A Three-dog Night Would Be So Cool

“So we’ve got three fundamentally different messengers from the stars, Mr Feder.  The past couple of years have given us several encouraging instances of receiving two messengers from the same event.  If we ever receive all three messengers from the same event, that might give us what we need to solve the biggest problem in modern physics.”

“That’s a pretty deep statement, Moire.  Care to unpack it?  The geese here would love to hear about it.”

“Lakeside is a good place for thoughts like this.  The first messenger was photons.  We’ve been observing starlight photons for tens of thousand of years.  Tycho Brahe and Galileo took it to a new level a few centuries ago with their careful observation, precision measurements and Galileo’s telescope.”

“That’s done us pretty good, huh?”

“Oh sure, we’ve charted the heavens and how things move, what we can see of them.  But our charts imply there’s much we can’t see.  Photons only interact with electric charge.  Except for flat-out getting absorbed if the wavelength is right, photons don’t care about electrically neutral material and especially they don’t care about dark matter.”

“So that’s why we’re interested in the other messengers.”

“Exactly.  Even electrically neutral things have mass and interact with the gravitational field.  You remember the big news a few years ago, when our brand-new LIGO instruments caught a gravitational wave signal from a couple of black holes in collision.  Black holes don’t give off photons, so the gravitational wave messenger was our only way of learning about that event.”

“No lightwave signal at all?”

“Well, there was a report of a possible gamma-ray flare in that patch of sky, but it was borderline-detectable.  No observatory using lower-energy light saw anything there.  So, no.”

“You’re gonna tell me and the geese about some two-messenger event now, right?”

“That’s where I’m going, Mr Feder.  Photons first.  Astronomers have been wondering for decades about where short, high-energy gamma-ray bursts come from.  They seem to happen randomly in time and space.  About a year ago the Fermi satellite’s gamma-ray telescope detected one of those bursts and sent out an automated ‘Look HERE’ alert to other observatories.  Unfortunately, Fermi‘s resolution isn’t wonderful so its email pointed to a pretty large patch of sky.  Meanwhile back on Earth and within a couple of seconds of Fermi‘s moment, the LIGO instruments caught an unusual gravitational wave signal that ran about a hundred times slower than the black-hole signals they’d seen.  Another automated ‘Look HERE’ alert went out.  This one pointed to a small portion of that same patch of sky.  Two messengers.”

“Did anyone find anything?”

“Seventy other observatories scrutinized the overlap region at every wavelength known to Man.  They found a kilonova, an explosion of light and matter a thousand times brighter than typical novae.  The gravitational wave evidence indicated a collision between two neutron stars, something that had never before been recorded.  Photon evidence from the spewed-out cloud identified a dozen heavy elements theoreticians hadn’t been able to track to an origin.  Timing details in the signals gave cosmologists an independent path to resolving a problem with the Hubble Constant.  And now we know where those short gamma-ray bursts come from.”

“Pretty good for a two-messenger event.  Got another story like that?”

“A good one.  This one’s neutrinos and photons, and the neutrinos came in first.  One neutrino.”

One neutrino?”

“Yup, but it was a special one, a super-high-powered neutrino whose incoming path our IceCube observatory could get a good fix on.  IceCube sent out its own automated ‘Look HERE’ alert.  The Fermi team picked up the alert and got real excited because the alert’s coordinates matched the location of a known and studied gamma-ray source.  Not a short-burster, but a flaring blazar.  That neutrino’s extreme energy is evidence for blazars being one of the long-sought sources of cosmic rays.”

“Puzzle solved, maybe.  Now what you said about a three-messenger signal?”grebe messenger pairs“Gravitational waves are relativity effects and neutrinos are quantum mechanical.  Physicists have been struggling for a century to bridge those two domains.  Evidence from a three-messenger event could provide the final clues.”

“I’ll bet the geese enjoyed hearing all that.”

“They’re grebes, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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Reflections in Einstein’s bubble

There’s something peculiar in this earlier post where I embroidered on Einstein’s gambit in his epic battle with Bohr.  Here, I’ll self-plagiarize it for you…

Consider some nebula a million light-years away.  A million years ago an electron wobbled in the nebular cloud, generating a spherical electromagnetic wave that expanded at light-speed throughout the Universe.

Last night you got a glimpse of the nebula when that lightwave encountered a retinal cell in your eye.  Instantly, all of the wave’s energy, acting as a photon, energized a single electron in your retina.  That particular lightwave ceased to be active elsewhere in your eye or anywhere else on that million-light-year spherical shell.

Suppose that photon was yellow light, smack in the middle of the optical spectrum.  Its wavelength, about 580nm, says that the single far-away electron gave its spherical wave about 2.1eV (3.4×10-19 joules) of energy.  By the time it hit your eye that energy was spread over an area of a trillion square lightyears.  Your retinal cell’s cross-section is about 3 square micrometers so the cell can intercept only a teeny fraction of the wavefront.  Multiplying the wave’s energy by that fraction, I calculated that the cell should be able to collect only 10-75 joules.  You’d get that amount of energy from a 100W yellow light bulb that flashed for 10-73 seconds.  Like you’d notice.

But that microminiscule blink isn’t what you saw.  You saw one full photon-worth of yellow light, all 2.1eV of it, with no dilution by expansion.  Water waves sure don’t work that way, thank Heavens, or we’d be tsunami’d several times a day by earthquakes occurring near some ocean somewhere.

Feynman diagramHere we have a Feynman diagram, named for the Nobel-winning (1965) physicist who invented it and much else.  The diagram plots out the transaction we just discussed.  Not a conventional x-y plot, it shows Space, Time and particles.  To the left, that far-away electron emits a photon signified by the yellow wiggly line.  The photon has momentum so the electron must recoil away from it.

The photon proceeds on its million-lightyear journey across the diagram.  When it encounters that electron in your eye, the photon is immediately and completely converted to electron energy and momentum.

Here’s the thing.  This megayear Feynman diagram and the numbers behind it are identical to what you’d draw for the same kind of yellow-light electron-photon-electron interaction but across just a one-millimeter gap.

It’s an essential part of the quantum formalism — the amount of energy in a given transition is independent of the mechanical details (what the electrons were doing when the photon was emitted/absorbed, the photon’s route and trip time, which other atoms are in either neighborhood, etc.).  All that matters is the system’s starting and ending states.  (In fact, some complicated but legitimate Feynman diagrams let intermediate particles travel faster than lightspeed if they disappear before the process completes.  Hint.)

Because they don’t share a common history our nebular and retinal electrons are not entangled by the usual definition.  Nonetheless, like entanglement this transaction has Action-At-A-Distance stickers all over it.  First, and this was Einstein’s objection, the entire wave function disappears from everywhere in the Universe the instant its energy is delivered to a specific location.  Second, the Feynman calculation describes a time-independent, distance-independent connection between two permanently isolated particles.  Kinda romantic, maybe, but it’d be a boring movie plot.

As Einstein maintained, quantum mechanics is inherently non-local.  In QM change at one location is instantaneously reflected in change elsewhere as if two remote thingies are parts of one thingy whose left hand always knows what its right hand is doing.

Bohr didn’t care but Einstein did because relativity theory is based on geometry which is all about location. In relativity, change here can influence what happens there only by way of light or gravitational waves that travel at lightspeed.

In his book Spooky Action At A Distance, George Musser describes several non-quantum examples of non-locality.  In each case, there’s no signal transmission but somehow there’s a remote status change anyway.  We don’t (yet) know a good mechanism for making that happen.

It all suggests two speed limits, one for light and matter and the other for Einstein’s “deeper reality” beneath quantum mechanics.

~~ Rich Olcott