A Star’s Tale

It’s getting nippy outside so Al’s moved his out‑front coffee cart into his shop. Jeremy’s manning the curbside take‑out window but I’m walking so I step inside. Limited seating, of course. “Morning, Al. Here’s my hiking mug, fill ‘er up with high‑test and I’ll take a couple of those scones — one orange, one blueberry. Good news that the Governor let you open up.”

“You know it, Sy. Me and my suppliers have been on the phone every day. Good thing we’ve got long‑term relationships and they’ve been willing to carry me but it gets on my conscience ’cause they’re in a crack, too, ya know?”

“Low velocity of money hurts everybody, Al. Those DC doofuses and their political kabuki … but don’t get me started. Hey, you’ve got a new poster over the cash register.”

“You noticed. Yeah, it’s a beaut. Some artist’s idea of what it’d look like when a star gets spaghettified and eaten by a black hole. See, it’s got jets and a dust dusk and everything.”

“Very nice, except for a few small problems. That’s not spaghettification, the scale is all wrong and that tail-looking thing … no.”

Artist’s impression of AT2019qiz. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

“Not spaghettification? That’s what was in the headline.”

“Sloppy word choice. True spaghettification acts on solid objects. Gravity’s force increases rapidly as you approach the gravitational center. Suppose you’re in a kilometer-long star cruiser that’s pointing toward a black hole from three kilometers away. The cruiser’s tail is four kilometers out. Newton’s Law of Gravity says the black hole pulls almost twice as hard on the nose as on the tail. If the overall field is strong enough it’d stretch the cruiser like taffy. Larry Niven wrote about the effect in his short story, Neutron Star.”

“The black hole’s stretching the star, right?”

“Nup, because a star isn’t solid. It’s fluid, basically a gas held together by its own gravity. You can’t pull on a piece of gas to stretch the whole mass. Your news story should have said ‘tidal disruption event‘ but I guess that wouldn’t have fit the headline space. Anyhow, an atom in the star’s atmosphere is subject to three forces — thermal expansion away from any gravitational center, gravitational attraction toward its home star and gravitational attraction toward the black hole. The star breaks up atom by atom when the two bodies get close enough that the black hole’s attraction matches the star’s surface gravity. That’s where the scale problem comes in.”

Al looks around — no waiting customers so he strings me along. “How?”

“The supermassive black hole in the picture, AT2019qiz, masses about a million Suns‑worth. The Sun‑size star can barely hold onto a gas atom at one star‑radius from the star’s center. The black hole can grab that atom from a thousand star‑radii away, about where Saturn is in our Solar System. The artist apparently imagined himself to be past the star and about where Earth is to the Sun, 100 star‑radii further out. Perspective will make the black hole pretty small.”

“But that’s a HUGE black hole!”

“True, mass‑wise, not so much diameter‑wise. Our Sun’s about 864,000 miles wide. If it were to just collapse to a black hole, which it couldn’t, its Event Horizon would be about 4 miles wide. The Event Horizon of a black hole a million times as massive as the Sun would be less than 5 times as wide as the Sun. Throw in the perspective factor and that black circle should be less than half as wide as the star’s circle.”

“What about the comet‑tail?”

“The picture makes you think of a comet escaping outward but really the star’s material is headed inward and it wouldn’t be that pretty. The disruption process is chaotic and exponential. The star’s gravity weakens as it loses mass but the loss is lop‑sided. Down at the star’s core where the nuclear reactions happen the steady burn becomes an irregular pulse. The tail should flare out near the star. The rest should be jagged and lumpy.”

“And when enough gets ripped away…”


~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to T K Anderson for suggesting this topic.
  • Link to Technical PS — Where Do Those Numbers Come From?.

The Fourth Brother’s Quest

Newt Barnes is an informed and enthusiastic speaker in Cathleen’s “IR, Spitzer and the Universe” memorial symposium. Unfortunately Al interrupts him by bustling in to refresh the coffee urn.

After the noise subsides, Newt picks up his story. “As I was saying, it’s time for the Spitzer‘s inspirational life story. Mind you, Spitzer was designed to inspect very faint infra-red sources, which means that it looks at heat, which means that its telescope and all of its instruments have to be kept cold. Very cold. At lift-off time, Spitzer was loaded with 360 liters of liquid helium coolant, enough to keep it below five Kelvins for 2½ years.”


“Absolute temperature. That’d be -268°C or -450°F. Very cold. The good news was that clever NASA engineers managed to stretch that coolant supply an extra 2½ years so Spitzer gave us more than five years of full-spectrum IR data.”

