A Wheel in A Wheel

The conversation’s gotten a little dry so I carry our mugs over to Al’s coffee tap for refills. Vinnie’s closest so he gets the first one. “Thanks, Sy. So you say that a black hole has all these other things on the outside — the photon sphere and that weird belt if it’s rotating and the accretion disk and the jets which is what I asked about in the first place.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes gets the second mug. “My point, Vinnie, is they all act together. You can’t look at just one thing. Thanks, Sy. You know, you should’ve paid more attention to the ergosphere.”


“Yeah, Vinnie, that pumpkin-shaped layer Sy described — actually, more a pumpkin shell. The event horizon and photon sphere take up space inside of it and the accretion disk’s inner edge grazes its equator. The pumpkin is fatter for a more rapidly rotating black hole, but its boundary still dips down to meet the event horizon at the rotational poles. Diagrams usually show it just sitting there but that’s not quite true.”

“It wobbles?”

“No, the shape stays in place, locked to the event horizon just like the diagrams show. What’s inside it, though, is moving like mad. That’s what we’d see from a far-away frame, anyhow.”

Frames again, I knew it. The pumpkin’s got frames?”

“With extreme-gravity situations it’s always frames, Vinnie. The core’s gravity pulls in particles from the accumulation disk. They think they’re going straight. From an outsider’s perspective everything swerves spinwise at the ergosphere’s boundary. Even if a high-speed particle had been aimed in the other direction, it’s going spinwise once it’s inside the ergosphere.”

“Who’s making it do that?”

“Frame-dragging on steroids. We’ve known for a century that gravity from any massive body compresses the local space. ‘Kilometers are shorter near a black hole,’ as the saying goes. If the body is rotating, that counts too, at least locally — space itself joins the spin. NASA’s Gravity B probe detected micromicrodegree-level frame rotation around Earth. The ergosphere, though, has space is twisted so far that the direction of time points spinwise in the same way that it points inwards within the event horizon. Everything has to travel along time’s arrow, no argument.”

“You said ‘local‘ twice there. How far does this spread?”

“Ah, that’s an important question. The answer’s ‘Not as far as you think.’ Everything scales with the event horizon’s diameter and that scales with the mass. If the Sun were a non-rotating black hole, for instance, its event horizon would be only about 6 kilometers across, less than 4 miles. Its photon sphere would be 4.5 kilometers out from the center and the inner edge of its accretion disk would be a bit beyond that. Space compression dies out pretty quick on the astronomical scale — only a millionth of the way out to the orbit of Mercury the effect’s down to just 3% of its strength at the photosphere.”

“How about if it’s rotating?”

“The frame-dragging effect dies out even faster, with the cube of the distance. At the same one-millionth of Mercury’s orbit, the twist-in-space factor is 0.03% of what it is at the photosphere. At planet-orbit distances spin’s a non-player. However, in the theory I’m researching, spin’s influence may go much further.”

“Why’s that?”

“Seen from an outside frame, what’s inside the ergosphere rotates really fast. Remember that stuff coming in from the accretion disk’s particle grinder? It ought to be pretty thoroughly ionized, just a plasma of negative electrons and positive particles like protons and atomic nuclei. The electrons are thousands of times lighter than the positive stuff. Maybe the electrons settle into a different orbit from the positive particles.”

“Further in or further out?”

“Dunno, I’m still calculating. Either way, from the outside it’d look like two oppositely-charged disks, spinning in the same direction. We’ve known since Ørsted that magnetism comes from a rotating charge. Seems to me the ergosphere’s contents would generate two layers of magnetism with opposite polarities. I think what keeps the jets confined so tightly is a pair of concentric cylindrical magnetic fields extruded from the ergosphere. But it’s going to take a lot of math to see if the idea holds water.”

