A Star’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But that’s a HUGE black hole!”

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

“What about the comet‑tail?”

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

“And when enough gets ripped away…”


~~ Rich Olcott

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

Breaking Up? Not So Hard

<transcript of smartphone dictation by Sy Moire, hard‑boiled physicist>
Day 173 of self‑isolation….
Perfect weather for a brisk solitary walk, taking the park route….
There’s the geese. No sign of Mr Feder, just as well….

Still thinking about Ms Baird and her plan for generating electric power from a black hole named Lonesome….
Can just hear Vinnie if I ever told him about this which I can’t….
“Hey, Sy, nothin’ gets out of a black hole except gravity, but she’s using Lonesome‘s magnetic field to generate electricity which is electromagnetic. How’s that happen?”
Good question….

Hhmph, that’s one angry squirrel….
Ah, a couple of crows pecking the ground under its tree. Maybe they’re too close to its acorn stash….

We know a black hole’s only measurable properties are its mass, charge and spin….
And maybe its temperature, thanks to Stephen Hawking….
Its charge is static — hah! cute pun — wouldn’t support continuous electrical generation….
The Event Horizon hides everything inside — we can’t tell if charge moves around in there or even if it’s matter or anti‑matter or something else….
The no‑hair theorem says there’s no landmarks or anything sticking out of the Event Horizon so how do we know the thing’s even spinning?

Ah, we know a black hole’s external structures — the jets, the Ergosphere belt and the accretion disk — rotate because we see red- and blue-shifted radiation from them….
The Ergosphere rotates in lockstep with Lonesome‘s contents because of gravitational frame-dragging….
Probably the disk and the jets do, too, but that’s only a strong maybe….
But why should the Ergosphere’s rotation generate a magnetic field?

How about Newt Barnes’ double‑wheel idea — a belt of charged light‑weight particles inside a belt of opposite‑charged heavy particles all embedded in the Ergosphere and orbiting at the black hole’s spin rate….
Could such a thing exist? Can simple particle collisions really split the charges apart like that?….

OK, fun problem for strolling mental arithmetic. Astronomical “dust” particles are about the size of smoke particles and those are about a micrometer across which is 10‑6 meter so the volume’s about (10‑6)3=10‑18 cubic meter and the density’s sorta close to water at 1 gram per cubic centimeter or a thousand kilograms per cubic meter so the particle mass is about 10‑18×103=10‑15 kilogram. If a that‑size particle collided with something and released just enough kinetic energy to knock off an electron, how fast was it going?

Ionization energy for a hydrogen atom is 13 electronvolts, so let’s go for a collision energy of at least 10 eV. Good old kinetic energy formula is E=½mv² but that’s got to be in joules if we want a speed in meters per second so 10 eV is, lemme think, about 2×10‑18 joules/particle. So is 2×2×10‑18/10‑15 which is 4×10‑3 or 40×10‑4, square root of 40 is about 6, so v is about 6×10‑2 or 0.06 meters per second. How’s that compare with typical speeds near Lonesome?

Ms Baird said that Lonesome‘s mass is 1.5 Solar masses and it’s isolated from external gravity and electromagnetic fields. So anything near it is in orbit and we can use the circular orbit formula v²=GM/r….
Dang, don’t remember values for G or M. Have to cheat and look up the Sun’s GM product on Old Reliable….
Ah-hah, 1.3×1020 meters³/second so Lonesome‘s is also near 1020….
A solar‑mass black hole’s half‑diameter is about 3 kilometers so Lonesome‘s would be about 5×103 meters. Say we’re orbiting at twice that so r‘s around 104 meters. Put it together we get v2=1020/104=1016 so v=108 meters/sec….
Everything’s going a billion times faster than 10 eV….
So yeah, no problem getting charged dust particles out there next to Lonesome….

