Does Free Will Exist? Ancient Quasars May Hold the Clue.

Do you believe in free will? Are people able to decide their own destinies, whether it’s on what continent they’ll live, who or if they’ll marry, or just where they’ll get lunch today? Or are we just the unwitting pawns of some greater cosmic mechanism at work, ticking away the seconds and steering everyone and everything toward an inevitable, predetermined fate?

Philosophical debates aside, MIT researchers are actually looking to move past this age-old argument in their experiments once and for all, using some of the most distant and brilliant objects in the Universe.

Rather than ponder the ancient musings of Plato and Aristotle, researchers at MIT were trying to determine how to get past a more recent conundrum in physics: Bell’s Theorem. Proposed by Irish physicist John Bell in 1964, the principle attempts to come to terms with the behavior of “entangled” quantum particles separated by great distances but somehow affected simultaneously and instantaneously by the measurement of one or the other — previously referred to by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance.”

The problem with such spookiness in the quantum universe is that it seems to violate some very basic tenets of what we know about the macroscopic universe, such as information traveling faster than light. (A big no-no in physics.)

(Note: actual information is not transferred via quantum entanglement, but rather it’s the transfer of state between particles that can occur at thousands of times the speed of light.)

Read more: Spooky Experiment on ISS Could Pioneer New Quantum Communications Network

Then again, testing against Bell’s Theorem has resulted in its own weirdness (even as quantum research goes.) While some of the intrinsic “loopholes” in Bell’s Theorem have been sealed up, one odd suggestion remains on the table: what if a quantum-induced absence of free will (i.e., hidden variables) is conspiring to affect how researchers calibrate their detectors and collect data, somehow steering them toward a conclusion biased against classical physics?

“It sounds creepy, but people realized that’s a logical possibility that hasn’t been closed yet,” said David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and senior lecturer in the Department of Physics at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “Before we make the leap to say the equations of quantum theory tell us the world is inescapably crazy and bizarre, have we closed every conceivable logical loophole, even if they may not seem plausible in the world we know today?”

What are Quasars
A color composite image of the quasar in HE0450-2958 obtained using the VISIR instrument on the Very Large Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: ESO

So in order to clear the air of any possible predestination by entangled interlopers, Kaiser and MIT postdoc Andrew Friedman, along with Jason Gallicchio of the University of Chicago, propose to look into the distant, early Universe for sufficiently unprejudiced parties: ancient quasars that have never, ever been in contact.

According to a news release from MIT:

…an experiment would go something like this: A laboratory setup would consist of a particle generator, such as a radioactive atom that spits out pairs of entangled particles. One detector measures a property of particle A, while another detector does the same for particle B. A split second after the particles are generated, but just before the detectors are set, scientists would use telescopic observations of distant quasars to determine which properties each detector will measure of a respective particle. In other words, quasar A determines the settings to detect particle A, and quasar B sets the detector for particle B.

By using the light from objects that came into existence just shortly after the Big Bang to calibrate their detectors, the team hopes to remove any possibility of entanglement… and determine what’s really in charge of the Universe.

“I think it’s fair to say this is the final frontier, logically speaking, that stands between this enormously impressive accumulated experimental evidence and the interpretation of that evidence saying the world is governed by quantum mechanics,” said Kaiser.

Then again, perhaps that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do…

The paper was published this week in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Source: MIT Media Relations

Want to read more about the admittedly complex subject of entanglement and hidden variables (which may or may not really have anything to do with where you eat lunch?) Click here.

Double Vision! These ‘Twin’ Quasars Are Actually The Same Thing

Optical illusions are awesome. In the center of this image are what appear to be two quasars (or galaxies with huge black holes). In fact, however, it’s the same quasar seen twice. So what’s going on?

QSO 0957+561, also called the “Twin Quasar”, was first spotted in 1979. It lies almost 14 billion light-years from Earth (making it about as old as the Universe itself). Initially, astronomers thought it was indeed two objects, but the distances and characteristics of the twins were too similar.

We “see” the quasar twice because of a ginormous galaxy called YGKOW G1. Its immense gravitational mass is bending the light of the quasar so that it appears twice from our perspective. This phenomenon is called “gravitational lensing”, and it turned out in 1979 that QSO 0957+561 was the first object ever confirmed to experience that. (You can read the original Nature research paper here.)

While the discovery is decades old, it’s still fun to turn telescopes in that direction once in a while to spot the illusion. This particular image is a new one from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Source: NASA

‘Cosmic Flashlight’ Makes Gas Glow Like A Fluorescent Light Bulb

Funny how a single quasar can illuminate — literally and figuratively — some of the mysteries of the universe. From two million light-years away, astronomers spotted a quasar (likely a galaxy with a supermassive black hole in its center) shining on a nearby collection of gas or nebula. The result is likely showing off the filaments thought to connect galaxies in our universe, the team said.

“This is a very exceptional object: it’s huge, at least twice as large as any nebula detected before, and it extends well beyond the galactic environment of the quasar,” stated Sebastiano Cantalupo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Santa Cruz who led the research.

The find illuminated by quasar UM287  could reveal more about how galaxies are connected with the rest of the “cosmic web” of matter, astronomers said. While these filaments were predicted in cosmological simulations, this is the first time they’ve been spotted in a telescope.

“Gravity causes ordinary matter to follow the distribution of dark matter, so filaments of diffuse, ionized gas are expected to trace a pattern similar to that seen in dark matter simulations,” UCSC stated.

A graphic showing how matter in the universe could be distributed. Some astronomers believe matter is sprinkled as a a "cosmic web" of filaments. The larger section shows a dark-matter simulation (by Anatoly Klypin and Joel Primack) and the inset a smaller portion, 10 million light-years across, from another simulation that also includes gas (S. Cantalupo).  Credit:  S. Cantalupo (UCSC), Joel Primack (UCSC) and Anatoly Klypin (NMSU).
A graphic showing how matter in the universe could be distributed. Some astronomers believe matter is sprinkled as a a “cosmic web” of filaments. The larger section shows a dark-matter simulation (by Anatoly Klypin and Joel Primack) and the inset a smaller portion, 10 million light-years across, from another simulation that also includes gas (S. Cantalupo). Credit: S. Cantalupo (UCSC), Joel Primack (UCSC) and Anatoly Klypin (NMSU).

Astronomers added that it was lucky that the quasar happened to be shining in the right direction to illuminate the gas, acting as a sort of “cosmic flashlight” that could show us more of the underlying matter. UM287 is making the gas glow in a similar way that fluorescent light bulbs behave on Earth, the team added.

“This quasar is illuminating diffuse gas on scales well beyond any we’ve seen before, giving us the first picture of extended gas between galaxies,” stated J. Xavier Prochaska, coauthor and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “It provides a terrific insight into the overall structure of our universe.”

The find was made using the 10-meter Keck I telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. You can check out more details on the discovery on the Keck Observatory’s website or at this press release from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

The research was published in the Jan. 19 edition of Nature and available in preprint version on Arxiv.

Navigating the Cosmos by Quasar

50 million light-years away a quasar resides in the hub of galaxy NGC 4438, an incredibly bright source of light and radiation that’s the result of a supermassive black hole actively feeding on nearby gas and dust (and pretty much anything else that ventures too closely.) Shining with the energy of 1,000 Milky Ways, this quasar — and others like it — are the brightest objects in the visible Universe… so bright, in fact, that they are used as beacons for interplanetary navigation by various exploration spacecraft.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
– John Masefield, “Sea Fever”

Deep-space missions require precise navigation, especially when approaching bodies such as Mars, Venus, or comets. It’s often necessary to pinpoint a spacecraft traveling 100 million km from Earth to within just 1 km. To achieve this level of accuracy, experts use quasars – the most luminous objects known in the Universe – as beacons in a technique known as Delta-Differential One-Way Ranging, or delta-DOR.

How delta-DOR works (ESA)
How delta-DOR works (ESA)

Delta-DOR uses two antennas in distant locations on Earth (such as Goldstone in California and Canberra in Australia) to simultaneously track a transmitting spacecraft in order to measure the time difference (delay) between signals arriving at the two stations.

Unfortunately the delay can be affected by several sources of error, such as the radio waves traveling through the troposphere, ionosphere, and solar plasma, as well as clock instabilities at the ground stations.

Delta-DOR corrects these errors by tracking a quasar that is located near the spacecraft for calibration — usually within ten degrees. The chosen quasar’s direction is already known extremely well through astronomical measurements, typically to closer than 50 billionths of a degree (one nanoradian, or 0.208533 milliarcsecond). The delay time of the quasar is subtracted from that of the spacecraft’s, providing the delta-DOR measurement and allowing for amazingly high-precision navigation across long distances.

“Quasar locations define a reference system. They enable engineers to improve the precision of the measurements taken by ground stations and improve the accuracy of the direction to the spacecraft to an order of a millionth of a degree.”

– Frank Budnik, ESA flight dynamics expert

So even though the quasar in NGC 4438 is located 50 million light-years from Earth, it can help engineers position a spacecraft located 100 million kilometers away to an accuracy of several hundred meters. Now that’s a star to steer her by!

Read more about Delta-DOR here and here.

Source: ESA Operations

What Is A Quasar?

I love it when scientists discover something unusual in nature. They have no idea what it is, and then over decades of research, evidence builds, and scientists grow to understand what’s going on.

My favorite example? Quasars.

Astronomers first knew they had a mystery on their hands in the 1960s when they turned the first radio telescopes to the sky.

They detected the radio waves streaming off the Sun, the Milky Way and a few stars, but they also turned up bizarre objects they couldn’t explain. These objects were small and incredibly bright.

They named them quasi-stellar-objects or “quasars”, and then began to argue about what might be causing them. The first was found to be moving away at more than a third the speed of light.

But was it really?

An artist's conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
An artist’s conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
Maybe we were seeing the distortion of gravity from a black hole, or could it be the white hole end of a wormhole. And If it was that fast, then it was really, really far… 4 billion light years away. And it generating as much energy as an entire galaxy with a hundred billion stars.

What could do this?

Here’s where Astronomers got creative. Maybe quasars weren’t really that bright, and it was our understanding of the size and expansion of the Universe that was wrong. Or maybe we were seeing the results of a civilization, who had harnessed all stars in their galaxy into some kind of energy source.

Then in the 1980s, astronomers started to agree on the active galaxy theory as the source of quasars. That, in fact, several different kinds of objects: quasars, blazars and radio galaxies were all the same thing, just seen from different angles. And that some mechanism was causing galaxies to blast out jets of radiation from their cores.

But what was that mechanism?

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
We now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers; some billions of times the mass of the Sun. When material gets too close, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. It heats up to millions of degrees, blasting out an enormous amount of radiation.

The magnetic environment around the black hole forms twin jets of material which flow out into space for millions of light-years. This is an AGN, an active galactic nucleus.

An artist's impression of how quasars might be able to construct their own host galaxies. Image Credit: ESO/L. CalçadaWhen the jets are perpendicular to our view, we see a radio galaxy. If they’re at an angle, we see a quasar. And when we’re staring right down the barrel of the jet, that’s a blazar. It’s the same object, seen from three different perspectives.

Supermassive black holes aren’t always feeding. If a black hole runs out of food, the jets run out of power and shut down. Right up until something else gets too close, and the whole system starts up again.

The Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, and it’s all out of food. It doesn’t have an active galactic nucleus, and so, we don’t appear as a quasar to some distant galaxy.

We may have in the past, and may again in the future. In 10 billion years or so, when the Milky way collides with Andromeda, our supermassive black hole may roar to life as a quasar, consuming all this new material.

If you’d like more information on Quasars, check out NASA’s Discussion on Quasars, and here’s a link to NASA’s Ask an Astrophysicist Page about Quasars.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Quasars Listen here, Episode 98: Quasars.

Sources: UT-Knoxville, NASA, Wikipedia

A Galaxy Grows Fat on Nearby Gas

If you live in the U.S. you may be enjoying a sultry summer day off in honor of Independence Day, or at least have plans to get together with friends and family at some point to partake in some barbecued goodies and a favorite beverage (or three). And as you saunter around the picnic table scooping up platefuls of potato salad, cole slaw, and deviled eggs, you can also draw a correlation between your own steady accumulation of mayonnaise-marinated mass and a distant hungry galaxy located over 11 billion light-years away.

Astronomers have always suspected that galaxies grow by pulling in material from their surroundings, but this process has proved very difficult to observe directly. Now, ESO’s Very Large Telescope has been used to study a very rare alignment between a distant galaxy and an even more distant quasar — the extremely bright center of a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. The light from the quasar passes through the material around the foreground galaxy before reaching Earth, making it possible to explore in detail the properties of the in-falling gas and giving the best view so far of a galaxy in the act of feeding.

“This kind of alignment is very rare and it has allowed us to make unique observations,” said Nicolas Bouché of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, lead author of the new paper. “We were able to use ESO’s Very Large Telescope to peer at both the galaxy itself and its surrounding gas. This meant we could attack an important problem in galaxy formation: how do galaxies grow and feed star formation?”

A beam from the Laser Star Guide on one of the VLT's four Unit Telescopes helps to correct the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere before making observations (ESO/Y. Beletsky)
A beam from the Laser Star Guide on one of the VLT’s four Unit Telescopes helps to correct the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere before making observations (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

Galaxies quickly deplete their reservoirs of gas as they create new stars and so must somehow be continuously replenished with fresh gas to keep going. Astronomers suspected that the answer to this problem lay in the collection of cool gas from the surroundings by the gravitational pull of the galaxy. In this scenario, a galaxy drags gas inwards which then circles around it, rotating with it before falling in.

Although some evidence of such accretion had been observed in galaxies before, the motion of the gas and its other properties had not been fully explored up to now.

Astronomers have already found evidence of material around galaxies in the early Universe, but this is the first time that they have been able to show clearly that the material is moving inwards rather than outwards, and also to determine the composition of this fresh fuel for future generations of stars. And in this particular instance, without the quasar’s light to act as a probe the surrounding gas would be undetectable.

“In this case we were lucky that the quasar happened to be in just the right place for its light to pass through the infalling gas. The next generation of extremely large telescopes will enable studies with multiple sightlines per galaxy and provide a much more complete view,” concluded co-author Crystal Martin of the University of California Santa Barbara.

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Signatures of Cool Gas Fueling a Star-Forming Galaxy at Redshift 2.3”, to appear in the July 5, 2013 issue of the journal Science.

Source: ESO news release

Hubble Telescope Directly Observes Quasar Accretion Disc Surrounding Black Hole

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Thanks to the magic of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, a team of international astronomers have made an incredible observation – a quasar accretion disc surrounding a black hole. By employing a technique known as gravitation lensing, the researchers have been able to get an accurate size measurement and spectral data. While you might not think this exciting at first, know that this type of observation is akin to spotting individual grains of sand on the Moon!

Of course, we know we can’t see a black hole – but we’ve learned a lot about them with time. One of their properties is a bright, visible phenomenon called a quasar. These glowing discs of matter are engaged in orbit around the black hole, much like a coil on an electric stove. As energy is applied, the “coil” heats up and unleashes bright radiation.

“A quasar accretion disc has a typical size of a few light-days, or around 100 billion kilometres across, but they lie billions of light-years away. This means their apparent size when viewed from Earth is so small that we will probably never have a telescope powerful enough to see their structure directly,” explains Jose Munoz, the lead scientist in this study.

Because of the diminutive size of the quasar, most of our understanding of how they work has been based on theory… but great minds have found a way to directly observe their effects. By employing the gravity of stars in an intervening galaxy like a scanning microscope, astronomers have been able to observe the quasar’s light as the stars move. While most of these types of features would be too small to see, the gravitation lensing effect ramps up the strength of the quasar’s light and allows study of the spectra as it cruises across the accretion disc.

This diagram shows how Hubble is able to observe a quasar, a glowing disc of matter around a distant black hole, even though the black hole would ordinarily be too far away to see clearly. Credit: NASA and ESA

By observing a group of gravitationally lensed quasars, the team was able to paint a vivid color portrait of the activity. They were able to pick out small changes between single images and spectral shifts over a period of time. What causes these kaleidoscopic variances? For the most part, it’s the different properties in the gases and dust of the lensing galaxies. Because they travel at different angles to the quasar’s light, scientists were even able to distinguish extinction laws at work.

But there was something special about one of the quasars. Says the Hubble Team, “There were clear signs that stars in the intervening galaxy were passing through the path of the light from the quasar. Just as the gravitational effect due to the whole intervening galaxy can bend and amplify the quasar’s light, so can that of the stars within the intervening galaxy subtly bend and amplify the light from different parts of the accretion disc as they pass through the path of the quasar’s light.”

By documenting these color changes, the team could build a profile of the accretion disc. Unlike our Earthly electric stove coil which glows red as it heats up, the accretion disc of a black hole turns blue as it gets closer to the event horizon. By measuring the blue hue, the team was able to measure the disc diameter and the various tints gave them an indicator of distances from its center. In this case, they found that the disc is between four and eleven light-days across (approximately 100 to 300 billion kilometres). Of course, these are only rough estimates, but considering just how far away we’re looking at such a small object gives these types of observations great potential for future studies… and even improvements on accuracy.

“This result is very relevant because it implies we are now able to obtain observational data on the structure of these systems, rather than relying on theory alone,” says Munoz. “Quasars’ physical properties are not yet well understood. This new ability to obtain observational measurements is therefore opening a new window to help understand the nature of these objects.”

Original Story Source: ESA/Hubble News Release. For Further Reading: A Study of Gravitational Lens Chromaticity With the Hubble Space Telescope.

Huge Reservoir of Water Discovered in Space 30 Billion Trillion Miles Away

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From a Caltech Press Release:

Water really is everywhere. Two teams of astronomers, each led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. Looking from a distance of 30 billion trillion miles away into a quasar—one of the brightest and most violent objects in the cosmos—the researchers have found a mass of water vapor that’s at least 140 trillion times that of all the water in the world’s oceans combined, and 100,000 times more massive than the sun.

Because the quasar is so far away, its light has taken 12 billion years to reach Earth. The observations therefore reveal a time when the universe was just 1.6 billion years old. “The environment around this quasar is unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water,” says Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and a visiting associate at Caltech. “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.” Bradford leads one of two international teams of astronomers that have described their quasar findings in separate papers that have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Read Bradford & team’s paper here.

A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that is steadily consuming a surrounding disk of gas and dust; as it eats, the quasar spews out huge amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

Since astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early universe, the discovery of water is not itself a surprise, Bradford says. There’s water vapor in the Milky Way, although the total amount is 4,000 times less massive than in the quasar, as most of the Milky Way’s water is frozen in the form of ice.

Nevertheless, water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of the quasar. In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years (a light-year is about six trillion miles), and its presence indicates that the gas is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is a chilly –53 degrees Celsius (–63 degrees Fahrenheit) and is 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, it’s still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what’s typical in galaxies like the Milky Way.

The water vapor is just one of many kinds of gas that surround the quasar, and its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas in both X-rays and infrared radiation. The interaction between the radiation and water vapor reveals properties of the gas and how the quasar influences it. For example, analyzing the water vapor shows how the radiation heats the rest of the gas. Furthermore, measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest that there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it grows to about six times its size. Whether this will happen is not clear, the astronomers say, since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or may be ejected from the quasar.

Bradford’s team made their observations starting in 2008, using an instrument called Z-Spec at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), a 10-meter telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Z-Spec is an extremely sensitive spectrograph, requiring temperatures cooled to within 0.06 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. The instrument measures light in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum called the millimeter band, which lies between infrared and microwave wavelengths. The researchers’ discovery of water was possible only because Z-Spec’s spectral coverage is 10 times larger than that of previous spectrometers operating at these wavelengths. The astronomers made follow-up observations with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

This discovery highlights the benefits of observing in the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths, the astronomers say. The field has developed rapidly over the last two to three decades, and to reach the full potential of this line of research, the astronomers—including the study authors—are now designing CCAT, a 25-meter telescope to be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile. CCAT will allow astronomers to discover some of the earliest galaxies in the universe. By measuring the presence of water and other important trace gases, astronomers can study the composition of these primordial galaxies.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the CSO, used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water. In 2010, Lis’s team was looking for traces of hydrogen fluoride in the spectrum of APM 08279+5255, but serendipitously detected a signal in the quasar’s spectrum that indicated the presence of water. The signal was at a frequency corresponding to radiation that is emitted when water transitions from a higher energy state to a lower one. While Lis’s team found just one signal at a single frequency, the wide bandwidth of Z-Spec enabled Bradford and his colleagues to discover water emission at many frequencies. These multiple water transitions allowed Bradford’s team to determine the physical characteristics of the quasar’s gas and the water’s mass.

Read Lis & team’s paper here.