# Terzetto for Rubber Ruler

“So you’re telling me, Cathleen, that you can tell how hot a star is by looking at its color?”

“That’s right, Vinnie.  For most stars their continuous spectrum is pretty close to the blackbody equation tying peak wavelength to temperature.”

“But you can’t do that with far-away stars, right, because the further they are, the more stretched-out their lightwaves get.  Won’t that mess up the peak wavelength?”

“The key is Kirchhoff’s other kinds of spectrum.”

“You’re talking the bright-line and dark-line kinds.”

“Exactly.  Each kind of spectrum comes from a different process — each is affected differently by the object in question and the environment it’s embedded in.  A continuous spectrum is all about charged particles moving randomly in response to the heat energy they’re surrounded by.  It doesn’t matter what kind of particles they are or even whether they’re positive or negative.  Whenever a particle changes direction, it twitches the electromagnetic field and gives off a wave.”

“Right — the higher the temperature the less time between twitches; the wave can’t move as far before things change so the wavelength’s shorter; any speed’s possible so you can turn that dial wherever; I got all that.  So what’s different with the bright-line and dark-line spectrums?”

Cathleen and I both blurt out, “Spectra!” at the same time and give each other a look.  We’re grown-ups now.  We don’t say, “Jinx!” to each other any more.

“Alright, spectra.  But how’re they different?”

I pick up the story.  “Like Cathleen said, continuous spectra from same–temperature stuff look identical no matter what kind of stuff’s involved because heat is motion and each particle moves as a unit  The other kinds of spectrum are about transitions within particles so they’re all about which kind of stuff.  A given kind of atom can only absorb certain wavelengths of light and it can only relax by giving off exactly the same wavelengths.  There’s no in-betweens.”

She cuts in.  “Sodium, for instance.  It has two strong lines in the yellow, at 588.995 and 589.592 nanometers.  Whether in a star or a meteor or fireworks, sodium gives off exactly those colors.  Conversely, in an interstellar cloud or in a star’s outermost layers sodium absorbs exactly those colors from any continuous-spectrum light passing through.”

I’m back in.  “And there’s the key to your unmixing question, Vinnie.  We’ve talked about frames, remember?  Your far-away star’s light-generating layers emit a continuous spectrum that describes its temperature.  If we were right next to it, that’s the spectrum we’d see.  But as you say, we’re a long way away and in our frame the light’s been stretched.  It still looks like the black-body curve but it’s red-shifted because of our relative motion.”

Cathleen’s turn.  “But if there are sodium atoms in the star’s upper layers, their absorptions will cut a pair of notches in that emitted spectrum.  It won’t be a smooth curve, there’ll be two sharp dips in it, close together, with the blue-side one twice as strong as the other one.  Easy to recognize and measure the redshift.  The blackbody peak is redshifted by exactly the same amount so with some arithmetic you’ve got the peak’s original wavelength and the star’s temperature.”

Mine.  “See, because we know what the sodium wavelengths were in the star’s frame, we can divide the dip wavelengths we measure by the rest-frame numbers we know about.  The ratios give us the star’s redshift.”

Cathleen turns to her laptop and starts tapping keys.  “Let’s do an example.  Suppose we’re looking at a star’s broadband spectrogram.  The blackbody curve peaks at 720 picometers.  There’s an absorption doublet with just the right relative intensity profile in the near infra-red at 1,060,190 and 1,061,265 picometers.  They’re 1,075 picometers apart.  In the lab, the sodium doublet’s split by 597 picometers.  If the star’s absorption peaks are indeed the sodium doublet then the spectrum has been stretched by a factor of 1075/597=1.80.  Working backward, in the star’s frame its blackbody peak must be at 720/1.80=400 picometers, which corresponds to a temperature of about 6,500 K.”

“Old Reliable calculates from that stretch factor and the Hubble Constant the star’s about ten billion lightyears away and fleeing at 240,000 km/s.”

“All that from three peaks.  Spectroscopy’s pretty powerful, huh?”

Cathleen and me: “For sure!    Jinx!”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Trio for Rubber Ruler

“It’s all about how lightwaves get generated and then what happens.”

Sy and me talked about that, Cathleen.  Lightwaves come from jiggling electrons, right?”

“Any kind of charged particles, Vinnie, but there’s different ways that can happen.  Each leads to its own kind of spectrum.”

“Different kinds of spectrum?  Do you mean like visible versus infrared and ultraviolet, Cathleen?”

“No, I don’t, Sy.  I’m referring to the thing’s overall appearance in every band.  A hundred and fifty years ago Kirchoff pointed out that light from a source can have lines of color, lines without color, or a smooth display without lines.”

“Like that poster that Al put up between the physicist and astronomer corners?”  (We’re still chatting at a table in Al’s coffee shop.  I’m on my fourth scone.)

“Kind of.  That’s based on a famous image created at Kitt Peak Observatory.  In the background there you see a representation of what Kirchoff called a continuous or black-body spectrum, where all the colors fade smoothly into each other in classic rainbow order.  You’re supposed to ignore the horizontal dark lines.”

“And the vertical lines?”

“They form what Kirchoff called an absorption spectrum.  Each dark vertical represents an isolated color that we don’t get from the Sun.”

“You’re saying we get all the other colors but them, right?”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  The Sun’s chromosphere layer filters those specific wavelengths before they get from the deeper photosphere out into space.”

“Complicated filter.”

“Of course.  The Sun contains most of the elements lighter than nickel.  Each kind of atom absorbs its own collection of frequencies.”

“Ah, that’s the quantum thing that Sy and me talked about, right, Sy?”

“Mm-hm.  We only did the hydrogen atom, but the same principles apply.  An electromagnetic wave tickles an atom.  If the wave delivers exactly the right amount of energy, the atom’s chaotic storm of electrons resonates with the energy and goes a different-shaped storm.  But each kind of atom has a limited set of shapes.  If the energy doesn’t match the energy difference between a pair of levels, there’s no absorption and the wave just passes by.”

“But I’ll bet the atom can’t hold that extra energy forever.”

“Good bet, Vinnie.  The flip side of absorption is emission.  I expect that Cathleen has an emission spectrum somewhere on her laptop there.”“You’re right, Sy.  It’s not a particularly pretty picture, but it shows that nice strong sodium doublet in the yellow and the broad iron and hydrogen lines down in the green and blue.  I’ll admit it, Vinnie, this is a faked image I made to show my students what the solar atmosphere would look like if you could turn off the photosphere’s continuous blast of light.  The point is that the atoms emit exactly the same sets of colors that they absorb.”

“You do what you gotta do, Cathleen.  But tell me, if each kind of atom does only certain colors, where’s that continuous rainbow come from?  Why aren’t we only getting hydrogen colors?”

“Kirchoff didn’t have a clue on that, Vinnie.  It took 50 years and Einstein to solve it.  Not just where the light comes from but also its energy-wavelength profile.”

“So where does the light come from?”

“Pure heat.  You can get a continuous spectrum from a hot wire, molten lava, a hole through the wall of a hot oven, even the primordial chaos of the Big Bang.  It doesn’t matter what kind of matter you’re looking at, the profile just depends on the temperature.  You know that temperature measures the kinetic energy stored in particle random motion, Vinnie?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but yeah.”

“Well, think about the Sun, just a big ball of really hot atoms and electrons and nuclei, all bouncing off each other in frantic motion.  Every time one of those changes direction it affects the electromagnetic field, jiggles it as you say.  The result of all that jiggling is the continuous spectrum.  Absorption and emission lines come from electrons that are confined to an atom, but heat motion is unconfined.”