Time Is Where You Find It

A familiar footstep in the hall outside my office, “C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“Got a few minutes, Sy?”

More than just “a minute.” This sounds serious so I push my keyboard aside. “Sure, what’s up?”

“I’ve been thinking about different things, putting ’em together different ways. I came up with something, sorta, that I wanted to run past you before I brought it to one of Cathleen’s ‘Crazy Theories‘ parties.”

“Why, Vinnie, you’re being downright diffident. Spill it.”

“Well, it’s all fuzzy. First part goes way back to years ago when you wrote that there’s zero time between when a photon gets created and when it gets used up. But that means that create and use-up are simultaneous and that goes against Einstein’s ‘No simultaneity‘ thing which I wonder if you couldn’t get around it using time tick signals to sync up two space clocks.”

“That’s quite a mix and I see why you say it’s fuzzy. Would you be surprised if I used the word ‘frame‘ while clarifying it?”

“I’ve known you long enough it wouldn’t surprise me. Go ahead.”

“Let’s start with the synchronization idea. You’re not the first to come up with that suggestion. It can work, but only if the two clocks are flying in formation, exactly parallel course and speed.”

“Hah, that goes back to our first talk with the frame thing. You’re saying the clocks have to share the same frame like me and that other pilot.”

“Exactly. If the ships are zooming along in different inertial frames, each will measure time dilation in the other. How much depends on their relative velocities.”

“Wait, that was another conversation. We were pretending we’re in two spaceships like we’re talking about here and your clock ran slower than mine and my clock ran slower than yours which is weird. You explained it with equations but I’ve never been good with equations. You got a diagram?”

“Better than that, I’ve got a video. It flips back and forth between inertial frames for Enterprise and Voyager. We’ll pretend that they sync their clocks at the point where their tracks cross. I drew the Enterprise timeline vertical because Enterprise doesn’t move in space relative to Enterprise. The white dots are the pings it sends out every second. Meanwhile, Voyager is on a different course with its own timeline so its inertial frame is rotated relative to Enterprise‘s. The gray dots on Voyager‘s track show when that ship receives the Enterprise pings. On the Voyager timeline the pings arrive farther apart than they are on the Enterprise timeline so Voyager perceives that Enterprise is falling farther and farther behind.”

“Gimme a sec … so Voyager says Enterprise‘s timer is going slow, huh?”

“That’s it exactly. Now look at the rotated frame. The pink dots show when Voyager sends out its pings. The gray dots on Enterprise‘s track show when the pings arrive.”

“And Enterprise thinks that Voyager‘s clock is slow, just backwards of the other crew. OK, I see you can’t use sync pulses to match up clocks, but it’s still weird.”

“Which is where Lorentz and Minkowski and Einstein come into the picture. Their basic position was that physical events are real and there should be a way to measure them that doesn’t depend on an observer’s frame of reference. Minkowski’s ‘interval‘ metric qualifies. After converting time and location measurements to intervals, both crews would measure identical spacetime separations. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t help with clock synchronization because spacetime mixes time with space.”

“How about the photons?”

“Ah, that’s a misquotation. I didn’t say the time is zero, I said ‘proper time‘ and that’s different. An object’s proper time is measured by its clock in its inertial frame while traveling time t and distance d between two events. Anyone could measure t and d in their inertial frame. Minkowski’s interval is defined as s=[(ct)²‑d²]. Proper time is s/c. Intuitively I think of s/c as light’s travel time after it’s done traversing distance d. In space, photons always travel at lightspeed so their interval and proper time are always zero.”

“Photon create and use-up aren’t simultaneous then.”

“Only to photons.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Why I Never Know What Time It Is

It’s always fun watching Richard Feder (of Fort Lee, NJ) as he puts two and two together. He gets a gleam in his eye and one corner of his mouth twitches. On a good day with the wind behind him I’ve seen his total get as high as 6½. “I wanna get back to that ‘everybody has their own time‘ monkey‑business where if you’re moving fast your clock slows down. What about the stardates on Star Trek? Those guys go zooming through space at all different angles and speeds. How do they keep their calendars in synch?”

Trekkie and Astronomy fan Al takes the bait. “Artistic license, Mr Feder. The writers can make anything happen, subject to budgets and producer approval. The first Star Trek series, they just used random four‑digit numbers for stardates. That was OK because the network aired the episodes in random order anyway so no‑one cared about story arc continuity. Things were more formal on Captain Picard’s Enterprise, as you’d expect — five‑digit stardates, first digit always ‘4‘ for 24th Century, thousands digit was ‘1‘ for season one, ‘2‘ for season two and so on. Working up the other way, the digit right of the decimal point was tenths of a standard day, the units place counted days within an episode and the tens and hundreds they just picked random numbers.”

