LIGO Will Squeeze Light To Overcome The Quantum Noise Of Empty Space

The LIGO Hanford Observatory in Washington State. Credit: LIGO Observatory

When two black holes merge, they release a tremendous amount of energy. When LIGO detected the first black hole merger in 2015, we found that three solar masses worth of energy was released as gravitational waves. But gravitational waves don’t interact strongly with matter. The effects of gravitational waves are so small that you’d need to be extremely close to a merger to feel them. So how can we possibly observe the gravitational waves of merging black holes across millions of light-years?

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A Fifth Fundamental Force Could Really Exist, But We Haven’t Found It Yet

The universe is governed by four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. These forces drive the motion and behavior of everything we see around us. At least that’s what we think. But over the past several years there’s been increasing evidence of a fifth fundamental force. New research hasn’t discovered this fifth force, but it does show that we still don’t fully understand these cosmic forces.

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How Large Can A Planet Be?

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. In terms of mass, Jupiter towers over the other planets. If you were to gather all the other planets together into a single mass, Jupiter would still be 2.5 times more massive. It is hard to understate just how huge Jupiter is. But as we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets in recent decades, it raises an interesting question about how Jupiter compares. Put another way, just how large can a planet be? The answer is more subtle than you might think.

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New Research Suggests that the Universe is a Sphere and Not Flat After All

The universe is a seemingly endless sea filled with stars, galaxies, and nebulae. In it, we see patterns and constellations that have inspired stories throughout history. But there is one cosmic pattern we still don’t understand. A question that remains unanswered: What is the shape of the universe? We thought we knew, but new research suggests otherwise, and it could point to a crisis in cosmology.

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What Was The First Color In The Universe?

The Orion Nebula, one of the most studied objects in the sky. Image: NASA

The universe bathes in a sea of light, from the blue-white flickering of young stars to the deep red glow of hydrogen clouds. Beyond the colors seen by human eyes, there are flashes of x-rays and gamma rays, powerful bursts of radio, and the faint, ever-present glow of the cosmic microwave background. The cosmos is filled with colors seen and unseen, ancient and new. But of all these, there was one color that appeared before all the others, the first color of the universe.

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A Different Kind Of Science Show

When I visited the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory a few years ago, the facility lost power. The observatory is in a remote area of northern Chile, so you can’t just call the power company to complain. Fortunately there’s a skilled team of technicians on the job. Their first priority was to maintain the cooling system of the large Blanco telescope. It contains an array of 62 CCDs known as the Dark Energy Camera, which must be kept cold. Discussing the matter in a mix of English and Spanish, the team worked through the challenge of rigging generators to the telescope. Meanwhile the CTIO kitchen staff had to figure out how to feed dozens of people without electricity. With portable gas cookers they prepare baked fish and steamed rice, with ample hot water for tea and coffee. Meanwhile, facility administrators were coordinating with the Chilean electrical grid to restore power to the observatory. By the end of the day everything was back up and running.

Whenever CTIO or other large science facilities make a breakthrough discovery, we hear about it all over the web. What we don’t hear about is the work done behind the scenes. We don’t hear about the technicians who saved a million dollar camera, or the staff who ensure that everyone is safe and fed, or the machinists who build and maintain these facilities. We also don’t hear about how these remote facilities interact with neighboring communities. How they face the challenge of being good neighbors while pursuing their scientific goals. These are stories worth telling, which is why I’ve been working on a new television project.

For about a year I’ve been working with journalist Mark Gillespie, and Canadian TV producers Steven Mitchell and Al Magee to develop a new kind of science show. One that will tell the stories behind the science headlines. Steven and Al have decades of experience in television storytelling, and have won several awards for their outstanding work. They also share my desire to present science honestly and without hype. Mark has worked in some of the most remote areas of the world, and knows how bring out stories that are meaningful and powerful.

We’ve already developed relations with many big science facilities, and we know several stories we want to tell. But in order for the project to succeed we need to film a “sizzle reel” demonstrating the show to the networks. It will be filmed on location at Green Bank Observatory. But it’s going to take some funding, so we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. You can find the project at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/64470060/big-science.

