Visionaries Old And New

Cathleen’s back at the mic. “Let’s have a round of applause for Maria, Jeremy, Madison and C‑J. Thank you all. We have a few minutes left for questions… Paul, you’re first.”

“Thanks, Cathleen. A comment, not a question. As you know, archeoastronomy is my specialty so I applaud Jeremy’s advocacy for the field. I agree with his notion that the Colorado Plateau’s dry, thin air generally lets us see more stars than sea‑level Greeks do. When I go to a good dark sky site, it can be difficult to see the main stars that define a constellation because of all the background dimmer stars. However, I don’t think that additional stars would change the pictures we project into the sky. Most constellations are outlined from only the brightest stars up there. Dimmer stars may confuse the issue, but I very much doubt they would have altered the makeup of the constellations a culture defines. Each culture uses their own myths and history when finding figures among the stars.”

“Thanks for the confirmation from personal experience, Paul. Yes, Sy?”

“Another comment not a question. I’m struck by how Maria’s Doppler technique and Jeremy’s Astrometry complement each other Think of a distant stellar system like a spinning plate balanced on a stick. Doppler can tell you how long the stick is. Astrometry can tell you how wide the plate is. Both can tell you how fast it’s spinning. The strongest Doppler signal comes from systems that are edge‑on to us. The strongest Astrometry signal comes from systems we see face‑on. Those are the extreme cases, of course. Most systems are be at some in‑between angle and give us intermediate signals.”

“That’s a useful classification, Sy. Madison’s and C‑J’s transit technique also fits the edge‑on category. Jim, I can see you’re about to bust. What do you have to tell us about?”

“How about a technique that lets you characterize exoplanets inside a galaxy we see as only a blurry blob? This paper I just read blew me away.”

“Go ahead, you have the floor.”

“Great. Does everyone know about Earendel?” <blank looks from half the audience, mutters about ‘Lord Of The Rings?’ from several> “OK, quick refresher. Earendel is the name astronomers gave to the farthest individual star we’ve ever discovered. It’s either 13 or 28 billion lightyears away, depending on how you define distance. We only spotted it because of an incredible coincidence — the star happens to be passing through an extremely small region of space where light in our general direction is concentrated thousands‑fold into a beam towards us. Earendel may be embedded in a galaxy, but the amplification region is so narrow we can’t see stars that might be right next to it.”

<Feder’s voice> “Ya gonna tell us what makes the region?”

“Only very generally, because it’s complicated. You know what a magnifying lens does in sunlight.”

“Sure. I’ve burnt ants that way.”

“… Right. So what you did was take all the light energy hitting the entire surface of your lens and concentrate it on a miniscule spot. The concentration factor was controlled by the Sun‑to‑lens‑to‑spot distances and the surface area of the lens. Now bring that picture up to cosmological distances. The lens is the combined gravitational field of an entire galaxy cluster, billions of lightyears away from us, focusing light from Earendel’s galaxy billions of lightyears farther away. Really small spots at both ends of the light path and that’s what isolated that star.”

“That’s what got you excited?”

“That’s the start of it. This new paper goes in the other direction. The scientists used brilliant X‑ray light from an extremely distant quasar to probe for exoplanets inside a galaxy’s gravitational lens. Like one of your ants analyzing sunlight’s glare to assess dust flecks on your lens. Or at least their averaged properties. A lens integrates all the light hitting it so your ant can’t see individual grains. What it can do, though, is estimate numbers and size ranges. This paper suggests the lensing galaxy is cluttered with 2000 free‑floating planets per main‑sequence star — stars too far for us to see.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Dave Martinez and Dr Ka Chun Yu for their informative comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.