“I suppose that’s what they did, but how could they make it work? You guys yammer on about time dilation. Say a ship’s running at Warp Whoop‑de‑doo, relativity should slow its calendar to a crawl. You couldn’t get a whole fleet into battle position when some of the ships had to get started years ahead of time. And that’s just the dilation slow-down, travel time’s on top of that.”

“Travel time measured how, Mr Feder, and from where?”

“Well, there you go, Cathleen, that’s what I’m talking about!”

“You know that Arthur C Clarke quote, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic‘? The Enterprise crew’s always communicating with ‘sub‑space radio’, which sure looks like magic to me. They could send sync pulses through there along with chatter. When you drop out of warp space, your clocks catch the pulses and sync up, I suppose.”

“There’s a deeper issue than that, guys.”

“What’s that, Sy?”

“You’re talking like universal time is a thing, which it isn’t. Hasn’t been since Einstein’s Special Relativity used Minkowski’s math to stir space and time together. General Relativity scrambles things even worse, especially close to a strong gravity center. You remember about gravity forcing spacetime to curve, right? The curvature inside a black hole’s event horizon gets so tight that time rotates toward the geometric center. No, I can’t imagine what that looks like, either. The net of it, though, is that a black hole is a funnel into its personal future. Nothing that happens inside one horizon can affect anything inside another one so different holes could even have different time rates. We’ve got something like 25000 or more stellar black holes scattered through the Milky Way, plus that big one in the center, and that’s just one galaxy out of billions. Lots of independent futures out there.”

“What about the past, Sy? I’d think the Big Bang would provide a firm zero for time going forward and it’s been one second per second since then.”

“Nup. Black holes are an extreme case. Any mass slows down time in its vicinity, the closer the slower. That multi‑galaxy gravitational lens that lets us see Earendel? It works because the parts of Earth‑bound light waves closest to the center of mass see more time dilation than the parts farther away and that bends the beam toward our line of sight.”

“Hey, that reminds me of prisms bending light waves.”

“Similar effect, Vinnie, but the geometry’s different. Prisms and conventional lenses change light paths abruptly at their surfaces. Gravitational lenses bend light incrementally along the entire path. Anyhow, time briefly hits light’s brakes wherever it’s near a galaxy cluster, galaxy or anything.”

“So a ship’s clock can fidget depending on what gravity it’s seen recently?”

“Mm-hm. Time does ripples on its ripples. ‘Universal Time‘ is an egregious example of terminology overreach.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Thumbtack in A Needlestack

“What’re the odds?”

“Odds on what, Vinnie?”

“A gazillion galaxies out there, only 41 lensing galaxy clusters, but one of them shows us a singleton star. I mean, what’s special about that star? What are the odds?”

I can’t help it. “Astronomical, Vinnie.”

Cathleen punches my shoulder, hard. “Sy Moire, you be ashamed of yourself. That pun was ancient a century ago. Vinnie, the odds are better than they seem. We didn’t just stumble on Earendel and the Sunrise Arc, we found them in a highly targeted Big Data search for things just like that — objects whose light was extremely stretched and also gravitationally bent in our direction. The Arc’s lensing galaxy cluster has a spherical effect, more or less, so it also acts on light from other far-away objects and sends it in other directions. It even bends an image of our Milky Way towards Earendel’s galaxy.”

“I call weaseling — you used ‘more or less‘.”

“Guilty as charged, Vinnie. A nice, spherical black hole is the simplest case of gravitational lensing — just one mass at the center of its simple light‑bending gravity field. Same thing for a single star like our Sun. Clusters are messy. Tens or hundreds of billion‑star galaxies, scattered at random angles and random positions about their common center of mass. The combined gravity field is lumpy, to say the least. Half of that research paper is devoted to techniques for estimating the field and its effects on light in the region around the Arc.”

“I guess they had to get 3D positions for all the galaxies in the cluster. That’d be a lot of work.”

“It would, Al, but that’s beyond what current technology can do. Instead, they used computer models to do — get this, Sy — curve fitting.”

<chuckle> “Good one, Cathleen.”

“What’s so funny?”

“There’s a well-established scientific technique called ‘curve fitting.’ You graph some data and try to find an equation that does a respectable job of running through or at least near your data points. Newton started it, of course. Putting it in modern terms, he’d plot out some artillery data and say, ‘Hmm, that looks like a parabola H=h+v·t+a·t2. I wonder what values of h, v and a make the H-t curve fit those measurements. Hey, a is always 32 feet per second per second. Cool.’ Or something like that. Anyhow, Cathleen’s joke was that the researchers used curve fitting to fit the Sunrise Arc’s curve, right?”

“They did that, Sy. The underlying physical model, something called ‘caustic optics,’ says that—”

“Caustic like caustic soda? I got burnt by that stuff once.”

Image by Heiner Otterstedt,
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

“That’s the old name for sodium hydroxide, Vinnie. It’s a powerful chemical and yeah, it can give you trouble if you’re not careful. That name and caustic optics both come from the Greek word for burning. The optics term goes back to using a lens as a burning glass. See those focused patterns of light next to your water glass? Each pattern is a caustic. The Arc’s lensing cluster’s like any light‑bender, it’s enclosed in a caustic perimeter. Light passing near the perimeter gets split, the two parts going to either side of the perimeter. The Earendel team’s curve‑fitting project asked, ‘Where must the caustic perimeter be to produce these duplicate galaxy images neighboring the Arc?‘ The model even has that bulge from the gravity of a nearby foreground galaxy.”

“And the star?”

“Earendel seems to be smack on top of the perimeter. Any image touching that special line is intensified way beyond what it ought to be given the source’s distance from us. It’s a pretty bright star to begin with, though. Or maybe two stars.”

“Wait, you don’t know?”

“Not yet. This study pushed the boundaries of what Hubble can do for us. We’re going to need JWST‘s infrared instruments to nail things down.”

Al’s in awe. “Wow — that caustic’s sharp enough to pick one star out of a galaxy.”

“Beat the astronomical odds, huh?”

Adapted from a public-domain image.
Credit: Science: NASA / ESA / Brian Welch (JHU) / Dan Coe (STScI); Image processing: NASA / ESA / Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

~~ Rich Olcott

When The Stars Are Aligned Right

Cathleen and I are chatting when Vinnie bursts into the coffee shop waving a newspaper. “New news, guys, they’ve just announced Hubble spotted the farthest‑away star. How about that? Think what JWST will be able to do!”

Cathleen raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like press release science. What else do they say?”

“Not a whole lot. Lessee… These guys went through old Hubble data and found a piece of an Einstein ring which I don’t know what that is and partway along the ring is a star and somehow they figured out it’s 50 times heavier than the Sun and 12 billion years old and it’s the farthest star they’ve ever seen and that’s why NASA’s all excited.”

“Do you believe all that?”

“Maybe the NASA PR people do?”

“Maybe. I just read the technical paper behind that announcement. The authors themselves aren’t absolutely sure. The paper’s loaded with supporting evidence and ‘how we did it‘ details but it’s also loaded with caveats. The text includes a string of alternative explanations for their observations, winding up with a typical ‘we await further evidence from JWST‘ statement. Reads a lot more like real science. Besides, we’ve already seen more distant stars but they’re all jumbled together inside their very distant galaxies.”

“Unpack it for me. Start with what’s an Einstein ring?”

“It’s a gravitational lensing effect. Sy, does Old Reliable still have a copy of that graphic you did about gravitational lensing?”

“That was years ago. Let me check… Uh‑huh, here it is.”

“Thanks. Vinnie, you know how a prism changes light’s direction.”

“Sy and me, we talked about how a prism bends light when light crosses from air to glass or the other way ’cause of the different speed it goes in each material. Uhh, if I remember right the light bends toward the slower speed, and you get more bend with shorter wavelengths.”

“Bingo, Vinnie. Gravitational lensing also bends light, but the resemblance ends there. The light’s just going through empty space, not different media. What varies is the shape of spacetime itself. Say an object approaches a heavy mass. Because of relativity the space it moves through appears compressed and its time is dilated. Compressed distance divided by dilated time means reduced velocity. Parts of a spread‑out lightwave closest to the mass slow down more than parts further way so the whole wave bends toward the heavy mass. Okay?”

“Hold on. Umm, so in your picture light coming towards us from that galaxy doesn’t get blocked by that black thingy, the light bends around it on both sides and focuses in on us?”

“Exactly. Now carry it further. The diagram cuts a flat 2D slice along round 3D spatial reality. Those yellow lines really are cones. Three‑sixty degrees around the black blob, the galaxy’s light bends by the same amount towards the line between us and the blob. Your Einstein ring is a cut across the cone, assuming that the galaxy, the blob and Earth are all exactly on the same straight line. If the galaxy’s off‑center the picture isn’t as pretty — you only get part of a ring, like those red arcs in Sy’s diagram.”

“A galactic rainbow. That ought to be awesome!”

