Three Shades of Dark

The guy’s got class, I’ll give him that. Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt met his challenges so Change-me Charlie amiably updates his sign.

But he’s not done. “If dark matter’s a thing, how’s it different from dark energy? Mass and energy are the same thing, right, so dark energy’s gotta be just another kind of dark matter. Maybe dark energy’s what happens when real matter that fell into a black hole gets squeezed so hard its energy turns inside out.”

Jim and Newt just look at each other. Even Cap’n Mike’s boggled. Someone has to start somewhere so I speak up. “You’re comparing apples, cabbages and fruitcake. Yeah, all three are food except maybe for fruitcake, but they’re grossly different. Same thing for black holes, dark matter and dark energy — we can’t see any of them directly but they’re grossly different.”

EHT's image of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy
Black hole and accretion disk, image by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Vinnie’s been listening off to one side but black holes are one of his hobbies. “A black hole’s dark ’cause its singularity’s buried inside its event horizon. Whatever’s outside and somehow gets past the horizon is doomed to fall towards the singularity inside. The singularity itself might be burn-your-eyes bright but who knows, ’cause the photons’re trapped. The accretion disk is really the only lit-up thing showing in that new EHT picture. The black in the middle is the shadow of the horizon, not the hole.”

Jim picks up the tale. “Dark matter’s dark because it doesn’t care about electromagnetism and vice-versa. Light’s an electromagnetic wave — it starts when a charged particle wobbles and it finishes by wobbling another charged particle. Normal matter’s all charged particles — negative electrons and positive nuclei — so normal matter and light have a lot to say to each other. Dark matter, whatever it is, doesn’t have electrical charges so it doesn’t do light at all.”

“Couldn’t a black hole have dark matter in it?”

“From what little we know about dark matter or the inside of a black hole, I see no reason it couldn’t.”

“How about normal matter falls in and the squeezing cooks it, mashes the pluses and minuses together and that’s what makes dark matter?”

“Great idea with a few things wrong with it. The dark matter we’ve found mostly exists in enormous spherical shells surrounding normal-matter galaxies. Your compressed dark matter is in the wrong place. It can’t escape from the black hole’s gravity field, much less get all the way out to those shells. Even if it did escape, decompression would let it revert to normal matter. Besides, we know from element abundance data that there can’t ever have been enough normal matter in the Universe to account for all the dark matter.”

Newt’s been waiting for a chance to cut in. “Dark energy’s dark, too, but it works in the opposite direction from the other two. Gravity from normal matter, black holes or otherwise, pulls things together. So does gravity from dark matter which is how we even learned that it exists. Dark energy’s negative pressure pulls things apart.”

“Could dark energy pull apart a black hole or dark matter?”

Big Cap’n Mike barges in. “Depends on if dark matter’s particles. Particles are localized and if they’re small enough they do quantum stuff. If that’s what dark matter is, dark energy can move the particles apart. My theory is dark matter’s just ripples across large volumes of space so dark energy can change how dark matter’s spread around but it can’t break it into pieces.”

Vinnie stands up for his hobby. “Dark energy can move black holes around, heck it moves galaxies, but like Sy showed us with Old Reliable it’s way too weak to break up black holes. They’re here for the duration.”

Newt pops him one. “The duration of what?”

“Like, forever.”

“Sorry, Hawking showed that black holes evaporate. Really slowly and the big ones slower than the little ones and the temperature of the Universe has to cool down a bit more before that starts to get significant, but not even the black holes are forever.”

“How long we got?”

“Something like 10106 years.”

“That won’t be dark energy’s fault, though.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Dark Shadows

Change-me Charlie’s still badgering Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt about “Dark Stuff,” though he’s switched his target from dark matter to dark energy. “OK, the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. How does dark energy do that?”

Jim steps up to bat. “At this point dark energy’s just a name. We frankly have no idea what the name represents, although it seems appropriate.”

“Why’s that?”

“Gravity pulls things together, right, and we have evidence that galaxies are flying away from each other. When you pick something up your muscles give it gravitational potential energy that becomes kinetic energy when you let go and it drops. In space, a galaxy moving away from its neighbors gains gravitational potential energy relative to them. If the Energy Conservation Law holds, that energy has to come from somewhere. ‘Dark energy’ is what we call the somewhere, but naming something and understanding it are two different things.”

Newt chips in. “Einstein came at it from a different direction. His General Relativity field equations contained two numbers for observation to fill in — G, Newton’s gravitational constant, and lambda (Λ), which we now call the Cosmological Constant. Lambda measures the energy density of empty space. The equations say the balance between lambda and gravity controls whether the Universe expands, contracts or stays static. Lambda‘s just a little bit positive so the universe is expanding.”

