The South African Astronomical Observatory and the Southern African Large Telescope are among the 70 ground- and space-based observatories that observed the explosion of two colliding neutron stars, immediately after their gravitational shock waves were detected by the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
Neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known. They are the remains of massive stars which exploded as supernovae. In this particular event, dubbed GW170817, two such neutron stars spiralled inwards and then collided, emitting gravitational waves that were detectable for about 100 seconds. The collision also resulted in a kilonova explosion of light, initially in the form of gamma rays which were detected by space-based telescopes. The gamma rays were then followed by X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves.
This allowed astronomers to localise the event within hours and launch follow-up observations by SALT and numerous other telescopes in South Africa and around the world. South African activities also included the first observations contributing to published scientific results by the MeerKAT radio telescope under construction in the Karoo.
Gravitational waves from colliding black holes were first detected only two years ago, and have been detected three more times since then, leading to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to three US scientists. Black hole collisions, however, are not expected to emit light. GW170817 is the first time light and gravitational waves from the same event have been observed.
The significance of the present event lies in the combination of the gravitational waves and light. “Imagine you have only one sense”, explains Petri Vaisanen, Head of SALT Astronomy Operations, who was the observer at SALT during the frantic search for the counterpart for the gravitational wave event. “All your life you have merely looked at the world. Two years ago you heard something, voices coming from somewhere around you. But then, suddenly, you actually see someone talking. How much more will you understand about how the world works when you put those together? Immensely more. That to me sums up the momentous discovery, and hints at the possibilities going forward.”
August 18, 2017, the day and night following the LIGO detection and the initial successful searches in Chile for the counterpart, was a busy day for observational astronomers. “After a flurry of messages and emails that afternoon in Sutherland, I finally got the coordinates”, continues Vaisanen. “There was a new object, which had caused the whole of space-time to ripple, sitting at the outskirts of the galaxy NGC 4993 some 130 million light-years away. I knew that everyone with a working telescope in the Southern Hemisphere was scrambling to get data on it. We decided to drop all other plans for that evening, and went for a spectral observation with SALT, since you need a large telescope for such observations breaking up the light into all its colours. It was a difficult observation since we had to do it in twilight, before it got properly dark. I’m very proud of the whole team, SALT was only the third observatory to provide a spectrum of the target, and the first spectrum that clearly started showing anomalous behaviour proving that this was no run-of-the-mill transient event”.
The significance of getting early observations stems from the afterglow of the collision changing very rapidly. Piecing together the new science from the event requires combining observations spanning the first hours, days and weeks after the merger. The first SALT spectrum has a very prestigious spot in the combined scientific paper, with thousands of authors and hundreds of institutions. In addition, several, more detailed scientific papers have also been written based on SALT, SAAO and other Sutherland observations.
“Finally, the irony of the moment for me, anxiously sitting at the telescope that evening looking at the new object, was that just three weeks before I had attended a meeting discussing the future of optical searches of gravitational waves and the SAAO part in it. There were arguments that it could be decades before we are able to localise such events well enough for observations, and it would probably not be worth expending the effort. It’s amazing how quickly things change.”
Sutherland telescopes reveal the details of the neutron star merger
Theorists have predicted that what follows the initial collision is a “kilonova” explosion— a phenomenon by which the material that is left over from the neutron star collision, which glows with light, is blown out of the immediate region, far out into space. The light-based observations from other large international telescopes show that heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created in these collisions and subsequently distributed throughout the universe – confirming the theory that a major source for the creation of elements heavier than iron does, indeed, results from these neutron star mergers.
The early SALT observations showed that the explosion was relatively bright and blue. Only two or three days later, further observations by SALT, SAAO and other major international telescopes showed that the light was rapidly fading and turning red, due to the dusty debris blocking the bluer light, as predicted by the theory of the evolution of a kilonova explosion. Simultaneously, MASTER (a joint Russian-South African optical telescope located in Sutherland) and IRSF (Infra-Red Survey Facility; a joint Japanese-South African infrared telescope also in Sutherland) continued to monitor GW170817 for two weeks, showing that it gradually faded in the visible light but brightened in the infrared, consistent with the final stages of the afterglow from the surrounding debris.
The results of this unprecedented event have demonstrated the importance of collaborative multi-messenger observations and mark a new era in astronomy. “The ability of SALT and SAAO telescopes to respond rapidly to unexpected discoveries is a major reason for the success of these observations and will ensure similar successes in the future”, says Dr Stephen Potter, Head of Astronomy at the SAAO. “We are very proud to have played a major role in such a historical event thanks to the sterling efforts and expertise of SAAO and SALT staff who ensure that our observatory is at the forefront of world-class scientific endeavours.”
How to rob a bank in the 21st century
In the early 1980s, South Africans were gripped by tales of the most infamous bank robbery gangs the country had ever known: The Stander Gang. The gang would boldly walk into banks, brandishing weapons, demand cash and simply disappear. These days, a criminal doesn’t even have to be in the same country as the bank he or she intends to rob. Cyber criminals are quite capable of emptying bank accounts without even stepping out of their own homes.
As we become more and more aware of cybersecurity and the breaches that can occur, we’ve become more vigilant. Criminals, however, are still going to follow the money and even though security may be beefed up in many organisations, hackers are going to go for the weakest links. This makes it quintessential for consumers and enterprises to stay one step ahead of the game.
“Not only do these cyber bank criminals get away with the cash, they also end up damaging an organisation’s reputation and the integrity of its infrastructure,” says Indi Siriniwasa, Vice President of Trend Micro, Sub-Saharan Africa. “And sometimes, these breaches mean they get away with more than just cash – they can make off with data and personal information as well.”
Because the cyber criminals operate outside bricks and mortar, going for the cash register or robbing the customers is not where their misdeeds end. Bank employees – from the tellers to the CEO – are all fair game.
But how do they do it? Taking money out of an account is not the only way to steal money. Cyber criminals can zero in on the bank’s infrastructure, or hack into payment systems and even payment documents. Part of a successful operation for them may also include hacking into telecommunications to gain access to one-time pins or mobile networks.
“It’s not just about hacking,” says Siriniwasa.. “It’s also about the hackers trying to get an ‘inside man’ in the bank who could help them or even using a person’s personal details to get a new SIM so that they can have access to OTPs. Of course, they also use the tried and tested method of phishing which continues to be exceptionally effective – despite the education in the market to thwart it.”
The amounts of malware and available attacks to gain access to bank funds is strikingly vast and varies from using web injection script, social engineering and even targeting internal networks as well as points of sale systems. If there is an internet connection and a system you can be assured that there is a cybercriminal trying to crack it. The impact on the bank itself is also massive, with reputations left in tatters and customers moving their business elsewhere.
“We see that cyber criminals use multi-faceted attacks,” says Siriniwasa. “This means that we need to come at security from multiple angles as well. Every single layer of an organisation’s online perimeter need to be secured. Threat isolation is exceptionally important and having security with intrusion protection is vital. Again, vigilance on the part of staff and customers also goes a long way to preventing attacks. These criminals might not carry guns like Andre Stander and his gang, but they are just as dangerous – in fact – probably more so.”
Beaten by big data? AI is the answer
by ZAKES SOCIKWA, cloud big data and analytics lead at Oracle
In 2019, it’sestimated we’ll generate more data than we did in the previous 5,000 years. Data is fast becoming the most valuable asset of any modern organisation, and while most have access to their internal data, they continue to experience challenges in deriving maximum value through being able to effectively monetise the information that they hold.
The foundation of any analytics or Business Intelligence (BI) reporting capability is an efficient data collection system that ensures events/transactions are properly recorded, captured, processed and stored. Some of this information on its own might not provide any valuable insights, but if it is analysed together with other sources might yield interesting patterns.
Big data opens up possibilities of enhancing internal sources with unstructured data and information from Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Furthermore, as we move to a digital age, more businesses are implementing customer experience solutions and there is a growing need for them to improve their service and personalise customer engagements.
The digital behaviour of customers, such as social media postings and the networks or platforms they engage with, further provides valuable information for data collection. Information gathering methods are being expanded to accommodate all types and formats of data, including images, videos, and more.
In the past, BI and Data Mining were left to highly technical and analytical individuals, but the introduction of data visualisation tools is democratising the analytics world. However, business users and report consumers often do not have a clear understanding of what they need or what is possible.
AI now embedded into day to day applications
To this end, artificial intelligence (AI) is finishing what business intelligence started. By gathering, contextualising, understanding, and acting on huge quantities of data, AI has given rise to a new breed of applications – one that’s continuously improving and adapting to the conditions around it. The more data that is available for the analysis, the better is the quality of the outcomes or predictions.
In addition, AI changes the productivity equation for many jobs by automating activities and adapting current jobs to solve more complex and time-consuming problems, from recruiters being able to source better candidates faster to financial analysts eliminating manual error-prone reporting.
This type of automation will not replace all jobs but will invent new ones. This enables businesses to reduce the time to complete tasks and the costs of maintenance, and will lead to the creation of higher-value jobs and new engagement models. Oracle predicts that by 2025, the productivity gains delivered by AI, emerging technologies, and augmented experiences could double compared to today’s operations.
According to the IDC, worldwide revenues for big data and business analytics (BDA) solutions was expected to total $166 billion in 2018, and forecast to reach $260 billion in 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 11.9% over the 2017-2022 forecast period. It adds that two of the fastest growing BDA technology categories will be Cognitive/AI Software Platforms (36.5% CAGR) and Non-relational Analytic Data Stores (30.3% CAGR)¹.
Informed decisions, now and in the future
As new layers of technology are introduced and more complex data sources are added to the ecosystem, the need for a tightly integrated technology stack becomes a challenge. It is advisable to choose your technology components very carefully and always have the end state in mind.
More development on emerging technologies such as blockchain, AI, IoT, virtual reality and others will probably be available on cloud first before coming on premise. For those organisations that are adopting public cloud, there are opportunities to consume the benefits of public cloud and drive down costs of doing business.
While the introduction of public cloud is posing a challenge on data sovereignty and other regulations, technology providers such as Oracle have developed a ‘Cloud at Customer’ model that provides the full benefits of public cloud – but located on premise, within an organisation’s own data centre.
The best organisations will innovate and optimise faster than the rest. Best decisions must be made around choice of technology, business processes, integration and architectures that are fit for business. In the information marketplace, speed and informed decision making will be key differentiators amongst competitors.
¹ IDC Press Release, Revenues for Big Data and Business Analytics Solutions Forecast to Reach $260 Billion in 2022, Led by the Banking and Manufacturing Industries, According to IDC, 15 August 2018