Category Archives: Astronomy

The First Billion Years

When we think about the Big Bang we tend only to look at the first few instants when we think all of the mysterious and exciting action occurred. But actually, the first BILLION years are the real stars of this story!

My books ‘Eternity:A Users Guide’ and ‘Cosmic History I and II’ provide a more thorough, and ‘twitterized’, timeline of the universe from the Big Bang to the literal end of time if you are interested in the whole story as we know it today. You can also look at a massive computer simulation developed by Harvard and MIT cosmologists in 2014.

What we understand today is not merely based on theoretical expectations. Thanks to specific observations during the last decade, we have actually discovered distant objects that help us probe critical moments during this span of time.


By the end of the first 10 minutes after the Big Bang, the universe was filled with a cooling plasma of hydrogen and helium nuclei and electrons – too hot to come together to form neutral atoms at seething temperatures over 100 million Celsius. The traces that we do see of the fireball light from the Big Bang are called the cosmic background radiation, and astronomers have been studying it since the 1960s. Today, the temperature is 2.726 kelvins, but at one part in 100,000 there are irregularities in its temperature across the entire sky detected by the COBE, WMAP and Planck satellites and shown below. These irregularities are the gravitational fingerprints of vast clusters of galaxies that formed in the infant universe after several more billion years.

By 379,000 years, matter had cooled down to the point where electrons could bond with atomic nuclei to form neutral atoms of hydrogen and helium. For the first time in cosmic history, matter could go its own way and no longer be affected by the fireball radiation, which used to blast these assembled atoms apart faster than they could form. If you were living at this time, it would look like you were standing inside the surface of a vast dull-red star steadily fading to black as the universe continued to expand, and the gas steadily cooled over the millennia. No matter where you stood in the universe at this time, all you would see around you is  this dull-red glow across the sky.

6 million years – By this time, the cosmic gas has cooled to the point that its temperature was only 500 kelvins (440 F). At these temperatures, it no longer emits any  visible light. The universe is now fully in what astronomers call The Cosmic Dark Ages. If you were there and looking around, you would see nothing but an inky blackness no matter where you looked! With infrared eyes, however, you would see the cosmos filled by a glow spanning the entire sky.

20 million years – The hydrogen-helium gas that exists all across the universe is starting to feel the gravity effects of dark matter, which has started to form large clumps and vast spiders-web-like networks spanning the entire cosmos, with a mass of several trillion times the mass of our sun. As the cold, primordial gas falls into these gravity wells, it forms what will later become the halos of modern-day galaxies. All of this hidden under a cloak of complete darkness because there was as yet no physical objects in existence to light things up. Only detailed supercomputer simulations can reveal what occurred during this time.

The First Stars

100 million years – Once the universe got cold enough, large gas clouds stopped being controlled by their internal pressure, and gravity started to take the upper hand. First the vast collections of matter destined to become the haloes of galaxies formed. Then, or at about the same time, the first generation of stars appeared in the universe. These Population III stars made from nearly transparent hydrogen and helium gas were so massive, they lived for only a few million years before detonating as supernova. As the universe becomes polluted with heavier elements from billions of supernovae, collapsing clouds become more opaque to their own radiation, and so the collapse process stops when much less matter has formed into the infant stars. Instead of only producing massive Population III stars with 100 times our sun’s mass, numerous stars with masses of 50, 20 and 5 times our sun’s form with increasing frequency. Even smaller stars like our own sun begin to appear by the trillions. Most of this activity is occurring in what will eventually become the halo stars in modern galaxies like the Milky Way. The vast networks of dark matter became illuminated from within as stars and galaxies began to form.

200 million years – The oldest known star in our Milky Way called SM0313 formed about this time. This star contains almost no iron — less than one ten millionth of the iron found in our own Sun. It is located 6000 light years from Earth. Another star called the Methusela Star is located about 190 light years from Earth and was formed about the same time as SM0313.

The First Quasars and Black Holes

300 million years The most distant known ‘quasar’ is called APM 8279+5255, and contains traces of the element iron. This means that at about this time after the Big Bang, some objects are powered by  enormous black holes that steadily consume a surrounding disk of gas and dust. For APM 8279+5255, the mass of this black hole is about 20 billion times more massive than the Sun. Astronomers do not know how a black hole this massive could gave formed so soon after the Big Bang. A dimple division shows that a 20 billion solar mass black hole forming in 300 million years would require a growth rate higher than 60 solar masses a year!

The First Galaxies

400 million years – The cold primordial matter becomes clumpy under the action of its own gravity. These clumps have masses of perhaps a few billion times our sun or less, and over time this material starts to collapse locally into even smaller clouds that become mini-galaxies where intense episodes of star formation activity are playing out.

This image shows the position of the most distant galaxy discovered so far with the Hubble Space Telescope. The remote galaxy GN-z11 shown in the inset is actually ablaze with bright young blue stars. They look red in this image because the wavelengths of light have been stretched by the expansion of the universe to longer, redder wavelengths. Like the images of so many other young galaxies, we cannot see individual stars, but their irregular shapes show that the stars they contain are spread out in irregular clumps within their host galaxy, possibly because they are from separate, merging clouds whose collisions have triggered the star-forming activity we see.

Although it is hard work, astronomers can detect the faint reddish traces of dozens of other infant galaxies such as MACS0647-JD, UDFj-39546284 and EGSY-2008532660. These are all  small dwarf galaxies over 100 times less massive than our Milky Way. They are all undergoing intense star forming activity between 400 and 600 million years after the Big Bang.

The Gamma-Ray Burst Era begins about 630 million years after the Big Bang. Gamma-ray bursts are caused by very massive stars, perhaps 50 to 100 times our own sun’s mass, that explode as hypernovae and form a single black hole, so we know that these kinds of stars were already forming and dying by this time. Today from ‘across the universe’ we see these events occur about once each day!

800 million years – The quasar ULAS J1120+0641 is another young case of a supermassive black hole that has formed, and by this time is eating its surrounding gas and stars at a prodigious rate. The mass of this black hole is about 2 billion times the mass of our sun, and like others is probably the result of frequent galaxy mergers and rapid eating of surrounding matter.

Also at around this time we encounter the Himiko Lyman Alpha Blob; one of the most massive objects ever discovered in the early universe.  It is 55,000 light-years across, which is half of the diameter of the Milky Way. Objects like Himiko are probably powered by an embedded galaxy that is producing young massive stars at a phenomenal rate of 500 solar masses per year or more.

Again the most brilliant objects we can see from a time about 900 million years after the big bang includes galaxies like SDSS J0100+2802 with a luminosity 420 trillion times that of our own Sun. It is powered by a supermassive black hole  12 billion times the mass of our sun.

The Re-Ionization Era

960 million years – By this time, massive stars in what astronomers call ‘Population III’ are being born by the billions across the entire universe. These massive stars emit almost all of their light in the ultraviolet part of the visible spectrum. There are now so many intense sources of ultraviolet radiation in the universe that all of the remaining hydrogen gas becomes ionized. Astronomers call this the Reionization Era. Within a few hundred million years, only dwarf galaxy-sized blobs of gas still remain and are being quickly evaporated. We can still see the ghosts of these clouds in the light from very distant galaxies. The galaxy SSA22-HCM1 is the brightest of the objects called ‘Lyman-alpha emitters’. It may be producing new stars at a rate of 40 solar masses per year and enormous amounts of ultraviolet light. The galaxy HDF 4-473.0 also spotted at this age is only 7,000 light years across. It has an estimated star formation rate of 13 solar masses per year.

