Pushing It Too Far

It’s like he’s been taking notes. Mr Feder’s got a gleam in his eye and the corner of his mouth is atwitch. “You’re not getting off that easy, Cathleen. You said that Earendell star’s 66 trillion lightyears away. Can’t be, if the Universe’s only 14 billion years old. What’s going on?”

“Oops, did I say trillion? I meant billion, of course, 109 not 1012. A trillion lightyears would be twenty times further than the edge of our observable universe.”

“Hmph. Even with that fix it’s goofy. Sixty-six billion is still what, five times that 14 billion year age you guys keep touting. I thought light couldn’t travel that far in that time.”

“I thought the Universe is 93 billion light years across.”
  ”That’s diameter, and it’s just the observable universe.”
    ”Forty-seven billion radially outward from us.”
      ”None of that jibes with 14 billion years unless ya got stuff goin’ faster than light.”

“Guys, guys, one thing at a time. About that calculation, I literally did it on the back of an envelope, let’s see if it’s still in my purse … Nope, must be on my office desk. Anyhow, distance is the trickiest part of astronomy. The only distance‑related thing we can measure directly is z, that redshift stretch factor. Locate a familiar pattern in an object’s spectrum and see where its wavelength lies relative to the laboratory values. The go‑to pattern is hydrogen’s Lyman series whose longest wavelength is 121 nanometers. If you see the Lyman pattern start at 242 nanometers, you’ve got z=2. The report says that the lens is at z=2.8 and Earendel’s galaxy is at z=6.2. We’d love to tie those back to distance, but it’s not as easy as we’d like.”

“It’s like radar guns, right? The bigger the stretch, the faster away from us — you should make an equation outta that.”

“They have, Mr Feder, but Doppler’s simple linear relationship is only good for small z, near zero. If z‘s greater than 0.1 or so, relativity’s in play and things get complicated.”

“Wait, the Hubble constant ties distance to speed. That was Hubble’s other big discovery. Old Reliable here says it’s something like 70 kilometers per second for every megaparsec distance. What’s that in normal language? <tapping keys> Whoa, so for every lightyear additional distance, things fly away from us about an inch per second faster. That’s not much.”

“True, Sy, but remember we’re talking distant, barely observable galaxies that are billions of lightyears away. Billions of inches add up. Like with the Doppler calculation, you get startling numbers if you push a simple linear relation like this too far. As an extreme example, your Hubble rule says that light from a galaxy 15 billion lightyears away will never reach us because Hubble Flow moves them away faster than photons fly toward us. We don’t know if that’s true. We think Hubble’s number changes with time. Researchers have built a bucketful of different expansion models for how that can happen; each of them makes different predictions. I’m sure my 66 came from one of those. Anyhow, most people nowadays don’t call it the Hubble constant, it’s the Hubble parameter.”

“Sixty-six or forty-seven or whatever, those diameters still don’t jibe with how long the light’s had a chance to travel.”

“Sy, care to take this? It’s more in your field than mine.”

“Sure, Cathleen. The ‘edge of the observable universe‘ isn’t a shell with a fixed diameter, it simply marks the take-off points for the oldest photons to reach us so far. Suppose Earendel sent us a photon about 13 billion years ago. The JWST caught it last night, but in those 13 billion years the universe expanded enough to insert twenty or thirty billion lightyears of new space between between here and Earendel. The edge is now that much farther away than when the photon’s journey started. A year from now we’ll be seeing photons that are another year older, but the stars they came from will have flown even farther away. Make sense?”

“A two-way stretch.”

“You could say that.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to my brother Neil, who pointed out the error and asked the question.

Dark Horizon

Charlie's table sign says "Dark Energy is bogus"

Change-me Charlie attacks his sign with a rag and a marker, rubbing out “Matter” and writing in “Energy.” Turns out his sign is a roll-up dry-erase display and he can update it on site. Cool. I guess with his rotating-topic strategy he needs that. “OK, maybe dark matter’s a thing, but dark energy ain’t. No evidence, someone just made that one up to get famous!”

And of course Physicist-in-training Newt comes back at him. “Lots of evidence. You know about the Universe expanding?”

“Prove it.” At least he’s consistent.

<sigh> “You know how no two snowflakes are exactly alike but they can come close? It applies to stars, too. Stars are fairly simple in a complicated way. If you tell me a star’s mass, age and how much iron it has, I can do a pretty good job of computing how bright it is, how hot it is, its past and future life history, all sort of things. As many stars as there are, we’re pretty much guaranteed that there’s a bunch of them with very similar fundamentals.”

“So?”

“So when a star undergoes a major change like becoming a white dwarf or a neutron star or switching from hydrogen fusion to burning something else, any other star that has the same fundamentals will behave pretty much the same way. They’d all flare with about the same luminosity, pulsate with about the same frequency —”

“Wait. Pulsate?”

“Yeah. You’ve seen campfires where one bit of flame coming out of a hotspot flares up and dies back and flares up and dies back and you get this pulsation —”

“Yeah. I figured that happens with a sappy log where the heat gasifies a little sap then the spot cools off when outside air gets pulled in then the cycle goes again.”

“That could be how it works, depending. Anyhow, a star in the verge of mode change can go through the same kind of process — burn one kind of atom in the core until heat expansion pushes fuel up out of the fusion zone; that cools things down until fuel floods back in and off we go again. The point is, that kind of behavior isn’t unique to a single star. We’ve known about variable stars for two centuries, but it wasn’t until 1908 that Henrietta Swan Leavitt told us how to determine a particular kind of variable star’s luminosity from its pulsation frequency.”

“Who cares?”

“Edwin Hubble cared. Brightness dies off with the distance squared. If you compare the star’s intrinsic luminosity with how bright the star appears here on Earth, it’s simple to calculate how far away the star is. Hubble did that for a couple dozen galaxies and showed they had to be far outside the Milky Way. He plotted red-shift velocity data against those distances and found that the farther away a galaxy is from us, the faster it’s flying away even further.”

“A couple dozen galaxies ain’t much.”

“That was for starters. Since the 1930s we’ve built a whole series of ‘standard candles,’ different kinds of objects whose luminosities we can convert to distances out to 400 million lightyears. They all agree that the Universe is expanding.”

“Well, you gotta expect that, everything going ballistic from the Big Bang.”

“They don’t go the steady speed you’re thinking. As we got better at making really long-distance measurements, we learned that the expansion is accelerating.”

“Wait. I remember my high-school physics. If there’s an acceleration, there’s gotta be a force pushing it. Especially if it’s fighting the force of gravity.”

“Well there you go. Energy is force times distance and you’ve just identified dark energy. But standard candles aren’t the only kind of evidence.”

“There’s more?”

“Sure — ‘standard sirens‘ and ‘standard rulers.’ The sirens are events that generate gravitational waves we pick up with LIGO facilities. The shape and amplitude of the LIGO signals tell us how far away the source was — and that information is completely immune to electromagnetic distortions.”

“And the rulers?”

“They’re objects, like spiral galaxies and intergalactic voids, that we have independent methods for connecting apparent size to distance.”

“And the candles and rulers and sirens all agree that acceleration and dark energy are real?”

“Yessir.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Toccata for A Rubber Ruler

“How the heck do they know that?”

“Know what, Vinnie?”

“That the galaxy they saw with that gravitational lens is 13 billion years old?  I mean, does it come with a birth certificate, Cathleen?”

“Mm, it does, sort of — hydrogen atoms.  Really old hydrogen atoms.”

“Waitaminit.  Hydrogen’s hydrogen — one proton, one electron per atom.  They’re all the same, right?  How do you know one’s older than another one?”

“Because they look different.”

“How could they look different when they’re all the same?”

“Let me guess, Cathleen.  These old hydrogens, are they far far away?”

“On the button, Sy.”

“What where they’re at got to do with it?”

“It’s all about spectroscopy and the Hubble constant, Vinnie.  What do you know about Edwin Hubble?”

“Like in Hubble Space Telescope?  Not much.”

“Those old atoms were Hubble’s second big discovery.”

“Your gonna start with the other one, right?”

“Sorry, classroom habit.  His first big discovery was that there’s more to the Universe than just the Milky Way Galaxy.  That directly contradicted Astronomy’s Big Names.  They all believed that the cloudy bits they saw in the sky were nebulae within our galaxy.  Hubble’s edge was that he had access to Wilson Observatory’s 100-inch telescope that dwarfed the smaller instruments that everyone else was using.  Bigger scope, more light-gathering power, better resolution.”

“Hubble won.”

“Yeah, but how he won was the key to his other big discovery.  The crucial question was, how far away are those ‘nebulae’?  He needed a link between distance and something he could measure directly.  Stellar brightness was the obvious choice.  Not the brightness we see on Earth but the brightness we’d see if we were some standard distance away from it.  Fortunately, a dozen years earlier Henrietta Swan Leavitt found that link.  Some stars periodically swing bright, then dim, then bright again.  She showed that for one subgroup of those stars, there’s a simple relationship between the star’s intrinsic brightness and its peak-to-peak time.”Astroruler

“So Hubble found stars like that in those nebulas or galaxies or whatever?”

“Exactly.  With his best-of-breed telescope he could pick out individual variable stars in close-by galaxies.  Their fluctuation gave him intrinsic brightness.  The brightness he measured from Earth was a lot less.  The brightness ratios gave him distances.  They were a lot bigger than everyone thought.”

“Ah, so now he’s got a handle on distance.  Scientists love to plot everything against everything, just to see, so I’ll bet he plotted something against distance and hit jackpot.”

“Well, he was a bit less random than that, Sy.  There were some theoretical reasons to think that the Universe might be expanding.  The question was, how fast?  For that he tapped another astronomer’s results.  Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory was looking at the colors of light emitted by different galaxies.  None had light exactly like our Milky Way’s.  A few were a bit bluer, but most were distinctly red-shifted.”

“Like the Doppler effect in radar?  Things coming toward you blue-shift the radar beam, things going away red-shift it?”

“Similar to that, Vinnie, but it’s emitted light, not a reflected beam. To a good approximation, though, you can say that the red shift is proportional to the emitting object’s speed towards or away from us.  Hubble plotted his distance number for each galaxy he’d worked on, against Slipher’s red-shift speed number for the same galaxy.  It wasn’t the prettiest graph you’ve ever seen, but there was a pretty good correlation.  Hubble drew the best straight line he could through the points.  What’s important is that the line sloped upward.”

“Lemme think … If everything just sits there, there’d be no red-shift and no graph, right?  If everything is moving away from us at a steady speed, then the line would be flat — zero slope.  But he saw an upward slope, so the farther something is the faster it’s going further from us?”

“Bravo, Vinnie.  That’s the expansion of the Universe you’ve heard about.  Locally there are a few things coming toward us — that’s those blue-shifted galaxies, for instance — but the general trend is away.”

“So that’s why you say those far-away hydrogens look different.  By the time we see their light it’s been red-shifted.”

“93% redder.”

~~ Rich Olcott