Keith Bechtol at UW Space Place

We are so very fortunate here in southern Wisconsin to have evening public lectures the 2nd Tuesday every month of the year at the University of Wisconsin Space Place, expertly organized by Jim Lattis. On Tuesday, November 12th, Clif Cavanaugh (retired physics and astronomy professor at the UW in Richland Center) and I made the trek (as we often do) from Spring Green-Dodgeville to the Space Place in Madison. This month, we were treated to an excellent presentation by Keith Bechtol, an Observational Cosmologist in the Physics Department at UW-Madison. His topic was The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys. Keith is an early career scientist with a bright future. His presentation was outstanding.

I’d like to share with you some of the highlights.

Before the talk, which is mostly about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction in Chile and expected to see first light in 2020, I asked Keith about whether LSST would be renamed the Vera Rubin Telescope as was announced at AAS 234 in St. Louis this past summer. As it turns out, Keith has been a vocal advocate for naming LSST after Vera Rubin, though no final decision has yet been made.

Before I get into notes from the talk, I wanted to share with you the definition of the word synoptic in case you are not familiar with that word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word synoptic as “furnishing a general view of some subject; spec. depicting or dealing with weather conditions over a large area at the same point in time.” But rather than the traditional meteorological definition, here we are referring to a wide-field survey of the entire night sky visible from Cerro Pachón in Chile, latitude 30˚ S.

Keith first talked about how astronomical imaging is currently advancing along two fronts. The first is high-resolution imaging, as recently illustrated with first image of the event horizon of a black hole from the Event Horizon Telescope, where an amazing resolution of around 25 microarcseconds was achieved.

In general, the larger the telescope aperture, the smaller the field of view.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field is only 3.1 arcminutes square

A survey telescope, on the other hand, must be designed to cover a much larger area of the sky for each image.

Not only can a survey telescope detect “anything that changes” in the night sky, but it also allows us to probe the large-scale structure of our universe. Three still-mysterious entities that are known to affect this large-scale structure are dark energy, dark matter, and neutrinos. Keith indicates that “these names are placeholders for physics we don’t yet fully understand.”

Dark energy, which is responsible for driving galaxies apart at an accelerating rate, is unusual in that it maintains a constant density as the universe expands. And its density is very low.

Supernovae are a very useful tool to probe the dark-energy-induced accelerating expansion of the universe, but in any particular galaxy they are exceedingly rare, so by monitoring large areas of the sky (ideally, the entire sky), we can discover supernovae frequently.

The mass distribution of our universe subtly affects the alignment and shapes of distant galaxies through a phenomenon known as weak gravitational lensing. Understanding these distortions and correlations requires a statistical approach looking at many galaxies across large swaths of sky.

Closer to home, small galaxies that have come too close our Milky Way galaxy are pulled apart into stellar streams that require a “big picture” approach to discover and map. The dark matter distribution in our Milky Way galaxy plays an important role in shaping these stellar streams—our galaxy contains about ten times as much dark matter as normal matter.

With wide-field surveys, not only do we need to cover large areas of sky, but we also want to be able to see the faintest and most distant objects. That latter property is referred to as “going deeper”.

The LSST will provide a dramatic increase in light gathering power over previous survey instruments. The total number of photons collected by a survey instrument per unit time is known as the étendue, a French word, and it is the field of view (in square degrees) × the effective aperture (in m2) × the quantum efficiency (unitless fraction). The units of étendue are thus m2deg2. Note that the vertical axis in the graph below is logarithmic, so the LSST will have a significantly higher étendue than previous survey instruments.

The largest monolithic mirrors in the world are fabricated at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The largest mirrors that can be produced there are 8.4 meters, and LSST has one of them.

Remember the Yerkes Observatory 40-inch refractor, completed in 1897? It has held the record as the largest lens ever used in an astronomical telescope. Until now. A 61.8-inch lens (L-1) and a 47.2-inch (L-2) have been fabricated for use in the LSST camera.

