The Prints of Darkness

There’s a commotion in front of Al’s coffee shop. Perennial antiestablishmentarian Change-me Charlie’s set up his argument table there and this time the ‘establishment’ he’s taking on is Astrophysics. Charlie’s an accomplished chain-yanker and he’s working it hard. “There’s no evidence for dark matter, they’ve never found any of the stuff and there’s tons of no-dark-matter theories to explain the evidence.”

Big Cap’n Mike’s shouts from the back of the crowd. “What they’ve been looking for and haven’t found is particles. By my theory dark matter’s an aspect of gravity which ain’t particles so there’s no particles for them to find.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim spouts off right in Charlie’s face. “Dude, you can’t have it both ways. Either there’s no evidence to theorize about, or there’s evidence.”

Physicist-in-training Newt Barnes takes the oppo chair. “So what exactly are we talking about here?”

“That’s the thing, guy, no-one knows. It’s like that song, ‘Last night I saw upon the stair / A little man who wasn’t there. / He wasn’t there again today. / Oh how I wish he’d go away.‘ It’s just buzzwords about a bogosity. Nothin’ there.”

I gotta have my joke. “Oh, it’s past nothing, it’s a negative.”

“Come again?”

“The Universe is loaded with large rotating but stable structures — solar systems, stellar binaries, globular star clusters, galaxies, galaxy clusters, whatever. Newton’s Law of Gravity accounts nicely for the stability of the smallest ones. Their angular momentum would send them flying apart if it weren’t for the gravitational attraction between each component and the mass of the rest. Things as big as galaxies and galaxy clusters are another matter. You can calculate from its spin rate how much mass a galaxy must have in order to keep an outlying star from flying away. Subtract that from the observed mass of stars and gas. You get a negative number. Something like five times more negative than the mass you can account for.”

“Negative mass?”

“Uh-uh, missing positive mass to combine with the observed mass to account for the gravitational attraction holding the structure together. Zwicky and Rubin gave us the initial object-tracking evidence but many other astronomers have added to that particular stack since then. According to the equations, the unobserved mass seems to form a spherical shell surrounding a galaxy.”

“How about black holes and rogue planets?”

Newt’s thing is cosmology so he catches that one. “No dice. The current relative amounts of hydrogen, helium and photons say that the total amount of normal matter (including black holes) in the Universe is nowhere near enough to make up the difference.”

“So maybe Newton’s Law of Gravity doesn’t work when you get to big distances.”

“Biggest distance we’ve got is the edge of the observable Universe. Jim, show him that chart of the angular power distribution in the Planck satellite data for the Cosmological Microwave Background.” <Jim pulls out his smart-phone, pulls up an image.> “See the circled peak? If there were no dark matter that peak would be a valley.”

Charlie’s beginning to wilt a little. “Ahh, that’s all theory.”

The Bullet Cluster ( 1E 0657-56 )

<Jim pulls up another picture.> “Nope, we’ve got several kinds of direct evidence now. The most famous one is this image of the Bullet Cluster, actually two clusters caught in the act of colliding head-on. High-energy particle-particle collisions emit X-rays that NASA’s Chandra satellite picked up. That’s marked in pink. But on either side of the pink you have these blue-marked regions where images of further-away galaxies are stretched and twisted. We’ve known for a century how mass bends light so we can figure from the distortions how much lensing mass there is and where it is. This picture does three things — it confirms the existence of invisible mass by demonstrating its effect, and it shows that invisible mass and visible mass are separate phenomena. I’ve got no pictures but I just read a paper about two galaxies that don’t seem to be associated with dark matter at all. They rotate just as Newton would’ve expected from their visible mass alone. No surprise, they’re also a lot less dense without that five-fold greater mass squeezing them in.”

“You said three.”

“Gotcha hooked, huh?

~~ 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

For the VLA, Timing Is Everything

Eddie’s pizza is especially tasty after a long walk down a stairwell. Vinnie and I are polishing off the last of our crumbs when he says, “OK, so we got these incredibly accurate clocks. Two questions. What do we use them for besides sending out those BBC pips, and what do they have to do with the new kilogram standard?”

“Pips? Oh, the top-of-the-hour radio station beeps we used to depend upon to set our watches. Kept us all up-to-the-minute, us and the trains and planes — but we don’t need 10-digit accuracy for that. What we do get from high-quality time signals is the ability to create distributed instruments.”

