Archive for the ‘Cosmology’ Category
I feel almost guilty writing this post. I used to be such a fan of paranormal mysteries. Loch Ness, UFOs, ancient aliens, and other curious little corners of reality. I’m still a fan, but I have grown more skeptical over the years. Sadly this is because I’ve realized that the signal-to-noise ratio is rather low in these areas. Worse, cashing in on the credulous has grown mainstream, and now things like the History Channel are shamelessly spreading paranormal nonsense to make a buck. Still, just because there’s a lot of fraud, poor scholarship, and pseudo-science doesn’t mean it’s all nonsense. A UFO could crash on the White House lawn tomorrow. Not bloody likely, but not impossible. And in the vein of keeping my toe in the paranormal water so to speak, here’s a brief rundown of recent developments on the fringe.
UFOs: OK, the big recent news is that the Russian PM said that if Obama doesn’t come clean about aliens living among us, Russia will. He made the remark in the context of a joke about the Men In Black movies. Some in UFO circles took it seriously. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Obama’s announcement. Ufology is a very active field, but it mostly concerns itself with blurry videos of lights in the sky. Or anecdotal reports. Nothing with actual evidence. And the field is always rife with some rumor about how all is going to be revealed soon. A peculiar class of belief not limited to ufology by any means. I also did some recent research on Roswell, and it’s not looking good. One of the biggest “researchers” on the case was shown to be a fraud, all of his “discoveries” are suspect, and some main stream ufologists no longer think Roswell involved aliens or an alien craft. Well, crap.
Bigfoot: Oh, the usual crop of blobsquatch videos. There was a claim awhile ago that Bigfoot DNA had been obtained. It’s generally considered to be a hoax at this point. There’s a recording of Bigfoot screeches making the rounds. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that this is evidence of nothing. Animals make a vast array of sounds, this will more than likely be eventually explained as normal wildlife noise. At this point, well, it’s hard to understand why a bigfoot hasn’t shown up as roadkill. Maybe they are smart enough not to cross roads? In other words they are smarter than people? Wouldn’t that be wild if Bigfoot was the true intelligent species on the planet, and they were just hiding and biding their time until we destroyed ourselves? Stranger things have happened. Sarah Palin for example.
Loch Ness Monster: Exciting news on this front. None less than Megan Fox believes in the Loch Ness Monster! Who is Megan Fox? Damned if I know. That’s about it on the Loch Ness monster. I’m assuming the whole silly thing is dead since I pointed out that no sightings preceding the 1930s is impossible to explain. You can thank me later for clearing this one up.
Baigong Pipes: Someone brought to my attention the Baigong Pipes, supposed iron pipes that predate human civilization by tens of thousands of years. Well, two problems. The first of which is saying someone laid all these pipes, but left no other evidence? That’s a little hard to swallow. Secondly, scientists believe (backed with actual evidence) that the Baigong pipes are natural formations that are created when buried tree trunks get replaced by iron deposits. Examples are found in a number of locations around the world. Scientists would be thrilled to find evidence of ancient alien technology. Think of the research grants and fame and getting laid by cute ancient aliens chicks that would result in. So when scientists say: “Um, no, these are natural formations.” I think we can believe them.
Infinite Universes: It’s long been a popular meme that since there may be infinite universes, then there are infinite versions of each of us on said universes. IE if you got up and decided to wear a blue shirt today, there is a universe where someone identical to you chose to wear a red shirt. Ad infinitum. Well, some scientists (yes, that matters) have taken a look at this idea and pointed out that it is “highly speculative.” In other words, science fiction. For one thing, the idea that our universe is infinite is by no means the accepted scientific view. Secondly, they point out that if there are infinite possibilities for life, then each planet with life could and should be unique. Crap. And I was so hoping to exchange places with a richer me in one of these universes.
Quantum Birds: Well, it turns out that quantum physics may play a role in biology. A big role actually. This is a revolutionary idea, but it is gaining credence as experiments suggest it is the case. It almost certainly plays a role in photosynthesis. It’s also suspected to play a role in small and animal navigation. Research continues, but this could be the “new biology” of the 21st century. It would take me a whole post to explain quantum physics, and even then I might get it wrong. OK, probably would get it wrong, quantum physics is hard to grasp.
“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine – it is stranger than we can imagine.” — J.B.S. Haldane
(The above image is of Saturn taken from the Cassini Orbiter. The Sun is directly behind it. It’s legal to use this image non-commercially. Credit and copyright: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute, Cassini Imaging Team. I chose it because it’s a beautiful spooky image … and an example of the incredible frontiers science is still advancing on. NASA rocks.)