Just look at the color in that tree…
Weird when you think about it. The really good color is summertime chlorophyll green when the trees are soaking up sunlight and turning CO2 into oxygen for us but people get excited about dying leaves that are red or yellow…

Well, now. Lonesome‘s Event Horizon is the no-going-back point on the way to its central singularity which we call infinity because its physics are beyond anything we know. I’ve just closed out another decade of my life, another Event Horizon on my own one‑way path to a singularity…

Hey! Mr Feder! Come ask me a question to get me out of this mood.

Author’s note — Yes, ambient radiation in Lonesome‘s immediate vicinity probably would account for far more ionization than physical impact, but this was a nice exercise in estimation and playing with exponents and applied physical principles.

~~ Rich Olcott

Engineering A Black Hole

<bomPAH-dadadadaDEEdah> That weird ringtone on Old Reliable again. Sure enough, the phone function’s caller-ID display says 710‑555‑1701.  “Ms Baird, I presume?”

A computerish voice, aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation. “Commander Baird will be with you shortly, Mr Moire. Please hold.”

A moment later, “Hello, Mr Moire.”

“Ms Baird. Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Thank you, Mr Moire. I owe you for that.”

“How so?”

“Your posts about phase-based weaponry got me thinking. I assembled a team, we demonstrated a proof of concept and now Federation ships are being equipped with the Baird‑Prymaat ShieldSaw. Works a treat on Klingon and Romulan shielding. So thank you.”

“My pleasure. Where are you now?”

“I’m on a research ship called the Invigilator. We’re orbiting black hole number 77203 in our catalog. We call it ‘Lonesome‘.”

“Why that name?”

“Because there’s so little other matter in the space nearby. The poor thing barely has an accretion disk.”

“Sounds boring.”

“No, it’s exciting, because it’s so close to a theoretical ideal. It’s like the perfectly flat plane and the frictionless pulley — in real life there are always irregularities that the simple equations can’t account for. For black holes, our only complete solutions assume that the collapsed star is floating in an empty Universe with no impinging gravitational or electromagnetic fields. That doesn’t happen, of course, but Lonesome comes close.”

“But if we understand the theoretical cases and it nearly matches one, why bother with it at all?”

“Engineering reasons.”

“You’re engineering a black hole?”

“In a way, yes. Or at least that’s what we’re working on. We think we have a way to extract power from a black hole. It’ll supply inexhaustible cheap energy for a new Star Fleet anti‑matter factory. “

“I thought the only thing that could escape a black hole’s Event Horizon was Hawking radiation, and it cheats.”

“Gravity escapes honestly. Its intense field generates some unexpected effects. Your physicist Roger Penrose used gravity to explain the polar jets that decorate so many compact objects including black holes. He calculated that if a comet or an atom or something else breakable shatters when it falls into a spinning compact object’s gravitational field, some pieces would be trapped there but under the right conditions other pieces would slingshot outward with more energy than they had going in. In effect, the extra energy would come from the compact object’s angular momentum.”

“And that’s what you’re planning to do? How are you going to trap the expelled pieces?”

“No, that’s not what we’re planning. Too random to be controlled with our current containment field technology. We’re going pure electromagnetic, turning Lonesome into a giant motor‑generator. We know it has a stable magnetic field and it’s spinning rapidly. We’ll start by giving Lonesome some close company. There’s enough junk in its accretion disk for several Neptune‑sized planets. The plan is to use space tugs to haul in the big stuff and Bussard technology for the dust, all to assemble a pair of Ceres-sized planetoids. W’re calling them Pine and Road. We’ll park them in a convenient equatorial orbit in a Lagrange‑stable configuration so Pine, Road and Lonesome stay in a straight line.”

“Someone’s been doing research on old cinema.”

“The Interstellar Movie Database. Anyhow, when the planetoids are out there we string conducting tractor beams between them. If we locate Pine and Road properly, Lonesome’s rotating magnetic field lines will cross the fields at right angles and induce a steady electric current. Power for the anti‑matter synthesizers.”

“Ah, so like Penrose’s process you’re going to drain off some of Lonesome‘s rotational kinetic energy. Won’t it run out?”

Lonesome‘s mass is half again heavier than your Sun’s, Mr Moire. It’ll spin for a long, long time.”

“Umm … that ‘convenient orbit.’ Lonesome‘s diameter is so small that orbits will be pretty speedy. <calculating quickly with Old Reliable> Even 200 million kilometers away you’d circle Lonesome in less than 15 minutes. Will the magnetic field that far out be strong enough for your purposes?”

“Almost certainly so, but the gravimagnetodynamic equations don’t have exact solutions. We’re not going to know until we get there.”

“That’s how research works, all right. Good luck.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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

Dark Horizon

Charlie's table sign says "Dark Energy is bogus"

Change-me Charlie attacks his sign with a rag and a marker, rubbing out “Matter” and writing in “Energy.” Turns out his sign is a roll-up dry-erase display and he can update it on site. Cool. I guess with his rotating-topic strategy he needs that. “OK, maybe dark matter’s a thing, but dark energy ain’t. No evidence, someone just made that one up to get famous!”

And of course Physicist-in-training Newt comes back at him. “Lots of evidence. You know about the Universe expanding?”

“Prove it.” At least he’s consistent.

<sigh> “You know how no two snowflakes are exactly alike but they can come close? It applies to stars, too. Stars are fairly simple in a complicated way. If you tell me a star’s mass, age and how much iron it has, I can do a pretty good job of computing how bright it is, how hot it is, its past and future life history, all sort of things. As many stars as there are, we’re pretty much guaranteed that there’s a bunch of them with very similar fundamentals.”


“So when a star undergoes a major change like becoming a white dwarf or a neutron star or switching from hydrogen fusion to burning something else, any other star that has the same fundamentals will behave pretty much the same way. They’d all flare with about the same luminosity, pulsate with about the same frequency —”

“Wait. Pulsate?”

“Yeah. You’ve seen campfires where one bit of flame coming out of a hotspot flares up and dies back and flares up and dies back and you get this pulsation —”

“Yeah. I figured that happens with a sappy log where the heat gasifies a little sap then the spot cools off when outside air gets pulled in then the cycle goes again.”

“That could be how it works, depending. Anyhow, a star in the verge of mode change can go through the same kind of process — burn one kind of atom in the core until heat expansion pushes fuel up out of the fusion zone; that cools things down until fuel floods back in and off we go again. The point is, that kind of behavior isn’t unique to a single star. We’ve known about variable stars for two centuries, but it wasn’t until 1908 that Henrietta Swan Leavitt told us how to determine a particular kind of variable star’s luminosity from its pulsation frequency.”

“Who cares?”

“Edwin Hubble cared. Brightness dies off with the distance squared. If you compare the star’s intrinsic luminosity with how bright the star appears here on Earth, it’s simple to calculate how far away the star is. Hubble did that for a couple dozen galaxies and showed they had to be far outside the Milky Way. He plotted red-shift velocity data against those distances and found that the farther away a galaxy is from us, the faster it’s flying away even further.”

“A couple dozen galaxies ain’t much.”

“That was for starters. Since the 1930s we’ve built a whole series of ‘standard candles,’ different kinds of objects whose luminosities we can convert to distances out to 400 million lightyears. They all agree that the Universe is expanding.”

“Well, you gotta expect that, everything going ballistic from the Big Bang.”

“They don’t go the steady speed you’re thinking. As we got better at making really long-distance measurements, we learned that the expansion is accelerating.”

“Wait. I remember my high-school physics. If there’s an acceleration, there’s gotta be a force pushing it. Especially if it’s fighting the force of gravity.”

“Well there you go. Energy is force times distance and you’ve just identified dark energy. But standard candles aren’t the only kind of evidence.”

“There’s more?”

