Quartetto for Rubber Ruler

Suddenly Al’s standing at our table.  “Hey guys, I heard you talking about spectroscopy and stuff and figured you could maybe ‘splain something I read.  Here’s some scones and I brought a fresh pot of coffee..”

“Thanks, Al.  What’s the something?  I’m sure Cathleen can ‘splain.”

“Syyy…”

“It’s this article talking about some scientists going down to Australia to use really old light to look for younger light and it’s got something to do with dark matter and I’m confused.”

“You’re talking about the EDGES project, right?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they said ‘EDGES’ in the article.”

“OK, first we need some background on the background, that really old light you mentioned.  The Cosmic Microwave Background is the oldest light in the Universe, photons struggling out of the white-hot plasma fog that dominated most of the first 377,000 years after the Big Bang.”

“Wait a minute, ‘plasma fog’?”

“Mm-hm.  In those early years the Universe was all free electrons and nuclei colliding with photons and each other.  No photon could travel more than a few centimeters before being blocked by some charged particle.  The Universe had to expand and cool down to 4,000K or so before electrons and nuclei could hold together as atoms and the fog could lift.”

“Cathleen showed me an intensity-frequency plot for those suddenly-free photons.  It was a virtually perfect blackbody curve, identical within a couple parts per million everywhere in the sky.  The thing is, the curve corresponds to a temperature of only 2.73K.  Its peak is in the microwave region, hence the CMB moniker, nestled in between far infrared and HF radio.”

“I thought she said that the fog lifted at 4,000K, Sy.  That’s a lot different from 2-whatever.”

Wavelength-stretching, Vinnie, remember?  Universe expansion stretches the photon waves we measure temperatures with, the further the longer just like Hubble said.  The CMB’s the oldest light in the Universe, coming to us from 13.4 billion lightyears away.  The stretch factor is about 1100.”

“Vinnie, that 2.7K blackbody radiation is the background to the story.  Think of it as a spherical shell around the part of the Universe we can see.  There are younger layers inside that shell and older layers beyond it.”

“What could be outside the Universe, Cathleen?”

“Hey, Al, I carefully said, ‘the part of the Universe we can see.’  I’m quite sure that the Universe extends beyond the spatial volume we have access to, but light from out there hasn’t had a chance to get to us yet.  Going outward from our CMB sphere there’s that 337,000-year-deep shell of electron-nucleus fog.  Beyond that, 47,000 years-worth of quark soup and worse, out to the Big Bang itself.  Coming inward from the CMB we see all the things we know of that have to do with atoms.”

“Like galaxies?”

“Well, not immediately, they took a billion years to build up.  First we had to get through the Dark Ages when there weren’t any photons in the visible light range.  We had huge clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms but virtually all of them were in the ground state.  The CMB photons running around were too low-energy to get any chemistry going, much less nuclear processes.  The Universe was dark and cooling until gravitational attraction made clumps of gas dense enough to light up and become stars.  That’s when things got going.”

“How’d that make a difference?”Blackbody spectrum with notch

“A ground state hydrogen atom’s lowest available empty energy level is way above what a CMB photon could supply.  Those Dark Age atoms were essentially transparent to the prevailing electromagnetic radiation.  But when starlight came along it excited some atoms so that they could also absorb CMB light.  See the notch on the long-wavelength side of this blackbody curve?  It marks the shadow of starlit hydrogen clouds against the CMB’s glow.  The notch wavelength indicates when the absorption started.  Its position suggests that some stars lit up as early as 180 million years after the Big Bang.”

“Suggests, huh?”

“Mm-hm.  There are other interpretations.  That’s where the fun comes in, both on the theory side and the get-more-data side.  Like looking at different times.”

“Different times?”

“Every wavelength represents a different stretch factor and a different depth into the past.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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Terzetto for Rubber Ruler

ruler and sodium lines“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.”

Spectrum with only blackbody and sodium 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

Zarzuela for Rubber Ruler

“Hey, Cathleen, if the expansion of the Universe stretches light’s wavelengths, how do you know when you see a color in a star what you’re looking at?”

“Excuse me, Professor, but your office-mate said you’d be here at the coffee shop and I have a homework question.”

“Good heavens, look at the time!  It’s my office hours, I should be over there.  Oh well, you’re here, Maria, what’s the question?”

“You showed us this chart and asked us to write an essay on it.  I don’t know where to begin.”Temp and BB peak

“Ah.  Hang on, Vinnie, this bears on your question, too.  OK, Maria, what can you tell me about the chart?”

“Well, there are five peaked curves, labeled with different temperatures.  Can I assume the green curve peaks, too, not continuing straight up?”

“Yes.  What else?”

“The horizontal axis, sorry I don’t know the word —”

“abscissa”

“Oh, we have almost the same word in Spanish!  Anyhow, the abscisa says it shows wavelengths.  It goes from a tenth of a nanometer to maybe 10 micrometers.  The chart must have to do with light, because sound waves can’t get that short.  The … ordinada…?”

“Ordinate”

“Thank you.  The ordinate says ‘Intensity’ so the chart must show light spectra at different temperatures.  But there’s only one peak at each temperature.”

“Is that Kirchhoff’s ‘continuous spectrum,’ Cathleen?”

“Right, Vinnie, a smoothly-varying cascade of every wavelength, photons arising from heat-generated motion of charged particles.”

Ah, ya lo veo — this is blackbody spectra given off by hot objects.  You showed us one in class and here we have several.”

“Good, Maria.  Now —”

“But all the peaks look exactly the same, Cathleen.  The hot objects ought to be brighter.  A really hot flame, you can’t even look at it.  Something’s phony.”

