What’s Going On With Black Holes?

Should I consider it ominous that, for the past week, my most popular post has been something I wrote 17 months ago about two black holes colliding in space?

Apparently, if this were to happen,

….space and time shift, density becomes infinite and time can come to a standstill.

Folks, it only feels like that sometimes.  But if you’re having black hole collision panic, let me know and we can discuss it.

Dinosaurs: Hard to Kill

It took a lot more than just one meteor slamming into Mexico to wipe out the big lizards, it turns out:

There’s growing evidence that the dinosaurs and most their contemporaries were not wiped out by the famed Chicxulub meteor impact, according to a paleontologist who says multiple meteor impacts, massive volcanism in India, and climate changes culminated in the end of the Cretaceous Period.

The Chicxulub impact may, in fact, have been the lesser and earlier of a series of meteors and volcanic eruptions that pounded life on Earth for more than 500,000 years, say Princeton University paleontologist Gerta Keller and her collaborators Thierry Adatte from the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, and Zsolt Berner and Doris Stueben from Karlsruhe University in Germany. A final, much larger and still unidentified impact 65.5 million years ago appears to have been the last straw, exterminating two thirds of all species in one of the largest mass extinction events in the history of life. It’s that impact — not Chicxulub — which left the famous extraterrestrial iridium layer found in rocks worldwide that marks the impact that finally ended the Age of Reptiles.

“The Chicxulub impact could not have caused the mass extinction,” says Princeton University paleontologist Gerta Keller, “because this impact predates the mass extinction and apparently didn’t cause any extinctions.”

deccan-flood-basalts.jpgThe climate changes, caused in part by greenhouse gases released from “prolonged and massive eruptions” of the Deccan Flood Basalts in India, were pretty extreme: Oceans 3 or 4 degrees warmer, and land temperatures 7 or 8 degrees warmer, 20,000 years before, and 100,000 years after, the Chicxulub meteor struck. Marine life was affected by growing smaller and reproducing more offspring — to increase the odds for survival. Tropical species were on the edge of extinction. Then there was another huge meteor impact, comparable to the first. Where did that meteor strike? Scientists don’t know, although some are suggesting a 500-kilometer-wide crater in India might be a remnant of it.

You Are There…When Two Galaxies Collide and a Million Stars are Born

“This new NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the Antennae galaxies is the sharpest yet of this merging pair of galaxies,” according to Universetoday.com. “During the course of the collision, billions of stars will be formed. The brightest and most compact of these star birth regions are called super star clusters.”


The two spiral galaxies started to interact a few hundred million years ago, making the Antennae galaxies one of the nearest and youngest examples of a pair of colliding galaxies. Nearly half of the faint objects in the Antennae image are young clusters containing tens of thousands of stars. The orange blobs to the left and right of image center are the two cores of the original galaxies and consist mainly of old stars criss-crossed by filaments of dust, which appears brown in the image. The two galaxies are dotted with brilliant blue star-forming regions surrounded by glowing hydrogen gas, appearing in the image in pink.


Nothing Better than Griffith Observatory

Is there any public space in Los Angeles more wonderful than Griffith Observatory? griffith5.jpg

It is an architectural gem set against a cliff overlooking a vast expanse of Los Angeles. It is a celebration of a branch of science, astronomy, to which Southern California can stake a proud claim. In a few weeks, it will reopen after a five-year renovation project, but because our friends Todd & Robin Mason have gained the affection of both the scientific and science-history communities in this area, they were invited to a preview opening Sunday morning — and let my wife and me tag along.

The Masons are finalizing a documentary, “Journey to Palomar,” the story of George Ellery Hale’s creation of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Telescopes that profoundly expanded humankind’s understanding of the universe, beginning with Edwin Hubble’s first observations of  the universe’s expansion, which led to the development of the Big Bang theory that is now almost universally accepted. The Mason’s documentary will be one of the films you can see at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon, a new theater that the “Star Trek” actor and his wife made possible.

As will the public after November 3, we met a shuttle bus on the Orange Street side of Hollywood and Highland and presented our tickets there. The Observatory will accept visitors via a registration system, but as before the renovation, admission will be free. Waiting for the bus gave us a minute to check out the old Grauman’s Chinese Theater:gloria-swansons-handprints.jpg

We arrived to hear a talk from a volunteer who was clearly excited and proud of what had been done to bring the observatory back — and asked us not to take pictures of the few still-uncompleted details. Rather than going into the front door, which is what past visitors are familiar with, we were guided down a flight of stairs on the observatory’s west side, which leads to a new exhibit area — the Gunther Depths of Space, which covers a lot of information — our solar system and what we know about each of the planets; the stars, galaxies and nebulae; and “The Big Picture,” a 152 x 20 foot image of the “cosmic wilderness” — the Virgo cluster of stars and galaxies.

