“Say, do you like mystery stories? Well we have one for you. The concept: relativity.”
Well look at that, it’s a new video from John D. Boswell — aka melodysheep — which goes into autotuned detail about one of the standard principles of astrophysics, Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Featuring clips from Michio Kaku, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene and Lisa Randall, I’d say E=mc(awesome).
John has been entertaining science fans with his Symphony of Science mixes since 2009, when his first video in the series — “A Glorious Dawn” featuring Carl Sagan — was released. Now John’s videos are eagerly anticipated by fans (like me) who follow him on YouTube and on Twitter as @musicalscience.
“E = mc2… that is the engine that lights up the stars.”
(What does Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation mean? For a brief and basic explanation, check out the American Museum of Natural History’s page here.)
Hubble mosaic of massive galaxy cluster MACS J0717.5+3745, thought to be connected by a filament of dark matter. Credit: NASA, ESA, Harald Ebeling (University of Hawaii at Manoa) & Jean-Paul Kneib (LAM)
Even though teams of scientists around the world are at this very moment hot on the trail of dark matter — the “other stuff” that the Universe is made of and supposedly accounts for nearly 80% of the mass that we can’t directly observe (yet) — and trying to quantify exactly how so-called “dark energy” drives its ever-accelerating expansion, perhaps one answer to these ongoing mysteries is maybe they don’t exist at all.
This is precisely what one astronomer is suggesting in a recent paper, submitted Dec. 3 to Astrophysical Journal Letters.
In a paper titled “An expanding universe without dark matter and dark energy” (arXiv:1212.1110) Pierre Magain, a professor at Belgium’s Institut d’Astrophysique et de Géophysique, proposes that the expansion of the Universe could be explained without the need for enigmatic material and energy that, to date, has yet to be directly measured.
In addition, Magain’s proposal puts a higher age to the Universe than what’s currently accepted. With a model that shows a slower expansion rate during the early Universe than today, Magain’s calculations estimate its age to be closer to 15.4 – 16.5 billion years old, adding a couple billion more candles to the cosmic birthday cake.
The benefit to a slightly older Universe, Magain posits, is that it’s not so uncannily close to the apparent age of the most distant galaxies recently found — such as MACS0647-JD, which is 13.3 billion light-years away and thus (based on current estimates, see graphic at right) must have formed when the Universe was a mere 420 million years old.
Using accepted physics of how time behaves based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity — namely, how the passage of time is relative to the position and velocity of the viewer (as well as the intensity of the gravitational field the viewer is within) — Magain’s model allows for an observer located within the Universe to potentially be experiencing a different rate of time than a hypothetical viewer located outside the Universe. Not to be so metaphysical as to presume that there are external observers of our Universe but merely to say that an external point would be a fixed one against which one could benchmark a varying passage of time inside the Universe, Magain calls this universal relativity.
A viewer experiencing universal relativity would, Magain claims, always measure the curvature of the Universe to be equal to zero. This is what’s currently observed, a “flatness problem” that Magain insinuates is strangely coincidental.
By attributing an expanding Universe to dark energy and the high velocities of stars along the edges of galaxies (as well as the motions of galaxy clusters themselves) to dark matter, we may be introducing ad hoc elements to the Universe, says Magain. Instead, he proposes his “more economical” model — which uses universal relativity — explains these apparently accelerating, increasingly expanding behaviors… and gives a bigger margin of time between the Big Bang and the formation of the first galactic structures.
There’s quite a bit of math involved, and since I never claimed to understand physics equations you can check out the original paper here.
While intriguing, the bottom line is that dark energy and dark matter have still managed to elude science, existing just outside the borders of what can be observed (although the gravitational lensing effects of what’s thought to be dark matter filaments have been observed by Hubble) and Magain’s paper is merely putting another idea onto the table — one that, while he recognizes needs further testing and relies upon very specific singular parameters, doesn’t depend upon invisible, unobservable and mysteriously dark “stuff”. Whether it belongs on the table or not will be up to other astrophysicists to decide.
Prof. Magain’s research was supported by ESA and the Belgian Science Policy Office.
