Not Crunch Time

A familiar knock on my office door. “C’mon in, Jeremy, the door’s open.”

“Got a few minutes, Mr Moire?”

The second serious-sounding visitor today. I push my keyboard aside again. “Sure, what’s up?”

“I read your ‘Tops of Time‘ post and then I watched one of Katie Mack’s End of Everything‘ YouTube videos and now I’m confused. And worried.”

“I can understand that. Clearing up the confusion should be easy. Then I’ll do what I can about the worry part, okay?”

“That’d be great, sir.”

“So, imagine an enormous sheet of graph paper, and then imagine Puerto Rico laid down on top of that. You could use the graph paper to describe the latitude and longitude of any place on the island, right?”

“Sure, probably.”

“I happen to know that Playa Jobos is the northernmost point of the island. Does north stop there?”

“Nosir. The island stops there, but north keeps going.”

“Well, there you are.”

“Wait … oh, you’re saying that time by itself keeps going forever but what’s in the Universe might not and that’s what Dr Mack is talking about?”

“That’s the idea. More precisely, the ‘tops‘ I wrote about are different ways that spacetime’s time coordinate could play out in the future, or maybe not. Mack’s ‘end of everything‘ is about the future history of physical stuff laid on top of our mathematical spacetime constructs. Does that clarify things?”

“Mmm, yessir, but what about the ‘maybe not‘ you said?”

“This gets metaphysical, but cosmology often skates on that edge. Descartes and others maintained that space has meaning only when there are separate objects. If there was only one thing in the Universe you’d have nothing to compare sizes against and there’d be no point in measuring distances away from it. That’d be even more the case if there’s nothing. Same thing for time and events. From that perspective, if somehow the Universe emptied out then space and time sort of stop.”

“Just sort‑of stop, like Puerto Rico stops at that Playa place. Really they keep on going, I think, even if no‑one’s there to measure anything.”

“A perfectly reasonable position when there’s no evidence either way. Anyhow, a few of Mack’s scenarios wind up in that situation, right?”

“Umm… there’s the Big Crunch that reverses the Big Bang.”

“That one was popular before we got good data. The idea was that the Big Bang pushed everything apart but eventually gravity will slow outward momentum and pull everything back together again. The notion probably came from humanity’s experience with dirt falling back down after an explosion. The problems with that scheme are that the Big Bang wasn’t an explosion, outward momentum isn’t a thing and besides, we’ve got increasingly good data showing that between‑galaxy distances are getting wider, not shrinking. The last five billion years that’s sped up.”

“Wait, not an explosion? All the videos show it that way.”

“Chalk it up to artistic license. It’s hard to show everything moving away from everything else without making it look like the viewpoint’s simply diving into a static arrangement. No, an explosion comes out of a center and that’s not the Bang. Remember that huge piece of graph paper? Make it a balloon, tack Puerto Ricos all over it, then pump in some air. There’s no center, but every islander thinks their island is the center and every other island is running away from them. Really, all that’s happening is that the stretching rubber is creating new inter‑island space everywhere.”

“And that’s Universe expansion?”

“Mm-hm. Also known as Hubble Flow. We’ve looked very hard for a center of motion, haven’t found one.”

“If everything’s moving, why isn’t that momentum?”

“It is momentum, but only pairwise. For any two galaxies you can calculate mass times speed same as always. For really distant objects you’ve got to use a relativistic version. Anyway, in the cosmological context you’ve got to ask, momentum relative to what? Everyone has this picture that things came from a common center and will fall back there. The way Hubble expansion works, though, there’s no particular go‑back place.”

“Everything’s speeding up and going everywhere so no Big Crunch then.”

“Not on the original model, anyway.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Edges of The Universe

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Um, Uncle Sy?”

“Hi, Teena! I didn’t know you knew my phone number. It’s past your bedtime. How are you? Is everything OK?”

“I’m fine. Mommie dialed you for me. I had a question she said you could answer better than her and that would be my bedtime story.”

“Your Mommie’s a very smart person in several ways. What’s your question?”

“Where’s the edge of the Universe?”

“Whoa! Where’d that question come from?”

“Well, I was lying on my bed and I thought, the edge of me is my skin and the edge of my room is the walls and the edge of our block is the street but I don’t know what any of the bigger edges are so I asked Mommie and she said to ask you. She’s writing something.”

“Of course she is. One answer is you’re smack on an edge, but some people think that’s a wrong answer so let’s talk about all the edges, OK?”

“On an edge??!? I’m in the middle of my bed.”

