send out brief, regular radio pulses. Lorimer looks for those pulses.
In the early 90s about the time he was working on his master’s and PhD at the University
of Manchester in England — he found one of his first pulsars. It’s named
0437-4715, which describes the star’s position in the sky.
LORIMER: This is a star that’s about 10 kilometers in radius and is spinning very
rapidly. And it was, still is, sending out these radio pulses that we detect and
it was a very, very bright source.
It was so bright that we almost discarded it from the data because we thought
it was some form of interference. The data analysis sort of flags these things
and it almost got rid of it from the pipeline entirely.
MAZZELLA: It seemed like it wasn’t something. But it was. It defied what was expected.
And it turned out to be real.
When Lorimer says that the signal was bright, he means that it was a very strong
signal that is exhibiting a lot of energy. This pulsar he found was one of only
a handful of bright pulsars known at the time, only 400 or 500 light years away.
Which is far in a hypothetical spaceship. It would take you 400 or 500 years to
get there if you could travel at light speed. But that’s not far within the universe.
LORIMER: Being the first person to see that signal and use signaling data, in our
case, an astronomical signal. For me, is very exciting and I don’t know why.
But it’s just like having that knowledge that nobody else does for a brief period
MAZZELLA: By 2007, Lorimer had been at West Virginia University for a year after
working in England and in Bonn, Germany, at the Max Planck Institute for Radio
One of his undergraduates, David Narkevic, was looking through 50 hours of data collected
from the Parkes Observatory from June 19 to July 24 of 2001.
LORIMER: We were looking at the time for isolated pulses that were coming from where
the telescope was pointing, which was the Magellanic Cloud. We were curious to
see if there were isolated pulsars that can be emitted and can very bright.
MAZZELLA: Narkevic came into his office.
LORIMER: He found one that was incredibly bright, showed all of the right signatures
that you would expect for a radio wave passing through the space between us and
the galaxy. All of the properties sort of checked out. Yet there was just a
We looked for almost 100 hours with the telescope shortly after that. Didn’t see another
single one. And we had convinced ourselves at that point that we had come
up with a new phenomenon. And they're now known as fast radio bursts.
MAZZELLA: This was how the five millisecond event from July 24, 2001, was discovered.
The team published a paper, calling the pulse “a bright millisecond radio burst of
It made waves in the astronomy community, and it started to be called something else:
the Lorimer burst.
LORIMER: Well, colloquially it’s named after me. It’s in the scientific literature
under that name. But it’s just an unofficial colloquial description that people
use. So, that’s a nice thing to put in the memoirs, I suppose.
MAZZELLA: So this Lorimer Burst existed now when it hadn’t before. But it was a puzzle.
LORIMER: We were very confused at first because we hadn’t really seen anything like
MAZZELLA: It seemed like something else. A pulsar, right? In a graph, the signal
appeared as a very dark line, which was typical of nearby pulsars like the one
Lorimer had found years before. But this signal showed that it was both very powerful
and very far away. A billion light years away. Which meant that the signal happened
a billion years ago.
LORIMER: You can often get so bogged down in the details that you forget that these
timescales are just ridiculous. You’re talking about the signal emanated before
lifeforms on the earth were even really fully fledged at all in any shape or form.
MAZZELLA: The signal wasn’t a likely candidate to be a pulsar because it didn’t repeat.
Pulsars are the most reliable timing mechanisms in the universe because of how
regularly their signals repeat.
Lorimer had the proof in his hand that a billion years ago, something happened for
five milliseconds. But what was that?
LORIMER: Typically what astronomers do is when they find something new they say,
well what can it resemble that I already know?”
MAZZELLA: After that first signal, one of the co-authors of that paper, Matthew Bailes,
at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, used the same telescope
to collect 90 hours of data. But he didn’t see any other Lorimer bursts.
By 2010, Bailes and doctoral student Sarah Burke-Spolaor, now an assistant professor
of astronomy at West Virginia University, looked in archival data from the Parkes
Observatory. That’s the same telescope that documented the Lorimer Burst — and
they found 16 signals that looked just like the first burst.
With one big difference. These signals were showing up in every beam of the telescope’s
receiver, which meant they probably weren’t from outer space. The pair called them
perytons, after a mythological figure created by writer Jorge Luis Borges. The
creature is a stag and bird hybrid that casts a human-shaped shadow. In other words,
these signals looked like they were from space. But they were not.
This is Sarah Burke-Spolaor.
SARAH BURKE-SPOLAOR: They were swept in frequency just like the Lorimer burst. And
that scared my supervisor a lot. I think it scared Duncan a lot too, and for a
couple of years we sat on these events not knowing what they were. We were trying to
investigate possible different physical origins around the telescope. We pointed
to lightning storms. We moved the telescope around to see if maybe there was something
on site at the time of the telescope location beaming into the telescope accidentally.
MAZZELLA: As time went on, more astronomers thought the first signal, the Lorimer
burst, didn’t come from space at all.
There was someone else at West Virginia University who is an expert finder of things
in the cosmos. And Lorimer is married to her. In 2011, Maura McLaughlin and Duncan
Lorimer were at a conference session that turned out to be a litmus test for the
There was a show of hands as to who thought the burst wasn’t real. Lorimer was sitting
in the front row and didn’t look back to see the results of the poll.
MAURA McLAUGHLIN: You know it's funny, I don't remember even exactly where the
conference was. But I do remember something, someone asking like "Who believes
in the Lorimer burst and that it's real?" and Dunc was one of a minority of people
who believed it was real. Most people did not believe it, and I was on the fence.
I don't think I ever a hundred percent. I mean, I didn't know. You know, there's
no way to know right? We had the same scientific evidence and you can interpret
it in different ways and so some like very smart people thought it definitely wasn't
real, some thought it was real and we just had to wait to find more to see.
MAZZELLA: McLaughlin is the Eberly Distinguished Professor for Physics and Astronomy
at WVU. Even before she became a professor, she was changing the field. While working
on her PhD at Cornell, she helped develop a technique to look for pulsars in a
new way. For 30 years, scientists were using a technique called the Fourier Transform
that breaks down a waveform and to look for an underlying periodic emission.
And it wasn’t often spotted. McLaughlin and colleagues looked for a giant signal
to detect pulsars. With this breakthrough, astronomers started finding these stars much
more frequently. And this technique helped Lorimer spot the Fast Radio Burst.
McLaughlin knew how to look for the unseen. And yet, we don’t all see the same things.
She started looking at data to find more fast radio bursts. She came up empty.
McLAUGHLIN: I even wrote a post op a paper with one of my postdocs where we had searched
a big survey and didn't find any and our conclusion was "Oh these probably
MAZZELLA: But she was willing to keep looking and worked on a proposal that was pitched
several times to funding agencies.
McLAUGHLIN: And that would have cleaned up the field if we could have got funded
for it and we put it in like three times and every time the reviewers said "These
things aren't real."
MAZZELLA: My co-producer Raymond Thompson, jumps in to ask her a question.
RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.: Is there like an element of faith in there that you have to.
It seems like it's so, not that you'd put like your personal worth into it, like, "Oh, this idea, I must believe it. Why don't you believe it?" But does it ever go
beyond the science?
McLAUGHLIN: It is a bit. Yeah, I think Dunc got really attached to it because it was
his you know burst and once it had his name attached to it and people started
calling it "the Lorimer burst" and that made him like, you know, it has to be real. And so I think he really, he just believed it. Right, and it is an element of faith
because we both had exactly the same scientific evidence, and we both have very
similar scientific trainings and expertise and looked at the same thing, and he
was like "for sure" and I was like, "Oh, I'm not sure." And yeah, I mean you just have.
Lots of lots of it is just yeah faith and belief.
MAZZELLA: McLaughlin said their proposals to find more fast radio bursts kept going unfunded
because the peryton discovery had dampened interest in astronomy for new fast
radio bursts. What was the point of investing in a mirage? But even the perytons
at this point were still a mystery. The answer when it came confirmed scientists’
suspicions. They had absolutely nothing to do with space.
NEWS REPORT: Let's move on to a very interesting story and this has to do with astronomers at a very notable observatory. A couple of times a day they'd experience a little interference, a little signal. They didn't know what it was. And they thought maybe it was an atmospheric disturbance and it was a mystery for a long period of time until they discovered the true cause was. And the true cause was? The microwave on the site.
