Above The Air, Below The Red

Vinnie and I walk into Al’s coffee shop just as he sets out a tray of scones. “Odd-looking topping on those, Al. What is it?”

“Dark cherry and dark chocolate, Sy. Something about looking infra-red. Cathleen special-ordered them for some Astronomy event she’s hosting in the back room. Carry this tray in there for me?”

Vinne grabs the tray and a scone. “Sure, Al. … Mmm, tasty. … Hi, Cathleen. Here’s your scones. What’s the event?”

“It’s a memorial symposium for the Spitzer Space Telescope, Vinnie. Spitzer‘s been an infra-red workhorse for almost 17 years and NASA formally retired it at the end of January.”

“What’s so special about infra-red? It’s just light, right? We got the Hubble for that.”

“A perfect cue for Jim’s talk. <to crowd> Grab a scone and settle down, everyone. Welcome to our symposium, ‘IR , Spitzer And The Universe.’ Our first presentation today is entitled ‘What’s So Special About Infra-red?‘ Jim, you’re on.”

“Thanks, Cathleen. This is an introductory talk, so I’ll keep it mostly non-technical. So, question for everybody — when you see ‘IR‘, what do you think of first?”

<shouts from the crowd> “Pizza warmer!” “Invisible light!” “Night-vision goggles!”

“Pretty much what I expected. All relevant, but IR’s much more than that. To begin with, many more colors than visible light. We can distinguish colors in the rainbow because each color’s lightwave has a different frequency. Everybody OK with that?”

<general mutter of assent>

“OK. Well, the frequency at the violet end of the visible spectrum is a bit less than double the frequency at the red end. In music when you double the frequency you go up an octave. The range of colors we see from red to violet is less than an octave, about like going from A-natural to F-sharp on the piano. The infra-red spectrum covers almost nine octaves. An 88-key piano doesn’t even do eight.”

<voice from the crowd, maybe an Art major> “Wow, if we could see infra-red think of all the colors there’d be!”

“But you’d need a whole collection of specialized eyes to see them. With light, every time you go down an octave you reduce the photon’s energy capacity by half. Visible light is visible because its photons have just enough energy to cause an electronic change in our retinas’ photoreceptor molecules. Five octaves higher than that, the photons have enough energy to knock electrons right out of a molecule like DNA. An octave lower than visible, almost nothing electronic.”

<Vinnie’s always-skeptical voice> “If there’s no connecting with electrons, how does electronic infra-red detection work?”

“Two ways. A few semiconductor configurations are sensitive to near- and mid-infra-red photons. The Spitzer‘s sensors are grids of those configurations. To handle really low-frequency IR you have to sense heat directly with bolometer techniques that track expansion and contraction.”

<another skeptical voice> “OK then, how does infra-red heating work?”

“Looks like a paradox, doesn’t it? Infra-red photons are too low-energy to make a quantum change in a molecule’s electronic arrangement, but we know that the only way photons can have an effect is by making quantum changes. So how come we feel infra-red’s heat? The key is, photons can interact with any kind of charged structure, not just electrons. If a molecule’s charges aren’t perfectly balanced a photon can vibrate or rotate part of a molecule or even the whole thing. That changes its kinetic energy because molecular motion is heat, right? Fortunately for the astronomers, gas vibrations and rotations are quantized, too. An isolated water molecule can only do stepwise changes in vibration and rotation.”

“Why’s that fortunate?”

“Because that’s how I do my research. Every kind of molecule has its own set of steps, its own set of frequencies where it can absorb light. The infra-red range lets us do for molecules what the visual range lets us do for atoms. By charting specific absorption bands we’ve located and identified interstellar clouds of water, formaldehyde and a host of other chemicals. I just recently saw a report of ‘helonium‘, a molecular ion containing helium and hydrogen, left over from when the Universe began. Infra-red is so cool.”

“No, it’s warm.”

Image suggested by Alex

~~ Rich Olcott