<mild applause>

“Running out of coolant would have been the end for Spitzer, except it really marked a mid-life transition. Even without the liquid helium, Spitzer is far enough from Earth’s heat that the engineers could use the craft’s solar arrays as a built-in sunshield. That kept everything down to about 30 Kelvins. Too warm for Spitzer‘s long-wavelength instruments but not too warm for its two cameras that handle near infra-red. They chugged along just fine for another eleven years and a fraction. During its 17-year life Spitzer produced pictures like this shot of a star-forming region in the constellation Aquila…”

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Milky Way Project.

The maybe-an-Art-major goes nuts, you can’t even make out the words, but Newt barrels on. “Here’s where I let you in on a secret. The image covers an area about twice as wide as the Moon so you shouldn’t need a telescope to spot it in our Summertime sky. However, even on a good night you won’t see anything like this and there are several reasons why. First, the light’s very faint. Each of those color-dense regions represents a collection of hundreds or thousands of young stars. They give off tons of visible light but nearly all of that is blocked by their dusty environment. Our nervous system’s timescale just isn’t designed for capturing really faint images. Your eye acts on photons it collects during the past tenth of a second or so. An astronomical sensor can focus on a target for minutes or hours while it accumulates enough photons for an image of this quality.”

“But you told us that Spitzer can see through dust.”

“That it can, but not in visible colors. Spitzer‘s cameras ignored the visible range. Instead, they gathered the incoming infrared light and separated it into three wavelength bands. Let’s call them long, medium and short. In effect, Spitzer gave us three separate black-and-white photos, one for each band. Back here on Earth, the post-processing team colorcoded each of those photos — red for long, green for medium and blue for short. Then they laid the three on top of each other to produce the final image. It’s what’s called ‘a falsecolor image’ and it can be very informative if you know what to look for. Most published astronomical images are in fact enhanced or colorcoded like this in some way to highlight structure or indicate chemical composition or temperature.”

“What happened after the extra extra years?”

“Problems had just built up. Spitzer doesn’t orbit the Earth, it orbits the Sun a little bit slower than Earth does. It gets further away from us every minute. It used to be able to send us its data almost real-time, but now it’s so far away a 2hour squirt-cast drains its batteries. Recharging the batteries using Spitzer‘s solar arrays tilts the craft’s antenna away from Earth — not good. Spitzer‘s about 120° behind Earth now and there’ll come a time when it’ll be behind the Sun from us, completely out of communication. Meanwhile back on Earth, the people and resources devoted to Spitzer will be needed to run the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA decided that January 30 was time to pull the plug.”

Cathleen takes the mic. “Euge, serve bone et fidélis. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Tale of Four Brothers

Jim hands the mic to Cathleen, who announces, “Bio-break time. Please be back here in 15 minutes for the next speaker. Al will have fresh coffee and scones for us.” <a quarter-hour later> “Welcome back, everyone, to the next session of our ‘IR, Spitzer and the Universe‘ memorial symposium. Our next speaker will turn our focus to the Spitzer Space Telescope itself. Newt?”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Let’s start with a portrait of Spitzer. I’m putting this up because Spitzer‘s general configuration would fit all four of NASA’s Great Observatories…

A NASA artist’s impression of Spitzer against an IR view of the Milky Way’s dust

“Each of them was designed to be carried into space by one of NASA’s space shuttles so they had to fit into a shuttle’s cargo bay — a cylinder sixty feet long and fifteen feet in diameter. Knock off a foot or so each way to allow for packing materials and loading leeway.”

<voice from the crowd> “How come they had to be in space? It’d be a lot cheaper on the ground.”

“If you’re cynical you might say that NASA had built these shuttles and they needed to have some work for them to do. But the real reasons go back to Lyman Spitzer (name sound familiar?). Right after World War II he wrote a paper listing the benefits of doing Astronomy outside of our atmosphere. We think Earth’s atmosphere is transparent, but that’s only mostly true and only at certain wavelengths. Water vapor and other gases block out great swathes of the infrared range. Hydrogen and other atoms absorb in the ultraviolet and beyond. Even in the visible range we’ve got dust and clouds. And of course there’s atmospheric turbulence that makes stars twinkle and astronomers curse.”

“So he wanted to put telescopes above all that.”

“Absolutely. He leveraged his multiple high-visibility posts at Princeton, constantly promoting government support of high-altitude Astronomy. He was one of the Big Names behind getting NASA approved in the first place. He lived to see the Hubble Space Telescope go into service, but unfortunately he died just a couple of years before its IR companion was put into orbit.”

“So they named it after him?”

“They did, indeed. The Spitzer was the fourth and final product of NASA’s ‘Great Observatories’ program designed to investigate the Universe from beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope was first. It was built to observe visible light but it also gave NASA experience doing unexpected inflight satellite repairs. <scattered chuckles in the audience. The maybe-an-Art-major nudges a neighbor for a whispered explanation.> The Atlantis shuttle put Hubble into orbit in 1990. Thirty years later it’s still producing great science for us.”