“Good eye, Vinnie.  I divided each curve in the graph by its peak height to put them all on an even footing.  That’s why the axis is labeled ‘Intensity profile‘ instead of ‘Intensity.'”

“I’ve got a different issue, Cathleen.  Hot objects have more energy to play with.  Shouldn’t the hotter peaks spread over a wider wavelength range?  These are all the same width.”

“I think I know the answer to that one, Mr Moire.  In class la profesora showed us how the blackbody curve’s equation has two factors, like B=W*X.  The W factor depends only on wavelength and grows bigger as the wavelength gets smaller.  That’s the ‘ultraviolet catastrophe,’ right, ma’am?”

“Mm-hm.  Go on, Maria.”

“But the X factor gets small real fast as the wavelength gets small.  In fact, it gets small so fast that it overpowers W‘s growth — the W*X product gets small, too.  Do you have that movie you showed us on your laptop there, ma’am?”

“Sure.  Here it is…”Blackbody peaks 1

“OK, the blue line is that W factor.  Oh, by the way, the ordinate scale here is logarithmic, so the value at the left end of the blue line is 1027/106 or about 1021 times bigger than it is at the right end even though it looks like a straight line.  The green line is that temperature-dependent factor.  See how it pulls down the orange lines’ values for cold objects, but practically goes away for very hot objects?”

“Yeah, that shows it real good, right, Sy?  That orange peak moves to the left just like Cathleen’s picture shows.  It answers your question, too.”

“It does, Vinnie?  How so?”

“‘Cause the peaks get broader as they get higher.  It’s like the intensity at the, umm, microwave end hardly changes at all and the whole rest of the curve swings up and out from there.”

“Keep in mind, guys, that we’re talking really large numbers here.  Vinnie’s ‘hardly changes at all’ is actually a factor of 40,000 or so.  Those pretty peaks in my homework chart are only pretty because the spread-out tails are so small relative to the peaks.”

“Alright, Cathleen, but how does Maria’s question tie in with mine?”

“They both hinge on wavelength.  The blackbody equation lets us measure a star’s temperature by looking at its color.  Do you have enough to start on that essay, Maria?”

“Yes, ma’am.  Gracias.”

De nada.  Now run along and get to work on it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Shopping The Old Curiosity

“Still got questions, Moire.”

“This’ll be your last shot this year, Mr Feder.  What’s the question?”

“They say a black hole absorbs all the light that falls on it. But the theory of blackbody radiation says a perfect absorber is also a perfect radiator. Emission should be an exact opposite flow to the incoming flow in every direction. Wouldn’t a black hole be shiny like a ball bearing?”Black hole as ball bearing 1
“A perfectly good question, but with crucial imperfections. Let’s start with the definition of a perfect absorber — it’s an object that doesn’t transmit or reflect any light. Super-black, in other words. So by definition it can’t be a mirror.”

“OK, maybe not a mirror, but the black hole has to send out some kind of exact opposite light to balance the arriving light.”

“Yes, but not in the way you think. Blackbody theory does include the assumption that the object is in equilibrium, your ‘exact opposite flow.’ The object must indeed send out as much energy as it receives, otherwise it’d heat up or cool down. But the outbound light doesn’t necessarily have to be at the same frequencies as the inbound light had. In fact, it almost never will.”

“How come not?”

“Because absorption and emission are two different processes and they play by different rules. If we’re including black holes in the discussion there are four different processes. No, five.  Maybe six.”

“I’m listening.”

“Good. Blackbody first. When a photon is absorbed by regular matter, it affects the behavior of some electron in there. Maybe it starts spending more time in a different part of the molecule, maybe it moves faster — one way or another, the electron configuration changes and that pulls the atomic nuclei away from where they were and the object’s atoms wobble differently. So the photon raises the object’s internal kinetic energy, which means raising its temperature, and we’ve got energy absorption, OK?”

“Yeah, and…?”

“At some later time, to keep things in equilibrium that additional energy has to be gotten rid of. But you can’t just paint one bit of energy red, say it’s special and follow it until it’s emitted. The whole molecule or crystal or whatever has excess energy as the result of all the incoming photons. When the total gets high enough, something has to give.  The object emits some photons to get rid of some of the excess. The only thing you can say about the outbound photons is that they generally have a lower energy than the incoming ones.”

“Why’s that?”

“Think of a bucket that’s brim-full and you’re dumping in cupfuls of water. Unless you’re pouring slowly and carefully, the dribbles escaping over the bucket’s rim will generally be many small amounts sloshing out more often than those cupfuls come in.  For light that’s fluorescence.”

“I suppose. What about the black hole?”

“The problem with a black hole is the mystery of what’s inside its event horizon. It probably doesn’t contain matter in the form of electrons and nuclei but we don’t know. There are fundamental reasons why information about what’s inside can’t leak out to us. All we can say is that when a light wave encounters a black hole, it’s trapped by the intense gravity field and its energy increments the black hole’s mass.  The mechanism … who knows?”

“Like I said, it gets absorbed. And gets emitted as Hawking radiation.”

“Sorry, that’s exactly what doesn’t happen. Hawking radiation arises from a different pair of processes. Process 1 generates pairs of virtual particles, which could be photons, electrons or something heavier. That happens at a chaotic but steady rate throughout the Universe.  Usually the particle pairs get back together and annihilate.  However, right next to the black hole’s event horizon there’s Process 2, in which one member of a virtual pair flies inward and the other member flies outward as a piece of Hawking radiation. Neither process even notices incoming photons. That’s not mirroring or even fluorescence.”

“Phooey, it was a neat idea.”

“That it was, but facts.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to lifeisthermal for inspiring this post.
  • Thus endeth a full year of Sy Moire stories.  I hope you enjoyed them.  Here’s to a new year and new ideas for all.