“Sure — ‘standard sirens‘ and ‘standard rulers.’ The sirens are events that generate gravitational waves we pick up with LIGO facilities. The shape and amplitude of the LIGO signals tell us how far away the source was — and that information is completely immune to electromagnetic distortions.”

“And the rulers?”

“They’re objects, like spiral galaxies and intergalactic voids, that we have independent methods for connecting apparent size to distance.”

“And the candles and rulers and sirens all agree that acceleration and dark energy are real?”


~~ Rich Olcott

Dancing in The Dark

Change-me Charlie at his argument table

The impromptu seminar at Change-me Charlie’s “Change My Mind” table is still going strong, but it looks like Physicist-in-training Newt and Astronomer-in-training Jim have met his challenge. He’s switched from arguing that dark matter doesn’t exist to asking how it worked in the Bullet Cluster’s massive collision between two collections of galaxies with their clouds of plasma and dark matter. “OK, the individual galaxies are so spread out they slide past each other without slowing down but the plasma clouds obstruct each other by friction. Wouldn’t friction in the dark matter hold things back, too?”

Jim’s still standing in front of the table. “Now that’s an interesting question, so interesting that research groups have burned a bazillion computer cycles trying to answer it.”

“Interesting, yes, but that interesting?”

“For sure. What we know about dark matter is mostly what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t give off light, it doesn’t absorb light, it doesn’t seem to participate in the strong or weak nuclear forces or interact with normal matter by any means other than gravity, and no identifiable dark matter particles have been detected by bleeding-edge experiments like IceCube and the Large Hadron Collider. So people wonder, does dark matter even interact with itself? If we could answer that question one way or the other, that ought to tell us something about what dark matter is.”

“How’re we gonna do that?”

Newt’s still perched on Charlie’s oppo chair. “By using computers and every theory tool on the shelf to run what-if? simulations. From what we can tell, nearly everywhere in the Universe normal matter is embedded in a shell of dark matter. The Bullet Cluster and a few other objects out there appear to break that rule and give us a wonderful check on the theory work.”

The Bullet Cluster, 1E 0657-56 (NASA image)

“Like for instance.”

“Simple case. What would the collision would looked like if dark matter wasn’t involved? Some researchers built a simulation program and loaded it with a million pretend plasma particles in two cluster-sized regions moving towards each other from 13 million pretend lightyears apart. They also loaded in position and momentum data for the other stars and galaxies shown in the NASA image. The simulation tracked them all as pretend-time marched along stepwise. At each time-step the program applied known or assumed laws of physics to compute every object’s new pretend position and momentum since the prior step. Whenever two pretend-particles entered the same small region of pretend-space, the program calculated a pretend probability for their collision. The program’s output video marked each successful collision with a pink pixel so pinkness means proton-electron plasma. Here’s the video for this simulation.”

“Doesn’t look much like the NASA picture. The gas just spreads out, no arc or cone to the sides.”

“Sure not, which rules out virtually all models that don’t include dark matter. So now the team went to a more complicated model. They added a million dark matter particles that they positioned to match the observed excess gravity distribution. Those’re marked with blue pixels in the videos. Dark matter particles in the model were allowed to scatter each other, too, under control of a self-interaction parameter. The researchers ran the simulations with a whole range of parameter values, from no-friction zero up to about twice what other studies have estimated. Here’s the too-much case.”

“Things hold together better with all that additional gravity, but it’s not a good match either.”

“Right, and here’s the other end of the range — no friction between dark matter particles. Robertson, the video’s author/director, paused the simulation in the middle to insert NASA’s original image so we could compare.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“It’s not a perfect match. Here’s an image I created by subtracting a just-after-impact simulation frame from the NASA image, then amplifying the red. There’s too much left-over plasma at the outskirts, suggesting that maybe no-friction overstates the case and maybe dark matter particles interact, very slightly, beyond what a pure-gravity theory predicts.”

