A visual representation of the "axis of evil": the  strange alignment of temperature fluctuations on the largest scales on the sky. [Credit: Craig Copi]

A visual representation of the “axis of evil”: the strange alignment of temperature fluctuations on the largest scales on the sky. [Credit: Craig Copi]

On the largest scales — far bigger than any galaxy or galaxy cluster — the Universe is remarkably smooth and regular. Tiny irregularities in the early cosmos are what gave rise to all the structures we see today, including us, but there’s another irregularity covering the whole sky. The Universe appears to be ever-so-slightly lopsided, an anomaly facetiously known as the “axis of evil”. Cosmologists are concerned with trying to understand whether the anomaly is a significant challenge to our understanding of some of the laws of physics, or whether it can be understood either as a new astronomical source or a random fluke based on the fact that the whole cosmos is much larger than our observable Universe.

In my latest feature article at Ars Technica, I explored why the “axis of evil” could be a big deal and how some physicists are trying to understand it.

The lopsidedness is real, but cosmologists are divided over whether it reveals anything meaningful about the fundamental laws of physics. The fluctuations are sufficiently small that they could arise from random chance. We have just one observable Universe, but nobody sensible believes we can see all of it. With a sufficiently large cosmos beyond the reach of our telescopes, the rest of the Universe may balance the oddity that we can see, making it a minor, local variation.

However, if the asymmetry can’t be explained away so simply, it could indicate that some new physical mechanisms were at work in the early history of the Universe. [Read more….]

The mystery of the lopsided Universe

Calvin has it right.

“Dark energy” is one of the more unfortunate names in science. You’d think it has something to do with dark matter (itself a misnomer), but it has the opposite effect: while dark matter drives the clumping-up of material that makes galaxies, dark energy pushes the expansion of the Universe to greater and greater rates. Though we should hate on the term “dark energy”, we should respect Michael Turner, the excellent cosmologist who coined the phrase. He is also my academic “grand-advisor”: he supervised Arthur Kosowsky’s PhD, and Arthur in turn supervised mine.

And of course, I worked on dark energy as a major part of my PhD research. In my latest piece for Slate, I describe a bit of my dysfunctional relationship with cosmic acceleration, and why after 16 years dark energy is still a matter of frustration for many of us.

Because dark energy doesn’t correspond easily to anything in the standard toolkit of physics, researchers have been free to be creative. The result is a wealth of ideas, some that are potentially interesting and others that are frankly nuts. Some string theorists propose that our observable universe is the result of a vast set of parallel universes, each with a different, random amount of dark energy. Other physicists think our cosmos is interacting with a parallel universe, and the force between the two drives cosmic acceleration. Still others suspect that dark energy is a sign that our currently accepted theory of gravity—Einstein’s general theory of relativity—is incomplete for the largest distances. [Read more…]

My dysfunctional relationship with dark energy

Chandra space telescope image of an X-ray binary system containing a neutron star. [Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA]

Chandra space telescope image of an X-ray binary system containing a neutron star. [Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA]

About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe cooled off enough for stable atoms to form out of the primordial plasma. However, sometime in the billion years or so after that, something happened to heat the gas up again, returning it to plasma form. Though we know reionization (as it is called) happened, that epoch in the history of the cosmos is hard to study, so we don’t know exactly when and how the reheating happened. If a new proposed model is correct, though, ionization happened close to the end of that era, and was driven by binary systems containing a black hole or neutron star.

One new model, proposed by Anastasia Fialkov, Rennan Barkana, and Eli Visbal, suggests that energetic X-rays could have heated the primoridal gas to the point that reionization happened relatively rapidly. That’s in contrast with other hypotheses, which predict a more gradual reionization process. The X-rays in the new model were emitted by systems that include neutron stars or black holes. The nicest feature of the new proposal is that it predicts a unique pattern in light emission from the primordial gas, which could conceivably be measured by current radio telescopes. [Read more….]

Ionizing the Universe with black holes and neutron stars

GLaDOS, the manipulative computer system from the Portal games. The title of this post is a line from the Aeon article that was cut before publication, but I loved it so much I had to use it anyway. [Credit: Half-Life wiki]

It’s one of those nagging thoughts many of us have had: is our existence a reality or an illusion? Philosophers and scientists have grappled with the question, though today much of the discussion focuses on a related question: do we live in a computer simulation? In my (first hopefully of multiple) essays for Aeon magazine, I discussed one possible formulation of the question and how it could be answered — but also why the question may be less scientifically meaningful than many popular accounts would have you believe.

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A pair of philosophers recently argued that if we accept the eventual complexity of computer hardware, it’s quite probable we’re already part of an ‘ancestor simulation’, a virtual recreation of humanity’s past. Meanwhile, a trio of nuclear physicists has proposed a way to test this hypothesis, based on the notion that every scientific programme makes simplifying assumptions. If we live in a simulation, the thinking goes, we might be able to use experiments to detect these assumptions.

However, both of these perspectives, logical and empirical, leave open the possibility that we could be living in a simulation without being able to tell the difference. [read more….]

Sinners in the hands of an angry GLaDOS

 

A quasar (the bright circle at the image center) is illuminating a cosmic filament, marked out in blue. [Credit: S. Cantalupo]

A quasar (the bright circle at the image center) is illuminating a cosmic filament, marked out in blue. [Credit: S. Cantalupo]

Astronomers have identified a filament in the cosmic web, which is the pattern formed by dark matter. That web in turn dictates the distribution of galaxies, since the dark matter attracts ordinary matter — atoms — through its gravity. However, it’s hard to spot the filaments connecting the different halos of dark matter, because they are far less massive and contain less gas than galaxies. The trick in this new study was to spot the faint glow of gas as it was lit up by a quasar: a bright energetic black hole in a nearby galaxy.

Sebastiano Cantapulo and colleagues observed the light emitted by the filament’s gas as it glowed under bombardment from a quasar, a powerful jet of particles propelled from a massive black hole. However, the researchers also found at least ten times more gas than expected from cosmological simulations, which suggests that there may be more gas between galaxies than models predict. [Read more….]

A glowing filament shows us where the dark matter hides

The week in review (October 20-26)

Evidently, Nicole "the Noisy Astronomer" Gugliucci did not like it when I quoted Star Wars at her. All I said was "Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?" [Credit: Melanie Mallon]

Evidently, Nicole “the Noisy Astronomer” Gugliucci did not like it when I quoted Star Wars at her. All I said was “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” [Credit: Melanie Mallon]

I had a wonderful time at GeekGirlCon; thanks again to Dr. Rubidium, AKA Nick Fury, for putting together the DIY Science Zone, and to everyone who made it a great event. I have a more formal wrap-up post in the works, but in the meantime, have some science writing.

  • The river of spacetime (Galileo’s Pendulum): As a follow-up to my earlier post, I extended the metaphor of dynamic spacetime. If spacetime is the river, gravity is the current, carrying matter and light along with it.
  • New type of quantum excitation behaves like a solitary particle (Ars Technica): In materials, the relevant entities aren’t particles, but quasiparticlesThese are quantum excitations that have mass, charge, spin, and all that jazz, but those properties depend on the specifics of the material…and of external influences. So, physicists would like to create quasiparticles that are less finicky, and behave more like free, solitary particles. That type of excitation is a leviton, and experimenters created them for the first time, as described in this new paper.
  • Taking Measure: A ‘New’ Most Distant Galaxy (Universe Today): It seems that every week, we see a new “most distant galaxy” announcement. However, this new find is special for two reasons: it’s a rare case where astronomers have measured the distance accurately using the galaxy’s spectrum, and the specific galaxy is producing new stars at a much higher rate than expected. Also, this is my first contribution to Universe Today!
  • For the love of Gauss, please stop (Galileo’s Pendulum): A somewhat ranting post in which I get grumpfy about the over-use and misuse of certain examples from the history of science in popular science writing.
  • What do we call a theory that is no longer viable? (Galileo’s Pendulum): As a follow-up to that previous post, I ponder better ways to think about the history of science, and propose (somewhat seriously) a term to describe theories that were once viable, but are now ruled out by evidence.

The week in review (September 22-28)

I spent much of the week sick, but that doesn’t stop me. I care about you, people.

  • All black holes, great and small (Galileo’s Pendulum): As my regular readers have probably figured out, I love black holes. I could probably find an excuse to write about them most days. So, why not take an online class from me and learn about black holes? The class begins this Tuesday (October 1), and runs for four one-hour sessions. Sign up today!
  • A Holographic Big Bang: Did the universe start with a five-dimensional black hole? (Slate): Much as I love black holes, however, I cast a skeptical eye on a new paper proposing that the Big Bang had an event horizon. This Slate piece examines what we mean by the “Big Bang model” (which isn’t quite how it’s often described), and the reasons why this five-dimensional theory probably won’t solve the mystery of our Universe’s origins.
  • Scientific grumpfiness and open-mindedness (Galileo’s Pendulum): All three pieces I’ve written for Slate thus far, in addition to a number of other articles published elsewhere, are critical responses to scientific reporting. Generally, I find myself on the opposite side to those who promote radical new theories, which makes me worry sometimes that I’m just a naysayer with no positive commentary to make. Here’s my examination of that worry. (Yes, it’s a bit meta, I suppose.)
  • Pulsar’s magnetic field strong enough to clean up after nuclear explosion (Ars Technica): While pulsars are all fast-spinning objects, some are extremely so, rotating hundreds or thousands of times each second. A new observation caught one of these pulsars in the act of feeding off material from a companion star, lending strong support to the theory of how they spin so fast. Bonus: runaway nuclear explosions! on the surface of a dead star! Who needs science fiction?
  • Snobbish photons forced to pair up and get heavy (Ars Technica): Photons don’t usually interact in the usual sense that matter particles do. Researchers produced a weird medium by pumping a diffuse gas of rubidium atoms with laser light until they puffed up. The result: the interactions between the atoms made an environment where photons have an effective mass (!) and attract each other, forming pairs. Beyond being really cool, this could have all sorts of applications in quantum logic and even “photon materials”.

And just because I can, here’s Cookie Monster playing with his Newton’s cradle again.

Cookie Monster is me brother from another mother.

 

The week in review (August 18-24)

Granulation on the surface of the Sun, created by rising bubbles of hot plasma. Fluctuations in these bubbles can be measured on distant stars, which provides a way to calculate the stars' surface gravity. [Credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC]

Granulation on the surface of the Sun, created by rising bubbles of hot plasma. Fluctuations in these bubbles can be measured on distant stars, which provides a way to calculate the stars’ surface gravity. [Credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC]

I’ve been remiss in blogging at Bowler Hat Science, largely because…well, I’ve been writing too much elsewhere. So, I’m going to try something different: instead of blogging each new article I write in a separate entry, I’ll write a single post summarizing everything in one go.

  • How I learned to stop worrying and love tolerate the multiverse (Galileo’s Pendulum): My explanation of cosmology involving parallel universes is a response to a piece placing the multiverse in the same category as telepathy. While I’m not a fan of the multiverse concept, I reluctantly accept that it could be a correct description of reality.
  • An Arguably Unreal Particle Powers All of Your Electronics (Nautilus): Electrons in solids behave differently than their wild cousins. In some materials, the electronic and magnetic properties act as though they arise from particles that are lighter or heavier than electrons, or multiple types of particles with strange spins or electric charges. Are these quasiparticles real?
  • Kepler finds stars’ flickers reveal the gravity at their surface (Ars Technica): The Kepler observatory’s primary mission was to hunt for exoplanets, but arguably it’s been equally valuable for studying stars. A new study revealed a way to measure a star’s surface gravity by timing short-duration fluctuations — the rippling of hot plasma bubbles on the surface known as granulation (see above image).
  • Destruction and beauty in a distant galaxy (Galileo’s Pendulum): The giant galaxy M87 has a correspondingly huge black hole at its heart. That black hole in turn generates an enormous jet of matter extending 5,000 light-years, which fluctuates in a way we can see with telescopes. In that way, an engine of destruction shapes its environment and produces a thing of beauty.
  • The Freaky Celestial Events We See—and the Ones We Don’t (Nautilus): In another faraway galaxy, a black hole destroyed a star, producing a burst of gamma rays that lingered for months. This event is the only one of its kind we’ve yet seen, prompting the question: how do we evaluate events that are unique? How can we estimate how likely they truly are, especially if we’re seeing them from a privileged angle?
  • This isn’t writing, but after listing two black hole articles in a row, it seems a good time to advertise my Introduction to Black Holes online class in October! Sign up to learn all* about black holes. *All = what I can cover in four hours of class time.
  • Warp Speed? Not So Fast (Slate): Many articles have appeared over the last year or so profiling a NASA researcher, whose research supposedly could lead to a faster-than-light propulsion system. The problem: very little actual information about his work is known, and what he’s said publicly contradicts what we understand about general relativity and quantum physics.

Speaking of warp drives, I’ll conclude with this wonderful video of Patrick Stewart engaging with some obvious Star Trek fans.

I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about the multiverse: the possible existence of regions of the cosmos that have never been connected to ours at any time, and may never be in the future. That’s because those parallel pocket universes aren’t directly detectable, and may never be even indirectly detectable, putting them into a category that’s hard for a scientist to deal with. However, inflation — the extremely rapid expansion of the Universe in its earliest instants — almost certainly would produce those pocket universes, so I’ve reluctantly come to terms with the existence of the multiverse, on the principle that the alternative ideas are largely problematic.

Some physicists have gone a bit farther with the multiverse idea. Since our Universe has the correct physical/chemical properties to harbor life (self-evidently, since we’re here to talk about it), and those properties depend on a delicate balance of physical parameters, then maybe the multiverse can help explain what makes our pocket universe habitable. If those other pocket universes have different physical parameters, maybe the set ours has came about by a random process: no need for “fine-tuning”. However, as I argue in a new piece for the Nautilus blog, the fine-tuning problem is separate from the question of the multiverse, and philosophy won’t provide the solution to either.

We know that the universe is capable of supporting life, and that any physical parameters must be consistent with that obvious fact. Beyond that, we can’t go yet: We have no more evidence for multiverses than we have evidence for life beyond Earth—though it’s reasonable to think both exist. The uncomfortable possibility is that there are other pocket universes, but we’ll only ever know about them indirectly. That doesn’t make them any less real, just discomforting. [Read more…]

On the multiverse, metaphysics, and meaning

Early galaxies: live large, die big, burn bright

How did the biggest galaxies form? Based on the ages of stars inhabiting them, the largest elliptical galaxies — those kind of boring egg-shaped clouds of stars with no pretty spiral arms — formed fairly early in the history of the Universe. While smaller elliptical galaxies likely are the modern version of submillimeter bright galaxies (SBGs), star-forming structures visible from the early cosmos, astronomers have failed to identify the progenitors of the largest galaxies. However, a new paper might have the answer: the authors caught a pair of early galaxies right before they collided, after which they likely merged into one.

Where one galaxy is insufficient, two may do instead. A new set of observations caught two bright elliptical galaxies right before the act of merging into one that would have a combined mass large enough to make the equivalent of 400 billion Suns. Hai Fu and colleagues determined that these galaxies collided more than 10 billion years ago and that the merger was driving extremely rapid star formation, at least ten times the rate seen in ordinary galaxies. Based on these observations, the researchers concluded that such collisions could be responsible for the birth of the largest galaxies, allowing for most of them to finish forming by 9.5 billion years ago. [Read more…]