Here is what the Gunther room looks like:



And here is a detail from “The Big Picture,” which in its entirety shows you a million stars. Each lighted object on this image represents not a star, but an entire galaxy:


Upstairs, you’ll find some of the exhibits you recall, such as Foucault’s Pendulum, and the arresting murals in the rotunda, all nicely restored and probably augmented. But for me, when I got to this floor, I was less focused on the scientific information, and more on the sheer artistry of the building, indoors and out:


You probably remember this monument that depicts Gallileo and Copernicus and other early explorers of the heavens:


…and the walkways around the domes, up on the roof, opening up fantastic views of the city…



…as well as beautiful little architectural details like this:


I am really grateful we got to see this. It felt like a pilgrimage to the L.A. of old, the city and region with a spirit of adventure and discovery–a better place and a better time than L.A. now. But Griffith Observatory is here now, so the present-day is ennobled by it.

(Photo credits: From the top, #1 and #9 are by Todd Mason; #2-8 and #10 are by yours truly. And I hope the volunteers at Griffith Observatory will note that everything shown here is ready for public consumption!)

Ball of Fire*

A big meteorite hit Norway last week — with a force equivalent to the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. From Aftenposten:

A-Meteoritt_6sek_j_410790h.jpgAt around 2:05 a.m. on Wednesday, residents of the northern part of Troms and the western areas of Finnmark could clearly see a ball of fire taking several seconds to travel across the sky.

A few minutes later an impact could be heard and geophysics and seismology research foundation NORSAR registered a powerful sound and seismic disturbances at 02:13.25 a.m. at their station in Karasjok.

Farmer Peter Bruvold was out on his farm in Lyngseidet with a camera because his mare Virika was about to foal for the first time.

"I saw a brilliant flash of light in the sky, and this became a light with a tail of smoke," Bruvold told Aftenposten.no. He photographed the object and then continued to tend to his animals when he heard an enormous crash.

"I heard the bang seven minutes later. It sounded like when you set off a solid charge of dynamite a kilometer (0.62 miles) away," Bruvold said.

Very little news about this, even on the long-tailed Internet. Sure, Troms is a remote area, north of the Arctic Circle. But: It's one planet. While a meteorite landing two-thirds of a mile from a farmer in the frozen north might seem like a faraway event, something like this could happen, and a global catastrophe would be the result.

If an asteroid crashes into the Earth, it is likely to splash down somewhere in the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet's surface. Huge tsunami waves, spreading out from the impact site like the ripples from a rock tossed into a pond, would inundate heavily populated coastal areas. A computer simulation of an asteroid impact tsunami developed by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows waves as high as 400 feet sweeping onto the Atlantic Coast of the United States.

The researchers based their simulation on a real asteroid known to be on course for a close encounter with Earth eight centuries from now. Steven Ward, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCSC, and Erik Asphaug, an associate professor of Earth sciences, report their findings in the June issue of the Geophysical Journal International.

March 16, 2880, is the day the asteroid known as 1950 DA, a huge rock two-thirds of a mile in diameter, is due to swing so close to Earth it could slam into the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 miles per hour. The probability of a direct hit is pretty small, but over the long timescales of Earth's history, asteroids this size and larger have periodically hammered the planet, sometimes with calamitous effects. The so-called K/T impact, for example, ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"From a geologic perspective, events like this have happened many times in the past. Asteroids the size of 1950 DA have probably struck the Earth about 600 times since the age of the dinosaurs," Ward said.

Here's a link to the simulation. Have a nice day!

*UPDATE 6-12-06: The "Hiroshima" comparison was made by an astronomer at the University of Oslo, Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard. However, another Norwegian scientist disputes him:

Truls Lynne Hansen of the Northern Lights Observatory (Nordlysobservatoriet) in Tromsø disputes Røed Ødegaard's description, calling it an exaggeration.

"Our atmosphere is peppered with small stones from outer space all the time," Hansen told newspaper Aftenposten. "Most burn up and disappear, but some land here."

He thinks that what hit northern Norway last week was a stone weighing around 12 kilos (about 26 pounds). "Out in space it generated enormous speed, but after entering our atmosphere its tempo eased," Hansen said. "This kind of meteorite isn't radioactive and it's not glowing when it hits the ground."


In the same article, Aftenposten runs a somewhat inscrutable photo of the supposed impact site:Norway meteorite impact site.jpg

Surf’s Up

gravitational waves.jpg

If you ponder the mysteries of the universe, check out morning’s LA Times story about LIGO – the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Caltech operates in Hanford, Washington and an identical twin managed by MIT in Livingston, Louisiana — which scientists hope will allow them to demonstrate the truth of Einstein’s theory that “large bodies moving through space would give off waves of gravity, traveling at light speed, that would shrink and expand space-time itself.”

After Einstein, our conception of the universe changed. It is not empty space, it is a fabric. Space, and everything occupied by space, can be bent and stretched by waves of gravity, which Times’ author John Johnson Jr. likens to the ripples from a spoon stirring milk, or the indentation a bowling ball would make on a trampoline.

Today, such waves exist only in theory, the product of cosmic events like supernovas or pairs of neutron stars whipping through each others’ orbit and then smashing into each other.

According to theory, if our planet came close to the source of a gravitational wave, Earth would stretch to twice its normal size, then shrink in half before returning to its original shape — a scenario worthy of a Road Runner cartoon. Have no fear, however. The waves that could reach Earth are very weak, too weak to be measured — until last November when LIGO “reached a level of sensitivity at which (Caltech physicist Kip S. Thorne) and other experts believe they might detect waves.”

Here’s how Johnson describes what’s involved for LIGO to measure gravitational waves:

Down a twisting side road, LIGO appears out of the Russian cheatgrass and mustard plants, a bulky apparition with two tubes extending at right angles into the desert.

LIGO sites.jpgThe 2.4-mile-long tentacles are the heart of LIGO. They are at right angles so that incoming gravity waves will shrink one arm while lengthening the other. An identical facility sits in a forest in southern Louisiana, so that the readings made at one observatory can be cross-checked almost 2,000 miles away.


Inside the arms is a laser interferometer, which works by splitting a laser beam and sending one of the two resulting beams down each arm. The beams then bounce around 100 times on a set of mirrors before being sent back to a photodetector.

The two beams should recombine at exactly the same time since they travel an identical distance.

But if a gravity wave passes by, the beams will be thrown off as the arms are alternately stretched and squeezed.

Detecting such a minute signal has required extraordinary steps.
Because the site had to be as flat as possible, satellites were used to survey the land, which was eventually graded to within three-eighths of an inch over five miles.

To get around the problem of air molecules shaking the mirrors, workers sucked the air out of the tubes down to a billionth of an atmosphere. But that still wasn’t good enough to make sure the speed of light would be constant throughout the tubes. So the team had to get the tubes down to a trillionth of an atmosphere.

The surface of the four 10-inch mirrors in the arms is so smooth it doesn’t vary by more than 30-billionths of an inch. Thirty control systems keep the lasers and mirrors in alignment. The vibration isolation system is so sophisticated, the only thing approaching it is the mechanics used by semiconductor chip makers to etch circuits on the chips.

Read the whole thing.

The Heroes of Palomar

At the end of the special showing of "The Journey to Palomar" at Cal-Tech Friday, the applause was long and loud. The auditorium was mostly comprised of men and women who looked to be in their 60s, 70s and 80s. My family was there because the documentary film was the labor of love of two of my best friends, Todd and Robin Mason.

Hale.jpgIt was the first public showing of a completed version of the film — a film whose progress my wife and I have tracked for about five years. The subject is George Ellery Hale, a solar astronomer who was also an impresario of astronomical science, the man without whom the giant telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar would never have been built.

As told by the Masons, Hale's story has elements of P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein and "A Beautiful Mind." Hale was the son of a Chicago industrialist, and he brought to his scientific endeavors an entrepreneurial zeal one generally does not associate with astrophysicists.

Among Hale's patrons were Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, President Woodrow Wilson. Hale was not afraid to shake down these powerhouses of politics and captains of industry for the money needed for his projects — for the development of Cal Tech itself, and for the telescopes that would eventually validate the idea of an expanding universe, measure the immensity of the universe and the distance between galaxies, and discover such faraway phenomena as quasars, the unimaginably bright objects hundreds of millions of light years away that devour suns by the thousands.

Palomar-1.jpgThe centerpiece of the story is the Palomar Observatory, for decades the largest telescope on earth with its legendary 200-inch diameter mirror. The final decades of Hale's life were dedicated to the creation of this great tool of discovery, beginning with his success in persuading an offshoot of the Rockefeller foundation to fund a telescope of this size in 1928.

