Zwicky Too Soon

Big Vinnie barrels into the office, again. “Hey, Sy, word is you been short-changing Fritz Zwicky. What’s the story?”

“Hey, I never even met the guy.  He died in 1974.  How could I do him a bad deal?”

“Not giving him full credit.  I read an article about him.  He talked about ‘dark matter’ almost fifty years before Vera Rubin.”

“You’ve got a point there.  Like Vera Rubin he had a political problem, but his was quite different than hers.”

“Political?  I thought all you had to do was be right.”

“No, you have to be right and you have to have people willing to spend time validating or refuting your claims.  Rubin wasn’t a self-advertiser, so it took a while for people to realize why her results were important.  They did look at them, though, and they did give her credit.  Zwicky’s was a different story.”

“Wasn’t he right?”

“Sometimes right, often wrong.  Thing was, he generated too many ideas for people to cope with.  Worse, he was one of those wide-ranging intellects who adds one plus one to make two.  Trouble was, Zwicky got his ones from different specialties that don’t normally interact.  When people didn’t immediately run with one of his claims he took it personally and lashed out, publicly called ’em fools or worse.  Never a good tactic.”

“Gimme a f’rinstance.”

“OK.  Early 1930’s, Zwicky’s out in the still-raw wilds of California, practically nothing out there but movie studios and oil wells, using a manual blink-comparator like the one Clyde Tombaugh used about the same time to find Pluto.  He’s scanning images taken with Palomar’s new wide-angle telescope to search out novae, stars that suddenly get brighter.  He’s finding dozens of them but a few somehow get orders of magnitude brighter than the rest.  He and his buddy Walter Baade call the special ones ‘supernovae.'”

“Ain’t that novas?”

“Novae — we’re being proper astronomers here and it’s a Latin word.  Anyway, Zwiky’s trying to figure out where a supernova’s enormous luminosity comes from.  He got his start in solid-state physics and he still keeps up on both Physics and Astronomy.  Just a year earlier, James Cavendish over in atomic physics had announced the discovery of the neutron.  Zwicky sees that neutrons are the solution to his problem — gravity can pack together no-charge neutrons to a much higher density than it can pack positive-charge protons.  He proposes that a supernova happens when a big-enough star uses up its fuel and collapses to the smallest possible object, a neutron star.  Furthermore, he says that the collapse releases so much gravitational energy that supernovae give off cosmic rays, the super-high-energy photons that were one of the Big Questions of the day.”

“Sounds reasonable, I suppose.”

“Well, yeah, now.  But back then most astronomers had never heard of neutrons.  To solve at a stroke both cosmic rays and supernovae, using this weird new thing called a neutron, and with the proposal coming from somewhere other than Europe or Ivy League academia — well, it was all too outlandish to take seriously.  No-one did, for decades.”

“He didn’t like that, huh?”Zwicky inspecting dark matter

“No, he did not.  And he railed about it, not only in private conversations but in papers and in the preface to one of the two galaxy catalogs he published.  Same thing with galaxy clusters.”

“Wait, you wrote that Rubin found clusters.”

“I did and she did.  Actually, I wrote that she confirmed clustering.  We knew for 150 years that galaxies bunch together in our 2-D sky, but it took Zwicky’s measurements to group the Coma Cluster galaxies in 3-D.  Problem was, they were moving too fast.  If star gravity were the only thing holding them together they should have scattered ages ago.”

“Dark matter, huh?”

“Yup, Zwicky claimed invisible extra mass bound the cluster together.  More Zwicky outlandishness and once again his work was ignored for years.”

“Even though he was right.”

“Mm-hm.  But he could be wrong, too.  He didn’t like Hubble’s expanding Universe idea so he came up with a ‘tired light’ theory to explain the red-shifts.  He touted that idea heavily but there was too much evidence against it.”

“One of those angry ‘lone wolf’ scientists.”