<The maybe-an-Art-major yells out> “And beautiful pictures!”

“Yes, indeed. OK, a year later Atlantis put Compton Gamma Ray Observatory into orbit. Its sensors covered a huge range of the spectrum, about twenty octaves as Jim would put it, from hard X-rays on upward. In its nine years of life it found nearly 300 sources for those high-energy photons that we still don’t understand. It also detected some 2700 gamma ray bursts and that’s something else we don’t understand other than that they’re way outside our intergalactic neighborhood.”

“Only nine years?”

“Sad, right? Yeah, one of its gyroscopes gave out and NASA had to bring it down. Some people fussed, ‘It’ll come down on our heads and we’re all gonna die!‘ but the descent stayed under control. Most of the satellite burned up on re-entry and the rest splashed harmlessly into the Indian Ocean.”

<quiet snuffle>

“Cheer up, it gets better. A month and a half after Compton‘s end, the Columbia shuttle put Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit. Like Hubble, Chandra‘s still going strong and uncovering secrets for us. Chandra was first to record X-rays coming from the huge black hole at the Milky Way’s core. Chandra data from the Bullet Cluster helped confirm the existence of dark matter. Thanks to Chandra we understand Jupiter’s X-ray emissions well enough to steer the Juno spacecraft away from them. The good stuff just keeps coming.”

“Thanks, that helps me feel better.”

“Good, because it’s time for the Spitzer‘s inspirational life story.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Fierce Roaring Beast

A darkish day calls for a fresh scone so I head for Al’s coffee shop. Cathleen’s there with some of her Astronomy students. Al’s at their table instead of his usual place behind the cash register. “So what’s going on with these FRBs?”

She plays it cool. “Which FRBs, Al? Fixed Rate Bonds? Failure Review Boards? Flexible Reed Baskets?”

Jim, next to her, joins in. “Feedback Reverb Buffers? Forged Razor Blades?
Fennel Root Beer?”

I give it a shot. “Freely Rolling Boulders? Flashing Rapiers and Broadswords? Fragile Reality Boundary?”

“C’mon, guys. Fast Radio Bursts. Somebody said they’re the hottest thing in Astronomy.”

Cathleen, ever the teacher, gives in. “Well, they’re right, Al. We’ve only known about them since 2007 and they’re among the most mystifying objects we’ve found out there. Apparently they’re scattered randomly in galaxies all over the sky. They release immense amounts of energy in incredibly short periods of time.”

“I’ll say.” Vinnie’s joins the conversation from the next table. “Sy and me, we been talking about using the speed of light to measure stuff. When I read that those radio blasts from somewhere last just a millisecond or so, I thought, ‘Whatever makes that blast happen, the signal to keep it going can’t travel above lightspeed. From one side to the other must be closer than light can travel in a millisecond. That’s only 186 miles. We got asteroids bigger than that!'”

“300 kilometers in metric.” Jim’s back in. “I’ve played with that idea, too. The 70 FRBs reported so far all lasted about a millisecond within a factor of 3 either way — maybe that’s telling us something. The fastest way to get lots of energy is a matter-antimatter annihilation that completely converts mass to energy by E=mc².  Antimatter’s awfully rare 13 billion years after the Big Bang, but suppose there’s still a half-kilogram pebble out there a couple galaxies away and it hits a hunk of normal matter. The annihilation destroys a full kilogram; the energy release is 1017 joules. If the event takes one millisecond that’s 1020 watts of power.”

“How’s that stand up against the power we receive in an FRB signal, Jim?”

“That’s the thing, Sy, we don’t have a good handle on distances. We know how much power our antennas picked up, but power reception drops as the square of the source distance and we don’t know how far away these things are. If your distance estimate is off by a factor of 10 your estimate of emitted power is wrong by a factor of 100.”

“Ballpark us.”

<sigh> “For a conservative estimate, say that next-nearest-neighbor galaxy is something like 1021 kilometers away. When the signal finally hits us those watts have been spread over a 1021-kilometer sphere. Its area is something like 1049 square meters so the signal’s power density would be around 10-29 watts per square meter. I know what you’re going to ask, Cathleen. Assuming the radio-telescope observations used a one-gigahertz bandwidth, the 0.3-to-30-Jansky signals they’ve recorded are about a million million times stronger than my pebble can account for. Further-away collisions would give even smaller signals.”

Looking around at her students, “Good self-checking, Jim, but for the sake of argument, guys, what other evidence do we have to rule out Jim’s hypothesis? Greg?”

“Mmm… spectra? A collision like Jim described ought to shine all across the spectrum, from radio on up through gamma rays. But we don’t seem to get any of that.”