BURKE-SPOLAOR: It turned out there was two locations on site. And in fact, it happened to be these two microwave ovens that,
if you’re impatient and you open the door before your spin cycle ends, then it
sends out a radio signal that looks a lot like an extragalactic burst.
MAZZELLA: The headlines that followed this discovery were unforgiving:
Rogue Microwave Ovens Are the Culprits Behind Mysterious Radio Signals
Parkes Observatory: Extraterrestrial Messages or Microwave Noodles?
Mysterious Deep-Space Radio Signals Trace Back to a Janky Old Microwave
A Signal From aliens? No, It's Just a Kitchen Appliance.
BURKE-SPOLAOR: Yeah, I mean when you find a result and you publish it, and someone proves it to
be wrong, that can be really nerve-wracking experience because you feel kind of
There was actually this discovery of something potentially totally groundbreaking, and then maybe
it’s microwave ovens. And that's kind of a different type of path. But at the same time when you’re publishing science, and like when I was publishing what turned out to be microwave ovens, it was still a part
of the conversation. It wasn’t a type of end all, like, ‘Here’s the end of
the line. Sorry guys. This is the conclusion.’ It was just, we have this data. Look at this. It’s
really interesting, ‘Hey everybody we should probably work on this for a while.’
MAZZELLA: After the perytons were discovered but before they were known to be from microwaves,
Burke-Spolaor kept looking for radio bursts. New equipment came in and there was
a new sky survey with new data.
BURKE-SPOLAOR: Fortunately, radio astronomers have the tenacity to keep looking and keep searching
for what the Lorimer burst actually looks like, which was a very pure signal that
looked like it was coming from another galaxy. And fortunately, back in 2013 we
found more of these things that are actually not coming from people’s lunches.
They’re coming from the cosmos. And now we’ve gotten to the point where we can
actually pin one down to another galaxy and we’ve seen that it’s coming from that
location. Which is a relief.
MAZZELLA: Bailes and Burke-Spolaor and their team found four fast radio bursts.
It had been six years from the discovery of the Lorimer burst to the next pulses
that were not from microwaves. And the discoveries quickly increased. In 2014,
the first fast radio burst discovered outside of the Parkes telescope was located
using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. There are other firsts. The first
one caught live. The first one that repeats.
The search has gotten bigger as radio telescopes around the world get improvements
to their receivers and new telescopes are built. By 2018, several dozen fast radio
bursts had been detected. By the end of the year, a telescope in Western Australia had detected 20 more.
In 2019, the new CHIME telescope in Canada has enabled scientists to find 13 more
and counting. It’s estimated that CHIME could pick up as many as 1,000 new bursts
by the end of the year.
In February, at a conference Fast Radio Bursts in Amsterdam, it became clear that
the pace of discovery was at breakneck speed.
McLAUGHLIN: So, I mean they may even be up to 1,000 FRBs by now. I don't know but at the conference
about a month ago and Amsterdam they were already up to 300. And the number had
grown by like 50 over the few days of the conference. So they're going to find
MAZZELLA: Today, it’s easy to gloss over that the field of Lorimer bursts for years was being
held together predominantly by a few scientists in West Virginia and Australia,
using a telescope that for 17 years was sometimes haunted by impatiently microwaved
LORIMER: The field has taken off to such a degree now where there's a community as several hundred people around the world now working on it. And so, part of me wants to cling on to everything,
which is ridiculous, but at the same time you see that people just take the idea
in different directions and you're saying, “ahh that’s such a great idea. I would’ve never have thought of that.”
MAZZELLA: As the number of bursts increases, the question has changed from ‘are fast radio
bursts real?’ to the question that has been behind the signals from the moment
Duncan Lorimer saw that first printout. What are they?
We know at this point that these confirmed bursts are not interference. They’re coming
from across the universe.
In many popular news stories over the years about the bursts, an idea that they’re
coming from an alien civilization — or civilizations — keeps coming up.
It’s attractive. You want to sit and dream in it and think that a person somewhere
has something to say to us and we could read and understand it some day like letters
falling from the sky.
Burke-Spolaor burst that bubble for us.