“Or jets.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Jet and The Plane

“OK, Sy, I get your point about a black hole being more than a mystical event horizon hiding whatever’s inside it. I’ll give you it’s a structure with a trapped-light shell and a pumpkin-donut belt around that –“

“… if it’s rotating, Vinnie…”

“– if it’s rotating, but what does all that have to do with those huge jets coming out of the poles instead of the equator where they belong?”

Suddenly Newt Barnes, astrophysicist in training, is standing by our table. “You guys are talking my research topic, just the hottest thing in astrophysics these days. Those jets were the subject of over a thousand papers last year. Mind if I sit in?”

“Of course not.” “We’re all ears.”

“Well, there’s a couple more layers to peel before we can make a maybe connection. Vinnie, what’s the weirdest thing about those jets?”

“Like I said, they’re huge — millions of lightyears long.”

“True, but other structures are huge, too — galaxy superclusters, for instance. The real weirdness is how narrow the jets are — less than a degree wide, and they’ve maintained that tight geometry while they’ve grown for millions of years. We still don’t know what’s in a jet. If it’s a beam of charged particles you’d think they’d repel each other and spread out almost immediately. If the particles are uncharged they’d bang into each other and into the prevailing interstellar medium. Random collisions would spread the beam out maybe a little slower than a charged-particle beam but still. A photon beam would be more stable but you’d need a really good collimating mechanism at the jet’s base to get the waves all marching so precisely.”

“What’s left, dark matter?”

“Almost certainly not. Many jets emit huge quantities of electromagnetic radiation at all frequencies from radio up through X-rays and beyond. Dark matter doesn’t do electromagnetism. No, jets are somehow created from normal stuff. The question is, how is it kept under such tight control?”

“The other question is, where’s all that stuff coming from if nothing can escape outta the event horizon?”

“Ah, that has to do with yet another part of the structure — the accretion disk.”

“What they got that orange picture of, right? Big ring like Saturn’s.”

“Well, similar shape, but different origin, different composition and very different dynamics. Saturn’s rings are mostly water-ice, built up from the debris of ice-moons that collided or were pulled apart by tidal forces. A black hole’s accretion disk is made up of planets, dust particles, atoms, whatever junk was unfortunate enough to be too close when the black hole passed by. Pick any incoming object and call it Freddie. Unless Freddie and the event horizon’s core are on an exact collision course, Freddie gets swept up by the disk.”

“Then what happens?”

“Freddie collides with something already in the disk. Lots of somethings. Each collision does two things. One, Freddie and the something break into smaller pieces. Two, some of Freddie’s gravitational potential energy relative to the core is converted to heat, making the collision debris package hotter than Freddie and the something were to begin with. After a while, Freddie gets ground down to atoms or smaller and they’re all really hot, radiating intensely just like Planck and Einstein said they would.”

“So we got a ring like Saturn’s, like I said.”

“Only sort of. Saturn has half-a-dozen distinct rings. They shine by reflected sunlight, the middle ring is brightest and broadest, and the innermost ring is dark and skinny. Our only direct accretion disk image so far is a one blurry view, but the object shines with its own light and in theory the disk isn’t segmented. There should be just one ring and it’d be brightest at a sharp inner edge.”

“Why’s that?”

“The light’s produced by hot particles. Heat generation’s most intense where the gravity well is steepest. That’s nearest the core. For a non-spinning black hole the threshold is one-sixth of the horizon’s diameter. If Freddie gets knocked the slightest bit closer than that it’s doomed to fall the rest of the way in. The edge is closer-in if the hole’s rotating but then Freddie has an interesting time. Relatively.”

“Gonna be frames again, right?”


~~ Rich Olcott

Beyond The Shadow of A…?

“Alright, Vinnie, what’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what, Sy?”

“You wouldn’t have hauled that kid’s toy into Al’s shop here just to play spitballs with it. You’re building up to something and what is it?”

“My black hole hobby, Sy. The things’re just a few miles wide but pack more mass than the Sun. A couple of my magazines say they give off jets top and bottom because of how they spin. That just don’t fit. The stuff ought to come straight out to the sides like the paper wads did.”

“Well, umm… Ah. You know the planet Saturn.”


“Are its rings part of the planet?”

“No, of course not, they go around it. I even seen an article about how the rings probably came from a couple of collided moons and how water from the Enceladus moon may be part of the outside ring. Only thing Saturn does for the rings is supply gravity to keep ’em there.”

“But our eyes see planet and rings together as a single dot of light in the sky. As far as the rest of the Solar System cares, Saturn consists of that big cloudy ball of hydrogen and the rings and all 82 of its moons, so far. Once you get a few light-seconds away, the whole collection acts as a simple point-source of gravitational attraction.”

“I see where you’re going. You’re gonna say a black hole’s more than just its event horizon and whatever it’s hiding inside there.”

“Yup. That ‘few miles wide’ — I could make a case that you’re off by trillions. A black hole’s a complicated beast when we look at it close up.”

“How can you look at a thing like that close up?”

“Math, mostly, but the observations are getting better. Have you seen the Event Horizon Telescope’s orange ring picture?”

“You mean the one that Al messed with and posted for Hallowe’en? It’s over there behind his cash register. What’s it about, anyway?”

“It’s an image of M87*, the super-massive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy. Not the event horizon itself, of course, that’s black. The orange portion actually represents millimeter-radio waves that escape from the accretion disk circling the event horizon. The innermost part of the disk is rotating around the hole at near-lightspeed. The arc at the bottom is brighter because that’s the part coming toward us. The photons get a little extra boost from Special Relativity.”

Frames again?”

“With black holes it’s always frames. You’ll love this. From the shell’s perspective, it spits out the same number of photons per second in every direction. From our perspective, time is stretched on the side rotating away from us so there’s fewer photons per one of our seconds and it’s dimmer. In the same amount of our time the side coming toward us emits more photons so it’s brighter. Neat demonstration, eh?”

“Cute. So the inner black part’s the hole ’cause it can’t give off light, right?”

“Not quite. That’s a shadow. Not a shadow of the event horizon itself, mind you, but of the photon sphere. That’s a shell about 1½ times the width of the event horizon. Any photon that passes exactly tangent to the sphere is doomed to orbit there forever. If the photon’s path is the slightest bit inward from that, the poor particle heads inward towards whatever’s in the center. The remaining photons travel paths that look bent to a distant observer, but the point is that they keep going and eventually someone like us could see them.”

“The shadow and the accretion disk, that’s what the EHT saw?”

“Not exactly.”

“There’s more?”

“Yeah. M87* is a spinning black hole, which is more complicated than one that’s sitting still. Wrapped around the photon sphere there’s an ergosphere, as much as three times wider than the event horizon except it’s pumpkin-shaped. The ergosphere’s widest at the rotational equator, but it closes in to meet the event horizon at the two poles. Anything bigger than a photon that crosses its boundary is condemned to join the spin parade, forever rotating in sync with the object’s spin.”

“When are you gonna get to the jets, Sy?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Shades of Dark

The guy’s got class, I’ll give him that. Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt met his challenges so Change-me Charlie amiably updates his sign.

But he’s not done. “If dark matter’s a thing, how’s it different from dark energy? Mass and energy are the same thing, right, so dark energy’s gotta be just another kind of dark matter. Maybe dark energy’s what happens when real matter that fell into a black hole gets squeezed so hard its energy turns inside out.”

Jim and Newt just look at each other. Even Cap’n Mike’s boggled. Someone has to start somewhere so I speak up. “You’re comparing apples, cabbages and fruitcake. Yeah, all three are food except maybe for fruitcake, but they’re grossly different. Same thing for black holes, dark matter and dark energy — we can’t see any of them directly but they’re grossly different.”

