Question Time

Cathleen unmutes her mic. “Before we wrap up this online Crazy Theories contest with voting for the virtual Ceremonial Broom, I’ve got a few questions here in the chat box. The first question is for Kareem. ‘How about negative evidence for a pre-mammal civilization? Played-out mines, things like that.‘ Kareem, over to you.”

“Thanks. Good question but you’re thinking way too short a time period. Sixty‑six million years is plenty of time to erode the mountain a mine was burrowing into and take the mining apparatus with it.

“Here’s a different kind of negative evidence I did consider. We’re extracting coal now that had been laid down in the Carboniferous Era 300 million years ago. At first, I thought I’d proved no dinosaurs were smart enough to dig up coal because it’s still around where we can mine it. But on second thought I realized that sixty-six million years is enough time for geological upthrust and folding to expose coal seams that would have been too deeply buried for mining dinosaurs to get at. So like the Silurian Hypothesis authors said, no conclusions can be drawn.”

“Nice response, Kareem. Jim, this one’s for you. ‘You said our observable universe is 93 billion lightyears across, but I’ve heard over and over that the Universe is 14 billion years old. Did our observable universe expand faster than the speed of light?‘”

“That’s a deep space question, pun intended. The answer goes to what we mean when we say that the Hubble Flow expands the Universe. Like good Newtonian physicists, we’re used to thinking of space as an enormous sheet of graph paper. We visualize statements like, ‘distant galaxies are fleeing away from us‘ as us sitting at one spot on the graph paper and those other galaxies moving like fireworks across an unchanging grid.

“But that’s not the proper post-Einstein way to look at the situation. What’s going on is that we’re at our spot on the graph paper and each distant galaxy is at its spot, but the Hubble Flow stretches the graph paper. Suppose some star at the edge of our observable universe sent out a photon 13.7 billion years ago. That photon has been headed towards us at a steady 300000 kilometers per second ever since and it finally reached an Earth telescope last night. But in the meantime, the graph paper stretched underneath the photon until space between us and its home galaxy widened by a factor of 3.4.

“By the way, it’s a factor of 3.4 instead of 6.8 because the 93 billion lightyear distance is the diameter of our observable universe sphere, and the photon’s 13.7 billion lightyear trip is that sphere’s radius.

“Mmm, one more point — The Hubble Flow rate depends on distance and it’s really slow on the human‑life timescale. The current value of the Hubble Constant says that a point that’s 3×1019 kilometers away from us is receding at about 70 kilometers per second. To put that in perspective, Hubble Flow is stretching the Moon away from us by 3000 atom‑widths per year, or about 1/1300 the rate at which the Moon is receding because of tidal friction.”

“Nice calculation, Jim. Our final question is for Amanda. ‘Could I get to one of the other quantum tracks if I dove into a black hole and went through the singularity?‘”

“I wouldn’t want to try that but let’s think about it. Near the structure’s center gravitational intensity compresses mass-energy beyond the point that the words ‘particle’ and ‘quantum’ have meaning. All you’ve got is fields fluctuating wildly in every direction of spacetime. No sign posts, no way to navigate, you wouldn’t be able to choose an exit quantum track. But you wouldn’t be able to exit anyway because in that region the arrow of time points inward. Not a sci‑fi story with a happy ending.”

“<whew> Alright, folks, time to vote. Who presented the craziest theory? All those in favor of Kareem, click on your ‘hand’ icon. … OK. Now those voting for Jim? … OK. Now those voting for Amanda? … How ’bout that, it’s a tie. I guess for each of you there’s a parallel universe where you won the virtual Ceremonial Broom. Congratulations to all and thanks for such an interesting evening. Good night, everyone.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Far And Dusty Traveler

Cathleen takes the mic. “Quick coffee and scone break, folks, then Jim will continue our ‘IR, Spitzer And The Universe‘ symposium.” <pause> “OK, we’re back in business. Jim?”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Well, we’ve discussed finding astronomical molecules with infra-red. Now for a couple of other IR applications. First up — looking at things that are really far away. Everyone here knows that the Universe is expanding, right?”

<general murmur of assent, although the probably-an-Art-major looks startled>

“Great. Because of the expansion, light from a far-away object gets stretched out to longer wavelengths on its way to us. Say a sodium atom shot a brilliant yellow-gold 590-nanometer photon at us, but at the time the atom was 12.5 million lightyears away. By the time that wave reaches us it’s been broadened to 3540 nanometers, comfortably into the infra-red. Distant things are redder, sometimes too red to see with an optical telescope. The Spitzer Space Telescope‘s infra-red optics let us see those reddened photons. And then there’s dust.”

<voice from the crowd> “Dust?”

Cosmic dust, pretty much all the normal matter that’s not clumped into stars and planets. Some of it is leftovers from early times in the Universe, but much of it is stellar wind. Stars continuously spew particles in their normal day-to-day operation. There’s a lot more of that when one explodes as a nova or supernova. Dust particles come in all sizes but most are smaller than the ones in tobacco smoke.”

<same voice> “If they’re so small, why do we care about them?”

“Two reasons. First, there’s a lot of them. Maybe only a thousand particles per cubic kilometer of space, but there’s a huge number of cubic kilometers in space and they add up. More important is what the dust particles are made of and where we found them. Close inspection of the dust is like doing astronomical archaeology, giving us clues about how stars and galaxies evolved.”

<Vinnie, skeptical as always> “So what’s infra-red got to do with dust?”

“Depends on what kind of astronomy you’re interested in. Dust reflects and emits IR light. Frequency patterns in the light can tell us what that dust made of. On the other hand there’s the way that dust doesn’t interact with infra-red.”

<several voices> “Wait, what?”

The Milky Way from Black Rock Desert NV
By Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

“If Al’s gotten his video system working … ah, he has and it does. Look at this gorgeous shot of the Milky Way Galaxy. See all the dark areas? That’s dust blocking the visible light. The scattered stars in those areas are simply nearer to us than the clouds. We’d like to study what’s back beyond the clouds, especially near the galaxy’s core. That’s a really interesting region but the clouds block its visible light. Here’s the neat part — the clouds don’t block its infra-red light.”

<other voices> “Huh?” “Why wouldn’t they?”

“It’s the size of the waves versus the size of the particles. Take an extreme case — what’s the wavelength of Earth’s ocean tides?”

<Silence, so I speak up.> “Two high tides a day, so the wavelength is half the Earth’s circumference or about 12’500 miles.”

“Right. Now say you’re at the beach and you’re out there wading and the water’s calm. Would you notice the tide?”

“No, rise or fall would be too gentle to affect me.”

“Now let’s add a swell whose peak-to-peak wavelength is about human-height scale.”

“Whoa, I’d be dragged back and forth as each wave passes.”

“Just for grins, let’s replace that swell with waves the same height but only a millimeter apart. Oh, and you’re wearing SCUBA equipment.”

“Have mercy! Well, I should be able to stand in place because I wouldn’t even feel the peaks and troughs as separate waves, just a foamy massage. Thanks for the breathing assistance, though.”

“You’re welcome, and thanks for helping with the thought experiment. Most cosmic dust particles are less than 100 nanometers across. Infra-red wavelengths run 100 to 1000 times longer than that. Infra-red light from those cloud-hidden stars just curves around particles that can stop visible lightwaves cold. Spitzer Space Telescope and its IR-sensitive kin provide deeper and further views than visible light allows.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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 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?”


~~ Rich Olcott

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.”


“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

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