“Terry, if the object’s very far away wouldn’t its shorter wavelengths be red-shifted by the Hubble Flow?”

“Sure, but the furthest-away one we’ve tagged so far is nearer than z=0.2. Wavelengths have been stretched by 20% or less. Blue light would shift down to green or yellow at most.”


“We ought to get even bigger flashes from antimatter rocks and asteroids. But all the signals have about the same strength within a factor of 100.”

“I got an evidence.”

“Yes, Vinnie?”

“That collision wouldn’t’a had a chance to get started. First contact, blooie! the gases and radiation and stuff push the rest of the pieces apart and kill the yield. That’s one of the problems the A-bomb guys had to solve.”

Al’s been eaves-dropping, of course. “Hey, guys. Fresh Raisin Bread, on the house.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Friendly Resting Behemoths

Cube Roots

Cathleen steps into at Al’s for her morning coffee-and-scone.  “Heard you guys talking neutrinos so I’ll bet Al got you started with something about IceCube.  Isn’t it an awesome project?  Imagine instrumenting a cubic kilometer of ice, and at the South Pole!”

“Ya got me, Cathleen.  It knocked me out that anyone would even think of building it.  Where did the idea come from, anyhow?”

“I don’t know specifically, but it’s got a lot of ancestors, going back to the Wilson Cloud Chamber in the 1920s.”

“Oh, the cloud chamber!  Me and my brother did one for the Science Fair — used dry ice and some kind of alcohol in a plastic-covered lab dish if I remember right, and we set it next to one of my Mom’s orange dinner plates.  Spooky little ghost trails all over the place.”

“That’s basically what the first ones were.  An incoming particle knocks electrons out of vapor molecules all along its path.  The path is visible because the whole thing is so cold that other vapor molecules condense to form micro-droplets around the ions.  Anderson’s cloud chambers were good enough to get him a Nobel Prize for discovering the positron and muon.  But table-top devices only let you study low-energy particles — high-energy ones just shoot through the chamber and exit before they do anything interesting.”

“So the experimenters went big?”

“Indeed, Sy, massive new technologies, like bubble chambers holding thousands of gallons of liquid hydrogen or something else that reacts with neutrinos.  But even those experiments had a problem.”

“And that was…?”

FirstNeutrinoEventAnnotated 2
Adapted from public domain image
courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

“They all depended on photography to record the traces.  Neutrino-hunting grad students had to measure everything in the photos, because neutrinos don’t make traces — you only find them by finding bigger particles that were disturbed just so.  The work got really intense when the astrophysicists got into the act, trying to understand why the Sun seemed to be giving off only a third of the neutrinos it’s supposed to.  Was the Sun going out?”

“Wait, Cathleen, how’d they know how many neutrinos it’s supposed to make?”

“Wow, Vinnie, you sure know how to break up a narrative, but it’s a fair question.  OK, quick answer.  We know the Sun’s mostly made of hydrogen and we know how much energy it gives off per second.  We’ve figured out the nuclear reactions it must be using to generate that energy.  The primary process combines four hydrogen nuclei  to make a helium nucleus.  Each time that happens you get a certain amount of energy, which we know, plus two neutrinos.  Do the energy arithmetic, multiply the number of heliums per second by two and you’ve got the expected neutrino output.”

“So is the Sun going out?”

“As usual, Al cuts to the chase.  No, Al, it’s still got 5 billion years of middle age ahead of it.  The flaw in the argument was that we assumed that our detectors were picking up all the neutrinos.”

“My mutations!”

“Yes, Vinnie.  Our detector technology at the time only saw electron neutrinos.  The Sun’s reactions emit electron neutrinos.  But the 93-million mile trip to Earth gave those guys plenty of time to oscillate through muon neutrino to tau neutrino and back again.  All we picked up were the ones that had gone through an integer number of cycles.”

“We changed technology, I take it?”

“Right again, Sy.  Instead of relying on nuclear reactions initiated by electron neutrinos, we went so spark chambers — crossed grids of very fine electrified wire in a box of argon gas.  Wherever a passing neutrino initiated an ionization, zap! between the two wires closest to that point.  Researchers could computerize the data reduction.  Turns out that all three neutrino flavors are pretty good at causing ionizations so the new tech cleared up the Solar Paradox, but only after we solved a different problem — the new data was point-by-point.  Working back from those points to the traces took some clever computer programming.”

“Ah, I see the connection with IceCube.  It doesn’t register traces, either, just the points where those sensors see the Cherenkov flashes.  It’s like a spark chamber grown big.”

“Cubic-kilometer big.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Naming the place and placing the name

“By the way, Cathleen, is there any rhyme or reason to that three-object object‘s funky name?  I’ve still got it on Old Reliable here.”

