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 Does It Mean To Be ‘Star Stuff’?

At one time or another, all science enthusiasts have heard the late Carl Sagan’s infamous words: “We are made of star stuff.” But what does that mean exactly? How could colossal balls of plasma, greedily burning away their nuclear fuel in faraway time and space, play any part in spawning the vast complexity of our Earthly world? How is it that “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies” could have been forged so offhandedly deep in the hearts of these massive stellar giants?

Unsurprisingly, the story is both elegant and profoundly awe-inspiring.

All stars come from humble beginnings: namely, a gigantic, rotating clump of gas and dust. Gravity drives the cloud to condense as it spins, swirling into an ever more tightly packed sphere of material. Eventually, the star-to-be becomes so dense and hot that molecules of hydrogen in its core collide and fuse into new molecules of helium. These nuclear reactions release powerful bursts of energy in the form of light. The gas shines brightly; a star is born.

The ultimate fate of our fledgling star depends on its mass. Smaller, lightweight stars burn though the hydrogen in their core more slowly than heavier stars, shining somewhat more dimly but living far longer lives. Over time, however, falling hydrogen levels at the center of the star cause fewer hydrogen fusion reactions; fewer hydrogen fusion reactions mean less energy, and therefore less outward pressure.

At a certain point, the star can no longer maintain the tension its core had been sustaining against the mass of its outer layers. Gravity tips the scale, and the outer layers begin to tumble inward on the core. But their collapse heats things up, increasing the core pressure and reversing the process once again. A new hydrogen burning shell is created just outside the core, reestablishing a buffer against the gravity of the star’s surface layers.

While the core continues conducting lower-energy helium fusion reactions, the force of the new hydrogen burning shell pushes on the star’s exterior, causing the outer layers to swell more and more. The star expands and cools into a red giant. Its outer layers will ultimately escape the pull of gravity altogether, floating off into space and leaving behind a small, dead core – a white dwarf.

Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel
Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel

Heavier stars also occasionally falter in the fight between pressure and gravity, creating new shells of atoms to fuse in the process; however, unlike smaller stars, their excess mass allows them to keep forming these layers. The result is a series of concentric spheres, each shell containing heavier elements than the one surrounding it. Hydrogen in the core gives rise to helium. Helium atoms fuse together to form carbon. Carbon combines with helium to create oxygen, which fuses into neon, then magnesium, then silicon… all the way across the periodic table to iron, where the chain ends. Such massive stars act like a furnace, driving these reactions by way of sheer available energy.

But this energy is a finite resource. Once the star’s core becomes a solid ball of iron, it can no longer fuse elements to create energy. As was the case for smaller stars, fewer energetic reactions in the core of heavyweight stars mean less outward pressure against the force of gravity. The outer layers of the star will then begin to collapse, hastening the pace of heavy element fusion and further reducing the amount of energy available to hold up those outer layers. Density increases exponentially in the shrinking core, jamming together protons and electrons so tightly that it becomes an entirely new entity: a neutron star.

At this point, the core cannot get any denser. The star’s massive outer shells – still tumbling inward and still chock-full of volatile elements – no longer have anywhere to go. They slam into the core like a speeding oil rig crashing into a brick wall, and erupt into a monstrous explosion: a supernova. The extraordinary energies generated during this blast finally allow the fusion of elements even heavier than iron, from cobalt all the way to uranium.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements. Massive stars can fuse elements up to Iron (Fe), atomic number 26. Elements with atomic numbers 27 through 92 are produced in the aftermath of a massive star’s core collapse.

The energetic shock wave produced by the supernova moves out into the cosmos, disbursing heavy elements in its wake. These atoms can later be incorporated into planetary systems like our own. Given the right conditions – for instance, an appropriately stable star and a position within its Habitable Zone – these elements provide the building blocks for complex life.

Today, our everyday lives are made possible by these very atoms, forged long ago in the life and death throes of massive stars. Our ability to do anything at all – wake up from a deep sleep, enjoy a delicious meal, drive a car, write a sentence, add and subtract, solve a problem, call a friend, laugh, cry, sing, dance, run, jump, and play – is governed mostly by the behavior of tiny chains of hydrogen combined with heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus.

Other heavy elements are present in smaller quantities in the body, but are nonetheless just as vital to proper functioning. For instance, calcium, fluorine, magnesium, and silicon work alongside phosphorus to strengthen and grow our bones and teeth; ionized sodium, potassium, and chlorine play a vital role in maintaining the body’s fluid balance and electrical activity; and iron comprises the key portion of hemoglobin, the protein that equips our red blood cells with the ability to deliver the oxygen we inhale to the rest of our body.

So, the next time you are having a bad day, try this: close your eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate the chain of events that connects your body and mind to a place billions of lightyears away, deep in the distant reaches of space and time. Recall that massive stars, many times larger than our sun, spent millions of years turning energy into matter, creating the atoms that make up every part of you, the Earth, and everyone you have ever known and loved.

We human beings are so small; and yet, the delicate dance of molecules made from this star stuff gives rise to a biology that enables us to ponder our wider Universe and how we came to exist at all. Carl Sagan himself explained it best: “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return; and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

What is on the Other Side of a Black Hole?

Picture an entire star collapsed down into a gravitational singularity. An object with so much mass, compressed so tightly, that nothing, not even light itself can escape its grasp. It’s no surprise these objects have captured our imagination… and yet, I have a complaint.

The name “black hole” seems to have created something of a misunderstanding. And the images that show the gravitational well of a black hole don’t seem to help either.

From all the correspondence I get, I know many imagine these objects as magnificent portals to some other world or dimension. That they might be gateways which will take you off to adventures with beautiful glistening people in oddly tailored chainmail codpieces and bikinis.

So, if you were to jump into a black hole, where would you come out? What’s on the other side? Where do they take you to? Black holes don’t actually “go” anywhere. There isn’t an actual “hole” involved at all.

They’re massive black orbs in space with an incomprehensible gravitational field. We’re familiar with things that are black in color, like asphalt, or your favorite Cure shirt from the Wish tour that you’ve only ever hand-washed.

Black holes aren’t that sort of black. They’re black because even light, the fastest thing in the Universe, has given up trying to escape their immense gravity.

Let’s aim for a little context. Consider this. Imagine carrying an elephant around on your shoulders. Better yet, imagine wearing an entire elephant, like a suit. Now, let’s get off the couch and go for a walk. This what it would feel like if the gravity on Earth increased by a factor of 50. If we were to increase the force of gravity around your couch up to a level near the weakest possible black hole, it would be billions of times stronger than you would experience stuck under your elephant suit.

And so, if you jumped into a black hole, riding your space dragon, wearing maximus power gauntlets of punchiness and wielding some sort of ridiculous light-based melee weapon, you would then be instantly transformed … by those terrible tidal forces unravelling your body into streams of atoms… and then your mass would be added to the black hole.

Just so we’re clear on this, you don’t go anywhere. You just get added to the black hole.
It’s like wondering about the magical place you go if you jump into a trash compactor.
If you did jump into a black hole, your experience would be one great angular discomfort and then atomic disassembly. Here’s the truly nightmarish part. ..

As time distorts near the event horizon of a black hole, the outside Universe would watch you descend towards it more and more slowly. In theory, from their perspective it would take an infinite amount of time for you to become a part of the black hole. Even photons reflecting off your newly shaped body would be stretched out to the point that you would become redder and redder, and eventually, just fade away.

Artist concept of a view inside a black hole. Credit:  April Hobart, NASA, Chandra X-Ray Observatory
Artist concept of a view inside a black hole. Credit: April Hobart, NASA, Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Now that that is over with. Let’s clear up the matter of that diagram. Consider that image of a black hole’s gravity well. Anything with mass distorts space-time. The more mass you have, the more of a distortion you make….And black holes make bigger distortions than anything else in the Universe.

Light follows a straight line through space-time, even when space-time has been distorted into the maw of a black hole. When you get inside the black hole’s event horizon, all paths lead directly to the singularity, even if you’re a photon of light, moving directly away from it. It sounds just awful. The best news is that, from your perspective, it’s a quick and painful death for you and your space dragon.

So, if you had any plans to travel into a black hole, I urge you to reconsider. This isn’t a way to quickly travel to another spot in the Universe, or transcend to a higher form of consciousness. There’s nothing on the other side. Just disassembly and death.
If you’re looking for an escape to another dimension, might I suggest a good book instead?

Here’s an article I did about how to maximize your time while falling into a black hole.

Through the Wormhole Episode: Can We Travel Faster Than Light?

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Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman has entered into its second season and is working to highlight topics as physical as space flight and as metaphysical as whether or not we have a sixth sense. The show is hosted by Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman and airs on Wednesday nights on the Science Channel. This week’s show deals with a subject that many space flight enthusiasts have wondered for some time – can we really travel faster than the speed of light?

If the universe has a speed limit – it is considered to be the speed of light – at least we think it is the limit. Ever since Albert Einstein introduced us to the Theory of Relativity – we have been seeking ways if not to break this limit – then at least to bend it – a lot. For according to Einstein – it is impossible for humans to go faster than light. Scientists working in laboratories across the globe are trying to prove Einstein wrong – but can they? Time will tell and Through the Wormhole will take a peek at their efforts.

The show tackling the question of light speed will air on Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 10 p.m. EDT.

It turns out that Freeman himself has often pondered many of the questions raised on the show and he wanted to share his wonder with the rest of world.

“My love affair with science and the unknown began for me in my high school physics class,” said Freeman. “My mind sprung open – all because of the questions I asked. In this new season of Through the Wormhole, we will explore ten new mystifying questions that will change the way you look at the world around you.”

Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary are executive producers for Revelations Entertainment which produces the show. As mentioned, the show is entering its second season; this was confirmed in February of this year. The show was conceived as utilizing an element of pop culture (in this case Morgan Freeman, a celebrity, as the show’s narrator) with deep questions that have confronted mankind, in some cases since the dawn of time. By all accounts the show has been very successful.

Will the Large Hadron Collider Destroy the Earth?

Large Hadron Collider

Question: Will the Large Hadron Collider Destroy the Earth?

Answer: No.

As you might have heard in the news recently, several people are suing to try and get the Large Hadron Collider project canceled. When it finally comes online, the LHC will be the largest, most powerful particle accelerator ever constructed.

If there’s something wrong with it, the LHC might have the power to damage itself, but it can’t do anything to the Earth, or the Universe in general.

There are two worries that people have: black holes and strange matter.

One of the goals of the Large Hadron Collider is to simulate microscopic black holes that might have been generated in the first few moments of the Big Bang. Some people are worried that these artificial black holes might get loose, and then consume the Earth from within, eventually moving on to destroy the Solar System.

The physicists are confident that any black holes they create will evaporate almost instantaneously into a shower of particles. In fact, the theories that predict that black holes can be created also predicts that black holes will evaporate. The two concepts go hand in hand.

The other worry is that the Large Hadron Collider will create a theorized material called strangelets. This “strange matter” would then be able to infect other matter, turning the entire planet into a blog of strange matter.

This strange matter is completely theoretical, and once again, the same theories that say it might be produced in the Large Hadron Collider also rule out any risks from it.

One of the most important considerations is the fact that the Moon is struck by high energy cosmic rays that dwarf the power of the Large Hadron Collider. They were likely blasted out of the environment around a supermassive black hole.

These have been raining down on the Moon for billions of years, and so far, it hasn’t turned into a black hole or strange matter.

You can read more about the Large Hadron Collider lawsuit here. Or how it might create wormholes, a view into other dimensions, or unparticles.

Why are Distant Galaxies Moving Away Faster?

Question: Why are more distant galaxies moving away faster?

Answer: As you know, the Universe is expanding after the Big Bang. That means that every part of the Universe was once crammed into a tiny spot smaller than a grain of sand. Then it began expanding, and here we are, 13.7 billion years later with a growing Universe.

The expansive force of dark energy is actually accelerating the expansion even faster. But we won’t bring that in to make things even more complex.

As we look out into the Universe, we see galaxies moving away from us faster and faster. The more distant a galaxy is, the more quickly it’s moving away.

To understand why this is happening, go and get a balloon (or blow one up in your mind). Once you’ve got it blown up a little, draw a bunch of dots on the surface of the balloon; some close and others much further away. Then blow up the balloon more and watch how the dots expand away from each other.

From the perspective of any one dot on the surface of the balloon, the nearby dots aren’t expanding away too quickly, maybe just a few centimeters. But the dots on the other side of the balloon are quite far away. It took the same amount of time for all the dots to change their positions, so the more distant dots appeared to be moving faster.

That’s how it works with the Universe. Because space itself is expanding, the more further a galaxy is, the faster it seems to be receding.

Thanks to Cassandra for the question.

How Can Galaxies Recede Faster than the Speed of Light?

Question: How Can Galaxies Move Away Faster Than Speed of Light?

Answer: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity says that the speed of light – 300,000 km/s – is the maximum speed that anything can travel in the Universe. It requires more and more energy to approach the speed of light. You could use up all the energy in the Universe and still not be traveling at light speed.

As you know, most of the galaxies in the Universe are expanding away from us because of the Big Bang, and the subsequent effects of dark energy, which is providing an additional accelerating force on the expansion of the Universe.

Galaxies, like our own Milky Way are carried along by the expansion of the Universe, and will move apart from every other galaxy, unless they’re close enough to hold together with gravity.

As you look at galaxies further and further away, they appear to be moving faster and faster away from us. And it is possible that they could eventually appear to be moving away from us faster than light. At that point, light leaving the distant galaxy would never reach us.

When that happens, the distant galaxy would just fade away as the last of the photons reached Earth, and then we would never know it was ever there.

This sounds like it breaks Einstein’s theories, but it doesn’t. The galaxies themselves aren’t actually moving very quickly through space, it’s the space itself which is expanding away, and the galaxy is being carried along with it. As long as the galaxy doesn’t try to move quickly through space, no physical laws are broken.

One sad side effect of this expansion is that most of the galaxies will have receded over this horizon in about 3 trillion years, and future cosmologists will never know there’s a great big Universe out there.

You can read more about this in an article I did called the End of Everything.

How Big Do Planets Get?

Question: How Big Can Planets Get?

Answer: Here in the Solar System, we have three kinds of planets: the inner terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the ice planets. Sadly, Pluto is no longer a planet, so we won’t deal with that here. We know how big our planets are, but how big can planets actually get in other Solar Systems. What are the biggest possible planets?

Let’s start with terrestrial planets, like our Earth. We’ll set the size of the Earth and 1 Earth radius, and the mass as 1 Earth mass. We’ve seen that terrestrial planets can get smaller, with Mars and Mercury, and astronomers have detected larger terrestrial planets orbiting other stars.

The largest known rocky planet is thought to be Gliese 436 c. This is probably a rocky world with about 5 Earth masses and 1.5 times our planet’s radius. Amazingly, this planet is thought to be within its star’s habitable zone.

What’s the largest possible rocky planet? For this I put in an email to Dr. Sean Raymond, a post doctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at the University of Colorado. Here’s what he had to say:

“The largest “terrestrial” planet is generally considered the one before you get too thick of an atmosphere, which happens at about 5-10 Earth masses (something like 2 Earth radii). Those planets are more Earth-like than Neptune-like.”

Gas giants, of course, can come much larger. Jupiter is 317 times more massive than Earth, and 11 times larger. You could fit 1,400 Earths inside Jupiter.

Thebiggest planet in the Universe (at the time of this writing) is TrES-4, which is located 1,400 light years away in the constellation Hercules. The planet has been measured to be 1.4 times the size of Jupiter, but it only has 0.84 times Jupiter’s mass. With such a low density, the media was calling TrES-4 the puffy planet.

And once again, how large can they get? Again, here’s Dr. Raymond:

“In terms of gaseous planets, once they reach 15 Jupiter masses or so there is enough pressure in the core to ignite deuterium fusion, so those are considered “brown dwarfs” rather than planets.”

What is the biggest planet in the Solar System?

How Big is Apophis?

Question: How Big is Apophis?

Answer: In case you haven’t heard, Asteroid 99942 Apophis is a near Earth asteroid that astronomers think will make a close flyby to the Earth in 2029. When its trajectory was first calculated back in 2004, it had one of the closest visits to Earth astronomers had seen, and had a 2.7% chance of hitting the Earth.

But follow-up observations brought that risk down to 1 in 45,000. Right now, astronomers think that Apophis is essentially no risk to the Earth. In April, 2008 media reported that a 13-year old German student had caught a math mistake made by NASA, and the risk of an Earth strike was actually 1-45. This later turned out to be a hoax.

Because of its close approach to Earth, space advocacy societies, including the Planetary Society think that the Apophis asteroid would make an ideal target for a human mission, and allow engineers to test out strategies for moving asteroids away from dangerous Earth-crossing orbits.

So back to the original question, how big is Apophis? The best estimate puts it at 270 meters (885 feet across), and it has a mass of 2.1 x 1010 kg. To give you a sense of scale, the Eiffel Tower in Paris is 324 meters tall.

But now you know its mass and size, you’re probably wondering: what would happen to the Earth if it struck? NASA estimated that a strike by Apophis would release the equivalent of 880 megatons of energy. Just as a comparison, the object that carved out Meteor Crater in Arizona probably released 3-10 megatons of energy.

If Apophis struck land, it would flatten thousands of square km of land, killing millions of people if it hit a densely populated area. But it wouldn’t cause the kinds of long term climate destruction that 1 km and larger asteroids can do. If it hit an ocean, it would create devastating tsunamis in all directions.

Here’s an article explaining techniques that might be used to move an asteroid. And here’s NASA’s official page on Apophis.

Why are there Black Holes in the Middle of Galaxies?

Question: Why are Black Holes in the Middle of Galaxies?

Answer: The black holes you’re thinking of are known as supermassive black holes. Stellar mass black holes are created when a star at least 5 times larger than the Suns out of fuel and collapses in on itself forming a black hole. The supermassive black holes, on the other hand, can contain hundreds of millions of times the mass of a star like our Sun.

Astronomers are now fairly certain that these supermassive black holes are at the heart of almost every galaxy in the Universe. Furthermore, the mass of these black holes is somehow tied to the mass of the rest of the galaxy. They grown in tandem with each other.

When large quantities of material falls into the black hole, it chokes up, unable to get consumed all at once. This “accretion disk” begins to heat up and blaze brightly in many different wavelengths, including X-rays. When supermassive black holes are actively feeding, astronomers call these quasars.

So how do these black holes get there in the first place? Astronomers aren’t sure, but it could be that the dark matter halo that surrounds every galaxy serves to focus and concentrate material as the galaxy was first forming. Some of this material became the supermassive black hole, while the rest became the stars of the galaxy. It’s also possible that the black hole formed first, and collected the rest of the galaxy around it.

Astronomers just don’t know.