1 billion years First by twos and threes, then by dozens and hundreds, clusters of galaxies begin to form as the gravity of matter pulls the clumps of galaxy-forming matter together. This clustering is speeded up by the additional gravity provided by dark matter. In a universe without dark matter, the number of clusters of galaxies would be dramatically smaller.

Clusters of Galaxies Form

Proto-galaxy cluster AZTEC-3 consists of 5 smaller galaxy-like clumps of matter, each forming stars at a prodigious rate. We now begin to see how some of the small clumps in this cluster are falling together and interacting, eventually to become a larger galaxy-sized system. This process of cluster formation is now beginning in earnest as more and more of these ancient clumps fall together under a widening umbrella of gravity. Astronomers are discovering more objects like AzTEC-3, which is the most distant known progenitor to modern elliptical galaxies. By 2.2 billion years after the Big Bang, it appears that half of all the massive elliptical galaxies we see around us today have already formed by this time.

Thanks to the birth and violent deaths of generations of massive Population III stars, the universe is now flooded with heavy elements such as iron, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen: The building blocks for life. But also elements like silicon, iron and uranium which help to build rocky planets and heat their interiors. The light from the quasar J033829.31+002156.3 can be studied in detail and shows that by this time, element-building through supernova explosions of Population III stars has produced lots of carbon, nitrogen and silicon. The earliest planets and life forms based upon these elements now have a chance to appear in the universe. Amazingly, we have already spotted such an ancient world!

Earliest Planets Form

At 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the oldest known planet PSR B1620-26 b has already formed. Located in the globular cluster Messier-4, about 12,400 light-years from Earth, it bears the unofficial nicknames “Methuselah” and “The Genesis Planet” because of its extreme age. The planet is in orbit around the two very old stars: A dense white dwarf and a neutron star. The planet has a mass of 2.5 times that of Jupiter, and orbits at a distance a little greater than the distance between Uranus and our own Sun. Each orbit of the planet takes about 100 years.

Wonders to Come!

Although the Hubble Space Telescope strains at its capabilities to see objects at this early stage in cosmic history, the launch of NASA’s Webb Space Telescope will uncover not dozens but thousands of these young pre-galactic objects with its optimized design. Within the next decade, we will have a virtually complete understanding of what happened during and after the Cosmic Dark Ages when the earliest possible sources of light could have formed, and one can only marvel at what new discoveries will turn up.

What an amazing time in which to be alive!

Check back here on Wednesday, May 24 for my next topic!

Our Unstable Universe

Something weird is going on in the universe that is causing astronomers and physicists to lose a bit of sleep at night. You have probably heard about the discovery of dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe. This is a sign that something is afoot that may not have a pleasant outcome for our universe or the life in it.

Big Bang Cosmology V 1.0

The basic idea is that our universe has been steadily expanding in scale since 14 billion years ago when it flashed into existence in an inconceivably dense and hot explosion. Today we can look around us and see this expansion as the constantly- increasing distances between galaxies embedded in space. Astronomers measure this change in terms of a single number called the Hubble Constant which has a value of about 70 km/sec per megaparsecs. For every million parsecs of separation between galaxies, a distance of 3.24 million light years, you will see distant galaxies speeding away from each other at 70 km/sec . This conventional Big Bang theory has been the main-stay of cosmology for decades and it has helped explain everything from the formation of galaxies to the abundance of hydrogen and helium in the universe.

Big Bang Cosmology V 2.0

Beginning in the 1980’s, physicists such as Alan Guth and Andre Linde added some new physics to the Big Bang based on cutting-edge ideas in theoretical physics. For a decade, physicists had been working on ways to unify the three forces in nature: electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. This led to the idea that just as the Higgs Field was needed to make the electromagnetic and weak forces look different rather than behave as nearly identical ‘electroweak’ forces, the strong force needed its own ‘scalar field’ field to break its symmetry with the electroweak force.

When Guth and Linde added this field to the equations of Big Bang cosmology they made a dramatic discovery. As the universe expanded and cooled, for a brief time this new scalar field made the transition between a state where it allowed the electroweak and strong forces to look identical, and a state where this symmetry was broken representing the current state of affairs. This period of time extended from about 10(-37) second to 10(-35) seconds; a mere instant in cosmic time, but the impact of this event was spectacular. Instead of the universe expanding at a steady rate in time as it does now, the separations between particles increased exponentially in time in a process called Inflation. Physicists now had a proper name for this scalar field: The Inflaton Field.

Observational cosmology has been able to verify since the 1990s that the universe did, indeed, pass through such an inflationary era at about the calculated time. The expansion of space at a rate many trillions of times faster than the speed of light insured that we live in a universe that looks as ours does, especially in terms of the uniformity of the cosmic ‘fireball’ temperature. It’s 2.7 kelvins no matter where you look, which would have been impossible had the Inflationary Era not existed.

Physicists consider the vacuum of space to be more than ‘nothing’. Quantum mechanically, it is filled by a patina of particles that invisibly come and go, and by fields that can give it a net energy. The presence of the Inflaton Field gave our universe a range of possible vacuum energies depending on how the field interacted with itself. As with other things in nature, objects in a high-energy state will evolve to occupy a lower-energy state. Physicists call the higher-energy state the False Vacuum and the lower-energy state the True Vacuum, and there is a specific way that our universe would have made this change. Before Inflation, our universe was in a high-energy, False Vacuum state governed by the Inflaton Field. As the universe continued to expand and cool, a lower-energy state for this field was revealed in the physics, but the particles and fields in our universe could not instantaneously go into that lower-energy state. As time went on, the difference in energy between the initial False Vacuum and the True Vacuum continued to increase. Like bubbles in a soda, small parts of the universe began to make this transition so that we now had a vast area of the universe in a False Vacuum in which bubbles of space in the True Vacuum began to appear. But there was another important process going on as well.

When you examine how this transition from False to True Vacuum occurred in Einstein’s equations that described Big Bang cosmology, a universe in which the False Vacuum existed was an exponentially expanding space, while the space inside the True Vacuum bubbles was only expanding at a simple, constant rate defined by Hubble’s Constant. So at the time of inflation, we have to think of the universe as a patina of True Vacuum bubbles embedded in an exponentially-expanding space still caught in the False Vacuum. What this means for us today is that we are living inside one of these True Vacuum bubbles where everything looks about the same and uniform, but out there beyond our visible universe horizon some 14 billion light years away, we eventually enter that exponentially-expanding False Vacuum universe. Our own little bubble may actually be billions of times bigger than what we can see around us. It also means that we will never be able to see what these other distant bubbles look like because they are expanding away from us at many times the speed of light.

Big Bang Cosmology 3.0

You may have heard of Dark Energy and what astronomers have detected as the accelerating expansion of the universe. By looking at distant supernova, we can detect that since 6 billion years after the Big Bang, our universe has not been expanding at a steady rate at all. The separations between galaxies has been increasing at an exponential rate. This is caused by Dark Energy, which is present in every cubic meter of space .The more space there is as the universe expands, the more Dark Energy and the faster the universe expands. What this means is that we are living in a False Vacuum state today in which a new Inflaton Field is causing space to dilate exponentially. It doesn’t seem too uncomfortable for us right now, but the longer this state persists, the greater is the probability our corner of the universe will see a ‘bubble’ of the new True Vacuum appear. Inside this bubble there will be slightly different physics such as the mass of the electron or the quark may be different. We don’t know when our corner of the universe will switch over to its True Vacuum state. It could be tomorrow or 100 billion years from now. But there is one thing we do know about this progressive, accelerated expansion.

Eventually, distant galaxies will be receding from our Milky Way at faster that the speed of light as they are helplessly carried along by a monstrously-dilating space. This also means they will become permanently invisible for the rest of eternity as their light signals never keep pace with the exponentially-increasing space between them. Meanwhile, our Milky Way will become the only cosmic collection of matter we will ever be able to see from then on. It is predicted that this situation will occur about 100 billion years from now when the Andromeda Galaxy will pass beyond this distant horizon.

As for what the new physics will be in the future True Vacuum state is anyone’s guess. If the difference in energy between the False and True vacuum is only a small fraction of the mass of a neutrino (a few electron-Volts) we may hardly know that it happened and life will continue. But if it is comparable to the mass of the electron (512,000 eV), we are in for some devastating and fatal surprises best not contemplated.

Check back here on  Tuesday, May 16  for my next topic!

Boltzmann Brains

Back in the 1800’s, Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) developed the idea of entropy and thermodynamics, which have been the main-stay of chemistry and physics ever since. Long before atoms were identified, Boltzmann had used them in designing his theory of statistical mechanics, which related entropy to the number of possible statistical states these particles could occupy. His famous formula

S = k log W

is even inscribed on his tombstone! His frustrations with the anti-atomists who hated his crowning achievement ‘statistical mechanics’ led him in profound despair to commit suicide in 1906.

If you flip a coin 4 times, it is unlikely that all 4 flips will result in all-heads or all-tails. It is far more likely that you will get a mixture of heads and tails. This is a result of their being a total of 2^4 = 16 possible outcomes or ‘states’ for this system, and the state with all heads or all tails occur only 1/16 of the time. Most of the states you will produce have a mixture of heads and tails (14/16). Now replace the coin flips by the movement of a set of particles in three dimensions.

Boltzmann’s statistical mechanics related the number of possible states for N particles moving in 3-dimensional space, to the entropy of the system. It is more difficult to calculate the number of states than for the coin flip example above, but it can be done using his mathematics, and the result is the ‘W’ in his equation S = k Log W. The bottom line is that, the more states available to a collection of particles (for example atoms of a gas), the higher is the entropy given by . How does a gas access more states? One way is for you to turn up its temperature so that the particles are moving faster. This means that as you increase the temperature of a gas, its entropy increases in a measurable way.

Cosmologically, as our universe expands and cools, its entropy is actually increasing steadily because more and more space is available for the particles to occupy even as they are moving more slowly as the temperature declines. The Big Bang event itself, even at its unimaginably high temperature was actually a state of very low entropy because even though [particles were moving near the speed of light, there was so little space for matter to occupy!

For random particles in a gas colliding like billiard balls, with no other organizing forces acting on them, (called the kinetic theory of gases), we can imagine a collection of 100 red particles clustered in one corner of a box, and 1000 other blue particles located elsewhere in the box. If we were to stumble on a box of 1100 particles that looked like this we would immediately say ‘how odd’ because we sense that as the particles jostled around the 100 red particles would quickly get uniformly spread out inside the box. This is an expression of their being far more available states where the red balls are uniformly mixed, than states where they are clustered together. This is also a statement that the clustered red balls is a lower-entropy version of the system, and the uniformly-mixed version is a higher form of entropy. So we would expect that the system evolves from lower to higher entropy as the red particles diffuse through the box: Called the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Boltzmann Brains.

The problem is that given enough time, even very rare states can have a non-zero probability of happening. With enough time and enough jostling, we could randomly find the red balls once again clustered together. It may take billions of years but there is nothing that stands in the way of this happening from statistical principles. Now let’s suppose that instead of just a collection of red balls, we have a large enough system of particles that some rare states resemble any physical object you can imagine: a bacterium, a cell phone, a car…even a human brain!

A human brain is a collection of particles organized in a specific way to function and to store memories. In a sufficiently large and old universe, there is no obvious reason why such a brain could not just randomly assemble itself like the 100 red particles in the above box. It would be sentient, have memories and even senses. None of its memories would be of actual events it experienced but simply artificial reconstructions created by just the right neural pathways randomly assembled. It would remember an entire lifetime to date without having actually lived or occupied any of the events in space and time.

When you calculate the probability for such a brain to evolve naturally in a low-entropy universe like ours rather than just randomly assembling itself you run into a problem. According to Boltzmann’s cosmology, our vast low-entropy and seemingly highly organized universe is embedded in a much larger universe where the entropy is much higher. It is far less likely that our organized universe exists in such a low entropy state conducive to organic evolution than a universe where a sentient brain simply assembles itself from random collisions. In any universe destined to last for eternity, it will rapidly be populated by incorporeal brains rather than actual sentient creatures! This is the Paradox of the Boltzmann Brain.

Even though Creationists like to invoke the Second Law to deny evolution as a process of random collisions, the consequence of this random idea about structure in the universe says that we are actually all Boltzmann Brains not assembled by evolution at all. It is, however, of no comfort to those who believe in God because God was not involved in randomly assembling these brains, complete with their own memories!

So how do we avoid filling our universe with the abomination of these incorporeal Boltzman Brains?

The Paradox Resolved

First of all, we do not live in Boltzmann’s universe. Instead of an eternally static system existing in a finite space, direct observations show that we live in an expanding universe of declining density and steadily increasing entropy.

Secondly, it isn’t just random collisions that dictate the assembly of matter (a common idea used by Creationists to dismantle evolution) but a collection of specific underlying forces and fundamental particles that do not come together randomly but in a process that is microscopically determined by specific laws and patterns. The creation of certain simple structures leads through chemical processes to the inexorable creation of others. We have long-range forces like gravity and electromagnetism that non-randomly organize matter over many different scales in space and time.

Third, we do not live in a universe dominated by random statistical processes, but one in which we find regularity in composition and physical law spanning scales from the microscopic to the cosmic, all the way out to the edges of the visible universe. When two particles combine, they can stick together through chemical forces and grow in numbers from either electromagnetic or gravitational forces attracting other particles to the growing cluster, called a nucleation site.

Fourth, quantum processes and gravitational processes dictate that all existing particles will eventually decay or be consumed in black holes, which will evaporate to destroy all but the most elementary particles such as electrons, neutrinos and photons; none of which can be assembled into brains and neurons.

The result is that Boltzmann Brains could not exist in our universe, and will not exist even in the eternal future as the cosmos becomes more rarefied and reaches its final and absolute thermodynamic equilibrium.

The accelerated expansion of the universe now in progress will also insure that eventually all complex collections of matter are shattered into individual fundamental particles each adrift in its own expanding and utterly empty universe!

Have a nice day!

Check back here on Tuesday, May 9 for my next topic!

The Planck Era

The Big Bang theory says that the entire universe was created in a tremendous explosion about 14 billion years ago. The enormity of this event is hard to grasp and it seems natural to ask ourselves ‘What was it like then?’ and ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’.

Thanks to what physicists call the Standard Model, we have a detailed understanding of quantum physics, matter, energy and force that let us reproduce what the universe looked like as early as a billionth of a second after the Big Bang.  The results of high-precision observational cosmology also let us verify that the Standard Model predictions match what we see as the general properties of the matter and energy in our universe up until this unimaginable time.  We can actually go a bit farther back towards the beginning thanks to detailed studies of the cosmic background radiation!

At a time 10(-36) second ( that is  a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second!) after the Big Bang, a spectacular change in the size of the universe occurs. This is the Inflationary Era when the strong nuclear force becomes distinguishable from the weak and electromagnetic forces. The temperature is an incredable 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees and the density of matter has sored to nearly 10(75) gm/cm3. This number is so enormous  even our analogies are almost beyond comprehension. At these densities, the entire Milky Way galaxy could easily be stuffed into a volume no larger than a single hydrogen atom!

Between a billionth of a second and 10(-35) seconds is a No Man’s Land currently in accessible to our technology and requires instruments such as the CERN Large Hadron Collider scaled up to the size of our solar system or even larger!  This is also the domain of the so-called Particle Desert that I previously wrote about, and the landscape of the predictions made by supersymmetric string theory, for which there is as yet no evidence of their correctness despite decades of intense theoretical research.


Since our technology will not allow us to physically reproduce the conditions during these ancient times, we must use our mathematical theories of how matter behaves to mentally explore what the universe was like then. We know that the appearence of the universe before 10(-43) second can only be adequatly described by modifying the Big Bang theory because this theory is, in turn, based on the General Theory of Relativity.  At the Planck Scale, we need to extend General Relativity so that it includes not only the macroscopic properties of gravity but also is microscopic characteristics as well. The theory of ‘Quantum Gravity’ is still far from completion but physicists tend to agree that there are some important quide-posts to help us understand how it applies to Big Bang theory.


In the language of General Relativity, gravity is a consequence of the deformati on of space caused by the presence of matter and energy.  In Quantum Gravity theory, gravity is produced by massless gravitons, or strings (in what is called string theory), or loops of energy (in what is called loop quantum gravity), so that gravitons now represent individual packages of curved space.

The appearence and dissappearence of innumerable gravitons gives the geometry of space a very lumpy and dynamic appearance. The geometry of space twists and contorts so that far flung regions of space may suddenly find themselves connected by ‘wormholes’ and quantum black holes, which constantly appear and dissappear within 10(-43) seconds. The geometry of space at a given moment will have to be thought of as an average over all 3-dimensional space geometries that are possible.

What this means is that we may never be able to calculate with any certainty exactly what the history of the universe was like before 10(-43) seconds.  To probe the history of the universe then would be like trying to trace your ancestral roots if every human being on earth had a possibility of being one of your parents. Now try to trace your family tree back a few generations! An entirely new conception of what we mean by ‘a history for the universe’ will have to be developed. Even the concepts of space and time will have to be completely re-evaluated in the face of the quantum fluctuations of spacetime at the Planck Era!

Now we get to a major problem in investigating the Planck Era.


Typically we make observations in nuclear physics by colliding particles and studying the information created in the collision, such as the kinds of particles created, their energy, momentum, spin and other ‘quantum numbers’.  The whole process of testing our theories relies on studying the information generated in these collisions, searching for patterns, and comparing them to the predictions. The problem is that this investigative process breaks down as we explore the Planck Era.  When the quantum particles of space (gravitons, strings or loops)collide at these enormous energies and small scales, they create quantum black holes that immediately evaporate. You cannot probe even smaller scales of space and time because all you do is to create more quantum black holes and wormholes.  Because the black holes evaporate into a randomized hailstorm of new gravitons you cannot actually make observations of what is going on to search for non-random patterns the way you do in normal collisions!

Quantum Gravity, if it actually exists as a theory, tells us that we have finally reached a theoretical limit to how much information we can glean about the Planck Era. Our only viable options involve exploring the Inflationary Era and how this process left its fingerprints on the cosmic background radiation through the influence of gravitational waves.

Fortunately, we now know that gravity waves exist thanks to the discoveries by the LIGO instrument in 2016. We also have indications of what cosmologists call the cosmological B-Modes which are the fingerprints of primordial gravity waves interacting with the cosmic background radiation during the Inflationary Era.

We may not be able to ever study the Planck Era conditions directly when the universe was only 10(-43) seconds old, but then again, knowing what the universe was doing  10(-35) seconds after the Big Bang all the way up to the present time is certainly an impressive human intellectual and technological success!


Check back here on May 3 for the next blog!

Space Power!

On Earth we can deploy a 164-ton wind turbine to generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity, but in the also energy-hungry environment of space travel, far more efficient energy-per-mass systems are a must. The choices for such systems are not unlimited in the vacuum of space!

OK…this is a rather obscure topic, but as I discussed in my previous blog, in order to create space propulsion systems that can get us to Mars in a few days, or Pluto in a week, we need some major improvements in how we generate power in space.

I am going to focus my attention on ion propulsion, because it is far less controversial than any of the more efficient nuclear rocket designs. Although nuclear rocket technology is pretty well worked out theoretically and in engineering designs since the 1960s,   there is simply no political will to deploy this technology in the next 50 years due to enormous public concerns. The concerns are not entirely unfounded. The highest-efficiency and least massive fission power plants would use near-weapons grade uranium or plutonium fuel, making them look like atomic bombs to some skeptics!

Both fission and fusion propulsion have a lot in common with ordinary chemical propulsion. They heat a propellant up to very high temperatures and direct the exhaust flow, mechanically, out the back of the engine using tapered  ‘combustion chambers’ that resemble chemical rockets. The high temperatures insure that the isotropic speeds of the particles are many km/sec, but the flow has to be shaped by the engine nozzle design to leave the ship in one direction. The melting temperature of a fission reactor is about 4,500 K so the maximum speed of the ejected thermal gas (hydrogen) passing through its core is about 10 km/sec.

Ion engines are dramatically different. They guide ionized particles out the back of the engine using one or more acceleration grids. The particles are electrostatically guided and accelerated literally one at a time, so that instead of flowing all over the place in the rocket chamber, they start out life already ‘collimated’ to flow in only one direction at super-thermal speeds. For instance, the Dawn spacecraft ejected Zenon particles at a speed of 25 km/sec. If you had a high-temperature xenon gas with particles at that same speed, the temperature of this gas would be 4 million Celsius! Well above the melting point of the ion engine!

We are well into the design of high-thrust ion engines, and have already deployed several of these. The Dawn spacecraft launched in 2007 has visited asteroid Vesta (2011) and dwarf planet Ceres (2015) using a 10 kilowatt ion engine system with 937 pounds of xenon propellant, and achieved a record-breaking speed change of 10 kilometers/sec. It delivered about 0.09 Newtons of thrust over 2,000 days of continuous operation. Compare this with the millions of Newtons of thrust delivered by the Saturn V in a few minutes.

Under laboratory conditions, newer ion engine designs are constantly being developed and tested. The NASA NEXT program in 2010 demonstrated over 5.5 years of continuous operation for a 7 kilowatt ion engine. It used 862 kg of xenon and produced a thrust of 3.5 Newtons, some 30 times better than the Dawn technology.

Theoretically, an extensive research study on the design of megawatt ion engines by David Fearn presented at the Space Power Symposium of the 56th International Astronautical Congress in 2005 gave some typical characteristics for engines at this power level. The conclusion was that these kinds of ion engines pose no particular design challenges and can achieve exhaust speeds that exceed 100 km/sec. As a specific example, an array of nine thrusters using xenon propellant would deliver a thrust of 120 Newtons and consume 7.4 megawatts. A relatively small array of thrusters can also achieve exhaust speeds of 1,500 km/sec using lower-mass hydrogen propellants.

Ion propulsion requires megawatts of energy in order to produce enough continuous thrust to get us to the high speeds and thrusts we need for truly fast interplanetary travel.

The bottom line for ion propulsion is the total electrical power that is available to accelerate the propellant ions. Very high efficiency solar panels that convert more than 75% of the sunlight into electricity work very well near Earth orbit (300 watts/kg), but produce only 10 watts/kg near Jupiter, and 0.3 watts/kg near Pluto. That means the future of fast space travel via ion propulsion spanning our solar system requires some kind of non-solar-electric, fission reactor system (500 watts/kg) to produce the electricity. The history of using reactors in space though trivial from an engineering standpoint, is a politically complex one because of the prevailing fear that a launch mishap will result in a dirty bomb or even a Hiroshima-like event in the minds of the general public and Congress.

The Soviet Union has been launching nuclear reactors into space for decades in its Kosmos series of satellites. Early in 1992, the idea of purchasing a Russian-designed and fabricated space reactor power system and integrating it with a US designed satellite went from fiction to reality with the purchase of the first two Topaz II reactors by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (now the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). SDIO also requested that the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD propose a mission and design a satellite in which the Topaz II could be used as the power source. Even so, the Topaz II reactor had a mass of 1,000 kg and produced 10 kilowatts for an efficiency of 10 watts/kg. Due to funding reduction within the SDIO, the Topaz II flight program was postponed indefinitely at the end of Fiscal Year 1993.

Similarly, cancellation was the eventual fate of the US SP-100 reactor program. This program was started in 1983 by NASA, the US Department of Energy and other agencies. It developed a 4000 kg, 100 kilowatt reactor ( efficiency = 25 watts/kg) with heat pipes transporting the heat to thermionic converters.

Proposed SP-100 reactor ca 1980  (Image credit: NASA/DoE/DARPA)

Believe it or not, small nuclear fission reactors are becoming very popular as portable ‘batteries’ for running remote communities of up to 70,000 people. The Hyperion Hydride Reactor is not much larger than a hot tub, is totally sealed and self-operating, has no moving parts and, beyond refueling, requires no maintenance of any sort.

Hyperion, Uranium Hydride Reactor (Credit:Hyperion, Inc)

According to the Hyperion Energy Company the Gen4 reactor has a mass of about 100-tons and is designed to deliver 25 megawatts electricity for a 10-year lifetime, without refueling. The efficiency for such a system is 250 watts/kg! Of course you cannot just slap one of  these Bad Boys onto a rocket ship to provide the electricity for the ion engines, but this technology already proves that fission reactors can be made very small and deliver quite the electrical wallop, and do so in places where solar panels are not practical.

Some of the advanced photo-electric system being developed by NASA and NASA contractors are based on the solar energy technology used in the NASA Deep Space 1 mission and the Naval Research Laboratory’s TacSat 4 reconnaissance satellite, and are based on ‘stretched lens array’ lens concentrators for sunlight that amplify the sunlight by up to 8 times (called eight-sun systems). The solar arrays are also flexible and can be rolled out like a curtain. The technology promises to reach efficiency levels of 1000 watts/kg, and less than $50/watt, compared to the 100 w/kg and $400/watt of current ‘one sun’ systems that do not use lens concentrators. A 350 kW solar-electric ion engine system is a suggested propulsion for a 70 ton crewed mission to Mars. With the most efficient stretched lens array solar arrays currently under design, a 350 kW system would have a mass of only 350 kg and cost about $18 million. The very cool thing about this is that improvements in solar panel technology not only directly benefit space power systems for inner solar system travel, but lead to immediate consumer applications in Green Energy!  Imagine covering your roof with a 1-square-meter high efficiency panel rather than your entire roof with an unsightly  lower-efficiency system!

So to really zip around the solar system and avoid the medical problems of prolonged voyages, we really need more work on compact power plant design that is politically realistic. Once we solve THAT problem, even Pluto will be a week’s journey away!

Check back here on Monday, April 24 for my next topic!

That was then, this is now!

Back in the 1960s when I began my interest in astronomy, the best pictures we had of the nine planets were out of focus black and white photos. I am astonished how far we have come since then and decided to devote this blog to a gallery of the best pictures I could find of our solar system neighbors! First, let’s have look at the older photos.

First we have Mercury, which is never very far from pour sun and a very challenging telescopic object.

Above is what mars looked like! Then we have Jupiter and Saturn shown below.

Among the hardest and most mysterious objects were Uranus shown here. I will not show a nearly identical telescopic view of Uranus.

Finally we come to Pluto, which has always been a star-like object for most of the 20th century.

These blurry but intriguing images were the best we could do for most of the 20th century, yet they were enough to encourage generations of children to become astronomers and passionately explore space. The features of mercury were mere blotches of differing shaded of gray. Uranus, Neptune were slightly resolvable to reveal faint details, and distant Pluto remained completely star-like and unresolved, yet we knew it was its own world many thousands of kilometers across. Mars continued to reveal its tantalizing blotchy features that came and went with the seasons along with the ebb and flow of its two polar ice caps. Jupiter was a banded world with its Great Red Spot, but the details of these atmospheric bands was completely hidden in the optical smearing of our own atmosphere. Saturn possessed some large bands, and its majestic ring system could be seen in rough detail but never resolved into its many components. As for the various moons of these distant worlds, they were blurry disks or star-like spots and never revealed their details.

The advent of the Space Program in the 1960s, and the steady investment in spacecraft to ‘fly by’ these planets led to progressively higher and higher resolution images starting with Mariner 4 in 1965 and its historic encounter with Mars, revealing a cratered, moonlike landscape. The Pioneer spacecraft in the early 1970s gave us stunning images of Jupiter, followed by the Voyager spacecraft encounters with the outer planets and their moons. Magellan orbited Venus and with its radar system mapped the surface to show a dynamic and volcanic surface that is permanently hidden beneath impenetrable clouds. Finally in 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft gave us the first clear images of distant Pluto. Meanwhile, many return trips to our own moon have mapped its surface to 2-meter resolution, while the MESSSENGER spacecraft imaged the surface of Mercury and mapped its many extreme geological features. Even water ice has been detected on mercury and the moon to slacken the thirst of future explorers.

For many of the planets, we have extreme close up images too!
Jupiter’s south pole from the Juno spacecraft shows a bewildering field of tremendous hurricanes each almost as large as Earth, swirling about aimlessly in a nearly motionless atmosphere.

Pluto details a few hundred meters across. Can you come up with at least ten questions you would like answers for about what you are seeing?

Here is one of thousands of typical views from the Martian surface. Check out the rocks strewn across the field. Some are dark and pumice-like while others are white and granite-looking. ‘Cats and dogs living together’. What’s going on here?

The Venera 13 image shown below from the surface of Venus is unique and extremely puzzling from a surface that is supposed to be hotter than molten lead.

We also have images from a multitude of moons, asteroids and comets!
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter gave us 2-meter resolution images of the entire lunar surface allowing us to revisit the Apollo landing sites once more:

The dramatic canyons and rubble fields of a comet were brought into extreme focus by the Rosetta mission

Even Saturn’s moon Titan has been explored to reveal its extensive liquid nitrogen tributaries

This bewildering avalanche of detail has utterly transformed how we view these worlds and the kinds of questions we can now explore. If you compare what we knew about Pluto before 2015 when it was little more than a peculiar ‘star in the sky’, to the full-color detailed orb we now see, you can imagine how science progresses by leaps and bounds through the simple technique of merely seeing the object more clearly. It used to be fashionable to speculate about Pluto when all we knew was its size, mass and density and they it had a thin atmosphere. But now we are delightfully challenged to understand this world as the dynamic place that it is with mountains of ice, continent-sized glaciers, and nitrogen snow. And of course, the mere application of improved resolution now lets us explore the entire surface of our moon with the same clarity as an astronaut hovering over its surface from a height of a few dozen feet!

We Old-Timers have had a wonderful run in understanding our solar system as we transitioned from murky details to crystal clarity. All of the easy low-hanging fruit of theory building and testing over the last century has been accomplished for the most-part. Now the ever more challenging work of getting the details straight begins, and will last for another century at least. When you can tele-robotically explore planetary and asteroidal surfaces, or perform on-the-spot microscopic assays of minerals, what incredible new questions will emerge? Is there life below the surface of Europa? Why does Mars belch forth methane gas in the summer? Can the water deposits on the moon be mined? Is Pluto’s moon Charon responsible for the tidal heating of an otherwise inert Pluto?
One can only wonder!

Check back here on Tuesday, April 18 for my next topic!

Crowdsourcing Gravity

The proliferation of smartphones with internal sensors has led to some interesting opportunities to make large-scale measurements of a variety of physical phenomena.

The iOS app ‘Gravity Meter’ and its android equivalent have been used to make  measurements of the local surface acceleration, which is nominally 9.8 meters/sec2. The apps typically report the local acceleration to 0.01 (iOS) or even 0.001 (android) meters/secaccuracy, which leads to two interesting questions: 1)How reliable are these measurements at the displayed decimal limit, and 2) Can smartphones be used to measure expected departures from the nominal surface acceleration due to Earth rotation? Here is a map showing the magnitude of this (centrifugal) rotation effect provided by The Physics Forum.

As Earth rotates, any object on its surface will feel a centrifugal force directed outward from the center of Earth and generally in the direction of local zenith. This causes Earth to be slightly bulged-out at the equator compared to the poles, which you can see from the difference between its equatorial radius of 6,378.14 km versus its polar radius of 6,356.75 km: a polar flattening difference of 21.4 kilometers. This centrifugal force also has an effect upon the local surface acceleration  by reducing it slightly at the equator compared to the poles. At the equator, one would measure a value for ‘g’ that is about 9.78 m/sec2 while at the poles it is about 9.83 m/sec2. Once again, and this is important to avoid any misconceptions, the total acceleration defined as gravity plus centrifugal is reduced, but gravity is itself not changed because from Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, gravity is due to mass not rotation.

Assuming that the smartphone accelerometers are sensitive enough, they may be able to detect this equator-to-pole difference by comparing the surface acceleration measurements from observers at different latitudes.


Experiment 1 – How reliable are ‘gravity’ measurements at the same location?

To check this, I looked at the data from several participating classrooms at different latitudes, and selected the more numerous iOS measurements with the ‘Gravity Meter’ app. These data were kindly provided by Ms. Melissa Montoya’s class in Hawaii (+19.9N), George Griffith’s class in Arapahoe, Nebraska (+40.3N), Ms. Sue Lamdin’s class in Brunswick, Maine (+43.9N), and Elizabeth Bianchi’s class in Waldoboro, Maine (+44.1N).

All four classrooms measurements, irrespective of latitude (19.9N, 40.3N, 43.9N or 44.1N) showed distinct ‘peaks’, but also displayed long and complicated ‘tails’, making these distributions not Gaussian as might be expected for random errors. This suggests that under classroom conditions there may be some systematic effects introduced from the specific ways in which students may be making the measurements, introducing  complicated and apparently non-random,  student-dependent corrections into the data.

A further study using the iPad data from Elizabeth Bianchi’s class, I discovered that at least for iPads using the Gravity Sensor app, there was a definite correlation between when the measurement was made and the time it was made during a 1.5-hour period. This resembles a heating effect, suggesting that the longer you leave the technology on before making the measurement, the larger will be the measured value. I will look into this at a later time.

The non-Gaussian behavior in the current data does not make it possible to assign a normal average and standard-deviation to the data.


Experiment 2 – Can the rotation of Earth be detected?

Although there is the suggestion that in the 4-classroom data we could see a nominal centrifugal effect of about the correct order-of-magnitude, we were able to get a large sample of individual observers spanning a wide latitude range, also using the iOS platform and the same ‘Gravity Meter’ app. Including the median values from the four classrooms in Experiment 1, we had a total of 41 participants: Elizabeth Abrahams, Jennifer Arsenau, Dorene Brisendine, Allen Clermont, Hillarie Davis, Thom Denholm, Heather Doyle, Steve Dryer, Diedra Falkner, Mickie Flores, Dennis Gallagher, Robert Gallagher, Rachael Gerhard, Robert Herrick, Harry Keller, Samuel Kemos, Anna Leci, Alexia Silva Mascarenhas, Alfredo Medina, Heather McHale, Patrick Morton, Stacia Odenwald, John-Paul Rattner, Pat Reiff, Ghanjah Skanby, Staley Tracy, Ravensara Travillian, and Darlene Woodman.

The scatter plot of these individual measurements is shown here:

The red squares are the individual measurements. The blue circles are the android phone values. The red dashed line shows the linear regression line for only the iOS data points assuming each point is equally-weighted. The solid line is the predicted change in the local acceleration with latitude according to the model:

G =   9.806   –  0.5*(9.832-9.78)*Cos(2*latitude)    m/sec2

where the polar acceleration is 9.806 m/sec2 and the equatorial acceleration is 9.780 m/sec2. Note: No correction for lunar and solar tidal effects have been made since these are entirely undetectable with this technology.

Each individual point has a nominal variation of +/-0.01 m/sec2 based on the minimum and maximum value recorded during a fixed interval of time. It is noteworthy that this measurement RMS is significantly smaller than the classroom variance seen in Experiment 1 due to the apparently non-Gaussian shape of the classroom sampling. When we partition the iOS smartphone data into 10-degree latitude bins and take the median value in each bin we get the following plot, which is a bit cleaner:

The solid blue line is the predicted acceleration. The dashed black line is the linear regression for the equally-weighted individual measurements. The median values of the classroom points are added to show their distribution. It is of interest that the linear regression line is parallel, and nearly coincident with, the predicted line, which again suggests that Earth’s rotation effect may have been detected in this median-sampled data set provided by a total of 37 individuals.

The classroom points clustering at ca +44N represent a total of 36 measures representing the plotted median values, which is statistically significant. Taken at face value, the classroom data would, alone, support the hypothesis that there was a detection of the rotation effect, though they are consistently 0.005 m/sec2 below the predicted value at the mid-latitudes. The intrinsic variation of the data, represented by the consistent +/-0.01 m/sec2 high-vs-low range of all of the individual samples, suggests that this is probably a reasonable measure of the instrumental accuracy of the smartphones. Error bars (thin vertical black lines) have been added to the plotted median points to indicate this accuracy.

The bottom-line seems to be that it may be marginally possible to detect the Earth rotation effect, but precise measurements at the 0.01 m/sec2 level are required against what appears to be a significant non-Gaussian measurement background. Once again, some of the variation seen at each latitude may be due to how warm the smartphones were at the time of the measurement. The android and iOS measurements do seem to be discrepant with the android measurements leading to a larger measurement variation.

Check back here on Wednesday, March 29 for the next topic!

Hohmann’s Tyrany

It really is a shame. When all you have is a hammer, everything else looks like a nail. This also applies to our current, international space programs.

We have been using chemical rockets for centuries, but since the advent of V2s and the modern space age, these brute-force and cheap work horses have been the main propulsion technology we use to go just about everywhere in the solar system. But this amounts to thinking that one technology can span all of our needs, and the trillions of cubic miles that encompass interplanetary space.

We pay a huge price for this belief.

Chemical rockets have their place in space travel. They are fantastic ways of delivering HUGE thrusts quickly; the method par excellance for getting us off this planet and paying the admission ticket to space.  No other known propulsion technology is as cheap, simple, and technologically elegant as chemical propulsion in this setting.  Applying this same technology to interplanetary travel beyond the moon is quite another thing, and sets in motion an escalating series of difficult problems.

Every interplanetary spacecraft launched so far to travel to each of the planets in our solar system works on the exact same principle. Give the spacecraft a HUGE boost to get it off the launch pad, and with enough velocity to reach the distant planet, then cut the engines off after a few minutes so the spacecraft can literally coast the whole way. With a few more ‘Delta-V’ changes, this is called the minimum –energy trajectory or for rocket scientists the Hohmann Transfer orbit. It is designed to get you there, not in the shortest time, but using the least amount of energy. In propulsion, energy is money. We use souped-up Atlas rockets at a few hundred million dollars a pop to launch space craft to the outer planets. We don’t use  even larger and expensive Saturn V rockets that deliver even more energy for a dramatically-shorter ride.

If you bank on taking the slow-boat to Mars rather than a more energetic ride, this leads to all sorts of problems. The biggest of these is that the inexpensive 220-day journeys let humans build up all sorts of nasty medical problems that short 2-week trips would completely eliminate. In fact, the entire edifice of the $150 billion International Space Station is there to explore the extended human stays in space that are demanded by Hohmann Transfer orbits and chemical propulsion. We pay a costly price to keep using cheap chemical rockets that deliver long stays in space, and cause major problems that are expensive to patch-up afterwards. The entire investment in the ISS could have been eliminated if we focused on getting the travel times in space down to a few weeks.

You do not need Star Trek warp technology to do this!

Since the 1960s, NASA engineers and academic ‘think tanks’ have designed nuclear rocket engines and ion rocket engines, both show enormous promise in breaking the hegemony of chemical transportation. The NASA nuclear rocket program began in the e arly-1960s and built several operational prototypes, but the program was abandoned in the late 1960s because nuclear rockets were extremely messy, heavy, and had a nasty habit of slowly vaporizing the nuclear reactor and blowing it out the rocket engine!  Yet, Wernher  Von Braun designed a Mars expedition for the 1970s in which several,  heavy 100-ton nuclear motors would be placed in orbit by a Saturn V and then incorporated into an set of three interplanetary transports. This program was canceled when the Apollo program was ended and there was no longer a conventional need for the massive Saturn V rockets. But ion rockets continued to be developed and today several of these have already been used on interplanetary spacecraft like Deep Space 1 and Dawn. The plans for humans on Mars in 2030s rely on ion rocket propulsion powered by massive solar panels.

Unlike chemical rockets, which limit spacecraft speeds to a few kilometers/sec, ion rockets can be developed with speeds up to several thousand km/sec. All that they need is more thrust, and to get that they need low-mass power plants in the gigawatt range. ‘Rocket scientists’ gauge engine designs based on their Specific Impulse, which is the exhaust speed divided by the acceleration of gravity on Earth. Chemical rockets can only provide SIs of 300 seconds, but ion engine designs can reach 30,000 seconds or more! With these engine designs, you can travel to Mars in SIX DAYS, and a jaunt to Pluto can take a neat 2 months! Under these conditions, most of the problems and hazards of prolonged human travel in space are eliminated.

But instead of putting our money into perfecting these engine designs, we keep building chemical rockets and investing billions of dollars trying to keep our long-term passengers alive.

Go figure!!!

Check back here on Friday, March 17 for a new blog!


The Mystery of Gravity

In grade school we learned that gravity is an always-attractive force that acts between particles of matter. Later on, we learn that it has an infinite range through space, weakens as the inverse-square of the distance between bodies, and travels exactly at the speed of light.

But wait….there’s more!


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to remind you that humans have always known about gravity! Its first mathematical description as a ‘universal’ force was by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. Newton’s description remained unchanged until Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. Ninety years later, physicists, such as Edward Witten, Steven Hawkings, Brian Greene and Lee Smolin among others, are finding ways to improve our description of ‘GR’ to accommodate the strange rules of quantum mechanics. Ironically, although gravity is produced by matter, General Relativity does not really describe matter in any detail – certainly not with the detail of the modern quantum theory of atomic structure. In the mathematics, all of the details of a planet or a star are hidden in a single variable, m, representing its total mass.


The most amazing thing about gravity is that is a force like no other known in Nature. It is a property of the curvature of space-time and how particles react to this distorted space. Even more bizarrely, space and time are described by the mathematics of  GR as qualities of the gravitational field of the cosmos that have no independent existence. Gravity does not exist like the frosting on a cake, embedded in some larger arena of space and time. Instead, the ‘frosting’ is everything, and matter is embedded and intimately and indivisibly connected to it. If you could turn off gravity, it is mathematically predicted that space and time would also vanish! You can turn off electromagnetic forces by neutralizing the charges on material particles, but you cannot neutralize gravity without eliminating spacetime itself.  Its geometric relationship to space and time is the single most challenging aspect of gravity that has prevented generations of physicists from mathematically describing it in the same way we do the other three forces in the Standard Model.

Einstein’s General Relativity, published in 1915, is our most detailed mathematical theory for how gravity works. With it, astronomers and physicists have explored the origin and evolution of the universe, its future destiny, and the mysterious landscape of black holes and neutron stars. General Relativity has survived many different tests, and it has made many predictions that have been confirmed. So far, after 90 years of detailed study, no error has yet been discovered in Einstein’s original, simple theory.

Currently, physicists have explored two of its most fundamental and exotic predictions: The first is that gravity waves exist and behave as the theory predicts. The second is that a phenomenon called ‘frame-dragging’ exists around rotating massive objects.

Theoretically, gravity waves must exist in order for Einstein’s theory to be correct. They are distortions in the curvature of spacetime caused by accelerating matter, just as electromagnetic waves are distortions in the electromagnetic field of a charged particle produced by its acceleration. Gravity waves carry energy and travel at light-speed. At first they were detected indirectly. By 2004, astronomical bodies such as the  Hulse-Taylor orbiting pulsars were found to be losing energy by gravity waves emission at exactly the predicted rates. Then  in 2016, the  twin  LIGO gravity wave detectors detected the unmistakable and nearly simultaneous pulses of geometry distortion created by colliding black holes billions of light years away.

Astronomers also detected by 1997 the ‘frame-dragging’ phenomenon in  X-ray studies of distant black holes. As a black hole (or any other body) rotates, it actually ‘drags’ space around with it. This means that you cannot have stable orbits around a rotating body, which is something totally unexpected in Newton’s theory of gravity. The  Gravity Probe-B satellite orbiting Earth also confirmed in 2011 this exotic spacetime effect at precisely the magnitude expected by the theory for the rotating Earth.

Gravity also doesn’t care if you have matter or anti-matter; both will behave identically as they fall and move under gravity’s influence. This quantum-scale phenomenon was searched for at the Large Hadron Collider ALPHA experiment, and in 2013 researchers placed the first limits on how matter and antimatter ‘fall’ in Earth’s gravity. Future experiments will place even more stringent limits on just how gravitationally similar matter and antimatter are. Well, at least we know that antimatter doesn’t ‘fall up’!

There is only one possible problem with our understanding of gravity known at this time.

Applying general relativity, and even Newton’s Universal Gravitation, to large systems like galaxies and the universe leads to the discovery of a new ingredient called Dark Matter. There do not seem to be any verifiable elementary particles that account for this gravitating substance. Lacking a particle, some physicists have proposed modifying Newtonian gravity and general relativity themselves to account for this phenomenon without introducing a new form of matter. But none of the proposed theories leave the other verified predictions of general relativity experimentally intact. So is Dark Matter a figment of an incomplete theory of gravity, or is it a here-to-fore undiscovered fundamental particle of nature? It took 50 years for physicists to discover the lynchpin particle called the Higgs boson. This is definitely a story we will hear more about in the decades to come!

There is much that we now know about gravity, yet as we strive to unify it with the other elementary forces and particles in nature, it still remains an enigma. But then, even the briefest glance across the landscape of the quantum world fills you with a sense of awe and wonderment at the improbability of it all. At its root, our physical world is filled with improbable and logic-twisting phenomena and it simply amazing that they have lent themselves to human logic to the extent that they have!


Return here on Monday, March 13 for my next blog!

Martian Swamp Gas?

Thanks to more than a decade of robotic studies, the surface of Mars is becoming a place as familiar to some of us as similar garden spots on Earth such as the Atacama Desert in Chile, or Devon Island in Canada. But this rust-colored world still has some tricks up its sleave!

Back in 2003, NASA astronomer Michael Mumma and his team discovered traces of methane in the dilute atmosphere of Mars. The gas was localized to only a few geographic areas in the equatorial zone in the martian Northern Hemisphere, but this was enough to get astrobiologists excited about the prospects for sub-surface life. The amount being released in a seasonal pattern was about 20,000 tons during the local summer months.

The discovery using ground-based telescopes in 2003 was soon confirmed a year later by other astronomers and by the Mars Express Orbiter, but the amount is highly variable. Ten years later, the Curiosity rover also detected methane in the atmosphere from its location many hundreds of miles from the nearest ‘plume’ locations. It became clear that the hit-or-miss nature of these detections had to do with the source of the methane turning on and off over time, and it was not some steady seepage going on all the time. Why was this happening, and did it have anything to do with living systems?

On Earth, there are organisms that take water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide in the air (CO2) to create methane (CH3) as a by-product, but there are also inorganic processes that create methane too. For instance, electrostatic discharges can ionize water and carbon dioxide and can produce trillions of methane molecules per discharge. There is plenty of atmospheric dust in the very dry Martian atmosphere, so this is not a bad explanation at all.

This diagram shows possible ways that methane might make it into Mars’ atmosphere (sources) and disappear from the atmosphere (sinks). (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

Still, the search for conclusive evidence for methane production and removal is one of the high frontiers in Martian research these days. New mechanisms are being proposed every year that involve living or inorganic origins. There is even some speculation that the Curiosity rover’s chemical lab was responsible for the rover’s methane ‘discovery’. Time will tell if some or any of these ideas ultimately checks out. There seem to be far more geological ways to create a bit of methane compared to biotic mechanisms. This means the odds do not look so good that the fleeting traces of methane we do see are produced by living organisms.

What does remain very exciting is that Mars is a chemically active place that has more than inorganic molecules in play. In 2014, the Curiosity rover took samples of mudstone and tested them with its on-board spectrometer. The samples were rich in organic molecules that have chlorine atoms including chlorobenzene (C6H4Cl2) , dichloroethane (C2H4Cl2), dichloropropane (C3H6Cl2) and dichlorobutane (C4H8Cl2). Chlorobenzene is not a naturally occurring compound on Earth. It is used in the manufacturing process for pesticides, adhesives, paints and rubber. Dichloropropane is used as an industrial solvent to make paint strippers, varnishes and furniture finish removers, and is classified as a carcinogen. There is even some speculation that the abundant perchlorate molecules (ClO4) in the Martian soil, when heated inside the spectrometer with the mudstone samples, created these new organics.

Mars is a frustratingly interesting place to study because, emotionally, it holds out hope for ultimately finding something exciting that takes us nearer to the idea that life once flourished there, or may still be present below its inaccessible surface. But all we have access to for now is its surface geology and atmosphere. From this we seem to encounter traces of exotic chemistry and perhaps our own contaminants at a handful of parts-per-billion. At these levels, the boring chemistry of Mars comes alive in the statistical noise of our measurements, and our dreams of Martian life are temporarily re-ignited.

Meanwhile, we will not rest until we have given Mars a better shot at revealing traces of its biosphere either ancient or contemporary!

Check back here on Thursday, March 2 for the next essay!