Terzetto for Rubber Ruler

ruler and sodium lines“So you’re telling me, Cathleen, that you can tell how hot a star is by looking at its color?”

“That’s right, Vinnie.  For most stars their continuous spectrum is pretty close to the blackbody equation tying peak wavelength to temperature.”

“But you can’t do that with far-away stars, right, because the further they are, the more stretched-out their lightwaves get.  Won’t that mess up the peak wavelength?”

“The key is Kirchhoff’s other kinds of spectrum.”

“You’re talking the bright-line and dark-line kinds.”

“Exactly.  Each kind of spectrum comes from a different process — each is affected differently by the object in question and the environment it’s embedded in.  A continuous spectrum is all about charged particles moving randomly in response to the heat energy they’re surrounded by.  It doesn’t matter what kind of particles they are or even whether they’re positive or negative.  Whenever a particle changes direction, it twitches the electromagnetic field and gives off a wave.”

“Right — the higher the temperature the less time between twitches; the wave can’t move as far before things change so the wavelength’s shorter; any speed’s possible so you can turn that dial wherever; I got all that.  So what’s different with the bright-line and dark-line spectrums?”

Cathleen and I both blurt out, “Spectra!” at the same time and give each other a look.  We’re grown-ups now.  We don’t say, “Jinx!” to each other any more.

“Alright, spectra.  But how’re they different?”

I pick up the story.  “Like Cathleen said, continuous spectra from same–temperature stuff look identical no matter what kind of stuff’s involved because heat is motion and each particle moves as a unit  The other kinds of spectrum are about transitions within particles so they’re all about which kind of stuff.  A given kind of atom can only absorb certain wavelengths of light and it can only relax by giving off exactly the same wavelengths.  There’s no in-betweens.”

She cuts in.  “Sodium, for instance.  It has two strong lines in the yellow, at 588.995 and 589.592 nanometers.  Whether in a star or a meteor or fireworks, sodium gives off exactly those colors.  Conversely, in an interstellar cloud or in a star’s outermost layers sodium absorbs exactly those colors from any continuous-spectrum light passing through.”

I’m back in.  “And there’s the key to your unmixing question, Vinnie.  We’ve talked about frames, remember?  Your far-away star’s light-generating layers emit a continuous spectrum that describes its temperature.  If we were right next to it, that’s the spectrum we’d see.  But as you say, we’re a long way away and in our frame the light’s been stretched.  It still looks like the black-body curve but it’s red-shifted because of our relative motion.”

Cathleen’s turn.  “But if there are sodium atoms in the star’s upper layers, their absorptions will cut a pair of notches in that emitted spectrum.  It won’t be a smooth curve, there’ll be two sharp dips in it, close together, with the blue-side one twice as strong as the other one.  Easy to recognize and measure the redshift.  The blackbody peak is redshifted by exactly the same amount so with some arithmetic you’ve got the peak’s original wavelength and the star’s temperature.”

Mine.  “See, because we know what the sodium wavelengths were in the star’s frame, we can divide the dip wavelengths we measure by the rest-frame numbers we know about.  The ratios give us the star’s redshift.”

Spectrum with only blackbody and sodium Cathleen turns to her laptop and starts tapping keys.  “Let’s do an example.  Suppose we’re looking at a star’s broadband spectrogram.  The blackbody curve peaks at 720 picometers.  There’s an absorption doublet with just the right relative intensity profile in the near infra-red at 1,060,190 and 1,061,265 picometers.  They’re 1,075 picometers apart.  In the lab, the sodium doublet’s split by 597 picometers.  If the star’s absorption peaks are indeed the sodium doublet then the spectrum has been stretched by a factor of 1075/597=1.80.  Working backward, in the star’s frame its blackbody peak must be at 720/1.80=400 picometers, which corresponds to a temperature of about 6,500 K.”

“Old Reliable calculates from that stretch factor and the Hubble Constant the star’s about ten billion lightyears away and fleeing at 240,000 km/s.”