“Hey, I heard you sit up. Lie back down, this is supposed to be a bedtime story so we’re supposed to be calm, OK? All right, now. Once upon a time —”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Now hush and let me start. Once upon a time, people thought that the sky was a solid bowl or maybe a curtain that came down all the way to meet the Earth just over the horizon, and that was the edge of the Universe. But then people started traveling and they realized that the horizon moved when they did.”

“Like rainbows.”

“Exactly like rainbows. Eventually they’d traveled everywhere they could walk. As they went they made maps. According to the maps, the world they knew about was surrounded by ocean so the edge of the Universe was the ocean.”

“Except for Moana’s people that crossed the ocean.”

“Right, but even they only went from island to island. Their version of a map was as flat as the paper maps the European and Chinese explorers used.”

“But the world is really round like my world ball.”

“Yes, it is. It took humans a long time to accept that, because it meant their world couldn’t be all there is. A round world would have to float in space. Think about this — what’s the edge of our world?”

“Umm … the air?”

“Very good, sweetie. Way up, 60 miles high, the air gets so thin that we call that height the Edge of Space.”

“That’s the inside edge of space. Where’s the outside edge of space?”

“It’s moved outward as our astronomers have gotten better at looking far away. For a long time they thought that the outermost stars in our Milky Way galaxy marked the edge of the Universe. Then an astronomer named Edwin Hubble—”

“Oh, like the Hubble Space Telescope that made the pretty pictures in my ‘Stronomy book!”

“Mm-hm, the Hubble was named for him because he did such important work. Anyway, he showed that what people thought were stardust clouds inside the Milky Way were actually other galaxies like ours but far, far away. With the Hubble and other telescopes we’ve pushed out our known Universe to … I don’t even know the name of such a big number.”

“So that’s the edge?”

“We don’t think so, but we don’t know. Maybe space and galaxies go on forever, maybe galaxies peter out but space goes on, maybe something weird. But there’s a special ‘direction’ that we think does have an edge, maybe two.”

<yawn> “What’s that?”

“Time. One edge was the Big Bang, fourteen billion years ago. We’re pretty sure of that one. The scientists and philosophers argue about whether there’s another edge.”

“Wouldn’t jus’ be f’rever?”

“Mr Einstein thought it would. In fact, he thought that the future is as solidly real as the past is and we’re just watching from the windows of a train rolling along the time tracks.”

“Don’ like that, wanna do diffren’ things.”

“Me, too, sweetie. I prefer the idea that the future doesn’t exist yet; we’re on the front edge of time, building as we go. Dream about that, OK?”

“Okayyyyyy

~~ 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

Concerto for Rubber Ruler

An unfamiliar knock at my office door — more of a tap than a knock. “C’mon in, the door’s open.”

¿Está ocupado?

“Hi, Maria. No, I’m not busy, just taking care of odds and ends. What can I do for you?”

“I’m doing a paper on Vera Rubin for la profesora. I have the biographical things, like she was usually the only woman in her Astronomy classes and she had to make her own baño at Palomar Observatory because they didn’t have one for señoras, and she never got the Nobel Prize she deserved for discovering dark matter.

“Wait, you have all negatives there.  Her life had positives, too.  What about her many scientific breakthroughs?”

“That’s why I’m here, for the science parts I don’t understand.”

“I’ll do what I can. What’s the first one?”

“In her thesis she showed that galaxies are ‘clumped.’  What is that?”

“It means that the galaxies aren’t spread out evenly.  Astronomers at the time believed, I guess on the basis of Occam’s Razor, that galaxies were all the same distance from their neighbors.”

“Occam’s Razor?  Ah, la navaja de Okcam.  Yes, we study that in school — do not assume more than you have to.  But why would evenly be a better assumption than clumpy?”

“At the time she wrote her thesis the dominant idea was that the Big Bang’s initial push would be ‘random’ — every spot in the Universe would have an equal chance of hosting a galaxy.  But she found clusters and voids.  That made astronomers uncomfortable because they couldn’t come up with a mechanism that would make things look that way.  It took twenty years before her observations were accepted.  I’ve long thought part of her problem was that her thesis advisor was George Gamow.  He was a high-powered physicist but not an observational astronomer.  For some people that was sufficient excuse to ignore Rubin’s work.”

“Another excuse.”

“Yes, that, too.”

“But why did she have to discover the clumpy?  You can just look up in the sky and see things that are close to each other.”

“Things that appear to be close together in the sky aren’t necessarily close together in the Universe.  Look out my window.  See the goose flying there?”

“Mmm…  Yes!  I see it.”