“Distributed instruments?”

“Ones with pieces in different places. You know about the Jansky Very Large Array, that huge multi-dish radio telescope in New Mexico?”

Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, photo by Mihaiscanu
via Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons

“Been there. Nice folks in Pie Town up the road.”

“Did you look around?”

“Of course. What I didn’t understand is why they got 27 dishes and they’re all pointed the same direction. You’d think one would be enough for looking at something.”

“Ah, that’s the thing. All of them together make one telescope.”

<sets smartphone to calculator mode> “Lessee … dish is 25 meters across, πD2/4, 27 dishes, convert square meters to… Geez, 3¼ acres! A single dish that size would be a bear to keep steady in the wind down there. No wonder they split it up.”

“That was one concern, but the total area’s not as important as the distance between the pairs.”

“Why’s that even relevant?”

“Because radio telescopes don’t work the way that optical ones do. No lens or mirror, just a big dish that accepts whatever comes in along a narrow beam of radio waves.”

“How narrow?”

“About the size of the full Moon.”

“That can cover a lot of stars and galaxies.”

“It sure can, which is why early radio astronomy was pretty low-resolution. Astronomers needed a way to pick out the signals from individual objects within that field of view. Turns out two eyes are better than one.”

“3D vision?”

“Kinda related, but not really. Our two eyes give us 3D vision because each eye provides a slightly different picture of close-by objects, say, less than about 5 yards away. For everything further, one eye’s view is no different from the other’s. You’d get the same effect if distant things were painted on a flat background, which is how come a movie set backdrop still looks real.”

“You’re saying that the stars are so far away that each dish gets the same picture.”


“So why have more than one?”

“They don’t get the picture at the same time. With an atomic clock you can take account of when each signal arrives at each dish. Here’s a diagram I did up on Old Reliable. It’s way out of scale but it makes the point, I think. We’ve got two dishes at the bottom here, and those purple dots are two galaxies. Each dish sees them on top of each other and can’t distinguish which one sent that peaky signal. What’s important is, the dish on the right receives the signal later. See that red bar? That’s the additional path length the signal has to travel to reach the second dish.”

“Can’t be much later, light travels pretty fast.”

“About 30 centimeters per nanosecond, which adds up. When the VLA dishes are fully spread out, the longest dish-to-dish distance is about 36 kilometers which is about 120 microseconds as the photon flies. That’s over a million ticks on the cesium clock – no problem tracking the differences.”

“Same picture a little bit later. Doesn’t seem worth the trouble.”

“What makes it worth the trouble is what you can learn from the total space-time pattern after you combine the signals mathematically. Under good conditions the VLA can resolve signals from separate objects only 40 milliarcseconds apart, about 1/45000 the diameter of the Moon. That’s less than the width of a dime seen from 50 miles away.”

“The time pattern is how the dishes act like a single spread-around telescope, huh? Without the high-precision time data, they’re just duplicates?”

“Atomic clocks let us see the Universe.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Time in A Bottle, Sort Of

We’re in the Acme Building’s elevator, headed down to Eddie’s for pizza, when there’s a sudden THUNK.  Vinnie’s got his cellphone out and speed-dialed before I’ve registered that we’ve stopped.  “Michael, it’s me, Vinnie.  Hi.  Me and Sy are in elevator three and it just stopped between floors.  Yeah, between six and five.  Of course I know that’s where, I always count floors.  Look, you get us outta here quick and I won’t have to call the rescue squad and you don’t have paperwork, OK?  Warms my heart to hear you say that.  Right.  And there’s pizza in it for you when we’re out.  Thanks, Michael.”  <to me>  “Says it’ll be a few minutes.  You good for climbing out when he levers the doors?”

“Sure, no problem.  Might as well keep on about why the kilogram definition changed.  Oddly enough, the story starts with one of the weirdest standards in Science.  Here, I’ll pull it up on Old Reliable…”

“OK, that’s a weird number in the fraction, but what’s weird about the whole definition?”

“Think about it — when they defined this standard in 1960, it essentially said, ‘Go back sixty years, see how long it took for the Sun to return to exactly where it was in the sky a year earlier, capture exactly that weird fraction of the one-year interval in a bottle and bring it back to the present for comparison with an interval you want to report a time for.  Sound doable to you?”

“Mmm, no.  But these guy’s weren’t stupid.  There had to be a way.”

“The key is in those words, ephemeris time.”

“Something like Greenwich Time?  How would that help?” 

“Greenwich Mean Time would be better — ‘mean’ as in ‘average.’  You know the Earth doesn’t spin perfectly, right?”

“Yeah, it wobbles.  The Pole Star won’t be at the pole in a few thousand years.”

“That’s the idea but things are messier than that.  For instance, when a large mass moves around, like a big volcano eruption or a major ice-sheet breakup or monsoon rains using Indian Ocean water to drench Southwest Asia, that causes a twitch in the rotation.”

“Hard to see how those twitches would be measurable.”

“They are when you’re working at 9-digit precision, which atomic clocks exceeded long ago.  Does your GPS unit have that spiffy dual-frequency function for receiving satellite time signals?”

“Sure does  — good to within a foot.”

“That’d be about 30 centimeters.  Speed of light’s 3×108 meters per second so you’re depending on satellite radio time-checks good to about, um, 100 nanoseconds, in a data field holding week number and seconds down to nanoseconds.  So you’d expect measurement jitter within … about 2 parts in 1015.  Pretty good, and on that scale those twitches count.”

“What do they do about them?”

“Well, you can’t fix Earth, but you can measure the twitches very carefully and then average over them.  Basically, you list all the Sun-position measurements made over many years, along with the corresponding time as reported by then-current science’s best clocks.  Use those observations to build a mathematical model of where an averaged fake Sun would appear to be at any given moment if it were absolutely regular, no twitches.  When the fake Sun would be at its highest during a given day, that’s noon GMT.”

“Fine, but what’s that got to do with your weird definition?”

“You can run your mathematical model backward in time to see how many times your best-we’ve-got-now clock would tick between fake noon and fake 12:00:01 on that date.  That calibrates your clock.”

“Seems a little circular to me — Sun to clock to model to fake-Sun to clock.”

“Which is why, now that we’ve got really good clocks, they’ve changed the operational definition by dropping the middleman.  The most precise measurements for anything depend on counting.  We now have technology that can count individual peaks in a lightwave signal.  These days the second is defined this way.  If a counter misses one peak, that’s one part in 10 million, three counts per year.  That’s so much better than Solar time they sometimes have to throw in a ‘leap-second’ so the years can keep up with the clocks.”

“Michael’s way overdue.  I’m callin’ him again.”

Clock image from

~~ Rich Olcott



A Three-dog Night Would Be So Cool

“So we’ve got three fundamentally different messengers from the stars, Mr Feder.  The past couple of years have given us several encouraging instances of receiving two messengers from the same event.  If we ever receive all three messengers from the same event, that might give us what we need to solve the biggest problem in modern physics.”

“That’s a pretty deep statement, Moire.  Care to unpack it?  The geese here would love to hear about it.”

“Lakeside is a good place for thoughts like this.  The first messenger was photons.  We’ve been observing starlight photons for tens of thousand of years.  Tycho Brahe and Galileo took it to a new level a few centuries ago with their careful observation, precision measurements and Galileo’s telescope.”

“That’s done us pretty good, huh?”

“Oh sure, we’ve charted the heavens and how things move, what we can see of them.  But our charts imply there’s much we can’t see.  Photons only interact with electric charge.  Except for flat-out getting absorbed if the wavelength is right, photons don’t care about electrically neutral material and especially they don’t care about dark matter.”

“So that’s why we’re interested in the other messengers.”

“Exactly.  Even electrically neutral things have mass and interact with the gravitational field.  You remember the big news a few years ago, when our brand-new LIGO instruments caught a gravitational wave signal from a couple of black holes in collision.  Black holes don’t give off photons, so the gravitational wave messenger was our only way of learning about that event.”

“No lightwave signal at all?”

“Well, there was a report of a possible gamma-ray flare in that patch of sky, but it was borderline-detectable.  No observatory using lower-energy light saw anything there.  So, no.”

“You’re gonna tell me and the geese about some two-messenger event now, right?”

“That’s where I’m going, Mr Feder.  Photons first.  Astronomers have been wondering for decades about where short, high-energy gamma-ray bursts come from.  They seem to happen randomly in time and space.  About a year ago the Fermi satellite’s gamma-ray telescope detected one of those bursts and sent out an automated ‘Look HERE’ alert to other observatories.  Unfortunately, Fermi‘s resolution isn’t wonderful so its email pointed to a pretty large patch of sky.  Meanwhile back on Earth and within a couple of seconds of Fermi‘s moment, the LIGO instruments caught an unusual gravitational wave signal that ran about a hundred times slower than the black-hole signals they’d seen.  Another automated ‘Look HERE’ alert went out.  This one pointed to a small portion of that same patch of sky.  Two messengers.”

