Sunday, November 04, 2007

Readings: Cosmology and astrophysics, 4 November 2007

The text following each item is quoted material, except for editorial comments, which are in color.

FSU physicist shining a light on mysterious 'dark matter'
"Recent scientific breakthroughs have shown that most of the matter in the universe—about four-fifths—is not made up of atoms, but of something else, called 'dark matter,'" said Howard Baer, FSU's J.D. Kimel Professor of Physics. "The evidence for dark matter is now overwhelming, and the required amount of dark matter is becoming precisely known." ...

A theoretical physicist, Baer employs mathematical models and calculations, as opposed to experimental methods, in an attempt to understand the basic properties of dark matter. To that end, he travels frequently to CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, located on the border between France and Switzerland. At CERN, teams of physicists from all over the world are preparing for the start-up of what will be the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in 2008. With the LHC, they will conduct experiments that seek to solve some of the fundamental mysteries of science, including the identity of dark matter. In addition to searches at the LHC, the hunt for dark matter is progressing at experiments deep underground in Minnesota, under thick Antarctic ice, and even in outer space.

Another piece in the dark matter puzzle
“We took one specific theory about dark matter,” Riemer-Sørensen explains. “We look at a specific type of decaying particles, and if they represent dark matter, they will decay and transform into photons in x-rays.” The particles in question are axions, hypothetical elementary particles used in theories describing “extra” dimensions. The idea, she says, is to look for an area of the universe that has a great deal of dark matter, and then look for weak x-ray emissions. ...

So, did Riemer-Sørensen and her colleagues find the weak dark matter x-ray emissions? “We didn’t find any clear signs of x-ray emissions from axions in these regions,” she says. “And that tells us something about dark matter.” If dark matter particles do follow the reactions of decay set forth in the theory of axions as dark matter, then dark matter has an extraordinarily long lifetime. “If dark matter does decay,” Riemer-Sørensen insists, “then the lifetime of the axions is at least three million billion years, which is twenty thousand times longer than the lifetime of the universe.”

Can this experiment identify dark matter?
“Many experiments and observations all point to the existence of some form of matter that is different from the ordinary matter that makes up starts, planets and even people,” Bertone explains. Because dark matter is so prevalent in the universe, many scientists are interested in better understanding its role in fundamental physics, as well as the formation of the universe. “There are efforts to clarify the nature of dark matter.”

Bertone explains that there are three main approaches to detecting dark matter particles, which are likely to be weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). The first, he says, is an earthbound method using particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider due to go online at CERN next year. “Scientists hope to find particles in accelerators that could be like the dark matter found in the rest of the universe.”

The next method of detection is one of indirect observation. Looking out into space, Bertone says, scientists “look for some signal due to interaction of particles amongst themselves.”

The strategy set forth in the article belongs to the third approach, which is to build a large detector and wait for a dark matter particle to interact with ordinary matter. “To show the power of this technique, we focused on an experiment called COUPP [Chicagoland Observatory for Underground Particle Physics]” Bertone says. “It is a bubble chamber, much like what has been used before in other fields.”

In the dark: science still mystified by stuff of universe
Most of the universe -- 96 percent, to be exact -- is made of dark matter and energy whose composition we simply do not fathom, a Nobel laureate told physicists gathered this week to explore the intersection of the infinitely small and the infinitely large. ...

Most physicist attending the conference here on astroparticle physics think the basic ingredient is probably some as-yet undiscovered elementary particle, a relic of the "Big Bang" that created the Universe around 13 billion years ago.

The favored candidate is the neutralino, a "supersymmetric" particle whose existence has yet to be proven. But the hunt in underway, using both direct and indirect methods, including experiments to be conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland.

Over the next decade, explained Katsanevas, scientists will be tackling three big questions besides dark matter: the origin of cosmic rays, the existence of gravitational waves, and the mass of neutrinos, which have provided the first solid evidence of phenomena beyond what is called the Standard Model of particle physics.

Astronomers Aim to Shine Light on Universe's 'Dark Energy'
In nearly a decade since it was discovered, a mysterious cosmic feature dubbed "dark energy" has lain like a downed redwood across the path of scientists trying to reach the holy grail of physics – a fundamental theory of matter and its basic forces. ...

"After about 10 years it's clear [dark energy] is not going away.... We have to really figure out what this is," Riess says. The past decade also has shown that "dark energy lives at the crossroads of two of our best theories of physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity."

A successful marriage of quantum theory and gravity is the last major hurdle in demonstrating that the basic four forces of nature – gravity, electromagnetism, and weak and strong forces that operate at the subatomic level – are manifestations of a single force that dominated the universe in the first few fractions of a second after the big bang. With dark energy, "nature is giving us a hint of how it does quantum gravity," Riess says.

Hubble Telescope: Solved and Unsolved Mysteries
Beyond snapping extraordinary pictures of faraway nebulas, the revolutionary Hubble Space Telescope has completely transformed our view of the universe since it was launched in 1990. By capturing the clearest, deepest images of the cosmos ever, Hubble has shed light on some long-standing mysteries perplexing scientists-while uncovering far deeper ones that have yet to be solved. ...