“There’s an airplane coming towards it, looks about the same size.  Think they’ll collide?”

“Of course no.  The airplane looks small because it’s far away.”

“But when their paths cross, we see them at the same point in our sky, right?”

“The same height up, yes, and the same compass direction, but they have different distances from us.”

“Mm-hm.  Geometry is why it’s hard to tell whether or not galaxies are clustered.  Two galaxy images might be separated by arc-seconds or less.  The objects themselves could be nearest neighbors or separated by half-a-billion lightyears.  Determining distance is one of the toughest problems in observational astronomy.”

“That’s what Vera Rubin did?  How?”

“In theory, the same way we do today.  In practice, by a lot of painstaking manual work.  She did her work back in the early 1950s, when ‘computer’ was a job title, not a device.  No automation — electronic data recording was a leading-edge research topic.  She had to work with images of spectra spread out on glass plates, several for each galaxy she studied.  Her primary tool, at least in the early days, was a glorified microscope called a measuring engine.  Here’s a picture of her using one.” Vera Rubin

“She looks through the eyepiece and then what?”

“She rotates those vernier wheels to move each glass-plate feature on the microscope stage to the eyepiece’s crosshairs.  The verniers give the feature’s x– and y-coordinates to a fraction of a millimeter.  She uses a gear-driven calculating machine to turn galaxy coordinates into sky angles and spectrum coordinates into wavelengths.  The wavelengths, Hubble’s law and more arithmetic give her the galaxy’s distance from us.  More calculations convert her angle-angle-distance coordinates to galactic xy-z-coordinates.  Finally she calculates distances between that galaxy and all the others she’s already done.  After processing a few hundred galaxies, she sees groups of short-distance galaxies in reportable clusters.”

“Wouldn’t a 3-D graphic show them?”

“Not for another 50 years.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Étude for A Rubber Ruler

93% redder?  How do you figure that, Sy, and what’s it even mean?”

“Simple arithmetic, Vinnie.  Cathleen said that most-distant galaxy is 13 billion lightyears away.  I primed Old Reliable with Hubble’s Constant to turn that distance into expansion velocity and compare it with lightspeed.  Here’s what came up on its screen.”Old Reliable z calculation“Whoa, Sy.  Do you read the final chapter of a mystery story before you begin the book?”

“Of course not, Cathleen.  That way you don’t know the players and you miss what the clues mean.”

“Which is the second of Vinnie’s questions.  Let’s take it a step at a time.  I’m sure that’ll make Vinnie happier.”

“It sure will.  First step — what’s a parsec?”

“Just another distance unit, like a mile or kilometer but much bigger.  You know that a lightyear is the distance light travels in an Earth year, right?”

“Right, it’s some huge number of miles.”

“About six trillion miles, 9½ trillion kilometers.  Multiply the kilometers by 3.26 to get parsecs.  And no, I’m not going to explain the term, you can look it up.  Astronomers like the unit, other people put it in the historical-interest category with roods and firkins.”

“Is that weird ‘km/sec/Mparsec’ mix another historical thing?”

“Uh-huh.  That’s the way Hubble wrote it in 1929.  It makes more sense if you look at it piecewise.  It says for every million parsecs away from us, the outward speed of things in general increases by 70 kilometers per second.”

“That helps, but it mixes old and new units like saying miles per hour per kilometer.  Ugly.  It’d be prettier if you kept all one system, like (pokes at smartphone screen) … about 2.27 km/sec per 1018 kilometers or … about 8 miles an hour per quadrillion miles.  Which ain’t much now that I look at it.”

“Not much, except it adds up over astronomical distances.  The Andromeda galaxy, for instance, is 15×1018 miles away from us, so by your numbers it’d be moving away from us at 120,000 miles per hour.”

“Wait, Cathleen, I thought Andromeda is going to collide with the Milky Way four billion years from now.”

Opposing motion in a starfield“It is, Sy, and that’s one of the reasons why Hubble’s original number was so far off.  He only looked at about 50 close-by galaxies, some of which are moving toward us and some away.  You only get a view of the general movement when you look at large numbers of galaxies at long distances.  It’s like looking through a window at a snowfall.  If you concentrate on individual flakes you often see one flying upward, even though the fall as a whole is downward.  Andromeda’s 250,000 mph march towards us is against the general expansion.”

