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

The Prints of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come again?”

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

“Negative mass?”

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

“How about black holes and rogue planets?”

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

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

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

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

The Bullet Cluster ( 1E 0657-56 )

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

“You said three.”

“Gotcha hooked, huh?

~~ Rich Olcott

A Force-to-Force Meeting

The Crazy Theory contest is still going strong in the back room at Al’s coffee shop. I gather from the score board scribbles that Jim’s Mars idea (one mark-up says “2 possible 2 B crazy!“) is way behind Amanda’s “green blood” theory.  There’s some milling about, then a guy next to me says, “I got this, hold my coffee,” and steps up to the mic.  Big fellow, don’t recognize him but some of the Physics students do — “Hey, it’s Cap’n Mike at the mic.  Whatcha got for us this time?”

“I got the absence of a theory, how’s that?  It’s about the Four Forces.”

Someone in the crowd yells out, “Charm, Persuasiveness, Chaos and Bloody-mindedness.”

“Nah, Jennie, that’s Terry Pratchett’s Theory of Historical Narrative.  We’re doing Physics here.  The right answer is Weak and Strong Nuclear Forces, Electromagnetism, and Gravity, with me?  Question is, how do they compare?”

Another voice from the crowd. “Depends on distance!”

“Well yeah, but let’s look at cases.  Weak Nuclear Force first.  It works on the quarks that form massive particles like protons.  It’s a really short-range force because it depends on force-carrier particles that have very short lifetimes.  If a Weak Force carrier leaves its home particle even at the speed of light which they’re way too heavy to do, it can only fly a small fraction of a proton radius before it expires without affecting anything.  So, ineffective anywhere outside a massive particle.”

It’s a raucous crowd.  “How about the Strong Force, Mike?”

.  <chorus of “HOO-wah!”>

“Semper fi that.  OK, the carriers of the Strong Force —”

.  <“Naa-VY!  Naaa-VY!”>

.  <“Hush up, guys, let him finish.”>

“Thanks, Amanda.  The Strong Force carriers have no mass so they fly at lightspeed, but the force itself is short range, falls off rapidly beyond the nuclear radius.  It keeps each trio of quarks inside their own proton or neutron.  And it’s powerful enough to corral positively-charged particles within the nucleus.  That means it’s way stronger inside the nucleus than the Electromagnetic force that pushes positive charges away from each other.”

“How about outside the nucleus?”

“Out there it’s much weaker than Electromagnetism’s photons that go flying about —”

.  <“Air Force!”>

.  <“You guys!”>

“As I was saying…  OK, the Electromagnetic Force is like the nuclear forces because it’s carried by particles and quantum mechanics applies.  But it’s different from the nuclear forces because of its inverse-square distance dependence.  Its range is infinite if you’re willing to wait a while to sense it because light has finite speed.  The really different force is the fourth one, Gravity —”

.  <“Yo Army!  Ground-pounders rock!”>

“I was expecting that.  In some ways Gravity’s like Electromagnetism.  It travels at the same speed and has the same inverse-square distance law.  But at any given distance, Gravity’s a factor of 1038 punier and we’ve never been able to detect a force-carrier for it.  Worse, a century of math work hasn’t been able to forge an acceptable connection between the really good Relativity theory we have for Gravity and the really good Standard Model we have for the other three forces.  So here’s my Crazy Theory Number One — maybe there is no connection.”

.  <sudden dead silence>

“All the theory work I’ve seen — string theory, whatever — assumes that Gravity is somehow subject to quantum-based laws of some sort and our challenge is to tie Gravity’s quanta to the rules that govern the Standard Model.  That’s the way we’d like the Universe to work, but is there any firm evidence that Gravity actually is quantized?”

.  <more silence>

“Right.  So now for my Even Crazier Theories.  Maybe there’s a Fifth Force, also non-quantized, even weaker than Gravity, and not bound by the speed of light.  Something like that could explain entanglement and solve Einstein’s Bubble problem.”

.  <even more silence>

“OK, I’ll get crazier.  Many of us have had what I’ll call spooky experiences that known Physics can’t explain.  Maybe stupid-good gambling luck or ‘just knowing’ when someone died, stuff like that.  Maybe we’re using the Fifth Force in action.”