“All that from three peaks.  Spectroscopy’s pretty powerful, huh?”

Cathleen and me: “For sure!    Jinx!”

~~ Rich Olcott


aLIGO and eLISA: Tuning The Instrument

Oh, it’s good to see Big News in hard science get big attention in Big Media.  The LIGO story and Columbia’s Dr Brian Greene even made it to the Stephen Colbert Late Show.  Everyone chuckled at the final “boowee-POP” audio recording (simulation at 7:30 into this clip; get for-real traces and audio from this one).

There’s some serious science in those chirps, not to mention serious trouble for any alien civilization that happened to be too close to the astronomical event giving rise to them.

LIGO trace 3

Adapted from the announcement paper by Abbot et al

The peaks and valleys in the top LIGO traces represent successive spatial compression cycles generated by two massive bodies orbiting each other.  There’s one trace for each of the two LIGO installations.  The spectrograms beneath show relative intensity at each frequency.  Peaks arrived more rapidly in the last 100 milliseconds and the simulated sound rose in pitch because the orbits grew smaller and faster.  The audio’s final POP is what you get from a brief but big disturbance, like the one you hear when you plug a speaker into a live sound system.  This POP announced two black holes merging into one, converting the mass-energy of three suns into a gravitational jolt to the Universe.

Scientists have mentioned in interviews that LIGO has given us “an ear to the Universe.”  That’s true in several different <ahem> senses.  First, we’ve seen in earlier posts that gravitational physics is completely different from the electromagnetism that illuminates every kind of telescope that astronomers have ever used.  Second, black hole collisions generate signals in frequencies that are within our auditory range.  Finally, LIGO was purposely constructed to have peak sensitivity in just that frequency range.

Virtually every kind of phenomenon that physicists study has a characteristic size range and a characteristic frequency/duration range.  Sound waves, for instance, are in the audiophile’s beloved “20 to 20,000” cycles per second (Hz).  Put another way, one cycle of a sound wave will last something between 1/20 and 1/20,000 second (0.05-0.000 05 second).  The speed of sound is roughly 340 meters per second which puts sound’s characteristic wavelength range between 17 meters and 17 millimeters.

No physicist would be surprised to learn that humans evolved to be sensitive to sound-making things in that size range.  We can locate an oncoming predator by its roar or by the snapping twig it stepped on but we have to look around to spot a pesky but tiny mosquito.

So the greenish box in the chart below is all about sound waves.  The yellowish box gathers together the classes of phenomena scientists study using the electromagnetic spectrum.  For instance, we use infra-red light (characteristic time range 10-15-10-12 second) to look at (or cause) molecular vibrations.

RegimesWe can investigate things that take longer than an instrument’s characteristic time by making repeated measurements, but we can’t use the instrument to resolve successive events that happen more quickly than that.  We also can’t resolve events that take place much closer together than the instrument’s characteristic length.

The electromagnetic spectrum serves us well, but it has its limitations.  The most important is that there are classes of objects out there that neither emit nor absorb light in any of its forms.  Black holes, for one.  They’re potentially crucial to the birth and development of galaxies.  However, we have little hard data on them against which to test the plethora of ideas the theoreticians have come up with.

Dark matter is another.  We know it’s subject to gravity, but to our knowledge the only way it interacts with light is by gravitational lensing.  Most scientists working on dark matter wield Occam’s Razor to conclude it’s pretty simple stuff.  Harvard cosmologist Dr Lisa Randall has suggested that there may be two kinds, one of which collects in disks that clothe themselves in galaxies.

That’s where LIGO and its successors in the gray box will help.  Their sensitivity to gravitational effects will be crucial to our understanding of dark objects.  Characteristic times in tens and thousands of seconds are no problem nor are event sizes measured in kilometers, because astronomical bodies are big.

GrWave Detectors

Gravitational instrumentation, from Christopher Berry’s blog and Web page

This is only the beginning, folks, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

~~ Rich Olcott