Comments of the Week #80: From sunlight to the most fundamental particles

“In the world of the very small, where particle and wave aspects of reality are equally significant, things do not behave in any way that we can understand from our experience of the everyday world...all pictures are false, and there is no physical analogy we can make to understand what goes on inside atoms. Atoms behave like atoms, nothing else.” -John Gribbin

No matter how much you've experienced in this world, there are some properties of the Universe that will still never be intuitive. Here at Starts With A Bang, we don't shy away from any of it; we embrace it all! This past week, here's what we've covered:

I also had a controversial new piece over at Forbes:

Our Patreon is cooking, the first podcast is being planned, and we're getting close enough to the next goal that I've started talking to a graphic designer for a Starts With A Bang artifact! We've always got time to address what you have to say, though, so let's head into our Comments of the Week!

Image credit: Don Dixon of http://cosmographica.com/. Image credit: Don Dixon of http://cosmographica.com/.

From DJ on instantaneous sunlight: "Thank you for answering my question. The spirit was basically just to see if the surface being hot alone generates any light at all, as opposed to any nuclear fusion taking place there, so I’d call that a “yes” too, though from what you say it’s minuscule compared to all that light from the core."

It's actually very interesting: the energy that causes the surface to heat up pretty much all comes from the core, and the light emitted by the photosphere comes about because of the high energy/temperature of the particles inside. But they emit their own light, and practically all of that comes from the surface being that hot. The corona, mind you, gets literally all of it from being as hot as it is.

Image credit: Miloslav Druckmüller (Brno University of Technology), Martin Dietzel, Peter Aniol, Vojtech Rušin. Image credit: Miloslav Druckmüller (Brno University of Technology), Martin Dietzel, Peter Aniol, Vojtech Rušin.

As a follow-up, when the next total solar eclipse occurs, yes, you can watch it with your naked eye, but only during totality. Don't look at the "Bailey's beads" with your naked eye or any other part of the Sun, even for just a few seconds! The memory of that sight may or may not last a lifetime, but fried eyeballs are forever.

From PJ on the surface of the Moon: "I tend to look at baby steps first to work out the safety aspects of such a project.
Hope they take plenty of potato’s with them as in “The Martian”."

It's important to recognize that figuring out how to survive on a longer-term basis on another world is still, at best, a work-in-progress. But one of the spectacular things we have about the Moon that we don't yet have about Mars? We have pieces of it -- huge pieces of it -- that the Apollo missions retrieved and brought back to Earth.

While we may need to "take potatoes with us" to Mars, we also may not. After all, did you hear that there was an experiment where they took Moon rocks, crushed them up, and tried to grow things in them?

Image credit: N. Kozyrovska / I. Zaetz. Image credit: N. Kozyrovska / I. Zaetz.

These are marigolds, some of the hardiest flowering plants on Earth, growing in lunar soil with bacteria added (left two) and without (right). If we can grow something in lunar soil, maybe growing our own food on Mars isn't out of the question!

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/multimedia/ero/ero_ngc6302.html. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/multimedia/ero/ero_ngc6302.html.

From jvj24601 on the Butterfly nebula: "The article did not explain how the star ended up the way it has, which was promised in the lead in. It just described the nebula."

All stars that form planetary nebulae undergo the same basic series of processes:

  • they expand after their hydrogen-core-burning phase is complete,
  • with the core contracting and heating until helium fusion ignites,
  • then the helium exhausts and the core contracts further,
  • at which point the star begins to pulse,
  • with fusion periodically re-igniting,
  • slowly shedding their outer layers from the intense increase in radiation,
  • and finally the core begins contracting down to a white dwarf.

What makes this object -- like all pre-degenerate stars -- special is that helium fusion re-ignites much later than normal, which allows them to have a mixture of carbon-and-oxygen-rich signatures in the nebulae (seen in the Butterfly nebula), and much, much hotter central stars (up to ~200,000 K) than common white dwarfs. That is how it ended up this way... we think.

Image credit: Perimeter Institute. Image credit: Perimeter Institute.

From Paul Bigham on Neil Turok's lecture: "Even a physics amateur like myself can glean enough out of the experience to be amazingly infectiously enthralled. Thanks for letting me sit in, I enjoyed it a great deal."

There was some speculation on social channels that I had something personally against Neil, which is not the case. We've never met, and I have no personal reasons for disliking him. I do have some professional reasons for thinking his conclusions are sometimes way off base and that his reasoning is specious under a number of circumstances, but with the exception of a few things -- mostly crammed into the final few minutes of his talk -- there was nothing that was outright wrong. Most of his talk was historical and about the development of physics.

Image credit: screenshot from the Perimeter Institute talk on my live blog here: https://medium.com/starts-with-a-bang/live-blog-event-the-astonishing-simplicity-of-everything-1720c2bd9232. Image credit: screenshot from the Perimeter Institute talk on my live blog here: https://medium.com/starts-with-a-bang/live-blog-event-the-astonishing-s….

I think all of it is a wonderful story, and I think there are many different aspects to focus on and ways to tell it, all of which can be outstanding. Neil's perspective is different from my own, but I'm glad you enjoyed his presentation, too!

Image credit: Perimeter Institute. Image credit: Perimeter Institute.

From Ragtag Media on his own... behavior, I guess: "“making grand predictions, pronouncements and statements, yet with little evidence to back them up”
Oh Goody, Can I join In?"

It's very, very easy in this day and age to dismiss someone you disagree with -- especially on the internet -- as merely a troll. Some argumentative tactics that people use are off-putting and offensive, and sometimes people do this on purpose. Sometimes we're sarcastic, sometimes we're condescending, and sometimes we simply overstep our bounds, either accidentally or purposefully.

I guess I just liked this comment because it expressed a degree of self-awareness about the silliness of some of it that I don't often see. And it made me smile. So thanks.

Image credit: John Sarkissian (CSIRO Parkes Observatory). Image credit: John Sarkissian (CSIRO Parkes Observatory).

From Sinisa Lazarek on SMBH mergers: "What is the time window that we expect gravitational waves to be emitted at a frequency detectable by the antennas?"

Gravitational waves are interesting things. When two compact masses orbit each other close-in, there's a periodic "rippling" signature they leave in spacetime. The antennae, based on their separation, should be able to see frequencies during the final stages of inspiral: when the orbital period of the two black holes is comparable to the light-travel-time distance between the antennae. It isn't millions of years or even many years: the frequencies are only "right" during the seconds (maybe minutes) leading up to the actual merger, once the black holes are already inside the mutual event horizon.

Which is crazy! All of this happens so fast that you really need an event to occur during your window, and if we haven't had one in the last 11 years, we've got nothing to see. So it is possible -- and potentially, the simplest explanation -- that we just haven't gotten lucky, and none of these merger events have occurred since we've been watching.

Update: Thanks to Michael Kelsey's comment here:

"But your article was about the Parkes radio observatory using a pulsar timing array to look for SMBH mergers. In that case, they’re looking for correlated timing variations from pulsars across the sky. The wavelengths involved are many light-years, and hence the characteristic frequences are nanohertz! Those frequencies kick in much earlier in the inspiral, and last for months or years before enough energy is radiated away to start ramping up the chirp."

I realized I've made a horrible mistake. What this is looking at is long-period, many-weeks to year-long-esque orbits of two supermassive black holes around one another, giving frequencies not of hertz but of micro-to-nanohertz. These long period ripples in space...

Image credit: NASA / LISA. Image credit: NASA / LISA.

will cause slight timing variations depending on whether the lower-mass black hole in the merger pair is moving "towards" us or "away from" us, relative to our point of view. At least, that's what the best models of these mergers tell us. Now, it's a difficult measurement to make:

  • it takes 20-50 pulsars to pull out a nanosecond timing difference,
  • which requires two many-million SMBHs in a binary orbit,
  • of less than one year's period.

This is extremely difficult, because this is likely already inside the black holes' mutual event horizon. This doesn't mean gravitational waves can't get out, but it does present a possible source of difficulty. In any case, they haven't seen what they expected, so there could be a whole host of explanations, but that's the type of event they're looking for! It'll be interesting to see, when we have longer-baseline observations (in terms of time), if OJ 287 shows up.

Image credit: CERN / CMS collaboration, via LHC’s outreach campaign. Image credit: CERN / CMS collaboration, via LHC’s outreach campaign.

And finally, from MK McGee on the usefulness of theoretical physics: "Stop scientists from continuing their straw man defenses of theoretical physics. We don’t need fantastical defenses, we need creative approaches to reality science that are directly justifiable through their usefulness to the planet and its human presence."

There is nothing more offensive to a scientist than a sentiment like this. Even See Noevo's equivocations don't get me like this statement does. Why? Because this is basically a call for all of us to stop dreaming and stop thinking about the unknown and what might be. It's a call to end fundamental searches into the scientific frontiers, and instead to focus all of our efforts on technology, engineering and using what we've already learned for good.

Image credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Image credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As it is, we spend a "whopping" less than 3% of GDP on all forms of research and development in this country. All of them. This includes all the things you advocate: things directly justifiable to the planet and the humans on it, things that are useful to humanity in the near-term, right now.

You know that's already where the vast, vast majority of all R&D goes, right?

Image credit: National Science Foundation / Hagit Bachrach. Image credit: National Science Foundation / Hagit Bachrach.

So over half of R&D goes to the military, over a quarter goes to directly improving the health of humanity and our shared habitat, and the leftovers -- the less-than-a-quarter-of-the-less-than-3% -- is what you want to get rid of.

Never mind the fact that it was that investment -- in the research that we didn't know how it was going to pan out -- that gave us things like relativity, nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, modern electronics, spaceflight, computers, the internet, and pretty much every convenience you enjoy today. Right?

My point is that if we were all as short-sighted as this, MK McGee, if we always said, "this-less-than-1%-is-too-much," we wouldn't have any of the useful things you want to invest in even more.

Images credit: Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Images credit: Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

My advice to you? Go rob someone else.

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Etan, it seems that you missed the point regarding MK McGee's comment. He doesn't specifically talk about that there should be less budget for science. I think we all can agree that more money should go to science in general. What I read on his site was:

"Some empirically unconfirmed or inconclusively confirmed theories in the field have nevertheless attained a high degree of trust among their exponents and are de facto treated as well established theories."

I guess that it is a valid argument. At what point does 'science' crosses over into pure fiction and metaphysics? It makes me think about Lee Smolin's en Peter Woit's critiques on String Theory, there are a couple more of this type of discussions.

The question here might be, in which direction do we steer our youngsters, are some of the current theories/ideas worth all the attention, it also makes me thing about your own critics one super-symmetry.

Sometimes it's good to question the leadership and have an open discussion about the paths that are chosen. Professors mostly decide what research gets a chance and funding, and mostly it is inline with what the work they did themselves, the need to continue the legacy in a sense.

The same goes for new and bigger particle accelerators, is it worth the investment in this sort of science when you have reached your limitations as discussed here in a previous article. Maybe science benefits more from providing a lot more supercomputers to the availability of students ...

I guess his comment wasn't so much about not allowing to dream but a request for a kind of reality check, at least that's how I interpreted that comment. I might be wrong though.

By Paul Dekous (not verified) on 10 Oct 2015 #permalink

Another way to describe science/engineering/technology is as a pyramid, with fundamental research as the pointy top. As you go down the pyramid the amount of material at a given level goes up. Not much of the mass is at the top. So obviously you'd expect the vast majority of people working on the project to be working on the lower not-so-fundamental levels. That doesn't mean the top levels aren't important too, just that the effort requires a balanced effort supporting all levels appropriately.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 10 Oct 2015 #permalink

I guess his comment wasn’t so much about not allowing to dream but a request for a kind of reality check, at least that’s how I interpreted that comment. I might be wrong though.

I'd have to disagree. His wording was not as blunt as that if the couple others who posted and said, quite clearly, that fundamental research shouldn't be funded, but his comments about the researchers having too much say in what they do indicated to me that he meant precisely the same thing.

Diminishing the importance of science, if not completely dismissing it, is in vogue in many circles. I think McGee is near the center of those circles.

@Ethan: I'm a bit confused by your reply to Sinisa's question about SMBH mergers, in the context of your article about the pulsar timing array.

Your response talks about "the antennas" themselves, and "the final seconds" of the merger. The issue of the antenna size comes in with direct GW detection, like LIGO, VIRGO, et al. In that case, you're looking for GW frequencies of order hertz, and you're quite right that you only get those frequencies during the very final chirp of the merger, and typically the merger of neutron stars or stellar-mass black holes.

But your article was about the Parkes radio observatory using a pulsar timing array to look for SMBH mergers. In that case, they're looking for correlated timing variations from pulsars across the sky. The wavelengths involved are many light-years, and hence the characteristic frequences are nanohertz! Those frequencies kick in much earlier in the inspiral, and last for months or years before enough energy is radiated away to start ramping up the chirp.

You are the astrophysicist, not me. What I've written above is my understanding of how PTAs work. If I've missed something, I really hope you'll clarify and correct my description. Thanks!