.  <complete pandemonium>
four forces plus 1

~ Rich Olcott

Note to my readers with connections to the US National Guard, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine and/or Public Health Service — Yeah, I know, but one can only stretch a metaphor so far.

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

Bigger than you’d think

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

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

“Didn’t realize you’re gangsta fan.”

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

“Oh?  What did they say about it?”

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

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

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

“Hey, Jennie, why are they so tiny?”

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

“I would?”

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

“That worked well, did it?”

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

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

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

“But how small?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

“That may be part of it, Al.”

“But how do you steer IceCube?”

~~ Rich Olcott

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

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

Gravity from Another Perspective

“OK, we’re looking at that robot next to the black hole and he looks smaller to us because of space compression down there.  I get that.  But when the robot looks back at us do we look bigger?”

We’re walking off a couple of Eddie’s large pizzas.  “Sorry, Mr Feder, it’s not that simple.  Multiple effects are in play but only two are magnifiers.”

“What isn’t?”

“Perspective for one.  That works the same in both directions — the image of an object shrinks in direct proportion to how far away it is.  Relativity has nothing to do with that principle.”

“That makes sense, but we’re talking black holes.  What does relativity do?”

“Several things, but it’s complicated.”

“Of course it is.”

“OK, you know the difference between General and Special Relativity?”

“Yeah, right, we learned that in kindergarten.  C’mon.”

“Well, the short story is that General Relativity effects depend on where you are and Special Relativity effects depend on how fast you’re going.  GR says that the scale of space is compressed near a massive object.  That’s the effect that makes our survey robot appear to shrink as it approaches a black hole.  GR leaves the scale of our space larger than the robot’s.  Robot looks back at us, factors out the effect of perspective, and reports that we appear to have grown.  But there’s the color thing, too.”

“Color thing?”

“Think about two photons, say 700-nanometer red light, emitted by some star on the other side of our black hole.  One photon slides past it.  We detect that one as red light.  The other photon hits our robot’s photosensor down in the gravity well.  What color does the robot see?”

“It’s not red, ’cause otherwise you wouldn’t’ve asked me the question.”


“Robot’s down there where space is compressed…  Does the lightwave get compressed, too?”

“Yup.  It’s called gravitational blue shift.  Like anything else, a photon heading towards a massive object loses gravitational potential energy.  Rocks and such make up for that loss by speeding up and gaining kinetic energy.  Light’s already at the speed limit so to keep the accounts balanced the photon’s own energy increases — its wavelength gets shorter and the color shifts blue-ward.  Depending on where the robot is, that once-red photon could look green or blue or even X-ray-colored.”

“So the robot sees us bigger and blue-ish like.”Robots and perspective and relativity 2“But GR’s not the only player.  Special Relativity’s in there, too.”

“Maybe our robot’s standing still.”

“Can’t, once it gets close enough.  Inside about 1½ diameters there’s no stable orbit around the black hole, and of course inside the event horizon anything not disintegrated will be irresistibly drawn inward at ever-increasing velocity.  Sooner or later, our poor robot is going to be moving at near lightspeed.”

“Which is when Special Relativity gets into the game?”

“Mm-hm.  Suppose we’ve sent in a whole parade of robots and somehow they maintain position in an arc so that they’re all in view of the lead robot.  The leader, we’ll call it RP-73, is deepest in the gravity well and falling just shy of lightspeed.  Gravity’s weaker further out — trailing followers fall slower.  When RP-73 looks back, what will it see?”

“Leaving aside the perspective and GR effects?  I dunno, you tell me.”

“Well, we’ve got another flavor of red-shift/blue-shift.  Speedy RP-73 records a stretched-out version of lightwaves coming from its slower-falling followers, so so it sees their colors shifted towards the red, just the opposite of the GR effect.  Then there’s dimming — the robots in the back are sending out n photons per second but because of the speed difference, their arrival rate at RP-73 is lower.  But the most interesting effect is relativistic aberration.”

“OK, I’ll bite.”