EHT's image of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy
Black hole and accretion disk, image by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Vinnie’s been listening off to one side but black holes are one of his hobbies. “A black hole’s dark ’cause its singularity’s buried inside its event horizon. Whatever’s outside and somehow gets past the horizon is doomed to fall towards the singularity inside. The singularity itself might be burn-your-eyes bright but who knows, ’cause the photons’re trapped. The accretion disk is really the only lit-up thing showing in that new EHT picture. The black in the middle is the shadow of the horizon, not the hole.”

Jim picks up the tale. “Dark matter’s dark because it doesn’t care about electromagnetism and vice-versa. Light’s an electromagnetic wave — it starts when a charged particle wobbles and it finishes by wobbling another charged particle. Normal matter’s all charged particles — negative electrons and positive nuclei — so normal matter and light have a lot to say to each other. Dark matter, whatever it is, doesn’t have electrical charges so it doesn’t do light at all.”

“Couldn’t a black hole have dark matter in it?”

“From what little we know about dark matter or the inside of a black hole, I see no reason it couldn’t.”

“How about normal matter falls in and the squeezing cooks it, mashes the pluses and minuses together and that’s what makes dark matter?”

“Great idea with a few things wrong with it. The dark matter we’ve found mostly exists in enormous spherical shells surrounding normal-matter galaxies. Your compressed dark matter is in the wrong place. It can’t escape from the black hole’s gravity field, much less get all the way out to those shells. Even if it did escape, decompression would let it revert to normal matter. Besides, we know from element abundance data that there can’t ever have been enough normal matter in the Universe to account for all the dark matter.”

Newt’s been waiting for a chance to cut in. “Dark energy’s dark, too, but it works in the opposite direction from the other two. Gravity from normal matter, black holes or otherwise, pulls things together. So does gravity from dark matter which is how we even learned that it exists. Dark energy’s negative pressure pulls things apart.”

“Could dark energy pull apart a black hole or dark matter?”

Big Cap’n Mike barges in. “Depends on if dark matter’s particles. Particles are localized and if they’re small enough they do quantum stuff. If that’s what dark matter is, dark energy can move the particles apart. My theory is dark matter’s just ripples across large volumes of space so dark energy can change how dark matter’s spread around but it can’t break it into pieces.”

Vinnie stands up for his hobby. “Dark energy can move black holes around, heck it moves galaxies, but like Sy showed us with Old Reliable it’s way too weak to break up black holes. They’re here for the duration.”

Newt pops him one. “The duration of what?”

“Like, forever.”

“Sorry, Hawking showed that black holes evaporate. Really slowly and the big ones slower than the little ones and the temperature of the Universe has to cool down a bit more before that starts to get significant, but not even the black holes are forever.”

“How long we got?”

“Something like 10106 years.”

“That won’t be dark energy’s fault, though.”

~~ 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

“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

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

The Biggest Telescope in The Universe

Vinnie rocks back in his chair.  “These gravitational lenses, Cathleen.  How do you figure their apertures and f-numbers, space being infinite and all?”

She takes a breath to answer, but I cut in.  “Whoa, I never got past a snapshot camera.  How about you explain Vinnie’s question before you answer it?”Bird and lenses

“You’re right, Sy, most people these days just use their cellphone camera and have no clue about what it does inside.  Apertures and f-numbers are all just simple geometry.  Everything scales with the lens’ focal length.”

“That’s how far away something is that you’re taking a picture of?”

“No, it’s a characteristic of the lens itself.  It’s the distance between the midpoint of the lens and its focal plane, which is where you’d want to put the sensor chip or film in a camera.  The aperture is the diameter of the light beam entering the lens.  The optimal aperture, the image size, even the weight of the lens, all scale to the lens focal length.”

“I can see image size thing — the further back the focal plane, the bigger the image by the the time it gets there.  It’s like a lever.”

“Sort of, Vinnie, but you’ve got the idea.”

“The aperture scales to focal length?  I’d think you could make a lens with any diameter you like.”