BURKE-SPOLAOR: There are other things we know that have similar power, and they’re also very distant and
those are called active galactic nuclei. And essentially what that is, is in the center of almost every galaxy, we believe there is a very, very massive
black hole. Something like a billion times the mass of the sun and these can sustain
high powers for extended periods of time. Something to flash that quickly, with
that power is a very difficult thing to manage.
MAZZELLA: Burke-Spolaor calculated the power of a fast radio burst as being the equivalent
of the wattage of 100-watt light bulbs in the amount of 10 to the 22nd power. That’s
a 1 with 22 zeros behind it. I had to look up the word for this number. It would
be called 10 sextillions. A few milliseconds of 10 sextillions of power seems more
than any E.T. could manage.
So, that many light bulbs would be a fast radio burst.
That's a lot of light bulbs, which is why it would be so hard to make something
that bright at earth.
MAZZELLA: So aside from aliens, what’s left?
BURKE-SPOLAOR: We don’t understand whether there’s multiple things making them in the universe.
Like maybe there’s some blackholes making them and maybe there's some neutron stars making them.
MAZZELLA: Lorimer suggested it could be like the Crab Nebula pulsar that sits in a supernova
explosion seen a thousand years ago. Today it’s a rapidly spinning pulsar that
sometimes shows an exceptionally powerful burst.
LORIMER: it’s quite plausible that it could be a Crab pulsar perhaps on steroids as it were sort of hyped up
even more so that it would produce even brighter pulsars. That’s one of the more favored
models today. There are also other explanations though. To produce something that's very brief and short lived, you need relative small objects to collide together.
McLAUGHLIN: I think perhaps there's some kind of binary system, you know where, I don't know say
you have a neutron star and a companion star and material accretes onto the surface
of the neutron star and that might produce a big blast of emission. They could
be very high magnetic field neutron stars, like with way higher magnetic fields
than anything we've seen and these could be magnetic reconnection offense, like
like the magnetic field lines kind of breaking and reconnecting could result in
a big burst like this. So those are my favorite explanations.
MAZZELLA: All three of the astronomers are in the hunt for fast radio bursts. They say that within a few years, we
should have answers to what they are.
Lorimer once explained to me that the fast radio bursts, if they were able to be
seen, which they’re not, would be going off much like fireflies. A scientist in
the earlier days of the search estimated that there are 10,000 signals a day. That’s
one every few seconds in the universe.
We wouldn’t know they existed if there weren’t people who believed that they can
find a thing that they’ve never met, that they don’t know where it is or when it
will appear. They just know they’ll find it.
McLAUGHLIN: When I was younger, I would look up at the night sky and just
have this huge sense of wonder. Like I've always had that. Like I'd look up and
think "Oh my gosh who could be out there on these other planets and why are we here
and how long have we been here?"
BURKE-SPOLAOR: As a child I was always actually kind of scared of astronomy because they would always talk
about the sun exploding and going nova. And I couldn’t really comprehend what that
meant and what that meant for me and should I be worried about it. So, I was
always worried about it, and I think eventually that just turned into a big fascination
LORIMER: I can distinctly remember as a kid just sitting on my bed, bored on a weekend, just thinking about as many of us do I'm sure, just thinking about the vastness of space. What are we in right now?
What is reality? Like those really fundamental questions that prey on our minds.
And I’ve never gotten past that. Every now and again, I will become
that, that kid.
MAZZELLA: Thank you for listening to Sparked, a podcast of West Virginia University Magazine.
This episode was recorded and produced by Raymond Thompson Jr. and me, Diana Mazzella.
A big thank you to Duncan Lorimer, Maura McLaughlin and Sarah Burke-Spolaor for explaining
their work to us. We got help in parsing the timeline of fast radio bursts from
a piece written by Lorimer and McLaughlin that appeared in Scientific American
called “Flashes in the Night: The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts.”
If you liked this episode, go back and listen to its companion piece “Star Hunters,”
if you haven’t heard it already.
Help others find our podcast by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. And let
us know what you thought of this episode by contacting us through our website:
magazine.wvu.edu, where you can also subscribe to our newsletter.
Sparked is a production of West Virginia University, located in Morgantown, West