“Start off by having RP-73 look forward.  Going super-fast, it intercepts more oncoming photons than it would standing still.”

“Bet they look blue to it, and really bright.”

“Right on.  In fact, its whole field of view contracts towards its line of flight.  The angular distortion continues all the way around.  Rearward objects appear to swell.”

“So yeah, we’d look bigger.”

“And redder.  If RP-73 is falling fast enough.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Timothy Heyer for the question that inspired this post.

A Perspective on Gravity

“I got another question, Moire.”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.”

“When someone’s far away they look smaller, right, and when someone’s standing near a black hole they look smaller, too.  How’s the black hole any different?”

“The short answer is, perspective depends on the distance between the object and you, but space compression depends on the distance between the object and the space-distorting mass.  The long answer’s more interesting.”

“And you’re gonna tell it to me, right?”

“Of course.  I never let a teachable moment pass by.  Remember the August eclipse?”

“Do I?  I was stuck in that traffic for hours.”

“How’s it work then?”

“The eclipse?  The Moon gets in front of the Sun and puts us in its shadow. ‘S weird how they’re both the same size so we can see the Sun’s corundum and protuberances.”

“Corona and prominences.  Is the Moon really the same size as the Sun?”

“Naw, I know better than that.  Like they said on TV, the Moon’s about ¼ the Earth’s width and the Sun’s about 100 times bigger than us.  It’s just they look the same size when they meet up.”

“So the diameter ratio is about 400-to-1.  Off the top of your head, do you know their distances from us?”

“Millions of miles, right?”

“Not so much, at least for the Moon.  It’s a bit less than ¼ of a million miles away.  The Sun’s a bit less than 100 million miles away.”

“I see where you’re going here — the distances are the same 400-to-1 ratio.”

“Bingo.  The Moon’s actual size is 400 times smaller than the Sun’s, but perspective reduces the Sun’s visual size by the same ratio and we can enjoy eclipses.  Let’s try another one.  To keep the arithmetic simple I’m going to call that almost-100-million-mile distance an Astronomical Unit.  OK?”

“No problemo.”

“Jupiter’s diameter is about 10% of the Sun’s, and Jupiter is about 5 AUs away from the Sun.  How far behind Jupiter would we have to stand to get a nice eclipse?”

“Oh, you’re making me work, too, huh?  OK, I gotta shrink the Sun by a factor of 10 to match the size of Jupiter so we gotta pull back from Jupiter by the same factor of 10 times its distance from the Sun … fifty of those AUs.”

“You got it.  And by the way, that 55 AU total is just outside the farthest point of Pluto’s orbit.  It took the New Horizons spacecraft nine years to get there.  Anyhow, perspective’s all about simple ratios and proportions, straight lines all the way.  So … on to space compression, which isn’t.”

“We’re not going to do calculus, are we?”

“Nope, just some algebra.  And I’m going to simplify things just a little by saying that our black hole doesn’t spin and has no charge, and the object we’re watching, say a survey robot, is small relative to the black hole’s diameter.  Of course, it’s also completely outside the event horizon or else we couldn’t see it.  With me?”

“I suppose.”

“OK, given all that, suppose the robot’s as-built height is h and it’s a distance r away from the geometric center of an event horizon’s sphere.  The radius of the sphere is rs.  Looking down from our spaceship we’d see the robot’s height h’ as something smaller than h by a factor that depends on r.  There’s a couple of different ways to write the factor.  The formula I like best is h’=h√[(r-rs)/r].”

“Hey, (r-rs) inside the brackets is the robot’s distance to the event horizon.”

“Well-spotted, Mr Feder.  We’re dividing that length by the distance from the event horizon’s geometric center.  If the robot’s far away so that r>>rs, then (r-rs)/r is essentially 1.0 and h’=h.  We and the robot would agree on its height.  But as the robot closes in, that ratio really gets small.  In our frame the robot’s shrinking even though in its frame its height doesn’t change.”

“We’d see it getting smaller because of perspective, too, right?”

“Sure, but toward the end relativity shrinks the robot even faster than perspective does.”

“Poor robot.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Carol, who inspired this post by asking Mr Feder’s question but in more precise form.