The observatory was not completed until 1948, ten years after Hale's death.

Particularly fascinating is the story of its enormous mirror, which was made from Pyrex by Corning Glass Works in a process that gives a whole new definition to the word "arduous." There's a little PR story in all this. The nation got very excited about this mirror, and followed its saga from the New York-based factory's giant ladles full of superheated molten glass, to its cross-country trainride to Pasadena for polishing, to its climb up Mt. Palomar to be placed in the telescope structure where it is still used today.

Imagine it: People lined up alongside the train tracks to watch this huge mirror packaged for travel go rolling by. Platforms were built at Corning to allow VIPs to see the glass being poured. It was a publicity bonanza for Corning, although, as the film shows, they finally had to remove the audience to allow the workmen to concentrate on the mirror.

Hale put everything on the line to make the Palomar Observatory a reality — including his sanity. To use terminology of the times, Hale suffered from neurasthenia, which probably referred to a combination of extreme stress and chronic fatigue syndrome. Hale is presented in the documentary as a man of great charm, energy and persuasive power, but the effort to maintain that luminous personality caused several nervous breakdowns, frightening hallucinations, and periods during which Hale retreated from the whirlwind of activity he himself had created.

I knew the film was going to be great, having had pieces of it screened in my living room or on my computer over the past few years. But seeing it whole, with a gray-haired audience at Cal Tech, was unexpectedly moving. To most Americans, Hale is a forgotten man — hence the need for "Journey to Palomar." To the 300 500 people in the audience Friday, I imagine Hale is a kind of saint, an icon of the religion of science.

Hale is one of that small group of men — along with Einstein, Lemaitre, Hubble, Gamow, Friedemann, to drop a few names — who gave us our understanding of the universe and, in doing so, answered (for some of us) the fundamental questions that religion tries to address: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?

Some of these great scientists answered these questions theoretically, using mathematical equations. Others found answers through observations of the sky that penetrated the veils of time — all the time that has ever existed. For many years, Hale's telescope at Palomar was the essential tool for making those observations, and discovering the answers to those ancient questions. It was a great scientific achievement, but also a colossal, exhausting feat of schmoozing and cajoling to make it happen.

caltech.jpgHence, the long, loud applause by the Cal Tech alums. In their youth, I imagine some of them spent cold nights at Palomar, a mountain in San Diego County just a little west of the Anza-Borrego desert. Or they helped with research, performed critical calculations, or analyzed spectroscopic data for red-shift.

Today's astrophysicists stand on the shoulders of giants, but the ladies and gentlemen at I met Friday at Cal-Tech stood by their sides, and lifted these giants skyward. I felt very grateful that Todd and Robin had done so much to honor what they had accomplished in their paean to George E. Hale.

P.S.: The story of 20th Century astronomy is very much a California story, in particular a Pasadena story. California ought to have a holiday to honor our state's proud heritage as a center of scientific understanding. I don't mean another day off for ski weekends — I mean a day when everyone, especially students, would be encouraged to learn about California's legacy of scientific achievement, and pay homage to the men and women who worked, mostly in obscurity, to bring them about. It would be great if each year's celebration included a showing of "Journey to Palomar" on public television.

Separated at Birth

110972main_star_binary.jpgWe're twins, and we didn't even know it! From Science Blog:

The Binary Research Institute (BRI) has found that orbital characteristics of the recently discovered planetoid, "Sedna", demonstrate the possibility that our sun might be part of a binary star system. A binary star system consists of two stars gravitationally bound orbiting a common center of mass. Once thought to be highly unusual, such systems are now considered to be common in the Milky Way galaxy.

Walter Cruttenden at BRI, Professor Richard Muller at UC Berkeley, Dr. Daniel Whitmire of the University of Louisiana, amongst several others, have long speculated on the possibility that our sun might have an as yet undiscovered companion. Most of the evidence has been statistical rather than physical. The recent discovery of Sedna, a small planet like object first detected by Cal Tech astronomer Dr. Michael Brown, provides what could be indirect physical evidence of a solar companion. Matching the recent findings by Dr. Brown, showing that Sedna moves in a highly unusual elliptical orbit, Cruttenden has determined that Sedna moves in resonance with previously published orbital data for a hypothetical companion star.

What's the Binary Research Institute? It's a scientific research organization based in Newport Beach "formed in 2001 to support and fund research regarding the hypothesis that the Sun is part of a binary star system. It is the goal of the Binary Research Institute to present evidence for this theory, showing that the motion of the sun along a binary orbital path can result in and better explain" various phenomena such as the Earth's wobbling rotation, and help us understand the movement of our solar system through the Milky Way.

walter cruttenden.jpgIts founder is Walter W. Cruttenden, a private investor, amateur astronomer and archeoastronomer. (I must admit, his organization's name makes me a little suspicious. It's one thing to begin a scientific inquiry with a hypothesis, but if I founded the "Life on Mars Institute," wouldn't that insert bias into the whole enterprise? Just asking.)

If our Sun has a partner, shouldn't we be able to see it? Not necessarily. According to the Institute,

there could be a dark binary, such as a brown dwarf or possibly a relatively small black hole, either of which might be very difficult to detect, without accurate and lengthy analysis.

Beyond direct detection – one way to determine if we are in a binary system is to see if the Sun is curving through space. To us on Earth that means we should experience a gradual “changing orientation to inertial space.” Such a phenomenon is observed as the precession of the equinox.

Precession of the equinox refers to the fact that the stars are fixed, but over a 25,800-year period, their position in the sky relative to Earth completes a cycle. Lots of guesses as to why, but no firm findings. The Institute believes our Sun's secret friend might explain it. 

If this hypothesis is true, it would be big news to us, but it wouldn't be all that remarkable. Many easily observable stars are part of binary systems. Our partner might be very far away, completing a distant orbit — a dancer on the other side of the ballroom. And, as suggested above, it might not be visible. Black holes don't emit light, and brown dwarves cannot sustain nuclear fusion and thus burn only dimly.

Being followed by something big that we can't see…a paranoia-inducing concept! Somehow I'm reminded of my misspent youth, when police cars sometimes followed my pals and me in the wee hours with their lights off, only to reveal themselves at the last minute to determine if we were up to no good. (Fortunately, we were all choirboys, pure at heart.)

“When Two Black Holes Collide, Space Shivers Like Jello.”

It's all over the news: NASA has simulated what happens when two black holes collide. This is a case, however, where the visual doesn't convey the magnitude of the achievement. Words do. From CNet (via ZDNet):

When two black holes collide, space shivers like Jell-O. With the help of a supercomputer to simulate this event, NASA seeks to prove Albert Einstein's theories and unveil universe's secrets.

The NASA supercomputer Columbia just performed its largest astrophysical calculation ever; a 3D simulation of two black holes merging. "This merger is a cataclysmic event, second only to the Big Bang in the amount of energy it produces," Joan Centrella, chief of the NASA Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory in Greenbelt, Md., said Tuesday in a press teleconference.

NASA called the successful simulation a breakthrough in the observation of black holes, as well as the understanding of the entire universe. In fact, NASA claims that it might even provide the ultimate proof for Einstein's theory of general relativity.

And from ScienceBlog,

Previous simulations had been plagued by computer crashes. The necessary equations, based on Einstein's theory of general relativity, were far too complex. But scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have found a method to translate Einstein's math in a way that computers can understand.

"These mergers are by far the most powerful events occurring in the universe, with each one generating more energy than all of the stars in the universe combined. Now we have realistic simulations to guide gravitational wave detectors coming online," said Joan Centrella, head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory at Goddard.

The simulations were performed on the Columbia supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif. This work appears in the March 26 issue of Physical Review Letters and will appear in an upcoming issue of Physical Review D. The lead author is John Baker of Goddard.

Similar to ripples on a pond, gravitational waves are ripples in space and time, a four-dimensional concept that Einstein called spacetime. They haven't yet been directly detected.

Gravitational waves hardly interact with matter and thus can penetrate the dust and gas that blocks our view of black holes and other objects. They offer a new window to explore the universe and provide a precise test for Einstein's theory of general relativity. The National Science Foundation's ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and the proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, a joint NASA – European Space Agency project, hope to detect these subtle waves, which would alter the shape of a human from head to toe by far less than the width of an atom.

Black hole mergers produce copious gravitational waves, sometimes for years, as the black holes approach each other and collide. Black holes are regions where gravity is so extreme that nothing, not even light, can escape their pull. They alter spacetime. Therein lies the difficulty in creating black hole models: space and time shift, density becomes infinite and time can come to a standstill. Such variables cause computer simulations to crash.

einstein.jpgIf he were alive today, I suppose Einstein would be unsurprised by this. He would also note that he didn't use a computer to figure it out.