Shadow Plays

“A strawberry scone and my usual black, Al.”

“Sure thing, Sy, comin– Hiya, Cathleen, see my new poster? Event Horizon Telescope pictures of the two big‑guy black holes we’ve actually seen so far. Those white-hot blobs buried in those red rings. Ain’t it a beaut? What’ll you have?”

“They’re certainly wonderful graphics, Al. I’ll have a caramel latte, please, with a plain scone.” I’m waiting for it, because Cathleen never passes up a teachable moment. Sure enough — “Of course, neither one actually looks like that or represents what you think. Those images were created from radio waves, not visible light or even infrared. The yellows and whites don’t represent heat, and that darkness in the middle isn’t the black hole.”

“Whoa, don’t harsh Al’s happy, Cathleen. Maybe just go at it a step at a time?”

<sigh> “You’re right, Sy. Sorry, Al, I just get frustrated when press‑agent science gets in the way of the real stuff which is already interesting on its own. For instance, I haven’t seen anything in the pop‑sci press about the EHT people using the same 2017 data to produce both images, even though the two objects are almost 90° apart in the sky. I think about our optical telescopes and the huge high-tech motors it takes to point them in the right direction. These guys just re-work their data and they’re good for another round.”

“It’s a cute trick, alright, Cathleen, steering a distributed telescope with arithmetic.”

“OK, you guys are over my head — distributed telescope?”

“The EHT Collaboration works with eight radio telescopes scattered across the world. The signal from any point in the sky has a different time offset at each telescope depending on the angle to the point. If you know the baseline between each pair of scopes and you’ve got really good clocks keeping track of time at each location, when you combine the data from all eight locations it’s just arithmetic to pick out matching signals at the right set of offsets for any point of origin.”

“A lot of arithmetic, Cathleen.”

“I’ll give you that, Sy. Al, it took the researchers and some hefty compute facilities two years to boil down the data for the M87 monster. In principle, when they wanted to inspect the Milky Way’s beast all they had to do was run through the same data selecting for signal matches at the offsets pointing to Sgr A*. Awesome tech, huh?”

“Awesome, yeah, but if the colors aren’t heat, what are they?”

“Electron density, mostly. Your red‑and‑yellow Jupiter poster over there is like most heat maps. Researchers figure a pixel’s temperature by comparing data from multiple wavelengths with the Planck curve or some other calibrated standard. These images, though, came from a single wavelength, 1.3 millimeters. Light at shorter wavelengths can’t get past the dust, longer wavelengths can’t give us the image resolution. Millimeters waves are in the radio part of the spectrum — too low‑energy to detect moving charge inside atoms or between molecule components. The only thing that can give off those photons is free‑floating electrons. The brightest pixels have the most electrons.”

“So the hole isn’t the black hole?”

“Depends on your definition, I suppose. Everyone visualizes that black sphere, the event horizon, when they think ‘black hole.’ That’s not what the dark patches are. By my definition, though, a ‘black hole‘ is the whole package — central mass, event horizon, ergosphere if it’s spinning, a jet maybe and everything else that’s associated with the mass. It’s as much a collection of processes as a thing. Anyhow, the bright stuff in these images does come from accretion disks.”

“The dark patch is the disk’s inside edge?”

“Nope, it’s the shadow of the photon sphere. Before you ask, that’s a light‑trapping shell 1½ times the horizon’s diameter. Depending on its angle of approach, a photon that touches the sphere either spirals inward, orbits forever, or swerves outward. Going straight doesn’t happen. The shadow memorializes Earth‑bound photons that bounced away from us.”

“I guess my happy’s back, Cathleen, but it’s different.”

“You’re welcome, Al. Now how about the coffee and scones we asked for?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
Image: Lia Medeiros, ISA, EHTC

Michelson, Morley and LIGO

Two teams of scientists, 128 years apart.  The first team, two men, got a negative result that shattered a long-standing theory.  The second team, a thousand strong, got a positive result that provided final confirmation of another long-standing theory.  Both teams used instruments based on the same physical phenomenon.  Each team’s innovations created whole new fields of science and technology.

Interferometer 1Their common experimental strategy sounds simple enough — compare two beams of light that had traveled along different paths

Light (preferably nice pure laser light, but Albert Michelson didn’t have a laser when he invented interferometry in 1887) comes in from the source at left and strikes the “beam splitter” — typically, a partially-silvered mirror that reflects half the light and lets the rest through.  One beam goes up the y-arm to a mirror that reflects it back down through the half-silvered mirror to the detector.  The other beam goes on its own round-trip journey in the x-direction.  The detector (Michelson’s eye or a photocell or a fancy-dancy research-quality CCD) registers activity if the waves in the two beams are in step when they hit it.  On the other hand, if the waves cancel then there’s only darkness.

Getting the two waves in step requires careful adjustment of the x- and y-mirrors, because the waves are small.  The yellow sodium light Michelson used has a peak-to-peak wavelength of 589 nanometers.  If he twitched one mirror 0.0003 millimeter away from optimal position the valleys of one wave would cancel the peaks of the other.

So much for principles.  The specifics of each team’s device relate to the theory being tested.  Michelson was confronting the æther theory, the proposition that if light is a wave then there must be some substance, the æther, that vibrates to carry the wave.  We see sunlight and starlight, so  the æther must pervade the transparent Universe.  The Earth must be plowing through the æther as it circles the Sun.  Furthermore, we must move either with or across or against the æther as we and the Earth rotate about its axis.  If we’re moving against the æther then lightwave peaks must appear closer together (shorter wavelengths) than if we’re moving with it.Michelson-Moreley device

Michelson designed his device to test that chain of logic. His optical apparatus was all firmly bolted to a 4′-square block of stone resting on a wooden ring floating on a pool of mercury.  The whole thing could be put into slow rotation to enable comparison of the x– and y-arms at each point of the compass.

Interferometer 3
Suppose the æther theory is correct. Michelson should see lightwaves cancel at some orientations.

According to the æther theory, Michelson and his co-worker Edward Morley should have seen alternating light and dark as he rotated his device.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, he saw no significant variation in the optical behavior around the full 360o rotation, whether at noon or at 6:00 PM.

Cross off the æther theory.

Michelson’s strategy depended on light waves getting out of step if something happened to the beams as they traveled through the apparatus.  Alternatively, the beams could charge along just fine but something could happen to the apparatus itself.  That’s how the LIGO team rolled.

Interferometer 2
Suppose Einstein’s GR theory is correct. Gravitational wave stretching and compression should change the relative lengths of the two arms.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicts that space itself is squeezed and stretched by mass.  Miles get shorter near a black hole.  Furthermore, if the mass configuration changes, waves of compressive and expansive forces will travel outward at the speed of light.  If such a wave were to encounter a suitable interferometer in the right orientation (near-parallel to one arm, near-perpendicular to the other), that would alter the phase relationship between the two beams.

The trick was in the word “suitable.”  The expected percentage-wise length change was so small that eLIGO needed 4-kilometer arms to see movement a tiny fraction of a proton’s width.  Furthermore, the LIGO designers flipped the classical detection logic.  Instead of looking for a darkened beam, they set the beams to cancel at the detector and looked for even a trace of light.

eLIGO saw the light, and confirmed Einstein’s theory.

~~ Rich Olcott