“Did anyone find anything?”

“Seventy other observatories scrutinized the overlap region at every wavelength known to Man.  They found a kilonova, an explosion of light and matter a thousand times brighter than typical novae.  The gravitational wave evidence indicated a collision between two neutron stars, something that had never before been recorded.  Photon evidence from the spewed-out cloud identified a dozen heavy elements theoreticians hadn’t been able to track to an origin.  Timing details in the signals gave cosmologists an independent path to resolving a problem with the Hubble Constant.  And now we know where those short gamma-ray bursts come from.”

“Pretty good for a two-messenger event.  Got another story like that?”

“A good one.  This one’s neutrinos and photons, and the neutrinos came in first.  One neutrino.”

One neutrino?”

“Yup, but it was a special one, a super-high-powered neutrino whose incoming path our IceCube observatory could get a good fix on.  IceCube sent out its own automated ‘Look HERE’ alert.  The Fermi team picked up the alert and got real excited because the alert’s coordinates matched the location of a known and studied gamma-ray source.  Not a short-burster, but a flaring blazar.  That neutrino’s extreme energy is evidence for blazars being one of the long-sought sources of cosmic rays.”

“Puzzle solved, maybe.  Now what you said about a three-messenger signal?”grebe messenger pairs“Gravitational waves are relativity effects and neutrinos are quantum mechanical.  Physicists have been struggling for a century to bridge those two domains.  Evidence from a three-messenger event could provide the final clues.”

“I’ll bet the geese enjoyed hearing all that.”

“They’re grebes, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Heavenly Messengers

A gorgeous Fall day, a little bit cool-ish, perfect for a brisk walk in the park.  I’m striding along the lake-bound path when there’s a breathless shout behind me.  “Hey, Moire, wait up!  I got questions!”

“Hello, Mr Feder.  What’s the topic this time?  And keep up, please, I’ve got geese to watch.”

“I been reading in the business pages <puff, puff> about all the money different countries are putting into ‘multi-messenger astronomy.’  <puff>  What’s that about, anyway?  Who’s sending messages and ain’t the Internet good enough?”

“It’s not who, Mr Feder, it’s what — stars, galaxies, black holes, the Universe.  And the messages are generally either ‘Here I am‘ or ‘Something interesting just happened‘.  The Internet just doesn’t reach that far and besides, no kitten pictures.”

“Pretty simple-sounding messages, so why the big bucks for extra message-catchers?”

“Fair question.  It has to do with what kind of information each messenger carries.  Photons, for instance.”

“Yeah, light-waves, the rainbow.”

“Way more than the rainbow.  Equating light-waves to just the colors we see is like equating sound-waves to just the range from A4 through F4# on a piano.”

“Hey, that’s less than an octave.”

“Yup, and electromagnetism’s scale is hugely broader than that.  Most of the notes, or colors, are way out of our range.  A big tuba makes a deep, low-frequency note but a tiny piccolo makes a high note.  Photon characteristics also scale with the size of where they came from.  Roughly speaking, the shorter the light’s wave-length, the smaller the process it came out of and the smaller its target will be.  Visible light, for instance, is sent and received by loosely-held charge sloshing inside an atom or molecule.  Charge held tight to a nucleus gives rise to higher-energy photons, in the ultra-violet range or beyond.”

“Like how beyond?”

“X-rays can rip electrons right out of a molecule.  Gamma rays are even nastier and involve charge activity inside a nucleus, like during a nuclear reaction.”

“How about in the other direction?  Nothing?”

“Hardly.  Going that way is going to bigger scales.  Infra-red is about parts of molecules vibrating against each other, microwave is about whole molecules rotating.  When your size range gets out to feet-to-miles you’re looking at radio waves that probably originated from free electrons or ions slammed back and forth by electric or magnetic fields.”

“So these light ranges are like messengers that clue us in on what’s going on out there?  Different messengers, different kindsa clues?”

“You got the idea.  Add in that what happens to the light on the way here is also important.  Radio and microwave photons with their long wavelengths swerve around dust particles that block out shorter-wavelength ones.  Light that traversed Einstein-bent space lets us measure the masses of galaxies.  Absorption and polarization at specific wavelengths tell us what species are out there and what they’re doing.  Blue-shifts and red-shifts tell us how fast things are moving towards and away from us.  And of course, atmospheric distortions tell us we’ve got to put satellite observatories above the atmosphere to see better.”

“One messenger, lots of effects.”

“Indeed, but in the past few years we’ve added two more, really important messengers.  Photons are good, but they’re limited to just one of the four fundamental forces.”

“Hey, there’s gotta be more than that.  This is a complicated world.”

“True, but physicists can account for pretty much everything at the physical and chemical level with only four — electromagnetism, gravity, the strong force that holds nuclei together and the weak force that’s active in nuclear transformation processes.  Photons do electromagnetism and that’s all.”

“So you’re saying we’ve got a line on two of the others?”

“Exactly.  IceCube and its kin record the arrival of high-energy neutrinos.  In a sense they are to the weak force what photons are to electromagnetism.  We don’t know whether gravitation works through particles, but LIGO and company are sensitive to changes in the gravitational field that’s always with us.  Each gives us a new perspective on what’s happening out there.”

“So if you get a signal from one of the new messengers at the same time you get a photon signal…”

“Oh, look, the geese are coming in.”

Heavenly messengers

~~ Rich Olcott

“Hot Jets, Captain Neutrino!”

“Hey, Cathleen, while we’re talking IceCube, could you ‘splain one other thing from that TV program?”

“Depends on the program, Al.”

“Oh, yeah, you weren’t here when we started on this.  So I was watching this program and they were talking about neutrinos and how there’s trillions of them going through like my thumbnail every second and then IceCube saw this one neutrino that they’re real excited about so what I’m wondering is, what’s so special about just that neutrino? How do they even tell it apart from all the others?”

“How about the direction it came from, Cathleen?  We get lotsa neutrinos from the Sun and this one shot in from somewhere else?”

SMBH jet and IceCube
Images from NASA and JPL-Caltech

“An interesting question, Vinnie.  The publicity did concern its direction, but the neutrino was already special.  It registered 290 tera-electron-volts.”


“Sorry, scientific shorthand — tera is ten-to-the-twelfth.  A million electrons poised on a million-volt gap would constitute a Tera-eV of potential energy.  Our Big Guy had 290 times that much kinetic energy all by himself.”

“How’s that stack up against other neutrinos?”

“Depends on where they came from.  Neutrinos from a nuclear reactor’s uranium or plutonium fission carry only about 10 Mega-eV, wimpier by a factor of 30 million.  The Sun’s primary fusion process generates neutrinos peaking out at 0.4 MeV, 25 times weaker still.”

“How about from super-accelerators like the LHC?”

“Mmm, the LHC makes TeV-range protons but it’s not designed for neutrino production.  We’ve got others that have been pressed into service as neutrino-beamers. It’s a complicated process — you send protons crashing into a target.  It spews a splatter of pions and K-ons.  Those guys decay to produce neutrinos that mostly go in the direction you want.  You lose a lot of energy.  Last I looked the zippiest neutrinos we’ve gotten from accelerators are still a thousand times weaker than the Big Guy.”

I can see the question in Vinnie’s eyes so I fire up Old Reliable again.  Here it comes… “What’s the most eV’s it can possibly be?”  Good ol’ Vinnie, always goes for the extremes.

“You remember the equation for kinetic energy?”

“Sure, it’s E=½ m·v², learned that in high school.”

“And it stayed with you.  OK, and what’s the highest possible speed?”

“Speed o’ light, 186,000 miles per second.”

“Or 300 million meters per second, ’cause that’s Old Reliable’s default setting.  Suppose we’ve got a neutrino that’s going a gnat’s whisker slower than light.  Let’s apply that formula to the neutrino’s rest mass which is something less than 1.67×10-36 kilograms…”Speedy neutrino simple calculation“Half an eV?  That’s all?  So how come the Big Guy’s got gazillions of eV’s?”

“But the Big Guy’s not resting.  It’s going near lightspeed so we need to apply that relativistic correction to its mass…Speedy neutrino relativistic calculation“That infinity sign at the bottom means ‘as big as you want.’  So to answer your first question, there isn’t a maximum neutrino energy.  To make a more energetic neutrino, just goose it to go even closer to the speed of light.”

“Musta been one huge accelerator that spewed the Big Guy.”

“One of the biggest, Al.”  Cathleen again.  “That’s the exciting thing about what direction the particle came from.”

“Like the North Pole or something?”

“Much further away, much bigger and way more interesting.  As soon as IceCube caught that neutrino signal, it automatically sent out a “Look in THIS direction!” alert to conventional observatories all over the world.  And there it was — a blazar, 5.7 billion lightyears away!”

“Wait, Cathleen, what’s a blazar?”

“An incredibly brilliant but highly variable photon source, from radio frequencies all the way up to gamma rays and maybe cosmic rays.  We think the thousands we’ve catalogued are just a fraction of the ones within range.  We’re pretty sure that each of them depends on a super-massive black hole in the center of a galaxy.  The current theory is that those photons come from an astronomy-sized accelerator, a massive swirling jet that shoots out from the central source.  When the jet happens to point straight at us, flash-o!”


“I wouldn’t worry about a neutrino flood.  The good news is IceCube’s signal alerted astronomers to check TXS 0506+056, a known blazar, early in a new flare cycle.”

“An astrophysical fire alarm!”

~~ Rich Olcott

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

Einstein’s Revenge

Vinnie’s always been a sucker for weird-mutant sci-fi films so what Jennie says gets him going.  “So you got these teeny-tiny neutrinos and they mutate?  What do they do, get huge and eat things?”

“Nothing that interesting, Vinnie — or uninteresting, depending on what you’re keen on.  No, what happens is that each flavor neutrino periodically switches to another flavor.”

“Like an electron becomes a muon or whatever?”

“Hardly.  The electron and muon and tau particles themselves don’t swap.  Their properties differ too much —  the muon’s 200 times heaver than the electron and the tau’s sixteen times more massive than that.  It’s their associated neutrinos that mutate, or rather, oscillate.  What’s really weird, though, is how they do that.”

“How’s that?”

“As I said, they cycle through the three flavors.  And they cycle through three different masses.”

“OK, that’s odd but how is it weird?”

“Their flavor doesn’t change at the same time and place as their mass does.”Neutrino braid with sines

“Wait, what?”

“Each kind of neutrino, flavor-wise, is distinct — it reacts with a unique set of particles and yields different reaction products to what the other kinds do.  But experiments show that the mass of each kind of neutrino can vary from moment to moment.  At some point, the mass changes enough that suddenly the neutrino’s flavor oscillates.”

“That makes me think each mass could be a mix of three different flavors, too.”

“Capital, Vinnie!  That’s what the math shows.  It’s two different ways of looking at the same coin.”

“The masses oscillate, too?”

“Oh, indeed.  But no-one knows exactly what the mass values are nor even how the mass variation controls the flavors.  Or the other way to.  We know two of the masses are closer together than to the third but that’s about it.  On the experimental side there’s loads of physicists and research money devoted to different ways of measuring how neutrino oscillation rates depend on neutrino energy content.”

“And on the theory side?”

“Tons of theories, of course.  Whenever we don’t know much about something there’s always room for more theories.  The whole object of experiments like IceCube is to constrain the theories.  I’ve even got one I may present at Al’s Crazy Theory Night some time.”

“Oh, yeah?  Let’s hear it.”

“It’s early days, Al, so no flogging it about, mm?  Do you know about beat frequencies?”

“Yeah, the piano tuner ‘splained it to me.  You got two strings that make almost the same pitch, you get this wah-wah-wah effect called a beat.  You get rid of it when the strings match up exact.”  He grabs a few glasses from the counter and taps them with a spoon until he finds a pair that’s close.  “Like this.”

“Mm-hmm, and when the wah-wahs are close enough together they merge to become a note on their own.  You can just imagine how much more complicated it gets when there are three tones close together.”

I see where she’s going and bring up a display on Old Reliable —an overlay of three sine waves.   “Here you go, Jennie.  The red line is the average of the three regular waves.”Three sines on Old Reliable“Thanks, Sy.  Look, we’ve got three intervals where everything syncs up.  See the new satellite peaks half-way in between?  There’s more hidden pattern where things look chaotic in the rest of the space.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, Vinnie, my crazy theory is that like a photon’s energy depends on its wave frequency in the electromagnetic field, a neutrino is a combination of three weak-field waves of slightly different frequency, one for each mass.  When they sync up one way you’ve got an electron neutrino, when they sync up a different way you’ve got a muon neutrino, and a third way for a tau neutrino.”

I’ve got to chuckle.  “Nothing against your theory, Jennie, though you’ve got some work ahead of you to flesh it out and test it.  I just can’t help thinking of Einstein and his debates with Bohr.  Bohr maintained that all we can know about the quantum realm are the averages we calculate.  Einstein held that there must be understandable mechanisms underlying the statistics.  Field-based theories like yours are just what Einstein ordered.”

“I could do worse.”Neutrino swirl around Einstein

~~ Rich Olcott

Bigger than you’d think

Al’s coffee shop, the usual mid-afternoon crowd of chatterers and laptop-tappers.  Al’s walking his refill rounds, but I notice he’s carrying a pitcher rather than his usual coffee pot.  “Hey, Al, what’s with the hardware?”

“Got iced coffee here, Sy.  It’s hot out, people want to cool down.  Besides, this is in honor of IceCube.”

“Didn’t realize you’re gangsta fan.”

“Nah, not the rapper, the cool experiment down in the Antarctic.  It was just in the news.”

“Oh?  What did they say about it?”

“It’s the biggest observatory in the world, set up to look for the tiniest particles we know of, and it uses a cubic mile of ice which I can’t think how you’d steer it.”

A new voice, or rather, a familiar one. “One doesn’t, Al.”
Neutrino swirl 1“Hello, Jennie.  Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“I flew home to England to see my folks.  Now I’m back here for the start of the Fall term.  I’ve already picked a research topic — neutrinos.  They’re weird.”

“Hey, Jennie, why are they so tiny?”

“It’s the other way to, Al.  They’re neutrinos because they’re so tiny.  Sy would say that for a long time they were simply an accounting gimmick to preserve the conservation laws.”

“I would?”

“Indeed.  People had noticed that when uranium atoms give off alpha particles to become thorium, the alpha particles always have about the same amount of energy.  The researchers accounted for that by supposing that each kind of nucleus has some certain quantized amount of internal energy.  When one kind downsizes to another, the alpha particle carries off the difference.”

“That worked well, did it?”

“Oh, yes, there are whole tables of nuclear binding energy for alpha radiation.  But when a carbon-14 atom emits a beta particle to become nitrogen-14, the particle can have pretty much any amount of energy up to a maximum.  It’s as though the nuclear quantum levels don’t exist for beta decay.  Physicists called it the continuous beta-spectrum problem and people brought out all sorts of bizarre theories to try to explain it.  Finally Pauli suggested maybe something we can’t see carries off energy and leaves less for the beta.  Something with no charge and undetectable mass and the opposite spin from what the beta has.”

“Yeah, that’d be an accounting gimmick, alright.  The mass disappears into the rounding error.”

“It might have done, but twenty years later they found a real particle.  Oh, I should mention that after Pauli made the suggestion Fermi came up with a serious theory to support it.  Being Italian, he gave the particle its neutrino name because it was neutral and small.”

“But how small?”

“We don’t really know, Al.  We know the neutrino’s mass has to be greater than zero because it doesn’t travel quite as fast as light does.  On the topside, though, it has to be lighter than than a hydrogen atom by at least a factor of a milliard.”


“Oh, sorry, I’m stateside, aren’t I?  I should have said a billion.  Ten-to-the-ninth, anyway.”

“That’s small.  I guess that’s why they can sneak past all the matter in Earth like the TV program said and never even notice.”

This gives me an idea.  I unholster Old Reliable and start to work.

“Be right with you… <pause> … Jennie, I noticed that you were being careful to say that neutrinos are light, rather than small.  Good careful, ’cause ‘size’ can get tricky at this scale.  In the early 1920s de Broglie wrote that every particle is associated with a wave whose wavelength depends on the particle’s momentum.  I used his formula, together with Jennie’s upper bound for the neutrino’s mass, to calculate a few wavelength lower bounds.Neutrino wavelength calcMomentum is velocity times mass.  These guys fly so close to lightspeed that for a long time scientists thought that neutrinos are massless like photons.  They’re not, so I used several different v/c ratios to see what the relativistic correction does.  Slow neutrinos are huge, by atom standards.  Even the fastest ones are hundreds of times wider than a nucleus.”

“With its neutrino-ness spread so thin, no wonder it’s so sneaky.”

“That may be part of it, Al.”

“But how do you steer IceCube?”

~~ Rich Olcott