“Well it would be, but there’s another difference between prisms and blobs. Rainbows happen because prisms and raindrops bend short‑wavelength colors more than longer ones, like you said. Gravitational lensing doesn’t care about wavelength. Wavelengths do shift as light traverses a gravitational well but the outbound red shift cancels the inbound blue shift.. Where gravity generates an Einstein ring, all wavelengths bend through the same angle. Which is a good thing for bleeding‑edge astronomy researchers.”

“Why’s that, Cathleen?”

“If the effect were wavelength‑dependent we’d have aberration, the astronomer’s nemesis. Images would be smeared out. As it is, all the photons from a point hit the same spot on the sensor and we’ve got something to see.”

“Tell him about amplification, Cathleen.”

“Good point, Sy. Each galactic star emits light in every direction. In effect, the blob collects light over its entire surface area and concentrates that light along the focal line. We get the brightest image when the stars are aligned right.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Now And Then And There

Still at our table in Al’s otherwise empty coffee shop. We’re leading up to how Physics scrambled Now when a bell dings behind the counter. Al dashes over there. Meanwhile, Cathleen scribbles on a paper napkin with her colored pencils. She adds two red lines just as Al comes back with a plate of scones. “Here, Sy, if you’re going to talk Minkowski space this might be useful.”

“Hah, you’re right, Cathleen, this is perfect. Thanks, Al, I’ll have a strawberry one. Mmm, I love ’em fresh like this. OK, guys, take a look at Cathleen’s graphy artwork.”

“So? It’s the tile floor here.”

“Not even close, Mr Feder. Check the labels. The up‑and‑down label is ‘Time’ with later as higher. The diagram covers the period we’ve been sitting here. ‘Now‘ moves up, ‘Here’ goes side‑to‑side. ‘Table‘ and ‘Oven‘, different points in space, are two parallel lines. They’re lines because they both exist during this time period. They’re vertical because neither one moves from its relative spatial position. Okay?”

“Go on, Moire.”
  ”Makes sense to me, Sy.”

“Good. ‘Bell‘ marks an event, a specific point in spacetime. In this case it’s the moment when we here at the table heard the bell. I said ‘spacetime‘ because we’re treating space and time as a combined thing. Okay?”

“Go on, Moire.”
  ”Makes sense to me, Sy.”

“So then Al went to the oven and came back to the table. He traveled a distance, took some time to do that. Distance divided by time equals velocity. ‘Table‘ has zero velocity and its line is vertical. Al’s line would tilt down more if he went faster, okay?”

“Mmmm, got it, Sy.”
  ”Cute how you draw the come-back label backwards, lady. Go on, Moire.”

“I do my best, Mr Feder.”

“Fine, you’ve got the basic ideas. Now imagine all around us there’s graph paper like this — except there’s no paper and it’s a 4‑dimensional grid to account for motion in three spatial dimensions while time proceeds. Al left and returned to the same space point so his spacetime interval is just the time difference. If two events differ in time AND place there’s special arithmetic for calculating the interval.”

“So where’s that get us, Moire?”

“It got 18th and 19th Century Physics very far, indeed. Newton and everyone after him made great progress using math based on a nice stable rectangular space grid crossed with an orderly time line. Then Lorentz and Poincaré and Einstein came along.”

“Who’s Poincaré?”

“The foremost mathematician of nineteenth Century France. A mine safety engineer most days and a wide‑ranging thinker the rest of the time — did bleeding‑edge work in many branches of physics and math, even invented a few branches of his own. He put Lorentz’s relativity work on a firm mathematical footing, set the spacetime and gravity stage for Minkowsky and Einstein. All that and a long list of academic and governmental appointments but somehow he found the time to have four kids.”

“A ball of fire, huh? So what’d he do to Newton’s jungle gym?”

“Turned its steel rod framework into jello. Remember how Cathleen’s Minkowski diagram connected slope with velocity? Einstein showed how Lorentz’s relativity factor sets a speed limit for our Universe. On the diagram, that’d be a minimum slope. Going vertical is okay, that’s standing still in space. Going horizontal isn’t, because that’d be instantaneous travel. This animation tells the ‘Now‘ story better than words can.”

“Whah?”
  ”Whah?”

“We’re looking down on three space travelers and three events. Speeds below lightspeed are within the gray hourglass shape. The white line perpendicular to each traveler’s time line is their personal ‘Now‘. The travelers go at different velocities relative to us so their slopes and ‘Now‘ lines are different. From our point of view, time goes straight up. One traveler is sitting still relative to us so its timeline is marked ‘v=0‘ and parallels ours. We and the v=0 traveler see events A, B and C happening simultaneously. The other travelers don’t agree. ‘Simultaneous‘ is an illusion.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Now And Then

“Alright, I suppose there’s no going down below the Universe’s Year Zero, but what about the other direction? Do you physics guys have a handle on Time’s Top?”

