Galaxies & the Universe

M87

What’s the density of the black hole in galaxy M87?

On page 20 of the March 2004 issue, you say the 3-billion-solar-mass black hole in the center of the galaxy M87 has an average density about that of air. I would love to understand how this makes any sense. The diameter of a black hole scales directly with its mass. That is, if you double…

Parallax

Should you use light-years or parsecs for astronomical distance?

You give astronomical distances beyond the solar system in light-years, but professional astronomy papers use parsecs. Which is preferable? Light-years, no question! Here’s how I see it. The parsec (which equals 3.26 light-years) is defined as the distance at which a star will show an annual parallax of one arcsecond. This means it is based…

Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

Why are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds not listed among the Caldwell objects?

Why are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds not listed among the Caldwell objects? They are also not given in Stephen James O’Meara’s book The Messier Objects in the list of 20 spectacular non-Messier objects nor among O’Meara’s 20 spectacular non-Caldwell objects in The Caldwell Objects. Are they too bright? The Large and Small Magellanic…

Pi

How many digits are satisfactory in the measurement of pi?

In the 3rd century BC, Archimedes proved that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is less than 3 1/7 but larger than 3 10/71. That’s about 3.141. Later mathematicians have computed what we now call p (pi) to greater and greater accuracy — but how many digits are “enough”? The answer is…