“Same conclusion, different name. Neither one says where the energy comes from.”

That’s my cue. “True, but Einstein’s work goes deeper. Newtonian physics maps the Universe onto a stable grid of straight lines. In General Relativity those lines are deformed and twisted under the influence of massive objects. Vinnie and I talked about how gravity’s a fictitious force arising from that deformation. Like John Wheeler said, ‘Mass tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells mass how to move.’ Anyway, when you throw dark energy’s lambda into the mix, the grid lines themselves go into motion. Dark energy torques the spacetime fabric that pulls galaxies together.”

“So dark energy pulls things apart by spreading out the grid they’re built on? If that’s so how come I’m still in one piece?”

“Nothing personal, but you’re too small and dense to notice. So am I, so is the Earth.”

“Why should that make a difference?”

“Time for a thought experiment. Think of the Sun. The atoms inside its surface are trying to get out, right? What’s holding them in?”

“The Sun’s gravity.”

“Just like pressure on the skin of a balloon. In either case, as long as things are stable the pressure on an enclosing real or mathematical surface rises and falls with the amount of enclosed energy density and it doesn’t matter which we talk about. Energy density’s easier to think about. With me so far?”

“I guess.”

“Let’s run a few horseback numbers on Old Reliable here. Start with protons and neutrons trying to leave an atomic nucleus. Here’s the total binding energy of an iron-56 nucleus divided by its volume…”

“… so the nuclear particles would fly apart except for the inward pressure exerted by the nuclear forces. Now we’ll go up a level and consider electrons trying to leave a helium atom. They’re held in by the electromagnetic force…”

“Still a lot of inward pressure but less than nuclear by fifty-five powers of ten. Gravity next. That’s what keeps us from flying off into space. I’ll use Earth’s escape velocity to cheat-quantify it…”

“Ten billion times weaker than the electromagnetism that holds our atoms and molecules together. Dark energy’s mass density is estimated to be about 10-27 kilograms per cubic meter. I’ll use that and Einstein’s E=mc2to calculate its pull-us-apart pressure.”

“A quintillion times weaker still.”

“So what you’re saying is, dark energy tries to pull everything apart by stretching out that spacetime grid, but it’s too weak to actually do anything to stuff that’s held together by gravity, electromagnetism or the two nuclear forces.”

“Mostly. Nuclear forces are short-range so distance doesn’t matter. Gravity and electromagnetism get weaker with the square of the distance. Dark energy only gets competitive working on objects that are separated much further than even neighboring galaxies. You’re not gonna get pulled apart.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Force-to-Force Meeting

The Crazy Theory contest is still going strong in the back room at Al’s coffee shop. I gather from the score board scribbles that Jim’s Mars idea (one mark-up says “2 possible 2 B crazy!“) is way behind Amanda’s “green blood” theory.  There’s some milling about, then a guy next to me says, “I got this, hold my coffee,” and steps up to the mic.  Big fellow, don’t recognize him but some of the Physics students do — “Hey, it’s Cap’n Mike at the mic.  Whatcha got for us this time?”

“I got the absence of a theory, how’s that?  It’s about the Four Forces.”

Someone in the crowd yells out, “Charm, Persuasiveness, Chaos and Bloody-mindedness.”

“Nah, Jennie, that’s Terry Pratchett’s Theory of Historical Narrative.  We’re doing Physics here.  The right answer is Weak and Strong Nuclear Forces, Electromagnetism, and Gravity, with me?  Question is, how do they compare?”

Another voice from the crowd. “Depends on distance!”

“Well yeah, but let’s look at cases.  Weak Nuclear Force first.  It works on the quarks that form massive particles like protons.  It’s a really short-range force because it depends on force-carrier particles that have very short lifetimes.  If a Weak Force carrier leaves its home particle even at the speed of light which they’re way too heavy to do, it can only fly a small fraction of a proton radius before it expires without affecting anything.  So, ineffective anywhere outside a massive particle.”

It’s a raucous crowd.  “How about the Strong Force, Mike?”

.  <chorus of “HOO-wah!”>

“Semper fi that.  OK, the carriers of the Strong Force —”

.  <“Naa-VY!  Naaa-VY!”>

.  <“Hush up, guys, let him finish.”>

“Thanks, Amanda.  The Strong Force carriers have no mass so they fly at lightspeed, but the force itself is short range, falls off rapidly beyond the nuclear radius.  It keeps each trio of quarks inside their own proton or neutron.  And it’s powerful enough to corral positively-charged particles within the nucleus.  That means it’s way stronger inside the nucleus than the Electromagnetic force that pushes positive charges away from each other.”

“How about outside the nucleus?”

“Out there it’s much weaker than Electromagnetism’s photons that go flying about —”

.  <“Air Force!”>

.  <“You guys!”>

“As I was saying…  OK, the Electromagnetic Force is like the nuclear forces because it’s carried by particles and quantum mechanics applies.  But it’s different from the nuclear forces because of its inverse-square distance dependence.  Its range is infinite if you’re willing to wait a while to sense it because light has finite speed.  The really different force is the fourth one, Gravity —”

.  <“Yo Army!  Ground-pounders rock!”>

“I was expecting that.  In some ways Gravity’s like Electromagnetism.  It travels at the same speed and has the same inverse-square distance law.  But at any given distance, Gravity’s a factor of 1038 punier and we’ve never been able to detect a force-carrier for it.  Worse, a century of math work hasn’t been able to forge an acceptable connection between the really good Relativity theory we have for Gravity and the really good Standard Model we have for the other three forces.  So here’s my Crazy Theory Number One — maybe there is no connection.”

.  <sudden dead silence>

“All the theory work I’ve seen — string theory, whatever — assumes that Gravity is somehow subject to quantum-based laws of some sort and our challenge is to tie Gravity’s quanta to the rules that govern the Standard Model.  That’s the way we’d like the Universe to work, but is there any firm evidence that Gravity actually is quantized?”

.  <more silence>

“Right.  So now for my Even Crazier Theories.  Maybe there’s a Fifth Force, also non-quantized, even weaker than Gravity, and not bound by the speed of light.  Something like that could explain entanglement and solve Einstein’s Bubble problem.”

.  <even more silence>

“OK, I’ll get crazier.  Many of us have had what I’ll call spooky experiences that known Physics can’t explain.  Maybe stupid-good gambling luck or ‘just knowing’ when someone died, stuff like that.  Maybe we’re using the Fifth Force in action.”

.  <complete pandemonium>
four forces plus 1

~ Rich Olcott

Note to my readers with connections to the US National Guard, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine and/or Public Health Service — Yeah, I know, but one can only stretch a metaphor so far.

They Went That-away. But Why?

“It’s worse than that, Vinnie.”  I pull out Old Reliable, my math-monster tablet.  “Let me scan in that three-electron drawing of yours.”3 electrons in B-field

“Good enough to keep a record of it?”

“Nope, I want to exercise a new OVR app I just bought.”

“You mean OCR.”

“Uh-uh, this is Original Vector Reconstruction, not Optical Character Recognition.    OCR lets you read a document into a word processor so you can modify it.  OVR does the same thing but with graphics.  Give me a sec … there.  OK, look at this.”3 electrons in B-field revisited

“Cool, you turned my drawing 180°, sort of.  Nice app.  Oh, and you moved the red electron’s path so it’s going opposite to the blue electron instead of parallel to the magnetic field.  Why’d you bother?”

“See the difference between blue and red?”

“Well, yeah, one’s going up, one’s going down.  That’s what I came to you about and you shot down my theory.  Those B-arrows in the magnetic field are going in completely the wrong direction to push things that way.”

“Well, actually, they’re going in exactly the right direction for that, because a magnetic field pushes along perpendiculars.  Ever hear of The Right Hand Rule?”

“You mean like ‘lefty-loosey, righty-tighty’?”

“That works, too, but it’s not the rule I’m talking about.  If you point your thumb in the direction an electron is moving, and your index finger in the direction of the magnetic field, your third finger points in the deflection direction.  Try it.”

“Hurts my wrist when I do it for the blue one, but yeah, the rule works for that.  It’s easier for the red one.  OK, you got this rule, fine, but why does it work?”

“Part of it goes back to the vector math you don’t want me to throw at you.  Let’s just say that there are versions of a Right Hand Rule all over physics.  Many of them are essentially definitions, in the same way that Newton’s Laws of Motion defined force and mass.  Suppose you’re studying the movements directed by some new kind of force.  Typically, you try to define some underlying field in such a way that you can write equations that predict the movement.  You haven’t changed Nature, you’ve just improved our view of how things fit together.”

“So you’re telling me that whoever made that drawing I copied drew the direction those B-arrows pointed just to fit the rule?”

“Almost.  The intensity of the field is whatever it is and the lines minus their pointy parts are wherever they are.  The only thing we can set a rule for is which end of the line gets the arrowhead.  Make sense?”Spiraling electron

“I suppose.  But now I got two questions instead of the one I come in here with.  I can see the deflection twisting that electron’s path into a spiral.  But I don’t see why it spirals upward instead of downward, and I still don’t see how the whole thing works in the first place.”

