Trombones And Echoes

Vinnie’s fiddling with his Pizza Eddie’s pizza crumbs. “Hey, Sy, so we got the time standard switched over from that faked 1900 Sun to counting lightwave peaks in a laser beam. I understand why that’s more precise ’cause it’s a counting measure, and it’s repeatable and portable ’cause they can set up a time laser on Mars or wherever that uses the same identical kinds of atoms to do the frequency stuff. All this talk I hear about spacetime, I’m thinkin’ space is linked to time, right? So are they doing smart stuff like that for measuring space?”

“They did in 1960, Vinnie. Before that the meter was defined to be the distance between two carefully positioned scratches on a platinum-iridium bar that was lovingly preserved in a Paris basement vault. In 1960 they went to a new standard. Here, I’ll bring it up on Old Reliable. By the way, it’s spelled m-e-t-e-r stateside, but it’s the same thing.”

“Mmm… Something goofy there. Look at the number. You’ve been going on about how a counted standard is more precise than one that depends on ratios. How can you count 0.73 of a cycle?”

“You can’t, of course, but suppose you look at 100 meters. Then you’d be looking at an even 165,076,373 of them, OK?”

“Sorta, but now you’re counting 165 million peaks. That’s a lot to ask even a grad student to do, if you can trust him.”

“He won’t have to. Twenty-three years later they went to this better definition.”

“Wait, that depends on how accurate we can measure the speed of light. We get more accurate, the number changes. Doesn’t that get us into the ‘different king, different foot-size’ hassle?”

“Quite the contrary. It locks down the size of the unit. Suppose we develop technology that’s good to another half-dozen digits of precision. Then we just tack half-a-dozen zeroes onto that fraction’s denominator after its decimal point. Einstein said that the speed of light is the same everywhere in the Universe. Defining the meter in terms of lightspeed gives us the same kind of good-everywhere metric for space that the atomic clocks give us for time.”

“I suppose, but that doesn’t really get us past that crazy-high count problem.”

“Actually, we’ve got three different strategies for different length scales. For long distances we just use time-of-flight. Pick someplace far away and bounce a laser pulse off of it. Use an atomic clock to measure the round-trip time. Take half that, divide by the defined speed of light and you’ve got the distance in meters. Accuracy is limited only by the clock’s resolution and the pulse’s duration. The Moon’s about a quarter-million miles away which would be about 2½ seconds round-trip. We’ve put reflectors up there that astronomers can track to within a few millimeters.”

“Fine, but when distances get smaller you don’t have as many clock-ticks to work with. Then what do you do?”

“You go to something that doesn’t depend on clock-ticks but is still connected to that constant speed of light. Here, this video on Old Reliable ought to give you a clue.”

“OK, the speed which is a constant is the number of peaks that’s the frequency times the distance between them that’s the wavelength. If I know a wavelength then arithmetic gets me the frequency and vice-versa. Fine, but how do I get either one of them?”

“How do you tune a trombone?”

“Huh? I suppose you just move the slide until you get the note you want.”

“Yup, if a musician has good ear training and good muscle memory they can set the trombone’s resonant tube length to play the right frequency. Table-top laser distance measurements use the same principle. A laser has a resonant cavity between two mirrors. Setting the mirror-to-mirror distance determines the laser’s output. When you match the cavity length to something you want to measure, the laser beam frequency tells you the distance. At smaller scales you use interference techniques to compare wavelengths.”

Vinnie gets a gleam in his eye. “Time-of-flight measurement, eh?” He flicks a pizza crumb across the room.

In a flash Eddie’s standing over our table. “Hey, hotshot, do that again and you’re outta here!”

“Speed of light, Sy?”

“Pretty close, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott


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

In A Pinch And Out Again

<Vinnie’s phone rings> “Yeah, Michael? That ain’t gonna work, Micheal.” <to me> “Michael wants to hoist us out through the elevator cab’s ceiling hatch.” <to phone> “No, it’s a great idea, Michael, it’d be no problem for Sy, he’s skinny, but no way am I gonna fit through that hatch. Yeah, keep looking for the special lever. Hey, call Eddie downstairs for some pizza you can send through the hatch. Yeah, you’re right, pizza grease and elevator grease don’t mix. Right, we’ll wait, like we got any choice. Bye.” <to me> “You heard.”

“Yeah, I got the drift. Plenty more time to talk about the improved portable kilogram standard.”