This was a question posted on Yahoo Answers today, in the Astronomy & Space category. I strongly suspect it was posted as a joke, considering what I know of typical behaviour in Yahoo Answers. The replies to it pretty much bore that out, every reply was some variation of “the first human that gazed up into the sky.” I thought this was fascinating on several levels. Fascinating because all of the people who answered that were full of shit, even though they thought they were making sense. And secondly, because it is an interesting question, do we know who the first person was who realized that the night sky was something akin to what modern science knows it to be?
First, why were the people who thought cavemen discovered space full of it? Simple, cavemen didn’t have our modern knowledge of the Universe, so when they looked up at the night sky, they didn’t have the faintest idea what they were looking at. And they certainly didn’t imagine that the points of light they were seeing were planets or other versions of the Sun, why would they? When learned men started trying to understand what they were looking at, they came up with celestial spheres. These were spheres encircling the Earth with lights embedded in them. They did notice that the planets in the sky moved against the background of other stars, so they decided there were spheres nested inside spheres.
Yet so many people who answered the question assumed that cavemen looked up and comprehended the vast void of space that we now know we are looking at. To me this is a wonderful example of one of human’s greatest weaknesses, people simply assume that other people see the world through their eyes. Most people make this assumption on such an implicit level that they don’t even realize they are doing it. I would actually be curious to know what the people who answered would say if they knew I thought they were full of shit. I would hope that some would agree, and realize they hadn’t thought it through or knew they were giving a flippant answer. Some though would no doubt defend their answer, by one tiresome means or another. What is it with people who can’t admit they are wrong?
Moving right along, who did “discover space?” Copernicus would be one possible answer, he is in fact the fellow that realized that the Sun was at the centre, not the Earth. That’s as far as he got though, Copernicus still thought that the heavens were transparent spheres with lights embedded in them. It may sound silly in to us, but one has to remember than these were people who sincerely believed that there was a creator, a creator who had set this all up for our benefit. So the scientists of the day weren’t so much as looking for naturalistic explanations, they were just trying to understand God’s creation. Tycho Brahe is another one who realized there was a problem with the celestial spheres, he observed that comets apparently passed through them on their journeys to and from the Sun. Still, that’s as far as he got.
No, the real answer is an obscure astronomer named Thomas Digges (1546 – 24 August 1595). He was the first to realize that there were no spheres at all, or at least there was no outermost sphere, that the points in the sky we were seeing were spread throughout a near infinite void. And I mean near infinite, he also realized that what we were seeing in the sky was proof that the Universe was not infinite. How the hell did he come up what that? He reasoned that if the universe was infinite, that any direction we looked there would eventually be a star, and the night sky would be as bright as the daytime sky. It’s called the dark night sky paradox, one of humanity’s first stabs at defining the scope of the cosmos.
In other words, until 1600 or so, people gazing at the night sky might have been amazed at what they were seeing, but they had no clue what they were looking at. They assumed that whatever it was, it was just set and setting for the Earth, a God given backdrop to the play that was humanity. Thomas Digges was apparently the first to grasp that what we were seeing in the night sky was far grander than humans had ever imagined. So the next time the gentle reader is staring up at the night sky and wondering at the vastness of it all, it was Thomas Digges who led the way more than 400 years ago.
An eye blink in human history. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is public domain under US copyright law. It’s actually the work of the esteemed Mr Digges, not only the first translation of Copernicus into English, but the first illustration of the stars as scattered in a void. We don’t apparently have an image of him, but his life’s work lives on. I drink to his vision and his memory, skol Mr Digges!)
Yeast cells in a petri dish? Higgs Boson particles in the LHC? Nope, this fascinating image is an infrared view of the exact centre of our galaxy. The image is about one light year wide, and the animation loop covers a period of eight years. And it’s not obvious, but the moving stars are actually orbiting around the yellow cross at the centre of the image. In fact our sun is orbiting around that yellow cross, every orbit taking about 200 million years. That means the Sun is 22 1/2 in galactic years, just a young whippersnapper in it’s prime.
Cool new tunas so far, but it gets cooler. Again, it may not be obvious, but those stars are really moving. Look how slowly the other stars in the image are moving compared to the central stars. The only explanation so far is that they are orbiting something really massive at the yellow cross. In fact calculations show that whatever it is, it masses more than five million Suns! Well, astronomers have a pretty good idea what it is, they think it is a black hole, something that appears to reside at the centre of most if not all galaxies like our Milky Way.
Being a black hole, we can’t see it of course. It only reveals itself in x-rays and the motion of stars orbiting it. Is it eventually going to suck up the entire galaxy? No, more than the Sun is going to suck up the entire Solar System. Well, OK, yes, eventually everything in the Universe will get sucked into black holes. Black holes do slowly decay becasue they emit Hawking radiation, and eventually they will all be gone, there will be no more entropy possible, and the Universe will experience heat death, and be nothing but a near infinite incredibly thin cold near vacuum. That won’t be for about 10100 years though, so it’s safe to say that humanity has far more pressing concerns to worry about.
It’s still amazing to me what we know about our Universe now compare to when I was a kid. And I will continue to share images that amaze me. The black hole at the centre of our galaxy is now in the process of gobbling up a huge cloud of gas, if I can find a good picture of this I will post it.
(Image Credit: A. Eckart (U. Koeln) & R. Genzel (MPE-Garching), SHARP I, NTT, La Silla Obs., ESO It’s basically a NASA image and as such may be used pretty much freely for non-commercial purposes. “It is estimated that 3.71 X 10^10 “first-star-tonight” wishes have been wasted on Venus.” OK, a little astronomer humor there. With emphasis on little, I think it’s safe to say that not many stand up comics got their start in astronomy.)
And what a year and a decade it’s been. We’ve come a long ways since the odometer rolled over in 2000, and are a decade into a century I could barely imagine when I was a young lad. Even the year 1984 seemed to be in the far future when I was in high school, 2010 might as well have been on Mars. Yet here I am, older, wiser, and in many ways more perplexed than ever by the human condition. Are we an intelligent species? Damned if I know, but I don’t see a whole lot of evidence for it. Yet we muddle through somehow. And we muddled through a lot of stuff this past decade, here, in no particular order, is my take on the whole mess:
9/11. For good or for ill this was a defining moment for the decade. At least in the USA. However, what happens in the USA affects the whole world, so 9/11 was a global event on par with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. What can I say, we needed a Lincoln or a Truman, we had a Bush. Instead of decisive action, like sending the 101st airborne to Afghanistan capture Bin Ladin and his henchmen, Bush gave the green light to every sycophant and crony with an axe to gride, in most cases a pretty corrupt ideological axe. A decade later, trillions of dollars spent, countless lives wasted, foreign nations turned into failed states … and the “War on Terror” is a zombie monster still dragging us down and creating more terror and debt every day. And OBL is still at large, though the government apparently now thinks that searching American’s crotches may bring him to justice. Yeah, this is going to end well.
The Economy. The nineties showed us that having a cool web site address wasn’t the secret to wealth after all. The last decade showed us that banks, real estate offices, and fast food joints aren’t much to base an economy on. Or should have shown us, despite giving endless buckets of cash to the people whose greed crashed the economy in the first place, the American economy is still a disaster and most seem clueless as to its cause. Meanwhile the rest of the world built factories and is muddling through somehow. Yes, there is a connection here. We’ve done what the Spanish Empire did, spent our money on weapons and glitter. How long did the Spanish Empire last anyhow?
Space Exploration. Well, some good news here at least. There have been many amazing discoveries the past decade, we are truly in a golden era of space exploration. American manned space exploration, well, that’s hosed, but robots are the future in space exploration anyhow. Still, three in a row here, three major areas where the USA has lost its way … foreign policy, the economy, and space exploration. What can I say, it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this when I as a kid in the sixties. No Moon Bases, no flying cars, just a pile of debt and a war that is designed to last forever.
Cosmology. It’s also been an amazing decade for cosmologists. It now appears that there are testable theories about the origin of the Big Bang, not to mention the ultimate fate of our Universe. And oddly enough, there is no need for supernatural influence anywhere. The cosmological argument for God is now dead, possibly the biggest development in theology in 400 years. Trust me, this will be a big deal someday.
Other Sciences. From preserved dinosaur soft tissue to Gobeli Tepi, there have been all sorts of scientific advances the past decade. I hardly know where to begin, so I won’t. I don’t think there’s been anything epochal like the invention of the aeroplane or the napkin, but I could be wrong.
The Media. This will be remembered as the decade where the mainstream media completed its transformation into little more than a shopping flyer for corporate and government America. What Free Press remains is on the Internet. Will the Internet be subsumed by the beast, or will true freedom return via the Internet? Beats me, none of the above?
Politics. The US government stopped even pretending to pay attention to the will of the people this decade, and set itself up as the arbiter of what is right. Historically, this rarely ends well. Consider yourselves warned.
Popular Culture. There’s 837 million blogs about popular culture, this isn’t one of them. Prince Philip could be marrying Lady Gaga on Survivor for all I know.
Personal Insights. I’m an atheist now, that’s the big personal development of the decade for me. On a broader level, science is starting to come to a much better understanding of why people believe in absurdities. There’s a lot of absurdities out there, I’d say the widespread belief that the Earth is only a few thousand years old is one of the most prevalent ones. People who believe in absurdities are not stupid or ignorant, there’s a host of evolutionary reasons why people process data in fallacious ways. Will understanding this lead to new ways to enlighten people … or new ways to manipulate them? Stay tuned.
What will the next decade bring? My suspicion is that it’s going to make the past decade look rosy in comparison. As is so often the case, I hope I’m wrong.
I wish everyone who reads this a Happy New Year and Happy New Decade.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. There’s a zillion reasons why its use here doesn’t hurt the copyright holder in any conceivable way, arguably the opposite. It’s Oliphaunts in one of the Lord of the Rings movies. In the Lord of the Rings world, gravity must have been below Earth normal, and possibly with denser air, to allow such things as these giant beasts and flying dragons and such. I chose the image to represent the decade because of its outsized and bizarre violent imagery. That’s certainly the War on Terror and the decade to me, a huge violent Kafkaesque Juggernaut raging violently, mindlessly. Who knows how and where it will end but it’s likely to be a hell of a mess until it does.)
Another wonderful image courtesy of the Hubble Telescope. This is galaxy NGC 4911, located some 320 million light years away. So that means we are seeing it as it was 320 million years ago. That was the Mississippian period on Earth, so called because the rocks from that area are exposed along the Mississippi River. Earth looked a little different then:
OK, a lot different. No grass, no flowers, no fruit, nothing but ferns and primitive such plants. There were some little lizard like things, animals were just beginning to move onto the land. Lots of bugs and spider like critters. The first flying insects were appearing. The food chain was rather primitive though. Bugs had just barely started eating plants, and other animals hadn’t started at all. Basically bugs eating leaf litter and decayed vegetation were the bottom of the food chain, and other stuff ate them. The oceans were strange too, while there were corals and such we would recognize, crinoids were very common, and trilobites were still around. The only octopus like thing was the nautilus. Lots of fish and sharks though, in fact the sharks then looked about the same as the sharks now. When nature hits a design that works, it keeps it. Although a point to be made is that while those sharks did indeed look very similar to today’s sharks, they did and do continue to evolve, none of the shark species extent then is still around.
On the plus side, there would have been no noxious pests whatsoever. No mosquitos, ticks, parasites, wasps, or anything even remotely unpleasant on land. No plants with thorns either. Just don’t go wading or swimming and everything will be fine. I mention these idyllic facts because according to Stephen Hawking’s most recent pronouncements, time travel is possible. And yes, in layman’s terms, there are paradoxes involved. In reality, no, there aren’t. That’s because whatever happened in the past … already happened. So a person can’t go back into the past and change anything. Even if someone does go back in time and murders their grandfather, all they will do is prove their granny slept around. I know sci fi movies have really muddied people’s thinking about these sorts of things; sadly, for the most part, sci fi movies are to science what cop movies are to real police work. Time travel may be possible, changing the past isn’t. Deal with it.
I digress, the thing about the Hubble image is that NGC 4911 is falling to its doom. OK, well, maybe not its doom, but it is falling into the Coma Cluster, one of the largest assemblages of galaxies in the known Universe. See the faint clouds around it? Those are stars that are being pulled away from NGC 4911 by other nearby galaxies in the cluster. Eventually NGC 4911 will lose its spiral arms, its satellite galaxies, most of its gas, and be converted into a boring yellowish elliptical galaxy. It will no longer be the stunning sight it is now. On the plus side, as the Universe expands, the Coma Cluster will stay together due to gravitational attraction, and even when the rest of the Universe recedes into invisibility, galaxies in the Coma Cluster will still be able to see other galaxies. Our galaxy on the other hand will appear to be sailing in an infinite endless void some 50-100 billion years from now.
The Coma Cluster has some mysteries of its own. It appears to be about 90% made of dark matter. Um, dark matter is stuff astronomers can’t see yet but can tell it’s there because of its gravitational effects on visible matter. I should blog on it sometime, if I ever understand it. This is a higher percentage of dark matter than we usually see in the Universe. And to deepen the mystery, the Coma Cluster has an X-ray source in it that no one can explain. Yes, something, something apparently larger than a galaxy, is kicking out a heck of a lot of X-rays in the Coma Cluster.
My point here, is that this is an image of a spectacular event, an entire galaxy being sucked into one of the most enormous structures in the Universe, where it will be completely transformed into an entirely new type of galaxy. And not only is this epic in scale, I mean “one of the largest structures in the Universe” is about as big as it gets, it is also epic in time. For NGC 4911 has been falling to its fate since before animals crawled out of the sea on Earth, and will still be falling after the Earth is a scorched oceanless desert some billion years from now. Quite a show.
And yet no one has even gotten around to naming NGC 4911? Yes, the Universe is so filled with wonders we can’t even count them all, let alone name them.
(The Hubble image above is more or less Public Domain and is being used, not for profit, legally: Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: K. Cook (LLNL) et al. The image of Earth as it was about 320 million years ago is a public domain image. I wrote this post because it pleased me, I may switch back to that strategy for awhile.)
Well, the readers have spoken. Today’s post will be about a space mystery. Good thing too, Afghanistan is such a depressing subject. And there will be lot’s of time to discuss Afghanistan, as I understand it our new mission there is “We are staying forever.” Still, took me awhile to come up with an appropriate space mystery, most of them seemed so, well, pedestrian. The Phobos Monolith = it’s a rock. Weird dunes on Titan = sometimes the wind there blows in different directions. The face on Jupiter = I just made that up.
Moving right along, the Eridanus Void. A true space mystery. Anf there’s a nice double entrendre there too, because that is exactly what the Eridanus void is, a mysterious space in space. A what now? The Eridanus Void is an area of the Universe about one billion light years across (that’s really big) that appears to contain essentially no matter. No galaxies, no stars, no dust, no nothing. It’s billions of light years from Earth though, so not an easy thing to study. The void was found a few years back when they were looking at the cosmic background radiation. There was this big spot with very little background radiation. Then they compared that to a map of the Universe’s galaxies, and lo and behold there weren’t any there.
So, a big empty spot in space? What’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that there shouldn’t be a big empty spot in space. It would be like finding part of the Earth’s surface where there was no atmosphere, how could that be? In the chaotic creation and expansion of the Universe shouldn’t there be stuff everywhere? Yes, yes there should. So the Eridanus Void is a problem. However, if this void actually exists, and it’s not completely certain yet, it would be one of the largest structures in the Universe. So it’s an exciting problem to people who get excited about the structure of the Universe.
OK, so, what are the possibilities? The first is that it is just a statistical fluke, and doesn’t really mean anything at all. IE it only appears strange because it is surrounded by more dense areas. Sounds good to me. One of the problems with trying to understand, let alone explain, these sort of cosmological mysteries is that frankly I don’t understand them very well myself, and that is particularly the case with stuff like this. Another possibility that has been proposed is that the void is something called a cosmic texture. If I understand that correctly, a cosmic texture is a defect in space time. Such defects are apparently allowed by theory, but none has ever been observed. I’m not really sure I can or want to understand exactly what that means, but again, if there is a defect in space time, I’m glad it’s billions of light years away.
It’s also been suggested that the void is simply a giant black hole. A billion light year across black hole. Even Captain Picard would have trouble dealing with that. While there doesn’t seem to be any known way such a huge black hole could form, there’s also to known way such a huge void in the Universe could form, so it’s not a completely off the wall suggestion. If I understand this theory, the black hole would have as much mass as the rest of the Universe. And the Universe would in fact be “orbiting” around this black hole. Again, it’s very fortunate that we are nowhere near if this is the case, because then as we speak entire galaxies are being pulled to their doom.
Lastly we come to the most interesting and exotic theory. One Dr. Laura Mersini-Houghton, a professor of theoretical physics and cosmology has claimed that the void is the result of quantum entanglement with another Universe, and is empirical proof that parallel universes exists. She sounds like one hell of a smart person, so this theory, though controversial, is apparently testable and mainstream. I can’t really explain what it means, but suffice it to say that she claims the void is a “smudge” left where our universe was in contact with another universe during the first moments of the Universe’s existence. At least I think this is what she means. Apparently if it is a remnant of contact with another universe, there should be another void on the opposite side of the sky. I’m sure scientists are looking as I type.
And that’s all that can be said. Despite all the weird implications, the core mystery is pretty simple. There’s a huge hole in space, and cosmologists and astronomers can’t explain why. Coming next week, who knows, I’m open to suggestion. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image of the “cold spot” in the CMB radiation is being used leghally in accordance with it’s creator: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image credit: Nernom at en.wikipedia Here is the best link I’ve discovered yet on the void, it’s not exactly all over the net. A giant black hole?)