“That’d be Cosmology, Mr Feder. We physicists avoid theorizing about stuff we can’t check against data. Well, except for string theory. The far past leaves clues that astronomers like Cathleen can gather. Sad to say, though, we barely have a handle on Now.”

Cathleen grins. Al and Mr Feder go, “Whaaat?”

“No, really. One of Einstein’s insights was that two observers randomly and independently flying through space won’t be able to agree on whether two external events occurred simultaneously. They can’t even agree on what time it is now.”

“Oh, yeah, I know about that. I’ve read about how the GPS system needs to make corrections to account for what relativity does to the satellite timings.”

“You’re right, Al, but that’s a different issue. Some of that relativistic correction has to do with space compression because of Earth’s mass. The simultaneity problem is strictly about rapid motion and geometry.”

“Wait — geometry?”

“Relativistic geometry, which is a bit different from the kind that Descartes built.”

“Whoa, Sy, slow down there. Descartes was the ‘I think therefore I am‘ guy, right? What’s that got to do with geometry?”

“I guess I got a little ahead of myself there, didn’t I? OK. Yeah, Al, same Descartes. Grew up Catholic in France, was a professional mercenary soldier in the Thirty Years War, wound up fighting first on the Catholic French side and later on fought on the Protestant Dutch side but cross‑over was common, both directions. He realized he was in an ostensibly religious war that was really about who ruled over whom. That may have had something to do with him becoming a professional philosopher who rejected all religious dogmas in favor of what he could learn solely from logic and his own senses. That’s where his famous mantra came from — he started by proving to himself that he existed.”

“Logic led to geometry, I suppose.”

“Indeed, but a new kind, one that required a few innovations that Descartes developed. On the one hand, mathematicians traditionally expressed algebraic problems in words and some of them were doozies, like saying ‘the zenzizenzizenzic‘ where we’d just say x8. We got that simple but <ahem> powerful notation from Descartes. On the geometry side, he’d ditch all the confusing line-ending markers in a diagram like this one. Instead, he’d label the whole line representing a known quantity with a front-of-the-alphabet letter like a or b or c. A line representing an unknown quantity would get its label from the alphabet-trailers like x, y and z. Then he used the same character conventions and his new power notation to write and manipulate algebraic expressions. Those notational inventions were foundational for his bridge between algebraic and geometrical problems. Draw your problem with lines and curves, transform it to algebraic equations, solve that problem exactly, transform it back to geometry and you’re done. Or vice-versa.”

The mesolabe instrument (in red).

“That goes back to Descartes, huh?”

“Mm-hm. His big innovation, though, arose from a borrow from an early Greek gadget called a mesolabe. He proposed an idealized version that would let someone break a line into exact fractions or compare a length against a unit length. That broke the rules of classical Geometry but setting his mesolabe’s Y‑angle to 90° prompted him to name points by their distance along the x– and y‑axes. That’s the nub of the Cartesian coordinate system — a rectangular grid of numbered straight lines that go on forever. Graph paper, right? Wrap the grid around the Earth and you’ve got latitudes and longitudes. Add more numbered grid lines perpendicular to either grid and you’ve got z‑axis coordinates. Three coordinates let you name any point in space. Newton and all the physicists who came after him until the dawn of the 20th Century assumed Descartes’ nice, stable coordinate system.”

“20th Century — that’s when Einstein came on the scene. He broke that system?”

“Sure did. You’ve heard about bent space?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Well, fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a fun ride.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Red Advantage

“OK, Cathleen, I get that JWST and Hubble rate about the same for sorting out things that are close together in the sky, and I get that they look at different kinds of light so it’s hard to compare sensitivity. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Which one can see farther?”

“An excellent question, Mr Feder. I’ve spent an entire class period on different aspects of it.”

“Narrow it down a little, I ain’t got all day.”

“You asked for it — a quick course on cosmological redshift. Fasten your seat belt. You know what redshift is, right?”

“Yeah, Moire yammers on about it a lot. Waves stretch out from something moving away from you.”

I bristle. “It’s important! And some redshifts don’t have anything to do with motion.”

“Right, Sy. Redshift in general has been a crucial tool for studying everything from planetary motion to the large‑scale structure of the Universe. Your no‑motion redshift — you’re thinking of gravitational redshift, right?”

“Mm-hm. From a distance, space appears to be compressed near a massive object, less compressed further away. Suppose we send a robot to take up a position just outside a black hole’s event horizon. The robot uses a green laser to send us its observations. Space dilates along the beam’s path out of the gravity well. The expanding geometry stretches the signal’s wavelength into the red range even though the robot’s distance from us is constant.”

“So, that’s gravitational redshift and there’s the Doppler redshift that Mr Feder referred to—”

“Is that what its name is? With p‘s? I always heard it as ‘doubler’ effect and wondered where that came from.”

“It came from Christian Doppler’s name, Al. Back in the 1840s he was investigating a star. He noticed that its spectrum was the overlap of two spectra slightly shifted with respect to each other. Using wave theory he proposed that the star was a binary and that the shifted spectra arose from one star coming towards us and the other moving away. Later work confirmed his ideas and the rest is history. So it’s Doppler, not doubler, even though the initial observation was of a stellar doublet.”

“So what’s this cosmo thing?”

“Cosmological redshift. It shows up at large distances. On the average, all galaxies are moving away from us, but they’re moving away from each other, too. That was Hubble’s big discovery. Well, one of them..”

“Wait, how can that be? If I move away from Al, here, I’m moving toward Sy or somebody.”

“We call it the expansion of the universe. Have you ever made raisin bread?”

“Nah, I just eat it.”

“Ok, then, just visualize how it’s made. You start with a flat lump of dough, raisins close together, right? The loaf rises as the yeast generates gas inside the lump. The dough expands and the raisins get further apart, all of them. There’s no pushing away from a center, it’s just that there’s an increasing amount of bubbly dough between each pair of neighboring raisins. That’s a pretty good analogy to galactic motion — the space between galaxies is expanding. The general motion is called Hubble flow.”

“So we see their light as redshifted because of their speed away from us.”

“That’s part of it, Al, but there’s also wave‑stretching because space itself is expanding. Suppose some far‑away galaxy, flying away at 30% of lightspeed, sent out a green photon with a 500‑nanometer wavelength. If the Doppler effect were the only one in play, our relative speeds would shift our measurement of that photon out to about 550 nanometers, into the yellow. Space expansion at intermediate stations along its path can cumulatively dilate the wave by further factors out into the infrared or beyond. Comparing two galaxies, photons from the farther one will traverse a longer path through expanding space and therefor experience greater elongation. Hubble spotted one object near its long‑wavelength limit with a recognizable spectrum feature beyond redshift factor 11.”

“Hey, that’s the answer to Mr Feder’s question!”

“So what’s the answer, smart guy?”

JWST will be able to see farther, because its infrared sensors can pick up distant light that’s been stretched beyond what Hubble can handle.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Candle, Candle, Burning Bright

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy, it’s Susan Kim. I did a little research after our chat. The whale oil story isn’t quite what we’re told.”

“Funny, I’ve been reading up on whales, too. So what’s your chemical discovery?”

“What do we get from a fire, Sy?”

“Light, heat and leftovers.”

“Mm-hm, and back in 18th Century America, there was plenty of wood and coal for heat. Light was the problem. I can’t imagine young Abe Lincoln reading by the flickering light of his fireplace — he must have had excellent eyesight. If you wanted a mostly steady light you burned some kind of fat, either wax candles or oil lamps.”

“Wait, aren’t fat and wax and oil three different things?”

“Not to a chemist. Fat’s the broadest category, covers molecules and mixtures with chains of ‑CH2‑ groups that don’t dissolve in water. Maybe the chains include a few oxygen atoms but the molecules are basically hydrocarbons. Way before we knew about molecules, though, we started classifying fats by whether or not the material is solid at room temperature. Waxes are solid, oils are liquid. You’re thinking about waxy‑looking coconut oil, aren’t you?”

“Well….”

“Coconuts grow where rooms are warm so we call it an oil, OK? I think it’s fun that you can look at a molecular structure and kind of predict whether the stuff will be waxy or oily.”

“How do you do that?”

“Mmm… It helps to know that a long chain of ‑CH2‑ groups tends to be straight‑ish but if there’s an ‑O‑ link in the chain the molecule can bend and even rotate there. Also, you get a kink in the chain wherever there’s a –CH=CH– double bond. We call that a point of unsaturation.”

“Ah, there’s a word I recognize, from foodie conversations. Saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated — that’s about double bonds?”

“Yup. So what does your physicist intuition make of all that?”

“I’d say the linear saturated molecules ought to pack together better than the bendy unsaturated ones. Better packing means lower entropy, probably one of those solid waxes. The more unsaturation or more ‑O‑ links, the more likely something’s an oil. How’d I do?”

“Spot on, Sy. Now carry it a step further. Think of a –CH2– chain as a long methane. How do suppose the waxes and oils compare for burning?”