“I thought we were talking about lasers. No, wait, we got there by talking about the time standard.”

“We were and we did, but all the improved measurements are based on laser tech. Mode-locking, optical tweezers and laser cooling, for instance, are key to the optical clockwork you need for a really good time standard.”

“Optical tweezers?”

“Mm-hm, that’s yet another laser-related Nobel Prize topic. There’s been nearly a dozen so far. Optical tweezers use light beams to grab and manipulate small particles. Really small, like cells or molecules or even single atoms.”

“Grabbing something with light? How’s that work?”

“Particles smaller than a light beam get drawn in to where the beam’s electric field varies the most. With a tightly-focused laser beam that special place is just a little beyond its focus point. You can use multiple beams to trap particles even more tightly where the beams cross.”

“Is that how ‘laser cooling’ works? You hold an atom absolutely still and it’s at absolute zero?”

“Nice idea, Vinnie, but your atom couldn’t ever reach absolute zero because everything has a minimum amount of zero-point energy. But you’re close to how the most popular technique is set up. It’s elegant. You start with a thin gas of the atoms you want to work with. Their temperature depends on their average kinetic energy as they zip around, right?”

“Yeah, so you want to slow them down.”

“Now you shine in two laser beams, one pointing east and one pointing west, and their wavelengths are just a little to the red of what those atoms absorb. Imagine yourself sitting on one of those atoms coming toward the east-side laser.”

Blue shift! I’m coming toward the waves so I see them scrunched together at a wavelength where my atom can absorb a photon. But what about the other laser?”

“You’d see its wavelength red-shifted away from your atom’s sweet spot and the atom doesn’t absorb that photon. But we’re not done. Now your excited atom relaxes by emitting a photon in some random direction. Repeat often. The north-south momentum change after each cycle averages out to zero but east-west momentum always goes down. The gas temperature drops.”


All this talk of particles balanced in force fields gives me an idea. “Vinnie, d’ya think we stopped closer to the fifth floor or the sixth?”

“I think we’re almost down to five.”

“Good, that gives us a better chance. Where were you standing when we stopped?”

“Right by the buttons, like always. Whaddaya got in mind?”

“Michael said that’s a new elevator door, right? No offense, you’re heavy and I’m no light-weight. Both of us were standing at the very front of the cab. I’m thinking maybe our unbalanced weight tilted the cab just enough to catch an edge on some part of the door mechanism they didn’t put in quite right. Let’s switch places and both jump up and while we’re in the air wallop the top of the cab’s back wall as hard as we can. OK, on three — one, two, three!” “


“Michael. It’s Vinnie. We’re out. Yeah, ‘s wunnerful, I’m glad you’re glad. Look, something was sorta outta place in the new door mechanism on five and now it’s way outta place and the cab’s probably here for the duration. Call your repair guys, but before you do that bring up some Caution tape and something that’ll block the door open. Quick-like, right? I’m holding this door but I ain’t gonna be a statue long ’cause I’m hungry.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Elevator, Locked And Loaded

Vinnie’s on his phone again.  “Michael!  Where are you, man?  We’re still trapped in this elevator!  Ah, geez.”  <to me>  “Guy can’t find the special lever.”  <to phone>  “Well, use a regular prybar, f’petesake.”  <to me>  “Says he doesn’t want to damage the new door.”  <to phone>  “Find something else, then.  It’s way past dinner-time, I’m hungry, and Sy’s starting to look good, ya hear what I’m sayin’?  OK, OK, the sooner the better.”  <to me>  “Michael’s says he’s doin’ the best he can.”

“I certainly hope so.  Try chewing on one of your moccasins there.  It’d complain less than I would and probably taste better.”

“Don’t worry about it.  Yet.”  <looks at Old Reliable’s display, takes his notebook from a pocket, scribbles in it>  “That 1960 definition has more digits than the 1967 one.  Why’d they settle for less precision in the new definition?  Lemme guess — 1960s tech wasn’t up to counting frequencies any higher so they couldn’t get any better numbers?”

“Nailed it, Vinnie.  The International Bureau of Weights and Measures blessed the cesium-microwave definition just as laser technology began a whole cascade of advancements.  It started with mode-locking, which led to everything from laser cooling to optical clockwork.”

“We got nothing better to do until Michael. Go ahead, ‘splain those things.”

“Might as well, ’cause this’ll take a while. What do you know about how a laser works?”

“Just what I see in my magazines. You get some stuff that can absorb and emit light in the frequency range you like. You put that stuff in a tube with mirrors at each end but one of them’s leaky. You pump light in from the side. The stuff absorbs the light and sends it out again in all different directions. Light that got sent towards a mirror starts bouncing back and forth, getting stronger and stronger. Eventually the absorber gets saturated and squirts a whoosh of photons all in sync and they leave through the leaky mirror. That’s the laser beam. How’d I do?”

“Pretty good, you got most of the essentials except for the ‘saturated-squirting’ part. Not a good metaphor. Think about putting marbles on a balance board. As long as the board stays flat you can keep putting marbles on there. But if the board tilts, just a little bit, suddenly all the marbles fall off. It’s not a matter of how many marbles, it’s the balance. But what’s really important is that there’s lots of boards, one after the other, all down the length of the laser cavity, and they interact.”

“How’s that important?”

“Because then waves can happen. Marbles coming off of board 27 disturb boards 26 and 28. Their marbles unbalance boards 25 and 29 and so on. Waves of instability spread out and bounce off those mirrors you mentioned. New marbles coming in from the marble pump repopulate the boards so the process keeps going. Here’s the fun part — if a disturbance wave has just the right wavelength, it can bounce off of one mirror, travel down the line, bounce back off the other mirror, and just keep going. It’s called a standing wave.”

“I heard this story before, but it was about sound and musical instruments. Standing waves gotta exactly match the tube length or they die away.”

“Mm-hm, wave theory shows up all over Physics. Laser resonators are just another case.”

“You got a laser equivalent to overtones, like octaves and fourths?”

“Sure, except that laser designers call them modes. If one wave exactly fits between the mirrors, so does a wave with half the wavelength, or 1/3 or 1/4 and so on. Like an organ pipe, a laser can have multiple active modes. But it makes a difference where each mode is in its cycle. Here, let me show you on Old Reliable … Both graphs have time along the horizontal. Reading up from the bottom I’ve got four modes active and the purple line on top is what comes out of the resonator. If all modes peak at different times you just get a hash, but if you synchronize their peaks you get a series of big peaks. The modes are locked in. Like us in this elevator.”

“Michael! Get us outta here!”

~~ 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

The Neapolitan Particle

“Welcome back, Jennie.  Why would anyone want to steer an ice cube?

“Thanks, Jeremy, it’s nice to be back..  And the subject’s not an ice cube, it’s IceCube, the big neutrino observatory in the Antarctic.”

“Then I’m with Al’s question.  Observatories have this big dome that rotates and inside there’s a lens or mirror or whatever that goes up and down to sight on the night’s target.  OK, the Hubble doesn’t have a dome and it uses gyros but even there you’ve got to point it.  How does IceCube point?”

“It doesn’t.  The targets point themselves.”


“Ever relayed a Web-page?”


“Guess what?  You don’t know where the page came from, you don’t know where it’s going to end up.  But it could carry a tracking bug to tell someone at some call-home server when and where the page had been opened.  IceCube works the same way, sort of.  It has a huge 3D array of detectors to record particles coming in from any direction.  A neutrino can come from above, below, any side, no problem — the detectors it touches will signal its path.”

IceCube architecture
Adapted from a work by Francis Halzen, Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin

“How huge?”

“Vastly huge.  The instrument is basically a cubic kilometer of ultra-clear Antarctic ice that’s ages old.  The equivalent of the tracking bugs is 5000 sensors in a honeycomb array more than a kilometer wide.  Every hexagon vertex marks a vertical string of sensors going down 2½ kilometers into the ice.  Each string has a couple of sensors near the surface but the rest of them are deeper than 1½ kilometers.  The sensors are looking for flashes of light.  Keep track of which sensor registered a flash when and you know the path a particle took through the array.”

icecube event 3“Why should there be flashes? I thought neutrinos didn’t interact with matter.”

“Make that, they rarely interact with matter.  Even that depends on what particle the neutrino encounters and what flavor neutrino it happens to be at the moment.”

That gets both Al and me interested.  His “Neutrinos come in flavors?” overlaps my “At the moment?”

“I thought that would get you into this, Sy.  Early experiments detected only 1/3 of the neutrinos we expected to come from the Sun.  Unwinding all that was worth four Nobel prizes and counting.  The upshot’s that there are three different neutrino flavors and they mutate.  The experiments caught only one.”

Vinnie’s standing behind us.  “You’re going to tell us the flavors, right?”

“Hoy, Vinnie, Jeremy’s question was first, and it bears on the others.  Jeremy, you know that blue glow you see around water-cooled nuclear fuel rods?”

“Yeah, looks spooky.  That’s neutrinos?”

“No, that’s mostly electrons, but it could be other charged particles.  It has to do with exceeding the speed of light in the medium.”

“Hey, me and Sy talked about that.  A lightwave makes local electrons wiggle, and how fast the wiggles move forward can be different from how fast the wave group moves.  Einstein’s speed-of-light thing was about the wave group’s speed, right, Sy?”

“That’s right, Vinnie.”

“So anyhow, Jeremy, a moving charged particle affects the local electromagnetic field.  If the particle moves faster than the surrounding atoms can adjust, that generates light, a conical electromagnetic wave with a continuous spectrum.  The light’s called Cherenkov radiation and it’s mostly in the ultra-violet, but enough leaks down to the visible range that we see it as blue.”

“But you said it takes a charged particle.  Neutrinos aren’t charged.  So how do the flashes happen in IceCube?”

“Suppose an incoming high-energy neutrino transfers some of its momentum to a charged particle in the ice — flash!  Even better, the flash pattern provides information for distinguishing between the neutrino flavors.  Muon neutrinos generate a more sharp-edged Cherenkov cone than electron neutrinos do.  Taus are so short-lived that IceCube doesn’t even see them.”Leptons

“I suppose muon and tau are flavors?”

“Indeed, Vinnie.  Any subatomic reaction that releases an electron also emits an electron-flavored neutrino.  If the reaction releases the electron’s heavier cousin, a muon, then you get a muon-flavored neutrino.  Taus are even heavier  and they’ve got their own associated neutrino.”

“And they mutate?”

“In a particularly weird way.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Recourse to Pastry

There’s something wrong about the displays laid out on Al’s pastry counter — no symmetry.  One covered platter holds eight pinwheels in a ring about a central one, but the other platter’s central pinwheel has only a five-pinwheel ring around it.  I yell over to him.  “What’s with the pastries, Al?  You usually balance things up.”

“Ya noticed, hey, Sy?  It’s a tribute to the Juno spacecraft.  She went into orbit around Jupiter on the 5th of July 2016 so I’m celebrating her anniversary.”

“Well, that’s nice, but what do pinwheels have to do with the spacecraft?”

“Haven’t you seen the polar pictures she sent back?  Got a new poster behind the cash register.  Ain’t they gorgeous?”Jupiter both poles“They’re certainly eye-catching, but I thought Jupiter’s all baby-blue and salmon-colored.”

Astronomer Cathleen’s behind me in line.  “It is, Sy, but only in photographs using visible sunlight.  These are infrared images, right, Al?”

“Yeah, from … lemme look at the caption … Juno‘s JIRAM instrument.”

“Right, the infrared mapper.  It sees heat-generated light that comes from inside Jupiter.  It’s the same principle as using blackbody radiation to take a star’s temperature, but here we’re looking at a planet.  Jupiter’s way colder than a star so the wavelengths are longer, but on the other hand it’s close-up so we don’t have to reckon with relativistic wavelength stretching.  At any rate, infrared wavelengths are too long for our eyes to see but they penetrate clouds of particulate matter like interstellar dust or the frigid clouds of Jupiter.”

Jupiter south pole 1
NASA mosaic view of Jupiter’s south pole by visible light

“So this red hell isn’t what the poles actually look like?”

“No, Al,  the visible light colors are in the tops of clouds and they’re all blues and white.  These infrared images show us temperature variation within the clouds.  Come to think of it, that Hell’s frozen over — if I recall correctly, the temperature range in those clouds runs from about –10°C to –80°C.  In Fahrenheit that’d be from near zero to crazy cold.”

“Those aren’t just photographs in Al’s poster?”

“Oh, no, Sy, there’s a lot of computer processing in between Juno‘s wavelength numbers and what the public sees.  The first step is to recode all the infrared wavelengths to visible colors.  In that north pole image I’d say that they coded red-to-black as warm down to white as cool.  The south pole image looks like warmest is yellow-to-white, coolest is red.”

“How’d you figure that?”

“The programs fake the apparent heights.  The warmest areas are where we can see most deeply into the atmosphere, which would be at the center or edge of a vortex.  The cooler areas would be upper-level material.  The techs use that logic to generate the perspective projection that we interpret as a 3-D view.”

Vinnie’s behind us in line and getting impatient.  “I suppose there’s Science in those pretty pictures?”

“Tons of it, and a few mysteries.  JIRAM by itself is telling the researchers a lot about where and how much water and other small molecules reside in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  But Juno has eight other sensors.  Scientists expect to harvest important information from each of them.  Correlations between the data streams will give us exponentially more.”

He’s still antsy.  “Such as?”

“Like how Jupiter’s off-axis magnetic field is related to its lumpy gravitational field.  When we figure that out we’ll know a lot more about how Jupiter works, and that’ll help us understand Saturn and gas-giant exoplanets.”GRS core

Al breaks in.  “What about the mysteries, Cathleen?”

“Those storms, for instance.  They look like Earth-style hurricanes, driven by upwelling warm air.  They even go in the right direction.  But why are they crammed together so and how can they stay stable like that?  Adjacent gears have to rotate in opposite directions, but these guys all go in the same direction.  I can’t imagine what the winds between them must be like.”

“And how come there’s eight in the north pole ring but only five at the other pole?”

“Who knows, Vinnie?  The only guess I have is that Jupiter’s so big that one end doesn’t know what the other end’s doing.”

“Someone’s gonna have to do better than that.”

“Give ’em time.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Symphony for Rubber Ruler

“But Mr Moire, first Vera Rubin shows that galaxies don’t spread out like sand grains on a beach…”

“That’s right, Maria.”

“And then she shows that galaxy streams flow like rivers through the Universe…”


“And then she finds evidence for dark matter!  She changed how we see the Universe and still they don’t give her the Nobel Prize??!?”

“All true, but there’s a place on Mars that’s named for her and it’ll be famous forever.”

“Really?  I didn’t know about that.  Where is it and why did they give it her name?”

“What do you know about dark matter?”

Rubin inspecting dark matter“Not much.  We can’t see it, and they say there is much more of it than the matter we can see.  If we can’t see it, how did she find it?  That’s a thing I don’t understand, what I came to your office to ask.”

“It all has to do with gravity.  Rubin’s studies of dozens of galaxies showed that they really shouldn’t exist, at least on the basis of the physics we knew about at the time.  She’d scan across a galaxy’s image, measuring how its red-shifted spectrum changed from the coming-toward-us side to the going-away-from-us side.  The red-shift translates to velocity.  The variation she found amazed the people she showed it to.”Pinwheel Galaxy NGC 5457 reduced

“What was amazing about it?”

“It was a flat line.  Look at the galaxy poster on my wall over there.”

“Oh, la galaxia del Molinete.  It’s one of my favorites.”

“We call it the Pinwheel Galaxy.  Where would you expect the stars to be moving fastest?”

“Near the center, of course, and they must move slower in those trailing arms.”

“That’s exactly what Rubin didn’t find.  From a couple of reasonable assumptions you can show that a star’s speed in a rotating galaxy composed only of other stars should be proportional to 1/√R, where R is its distance from the center.  If you pick two stars, one twice as far out as the other, you’d expect the outermost star to be going 1/√2 or only about 70% as fast as the other one.”

“And she found…?”

“Both stars have the same speed.”

“Truly the same?”

“Yes!  It gets better.  Most galaxies are embedded in a ball of neutral hydrogen atoms.  With a different spectroscopic technique Rubin showed that each hydrogen ball around her galaxies rotates at the same speed its galaxy does,  even 50% further out than the outermost stars.  Everything away from the center is traveling faster than it should be if gravity from the stars and gas were the only thing holding the galaxy together.  Her galaxies should have dispersed long ago.”

“Could electrical charge be holding things together?”

“Good idea — electromagnetic forces can be stronger than gravity.  But not here.  Suppose the galaxy has negative charge at its center and the stars are all positive.  That’d draw the stars inward, sure, but star-to-star repulsion would push them apart.  Supposing that neighboring stars have opposite charges doesn’t work, either.  And neutral hydrogen atoms don’t care about charge, anyway.  The only way Rubin and her co-workers could make the galaxy be stable is to assume it’s surrounded by an invisible spherical halo with ten times as much mass as the matter they could account for.”

“Mass that doesn’t shine.  She found ‘dark matter’ with gravity!”


“What about planets and dust?  Couldn’t they add up to the missing mass?”

“Nowhere near enough.  In out Solar System, for instance, all the planets add up to only 0.1% of the Sun’s mass.”

“Ah, ‘planets’ reminds me.  Why is Vera Rubin’s name on Mars?”

“Well, it’s not strictly speaking on Mars, yet, but it’s on our maps of Mars.  You know the Curiosity rover we have running around up there?”

“Oh yes, it’s looking for minerals that deposit from water.”

“Mm-hm.  One of those minerals is an iron oxide called hematite.  Sometimes it’s in volcanic lava but most of the time it’s laid down in a watery environment.  And get this — it’s often black or dark gray.  Curiosity found a whole hill of the stuff.”

Vera Rubin Ridge labeled
Adopted from a Curiosity Mastcam image from NASA

“Yes, so…?”

“What else would the researchers name an important geologic feature made of darkish matter?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Quartetto for Rubber Ruler

Suddenly Al’s standing at our table.  “Hey guys, I heard you talking about spectroscopy and stuff and figured you could maybe ‘splain something I read.  Here’s some scones and I brought a fresh pot of coffee..”

“Thanks, Al.  What’s the something?  I’m sure Cathleen can ‘splain.”


“It’s this article talking about some scientists going down to Australia to use really old light to look for younger light and it’s got something to do with dark matter and I’m confused.”

“You’re talking about the EDGES project, right?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they said ‘EDGES’ in the article.”

“OK, first we need some background on the background, that really old light you mentioned.  The Cosmic Microwave Background is the oldest light in the Universe, photons struggling out of the white-hot plasma fog that dominated most of the first 377,000 years after the Big Bang.”

“Wait a minute, ‘plasma fog’?”

“Mm-hm.  In those early years the Universe was all free electrons and nuclei colliding with photons and each other.  No photon could travel more than a few centimeters before being blocked by some charged particle.  The Universe had to expand and cool down to 4,000K or so before electrons and nuclei could hold together as atoms and the fog could lift.”

“Cathleen showed me an intensity-frequency plot for those suddenly-free photons.  It was a virtually perfect blackbody curve, identical within a couple parts per million everywhere in the sky.  The thing is, the curve corresponds to a temperature of only 2.73K.  Its peak is in the microwave region, hence the CMB moniker, nestled in between far infrared and HF radio.”

“I thought she said that the fog lifted at 4,000K, Sy.  That’s a lot different from 2-whatever.”

Wavelength-stretching, Vinnie, remember?  Universe expansion stretches the photon waves we measure temperatures with, the further the longer just like Hubble said.  The CMB’s the oldest light in the Universe, coming to us from 13.4 billion lightyears away.  The stretch factor is about 1100.”

“Vinnie, that 2.7K blackbody radiation is the background to the story.  Think of it as a spherical shell around the part of the Universe we can see.  There are younger layers inside that shell and older layers beyond it.”

“What could be outside the Universe, Cathleen?”

“Hey, Al, I carefully said, ‘the part of the Universe we can see.’  I’m quite sure that the Universe extends beyond the spatial volume we have access to, but light from out there hasn’t had a chance to get to us yet.  Going outward from our CMB sphere there’s that 337,000-year-deep shell of electron-nucleus fog.  Beyond that, 47,000 years-worth of quark soup and worse, out to the Big Bang itself.  Coming inward from the CMB we see all the things we know of that have to do with atoms.”

“Like galaxies?”

“Well, not immediately, they took a billion years to build up.  First we had to get through the Dark Ages when there weren’t any photons in the visible light range.  We had huge clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms but virtually all of them were in the ground state.  The CMB photons running around were too low-energy to get any chemistry going, much less nuclear processes.  The Universe was dark and cooling until gravitational attraction made clumps of gas dense enough to light up and become stars.  That’s when things got going.”

“How’d that make a difference?”Blackbody spectrum with notch

“A ground state hydrogen atom’s lowest available empty energy level is way above what a CMB photon could supply.  Those Dark Age atoms were essentially transparent to the prevailing electromagnetic radiation.  But when starlight came along it excited some atoms so that they could also absorb CMB light.  See the notch on the long-wavelength side of this blackbody curve?  It marks the shadow of starlit hydrogen clouds against the CMB’s glow.  The notch wavelength indicates when the absorption started.  Its position suggests that some stars lit up as early as 180 million years after the Big Bang.”

“Suggests, huh?”

“Mm-hm.  There are other interpretations.  That’s where the fun comes in, both on the theory side and the get-more-data side.  Like looking at different times.”

“Different times?”

“Every wavelength represents a different stretch factor and a different depth into the past.”

~~ Rich Olcott