PSR J0337+1715

“It’s nothing like funky, Sy, it’s perfectly reasonable and in fact it’s far more informative than a name like ‘Barnard’s Star.’  The ‘PSR‘ part says that the active object, the reason anyone even looked in that system’s direction, is a pulsar.”

“And the numbers?”

“Its location in two parts.  Imagine a 24-hour clockface in the Solar Plane.  The zero hour points to where the Sun is at the Spring equinox.  One o’clock is fifteen degrees east of that, two o’clock is another fifteen degrees eastward and so on until 24 o’clock is back pointing at the Springtime Sun.  Got that?”

“Mm, … yeah.  It’d be like longitudes around the Earth, except the Earth goes around in a day and this clock looks like it measures a year.”

“Careful there, it has nothing to do with time.  It’s just a measure of angle around the celestial equator.  It’s called right ascension.

“How about intermediate angles, like between two and three o’clock?”

“Sixty arc-minutes between hours, sixty arc-seconds between arc-minutes, just like with time.  If you need to you can even go to tenths or hundredths of an arc-second, which divide the circle into … 8,640,000 segments.”

“OK, so if that’s like longitudes, I suppose there’s something like latitudes to go with it?”

“Mm-hm, it’s called declination.  It runs perpendicular to ascension, from plus-90° up top down to 0° at the clockface to minus-90° at the bottom.  Vivian, show Sy Figure 3 from your paper.”Right ascension and declination“Wait, right ascension in hours-minute-seconds but declination in degrees?”

“Mm-hm.  Blame history.  People have been studying the stars and writing down their locations for a long time.  Some conventions were convenient back in the day and we’re not going to give them up.  So anyway, an object’s J designation with 4-digit numbers tells you which of 13 million directions to look to find it.  Roughly.”


“That’s what the ‘J‘ is about.  If the Earth’s rotation were absolutely steady and if the Sun weren’t careening about a moving galaxy, future astronomers could just look at an object’s angular designation and know exactly where to look to find it again.  But it’s not and it does and they won’t.  The Earth’s axis of rotation wobbles in at least three different ways, the Sun’s orbit around the galaxy is anything but regular and so on.  Specialists in astrometry, who measure things to fractions of an arc-second, keep track of time in more ways than you can imagine so we can calculate future positions.  The J-names at least refer back to a specific point in time.  Mostly.  You want your mind bent, look up epoch some day.”

“Plane and ship navigators care, too, right?”

“Not so much.  Earth’s major wobble, for instance, shifts our polar positions only about 40 parts per million per year.  A course you plotted last week from here to Easter Island will get you there next month no problem.”

Old Reliable judders in my hand.  Old Reliable isn’t supposed to have a vibration function, either.  Ask her about interstellar navigation.  “Um, how about interstellar navigation?”Skewed Big Dipper

“Oh, that’d be a challenge.  Once you get away from the Solar System you can’t use the Big Dipper to find the North Star, any of that stuff, because the constellations look different from a different angle.  Get a couple dozen lightyears out, you’ve got a whole different sky.”

“So what do you use instead?”

“I suppose you could use pulsars.  Each one pings at a unique repetition interval and duty cycle so you could recognize it from any angle.  The set of known pulsars would be like landmarks in the galaxy.  If you sent out survey ships, like the old-time navigators who mapped the New World, they could add new pulsars to the database.  When you go someplace, you just triangulate against the pulsars you see and you know where you are.”

If they happen to point towards you! You only ever see 20% of them.  Starquakes and glitches and relativistic distortions mess up the timings.  Poor Xian-sheng goes nuts each time we drop out of warp.

~~ Rich Olcott

Rhythm Method

A warm Summer day.  I’m under a shady tree by the lake, watching the geese and doing some math on Old Reliable.  Suddenly a text-message window opens up on its screen.  The header bar says 710-555-1701.  Old Reliable has never held a messaging app, that’s not what I use it for.  The whole thing doesn’t add up.  I type in, Hello?

Hello, Mr Moire.  Remember me?

Suddenly I do.  That sultry knowing stare, those pointed ears.  It’s been a yearHello, Ms Baird.  What can I do for you?

Another tip for you, Mr Moire.  One of my favorite star systems — the view as you approach it at near-lightspeed is so ... meaningful.  Your astronomers call it PSR J0337+1715.

So of course I head over to Al’s coffee shop after erasing everything but that astronomical designation.  As I hoped, Cathleen and a few of her astronomy students are on their mid-morning break.  Cathleen winces a little when she sees me coming.  “Now what, Sy?  You’re going to ask about blazars and neutrinos?”

I show her Old Reliable’s screen.  “Afraid not, Cathleen, I’ll have to save that for later.  I just got a message about this star system.  Recognize it?”

“Why, Sy, is that a clue or something?  And why is the lettering in orange?”