At right: Artist’s impression of dark matter (h/t to Steve Nerlich)
Note: this is “just” a submitted paper and has not been selected for publication yet. Any hypotheses proposed are those of the author and are not endorsed by this site. (Personally I like dark matter. It’s fascinating stuff… even if we can’t see it. Want an astrophysicist’s viewpoint on the existence of dark matter? Check out Ethan Siegel’s blog response here.)
Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (NASA/C. Henze)
The short answer? You get one super-SUPERmassive black hole. The longer answer?
Well, watch the video below for an idea.
This animation, created with supercomputers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, show for the first time what happens to the magnetized gas clouds that surround supermassive black holes when two of them collide.
The simulation shows the magnetic fields intensifying as they contort and twist turbulently, at one point forming a towering vortex that extends high above the center of the accretion disk.
This funnel-like structure may be partly responsible for the jets that are sometimes seen erupting from actively feeding supermassive black holes.
The simulation was created to study what sort of “flash” might be made by the merging of such incredibly massive objects, so that astronomers hunting for evidence of gravitational waves — a phenomenon first proposed by Einstein in 1916 — will be able to better identify their potential source.
Gravitational waves are often described as “ripples” in the fabric of space-time, infinitesimal perturbations created by supermassive, rapidly rotating objects like orbiting black holes. Detecting them directly has proven to be a challenge but researchers expect that the technology will be available within several years’ time, and knowing how to spot colliding black holes will be the first step in identifying any gravitational waves that result from the impact.
In fact, it’s the gravitational waves that rob energy from the black holes’ orbits, causing them to spiral into each other in the first place.
“The black holes orbit each other and lose orbital energy by emitting strong gravitational waves, and this causes their orbits to shrink. The black holes spiral toward each other and eventually merge,” said astrophysicist John Baker, a research team member from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We need gravitational waves to confirm that a black hole merger has occurred, but if we can understand the electromagnetic signatures from mergers well enough, perhaps we can search for candidate events even before we have a space-based gravitational wave observatory.”
The video below shows the expanding gravitational wave structure that would be expected to result from such a merger:
If ground-based telescopes can pinpoint the radio and x-ray flash created by the mergers, future space telescopes — like ESA’s eLISA/NGO — can then be used to try and detect the waves.
Two white dwarfs similar to those in the system SDSS J065133.338+284423.37 spiral together in this illustration from NASA. Credit: D. Berry/NASA GSFC
Locked in a spiraling orbital embrace, the super-dense remains of two dead stars are giving astronomers the evidence needed to confirm one of Einstein’s predictions about the Universe.
A binary system located about 3,000 light-years away, SDSS J065133.338+284423.37 (J0651 for short) contains two white dwarfs orbiting each other rapidly — once every 12.75 minutes. The system was discovered in April 2011, and since then astronomers have had their eyes — and four separate telescopes in locations around the world — on it to see if gravitational effects first predicted by Einstein could be seen.
According to Einstein, space-time is a structure in itself, in which all cosmic objects — planets, stars, galaxies — reside. Every object with mass puts a “dent” in this structure in all dimensions; the more massive an object, the “deeper” the dent. Light energy travels in a straight line, but when it encounters these dents it can dip in and veer off-course, an effect we see from Earth as gravitational lensing.
Einstein also predicted that exceptionally massive, rapidly rotating objects — such as a white dwarf binary pair — would create outwardly-expanding ripples in space-time that would ultimately “steal” kinetic energy from the objects themselves. These gravitational waves would be very subtle, yet in theory, observable.
What researchers led by a team at The University of Texas at Austin have found is optical evidence of gravitational waves slowing down the stars in J0651. Originally observed in 2011 eclipsing each other (as seen from Earth) once every six minutes, the stars now eclipse six seconds sooner. This equates to a predicted orbital period reduction of about 0.25 milliseconds each year.*
“These compact stars are orbiting each other so closely that we have been able to observe the usually negligible influence of gravitational waves using a relatively simple camera on a 75-year-old telescope in just 13 months,” said study lead author J.J. Hermes, a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.
Based on these measurements, by April 2013 the stars will be eclipsing each other 20 seconds sooner than first observed. Eventually they will merge together entirely.
Although this isn’t “direct” observation of gravitational waves, it is evidence inferred by their predicted effects… akin to watching a floating lantern in a dark pond at night moving up and down and deducing that there are waves present.