“Wait, if the particles don’t use gravity, electromagnetism or the nuclear forces on each other, maybe there’s a fifth force!”

“New Physics!”

A roar from Cap’n Mike — “Or they’re not particles!”

~~ Rich Olcott

Dark Passage

Change-me Charlie’s not giving up easily. “You said that NASA picture did three things, but you only told us two of them — that dark matter’s a thing and that it’s separate from normal matter. What’s the third thing? What exactly is in that picture? Does it tell us what dark matter is?”

The Bullet Cluster ( 1E 0657-56 )

Physicist-in-training Newt’s ready for him. “Not much of a clue about what dark matter is, but a good clue about how it behaves. As to what’s in the picture, we need some background information first.”

“Go ahead, it’s not dinner-time yet.”

“First, this isn’t two stars colliding. It’s not even two galaxies. It’s two clusters of galaxies, about 40 all together. The big one on the left probably has the mass of a couple quintillion Suns, the small one about 10% of that.”

“That’s a lot of stars.”

“Oh, most of it’s definitely not stars. Maybe only 1-2%. Those stars and the galaxies they form are embedded in ginormous clouds of proton-electron plasma that make up 5-20% of the mass. The rest is that dark matter you don’t like.”

“Quadrillions of stars are gonna make a super-super-nova when they collide!”

“Well, no. That doesn’t even happen when two galaxies collide. The average distance between neighboring stars in a galaxy is 200-300 times the diameter of a star so it’s unlikely that any two of them will come even close. Next level up, the average distance between galaxies in a cluster is about 60 galaxy diameters or more, depending. The galaxies will mostly just slide past each other. The real colliders are the spread-out stuff — the plasma clouds and of course the dark matter, whatever that is.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim cuts in. “Anyway, the collision has already happened. The light from this configuration took 3.7 billion years to reach us. The collision itself was longer ago than that because the bullet’s already passed through the big guy. From that scale-bar in the bottom corner I’d say the centers are about 2 parsecs apart. If I recall right, their relative velocity is about 3000 kilometers per second so…” <poking at his smartphone> “…the peak intersection was about 700 million years earlier than that. Call it 4.3 billion years ago.”

“So what’s with the cotton candy?”

Newt looks puzzled. “Cotton… oh, the pink pixels. They’re markers for where NASA’s Chandra telescope saw X-rays coming from.”

“What can make X-rays so far from star radiation that could set them going?”

“The electrons do it themselves. An electron emits radiation every time it collides with another charged particle and changes direction. When two plasma clouds interpenetrate you get twice as many particles per unit volume and four times the collision rate so the radiation intensity quadruples. There’s always some X-radiation in the plasma because the temperature in there is about 8400 K and particle collisions are really violent. The Chandra signal pink shows the excess over background.”

“The blue in the Jim’s picture is supposed to be what, extra gravity?”

“Basically, yeah. It’s not easy to see from the figure, but there are systematic distortions in the images of the background galaxies in the blue areas. Disks and ellipsoids appear to be bent, depending on where they sit relative to the clusters’ centers of mass. The researchers used Einstein’s equations and lots of computer time to work back from the distortions to the lensing mass distributions.”

“So what we’ve got is a mostly-not-from-stars gravity lump to the left, another one to the right, and a big cloud in the middle with high-density hot bits on its two sides. Something in the middle blew up and spread gas around mostly in the direction of those two clusters. What’s that tell us?”

“Sorry, that’s not what happened. If there’d been a central explosion the excess to the right would be arc-shaped, not a cone like you see. No, this really is the record of one galaxy cluster bursting through another one. Particle-particle friction within the plasma clouds held them back while the embedded galaxies and dark matter moved on.”

“OK, the galaxies aren’t close-set enough for them to slow each other down, but wouldn’t friction in the dark matter hold things back, too?”

“Now that’s an interesting question…”

~~ Rich Olcott