“Long story.  But what can you tell me about this star system?”

“Well, it’s probably one of the most compact multi-component systems we’re ever going to run across.  You know what compact objects are?”

“Sure.  When a star the size of our Sun exhausts most of its hydrogen fuel, gravity wins its battle against heat.  The star collapses down to a white dwarf, a Sun-full of mass packed into a planet-size body.  If the star’s a bit bigger it collapses even further, down to a neutron star just a few miles across.  The next step would be a black hole, but that’s not really a star, is it?”

“No, it’s not.  Jim, why not?”

“Because by definition a black hole doesn’t emit light.  A black hole’s accretion disk or polar jets might, but not the object itself.”

“Mm-hm.  Sy, your ‘object’ is actually three compact objects orbiting  around each other.  There’s a neutron star with a white dwarf going around it, and another white dwarf swinging around the pair of them.  Vivian, does that sound familiar?”

“That’s a three-body system, like the Moon going around the Earth and both going around the Sun.  Mmm, except really both white dwarfs would go around the neutron star because it’s heaviest and we can calculate the motion like we do the Solar System.”

“Not quite.  We can treat the Sun as motionless because it has 99% of the mass.  J0337+1715’s neutron star doesn’t dominate its system as much as the Sun does ours.  That outermost dwarf has 20% of its system’s mass.  Phil, what does that suggest to you?”

“It’d be like Pluto and Charon.  Charon’s got 10% of their combined mass and so Pluto and Charon both orbit a point 10% of the way out from Pluto.  From Earth we see Pluto wobbling side to side around that point.  So the neutron star must wobble around the point 20% outward towards the heavy dwarf.  Hey, star-wobble is how we find exoplanets.  Is that what this is about, Mr Moire?  Did someone measure its red-shift behavior?”PSR J0337+1715Cathleen saves me from answering.  “Not quite.  The study Sy’s chasing is actually a cute variation on red-shift measurements.  That ‘PSR‘ designation means the neutron star is a pulsar.  Those things emit electromagnetic radiation pulses with astounding precision, generally regular within a few dozen nanoseconds.  If we receive slowed-down pulses then the object’s going away; sped-up and it’s approaching, just like with red-shifting.  The researchers  derived orbital parameters for all three bodies from the between-pulse durations.  The heavy dwarf is 200 times further out than the light one, for instance.  Not an easy experiment, but it yielded an important result.”

My ears perk up.  “Which was…?”

“The gravitational force between the pulsar and each dwarf was within six parts per million of what Newton’s Laws prescribe.  That observation rules out whole classes of theories that tried to explain galaxies and galaxy clusters without invoking dark matter.”

Cool, huh?


~~ Rich Olcott

Trio for Rubber Ruler

“It’s all about how lightwaves get generated and then what happens.”

Sy and me talked about that, Cathleen.  Lightwaves come from jiggling electrons, right?”

“Any kind of charged particles, Vinnie, but there’s different ways that can happen.  Each leads to its own kind of spectrum.”

“Different kinds of spectrum?  Do you mean like visible versus infrared and ultraviolet, Cathleen?”

“No, I don’t, Sy.  I’m referring to the thing’s overall appearance in every band.  A hundred and fifty years ago Kirchoff pointed out that light from a source can have lines of color, lines without color, or a smooth display without lines.”

“Like that poster that Al put up between the physicist and astronomer corners?”  (We’re still chatting at a table in Al’s coffee shop.  I’m on my fourth scone.)

Astroruler with solar spectrum
Based on N.A.Sharp, NOAO/NSO/Kitt Peak FTS/AURA/NSF

“Kind of.  That’s based on a famous image created at Kitt Peak Observatory.  In the background there you see a representation of what Kirchoff called a continuous or black-body spectrum, where all the colors fade smoothly into each other in classic rainbow order.  You’re supposed to ignore the horizontal dark lines.”

“And the vertical lines?”

“They form what Kirchoff called an absorption spectrum.  Each dark vertical represents an isolated color that we don’t get from the Sun.”

“You’re saying we get all the other colors but them, right?”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  The Sun’s chromosphere layer filters those specific wavelengths before they get from the deeper photosphere out into space.”

“Complicated filter.”

“Of course.  The Sun contains most of the elements lighter than nickel.  Each kind of atom absorbs its own collection of frequencies.”

“Ah, that’s the quantum thing that Sy and me talked about, right, Sy?”

“Mm-hm.  We only did the hydrogen atom, but the same principles apply.  An electromagnetic wave tickles an atom.  If the wave delivers exactly the right amount of energy, the atom’s chaotic storm of electrons resonates with the energy and goes a different-shaped storm.  But each kind of atom has a limited set of shapes.  If the energy doesn’t match the energy difference between a pair of levels, there’s no absorption and the wave just passes by.”