“Sure you could, Sy, but remember you’d be using a recording medium of some sort and it’s got an optimum input level.  Too much light and you over-expose, too little and you under-expose.  To get the right amount of light when you take the shot the aperture has to be right compared to the focal length.”

“Hey, so that’s the reason for the old ‘Sunny 16‘ rule.  Didn’t matter if I had a 35mm Olympus or a big ol’ Rollei, if it was a sunny day I got good pictures with an f/16 aperture.  ‘Course I had to balance the exposure time with the film’s speed rating but that was easy.”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  If I remember right, the Rollei’s images were about triple the size of the little guy’s.  Tripled focal length meant tripled lens size.  You could use the same speed-rated film in both cameras and use the same range of f-stops.  The rule still works with digital cameras but you need to know your sensor’s ISO rating.”

“Ya got this, Sy?  Can we move on to Cathleen’s gravity lenses?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Well, they’re completely different from … I’ll call them classical lenses. That kind has a focal plane and a focal length and an aperture and only operates along one axis.  Gravitational lenses have none of that, but they have an infinite number of focal lines and rings.”

Gravitational lens and galaxy“Infinite?”

“At least in principle.  Any observation point in the Universe has a focal line running to a massive object’s center of gravity.  At any point along the line, you could look toward an object and potentially see all or part of a ring composed of light from some bright object behind it.  Einstein showed that a completed ring’s  visual angle depends on the deflector’s mass and the three distances between the observer, the deflector and the bright object.”

“The way you said that, there could be a bunch of rings.”

“Sure, one for each bright object shining onto the lens.  For that matter, the deflector itself could be complex — the gravity of a whole cluster of galaxies rather than the single black hole we’ve been assuming as an example.”

“That diagram reminds me of Galileo’s telescope, just a three-foot tube with an objective lens at the far end and an eyepiece lens to look through.  But it was enough to show him the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.”

“Right, Sy.  His objective lens was maybe a couple of inches across.  If its focal point was halfway down the tube, his scope’s light-gathering power would match an f/9 camera lens.  Gravitational lenses don’t have apertures so not an issue.”

“So here we are like Galileo, with a brand new kind of telescope.”

“Poetic, Vinnie, and so right.  It’s already shown us maybe the youngest galaxy, born 13 billion years ago.  We’re just getting started.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Fellowship of A Ring

Einstein ring 2018
Hubble photo from NASA’s Web site

Cathleen and I are at a table in Al’s coffee shop, discussing not much, when Vinnie comes barreling in.  “Hey, guys.  Glad I found you together.  I just saw this ‘Einstein ring’ photo.  They say it’s some kind of lensing phenomenon and I’m thinking that a lens floating out in space to do that has to be yuuuge.  What’s it made of, and d’ya think aliens put it there to send us a message?”

Astronomer Cathleen rises to the bait.  I sit back to watch the fun.  “No, Vinnie, I don’t.  We’re not that special, the rings aren’t signals, and the lenses aren’t things, at least not in the way you’re thinking.”

“There’s more than one?”

“Hundreds we know of so far and it’s early days because the technology’s still improving.”

“How come so many?”

“It’s because of what makes the phenomenon happen.  What do you know about gravity and light rays?”

Me and Sy talked about that a while ago.  Light rays think they travel in straight lines past a heavy object, but if you’re watching the beam from somewhere else you think it bends there.”

I chip in.  “Nice summary, good to know you’re storing this stuff away.”Gravitational lens 1

“Hey, Sy, it’s why I ask questions is to catch up.  So go on, Cathleen.”

She swings her laptop around to show us a graphic.  “So think about a star far, far away.  It’s sending out light rays in every direction.  We’re here in Earth and catch only the rays emitted in our direction.  But suppose there’s a black hole exactly in the way of the direct beam.”

“We couldn’t see the star, I get that.”

“Well, actually we could see some of its light, thanks to the massive black hole’s ray-bending trick. Rays that would have missed us are bent inward towards our telescope.  The net effect is similar to having a big magnifying lens out there, focusing the star’s light on us.”

“You said, ‘similar.’  How’s it different?”Refraction lens

“In the pattern of light deflection.  Your standard Sherlock magnifying lens bends light most strongly at the edges so all the light is directed towards a point.  Gravitational lenses bend light most strongly near the center.  Their light pattern is hollow.  If we’re exactly in a straight line with the star and the black hole, we see the image ‘focused’ to a ring.”

“That’d be the Einstein ring, right?”

“Yes, he gets credit because he was the one who first set out the equation for how the rays would converge.  We don’t see the star, but we do see the ring.  His equation says that the angular size of the ring grows as the square root of the deflecting object’s mass.  That’s the basis of a widely-used technique for measuring the masses not only of black holes but of galaxies and even larger structures.”

“The magnification makes the star look brighter?”

“Brighter only in the sense that we’re gathering photons from a wider field then if we had only the direct beam.  The lens doesn’t make additional photons, probably.”

Suddenly I’m interested.  “Probably?”

“Yes, Sy, theoreticians have suggested a couple of possible effects, but to my knowledge there’s no good evidence yet for either of them.  You both know about Hawking radiation?”



“Well, there’s the possibility that starlight falling on a black hole’s event horizon could enhance virtual particle production.  That would generate more photons than one would expect from first principles.  On the other hand, we don’t really have a good handle on first principles for black holes.”

“And the other effect?”

“There’s a stack of IFs under this one.  IF dark matter exists and if the lens is a concentration of dark matter, then maybe photons passing through dark matter might have some subtle interaction with it that could generate more photons.  Like I said, no evidence.”

“Hundreds, you say.”


“We’ve found hundreds of these lenses.”

“All it takes is for one object to be more-or-less behind some other object that’s heavy enough to bend light towards us.”

“Seein’ the forest by using the trees, I guess.”

“That’s a good way to put, it, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

RIP, Dr Hawking

Today I depart from my normal schedule and the current story line and science line.  A giant has left us and I want to pay proper tribute.

Dr Stephen Hawking enjoyed telling people of his fortunate birth date, exactly 300 years after Galileo Galilei passed away.  He liked a good joke, and I think he’d be tickled with this additional connection to the man whose work made Hawking’s work possible:
RIP Hawking

The equation in the center of this cut is Hawking’s favorite result, which he wanted to be carved on his gravestone.  It links a black hole’s entropy (S) to its surface area (A).  The other letters denote a collection of constants that have been central to the development of theoretical Physics over the past century and a half:

  • k is Boltzmann’s constant, which links temperature with kinetic energy
  • c is the speed of light, the invariance of which led Einstein to Relativity
  • G is Newton’s universal gravitational constant
  • h is Planck’s constant, the “quantum of action”

Hawking spent much of his career thinking deeply about the implications of Einstein’s concepts.  Newton’s equations support excellent descriptions of everyday physical motions, from the fall of raindrops to the orbits of solar systems.  Einstein’s equations led to insights about conditions at the most extreme — velocities near lightspeed, masses millions of times the Sun’s but packed into a volume only a few dozen miles wide.

But Hawking also pondered extremes of the ultimately large and the ultimately small — the edge of the Universe and distances far smaller than atomic nuclei.  Because his physical condition prohibited speech or quick jottings, he was forced to develop extraordinary powers of concentration and visualization that enabled him to encapsulate in a few phrases insights that would take others books to develop and communicate.

Hawking wrote books, too, of course, of a quality and clarity that turned his name and Science into watchwords for the general public as well as the physics community.  By his life and how he lived it he was an inspiration to many, abled and otherwise.  Science needs its popularizers, though some in the field deprecate them as hangers-on.  Hawking managed to bridge that gap with ease and grace, a giant with standing on either side.

Requiescat in pace, Dr Hawking.  Thank you.

~~ Rich Olcott