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

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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