BAN #199: Quasar portmanteau, Croatian fireball meteorite found

09 March 2020   Issue #199

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]


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Random Thoughts

Stuff I think about in the shower, typically, and which may one day make it to the blog. Until then…

In today’s blog post I wrote about a kind of active galaxy called a quasar, and it made me think about the term. Quasar was coined in the 1960s, and is a combination of the words quasi and stellar; when first discovered these objects were seen to be powerful sources of radio waves but look like stars, so they were called quasi-stellar radio sources.

It turns out they are galaxies like our own but the supermassive black holes in their centers are actively feeding. This forms a huge disk of material around them called an accretion disk, and material in that disk is hot enough to glow very luminously, capable of being seen across billion of light years. That’s, until relatively recently, they looked stellar. They were too small to resolve.

[Artwork of a quasar, a galaxy with material swirling around a central massive black hole, and blasting out twin beams of matter and energy. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, M. Kornmesser]

Sometime later, some quasars were found that were ridiculously powerful, even for this class of object. They were blasting out gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, which is pretty hard to do (magnetic fields are involved, which they usually are). Needing a new name for this class of quasar, astronomers cheekily called them blazars.

And that really got me thinking. As you may or may not know, I love words and wordplay. I even came up with my own coinage for a kind of word I called a contaphonym, for two words that sound similar. Weirdly, to the best of my knowledge, no term had ever been coined for that, so I made up my own.

And here we are now with blazar, which is a combination of blazing and quasar. A word like that is called a portmanteau (which itself has an interesting background story; read that link). But here’s the thing: Quasar is already a portmanteau!

So what does this make blazar? My wife came up with the term second generation portmanteau, which I like, but it’s not a single word describing this kind of work, like synonym. And I can’t seem to come up with a good one.

That’s upsetting; I’m generally pretty good with wordplay. I came up with metaportmanteau, which isn’t quite right, and even progénituremanteau — literally a portmanteau of portmanteau and progéniture. Portmanteau is French, and progéniture means offspring. Except it’s not really a portmanteau because I use the whole world progéniture in it, and you’re only supposed to use part of the word. But when I shorten it the meaning is lost.

Portmangéniture? Fillemanteau (fille is French for daughter)? Portmantenfant (child)? Nothing seems to fit.

If you have an idea, then let me know! I’d love to have a good word for this.

[UPDATE: BA Reader Rick Kopp suggested “portmantwo”, which I love, but is slightly edged out by Theodore Hunter suggesting “portmandeux”. Holy wow. Parfait!]



Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here.

Last week in the newsletter I wrote about an incredibly bright meteor that blazed across Slovenia and Croatia, which was caught on quite a few videos. I speculated that the meteoroid was large enough that some pieces might survive the heat of atmospheric entry and hit the ground as meteorites.

Well, that happened! A Croatian news site reports that a 200-gram meteorite was found by a man and his son in their driveway in Prečna, a town in Slovenia.

[A meteorite from a bright fireball that fell in 2020 over Croatia. Credit: Istramet.hr]

Oh, what a beauty! You can see it’s rocky (not metallic) and that it has a lovely fusion crust, blackened by the heat of its atmospheric passage. Part of the crust has chipped off, possibly when it hit the ground, revealing the gray stony material inside.

This specimen is important for scientific reasons: It’s possible to trace the trajectory back into space to calculate an orbit for it. It’s a given this piece broke off a bigger asteroid, but if it turns out that the orbit intersects a known asteroid that suddenly makes it a lot more interesting. We have meteorites from known asteroids (like Vesta, where a piece feel in a town not far from where I live!) and they give us a chunk of that asteroid we can test carefully in the lab. That is a huge boon to asteroid science.

Also, not to be crass, but this rock is worth a healthy chunk o’ money, too. A meteorite from a known fall is more valuable, and 200 grams is a very large piece. If I were the owner, I’d have a hard time choosing between selling it to a dealer or to a museum. Probably I’d cut off a big chunk to donate to a meteoritics lab, keep a chunk for myself to display and brag about, and sell the rest. He could make a few thousand dollars from it!


Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[I made a mistake talking about Betelgeuse in a recent article. This corrects that and talks even more about why the star dimmed. From Monday’s article. Credit: ESO/P. Kervella]

Monday 02 March, 2020: Mea culpa: Betelgeuse and its dusty convective pulsations

Tuesday 03 March, 2020: Even after the Sun dies, it'll still destroy asteroids

Wednesday 04 March, 2020: A bright, sodium-laced fireball over Spain

Thursday 05 March, 2020: The Question Mark Nebula

Friday 06 March, 2020: Welcome Cycle 25! A new solar magnetic cycle has begun.


Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!