Dark energy has prompted new theories regarding the origin of the universe, such as one where clashing membranes of reality trigger endless cycles of cosmic death and rebirth, as well as the fate of the universe, raising the possibility that dark energy ends the universe in a Big Rip. Future progress on understanding dark energy's nature will likely require a dedicated dark energy space mission, "for sometime in the middle of the next decade, perhaps," Leckrone said.

The other mysteries mentioned in the article involve dark matter, gamma-ray bursts, direct imaging of extrasolar planets, and protoplanetary disks. These are all issues which can be studied by more or less conventional optical or infrared telescopes – much like Hubble, only more powerful. There is also a need for a more powerful ultraviolet-sensitive telescope, which is not currently even part of NASA's agenda. Although the descriptions of the "mysteries" in the article are sketchy, there are links to additional information.

Is the universe a doughnut?
Later work by Neil Cornish of Case Western University, David Spergel of Princeton University, and Glenn Starkman of the University of Maryland extended this technique to consider a wider range of possible topologies. Such a method has been applied to the WMAP results, examining the possibility that it could have a complex topology— not a toroid perhaps, but rather a dodecahedron (a bit like a soccer ball, but with all sides equivalent in size and shape). Although preliminary data (analysed in 2003) seemed to rule out this model, more recent looks at the WMAP findings have revived the idea that if you venture far enough out into space you'll return to your starting point. Hence Homer's doughnut theory may have at least a sprinkling of truth: the universe could indeed have loops.

This is a pretty good article for an overview of the shape of the universe, in spite of its facetious premise (that a cartoon world can be effectively used to explain highly technical cosmology). The genre, of popular TV shows used as points of embarcation into explanations of scientific topics, is growing. First there was The Physics of Star Trek, which is not too surprising a connection. But The Physics of the Buffyverse? And now, in effect, physics according to Homer Simpson? Having read only the first of these, I don't know that these aren't all quite good books. But what this trend says about our culture... I don't really want to go there.

However, if Robert Gilmore can write physics books based on such metaphorical worlds as those of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol, or Grimms' Fairy Tales, ... well, why not? Perhaps we need someone to write books of physics based on The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy? And while we're at it, let's not leave out the physics of the Niebelungenlied and the Mahabharata. I can hardly wait.

Why the Universe is All History
Some galaxies are so remote that their light hasn't had sufficient time to reach us yet, despite about 13.7 billion years of travel. There could also be more distant objects that will forever remain unknown to us.

"Because the universe is expanding and the expansion appears to be accelerating, there may be distant galaxies which if we can't see them now because their light has not had time to reach us, we will never see," Stecker said.

So we can never see the universe as it is, only as it was at various stages of its development.

New-School 'Aether' May Shed Light on Neutron Stars
Among scientists, it is widely believed that there is no such thing as an aether – a medium pervading all space that allows light waves to propagate, similar to how sound needs air or water – but a part of its spirit may live on. A group of University of Maryland (UM) physicists have proposed a modern spin on the aether of old and have used it to make new predictions about the behavior of neutron stars. ...

The UM researchers – Christopher Eling, Ted Jacobson, and Coleman Miller – describe their aether as a preferred state of rest at each point of spacetime. This preferred state would not be the result of something known, such as a gravitational field or cosmic background radiation, but may, they say, arise from the structure of empty space in quantum gravity theory. ...

The UM team use the new aether to make concrete predictions about neutron stars that differ from those generated by general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity. The group's calculations show that the maximum mass of neutron stars would be smaller than in general relativity and the increase in wavelength, or “redshift,” experienced by photons emitted from the stars' surfaces must be 10 percent larger.

Predicting Planets
Discovering new planets that orbit distant stars has become commonplace. But now a team of astronomers has managed to predict the orbit of an extrasolar planet — before anyone knew for certain that it existed. The last time that happened was more than 150 years ago. ...

The more-recently discovered planet is known by a rather-less-elegant name: HD 74156d. It is a gas giant, slightly more massive than Saturn, orbiting a sun-like star about 65 parsecs (212 light-years) away. Its orbit was predicted in 2004 by Rory Barnes and Sean Raymond, theoretical astronomers then at the University of Washington in Seattle. Three years later, Jacob Bean, an astronomer now at the Georg-August-Universitaet in Goettingen, Germany, announced that he had found the planet, pretty much where Barnes and Raymond said it would be.

Lonely Planets of the Cosmos
A brief letter in Nature was John Debes's inspiration. The 1999 piece, by David J. Stevenson (Caltech), proposed that planets with liquid water oceans — and even life — could exist in the cold, dark depths of interstellar space far from any star. Based on the knowledge that some fraction of planets must get gravitationally ejected from their systems during the systems' formation, the paper theorized that some of these ejected planets could, with enough internal heat, keep their atmospheres and stay warm enough to support liquid water below a thick frozen crust.

What might happen if such an outcast had a big moon? To find out, Debes (at the Carnegie Institution of Washington) ran 2,700 computer simulations based on an Earth-mass planet and a lunar-mass companion.

The Enduring Mysteries of the Sun
The sun lies at the heart of our solar system, but it still holds back many secrets from science. Unlocking these mysteries could shed light on puzzling activity seen in other stars and even safeguard lives.

It's surprising how much we don't understand about stars – from either theory or observation – considering that we live so close to one.

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