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 10 Oct 2015 #permalink

Michael @5, you are correct, and I have made a horrible mistake. Please check out the corrected (updated) version above, and see if that clears things up a little.

@Ethan #6: Thanks, Ethan! It's a relief to know I wasn't completely mixed up :-)

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 11 Oct 2015 #permalink

@Ethan

Your statement "As it is, we spend a “whopping” less than 3% of GDP on all forms of research and development in this country. All of them." is completely untrue you communist. We live in a capitalist country and the aggregate R&D budgets of the evil corporations here in our country dwarf the Government R&D budget. People who do not have government jobs are still part of 'we'. The vast majority of engineers I know are employed in the private sector. Apple, Amazon, Google, Intel, and Microsoft had a combined R&D budget over $50 billion, and that is just 5 companies.

Denier, do you have a point here? Is isn't clear (no surprise) what business your "communist" comment has there.

Plus also this bit: "We live in a capitalist country and the aggregate R&D budgets of the evil corporations here in our country dwarf the Government R&D budget"

Is bullshit. To take one example, most medical research for basic processes are done in universities. What *business* R&D includes mostly is the testing to get it proved safe for human use. Not research, really.

But they still spend far more on marketing than they do on their R&D.

Of course, they will happily suck off the government teat to get the juicy research done for them, then take the results and privatise the profits.

Thank you for addressing my question. And thank you Michael as well for pointing the sub-question and info on that.

Much obliged.:)

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 12 Oct 2015 #permalink

@Wow #10 wrote:

To take one example, most medical research for basic processes are done in universities. What *business* R&D includes mostly is the testing to get it proved safe for human use. Not research, really.

That may be the way it works in the UK, which is why you guys invent almost nothing medially speaking. The biotech sector in the US alone is far larger than all the medical research spending by all the worlds governments combined. Roche (yes, I know they are Swiss), Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck combined for almost $40 Billion USD in R&D spending last year.

@dean #9 wrote:

Denier, do you have a point here? Is isn’t clear (no surprise) what business your “communist” comment has there.

You really need that explained? It was a jab at the obvious oversight in neglecting to include private sector research into the aggregate sum. The statement was meant to suggest that Ethan made the gaffe due to being more versed in economic systems that do not have to take the private sector into account. It was meant in good fun, but the statement as he wrote it is demonstrably false.

The communist bit was the misleading point. And the
"We" used by Ethan was perfectly justified talking in his context. "We" don't contribute to research done in the corporate world.

"That may be the way it works in the UK,"

No, that is the way it works in the USA.

And I guess that Solyndra, having spent more than any other business in the solar industry on their R&D for the years they were attempting to create their product indicates they should be given even more money, right? Since it doesn't matter about anything other than how much you spend.

"And it made me smile. So thanks."
Perhaps that is my calling, to bring joy and goodness to mankind. :)

By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

@Wow #16 wrote

“The biotech sector in the US alone is far larger than all the medical research spending by all the worlds governments combined.”

Pity their results suck compared to this:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3078313/Cuba-offers-breakthroug…

Heh. @Wow, you should put your money where your mouth is. The next time you get sick, make sure to tell your health care provider that you only want to be treated by medicines, techniques, and medical devices that were developed in Cuba.

"Heh. @Wow, you should put your money where your mouth is."

Why?

Why don't YOU put YOUR money where your mouth is? And prove whatever it is that that is supposed to prove.

That would mean no vaccinations, no surgery, no anasthetic. I think all you'd get to keep is "Pray for your wounds to heal". And I'm not too sure about that.

The only constraint on scientists that follows from McGill's point is that they must pursue theories that PREDICT.

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

"There was some speculation on social channels that I had something personally against Neil, which is not the case. We’ve never met, and I have no personal reasons for disliking him"

You've no reason to dislike *him* but reasons to dislike and have something against his *position*, are available to you. You may or may not be tapping those available reasons. Your commentary suggests that you are, but that may be a misreading on my part.
The reasons are of course that he rejects theories with 'infinities' installed, not for robustness as in Mathematics, but as fundamental explanatory components without which the theory, in many cases, falls apart.
He rejects that, and rejection of that is now represented by a camp, around which it is this principle that they come to.

Another camp does have infinities situated in this way. I perceive you are a member of that camp. And science is dysfunctional at the current time, at the level of camps, in context of inter-camp relations. Certainly people in one camp appear now to routinely seek to discredit people arguing for the other. Discredit. I.e. by foul, not scientific or rational, means.

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink