Zwicky Too Soon

Big Vinnie barrels into the office, again. “Hey, Sy, word is you been short-changing Fritz Zwicky. What’s the story?”

“Hey, I never even met the guy.  He died in 1974.  How could I do him a bad deal?”

“Not giving him full credit.  I read an article about him.  He talked about ‘dark matter’ almost fifty years before Vera Rubin.”

“You’ve got a point there.  Like Vera Rubin he had a political problem, but his was quite different than hers.”

“Political?  I thought all you had to do was be right.”

“No, you have to be right and you have to have people willing to spend time validating or refuting your claims.  Rubin wasn’t a self-advertiser, so it took a while for people to realize why her results were important.  They did look at them, though, and they did give her credit.  Zwicky’s was a different story.”

“Wasn’t he right?”

“Sometimes right, often wrong.  Thing was, he generated too many ideas for people to cope with.  Worse, he was one of those wide-ranging intellects who adds one plus one to make two.  Trouble was, Zwicky got his ones from different specialties that don’t normally interact.  When people didn’t immediately run with one of his claims he took it personally and lashed out, publicly called ’em fools or worse.  Never a good tactic.”

“Gimme a f’rinstance.”

“OK.  Early 1930’s, Zwicky’s out in the still-raw wilds of California, practically nothing out there but movie studios and oil wells, using a manual blink-comparator like the one Clyde Tombaugh used about the same time to find Pluto.  He’s scanning images taken with Palomar’s new wide-angle telescope to search out novae, stars that suddenly get brighter.  He’s finding dozens of them but a few somehow get orders of magnitude brighter than the rest.  He and his buddy Walter Baade call the special ones ‘supernovae.'”

“Ain’t that novas?”

“Novae — we’re being proper astronomers here and it’s a Latin word.  Anyway, Zwiky’s trying to figure out where a supernova’s enormous luminosity comes from.  He got his start in solid-state physics and he still keeps up on both Physics and Astronomy.  Just a year earlier, James Cavendish over in atomic physics had announced the discovery of the neutron.  Zwicky sees that neutrons are the solution to his problem — gravity can pack together no-charge neutrons to a much higher density than it can pack positive-charge protons.  He proposes that a supernova happens when a big-enough star uses up its fuel and collapses to the smallest possible object, a neutron star.  Furthermore, he says that the collapse releases so much gravitational energy that supernovae give off cosmic rays, the super-high-energy photons that were one of the Big Questions of the day.”

“Sounds reasonable, I suppose.”

“Well, yeah, now.  But back then most astronomers had never heard of neutrons.  To solve at a stroke both cosmic rays and supernovae, using this weird new thing called a neutron, and with the proposal coming from somewhere other than Europe or Ivy League academia — well, it was all too outlandish to take seriously.  No-one did, for decades.”

“He didn’t like that, huh?”Zwicky inspecting dark matter

“No, he did not.  And he railed about it, not only in private conversations but in papers and in the preface to one of the two galaxy catalogs he published.  Same thing with galaxy clusters.”

“Wait, you wrote that Rubin found clusters.”

“I did and she did.  Actually, I wrote that she confirmed clustering.  We knew for 150 years that galaxies bunch together in our 2-D sky, but it took Zwicky’s measurements to group the Coma Cluster galaxies in 3-D.  Problem was, they were moving too fast.  If star gravity were the only thing holding them together they should have scattered ages ago.”

“Dark matter, huh?”

“Yup, Zwicky claimed invisible extra mass bound the cluster together.  More Zwicky outlandishness and once again his work was ignored for years.”

“Even though he was right.”

“Mm-hm.  But he could be wrong, too.  He didn’t like Hubble’s expanding Universe idea so he came up with a ‘tired light’ theory to explain the red-shifts.  He touted that idea heavily but there was too much evidence against it.”

“One of those angry ‘lone wolf’ scientists.”

“And bitter.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Symphony for Rubber Ruler

“But Mr Moire, first Vera Rubin shows that galaxies don’t spread out like sand grains on a beach…”

“That’s right, Maria.”

“And then she shows that galaxy streams flow like rivers through the Universe…”


“And then she finds evidence for dark matter!  She changed how we see the Universe and still they don’t give her the Nobel Prize??!?”

“All true, but there’s a place on Mars that’s named for her and it’ll be famous forever.”

“Really?  I didn’t know about that.  Where is it and why did they give it her name?”

“What do you know about dark matter?”

Rubin inspecting dark matter“Not much.  We can’t see it, and they say there is much more of it than the matter we can see.  If we can’t see it, how did she find it?  That’s a thing I don’t understand, what I came to your office to ask.”

“It all has to do with gravity.  Rubin’s studies of dozens of galaxies showed that they really shouldn’t exist, at least on the basis of the physics we knew about at the time.  She’d scan across a galaxy’s image, measuring how its red-shifted spectrum changed from the coming-toward-us side to the going-away-from-us side.  The red-shift translates to velocity.  The variation she found amazed the people she showed it to.”Pinwheel Galaxy NGC 5457 reduced

“What was amazing about it?”

“It was a flat line.  Look at the galaxy poster on my wall over there.”

“Oh, la galaxia del Molinete.  It’s one of my favorites.”

“We call it the Pinwheel Galaxy.  Where would you expect the stars to be moving fastest?”

“Near the center, of course, and they must move slower in those trailing arms.”

“That’s exactly what Rubin didn’t find.  From a couple of reasonable assumptions you can show that a star’s speed in a rotating galaxy composed only of other stars should be proportional to 1/√R, where R is its distance from the center.  If you pick two stars, one twice as far out as the other, you’d expect the outermost star to be going 1/√2 or only about 70% as fast as the other one.”