“It’s exciting to confirm predictions Einstein made nearly a century ago by watching two stars bobbing in the wake caused by their sheer mass,” said Hermes.
As of early last year NASA and ESA had a proposed mission called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) that would have put a series of 3 detectors into space 5 million km apart, connected by lasers. This arrangement of precision-positioned spacecraft could have detected any passing gravitational waves in the local space-time neighborhood, making direct observation possible. Sadly this mission was canceled due to FY2012 budget cuts for NASA, but ESA is moving ahead with developments for its own gravitational wave mission, called eLISA/NGO — the first “pathfinder” portion of which is slated to launch in 2014.
The study was submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters on August 24. Read more on the McDonald Observatory news release here.
Inset image: simulation of binary black holes causing gravitational waves – C. Reisswig, L. Rezzolla (AEI); Scientific visualization – M. Koppitz (AEI & Zuse Institute Berlin)
*The difference in the eclipse time is noted as six seconds even though the orbital period decay of the two stars is only .25 milliseconds/year because of a pile-up effect of all the eclipses observed since April 2011. The measurements made by the research team takes into consideration the phase change in the J0651 system, which experiences a piling effect — similar to an out-of-sync watch — that increases relative to time^2 and is therefore a larger and easier number to detect and work with. Once that was measured, the actual orbital period decay could be figured out.
When a star suffered an untimely demise at the hands of a hidden black hole, astronomers detected its doleful, ululating wail — in the key of D-sharp, no less — from 3.9 billion light-years away. The resulting ultraluminous X-ray blast revealed the supermassive black hole’s presence at the center of a distant galaxy in March of 2011, and now that information could be used to study the real-life workings of black holes, general relativity, and a concept first proposed by Einstein in 1915.
Within the centers of many spiral galaxies (including our own) lie the undisputed monsters of the Universe: incredibly dense supermassive black holes, containing the equivalent masses of millions of Suns packed into areas smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit. While some supermassive black holes (SMBHs) surround themselves with enormous orbiting disks of superheated material that will eventually spiral inwards to feed their insatiable appetites — all the while emitting ostentatious amounts of high-energy radiation in the process — others lurk in the darkness, perfectly camouflaged against the blackness of space and lacking such brilliant banquet spreads. If any object should find itself too close to one of these so-called “inactive” stellar corpses, it would be ripped to shreds by the intense tidal forces created by the black hole’s gravity, its material becoming an X-ray-bright accretion disk and particle jet for a brief time.
Such an event occurred in March 2011, when scientists using NASA’s Swift telescope detected a sudden flare of X-rays from a source located nearly 4 billion light-years away in the constellation Draco. The flare, called Swift J1644+57, showed the likely location of a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy, a black hole that had until then remained hidden until a star ventured too close and became an easy meal.
See an animation of the event below:
The resulting particle jet, created by material from the star that got caught up in the black hole’s intense magnetic field lines and was blown out into space in our direction (at 80-90% the speed of light!) is what initially attracted astronomers’ attention. But further research on Swift J1644+57 with other telescopes has revealed new information about the black hole and what happens when a star meets its end.
In particular, researchers have identified what’s called a quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) embedded inside the accretion disk of Swift J1644+57. Warbling at 5 mhz, in effect it’s the low-frequency cry of a murdered star. Created by fluctuations in the frequencies of X-ray emissions, such a source near the event horizon of a supermassive black hole can provide clues to what’s happening in that poorly-understood region close to a black hole’s point-of-no-return.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity proposes that space itself around a massive rotating object — like a planet, star, or, in an extreme instance, a supermassive black hole — is dragged along for the ride (the Lense-Thirring effect.) While this is difficult to detect around less massive bodies a rapidly-rotating black hole would create a much more pronounced effect… and with a QPO as a benchmark within the SMBH’s disk the resulting precession of the Lense-Thirring effect could, theoretically, be measured.
If anything, further investigations of Swift J1644+57 could provide insight to the mechanics of general relativity in distant parts of the Universe, as well as billions of years in the past.
See the team’s original paper here, lead authored by R.C. Reis of the University of Michigan.
At least once a week we get an email claiming that Einstein was wrong. Well you know what, Einstein was right. In fact, as part of his theories of Special and General Relativity, Einstein made a series of predictions about what experiments should discover. Some explained existing puzzles in science, while others made predictions that were only recently proven true.
What can we say about Einstein? Albert Einstein! Lots, actually. In this show we’re going to talk about the most revolutionary physicist… ever. He completely changed our understanding of time, and space, and energy, and gravity. He made predictions about the nature of the Universe that we’re still testing out.
Researchers have confirmed two predictions of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, concluding one of NASA’s longest-running projects. The Gravity Probe B experiment used four ultra-precise gyroscopes housed in an Earth-orbiting satellite to measure two aspects of Einstein’s theory about gravity. The first is the geodetic effect, or the warping of space and time around a gravitational body. The second is frame-dragging, which is the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates.
Gravity Probe-B determined both effects with unprecedented precision by pointing at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit around Earth. If gravity did not affect space and time, GP-B’s gyroscopes would point in the same direction forever while in orbit. But in confirmation of Einstein’s theories, the gyroscopes experienced measurable, minute changes in the direction of their spin, while Earth’s gravity pulled at them.
The project as been in the works for 52 years.
The findings are online in the journal Physical Review Letters.
“Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey,”.said Francis Everitt, Gravity Probe-B principal investigator at Stanford University. “As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time,” “GP-B confirmed two of the most profound predictions of Einstein’s universe, having far-reaching implications across astrophysics research. Likewise, the decades of technological innovation behind the mission will have a lasting legacy on Earth and in space.”
NASA began development of this project starting in the fall of 1963 with initial funding to develop a relativity gyroscope experiment. Subsequent decades of development led to groundbreaking technologies to control environmental disturbances on spacecraft, such as aerodynamic drag, magnetic fields and thermal variations. The mission’s star tracker and gyroscopes were the most precise ever designed and produced.
GP-B completed its data collection operations and was decommissioned in December 2010.
“The mission results will have a long-term impact on the work of theoretical physicists,” said Bill Danchi, senior astrophysicist and program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Every future challenge to Einstein’s theories of general relativity will have to seek more precise measurements than the remarkable work GP-B accomplished.”
Innovations enabled by GP-B have been used in GPS technologies that allow airplanes to land unaided. Additional GP-B technologies were applied to NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which accurately determined the universe’s background radiation. That measurement is the underpinning of the big-bang theory, and led to the Nobel Prize for NASA physicist John Mather.
The drag-free satellite concept pioneered by GP-B made a number of Earth-observing satellites possible, including NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment and the European Space Agency’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer. These satellites provide the most precise measurements of the shape of the Earth, critical for precise navigation on land and sea, and understanding the relationship between ocean circulation and climate patterns.
GP-B also advanced the frontiers of knowledge and provided a practical training ground for 100 doctoral students and 15 master’s degree candidates at universities across the United States. More than 350 undergraduates and more than four dozen high school students also worked on the project with leading scientists and aerospace engineers from industry and government. One undergraduate student who worked on GP-B became the first female astronaut in space, Sally Ride. Another was Eric Cornell who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.
“GP-B adds to the knowledge base on relativity in important ways and its positive impact will be felt in the careers of students whose educations were enriched by the project,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
Published in 1915, Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR) passed its first big test just a few years later, when the predicted gravitational deflection of light passing near the Sun was observed during the 1919 solar eclipse.
In 1960, GR passed its first big test in a lab, here on Earth; the Pound-Rebka experiment. And over the nine decades since its publication, GR has passed test after test after test, always with flying colors (check out this review for an excellent summary).
Now a team led by Princeton University scientists has tested GR to see if it holds true at cosmic scales. And, after two years of analyzing astronomical data, the scientists have concluded that Einstein’s theory works as well in vast distances as in more local regions of space.
The scientists’ analysis of more than 70,000 galaxies demonstrates that the universe – at least up to a distance of 3.5 billion light years from Earth – plays by the rules set out by Einstein in his famous theory. While GR has been accepted by the scientific community for over nine decades, until now no one had tested the theory so thoroughly and robustly at distances and scales that go way beyond the solar system.
Reinabelle Reyes, a Princeton graduate student in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences, along with co-authors Rachel Mandelbaum, an associate research scholar, and James Gunn, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy, outlined their assessment in the March 11 edition of Nature.
Other scientists collaborating on the paper include Tobias Baldauf, Lucas Lombriser and Robert Smith of the University of Zurich and Uros Seljak of the University of California-Berkeley.
The results are important, they said, because they shore up current theories explaining the shape and direction of the universe, including ideas about dark energy, and dispel some hints from other recent experiments that general relativity may be wrong.
“All of our ideas in astronomy are based on this really enormous extrapolation, so anything we can do to see whether this is right or not on these scales is just enormously important,” Gunn said. “It adds another brick to the foundation that underlies what we do.”
GR is one, of two, core theories underlying all of contemporary astrophysics and cosmology (the other is the Standard Model of particle physics, a quantum theory); it explains everything from black holes to the Big Bang.
In recent years, several alternatives to general relativity have been proposed. These modified theories of gravity depart from general relativity on large scales to circumvent the need for dark energy, dark matter, or both. But because these theories were designed to match the predictions of general relativity about the expansion history of the universe, a factor that is central to current cosmological work, it has become crucial to know which theory is correct, or at least represents reality as best as can be approximated.
“We knew we needed to look at the large-scale structure of the universe and the growth of smaller structures composing it over time to find out,” Reyes said. The team used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a long-term, multi-institution telescope project mapping the sky to determine the position and brightness of several hundred million galaxies and quasars.
By calculating the clustering of these galaxies, which stretch nearly one-third of the way to the edge of the universe, and analyzing their velocities and distortion from intervening material – due to weak lensing, primarily by dark matter – the researchers have shown that Einstein’s theory explains the nearby universe better than alternative theories of gravity.
The Princeton scientists studied the effects of gravity on the SDSS galaxies and clusters of galaxies over long periods of time. They observed how this fundamental force drives galaxies to clump into larger collections of galaxies and how it shapes the expansion of the universe.
Critically, because relativity calls for the curvature of space to be equal to the curvature of time, the researchers could calculate whether light was influenced in equal amounts by both, as it should be if general relativity holds true.
“This is the first time this test was carried out at all, so it’s a proof of concept,” Mandelbaum said. “There are other astronomical surveys planned for the next few years. Now that we know this test works, we will be able to use it with better data that will be available soon to more tightly constrain the theory of gravity.”
Firming up the predictive powers of GR can help scientists better understand whether current models of the universe make sense, the scientists said.
“Any test we can do in building our confidence in applying these very beautiful theoretical things but which have not been tested on these scales is very important,” Gunn said. “It certainly helps when you are trying to do complicated things to understand fundamentals. And this is a very, very, very fundamental thing.”
“The nice thing about going to the cosmological scale is that we can test any full, alternative theory of gravity, because it should predict the things we observe,” said co-author Uros Seljak, a professor of physics and of astronomy at UC Berkeley and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who is currently on leave at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Zurich. “Those alternative theories that do not require dark matter fail these tests.”
The gravity formula that most people remember, or think of, is the equation which captures Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which says that the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the mass of each, and inversely proportional to the distance between them. It is usually written like this (G is the gravitational constant):
F = Gm1m2/r2
Another, common, gravity formula is the one you learned in school: the acceleration due to the gravity of the Earth, on a test mass. This is, by convention, written as g, and is easily derived from the gravity formula above (M is the mass of the Earth, and r its radius):
g = GM/r2
In 1915, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which not only solved a many-decades-long mystery concerning the observed motion of the planet Mercury (the mystery of why Uranus’ orbit did not match that predicted from applying Newton’s law was solved by the discovery of Neptune, but no hypothetical planet could explain why Mercury’s orbit didn’t), but also made a prediction that was tested just a few years’ later (deflection of light near the Sun). Einstein’s theory contains many gravity formulae, most of which are difficult to write down using only simple HTML scripts (so I’m not going to try).
The Earth is not a perfect sphere – the distance from surface to center is smaller at the poles than the equator, for example – and it is rotating (which means that the force on an object includes the centripetal acceleration due to this rotation). For people who need accurate formulae for gravity, both on the Earth’s surface and above it, there is a set of international gravity formulae which define what is called theoretical gravity, or normal gravity, g0. This corrects for the variation in g due to latitude (and so both the force due to the Earth’s rotation, and its non-spherical shape).