Nuclear pasta and neutron stars

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

The Inside of a Neutron Star Looks Spookily Familiar

Exotic ultra-compressed matter can look like pasta, among other things

Two phases of matter found in neutron stars are featured in this recent Dinosaur Comic; click to see the whole thing. (Slightly naughty language included.) [Credit: Ryan North]

Two phases of matter found in neutron stars are featured in this recent Dinosaur Comic; click to see the whole thing. (Slightly naughty language included.) [Credit: Ryan North]

For Nautilus:

Hot fluids of neutrons that flow without friction, superconductors made of protons, and a solid crust built of exotic atoms—features like these make neutron stars some of the strangest objects we’ve found in the cosmos so far. They pack all the mass of a star into a sphere the size of a city, resulting in states of matter we just don’t have on Earth.

And yet, despite their extreme weirdness, neutron stars contain a mishmash of vaguely familiar features, as if seen darkly through a funhouse mirror. One of the weirdest is the fact that deep inside a neutron star you can find a whole menu full of (nuclear) pasta. [Read the rest at Nautilus…]

Advertisements

Be very very quiet, we’re hunting gravitational waves

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Gravitational waves and where to find them

Advanced LIGO has just begun its search for gravitational waves

For Symmetry Magazine:

For thousands of years, astronomy was the province of visible light, that narrow band of colors the human eye can see.

In the 20th century, astronomers pushed into other kinds of light, from radio waves to infrared light to gamma rays. Researchers built neutrino detectors and cosmic ray observatories to study the universe using particles instead. Most recently, another branch of lightless astronomy has been making strides: gravitational wave astronomy.

It’s easy to make gravitational waves: Just flap your arms. Earth’s orbit produces more powerful gravitational waves, but even these are too small to have a measurable effect. This is a good thing: Gravitational waves carry energy, and losing too much energy would cause Earth to spiral into the sun. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

 

I Love Q, and now you can too!

I wrote a feature story for Physics World on an interesting little discovery about neutron stars, but unfortunately the article wasn’t in their free online edition. HOWEVER, the editors have kindly let me repost the article here in PDF format for free download! (Here’s the summary I wrote a few weeks ago.)

Physics World is a glossy magazine published by the Institute of Physics (IoP) in Europe. My articles are in the print version, but you can access them online by joining IoP (US$25 per year) and see everything they publish either through the Physics World website (which also has tons of free content) or the app, available on iTunes or Google Play.

The three little words every pulsar wants to hear

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! UPDATE: you can now download this article in PDF format! See the follow-up post or the update below.]

I can’t help falling in Love with Q

The first page of my latest print article in Physics World. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an online version.

The first page of my latest print article in Physics World. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

From Physics World:

The dancers are an elegant pair. Clothed in the fabric of space–time, they are driven by the music of gravity and make a stately orbit around one another once every two-and-a-half hours. They pirouette as they move – one spins once every few seconds while the other spins many times per second – and each one of their twirls is marked by an intense flash of light. The dancing partners are pulsars – spinning neutron stars that send a regular blip of light our way.

Named PSR J0737-3039, this duo is one of a kind. More commonly known as the “double-pulsar system”, it is the only two-pulsar system where we have observed both partners. Other binary-pulsar systems exist, consisting of a pulsar and, for example, a white dwarf or a (non-radiative) neutron star. However, astronomers find the double-pulsar system particularly valuable because it consists of two flashing beacons rather than one, and the more information they can glean to test their theories, the better.

Unfortunately, this article is currently only available in print, and Physics World isn’t a typical newsstand offering. Update: the editors have kindly let me repost the article here in PDF format for free download! You can also access all the content online by joining IoP (US$25 per year) and see everything they publish either through the Physics World website (which also has tons of free content) or the app, available on iTunes or Google Play.

I am overly proud of the headline, and the concepts I described in the article are very interesting. In brief, measurable properties of neutron star exteriors are independent of the particular physics going on inside. Since neutron stars are some of the most complex objects we know of — they are the density of an atomic nucleus, the mass of a star, and the size of a city on Earth — anything we can learn to help study them is a good thing. A few theorists figured out how to relate observable properties to each other, in particular three parameters labeled I, Q, and the “Love number” (named for a person, not the emotion). The I-Love-Q relations in combination with sophisticated neutron star observations could hopefully help us solve the deep mystery of what’s going inside an object that’s like nothing we can create in the lab.

(If you want some more technical information, here’s the main paper I drew on for background.)

Listening to the sounds of the cosmos

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Last year, I went to a conference in Florida to hear — and in some cases meet — some of the leading thinkers in the study of gravitational waves. These waves are disturbances in the structure of spacetime itself, and could provide information about some exciting phenomena, if we can learn to detect them. The universe as heard in gravitational waves includes colliding black holes, white dwarfs locked in mutual orbits, exploding stars, and possibly chaotic disturbances from the very first instants after the Big Bang. This story marks one of my first big magazine articles, which I wrote for Smithsonian Air & Space magazine.

The Universe is Ringing

And astronomers are building observatories to listen to it

For Smithsonian Air & Space:

Think of it as a low hum, a rumble too deep to notice without special equipment. It permeates everything—from the emptiest spot in space to the densest cores of planets. Unlike sound, which requires air or some other material to carry it, this hum travels on the structure of space-time itself. It is the tremble caused by gravitational radiation, left over from the first moments after the Big Bang.

Gravitational waves were predicted in Albert Einstein’s 1916 theory of general relativity. Einstein postulated that the gravity of massive objects would bend or warp space-time and that their movements would send ripples through it, just as a ship moving through water creates a wake. Later observations supported his conception. [Read the rest at Air & Space….]

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

(This headline was my original choice for the article, which was understandably rejected by my editors. So, you get to read it here instead.)

Pulsars are rapidly-spinning neutron stars, the very small dense remnants of stars at least 8 times more massive than the Sun. Their pulses are intense beams of light that sweep across our field of view each time the neutron star rotates. A pulsar’s rotation slows down over time, though, and some researchers in the UK have proposed a simple physical model that refines the most widely accepted theory.

Observations of the matter expelled by the initial supernova can be used to estimate the age of the pulsar; those numbers can be compared to age estimates based on its spin slowdown. In some cases, these estimates match reasonably well, but in others, they give wildly different results, differing by thousands of years at the extreme. The researchers’ model began with a different assumption: that the superfluid comprised a higher fraction of the core before things start to cool down. The result is pinning: the vortices in the superfluid stick to one spot relative to each other. That means the superfluid’s rotation rate remains the same, while the rest of the pulsar continues to slow down. [Read more….]

Spinning pulsar, got to slow down