“Ooo, now that’s interesting. O2 has much better access to fuel molecules if they’re in the gas phase so a good burn would be a two‑step process — first vaporization and then oxidation. Oils are already liquid so they’d go gaseous more readily than an orderly solid wax of the same molecular weight. Unless there’s something about the –O– links that ties molecules together…”

“Some kinds have hydrogen-bond bridging but most of them don’t.”

“OK. Then hmm… Are the double-bond kinks more vulnerable to oxygen attack?”

“They are, indeed, which is why going rancid is a major issue with the polyunsaturated kinds.”

“Oxidized hydrocarbon fragments can be stinky, huh? Then I’d guess that oil flames tend to be smellier than wax flames. And molecules we smell aren’t getting completely oxidized so the flame would probably be smokier, too. And sootier. Under the same conditions, of course.”

“Uh-huh. Would you be surprised if I told you that flames from waxes tend to be hotter than the ones from oils?”

“From my experience, not surprised. Beeswax candlelight is brighter and whiter than the yellow‑orange light I saw when the frying oil caught fire. Heat glow changes red to orange to yellow to white as the source gets hotter. Why would the waxes burn hotter?”

“I haven’t seen any studies on it. I like to visualize those straight chains as candles burning from the ends and staying alight longer than short oil fragments can, but that’s a guess. Ironic that a hydrogen flame is just a faint blue, even though it’s a lot hotter than any hydrocarbon flame. Carbon’s the key to flamelight. Anyway, the slaughter started when we learned a mature sperm whale’s head holds 500 gallons of waxy spermaceti that burns even brighter than beeswax.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Whale image adapted from a photo by Gabriel Barathieu CC BY SA 2.0

The Venetian Blind Problem

Susan Kim gives me the side‑eye. “Sy, I get real suspicious when someone shows me a graph with no axis markings. I’ve seen that ploy used too often by people pushing a bias — you don’t know what happens offstage either side and you don’t know whether an effect was large or small. Your animated chart was very impressive, how that big methane infrared absorption peak just happens to fill in the space between CO2 and H2O peaks. But how wide is the chart compared to the whole spectrum? Did you cherry‑pick a region that just happens to make your point?”

“Susan, how could you accuse me of such underhanded tactics? But I confess — you’re right, sort of. <more tapping on Old Reliable’s keyboard> The animation only covered the near‑IR wavelengths from 1.0 to 5.0 micrometers. Here’s the whole strip from 0.2 micrometers in the near UV, out to 70 micrometers in the far IR. Among other things, it explains the James Webb Space Telescope, right, Al?”

Spectrum of Earth’s atmosphere. Adapted
under the Creative Commons 3.0 license
from Robert Wohde’s work
with the HITRAN2004 spectroscopic database,

“I know the Webb’s set up for IR astronomy from space, Sy. Wait, does this graph say there’s too much water vapor blocking the galaxy’s IR and that’s why they’re putting the scope like millions of miles away out there?”

“Not quite. The mission designers’ problem was the Sun’s heat, not Earth’s water vapor. The solution was to use Earth itself to shield the device from the Sun’s IR emissions. The plan is to orbit the Webb around the Earth‑Sun L2 point, about a million miles further out along the Sun‑Earth line. Earth’s atmosphere being only 60 miles thick, most of it, the Webb will be quite safe from our water molecules. No, our steamy atmosphere’s only a problem for Earth‑based observatories that have to peer through a Venetian blind with a few missing slats at very specific wavelengths.”

“Don’t forget, guys, the water spectrum is a barrier in both directions. Wavelengths the astronomers want to look at can’t get in, but also Earth’s heat radiation at those wavelengths can’t get out. Our heat balance depends on the right amount of IR energy making it out through where those missing slats are. That’s where Sy’s chart comes in — it identifies the wavelengths under threat by trace gases that aren’t so trace any more.”

“And we’re back to your point, Susan. We have to look at the whole spectrum. I heard one pitch by a fossil fuel defender who based his whole argument on the 2.8‑micrometer CO2 peak. ‘It’s totally buried by water’s absorption,‘ he claimed. ‘Can’t possibly do us any further damage.’ True, so far as it goes, but he carefully ignored CO2‘s other absorption wavelengths. Pseudoscience charlatan, ought to be ashamed of himself. Methane’s not as strong an absorber as CO2, but its peaks are mostly in the right places to do us wrong. Worse, both gas concentrations are going up — CO2 is 1½ times what it was in Newton’s day, and methane is 2½ times higher.”

“Funny how they both go up together. I thought the CO2 thing was about humanity burning fossil fuels but you said methane operations came late to that game.”