L-1, the largest lens ever produced, is the front lens of the LSST camera

LSST will utilize a camera that is about the size of a car. It is the largest camera ever built for astronomy.

The LSST camera will produce 3.2 gigapixel images. You would need to cover about half a basketball court with 4K TV screens to display the image at full resolution.

An image will be produced every 15 seconds throughout the night, every clear night, and each patch of sky will be reimaged every three nights. That is a HUGE amount of data! ~10 Tb of data each night. Fiber optical cable will transport the data from Cerro Pachón to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Illinois, where it will be prepared for immediate use and made publicly available to any interested researcher. The amount of data is so large that no one will be downloading raw data to their local computer. They will instead be logging in to the supercomputer and all processing of the data will be done there, using open source software packages.

There are many data processing challenges with LSST data needing to be solved. Airplane, satellite, and meteor trails will need to be carefully removed. Many images will be so densely packed with overlapping objects that special care will be needed separating the various objects.

One LSST slide that Keith presented showed “Solar System Objects: ~ 6 million” and that piqued my interest, given my ongoing research program of observing stellar occultations by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects for IOTA. Currently, if you endeavor to observe the highest probability occultation events from a fixed observatory location each night, you will be lucky to record one positive event for every ten negative events (no occultation). The reason for this is that our knowledge of the orbital elements of the small bodies of the solar system is not yet precise enough to accurately predict where stellar occultation events will occur. Gaia DR3, scheduled for the latter half of 2021, should significantly improve the precision of small body orbits, and even though LSST does not have nearly the astrometric precision of Gaia, it will provide many valuable astrometric data points over time that can be used to refine orbital elements. Moreover, it is expected that LSST will discover—with its much larger aperture than Gaia—at least 10 times the number of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects that are currently known.

During the question and answer period after the lecture, I asked Keith what effect the gigantic increase in the number of satellites in Earth orbit will have on LSST operations (global broadband internet services provided by organizations like SpaceX with its Starlink constellation). He stated that this definitely presents a data processing challenge that they are still working on.

An earlier version of Keith’s presentation can be found here. All images in this article except the first (OED) come from Keith’s presentation and have not been altered in any way.

References

Bechtol, Keith, “The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, University of Wisconsin Space Place, Madison, November 12, 2019).

Bechtol, Ellen & Keith, “The Big Picture: Science and Public Outreach with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, Wednesday Night at the Lab, University of Wisconsin, Madison, April 17, 2019; University Place, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS Wisconsin).

Jones, R. L., Jurić, M., & Ivezić, Ž. 2016, in IAU Symposium, Vol. 318, Asteroids: New Observations, New Models, ed. S. R. Chesley, A. Morbidelli, R. Jedicke, & D. Farnocchia, 282–292. https://arxiv.org/abs/1511.03199 .

Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed November 17, 2019, https://www.oed.com/ .

Lost in Math: A Book Review

I recently finished reading a thought-provoking book by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. Hossenfelder writes in an engaging and accessible style, and I hope you will enjoy reading this book as much as I did. Do we have a crisis in physics and cosmology? You be the judge. She presents convincing arguments.

The basic premise of Hossenfelder’s book is that when theoretical physicists and cosmologists lack empirical data to validate their theories, they have to rely on other approaches—”beauty”, “symmetry”, “simplicity”, “naturalness“, “elegance”—mathematics. Just because these approaches have been remarkably successful in the past is no guarantee they will lead to further progress.

One structural element that contributes to the book’s appeal is Hossenfelder’s interviews with prominent theoretical physicists and cosmologists: Gian Francesco Giudice, Michael Krämer, Gordon Kane, Keith Olive, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Steven Weinberg, Chad Orzel, Frank Wilczek, Garrett Lisi, Joseph Polchinski, Xiao-Gang Wen, Katie Mack, George Ellis, and Doyne Farmer. And, throughout the book, she quotes many other physicists, past and present, as well. This is a well-researched book by an expert in the field.

I also like her “In Brief” summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. And her occasional self-deprecating, brief, soliloquies, which I find reassuring. This book is never about the care and feeding of the author’s ego, but rather giving voice to largely unspoken fears that theoretical physics is stagnating. And an academic environment hell-bent on preserving the status quo isn’t helping matters, either.

Anthropic Principle

Do we live in a universe fine-tuned for life? If so, is it the only possible universe that would support life? Recent work indicates that there may be more than one set of parameters that could lead to a life-supporting universe.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Is our sense of what is “beautiful” a reliable guide to gaining a deeper understanding of nature? Or does it sometimes lead us astray? We know from history that it does.

In the past, symmetries have been very useful. Past and present, they are considered beautiful

When we don’t have data to guide our theory development, aesthetic criteria are used. Caveat emptor.

Experiment and Theory

Traditionally, experiment and observation have driven theory. Now, increasingly, theory drives experiment, and the experiments are getting more difficult, more expensive, and more time consuming to do—if they can be done at all.

Inflation

The rapid expansion of the universe at the time of the Big Bang is known as cosmic inflation, or, simply, inflation. Though there is some evidence to support inflation, that evidence is not yet compelling.

Mathematics

Mathematics creates a logically consistent universe all its own. Some of it can actually be used to describe our physical universe. What math is the right math?

Math is very useful for describing nature, but is math itself “real”, or is it just a useful tool? This is an ancient question.

Memorable Quotations

“I went into physics because I don’t understand human behavior.” (p. 2)

“If a thousand people read a book, they read a thousand different books. But if a thousand people read an equation, they read the same equation.” (p. 9)

“In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias.” (p. 10)

On artificial intelligence: “Being unintuitive shouldn’t be held against a theory. Like lack of aesthetic appeal, it is a hurdle to progress. Maybe this one isn’t a hurdle we can overcome. Maybe we’re stuck in the foundations of physics because we’ve reached the limits of what humans can comprehend. Maybe it’s time to pass the torch.” (p. 132)

“The current organization of academia encourages scientists to join already dominant research programs and discourages any critique of one’s own research area.” (p. 170)

Multiverse

The idea that our universe of just one of a great many universes is presently the most controversial idea in physics.

Particles and Interactions

What is truly interesting is not the particles themselves, but the interactions between particles.

Philosophy

Physicists and astrophysicists are sloppy philosophers and could stand to benefit from a better understanding of the philosophical assumptions and implications of their work.

Physics isn’t Math

Sure, physics contains a lot of math, but that math has traditionally been well-grounded in observational science. Is math driving physics more than experiment and observation today?

Quantum Mechanics

Nobody really understands quantum mechanics. Everybody’s amazed but no one is happy. It works splendidly well. The quantum world is weird. Waves and particles don’t really exist, but everything (perhaps even the universe itself) is describable by a probabilistic “wave function” that has properties of both and yet is neither. Then there’s the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and quantum entanglement

Science and the Scientific Method

In areas of physics where experiments are too difficult, expensive, or impossible to do, some physicists seem to be abandoning the scientific method as the central pillar of scientific inquiry. Faith in beauty, faith in mathematics, faith in naturalness, faith in symmetry. How is this any different than religion?

If scientists can evaluate a theory using other criteria than that theory’s ability to describe observation, how is that science?

Stagnation

Some areas of physics haven’t seen any new data for decades. In such an environment, theories can and do run amok.

Standard Model (of particle physics)

Ugly, contrived, ad hoc, baroque, overly flexible, unfinished, too many unexplained parameters. These are some of the words used to describe the standard model of particle physics. And, yet, the standard model describes the elementary particles we see in nature and their interactions with extraordinary exactitude.

String Theory

String theory dates back at least to the 1970s, and its origins go back to the 1940s. To date, there is still no experimental evidence to support it. String theory is not able to predict basic features of the standard model. That’s a problem.

Triple Threat: Crises in Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology?

Physics: Sure, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN gave us the Higgs boson, but little else. No new physics. No supersymmetry particles. Embarrassments like the diphoton anomaly. Do we need a bigger collider? Perhaps. Do we need new ideas? Likely.

Astrophysics: We’ve spent decades trying to understand what dark matter is, to no avail. No dark matter particles have been found.

Cosmology: We have no testable idea as to what dark energy is. Plenty of theories, though.


See Hossenfelder’s recent comments on the LHC and dark matter in her op-ed, “The Uncertain Future of Particle Physics” in the January 23, 2019 issue of The New York Times.


The book concludes with three appendices:

  • Appendix A: The Standard Model Particles
  • Appendix B: The Trouble with Naturalness
  • Appendix C: What You Can Do To Help

Hossenfelder gives some excellent practical advice in Appendix C. This appendix is divided into three sections of action items:

  • As a scientist
  • As a higher ed administrator, science policy maker, journal editor, or representative of a funding body
  • As a science writer or member of the public

I’m really glad she wrote this book. As an insider, it takes courage to criticize the status quo.

References
Hossenfelder, S., Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Basic Books, New York (2018).
Hossenfelder, Sabine. “The Uncertain Future of Particle Physics.” The New York Times 23 Jan 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/opinion/particle-physics-large-hadron-collider.html.

What is a Vacuum?

A vacuum is not nothing.    It is only a region of three-dimensional space that is entirely devoid of matter, entirely devoid of particles.

The best laboratory vacuum contains about 25 particles (molecules, atoms) per cubic centimeter (cm3).

The atmosphere on the surface of the Moon (if you can call it that) contains a lot more particles than the best laboratory vacuum: about 40,000 particles per cm3.  This extremely tenuous lunar atmosphere is mostly made up of the “noble” gases argon, helium, and neon.

The vacuum of interplanetary space contains about 11 particles per cm3.

The vacuum of interstellar space contains about 1 particle per cm3.

The vacuum of intergalactic space contains about 10-6 particles per cm3.  That’s just 10 particles per cubic meter of space.

But what if we could remove all of the particles in a parcel of space?  And somehow shield that empty parcel of space from any external electromagnetic fields?  What would we have then?

It appears that even completely empty space has some inherent energy associated with it.  The vacuum is constantly “seething” with electromagnetic waves of all possible wavelengths, popping into and out of existence on unimaginably short time scales—allowed by Heisenberg’s energy-time uncertainly principle.  These “quantum flourishes” may be a intrinsic property of space—as is dark energy.  Dark matter, on the other hand, is some weird form of matter that exists within space, exerting gravitational influence but not interacting with normal matter or electromagnetic waves in any other way.

Is there any evidence of this vacuum energy, or is it all theoretical?  There are at least three phenomena that point to the intrinsic energy of empty space.  (1) The Casimir effect; (2) Spontaneous emission; and (3) The Lamb shift.

The Casimir effect
Take two uncharged conductive plates and put them very close to each other, just a few nanometers apart.  Only the shortest wavelengths will be able to exist between the plates, but all wavelengths will exist on the other side of the two plates.  Under normal circumstances, this will cause a net force or pressure that pushes the two plates towards one another.

Spontaneous emission
An example of spontaneous emission is an electron transitioning from an excited state to the ground state, emitting a photon.  What causes this transition to occur when it does?

The Lamb shift
The Lamb shift is a tiny shift in the energy levels of electrons in hydrogen and other atoms that can’t be explained without considering the interaction of the atom with “empty” space.

References
Reucroft, S. and Swain, J., “What is the Casimir effect?”, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-casimir-effec/.  Accessed 20 Feb 2018.

Koks,D. and Gibbs, P., “What is the Casimir effect?”, http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Quantum/casimir.html.  Accessed 20 Feb 2018.

 

Do Dark Matter and Dark Energy Exist?

Numerous searches for the particle or particles responsible for dark matter have so far come up empty.  What if dark matter doesn’t really exist?  Could there be alternative explanation for the phenomena attributed to dark matter?

In the November 10, 2017 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, Swiss astronomer André Maeder presents an intriguing hypothesis that non-baryonic dark matter need not exist, nor dark energy either.  In “Dynamical Effects of the Scale Invariance of the Empty Space: The Fall of Dark Matter?” he suggests that scale invariance of empty space (i.e. very low density) over time could be causing the phenomena we attribute to dark matter and dark energy.

What is scale invariance?  In the cosmological context, it means that empty space and its properties do not change following an expansion or contraction.  Scales of length, time, mass, energy, and so on are defined by the presence of matter.  In the presence of matter, space is not scale invariant.  But take the matter away, and empty space may have some non-intuitive properties.  The expanding universe may require adding a small acceleration term that opposes the force of gravity.  In the earlier denser universe, this acceleration term was tiny in comparison to the rate at which the expansion was slowing down, but in the later emptier universe, the acceleration term dominates.  Sound like dark energy, doesn’t it?  But maybe it is an inherent property of empty space itself.

The existence of dark matter is primarily suggested by two  observed dynamical anomalies:

  1. Flat outer rotation curve of spiral galaxies (including the Milky Way)
  2. Motions of galaxies within galaxy clusters

Many spiral galaxies have a well-known property that  beyond a certain distance from their centers, their rotation rate (the orbital velocity of stars at that distance) stays nearly constant rather than decreasing as one would expect from Keplerian motion / Newtonian dynamics (think planets orbiting the Sun in our own solar system— the farther the planet is from the Sun, the slower it orbits).  Only there seems to be evidence that the rotation curves of galaxies when they are young (as seen in the high-redshift universe) do have a Keplerian gradient, but in the present-day universe the rotation curve is flat.  So, it appears, flat rotation curves could be an age effect.  In other words, in the outer regions of spiral galaxies, stars may be orbiting at the same velocity as they did in the past when they were closer to the galactic center.  Maeder writes:

…the relatively flat rotation curves of spiral galaxies is an age effect from the mechanical laws, which account for the scale invariant properties of the empty space at large scales.  These laws predict that the circular velocities remain the same, while a very low expansion rate not far from the Hubble rate progressively extends the outer layers, increasing the radius of the Galaxy and decreasing its surface density like 1/t.

We need to study the rotation curves (as a function of galactocentric radius all the way out to the outermost reaches of the galaxy) of many more galaxies at different redshifts (and thus ages) to help us test the validity of the scale invariant vs. dark matter hypotheses.  Maeder suggests a thorough rotation study of two massive and fast-rotating galaxies, UGC 2953 (a.k.a. IC 356; 50-68 Mly) and UGC 2487 (a.k.a. NGC 1167; 219-225 Mly), would be quite interesting.

The observed motions of galaxies within many galaxy clusters seems to indicate there is a substantial amount of unseen mass within these clusters, through application of the virial theorem.  However, the motions within some galaxy clusters such as Coma (336 Mly) and Abell 2029 (1.1 Gly) may be explainable without the need to resort to “exotic” dark matter.

Then there’s the AVR (Age-Velocity Dispersion Relation) problem which, incidentally, has nothing to do with dark matter.  But it may offer evidence for the scale invariant hypothesis.  It is convenient to specify the motion of a star in a spiral galaxy such as the Milky Way in a galactocentric coordinate system.

U = component of velocity towards the galaxy center

V = component of velocity in the direction of galactic rotation

W = component of velocity orthogonal to the galactic plane

Maeder writes:

The AVR problem is that of explaining why the velocity dispersion, in particular for the W-component, considerably increases with the age of the stars considered … Continuous processes, such as spiral waves, collisions with giant molecular clouds, etc… are active in the disk plane and may effectively influence the stellar velocity distributions.  However…vertical heating (the increase of the dispersion σW) is unexpected, since the stars spend most of their lifetime out of the galactic plane.