“Like if I’m flying a plane and the airspeed indicator says I’m doing 200 but my ground-speed is about 140 then I must be fighting a 60-knot headwind.”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  For Andromeda the ‘headwind’ is the Hubble Flow, that general outward trend.  If Sy’s calculation were valid, which it’s not, then that galaxy 13 billion lightyears from here would indeed be moving further away at  93% of lightspeed.  Someone living in that galaxy could shine a 520-nanometer green laser at us.  At this end we see the beam stretched by 193% to 1000nm.  That’s outside the visible range, well into the near-infrared.  All four visible lines in the hydrogen spectrum would be out there, too.”

“So that’s why ‘old hydrogens’ look different — if they’re far enough away in the Hubble Flow they’re flying away from us so fast all their colors get stretched by the red-shift.”

“Right, Vinnie.”

“Wait, Cathleen, what’s wrong with my calculation?”

“Two things, Sy.  Because the velocities are close to lightspeed, you need to apply a relativistic correction factor.  That velocity ratio Old Reliable reported — call it b.  The proper stretch factor is z=√ [(1+b)/(1–b)].  Relativity takes your 93% stretch down to (taps on laptop keyboard) … about 86%.  The bluest wavelength on hydrogen’s second-down series would be just barely visible in the red at 680nm.”

“What’s the other thing?”Ruler in perspective

“The Hubble Constant can’t be constant.  Suppose you run the movie backwards.  The Universe shrinks steadily at 70 km/sec/Mparsec.  You hit zero hundreds of millions of years before the Big Bang.”

“The expansion must have started slow and then accelerated.”

“Vaster and faster, eh?”

“Funny, Sy.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Circular Logic

We often read “singularity” and “black hole” in the same pop-science article.  But singularities are a lot more common and closer to us than you might think. That shiny ball hanging on the Christmas tree over there, for instance.  I wondered what it might look like from the inside.  I got a surprise when I built a mathematical model of it.

To get something I could model, I chose a simple case.  (Physicists love to do that.  Einstein said, “You should make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”)

I imagined that somehow I was inside the ball and that I had suspended a tiny LED somewhere along the axis opposite me.  Here’s a sketch of a vertical slice through the ball, and let’s begin on the left half of the diagram…Mirror ball sketch

I’m up there near the top, taking a picture with my phone.

To start with, we’ll put the LED (that yellow disk) at position A on the line running from top to bottom through the ball.  The blue lines trace the light path from the LED to me within this slice.

The inside of the ball is a mirror.  Whether flat or curved, the rule for every mirror is “The angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence.”  That’s how fun-house mirrors work.  You can see that the two solid blue lines form equal angles with the line tangent to the ball.  There’s no other point on this half-circle where the A-to-me route meets that equal-angle condition.  That’s why the blue line is the only path the light can take.  I’d see only one point of yellow light in that slice.

But the ball has a circular cross-section, like the Earth.  There’s a slice and a blue path for every longitude, all 360o of them and lots more in between.  Every slice shows me one point of yellow light, all at the same height.  The points all join together as a complete ring of light partway down the ball.  I’ve labeled it the “A-ring.”

Now imagine the ball moving upward to position B.  The equal-angles rule still holds, which puts the image of B in the mirror further down in the ball.  That’s shown by the red-lined light path and the labeled B-ring.

So far, so good — as the LED moves upward, I see a ring of decreasing size.  The surprise comes when the LED reaches C, the center of the ball.  On the basis of past behavior, I’d expect just a point of light at the very bottom of the ball (where it’d be on the other side of the LED and therefore hidden from me).

Nup, doesn’t happen.  Here’s the simulation.  The small yellow disk is the LED, the ring is the LED’s reflected image, the inset green circle shows the position of the LED (yellow) and the camera (black), and that’s me in the background, taking the picture…g6z

The entire surface suddenly fills with light — BLOOIE! — when the LED is exactly at the ball’s center.  Why does that happen?  Scroll back up and look at the right-hand half of the diagram.  When the ball is exactly at C, every outgoing ray of light in any direction bounces directly back where it came from.  And keeps on going, and going and going.  That weird display can only happen exactly at the center, the ball’s optical singularity, that special point where behavior is drastically different from what you’d expect as you approach it.

So that’s using geometry to identify a singularity.  When I built the model* that generated the video I had to do some fun algebra and trig.  In the process I encountered a deeper and more general way to identify singularities.

<Hint> Which direction did Newton avoid facing?

* – By the way, here’s a shout-out to Mathematica®, the Wolfram Research company’s software package that I used to build the model and create the video.  The product is huge and loaded with mysterious special-purpose tools, pretty much like one of those monster pocket knives you can’t really fit into a pocket.  But like that contraption, this software lets you do amazing things once you figure out how.

~~ Rich Olcott