“Right on both counts, Al. Researchers are still debating why methane’s risen so bad but I think they’re zeroing in on cow gas — belches and farts. By and large, industry has made the world’s population richer over the past two centuries. People who used to subsist on a grain diet can now afford to buy meat so we’ve expanded our herds. Better off is good, but there’s an environmental cost.”

Al gets a far-away look. “Both those gases have carbon in them, right? How about we burn methane without the carbon in, just straight hydrogen?”

Susan gets excited. “Several groups in our lab are working on exactly that possibility, Al. The 2H2+O2→2H2O reaction yields 30% more energy per oxygen atom than burning methane. We just need to figure out how to use hydrogen economically.”

~~ Rich Olcott

It’s A Trap!

Late morning, no-one else in his coffee shop so Al pulls up a chair. “OK, Susan, so coal’s a mess for ash and air pollution but also each carbon from coal gives us less energy than a carbon from methane. So why the muttering against switching to natural gas?”

“Big-ticket reasons, Al. One, natural gas isn’t pure methane. Mostly methane, sure, but depending on the source you get a whole collection of other things in the mix — heavier hydrocarbons like propane and butane, stinky sulfides and amines, even helium and mercury. Gas from a well has to be purified before you’d want it piped to your house.”

“Piped. Oh, yeah, pipelines. Probably a lot more efficient than coal transport but I see how they get problems, too.”

“Indeed they do. Pipelines break and leak and some idiots even use them for target practice. The worst kind of waste.”

“Yeah, when the oil gets out and ruins the land or someone’s water supply.”

“That’s bad locally, all right, but it’s when methane leaks out that the global damage starts.”

“Global?”

“Mm-hm, because methane’s a gas and mixes in with the rest of the atmosphere. If a pipeline or a truck or anything springs a leak in, say, Chicago, the methane molecules can go anywhere.”

“So?”

“So a couple of things. A decade in the atmosphere oxidizes most methane molecules to, guess what, CO2, the same problematic CO2 we get from burning coal. But before it degrades, methane’s an even bigger heat‑trapper than CO2 is.”

“Whaddaya mean, heat‑trapper?”

“Do you want to take this, Sy? It’s more Physics than Chemistry and besides, my mocha latte’s getting cold.”

“Hmm, there’s a bunch of moving parts in this. Al, you owe Susan a warm-up while I think.”

“Here ya go, Susan.”

“Thanks, Al. I’ll get you guys started. Why did my coffee get cold?”

“Good one, Susan. Al, it’s a universal principle — left to itself, energy spreads out. Heat finds ways to travel from a concentrated, high‑temperature source to low‑temperature absorbers. The exceptions occur when some extra process expends energy to pump heat in the other direction. So, that coffee naturally lost heat to the table by conduction, to the air by convection and to the general environment by radiation. The only thing that can stop those processes is perfect insulation. That’s the thing about the atmosphere.”

“Whoa, that’s a jump or three too fast.”

“OK, let’s follow a sunbeam aimed in the Earth’s direction. Its photons carry a wide range of energies, ultraviolet down to far infrared. On the way in, a UV photon hits an atmospheric ozone molecule and gets absorbed. No more UV photon but now the molecule is in an excited state. It calms down by joggling its neighbor molecules, that’s heat transfer, and maybe emitting a longer wavelength photon or two. Ozone filters out incoming UV and in the process spreads out the photon’s concentrated energy. What’s left in the sunbeam is visible and infrared light that gets down to us. You with me?”

“Makes sense so far.”

“Good. Next stage is that the visible and IR light heat the Earth, which then re-radiates the energy as infrared light mostly at longer wavelengths. The problem is that not all the IR gets out. Water molecules absorb some wavelengths in that range. Every absorption event means more heat distribution into the atmosphere when the molecule relaxes. Ocean evaporation maintains a huge number of IR‑blocking water molecules in the atmosphere.”

“I heard that ‘some‘ weasel‑word. Other wavelengths still make it through, right?”

I unholster Old Reliable, tap a few keys. “Here’s water’s absorption pattern in the mid‑to‑far‑infrared. A high peak means absorption centered at that wavelength. This is scaled per molecule per unit area, so double the molecules gives you double the absorption.”

Spectrum profiles from M. Etminan, et al., doi:10.1002/2016GL071930

“Lots of blank space between the peaks, though.”

“Which is where CO2 and methane get into the game. It’s like putting green and blue filters in front of a red one. With enough of those insulating molecules up there there’s no blank space and lots of imbalance from trapped heat.”

“Methane’s worse.”

“Lots worse.”

~~ Rich Olcott