Sweet seahorses

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Home > McGill News > 2000 > Fall 2000 > Newsbites > Sweet seahorses

Sweet seahorses


Support can come from the oddest places. One might rightly expect funds for biology research to come from scientific granting agencies or a corporate donor with interests in the field of study. But for McGill professor Amanda Vincent and her international Project Seahorse, support has come from a luxury chocolate company.


Chocolaterie Guylian gave the renowned biologist and seahorse champion $750,000(U.S.) for her project that protects seahorses from over-harvesting and other threats to their habitats. Guylian wanted to support a conservation project and were tipped off by the World Wildlife Fund that Vincent's work fit the bill perfectly: Guylian's chocolates, marketed in 140 countries, are produced in the shapes of seashells and seahorses. Teaming up with Vincent was the perfect match of philanthropy, environmentalism and marketing.

Shuttle service


Life just got easier for McGill students and staff travelling between the downtown campus and Macdonald in Ste. Anne de Bellevue. The University has launched a new "door-to-door" shuttle bus service, which stops at the Roddick Gates downtown and Centennial Centre out at Mac. With the rise in interdisciplinary programs like the McGill School of Environment, more and more students are bouncing between campuses for their studies. The new bus has six departures a day from each campus and riders can buy monthly or semester passes or 10-trip cards.

New spin on strange pulsar

Photo Photos courtesy NASA

McGill and MIT astronomers have taken a major step in defining a type of star so rare that only five are so far known to us Earthlings. Victoria Kaspi, an assistant professor of physics at MIT's Center for Space Research who is on leave from McGill's Physics department, has found that a slow-spinning, highly magnetic collapsed star known as an Anomolous X-ray Pulsar (AXP) has experienced a kind of "starquake" -- a sudden, catastrophic shifting of the star's interior. The "starquake" provides strong confirmation that the AXP is a neutron star -- the skeletal remains of a large star that has exploded its outer shell and is left a quickly spinning and much smaller core. (A pulsar is a neutron star that emits a pulse of radiation with each spin.)

The discovery may also support the hypothesis that neutron stars up to a thousand times more magnetic than those previously documented may exist. Known as magnetars, the hypothetical stars would be powerful enough to magnetically wipe the information from a credit card at a distance halfway to the moon.

Kaspi and fellow researchers were using the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite to track these rare stars. They only emit X-ray radiation and therefore cannot be observed by ordinary radio and optical telescopes. "Thanks to RXTE," says Kaspi, "we can study the interiors of these unusual objects using a form of 'seismology,' like the way geologists study the Earth from earthquakes."


Kaspi's group were watching for an AXP to start spinning faster -- a phenomenon known somewhat unscientifically as a glitch, and observed in the more-studied radio pulsars. The glitch is the likely result of the earthquake-like quirks that occur in the star. After two years, one of the AXPs obliged.

"We were delighted!" says Kaspi. "This is clear evidence that the AXP is a neutron star with an internal structure just like the radio pulsars."

As for proving the existence of magnetars, the AXP glitch supports the hypothesis, and there are a handful of magnetar candidates sprinkled throughout the galaxy, but the findings do not provide proof.

"That can only come with patience and continued observation of these strange beasts," says Kaspi.

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