There may be more to “empty” space than meets the eye…

References
Maeder, A., 2017, ApJ, 849, 158
arXiv:1710.11425

Cosmologically Distant Objects Appear Magnified

George F. R. Ellis writes in section 2.3.3 of his outstanding survey paper, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology:

…there is a minimum apparent size for objects of fixed physical size at some redshift zc = z depending on the density parameter and the cosmological constant.  The past light cone of the observer attains a maximum area at z; the entire universe acts as a gravitational lens for further off objects, magnifying their apparent size so that very distant objects can appear to have the same angular size as nearby ones.  For the Einstein-de Sitter universe, the minimum angular diameter is at z = 1.25; in low density universes, it occurs at higher redshifts.

Electromagnetic radiation such as visible light that we observe from a source that is in motion relative to us (the observer) experiences a change in wavelength that is given by

This is called redshift and is positive for a source that is moving away from us and negative for a source that is moving towards us.  The higher the relative speed toward or away from us, the greater the magnitude of the redshift.  Superimposed upon the kinematic velocities of individual galaxies relative to our Milky Way galaxy, since 1929 we have known that there is a cosmological redshift (called the Hubble flow) that is always positive and increasing in magnitude with increasing distance between any two galaxies.  In the nearby universe, the redshift (or blueshift) from kinematic velocities (often referred to as “peculiar velocities”) swamp the contribution from the Hubble flow, so some galaxies are actually approaching each other.  A good example of this is M31 and the Milky Way galaxy.  For more distant galaxies, however, the cosmological redshift swamps any contribution from the kinematic velocities.  Thus, redshift becomes a useful proxy for distance at cosmological distances.

From our everyday experience, we know that the further away an object is, the smaller is its angular size.  However, there comes a point where the angular size of an object reaches a minimum, and at even greater distances, its angular size increases!  As George Ellis states above, the entire universe acts as a gravitational lens to magnify distant objects.

Michael Richmond presents an equation for angular size as a function of redshift (based on some classical assumptions about the structure of the universe).  In his equation, the angular size of an object also depends upon the value we choose for H0, the Hubble constant, the matter density parameter, ΩM, and, of course, the physical size of the object of interest.

Let’s work through an example using this equation.  The visible part of the Andromeda Galaxy is estimated to be about 220,000 light years across.  In megaparsecs, that is 0.0675.  This is the value we will use for S.

For the Hubble constant, H0, let use a recent result: 71.9 km/s/Mpc.

And, for the matter density parameter, ΩM, let’s use 1.0.  This indicates that we live in a universe that has just enough matter for the universe to eventually recollapse, were it not for dark energy.  Though Richmond’s equation above only applies to a matter-dominated universe where the dark energy density parameter ΩΛ is zero, as George Ellis indicates above, a minimum angular diameter is still reached in a universe with dark-energy (i.e. low density universe), only this occurs at a higher redshift than that presented here.

I have not been able to find or derive a more general equation for angular size as a function of redshift that will work for a dark-energy-dominated universe (perhaps a knowledgeable reader will post a comment here providing some insight into this issue), but it will be a useful exercise to continue with the calculation assuming the matter-dominated Einstein-de Sitter universe.

Casting Michael Richmond’s equation into the following SAS program, I was able to find that the Andromeda galaxy would reach a minimum angular size of 11.3 arcseconds at z = 1.25, as shown below.

In principle, measuring the angular size of a “standard” object at various redshifts could allow us to determine what kind of universe we live in.  But there’s a problem.  As we look further out into space we are also looking further back in time, so there is no guarantee that a “standard” object in today’s universe (say, a spiral galaxy such as M31) would have looked the same or even existed billions of years ago.

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Richmond, Michael, Two classic cosmological tests
[http://spiff.rit.edu/classes/phys443/lectures/classic/classic.html]