Tag Archives: astronomy

Congratulations to James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz!

The 2019 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to James Peebles for work in cosmology and to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the first observation of an exoplanet.

Peebles introduced quantitative methods to cosmology. He figured out how to use the Cosmic Microwave Background (light left over from the Big Bang) to understand how matter is distributed in our universe, including the presence of still-mysterious dark matter and dark energy. Mayor and Queloz were the first team to observe a planet outside of our solar system (an “exoplanet”), in 1995. By careful measurement of the spectrum of light coming from a star they were able to find a slight wobble, caused by a Jupiter-esque planet in orbit around it. Their discovery opened the floodgates of observation. Astronomers found many more planets than expected, showing that, far from a rare occurrence, exoplanets are quite common.

It’s a bit strange that this Nobel was awarded to two very different types of research. This isn’t the first time the prize was divided between two different discoveries, but all of the cases I can remember involve discoveries in closely related topics. This one didn’t, and I’m curious about the Nobel committee’s logic. It might have been that neither discovery “merited a Nobel” on its own, but I don’t think we’re supposed to think of shared Nobels as “lesser” than non-shared ones. It would make sense if the Nobel committee thought they had a lot of important results to “get through” and grouped them together to get through them faster, but if anything I have the impression it’s the opposite: that at least in physics, it’s getting harder and harder to find genuinely important discoveries that haven’t been acknowledged. Overall, this seems like a very weird pairing, and the Nobel committee’s citation “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” is a pretty loose justification.

Still Traveling, and a Black Hole

I’m still at the conference in Natal this week, so I don’t have time for a long post. The big news this week was the Event Horizon Telescope’s close-up of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87. If you’re hungry for coverage of that, Matt Strassler has some of his trademark exceptionally clear posts on the topic, while Katie Mack has a nice twitter thread.

Pictured: Not a black hole

A LIGO in the Darkness

For the few of you who haven’t yet heard: LIGO has detected gravitational waves from a pair of colliding neutron stars, and that detection has been confirmed by observations of the light from those stars.


They also provide a handy fact sheet.

This is a big deal! On a basic level, it means that we now have confirmation from other instruments and sources that LIGO is really detecting gravitational waves.

The implications go quite a bit further than that, though. You wouldn’t think that just one observation could tell you very much, but this is an observation of an entirely new type, the first time an event has been seen in both gravitational waves and light.

That, it turns out, means that this one observation clears up a whole pile of mysteries in one blow. It shows that at least some gamma ray bursts are caused by colliding neutron stars, that neutron star collisions can give rise to the high-power “kilonovas” capable of forming heavy elements like gold…well, I’m not going to be able to give justice to the full implications in this post. Matt Strassler has a pair of quite detailed posts on the subject, and Quanta magazine’s article has a really great account of the effort that went into the detection, including coordinating the network of telescopes that made it possible.

I’ll focus here on a few aspects that stood out to me.

One fun part of the story behind this detection was how helpful “failed” observations were. VIRGO (the European gravitational wave experiment) was running alongside LIGO at the time, but VIRGO didn’t see the event (or saw it so faintly it couldn’t be sure it saw it). This was actually useful, because VIRGO has a blind spot, and VIRGO’s non-observation told them the event had to have happened in that blind spot. That narrowed things down considerably, and allowed telescopes to close in on the actual merger. IceCube, the neutrino observatory that is literally a cubic kilometer chunk of Antarctica filled with sensors, also failed to detect the event, and this was also useful: along with evidence from other telescopes, it suggests that the “jet” of particles emitted by the merged neutron stars is tilted away from us.

One thing brought up at LIGO’s announcement was that seeing gravitational waves and electromagnetic light at roughly the same time puts limits on any difference between the speed of light and the speed of gravity. At the time I wondered if this was just a throwaway line, but it turns out a variety of proposed modifications of gravity predict that gravitational waves will travel slower than light. This event rules out many of those models, and tightly constrains others.

The announcement from LIGO was screened at NBI, but they didn’t show the full press release. Instead, they cut to a discussion for local news featuring NBI researchers from the various telescope collaborations that observed the event. Some of this discussion was in Danish, so it was only later that I heard about the possibility of using the simultaneous measurement of gravitational waves and light to measure the expansion of the universe. While this event by itself didn’t result in a very precise measurement, as more collisions are observed the statistics will get better, which will hopefully clear up a discrepancy between two previous measures of the expansion rate.

A few news sources made it sound like observing the light from the kilonova has let scientists see directly which heavy elements were produced by the event. That isn’t quite true, as stressed by some of the folks I talked to at NBI. What is true is that the light was consistent with patterns observed in past kilonovas, which are estimated to be powerful enough to produce these heavy elements. However, actually pointing out the lines corresponding to these elements in the spectrum of the event hasn’t been done yet, though it may be possible with further analysis.

A few posts back, I mentioned a group at NBI who had been critical of LIGO’s data analysis and raised doubts of whether they detected gravitational waves at all. There’s not much I can say about this until they’ve commented publicly, but do keep an eye on the arXiv in the next week or two. Despite the optimistic stance I take in the rest of this post, the impression I get from folks here is that things are far from fully resolved.

Visiting Uppsala

I’ve been in Uppsala this week, visiting Henrik Johansson‘s group.


The Ångström Laboratory here is substantially larger than an ångström, a clear example of false advertising.

As such, I haven’t had time to write a long post about the recent announcement by the LIGO and VIRGO collaborations. Luckily, Matt Strassler has written one of his currently all-too-rare posts on the subject, so if you’re curious you should check out what he has to say.

Looking at the map of black hole collisions in that post, I’m struck by how quickly things have improved. The four old detections are broad slashes across the sky, the newest is a small patch. Now that there are enough detectors to triangulate, all detections will be located that precisely, or better. A future map might be dotted with precise locations of black hole collisions, but it would still be marred by those four slashes: relics of the brief time when only two machines in the world could detect gravitational waves.

Movie Review: The Truth is in the Stars

Recently, Perimeter aired a showing of The Truth is in the Stars, a documentary about the influence of Star Trek on science and culture, with a panel discussion afterwards. The documentary follows William Shatner as he wanders around the world interviewing scientists and film industry people about how Star Trek inspired them. Along the way he learns a bit about physics, and collects questions to ask Steven Hawking at the end.


I’ll start with the good: the piece is cute. They managed to capture some fun interactions with the interviewees, there are good (if occasionally silly) visuals, and the whole thing seems fairly well edited. If you’re looking for an hour of Star Trek nostalgia and platitudes about physics, this is the documentary for you.

That said, it doesn’t go much beyond cute, and it dances between topics in a way that felt unsatisfying.

The piece has a heavy focus on Shatner, especially early on, beginning with a clumsily shoehorned-in visit to his ranch to hear his thoughts on horses. For a while, the interviews are all about him: his jokes, his awkward questions, his worries about getting old. He has a habit of asking the scientists he talks to whether “everything is connected”, which to the scientists’ credit is usually met by a deft change of subject. All of this fades somewhat as the movie progresses, though: whether by a trick of editing, or because after talking to so many scientists he begins to pick up some humility.

(Incidentally, I really ought to have a blog post debunking the whole “everything is connected” thing. The tricky part is that it involves so many different misunderstandings, from confusion around entanglement to the role of strings to “we are all star-stuff” that it’s hard to be comprehensive.)

Most of the scientific discussions are quite superficial, to the point that they’re more likely to confuse inexperienced viewers than to tell them something new (especially the people who hinted at dark energy-based technology…no, just no). While I don’t expect a documentary like this to cover the science in-depth, trying to touch on so many topics in this short a time mostly just fuels the “everything is connected” misunderstanding. One surprising element of the science coverage was the choice to have both Michio Kaku giving a passionate description of string theory and Neil Turok bluntly calling string theory “a mess”. While giving the public “both sides” like that isn’t unusual in other contexts, for some reason most science documentaries I’ve seen take one side or the other.

Of course, the point of the documentary isn’t really to teach science, it’s to show how Star Trek influenced science. Here too, though, the piece was disappointing. Most of the scientists interviewed could tell their usual story about the power of science fiction in their childhood, but didn’t have much to say about Star Trek specifically. It was the actors and producers who had the most to say about Star Trek, from Ben Stiller showing off his Gorn mask to Seth MacFarlane admiring the design of the Enterprise. The best of these was probably Whoopi Goldberg’s story of being inspired by Uhura, which has been covered better elsewhere (and might have been better as Mae Jemison’s similar story, which would at least have involved an astronaut rather than another actor). I did enjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanation of how as a kid he thought everything on Star Trek was plausible…except for the automatic doors.

Shatner’s meeting with Hawking is the finale, and is the documentary’s strongest section. Shatner is humbled, even devout, in Hawking’s presence, while Hawking seems to show genuine joy swapping jokes with Captain Kirk.

Overall, the piece felt more than a little disjointed. It’s not really about the science, but it didn’t have enough content to be really about Star Trek either. If it was “about” anything, it was Shatner’s journey: an aging actor getting to hang out and chat with interesting people around the world. If that sounds fun, you should watch it: but don’t expect much deeper than that.

Simple Rules Don’t Mean a Simple Universe

It’s always fun when nature surprises you.

This week, the Perimeter Colloquium was given by Laura Nuttall, a member of the LIGO collaboration.

In a physics department, the colloquium is a regularly scheduled talk that’s supposed to be of interest to the entire department. Some are better at this than others, but this one was pretty fun. The talk explored the sorts of questions gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO can answer about the world.

At one point during the talk, Nuttall showed a plot of what happens when a star collapses into a supernova. For a range of masses, the supernova leaves behind a neutron star (shown on the plot in purple). For heavier stars, it instead results in a black hole, a big black region of the plot.

What surprised me was that inside the black region, there was an unexpected blob: a band of white in the middle of the black holes. Heavier than that band, the star forms a black hole. Lighter, it also forms a black hole. But inside?

Nothing. The star leaves nothing behind. It just explodes.

The physical laws that govern collapsing stars might not be simple, but at least they sound straightforward. Stars are constantly collapsing under their own weight, held up only by the raging heat of nuclear fire. If that heat isn’t strong enough, the star collapses, and other forces take over, so the star becomes a white dwarf, or a neutron star. And if none of those forces is strong enough, the star collapses completely, forming a black hole.

Too small, neutron star. Big enough, black hole. It seems obvious. But reality makes things more complicated.

It turns out, if a star is both massive and has comparatively little metal in it, the core of the star can get very very hot. That heat powers an explosion more powerful than a typical star, one that tears the star apart completely, leaving nothing behind that could form a black hole. Lighter stars don’t get as hot, so they can still form black holes, and heavier stars are so heavy they form black holes anyway. But for those specific stars, in the middle, nothing gets left behind.

This isn’t due to mysterious unknown physics. It’s actually been understood for quite some time. It’s a consequence of those seemingly straightforward laws, one that isn’t at all obvious until you do the work and run the simulations and observe the universe and figure it out.

Just because our world is governed by simple laws, doesn’t mean the universe itself is simple. Give it a little room (and several stars’ worth of hydrogen) and it can still surprise you.

What Space Can Tell Us about Fundamental Physics

Back when LIGO announced its detection of gravitational waves, there was one question people kept asking me: “what does this say about quantum gravity?”

The answer, each time, was “nothing”. LIGO’s success told us nothing about quantum gravity, and very likely LIGO will never tell us anything about quantum gravity.

The sheer volume of questions made me think, though. Astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology fascinate people. They capture the public’s imagination in a way that makes them expect breakthroughs about fundamental questions. Especially now, with the LHC so far seeing nothing new since the Higgs, people are turning to space for answers.

Is that a fair expectation? Well, yes and no.

Most astrophysicists aren’t concerned with finding new fundamental laws of nature. They’re interested in big systems like stars and galaxies, where we know most of the basic rules but can’t possibly calculate all their consequences. Like most physicists, they’re doing the vital work of “physics of decimals”.

At the same time, there’s a decent chunk of astrophysics and cosmology that does matter for fundamental physics. Just not all of it. Here are some of the key areas where space has something important to say about the fundamental rules that govern our world:


1. Dark Matter:

Galaxies rotate at different speeds than their stars would alone. Clusters of galaxies bend light that passes by, and do so more than their visible mass would suggest. And when scientists try to model the evolution of the universe, from early images to its current form, the models require an additional piece: extra matter that cannot interact with light. All of this suggests that there is some extra “dark” matter in the universe, not described by our standard model of particle physics.

If we want to understand this dark matter, we need to know more about its properties, and much of that can be learned from astronomy. If it turns out dark matter isn’t really matter after all, if it can be explained by a modification of gravity or better calculations of gravity’s effects, then it still will have important implications for fundamental physics, and astronomical evidence will still be key to finding those implications.

2. Dark Energy (/Cosmological Constant/Inflation/…):

The universe is expanding, and its expansion appears to be accelerating. It also seems more smooth and uniform than expected, suggesting that it had a period of much greater acceleration early on. Both of these suggest some extra quantity: a changing acceleration, a “dark energy”, the sort of thing that can often be explained by a new scalar field like the Higgs.

Again, the specifics: how (and perhaps if) the universe is expanding now, what kinds of early expansion (if any) the shape of the universe suggests, these will almost certainly have implications for fundamental physics.

3. Limits on stable stuff:

Let’s say you have a new proposal for particle physics. You’ve predicted a new particle, but it can’t interact with anything else, or interacts so weakly we’d never detect it. If your new particle is stable, then you can still say something about it, because its mass would have an effect on the early universe. Too many such particles and they would throw off cosmologists’ models, ruling them out.

Alternatively, you might predict something that could be detected, but hasn’t, like a magnetic monopole. Then cosmologists can tell you how many such particles would have been produced in the early universe, and thus how likely we would be to detect them today. If you predict too many particles and we don’t see them, then that becomes evidence against your proposal.

4. “Cosmological Collider Physics”:

A few years back, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena suggested that the early universe could be viewed as an extremely high energy particle collider. While this collider performed only one experiment, the results from that experiment are spread across the sky, and observed patterns in the early universe should tell us something about the particles produced by the cosmic collider.

People are still teasing out the implications of this idea, but it looks promising, and could mean we have a lot more to learn from examining the structure of the universe.

5. Big Weird Space Stuff:

If you suspect we live in a multiverse, you might want to look for signs of other universes brushing up against our own. If your model of the early universe predicts vast cosmic strings, maybe a gravitational wave detector like LIGO will be able to see them.

6. Unexpected weirdness:

In all likelihood, nothing visibly “quantum” happens at the event horizons of astrophysical black holes. If you think there’s something to see though, the Event Horizon Telescope might be able to see it. There’s a grab bag of other predictions like this: situations where we probably won’t see anything, but where at least one person thinks there’s a question worth asking.


I’ve probably left something out here, but this should give you a general idea. There is a lot that fundamental physics can learn from astronomy, from the overall structure and origins of the universe to unexplained phenomena like dark matter. But not everything in astronomy has these sorts of implications: for the most part, astronomy is interesting not because it tells us something about the fundamental laws of nature, but because it tells us how the vast space above us actually happens to work.