Science is not just about breakthrough discoveries. It’s about people coming together to do extraordinary things. I hope you’ll help us tell this story.

How Fast is the Universe Expanding?

The Universe is expanding, but how quickly is it expanding? How far away is everything getting from everything else? And how do we know any of this anyway?

When astronomers talk about the expansion of the Universe, they usually express it in terms of the Hubble parameter. First introduced by Edwin Hubble when he demonstrated that more distant galaxies are moving away from us faster than closer ones.The best measurements for this parameter gives a value of about 68 km/s per megaparsec.

Let’s recap. Hubble. Universe. Galaxies. Leaving. Further means faster. And then I said something that sounded like “blah blah Lando blah blah Kessel Run 68 km/s per megaparsec”. Which translates to if you have a galaxy 1 megaparsec away, that’s 3.3 million light years for those of you who haven’t seen Star Wars, it would be expanding away from us at a speed of 68 km/s. So, 1 megaparsec in distance means it’s racing away at 68 km/s.

This is all because space is expanding everywhere in all places, and as a result distant galaxies appear to be expanding away from us faster than closer ones. There’s just more “space” to expand between us and them in the first place. Even better, our Universe was much more dense in the past, as a result the Hubble parameter hasn’t always had the same value.

There are two things affecting the Hubble parameter: dark energy, working to drive the Universe outwards, and matter, dark and regular flavor trying to hold it together. Pro tip: The matter side of this fight is currently losing.

Expansion of the Universe. Image credit: Eugenio Bianchi, Carlo Rovelli & Rocky Kolb.
Expansion of the Universe. Image credit: Eugenio Bianchi, Carlo Rovelli & Rocky Kolb.

Earlier in the Universe, when the Hubble parameter was smaller, matter had a stronger influence due to its higher overall density. Today dark energy is dominant, thus the Hubble parameter is larger, and this is why we talk about the Universe not only expanding but accelerating.

Our cosmos expands at about the rate at which space is expanding, and the speed at which objects expand away from us depends upon their distance. If you go far enough out, there is a distance at which objects are speeding away from us faster than the speed of light. As a result, it’s suspected that receding galaxies will cross a type of cosmological event horizon, where any evidence of their existence, not even light, would ever be able to reach us, no matter how far into the future you went.

What do you think? Is there anything out there past that cosmological event horizon line waiting to surprise us?

What is Gravitational Lensing?

Gravity’s a funny thing. Not only does it tug away at you, me, planets, moons and stars, but it can even bend light itself. And once you’re bending light, well, you’ve got yourself a telescope.

Everyone here is familiar with the practical applications of gravity. If not just from exposure to Loony Tunes, with an abundance of scenes with an anthropomorphized coyote being hurled at the ground from gravitational acceleration, giant rocks plummeting to a spot inevitably marked with an X, previously occupied by a member of the “accelerati incredibilus” family and soon to be a big squish mark containing the bodily remains of the previously mentioned Wile E. Coyote.

Despite having a very limited understanding of it, Gravity is a pretty amazing force, not just for decimating a infinitely resurrecting coyote, but for keeping our feet on the ground and our planet in just the right spot around our Sun. The force due to gravity has got a whole bag of tricks, and reaches across Universal distances. But one of its best tricks is how it acts like a lens, magnifying distant objects for astronomy.
Thanks to the general theory of relativity, we know that mass curves the space around it. The theory also predicted gravitational lensing, a side effect of light travelling along the curvature of space and time where light passing nearby a massive object is deflected slightly toward the mass.

It was first observed by Arthur Eddington and Frank Watson Dyson in 1919 during a solar eclipse. The stars close to the Sun appeared slightly out of position, showing that the light from the stars was bent, and demonstrated the effect predicted. This means the light from a distant object, such as a quasar, could be deflected around a closer object such as a galaxy. This can focus the quasar’s light in our direction, making it appear brighter and larger. So gravitational lensing acts as a kind of magnifying glass for distant objects making them easier to observe.

We can use the effect to peer deeper into the Universe than would otherwise be possible with our conventional telescopes. In fact, the most distant galaxies ever observed, ones seen just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, were all discovered using gravitational lensing. Astronomers use gravitational microlensing to detect planets around other stars. The foreground star acts as a lens for a background star. As the star brightens up, you can detect further distortions which indicate there are planets. Even amateur telescopes are sensitive enough to spot them, and amateurs regularly help discover new planets. Unfortunately, these are one time events as this alignment happens only once.

This illustration shows how gravitational lensing works. The gravity of a large galaxy cluster is so strong, it bends, brightens and distorts the light of distant galaxies behind it. The scale has been greatly exaggerated; in reality, the distant galaxy is much further away and much smaller. Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Calcada
This illustration shows how gravitational lensing works. The gravity of a large galaxy cluster is so strong, it bends, brightens and distorts the light of distant galaxies behind it. The scale has been greatly exaggerated; in reality, the distant galaxy is much further away and much smaller. Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Calcada

There’s a special situation known as an Einstein Ring, where a more distant galaxy is warped by a nearby galaxy into a complete circle. To date a few partial rings have been seen, but no perfect Einstein Ring has ever been spotted.

Gravitational lensing also allows us to observe invisible things in our Universe. Dark matter doesn’t emit or absorb light on its own, so we can’t observe it directly. We can’t take a photo and say “Hey look, dark matter!”. However, it does have mass, and that means it can gravitationally lens light originating behind it. So we’ve even used the effect of gravitational lensing to map out dark matter in the Universe.

What about you? Where should we focus our gravitational lensing efforts to get a better look in the Universe? Tell us in the comments below.

What Came Before the Big Bang?

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

Astronomers are pretty sure what happened after the Big Bang, but what came before? What are the leading theories for the causes of the Big Bang?

About 13.8 billion years ago the Universe started with a bang, kicked the doors in, brought fancy cheeses and a bag of ice, spiked the punch bowl and invited the new neighbors over for all-nighter to encompass all all-nighters from that point forward.
But what happened before that?

What was going on before the Big Bang? Usually, we tell the story of the Universe by starting at the Big Bang and then talking about what happened after. Similarly and completely opposite to how astronomers view the Universe… by standing in the present and looking backwards. From here, the furthest we can look back is to the cosmic microwave background, which is about 380,000 years after the big bang.

Before that we couldn’t hope to see a thing, the Universe was just too hot and dense to be transparent. Like pea soup. Soup made of delicious face burning high energy everything.
In traditional stupid earth-bound no-Tardis life unsatisfactory fashion, we can’t actually observe the origin of the Universe from our place in time and space.

Damn you… place in time and space.

Fortunately, the thinky types have come up with some ideas, and they’re all one part crazy, one part mind bendy, and 100% bananas. The first idea is that it all began as a kind of quantum fluctuation that inflated to our present universe.

Artistic view of a radiating black hole.  Credit: NASA
Artistic view of a radiating black hole. Credit: NASA

Something very, very subtle expanding over time resulting in, as an accidental byproduct, our existence. The alternate idea is that our universe began within a black hole of an older universe.
I’m gonna let you think about that one. Just let your brain simmer there.

There was universe “here”, that isn’t our universe, then that universe became a black hole… and from that black hole formed us and EVERYTHING around us. Literally, everything around us. In every direction we look, and even the stuff we just assume to be out there.

Here’s another one. We see particles popping into existence here in our Universe. What if, after an immense amount of time, a whole Universe’s worth of particles all popped into existence at the same time. Seriously… an immense amount of time, with lots and lots of “almost” universes that didn’t make the cut.

 BICEP2 Telescope at twilight at the South Pole, Antartica (Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University)
BICEP2 Telescope at twilight at the South Pole, Antartica (Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

More recently, the BICEP2 team observed what may be evidence of inflation in the early Universe.
Like any claim of this gravity, the result is hotly debated. If the idea of inflation is correct, it is possible that our universe is part of a much larger multiverse. And the most popular form would produce a kind of eternal inflation, where universes are springing up all the time. Ours would just happen to be one of them.

It is also possible that asking what came before the big bang is much like asking what is north of the North Pole. What looks like a beginning in need of a cause may just be due to our own perspective. We like to think of effects always having a cause, but the Universe might be an exception. The Universe might simply be. Because.

You tell us. What was going on before the party started? Let us know in the comments below.

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