“But I’ll bet the atom can’t hold that extra energy forever.”

“Good bet, Vinnie.  The flip side of absorption is emission.  I expect that Cathleen has an emission spectrum somewhere on her laptop there.”Emission spectrum“You’re right, Sy.  It’s not a particularly pretty picture, but it shows that nice strong sodium doublet in the yellow and the broad iron and hydrogen lines down in the green and blue.  I’ll admit it, Vinnie, this is a faked image I made to show my students what the solar atmosphere would look like if you could turn off the photosphere’s continuous blast of light.  The point is that the atoms emit exactly the same sets of colors that they absorb.”

“You do what you gotta do, Cathleen.  But tell me, if each kind of atom does only certain colors, where’s that continuous rainbow come from?  Why aren’t we only getting hydrogen colors?”

“Kirchoff didn’t have a clue on that, Vinnie.  It took 50 years and Einstein to solve it.  Not just where the light comes from but also its energy-wavelength profile.”

“So where does the light come from?”

“Pure heat.  You can get a continuous spectrum from a hot wire, molten lava, a hole through the wall of a hot oven, even the primordial chaos of the Big Bang.  It doesn’t matter what kind of matter you’re looking at, the profile just depends on the temperature.  You know that temperature measures the kinetic energy stored in particle random motion, Vinnie?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but yeah.”

“Well, think about the Sun, just a big ball of really hot atoms and electrons and nuclei, all bouncing off each other in frantic motion.  Every time one of those changes direction it affects the electromagnetic field, jiggles it as you say.  The result of all that jiggling is the continuous spectrum.  Absorption and emission lines come from electrons that are confined to an atom, but heat motion is unconfined.”

“How about hot metal?”

“The atoms are locked in their lattice, but heat jiggles the whole lattice.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Toccata for A Rubber Ruler

“How the heck do they know that?”

“Know what, Vinnie?”

“That the galaxy they saw with that gravitational lens is 13 billion years old?  I mean, does it come with a birth certificate, Cathleen?”

“Mm, it does, sort of — hydrogen atoms.  Really old hydrogen atoms.”

“Waitaminit.  Hydrogen’s hydrogen — one proton, one electron per atom.  They’re all the same, right?  How do you know one’s older than another one?”

“Because they look different.”

“How could they look different when they’re all the same?”

“Let me guess, Cathleen.  These old hydrogens, are they far far away?”

“On the button, Sy.”

“What where they’re at got to do with it?”

“It’s all about spectroscopy and the Hubble constant, Vinnie.  What do you know about Edwin Hubble?”

“Like in Hubble Space Telescope?  Not much.”

“Those old atoms were Hubble’s second big discovery.”

“Your gonna start with the other one, right?”

“Sorry, classroom habit.  His first big discovery was that there’s more to the Universe than just the Milky Way Galaxy.  That directly contradicted Astronomy’s Big Names.  They all believed that the cloudy bits they saw in the sky were nebulae within our galaxy.  Hubble’s edge was that he had access to Wilson Observatory’s 100-inch telescope that dwarfed the smaller instruments that everyone else was using.  Bigger scope, more light-gathering power, better resolution.”

“Hubble won.”

“Yeah, but how he won was the key to his other big discovery.  The crucial question was, how far away are those ‘nebulae’?  He needed a link between distance and something he could measure directly.  Stellar brightness was the obvious choice.  Not the brightness we see on Earth but the brightness we’d see if we were some standard distance away from it.  Fortunately, a dozen years earlier Henrietta Swan Leavitt found that link.  Some stars periodically swing bright, then dim, then bright again.  She showed that for one subgroup of those stars, there’s a simple relationship between the star’s intrinsic brightness and its peak-to-peak time.”Astroruler

“So Hubble found stars like that in those nebulas or galaxies or whatever?”

“Exactly.  With his best-of-breed telescope he could pick out individual variable stars in close-by galaxies.  Their fluctuation gave him intrinsic brightness.  The brightness he measured from Earth was a lot less.  The brightness ratios gave him distances.  They were a lot bigger than everyone thought.”

“Ah, so now he’s got a handle on distance.  Scientists love to plot everything against everything, just to see, so I’ll bet he plotted something against distance and hit jackpot.”

“Well, he was a bit less random than that, Sy.  There were some theoretical reasons to think that the Universe might be expanding.  The question was, how fast?  For that he tapped another astronomer’s results.  Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory was looking at the colors of light emitted by different galaxies.  None had light exactly like our Milky Way’s.  A few were a bit bluer, but most were distinctly red-shifted.”

“Like the Doppler effect in radar?  Things coming toward you blue-shift the radar beam, things going away red-shift it?”

