Cosmologist Thinks a Strange Signal May Be Evidence of a Parallel Universe

In the beginning, there was chaos.

Hot, dense, and packed with energetic particles, the early Universe was a turbulent, bustling place. It wasn’t until about 300,000 years after the Big Bang that the nascent cosmic soup had cooled enough for atoms to form and light to travel freely. This landmark event, known as recombination, gave rise to the famous cosmic microwave background (CMB), a signature glow that pervades the entire sky.

Now, a new analysis of this glow suggests the presence of a pronounced bruise in the background — evidence that, sometime around recombination, a parallel universe may have bumped into our own.

Although they are often the stuff of science fiction, parallel universes play a large part in our understanding of the cosmos. According to the theory of eternal inflation, bubble universes apart from our own are theorized to be constantly forming, driven by the energy inherent to space itself.

Like soap bubbles, bubble universes that grow too close to one another can and do stick together, if only for a moment. Such temporary mergers could make it possible for one universe to deposit some of its material into the other, leaving a kind of fingerprint at the point of collision.

Ranga-Ram Chary, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, believes that the CMB is the perfect place to look for such a fingerprint.

This image, the best map ever of the Universe, shows the oldest light in the universe. This glow, left over from the beginning of the cosmos called the cosmic microwave background, shows tiny changes in temperature represented by color. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration.
The cosmic microwave background (CMB), a pervasive glow made of light from the Universe’s infancy, as seen by the Planck satellite in 2013. Tiny deviations in average temperature are represented by color. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

After careful analysis of the spectrum of the CMB, Chary found a signal that was about 4500x brighter than it should have been, based on the number of protons and electrons scientists believe existed in the very early Universe. Indeed, this particular signal — an emission line that arose from the formation of atoms during the era of recombination — is more consistent with a Universe whose ratio of matter particles to photons is about 65x greater than our own.

There is a 30% chance that this mysterious signal is just noise, and not really a signal at all; however, it is also possible that it is real, and exists because a parallel universe dumped some of its matter particles into our own Universe.

After all, if additional protons and electrons had been added to our Universe during recombination, more atoms would have formed. More photons would have been emitted during their formation. And the signature line that arose from all of these emissions would be greatly enhanced.

Chary himself is wisely skeptical.

“Unusual claims like evidence for alternate Universes require a very high burden of proof,” he writes.

Indeed, the signature that Chary has isolated may instead be a consequence of incoming light from distant galaxies, or even from clouds of dust surrounding our own galaxy.

SO is this just another case of BICEP2? Only time and further analysis will tell.

Chary has submitted his paper to the Astrophysical Journal. A preprint of the work is available here.

Shape-shifting neutrinos earn physicists the 2015 Nobel

What do Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Paul Dirac, and Marie Curie have in common? They each won the Nobel prize in physics. And today, Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald have joined their ranks, thanks to a pioneering turn-of-the-century discovery: in defiance of long-held predictions, neutrinos shape-shift between multiple identities, and therefore must have mass.

The neutrino, a slight whiff of a particle that is cast off in certain types of radioactive decay, nuclear reactions, and high-energy cosmic events, could be called… shy. Electrically neutral but enormously abundant, half the time a neutrino could pass through a lightyear of lead without interacting with a single other particle. According to the Standard Model of particle physics, it has a whopping mass of zero.

As you can imagine, neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect.

But in 1956, scientists did exactly that. And just a few years later, a trio of physicists determined that neutrinos came in not just one, not two, but three different types, or flavors: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the tau neutrino.

The first annotated neutrino event. Image credit:
The neutrino was first detected in 1956 by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines. In 1970, scientists captured the first image of a neutrino track in a hydrogen bubble chamber. Image: Argonne National Laboratory

But there was a problem. Sure, scientists had figured out how to detect neutrinos—but they weren’t detecting enough of them. In fact, the number of electron neutrinos arriving on Earth due to nuclear reactions in the Sun’s core was only one-third to one-half the number their calculations had predicted. What, scientists wondered, was happening to the rest?

Kajita, working at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan in 1998, and McDonald, working at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada in 1999, determined that the electron neutrinos were not disappearing at all; rather, these particles were changing identity, spontaneously oscillating between the three flavor-types as they traveled through space.

Moreover, the researchers proclaimed, in order for neutrinos to make such transformations, they must have mass.

This is due to some quantum funny business having to do with the oscillations themselves. Grossly simplified, a massless particle, which always travels at the speed of light, does not experience time—Einstein’s theory of special relativity says so. But change takes time. Any particle that oscillates between identities needs to experience time in order for its state to evolve from one flavor to the the next.

The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
Neutrinos are produced in abundance during fusion reactions at the center of our Sun, and oscillate between three different types, or flavors, on their way to Earth. Image: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

Kajita and McDonald’s work showed that neutrinos must have a mass, albeit a very small one. But neutrinos are abundant in the Universe, and even a small mass has a large effect on all sorts of cosmic phenomena, from solar nuclear physics, where neutrinos are produced en masse, to the large-scale evolution of the cosmos, where neutrinos are ubiquitous.

The neutrino, no longer massless, is now considered to play a much larger role in these processes than scientists had originally believed.

What is more, the very existence of a massive neutrino undermines the theoretical basis of the Standard Model. In fact, Kajita’s and McDonald’s discovery provided some of the first evidence that the Standard Model might not be as airtight as had been previously believed, nudging scientists ever more in the direction of so-called “new physics.”

This is not the first time physicists have been awarded a Nobel prize for research into the nature of neutrinos. In 1988, Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger were awarded the prize for their discovery that neutrinos come in three flavors; in 1995, Frederick Reines won a Nobel for his detection of the neutrino along with Clyde Cowan; and in 2002, a Nobel was awarded to Raymond David Jr., the oldest person ever to receive a the prize in physics, and Masatoshi Koshiba for their detection of cosmic neutrinos.

Kajita, of the University of Tokyo, and McDonald, of Queen’s University in Canada, were awarded the prestigious prize this morning at a news conference in Stockholm.

The Journey of Light, From the Stars to Your Eyes

This week, millions of people will turn their eyes to the skies in anticipation of the 2015 Perseid meteor shower. But what happens on less eventful nights, when we find ourselves gazing upward simply to admire the deep, dark, star-spangled sky? Far away from the glow of civilization, we humans can survey thousands of tiny pinpricks of light. But how? Where does that light come from? How does it make its way to us? And how do our brains sort all that incoming energy into such a profoundly breathtaking sight?

Our story begins lightyears away, deep in the heart of a sun-like star, where gravity’s immense inward pressure keeps temperatures high and atoms disassembled. Free protons hurtle around the core, occasionally attaining the blistering energies necessary to overcome their electromagnetic repulsion, collide, and stick together in pairs of two.

2000px-FusionintheSun.svg
Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

So-called diprotons are unstable and tend to disband as quickly as they arise. And if it weren’t for the subatomic antics of the weak nuclear force, this would be the end of the line: no fusion, no starlight, no us. However, on very rare occasions, a process called beta decay transforms one proton in the pair into a neutron. This new partnership forms what is known as deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, and opens the door to further nuclear fusion reactions.

Indeed, once deuterium enters the mix, particle pileups happen far more frequently. A free proton slams into deuterium, creating helium-3. Additional impacts build upon one another to forge helium-4 and heavier elements like oxygen and carbon.

Such collisions do more than just build up more massive atoms; in fact, every impact listed above releases an enormous amount of energy in the form of gamma rays. These high-energy photons streak outward, providing thermonuclear pressure that counterbalances the star’s gravity. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of years later, battered, bruised, and energetically squelched from fighting their way through a sun-sized blizzard of other particles, they emerge from the star’s surface as visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.

Ta-da!

But this is only half the story. The light then has to stream across vast reaches of space in order to reach the Earth – a process that, provided the star of origin is in our own galaxy, can take anywhere from 4.2 years to many thousands of years! At least… from your perspective. Since photons are massless, they don’t experience any time at all! And even after eluding what, for any other massive entity in the Universe, would be downright interminable flight times, conditions still must align so that you can see even one twinkle of the light from a faraway star.

That is, it must be dark, and you must be looking up.

Credit: Bruce Blaus
Credit: Bruce Blaus

The incoming stream of photons then makes its way through your cornea and lens and onto your retina, a highly vascular layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. There, each tiny packet of light impinges upon one of two types of photoreceptor cell: a rod, or a cone.

Most photons detected under the low-light conditions of stargazing will activate rod cells. These cells are so light-sensitive that, in dark enough conditions, they can be excited by a single photon! Rods cannot detect color, but are far more abundant than cones and are found all across the retina, including around the periphery.

The less numerous, more color-hungry cone cells are densely concentrated at the center of the retina, in a region called the fovea (this explains why dim stars that are visible in your side vision suddenly seem to disappear when you attempt to look at them straight-on). Despite their relative insensitivity, cone cells can be activated by very bright starlight, enabling you to perceive stars like Vega as blue and Betelgeuse as red.

But whether bright light or dim, every photon has the same endpoint once it reaches one of your eyes’ photoreceptors: a molecule of vitamin A, which is bound together with a specialized protein called an opsin. Vitamin A absorbs the light and triggers a signal cascade: ion channels open and charged particles rush across a membrane, generating an electrical impulse that travels up the optic nerve and into the brain. By the time this signal reaches your brain’s visual cortex, various neural pathways are already hard at work translating this complex biochemistry into what you once thought was a simple, intuitive, and poetic understanding of the heavens above…

The stars, they shine.

So the next time you go outside in the darker hours, take a moment to appreciate the great lengths it takes for just a single twinkle of light to travel from a series of nuclear reactions in the bustling center of a distant star, across the vastness of space and time, through your body’s electrochemical pathways, and into your conscious mind.

It gives every last one of those corny love songs new meaning, doesn’t it?

What’s the Big Deal About the Pentaquark?

“Three quarks for Muster Mark!,” wrote James Joyce in his labyrinthine fable, Finnegan’s Wake. By now, you may have heard this quote – the short, nonsensical sentence that eventually gave the name “quark” to the Universe’s (as-yet-unsurpassed) most fundamental building blocks. Today’s physicists believe that they understand the basics of how quarks combine; three join up to form baryons (everyday particles like the proton and neutron), while two – a quark and an antiquark – stick together to form more exotic, less stable varieties called mesons. Rare four-quark partnerships are called tetraquarks. And five quarks bound in a delicate dance? Naturally, that would be a pentaquark. And the pentaquark, until recently a mere figment of physics lore, has now been detected at the LHC!

So what’s the big deal? Far from just being a fun word to say five-times-fast, the pentaquark may unlock vital new information about the strong nuclear force. These revelations could ultimately change the way we think about our superbly dense friend, the neutron star – and, indeed, the nature of familiar matter itself.

Physicists know of six types of quarks, which are ordered by weight. The lightest of the six are the up and down quarks, which make up the most familiar everyday baryons (two ups and a down in the proton, and two downs and an up in the neutron). The next heaviest are the charm and strange quarks, followed by the top and bottom quarks. And why stop there? In addition, each of the six quarks has a corresponding anti-particle, or antiquark.

particles
Six types of quark, arranged from left to right by way of their mass, depicted along with the other elementary particles of the Standard Model. The Higgs boson was added to the right side of the menagerie in 2012. (Image Credit: Fermilab)

An important attribute of both quarks and their anti-particle counterparts is something called “color.” Of course, quarks do not have color in the same way that you might call an apple “red” or the ocean “blue”; rather, this property is a metaphorical way of communicating one of the essential laws of subatomic physics – that quark-containing particles (called hadrons) always carry a neutral color charge.

For instance, the three components of a proton must include one red quark, one green quark, and one blue quark. These three “colors” add up to a neutral particle in the same way that red, green, and blue light combine to create a white glow. Similar laws are in place for the quark and antiquark that make up a meson: their respective colors must be exactly opposite. A red quark will only combine with an anti-red (or cyan) antiquark, and so on.

The pentaquark, too, must have a neutral color charge. Imagine a proton and a meson (specifically, a type called a J/psi meson) bound together – a red, a blue, and a green quark in one corner, and a color-neutral quark-antiquark pair in the other – for a grand total of four quarks and one antiquark, all colors of which neatly cancel each other out.

Physicists are not sure whether the pentaquark is created by this type of segregated arrangement or whether all five quarks are bound together directly; either way, like all hadrons, the pentaquark is kept in check by that titan of fundamental dynamics, the strong nuclear force.

The strong nuclear force, as its name implies, is the unspeakably robust force that glues together the components of every atomic nucleus: protons and neutrons and, more crucially, their own constituent quarks. The strong force is so tenacious that “free quarks” have never been observed; they are all confined far too tightly within their parent baryons.

But there is one place in the Universe where quarks may exist in and of themselves, in a kind of meta-nuclear state: in an extraordinarily dense type of neutron star. In a typical neutron star, the gravitational pressure is so tremendous that protons and electrons cease to be. Their energies and charges melt together, leaving nothing but a snug mass of neutrons.

Physicists have conjectured that, at extreme densities, in the most compact of stars, adjacent neutrons within the core may even themselves disintegrate into a jumble of constituent parts.

The neutron star… would become a quark star.

The difference between a neutron star and a quark star (Chandra)
The difference between a neutron star and a quark star. (Image Credit: Chandra)

Scientists believe that understanding the physics of the pentaquark may shed light on the way the strong nuclear force operates under such extreme conditions – not only in such overly dense neutron stars, but perhaps even in the first fractions of a second following the Big Bang. Further analysis should also help physicists refine their understanding of the ways that quarks can and cannot combine.

The data that gave rise to this discovery – a whopping 9-sigma result! – came out of the LHC’s first run (2010-2013). With the supercollider now operating at double its original energy capacity, physicists should have no problem unraveling the mysteries of the pentaquark even further.

A preprint of the pentaquark discovery, which has been submitted to the journal Physical Review Letters, can be found here.

What Shape is the Universe?

It’s a reasonable question to wonder what the shape of the Universe is. Is it a sphere? A torus? Is it open or closed, or flat? And what does that all mean anyway?

The Universe. It’s the only home we’ve ever known. Thanks to its intrinsic physical laws, the known constants of nature, and the heavy-metal-spewing fireballs known as supernovae we are little tiny beings held fast to a spinning ball of rock in a distant corner of space and time.

Doesn’t it seem a little rude not to know much about the Universe itself? For instance, if we could look at it from outside, what would we see? A vast blackness? A sea of bubbles? Snow globe? Rat maze? A marble in the hands of a larger-dimensional aliens or some other prog rock album cover?

As it turns out, the answer is both simpler and weirder than all those options. What does the Universe look like is a question we love to guess at as a species and make up all kinds of nonsense.

Hindu texts describe the Universe as a cosmic egg, the Jains believed it was human-shaped. The Greek Stoics saw the Universe as a single island floating in an otherwise infinite void, while Aristotle believed it was made up of a finite series of concentric spheres, or perhaps it’s simply “turtles all the way down”.

Thanks to the mathematical genius of Einstein, cosmologists can actually test out the validity of various models that describe the Universe’s shape, turtles, mazes, and otherwise.

There are three main flavors that scientists consider: positively-curved, negatively-curved, and flat. We know it exists in at least four dimensions, so any of the shapes we are about to describe are bordering on Lovecraftian madness geometry, so fire up your madness abacus. Ya! Ya! Cthulhu ftagen.

A positively-curved Universe would look somewhat like a four-dimensional sphere. This type of Universe would be finite in space, but with no discernible edge. In fact, two distant particles travelling in two straight lines would actually intersect before ending up back where they started.

You can try this at home. Grab a balloon and draw a straight line with a sharpie. Your line eventually meets its starting point. A second line starting on the opposite side of the balloon will do the same thing, and it will cross your first line before meeting itself again.

This type of Universe, conveniently easy to imagine in three dimensions – would only arise if the cosmos contained a certain, large amount of energy.

To be positively-curved, or closed, the Universe would first have to stop expanding – something that would only happen if the cosmos housed enough energy to give gravity the leading edge. Present cosmological observations suggest that the Universe should expand forever. So, for now, we’re tossing out the easy to imagine scenario.

A negatively-curved Universe would look like a four-dimensional saddle. Open, without boundaries in space or time. It would contain too little energy to ever stop expanding.

Here two particles traveling on straight paths would never meet. In fact, they would continuously diverge, getting farther and farther away from each other as infinite time spiraled on.

If the Universe is found to contain a Goldilocks-specific, critical amount of energy, teetering perilously between the extremes, its expansion will halt after an infinite amount of time,

This type of Universe is called a flat Universe. Particles in a flat cosmos continue on their merry way in parallel straight paths, never to meet, but never to diverge either.

Sphere, saddle, flat plane. Those are pretty easily to picture. There are other options too – like a soccer ball, a doughnut, or a trumpet.

A soccer ball would look much like a spherical Universe, but one with a very particular signature – a sort of hall of mirrors imprinted on the cosmic microwave background.

The doughnut is technically a flat Universe, but one that is connected in multiple places. Some scientists believe that large warm and cool spots in the CMB could actually be evidence for this kind of tasty topology.

Lastly, we come to the trumpet. This is another way to visualize a negatively-curved cosmos: like a saddle curled into a long tube, with one very flared end and one very narrow end. Someone in the narrow end would find their cosmos to be so cramped, it only had two dimensions. Meanwhile, someone else in the flared end could only travel so far before they found themselves inexplicably turned around and flying the other way.

So which is it? Is our Universe an orange or a bagel? Is it Pringles? A cheese slice? Brass or woodwind? Scientists have not yet ruled out the more wacky, negatively-curved suggestions, such as the saddle or the trumpet.

WMAP data of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Credit: NASA
WMAP data of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Credit: NASA

Haters are going to argue that we will never know what the true shape of our Universe is. Those people are no fun, and are just obstructionists. Seriously, let us help you get better friends.

Based on the most recent Planck data, released in February 2015, our Universe is most likely… Flat. Infinitely finite, not curved even a little bit, with an exact, critical amount of energy supplied by dark matter and dark energy.

I know this gets a little confusing, and meanders right up to the border of nap time, but here’s what I’m hoping you’ll take away from all this.

It’s amazing that not only can we make guesses at what our incredible universe looks like, but that there’s clever people working tirelessly to help us figure that out. It’s one of the things that makes me happiest about talking every week about space and astronomy. I just can’t wait to see what’s next.

So what do you think? Is a flat Universe too boring for your taste? What shape would you like the Universe to be, given the wide array of options?

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How Can Space Travel Faster Than The Speed Of Light?

Cosmologists are intellectual time travelers. Looking back over billions of years, these scientists are able to trace the evolution of our Universe in astonishing detail. 13.8 billion years ago, the Big Bang occurred. Fractions of a second later, the fledgling Universe expanded exponentially during an incredibly brief period of time called inflation. Over the ensuing eons, our cosmos has grown to such an enormous size that we can no longer see the other side of it.

But how can this be? If light’s velocity marks a cosmic speed limit, how can there possibly be regions of spacetime whose photons are forever out of our reach? And even if there are, how do we know that they exist at all?

The Expanding Universe

Like everything else in physics, our Universe strives to exist in the lowest possible energy state possible. But around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, inflationary cosmologists believe that the cosmos found itself resting instead at a “false vacuum energy” – a low-point that wasn’t really a low-point. Seeking the true nadir of vacuum energy, over a minute fraction of a moment, the Universe is thought to have ballooned by a factor of 1050.

Since that time, our Universe has continued to expand, but at a much slower pace. We see evidence of this expansion in the light from distant objects. As photons emitted by a star or galaxy propagate across the Universe, the stretching of space causes them to lose energy. Once the photons reach us, their wavelengths have been redshifted in accordance with the distance they have traveled.

Two sources of redshift: Doppler and cosmological expansion; modeled after Koupelis & Kuhn. Credit: Brews Ohare.
Two sources of redshift: Doppler and cosmological expansion; modeled after Koupelis & Kuhn. Bottom: Detectors catch the light that is emitted by a central star. This light is stretched, or redshifted, as space expands in between. Credit: Brews Ohare.

This is why cosmologists speak of redshift as a function of distance in both space and time. The light from these distant objects has been traveling for so long that, when we finally see it, we are seeing the objects as they were billions of years ago.

The Hubble Volume

Redshifted light allows us to see objects like galaxies as they existed in the distant past; but we cannot see all events that occurred in our Universe during its history. Because our cosmos is expanding, the light from some objects is simply too far away for us ever to see.

The physics of that boundary rely, in part, on a chunk of surrounding spacetime called the Hubble volume. Here on Earth, we define the Hubble volume by measuring something called the Hubble parameter (H0), a value that relates the apparent recession speed of distant objects to their redshift. It was first calculated in 1929, when Edwin Hubble discovered that faraway galaxies appeared to be moving away from us at a rate that was proportional to the redshift of their light.

Fit of redshift velocities to Hubble's law. Credit: Brews Ohare
Fit of redshift velocities to Hubble’s law. Credit: Brews Ohare

Dividing the speed of light by H0, we get the Hubble volume. This spherical bubble encloses a region where all objects move away from a central observer at speeds less than the speed of light. Correspondingly, all objects outside of the Hubble volume move away from the center faster than the speed of light.

Yes, “faster than the speed of light.” How is this possible?

The Magic of Relativity

The answer has to do with the difference between special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity requires what is called an “inertial reference frame” – more simply, a backdrop. According to this theory, the speed of light is the same when compared in all inertial reference frames. Whether an observer is sitting still on a park bench on planet Earth or zooming past Neptune in a futuristic high-velocity rocketship, the speed of light is always the same. A photon always travels away from the observer at 300,000,000 meters per second, and he or she will never catch up.

General relativity, however, describes the fabric of spacetime itself. In this theory, there is no inertial reference frame. Spacetime is not expanding with respect to anything outside of itself, so the the speed of light as a limit on its velocity doesn’t apply. Yes, galaxies outside of our Hubble sphere are receding from us faster than the speed of light. But the galaxies themselves aren’t breaking any cosmic speed limits. To an observer within one of those galaxies, nothing violates special relativity at all. It is the space in between us and those galaxies that is rapidly proliferating and stretching exponentially.

The Observable Universe

Now for the next bombshell: The Hubble volume is not the same thing as the observable Universe.

To understand this, consider that as the Universe gets older, distant light has more time to reach our detectors here on Earth. We can see objects that have accelerated beyond our current Hubble volume because the light we see today was emitted when they were within it.

Strictly speaking, our observable Universe coincides with something called the particle horizon. The particle horizon marks the distance to the farthest light that we can possibly see at this moment in time – photons that have had enough time to either remain within, or catch up to, our gently expanding Hubble sphere.

And just what is this distance? A little more than 46 billion light years in every direction – giving our observable Universe a diameter of approximately 93 billion light years, or more than 500 billion trillion miles.

The observable - or inferrable universe. This may just be a small component of the whole ball game.
The observable universe, more technically known as the particle horizon.

(A quick note: the particle horizon is not the same thing as the cosmological event horizon. The particle horizon encompasses all the events in the past that we can currently see. The cosmological event horizon, on the other hand, defines a distance within which a future observer will be able to see the then-ancient light our little corner of spacetime is emitting today.

In other words, the particle horizon deals with the distance to past objects whose ancient light that we can see today; the cosmological event horizon deals with the distance that our present-day light that will be able to travel as faraway regions of the Universe accelerate away from us.)

Dark Energy

Thanks to the expansion of the Universe, there are regions of the cosmos that we will never see, even if we could wait an infinite amount of time for their light to reach us. But what about those areas just beyond the reaches of our present-day Hubble volume? If that sphere is also expanding, will we ever be able to see those boundary objects?

This depends on which region is expanding faster – the Hubble volume or the parts of the Universe just outside of it. And the answer to that question depends on two things: 1) whether H0 is increasing or decreasing, and 2) whether the Universe is accelerating or decelerating. These two rates are intimately related, but they are not the same.

In fact, cosmologists believe that we are actually living at a time when His decreasing; but because of dark energy, the velocity of the Universe’s expansion is increasing.

That may sound counterintuitive, but as long as Hdecreases at a slower rate than that at which the Universe’s expansion velocity is increasing, the overall movement of galaxies away from us still occurs at an accelerated pace. And at this moment in time, cosmologists believe that the Universe’s expansion will outpace the more modest growth of the Hubble volume.

So even though our Hubble volume is expanding, the influence of dark energy appears to provide a hard limit to the ever-increasing observable Universe.

Our Earthly Limitations

cosmology tapestry

Cosmologists seem to have a good handle on deep questions like what our observable Universe will someday look like and how the expansion of the cosmos will change. But ultimately, scientists can only theorize the answers to questions about the future based on their present-day understanding of the Universe. Cosmological timescales are so unimaginably long that it is impossible to say much of anything concrete about how the Universe will behave in the future. Today’s models fit the current data remarkably well, but the truth is that none of us will live long enough to see whether the predictions truly match all of the outcomes.

Disappointing? Sure. But totally worth the effort to help our puny brains consider such mind-bloggling science – a reality that, as usual, is just plain stranger than fiction.

Two Stars On A Death Spiral Set To Detonate As A Supernova

Two white dwarfs circle around one other, locked in a fatal tango. With an intimate orbit and a hefty combined mass, the pair is ultimately destined to collide, merge, and erupt in a titanic explosion: a Type Ia supernova.

Or so goes the theory behind the infamous “standard candles” of cosmology.

Now, in a paper published in today’s issue of Nature, a team of astronomers have announced observational support for such an arrangement – two massive white dwarf stars that appear to be on track for a very explosive demise.

The astronomers were originally studying variations in planetary nebulae, the glowing clouds of gas that red giant stars throw off as they fizzle into white dwarfs. One of their targets was the planetary nebula Henize 2-428, an oddly lopsided specimen that, the team believed, owed its shape to the existence of two central stars, rather than one. After observing the nebula with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the astronomers concluded that they were correct – Henize 2-428 did, in fact, have a binary star system at its heart.

This image of the unusual planetary nebula was obtained using ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In the heart of this colourful nebula lies a unique object consisting of two white dwarf stars, each with a mass a little less than that of the Sun. These stars are expected to slowly draw closer to each other and merge in around 700 million years. This event will create a dazzling supernova of Type Ia and destroy both stars. Credit: ESO
This image of the unusual planetary nebula was obtained using ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In the heart of this colourful nebula lies a unique object consisting of two white dwarf stars, each with a mass a little less than that of the Sun. These stars are expected to slowly draw closer to each other and merge in around 700 million years. This event will create a dazzling supernova of Type Ia and destroy both stars. Credit: ESO

“Further observations made with telescopes in the Canary Islands allowed us to determine the orbit of the two stars and deduce both the masses of the two stars and their separation,” said Romano Corradi, a member of the team.

And that is where things get juicy.

In fact, the two stars are whipping around each other once every 4.2 hours, implying a narrow separation that is shrinking with each orbit. Moreover, the system has a combined heft of 1.76 solar masses – larger, by any count, than the restrictive Chandrasekhar limit, the maximum ~1.4 solar masses that a white dwarf can withstand before it detonates. Based on the team’s calculations, Henize 2-428 is likely to be the site of a type Ia supernova within the next 700 million years.

“Until now, the formation of supernovae Type Ia by the merging of two white dwarfs was purely theoretical,” explained David Jones, another of the paper’s coauthors. “The pair of stars in Henize 2-428 is the real thing!”

Check out this simulation, courtesy of the ESO, for a closer look at the fate of the dynamic duo:

 

Astronomers should be able to use the stars of Henize 2-428 to test and refine their models of type Ia supernovae – essential tools that, as lead author Miguel Santander-García emphasized, “are widely used to measure astronomical distances and were key to the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating due to dark energy.” This system may also enhance scientists’ understanding of the precursors of other irregular planetary nebulae and supernova remnants.

The team’s work was published in the February 9 issue of Nature. A copy of the paper is available here.

Don’t Look At Black Holes Too Closely, They Might Disappear

We’ve come a long way in 13.8 billion years; but despite our impressively extensive understanding of the Universe, there are still a few strings left untied. For one, there is the oft-cited disconnect between general relativity, the physics of the very large, and quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small. Then there is problematic fate of a particle’s intrinsic information after it falls into a black hole. Now, a new interpretation of fundamental physics attempts to solve both of these conundrums by making a daring claim: at certain scales, space and time simply do not exist.

Let’s start with something that is not in question. Thanks to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, we can all agree that the speed of light is constant for all observers. We can also agree that, if you’re not a photon, approaching light speed comes with some pretty funky rules – namely, anyone watching you will see your length compress and your watch slow down.

But the slowing of time also occurs near gravitationally potent objects, which are described by general relativity. So if you happen to be sight-seeing in the center of the Milky Way and you make the regrettable decision to get too close to our supermassive black hole’s event horizon (more sinisterly known as its point-of-no-return), anyone observing you will also see your watch slow down. In fact, he or she will witness your motion toward the event horizon slow dramatically over an infinite amount of time; that is, from your now-traumatized friend’s perspective, you never actually cross the event horizon. You, however, will feel no difference in the progression of time as you fall past this invisible barrier, soon to be spaghettified by the black hole’s immense gravity.

So, who is “correct”? Relativity dictates that each observer’s point of view is equally valid; but in this situation, you can’t both be right. Do you face your demise in the heart of a black hole, or don’t you? (Note: This isn’t strictly a paradox, but intuitively, it feels a little sticky.)

And there is an additional, bigger problem. A black hole’s event horizon is thought to give rise to Hawking radiation, a kind of escaping energy that will eventually lead to both the evaporation of the black hole and the destruction of all of the matter and energy that was once held inside of it. This concept has black hole physicists scratching their heads. Because according to the laws of physics, all of the intrinsic information about a particle or system (namely, the quantum wavefunction) must be conserved. It cannot just disappear.

Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University alongside illustrations of a black hole and an event horizon with Hawking Radiation. He continues to engage his grey matter to uncover the secrets of the Universe while others attempt to confirm his existing theories. (Photo: BBC, Illus.: T.Reyes)
Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University alongside illustrations of a black hole and an event horizon with Hawking Radiation. He continues to engage his grey matter to uncover the secrets of the Universe while others attempt to confirm his existing theories. (Photo: BBC, Illus.: T.Reyes)

Why all of these bizarre paradoxes? Because black holes exist in the nebulous space where a singularity meets general relativity – fertile, yet untapped ground for the elusive theory of everything.

Enter two interesting, yet controversial concepts: doubly special relativity and gravity’s rainbow.

Just as the speed of light is a universally agreed-upon constant in special relativity, so is the Planck energy in doubly special relativity (DSR). In DSR, this value (1.22 x 1019 GeV) is the maximum energy (and thus, the maximum mass) that a particle can have in our Universe.

Two important consequences of DSR’s maximum energy value are minimum units of time and space. That is, regardless of whether you are moving or stationary, in empty space or near a black hole, you will agree that classical space breaks down at distances shorter than the Planck length (1.6 x 10-35 m) and classical time breaks down at moments briefer than the Planck time (5.4 x 10-44 sec).

In other words, spacetime is discrete. It exists in indivisible (albeit vanishingly small) units. Quantum below, classical above. Add general relativity into the picture, and you get the theory of gravity’s rainbow.

Physicists Ahmed Farag Ali, Mir Faizal, and Barun Majumder believe that these theories can be used to explain away the aforementioned black hole conundrums – both your controversial spaghettification and the information paradox. How? According to DSR and gravity’s rainbow, in regions smaller than 1.6 x 10-35 m and at times shorter than 5.4 x 10-44 sec… the Universe as we know it simply does not exist.

Einstein and Relativity
“Say what??” -Albert Einstein

“In gravity’s rainbow, space does not exist below a certain minimum length, and time does not exist below a certain minimum time interval,” explained Ali, who, along with Faizal and Majumder, authored a paper on this topic that was published last month. “So, all objects existing in space and occurring at a time do not exist below that length and time interval [which are associated with the Planck scale].”

Luckily for us, every particle we know of, and thus every particle we are made of, is much larger than the Planck length and endures for much longer than the Planck time. So – phew! – you and I and everything we see and know can go on existing. (Just don’t probe too deeply.)

The event horizon of a black hole, however, is a different story. After all, the event horizon isn’t made of particles. It is pure spacetime. And according to Ali and his colleagues, if you could observe it on extremely short time or distance scales, it would cease to have meaning. It wouldn’t be a point-of-no-return at all. In their view, the paradox only arises when you treat spacetime as continuous – without minimum units of length and time.

“As the information paradox depends on the existence of the event horizon, and an event horizon like all objects does not exist below a certain length and time interval, then there is no absolute information paradox in gravity’s rainbow. The absence of an effective horizon means that there is nothing absolutely stopping information from going out of the black hole,” concluded Ali.

No absolute event horizon, no information paradox.

And what of your spaghettification within the black hole? Again, it depends on the scale at which you choose to analyze your situation. In gravity’s rainbow, spacetime is discrete; therefore, the mathematics reveal that both you (the doomed in-faller) and your observer will witness your demise within a finite length of time. But in the current formulation of general relativity, where spacetime is described as continuous, the paradox arises. The in-faller, well, falls in; meanwhile, the observer never sees the in-faller pass the event horizon.

“The most important lesson from this paper is that space and time exist only beyond a certain scale,” said Ali. “There is no space and time below that scale. Hence, it is meaningless to define particles, matter, or any object, including black holes, that exist in space and time below that scale. Thus, as long as we keep ourselves confined to the scales at which both space and time exist, we get sensible physical answers. However, when we try to ask questions at length and time intervals that are below the scales at which space and time exist, we end up getting paradoxes and problems.”

To recap: if spacetime continues on arbitrarily small scales, the paradoxes remain. If, however, gravity’s rainbow is correct and the Planck length and the Planck time are the smallest unit of space and time that fundamentally exist, we’re in the clear… at least, mathematically speaking. Unfortunately, the Planck scales are far too tiny for our measly modern particle colliders to probe. So, at least for now, this work provides yet another purely theoretical result.

The paper was published in the January 23 issue of Europhysics Letters. A pre-print of the paper is available here.

Astronomers See a Massive Black Hole Tear a Star Apart

A telescope peers into the blackness of deep space. Suddenly – a brilliant flash of light appears that wasn’t there before. What could it be? A supernova? Two massively dense stars fusing together? Perhaps a gamma ray burst?

Five years ago, researchers using the ROTSE IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory noticed just such an event. But far from being your run-of-the-mill stellar explosion or neutron star merger, the astronomers believe that this tiny flare was, in fact, evidence of a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, tearing a star to shreds.

Astronomers at McDonald had been using the telescope to scan the skies for such nascent flashes for years, as part of the ROTSE Supernova Verification Project (SNVP). And at first blush, the event seen in early 2009, which the researches nicknamed “Dougie,” looked just like many of the other supernovae they had discovered over the course of the project. With a blazing – 22.5-magnitude absolute brightness, the event fit squarely within the class of superluminous supernovae that the researchers were already familiar with.

But as time went on and more data on Dougie rolled in, the astronomers began to change their minds. X-ray observations made by the orbiting Swift satellite and optical spectra taken by McDonald’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope revealed an evolving light curve and chemical makeup that didn’t fit with computer simulations of superluminous supernovae. Likewise, Dougie didn’t appear to be a neutron star merger, which would have reached peak luminosity far more quickly than was observed, or a gamma ray burst, which, even at an angle, would have appeared far brighter in x-ray light.

That left only one option: a so-called “tidal disruption event,” or the carnage and spaghettification that occurs when a star wanders too close to a black hole’s horizon. J. Craig Wheeler, head of the supernova group at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the team that discovered Dougie, explained that at short distances, a black hole’s gravity exerts a much stronger pull on the side of the star nearest to it than it does on the star’s opposite side. He explained, “These especially large tides can be strong enough that you pull the star out into a noodle.”

The team refined their models of the event and came to a surprising conclusion: having drawn in Dougie’s stellar material a bit faster than it could handle, the black hole was now “choking” on its latest meal. This is due to an astrophysical principle called the Eddington Limit, which states that a black hole of a given size can only handle so much infalling material. After this limit has been reached, any additional intake of matter exerts more outward pressure than the black hole’s gravity can compensate for. This pressure increase has a kind of rebound effect, throwing off material from the black hole’s accretion disk along with heat and light. Such a burst of energy accounts for at least part of Dougie’s brightness, but also indicates that the original dying star – a star not unlike our own Sun – wasn’t going down without a fight.

Combining these observations with the mathematics of the Eddington Limit, the researchers estimated the black hole’s size to be about 1 million solar masses – a rather small black hole, at the center of a rather small galaxy, three billion light years away. Discoveries like these not only allow astronomers to better understand the physics of black holes, but also properties of their often unassuming home galaxies. After all, mused Wheeler, “Who knew this little guy had a black hole?”

To get a simulated glimpse of Dougie for yourself, check out the amazing animation below, courtesy of team member James Guillochon:

The research is published in this month’s issue of The Astrophysical Journal. A pre-print of the paper is available here.

Astronomers Catch A Quasar Shutting Off

Last week, astronomers at Yale University reported seeing something unusual: a seemingly stedfast beacon from the far reaches of the Universe went quiet. This relic light source, a quasar located in the region of our sky known as the celestial equator, unexpectedly became 6-7 times dimmer over the first decade of the 21st century. Thanks to this dramatic change in luminosity, astronomers now have an unprecedented opportunity to study both the life cycle of quasars and the galaxies that they once called home.

A quasar arises from a distant (and therefore, very old) galaxy that once contained a central, rotating supermassive black hole – what astronomers call an active galactic nucleus. This spinning beast ravenously swallowed up large amounts of ambient gas and dust, kicking up surrounding material and sending it streaming out of the galaxy at blistering speeds. Quasars shine because these ancient jets achieved tremendous energies, thereby giving rise to a torrent of light so powerful that astronomers are still able to detect it here on Earth, billions of years later.

In their hey-day, some active galactic nuclei were also energetic enough to excite electrons farther away from the central black hole. But even in the very early Universe, electrons couldn’t withstand that kind of excitement forever; the laws of physics don’t allow it. Eventually, each electron would drop back down to its rest state, releasing a photon of corresponding energy. This cycle of excitation happened over and over and over again, in regular and predictable patterns. Modern astronomers can visualize those transitions – and the energies that caused them – by examining a quasar’s optical spectrum for characteristic emission lines at certain wavelengths.

An example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths.
A simple example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths. Broad humps correspond to brighter emission lines, while lines that arise from narrow, lower-intensity emissions appear dimmer. Credit: NASA

Not all quasars are created equal, however. While the spectra of some quasars reveal many bright, broad emission lines at different energies, other quasars’ spectra consist of only the dim, narrow variety. Until now, some astronomers thought that these variations in emission lines among quasars were simply due to differences in their orientation as seen from Earth; that is, the more face-on a quasar was relative to us, the broader the emission lines astronomers would be able to see.

But all of that has now been thrown into question, thanks to our friend J015957.64+003310.5, the quasar revealed by the team of astronomers at Yale. Indeed, it is now plausible that a quasar’s pattern of emission lines simply changes over its lifetime. After gathering ten years of spectral observations from the quasar, the researchers observed its original change in brightness in 2010. In July 2014, they confirmed that it was still just as dim, disproving hypotheses that suggested the effect was simply due to intervening gas or dust. “We’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of quasars at this point, and now we’ve found one that has switched off,” explained C. Megan Urry, the study’s co-author.

How would that happen, you ask? After observing the comparable dearth of broad emission lines in its spectrum, Urry and her colleagues believe that long ago, the black hole at the heart of the quasar simply went on a diet. After all, an active galactic nucleus that consumed less material would generate less energy, giving rise to fainter particle jets and fewer excited atoms. “The power source just went dim,” said Stephanie LaMassa, the study’s principal investigator.

LaMassa continued, “Because the life cycle of a quasar is one of the big unknowns, catching one as it changes, within a human lifetime, is amazing.” And since the life cycle of quasars is dependent on the life cycle of supermassive black holes, this discovery may help astronomers to explain how those that lie at the center of most galaxies evolve over time – including Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way.

“Even though astronomers have been studying quasars for more than 50 years, it’s exciting that someone like me, who has studied black holes for almost a decade, can find something completely new,” added LaMassa.

The team’s research will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. A pre-print of the paper is available here.