“I’m afraid you’ve stumbled into a rabbit hole  we don’t generally talk about.  When Newton gave us his Law of Gravity, he didn’t really explain gravity, he just told us how to calculate it.  It took Einstein and General Relativity to get a deeper explanation.  See that really thick book on my shelf over there?  It’s loaded with tables of thermodynamic numbers I can use to calculate chemical reactions, but we didn’t start to understand those numbers until quantum mechanics came along.  Maxwell’s equations let us calculate electricity, magnetism and their interaction — but they don’t tell us why they work.”

“I get the drift.  You’re gonna tell me it goes up because it goes up.”

“That’s pretty much the story.  Electrons are among the simplest particles we know of.  Maxwell and his equations gave us a good handle on how they behave, nothing on why we have a Right Hand Rule instead of a Left Hand Rule.  The parity just falls out of the math.  Left-right asymmetry seems to have something to do with the geometry of the Universe, but we really don’t know.”

“Will string theory help?”

“Physicists have spent 50 years grinding on that without a testable result.  I’m not holding my breath.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three off The Plane

Rumpus in the hallway.  Vinnie dashes into my office, tablet in hand and trailing paper napkins.  “Sy! Sy! I figured it out!”

“Great!  What did you figure out?”

“You know they talk about light and radio being electromagnetic waves, but I got to wondering.  Radio antennas don’t got magnets so where does the magnetic part come in?”

“19th-Century physicists struggled with that question until Maxwell published his famous equations.  What’s your answer?”

“Well, you know me — I don’t do equations, I do pictures.  I saw a TV program about electricity.  Some Danish scientist named Hans Christian Anderson—”


“Whoever.  Anyway, he found that magnetism happens when an electric current starts or stops.  That’s what gave me my idea.  We got electrons, right, but no magnetrons, right?”

“Mmm, your microwave oven has a vacuum tube called a magnetron in it.”

“C’mon, Sy, you know what I mean.  We got no whatchacallit, ‘fundamental particle’ of magnetism like we got with electrons and electricity.”

“I’ll give you that.  Physicists have searched hard for evidence of magnetic monopoles — no successes so far.  So why’s that important to you?”

3 electrons moving north“It told me that the magnetism stuff has to come from what electrons do.  And that’s when I came up with this drawing.”  <He shoves a paper napkin at me.>  “See, the three balls are electrons and they’re all negative-negative pushing against each other only I’m just paying attention to what the red one’s doing to the other two.  Got that?”

“Sure.  The arrow means the red electron is traveling upward?”

“Yeah.  Now what’s that moving gonna do to the other two?”

“Well, the red’s getting closer to the yellow.  That increases the repulsive force yellow feels so it’ll move upward to stay away.”

“Uh-huh.  And the force on blue gets less so that one’s free to move upward, too.  Now pretend that the red one starts moving downward.”

“Everything goes the other way, of course.  Where does the magnetism come in?”

3 electrons in B-field“Well, that was the puzzle.  Here’s a drawing I copied from some book.  The magnetic field is those B arrows and there’s three electrons moving  in the same flat space in different directions.  The red one’s moving along the field and stays that way.  The blue one’s moving slanty across the field and gets pushed upwards.  The green one’s going at right angles to B and gets bent way up.  I’m looking and looking — how come the field forces them to move up?”

“Good question.  To answer it those 19th Century physicists developed vector analysis—”

Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave
Electric (E) field is red
Magnetic (B) field is blue
(Image by Loo Kang Wee and Fu-Kwun Hwang from Wikimedia Commons)

“Don’t give me equations, Sy, I do pictures.  Anyway, I figured it out, and I did it from a movie I got on my tablet here.  It’s a light wave, see, so it’s got both an electric field and a magnetic field and they’re all sync’ed up together.”

“I see that.”

“What the book’s picture skipped was, where does the B-field come from?  That’s what I figured out.  Actually, I started with where the the light wave came from.”

“Which is…?”

“Way back there into the page, some electron is going up and down, and that creates the electric field whose job is to make other electrons go up and down like in my first picture, right?”

“OK, and …?”

“Then I thought about some other electron coming in to meet the wave.  If it comes in crosswise, its path is gonna get bent upward by the E-field.  That’s what the blue and green electrons did.  So what I think is, the magnetic effect is really from the E-field acting on moving electrons.”

“Nice try, but it doesn’t explain a couple of things.  For instance, there’s the difference between the green and blue paths.  Why does the amount of deflection depend on the angle between the B direction and the incoming path?”

“Dunno.  What’s the other thing?”

“Experiment shows that the faster the electron moves, the greater the magnetic deflection.  Does your theory account for that?”

“Uhh … my idea says less deflection.”

“Sorry, another beautiful theory stumbles on ugly facts.”

~~ Rich Olcott