“And she found…?”

“Both stars have the same speed.”

“Truly the same?”

“Yes!  It gets better.  Most galaxies are embedded in a ball of neutral hydrogen atoms.  With a different spectroscopic technique Rubin showed that each hydrogen ball around her galaxies rotates at the same speed its galaxy does,  even 50% further out than the outermost stars.  Everything away from the center is traveling faster than it should be if gravity from the stars and gas were the only thing holding the galaxy together.  Her galaxies should have dispersed long ago.”

“Could electrical charge be holding things together?”

“Good idea — electromagnetic forces can be stronger than gravity.  But not here.  Suppose the galaxy has negative charge at its center and the stars are all positive.  That’d draw the stars inward, sure, but star-to-star repulsion would push them apart.  Supposing that neighboring stars have opposite charges doesn’t work, either.  And neutral hydrogen atoms don’t care about charge, anyway.  The only way Rubin and her co-workers could make the galaxy be stable is to assume it’s surrounded by an invisible spherical halo with ten times as much mass as the matter they could account for.”

“Mass that doesn’t shine.  She found ‘dark matter’ with gravity!”


“What about planets and dust?  Couldn’t they add up to the missing mass?”

“Nowhere near enough.  In out Solar System, for instance, all the planets add up to only 0.1% of the Sun’s mass.”

“Ah, ‘planets’ reminds me.  Why is Vera Rubin’s name on Mars?”

“Well, it’s not strictly speaking on Mars, yet, but it’s on our maps of Mars.  You know the Curiosity rover we have running around up there?”

“Oh yes, it’s looking for minerals that deposit from water.”

“Mm-hm.  One of those minerals is an iron oxide called hematite.  Sometimes it’s in volcanic lava but most of the time it’s laid down in a watery environment.  And get this — it’s often black or dark gray.  Curiosity found a whole hill of the stuff.”

Vera Rubin Ridge labeled

Adopted from a Curiosity Mastcam image from NASA

“Yes, so…?”

“What else would the researchers name an important geologic feature made of darkish matter?”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Fellowship of A Ring

Einstein ring 2018

Hubble photo from NASA’s Web site

Cathleen and I are at a table in Al’s coffee shop, discussing not much, when Vinnie comes barreling in.  “Hey, guys.  Glad I found you together.  I just saw this ‘Einstein ring’ photo.  They say it’s some kind of lensing phenomenon and I’m thinking that a lens floating out in space to do that has to be yuuuge.  What’s it made of, and d’ya think aliens put it there to send us a message?”

Astronomer Cathleen rises to the bait.  I sit back to watch the fun.  “No, Vinnie, I don’t.  We’re not that special, the rings aren’t signals, and the lenses aren’t things, at least not in the way you’re thinking.”

“There’s more than one?”

“Hundreds we know of so far and it’s early days because the technology’s still improving.”

“How come so many?”

“It’s because of what makes the phenomenon happen.  What do you know about gravity and light rays?”

Me and Sy talked about that a while ago.  Light rays think they travel in straight lines past a heavy object, but if you’re watching the beam from somewhere else you think it bends there.”

I chip in.  “Nice summary, good to know you’re storing this stuff away.”Gravitational lens 1

“Hey, Sy, it’s why I ask questions is to catch up.  So go on, Cathleen.”

She swings her laptop around to show us a graphic.  “So think about a star far, far away.  It’s sending out light rays in every direction.  We’re here in Earth and catch only the rays emitted in our direction.  But suppose there’s a black hole exactly in the way of the direct beam.”

“We couldn’t see the star, I get that.”

“Well, actually we could see some of its light, thanks to the massive black hole’s ray-bending trick. Rays that would have missed us are bent inward towards our telescope.  The net effect is similar to having a big magnifying lens out there, focusing the star’s light on us.”

“You said, ‘similar.’  How’s it different?”Refraction lens

“In the pattern of light deflection.  Your standard Sherlock magnifying lens bends light most strongly at the edges so all the light is directed towards a point.  Gravitational lenses bend light most strongly near the center.  Their light pattern is hollow.  If we’re exactly in a straight line with the star and the black hole, we see the image ‘focused’ to a ring.”

“That’d be the Einstein ring, right?”

“Yes, he gets credit because he was the one who first set out the equation for how the rays would converge.  We don’t see the star, but we do see the ring.  His equation says that the angular size of the ring grows as the square root of the deflecting object’s mass.  That’s the basis of a widely-used technique for measuring the masses not only of black holes but of galaxies and even larger structures.”

“The magnification makes the star look brighter?”

“Brighter only in the sense that we’re gathering photons from a wider field then if we had only the direct beam.  The lens doesn’t make additional photons, probably.”

Suddenly I’m interested.  “Probably?”

“Yes, Sy, theoreticians have suggested a couple of possible effects, but to my knowledge there’s no good evidence yet for either of them.  You both know about Hawking radiation?”



“Well, there’s the possibility that starlight falling on a black hole’s event horizon could enhance virtual particle production.  That would generate more photons than one would expect from first principles.  On the other hand, we don’t really have a good handle on first principles for black holes.”

“And the other effect?”

“There’s a stack of IFs under this one.  IF dark matter exists and if the lens is a concentration of dark matter, then maybe photons passing through dark matter might have some subtle interaction with it that could generate more photons.  Like I said, no evidence.”

“Hundreds, you say.”


“We’ve found hundreds of these lenses.”

“All it takes is for one object to be more-or-less behind some other object that’s heavy enough to bend light towards us.”

“Seein’ the forest by using the trees, I guess.”

“That’s a good way to put, it, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott