We May Have Just Found the Strongest Material in the Universe

It turns out the strongest material in the
universe isn’t steel, it isn’t graphene, and it’s not even that ever-so fictional
vibranium. It’s….pasta? Nuclear pasta to be exact. Ok it’s not actually pasta, but it is a
material so dense that it’s approximately 10 billion times stronger than steel. And yes, scientists have named it after their
favorite food. It all has to do with neutron stars. A neutron star is what’s left after a massive
star explodes into a supernova–it’s essentially the small, leftover, burnt-out core of that
explosion–maybe 20 kilometers wide, extremely dense, and collapsing in on itself. The inner part of the star actually collapses
so much that some of its electrons and protons get squeezed together to form more neutrons…hence
the name ‘neutron star’. The density part is key here–neutron stars
are so dense that a single teaspoon of them would weigh a billion tons. So if you were to dig about a kilometer below
the surface of a neutron star, what do you think you’d find? New scientific work has simulated just that. The pressure inside a neutron star is so extreme
that the material inside clumps together in unique patterns, many of which are vaguely
reminiscent of pasta shapes…which is what they’re named after. You’ve got your gnocchi, which looks like
little blobs, and its inverse, the anti gnocchi. Long string-like tubes are called spaghetti
and anti spaghetti, there’s the good old sheet-like lasagna, and….waffles? That’s a little outside the pasta family,
but I’ll take it. These shapes were unveiled via computer simulation,
since such high pressures and the resulting high densities are very difficult to replicate
here on earth. Previous work had already demonstrated that
the surface of a neutron star is incredibly strong, but these new simulations show that
the nuclear pasta that lies beneath is even stronger. A 2013 publication had hypothesized that nuclear
pasta exists, but there were no simulations at the time that could show us what it was
like. These new findings reveal a high level of
detail about the shape and nature of nuclear pasta, and suggest that the shapes are actually
quite disorderly and complex. Why does this matter? Well, neutron stars spin. The explosion of the massive star that will
eventually become the neutron star gives the whole thing a rotation, and as the neutron
star collapses, that rotation gets even faster. This spinning means that neutron stars may
be emitting gravitational waves–ripples in spacetime that we could potentially detect. Here’s where the nuclear pasta becomes important–neutron
stars would only generate gravitational waves as they spin if their crusts have some kind
of irregularity. The experts in this field call bumps on the
surface of a neutron star ‘mountains’, even though they’re only a couple of centimeters
tall. These lumps would be caused by mounds of dense
materials inside the star. Sounds like gnocchi to me! So if nuclear pasta does indeed exist the
way scientists have now simulated it, that would mean neutron stars are generating gravitational
all the time! So, this is where real-world observation and
simulation come together. The various nuclear pasta types proposed by
this research could be the reason behind neutron stars creating gravitational waves. Scientists think that these ‘mountains’
on the stars’ surface need to be pretty big (by neutron star mountain standards) to
produce waves we can detect. These new details about nuclear pasta’s
nature reveal that the pasta could be causing ‘mountains’ tens of centimeters tall,
big enough that we could spot them with the observational equipment we already have–like
LIGO. And observing the gravitational waves of neutron
stars would, in turn, experimentally confirm the existence of nuclear pasta–which is quite
probably the strongest known material in the universe. Sorry, vibranium. For your updates on exciting space hardware,
watch this video to learn more about the delay in the James Webb Space Telescope, and subscribe
to Seeker for more SPACE. Thanks for watching.