“Similar to that, Vinnie, but it’s emitted light, not a reflected beam. To a good approximation, though, you can say that the red shift is proportional to the emitting object’s speed towards or away from us.  Hubble plotted his distance number for each galaxy he’d worked on, against Slipher’s red-shift speed number for the same galaxy.  It wasn’t the prettiest graph you’ve ever seen, but there was a pretty good correlation.  Hubble drew the best straight line he could through the points.  What’s important is that the line sloped upward.”

“Lemme think … If everything just sits there, there’d be no red-shift and no graph, right?  If everything is moving away from us at a steady speed, then the line would be flat — zero slope.  But he saw an upward slope, so the farther something is the faster it’s going further from us?”

“Bravo, Vinnie.  That’s the expansion of the Universe you’ve heard about.  Locally there are a few things coming toward us — that’s those blue-shifted galaxies, for instance — but the general trend is away.”

“So that’s why you say those far-away hydrogens look different.  By the time we see their light it’s been red-shifted.”

“93% redder.”

~~ Rich Olcott

On Gravity, Charge And Geese

A beautiful April day, far too nice to be inside working.  I’m on a brisk walk toward the lake when I hear puffing behind me.  “Hey, Moire, I got questions!”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.  Ask away while we hike over to watch the geese.”

“Sure, but slow down , will ya?  I been reading this guy’s blog and he says some things I wanna check on.”

I know better but I ask anyhow.  “Like what?”

“Like maybe the planets have different electrical charges  so if we sent an astronaut they’d get killed by a ginormous lightning flash.”

“That’s unlikely for so many reasons, Mr Feder.  First, it’d be almost impossible for the Solar System to get built that way.  Next, it couldn’t stay that way if it had been.  Third, we know it’s not that way now.”

“One at a time.”

“OK.  We’re pretty sure that the Solar System started as a kink in a whirling cloud of galactic dust.  Gravity spanning the kink pulled that cloud into a swirling disk, then the swirls condensed to form planets.  Suppose dust particles in one of those swirls, for whatever reason, all had the same unbalanced electrical charge.”

“Right, and they came together because of gravity like you say.”

I pull Old Reliable from its holster.  “Think about just two particles, attracted to each other by gravity but repelled by their static charge.  Let’s see which force would win.  Typical interstellar dust particles run about 100 nanometers across.  We’re thinking planets so our particles are silicate.  Old Reliable says they’d weigh about 2×1018 kg each, so the force of gravity pulling them together would be …  oh, wait, that’d depend on how far apart they are.  But so would the electrostatic force, so let’s keep going.  How much charge do you want to put on each particle?”

“The minimum, one electron’s worth.”

“Loading the dice for gravity, aren’t you?  Only one extra electron per, umm, 22 million silicon atoms.    OK, one electron it is …  Take a look at Old Reliable’s calculation.gravity vs electrostatic calculation Those two electrons push their dust grains apart almost a quintillion times more strongly than gravity pulls them together.  And the distance makes no difference — close together or far apart, push wins.  You can’t use gravity to build a planet from charged particles.”

“Wait, Moire, couldn’t something else push those guys together — magnetic fields, say, or a shock wave?”

“Sure, which is why I said almost impossible.  Now for the second reason the astronaut won’t get lightning-shocked — the solar wind.  It’s been with us since the Sun lit up and it’s loaded with both positive- and negative-charged particles.  Suppose Venus, for instance, had been dealt more than its share of electrons back in the day.  Its net-negative charge would attract the wind’s protons and alpha particles to neutralize the charge imbalance.  By the same physics, a net-positive planet would attract electrons.  After a billion years of that, no problem.”

“All right, what’s the third reason?”

“Simple.  We’ve already sent out orbiters to all the planets.  Descent vehicles have made physical contact with many of them.  No lightning flashes, no fried electronics.  Blows my mind that our Cassini mission to Saturn did seven years of science there after a six-year flight, and everything worked perfectly with no side-trips to the shop.  Our astronauts can skip worrying about high-voltage landings.”

“Hey, I just noticed something.  Those F formulas look the same.”  He picks up a stick and starts scribbling on the dirt in front of us.  “You could add them up like F=(Gm1m2+k0q1q2)/r2.  See how the two pieces can trade off if you take away some mass but add back some charge?  How do we know we’ve got the mass-mass pull right and not mixed in with some charge-charge push?”

Geese and ducks“Good question.  If protons were more positive than electrons, electrostatic repulsion would always be proportional to mass.  We couldn’t separate that force from gravity.  Physicists have separately measured electron and proton charge.  They’re equal (except for sign) to 10 decimal places.  Unfortunately, we’d need another 25 digits of accuracy before we could test your hypothesis.”

“Aw, look, the geese got babies.”

“The small ones are ducks, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott