Ask Ethan: Why Aren’t Rays Of Sunshine Parallel?
“I understand the sun is a really long distance from the earth, such that the paths photons take that strike the earth are pretty much in parallel. So why, when I see “rays of sunshine”, produced (I assume) by the sun shining through differing cloud densities, are they radial with their point of origin being at the apparent location of the sun in our sky?”
Seen poking through a cloud, trees or other opaque materials, sunbeams are one of the most surprising natural phenomena, when you think about it. There’s always scattered, ambient sunlight in all directions, and the bright sunshine is never visible as a ray when there aren’t clouds. Moreover, the light almost always appears to diverge away from the beam’s point of origin, rather than seeming to be the parallel rays you’d expect. So why is this the case? Why aren’t rays of sunshine parallel, like you’d expect? The fact of the matter is that the rays actually are parallel, even if they don’t appear so to your eyes.
Seeing is believing, sure, but you won’t want to miss the actual physics of what’s happening!
The Physics Of Why Timekeeping First Failed In The Americas
“As soon as the clock arrived and was set up, it began keeping time more accurately than any timepiece before ever located on the North American continent. At least, that was what everyone assumed was happening for about a week or so. But after that amount of time, it became clear that something was amiss. The Sun and Moon weren’t rising at their predicted times, but rather were off by a bit.
Even worse, the amount that the clock was off by appeared to be getting worse over time: whatever error was at play was accumulating. Instead of these reliable, celestial events occurring at the predicted times on the clock, they were occurring earlier, according to the clock. Something was wrong. The clock was not only running slow, but appeared to be losing close to a minute per day.”
Imagine the news in 17th century America: a new form of timekeeping has been developed, and instead of an uncertainty of around 15 minutes a day (like you get with sundials), you can keep time accurately to within seconds per day. It would be an incredible advance! So you place an order to the Netherlands, where they’ve developed it, and they build you a clock. You send it across the ocean, set it up, and start it working. It seems to work great! But then you realize, after about a week, that the Sun and Moon aren’t rising and setting when they should. Something about your pristine clock is off. So you send it back, and when they start it up back in Amsterdam, it works perfectly.
Sounds like a mystery! But this mystery is something special, because the problem wasn’t with the clock, after all, but with the Earth. Come get the bizarre but educational story of how timekeeping first failed in the Americas!
We Know Almost Nothing About Proxima b, The Closest Exoplanet To Earth
“In reality, we do not even know whether this planet is Earth-like or Neptune-like. The typical border between an Earth-like world, where you have a rocky surface with a thin atmosphere, and a Neptune-like world, where you have a large gas envelope surrounding your world, is about 2 Earth masses. Proxima b has a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earths, but that’s if the alignment is perfectly edge-on. Since there’s no transit, we know the alignment cannot be exactly perfect, but how imperfect is it? That’s gloriously unknown.
If the alignment is inclined at more than about 25° from our line-of-sight, it’s likely to be a gaseous world, not a rocky, Earth-like one. But at this point, without further information, we cannot know.”
Two years ago, some amazing news came in from the astronomical world: the closest star beyond our Sun, Proxima Centauri, has a planet orbiting it. Named Proxima b, it has an orbital period of 11.2 days around a star just 0.17% as luminous as our Sun. This places it into what we call the habitable zone, as it receives approximately 65% of the energy that Earth receives from the Sun. It also has a mass that’s touted as 1.3 times the mass of Earth, but that figure is very suspect. We can claim that as the minimum mass, but can do no better than that. As far as life, water, oceans, or even an atmosphere goes, we have no idea. It could be a completely airless, barren world, or could have a thick gas envelope like Neptune.
Without more and better data, we simply cannot know. We know very little about Proxima b. Here’s how you can separate scientific fact from mere speculation.
What Was It Like When The First Stars Died?
“It’s theorized that this is the origin of the seeds of the supermassive black holes that occupy the centers of galaxies today: the deaths of the most massive stars, which create black holes hundreds or thousands of times the mass of the Sun. Over time, mergers and gravitational growth will lead to the most massive black holes known in the Universe, black holes that are millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun by today.
It took perhaps 100 million years to form the very first stars in the Universe, but just another million or two after that for the most massive among them to die, creating black holes and spreading heavy, processed elements into the interstellar medium. As time goes on, the Universe, at long last, will begin to resemble what we actually see today.”
Our Universe, shortly after the Big Bang, proceeded in a number of momentous steps. The first atomic nuclei formed just minutes after the Big Bang, while neutral atoms took hundreds of thousands of years. It took another 50 to 100 million years for the very first star to be created, but only, perhaps, a million or two years for the most massive among the first stars to die. They may have been short-lived, but the first stars were truly spectacular, and their deaths set up the first steps in a changing Universe that would take us from a pristine set of materials to, eventually, the Universe as we know it today.
Take a major step in the cosmic journey of how we got to today by looking at what it was like when the first stars died!
This Is How We Know The Cosmic Microwave Background Comes From The Big Bang
“The outer layers are extremely tenuous and rarified, and the radiation we receive here on Earth doesn’t all originate from the very edge of that plasma. Instead, much of what we see originates from about the first 500 kilometers, where the interior layers are significantly hotter than the outermost ones. The light coming from our Sun — or any star, for that matter — is not a blackbody, but the sum of many blackbodies that vary in temperature by many hundreds of degrees.
It’s only when you add all these blackbodies together that you can reproduce the light we see coming from our parent star. The cosmic microwave background, when we look at its spectrum in detail, is a far more perfect blackbody than any star could ever hope to be.”
If you get your science from the internet, you might hear about all sorts of alternatives to the Big Bang. Grandiose claims are often made, decrying the Big Bang as a religion that can never be falsified, while simultaneously touting ideas that most scientists discarded decades or even centuries ago.
But there is no ideology at play; science is a game that we play with predictive power and evidence. The Big Bang makes explicit predictions, and so do alternative ideas that rely on atomic emissions, reflected starlight, photonic energy loss, or heated-up dust.
We can look at every idea we can conceive of, but in the end, only one matches what we observe. Here’s how the Cosmic Microwave Background points to the Big Bang, and away from every other alternative.
This Is Why Hubble Can’t See The Very First Galaxies
“By observing dark, empty patches of sky, it reveals ancient galaxies without nearby interference.
When distant galaxy clusters are present, these massive gravitational clumps behave as natural magnifying lenses.
The most distant observed galaxies have their light bent, distorted, and amplified along the journey.
Hubble discovered the current cosmic record-holder, GN-z11, via lensing.
Its light arrives from 407 million years after the Big Bang: 3% of the Universe’s current age.”
No astronomical observatory has revolutionized our view of the Universe quite like NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. With the various servicing missions and instrument upgrades that have taken place over its lifetime, Hubble has pushed back the cosmic frontier of the first stars and galaxies to limits never before known. Yet there must be galaxies before them; some of the most distant Hubble galaxies have stars in them that push back the time of the first galaxies to just 250 million years after the Big Bang. Yet Hubble is physically incapable of seeing that far. Three factors: cosmic redshift, warm temperatures, and light-blocking gas, prevent us from going much beyond what we’ve already seen. In fact, we’re remarkably lucky to have gotten as distant as we have.
Find out why Hubble can’t see the very first galaxies, and why we need the James Webb space telescope!
Ask Ethan: If Light Contracts And Expands With Space, How Do We Detect Gravitational Waves?
“If the wavelength of light stretches and contracts with space-time, then how can LIGO detect gravitational waves. [Those waves] stretch and contract the two arms of the LIGO detector and so the the light waves within the the two arms [must] stretch and contract too. Wouldn’t the number of wavelengths of light in each arm remain the same hence cause no change in the interference pattern, rendering [gravitational waves] undetectable?”
Three years ago, we detected the very first gravitational wave ever seen, as the signal from two massive, merging black holes rippled through the Universe, carrying with it the energy of three solar masses turned into pure energy via Einstein’s E = mc^2. Since that time, we’ve discovered more gravitational waves, mostly from black hole-black hole mergers but also from a neutron star-neutron star merger.
But how did we do it? The LIGO detectors function by having two perpendicular laser beams bounce back-and-forth in a long vacuum chamber, only to recombine them at the end. As the gravitational waves pass through, the arm lengths extend and compress, changing the path length. But the wavelength of the light inside changes, too! Doesn’t this mean the effects should cancel out, and we shouldn’t see an interference pattern?
It’s what you might intuit, but it’s not right. The scientific truth is fascinating, and allows us to detect these waves anyway. Here’s how it all works!
This Is Why Scientists Think Planet Nine Doesn’t Exist
“Of course, this study isn’t enough to rule out Planet Nine; it still could be out there. As a counterpoint, Mike Brown has contended that a different survey strategy could have been definitive, and OSSOS simply isn’t a good survey for indicating yea or nay on Planet Nine. But remember, the old saying goes, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” indicating that if you observe an effect, it likely has a cause.
If you all of a sudden discover that what you thought was smoke was a figment of your imagination, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t a fire, but it sure does make the hypothesis that there ever was a fire a lot less compelling. The OSSOS study doesn’t rule out Planet Nine, but it does cast doubt on the idea that the Solar System needs one. Unless a deeper, better survey indicates otherwise, or Planet Nine serendipitously turns up, the default position should be its non-existence.”
Is there another massive planet in the Solar System? Do we have a super-Earth after all, between the masses and sizes of Earth and Neptune? And has it only gone undiscovered until now owing to our telescopic limitations, and the fact that it’s so much more distant than the presently known planets?
It’s possible. That’s the radical idea behind Planet Nine, proposed nearly three years ago by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown. They looked at the unusual orbits of a number of Kuiper Belt objects, and conjectures that a ninth planet, located hundreds of times as distant as Earth is from the Sun, could be the culprit. But on closer inspection, the evidence that they’re looking at might just be biased, and there may be no Planet Nine at all.
There may not even be a puzzle to solve. Come get the scientific story on Planet Nine that you haven’t heard today.
Has The Large Hadron Collider Accidentally Thrown Away The Evidence For New Physics?
“It’s eminently possible that the LHC created new particles, saw evidence of new interactions, and observed and recorded all the signs of new physics. And it’s also possible, due to our ignorance of what we were looking for, we’ve thrown it all away, and will continue to do so. The nightmare scenario — of no new physics beyond the Standard Model — appears to be coming true. But the real nightmare is the very real possibility that the new physics is there, we’ve built the perfect machine to find it, we’ve found it, and we’ll never realize it because of the decisions and assumptions we’ve made. The real nightmare is that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing the Standard Model is right, because we only looked at one-millionth of the data that’s out there.”
Ten years. Over 200 Petabytes of data. That’s how long it’s been and how much data has been collected since the Large Hadron Collider first turned on. During its data-taking runs, the LHC collided bunches of protons at the incredible speed of 299,792,455 m/s: just 3 m/s slower than the speed of light. Bunches smashed together roughly every 25 nanoseconds inside each detector, and we’ve written that data down as fast as our electronics and the limits of physics will allow.
But even at that, it means that 99.9999% of the collision data needed to be discarded. We’ve only collected data from 1-in-a-million collisions, and that’s a big potential problem. We haven’t seen any evidence for physics beyond the Standard Model there, and one can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s an alternative to the nightmare scenario.
Perhaps new physics is out there, right at our fingertips, and we’ve simply missed it because of what we’ve thrown away. Perhaps the “nightmare” is one we brought upon ourselves.
What Was It Like When The First Stars Began Illuminating The Universe?
“After the Big Bang, the Universe was dark for millions upon millions of years; after the glow of the Big Bang fades away, there’s nothing that human eyes could see. But when the first wave of star formation happens, growing in a cosmic crescendo across the visible Universe, starlight struggles to get out. The fog of neutral atoms permeating all of space absorbs most of it, but gets ionized in the process. Some of this reionized matter will become neutral again, emitting light when it does, including the 21-cm line over timescales of ~10 million years.
But it takes far more than the very first stars to truly turn on the lights in the Universe. For that, we need more than just the first stars; we need them to live, burn through their fuel, die, and give rise to so much more. The first stars aren’t the end; they’re the beginning of the cosmic story that gives rise to us.”
We like to think of the Universe evolving as a story that follows a particular order: first we had the Big Bang, then things expanded and cooled, then gravitation pulled things into clumps, we formed stars, they lived and died, and now here we are. But in reality, things are messier than that! The very first stars didn’t immediately spread light throughout the Universe, but instead had a cosmic ocean of neutral atoms to contend with: one that they weren’t energetic enough or numerous enough to break through. The first stars in the Universe fought a battle against the clumping, neutral, atomic-based matter that surrounded them… and lost.
Come get the valiant but ultimately unsuccessful story of the first stars in the Universe, and learn why “letting there be light” didn’t illuminate the Universe!