“And bitter.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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Prelude to A Waltz

An excited knock, but one I recognize.  In comes Vinnie, waving his fresh copy of The New York Times.

LIGO‘s done it again!  They’ve seen another black hole collision!”

“Yeah, Vinnie, I’ve read the Abbott-and-a-thousand paper.  Three catastrophic collisions detected in less than two years.  The Universe is starting to look like a pretty busy place, isn’t it?”

“And they all involve really big black holes — 15, 20, even 30 times heavier than the Sun.  Didn’t you once say black holes that size couldn’t exist?”

“Well, apparently they do.  Of course the physicists are busily theorizing how that can happen.  What do you know about how stars work, Vinnie?”

“They get energy from fusing hydrogen atoms to make helium atoms.”

“So far, so good, but then what happens when the hydrogen’s used up?”

“They go out, I guess.”

“Oh, it’s a lot more exciting than that. Does the fusion reaction happen everywhere in the star?”

“I woulda said, ‘Yes,’ but since you’re asking I’ll bet the answer is,  ‘No.'”

“Properly suspicious, and you’re right.  It takes a lot of heat and pressure to force a couple of positive nuclei close enough to fuse together despite charge repulsion.  Pressures near the outer layers are way too low for that.  For our Sun, for instance, you need to be 70% of the way to the center before fusion really kicks in.  So you’ve got radiation pressure from the fusion pushing everything outward and gravity pulling everything toward the center.  But what’s down there?  Here’s a hint — hydrogen’s atomic weight is 1, helium’s is 4.”

“You’re telling me that the heavier atoms sink to the center?”

“I am.”

“So the center builds up a lot of helium.  Oh, wait, helium atoms got two protons in there so it’s got to be harder to mash them together than mashing hydrogens, right?”Star zones
“And that’s why that region’s marked ash zone in this sketch.  Wherever conditions are right for hydrogen fusion, helium’s basically inert.  Like ash in a campfire it just sinks out of the way.  Now the fire goes out.  What would you expect next?”

“Radiation pressure’s gone but gravity’s still there … everything must slam inwards.”

Slam is an excellent word choice, even though the star’s radius is measured in thousands of miles.  What’s the slam going to do to the helium atoms?”

“Is it strong enough to start helium fusion?”

“That’s where I’m going.  The star starts fusing helium at its core.  That’s a much hotter reaction than hydrogen’s.  When convective zone hydrogen that’s still falling inward meets fresh outbound radiation pressure, most of the hydrogen gets blasted away.”

“Fusing helium – that’s a new one on me.  What’s that make?”

“Carbon and oxygen, mostly.  They’re as inert during the helium-fusion phase as helium was when hydrogen was doing its thing.”

“So will the star do another nova cycle?”

“Maybe.  Depends on the core’s mass.  Its gravity may not be intense enough to fuse helium’s ashes.  In that case you wind up with a white dwarf, which just sits there cooling off for billions of years.  That’s what the Sun will do.”

“But suppose the star’s heavy enough to burn those ashes…”

“The core’s fresh light-up blows away infalling convective zone material.  The core makes even heavier atoms.  Given enough fuel, the sequence repeats, cycling faster and faster until it gets to iron.  At each stage the star has less mass than before its explosion but the residual core is more dense and its gravity field is more intense.  The process may stop at a neutron star, but if there was enough fuel to start with, you get a black hole.”

“That’s the theory that accounts for the Sun-size black holes?”

“Pretty much.  I’ve left out lots of details, of course.  But it doesn’t account for black holes the size of 30 Suns — really big stars go supernova and throw away so much of their mass they miss the black-hole sweet spot and terminate as a neutron star or white dwarf.  That’s where the new LIGO observation comes in.  It may have clued us in on how those big guys happen.”

“That sketch looks like a pizza slice.”

“You’re thinking dinner, right?”

“Yeah, and it’s your turn to buy.”

~~ Rich Olcott