Category Archives: Astronomy

Why did so few people see Auroras on Friday night?

Why did so few people see auroras on Friday night, after all the media hype? You can see one of two reasons in the data. As I explained in my last post, you can read what happened in the data shown in the Satellite Environment Plot from this website (warning — they’re going to make new version of the website soon, so you might have to modify this info a bit.) Here’s what the plot looked like Sunday morning.

What the "Satellite Environment Plot" on swpc.noaa.gov looked like on Sunday.  Friday is at left; time shown is "Universal" time; New York time is 4 hours later. There were two storms, shown as the red bars in the Kp index plot; one occurred very early Friday morning and one later on Friday.  You can see the start of the second storm in the "GOES Hp" plot, where the magnetic field goes wild very suddenly.  The storm was subsiding by midnight universal time, so it was mostly over by midnight New York time.

What the “Satellite Environment Plot” on swpc.noaa.gov looked like on Sunday. Friday is at left.  Time shown is “Universal” time (UTC); New York time is 4 hours later at this time of year. There were two storms, shown as the red bars in the Kp index chart (fourth line); one occurred very early Friday morning and one later on Friday. You can see the start of the second storm in the “GOES Hp” chart (third line), where the magnetic field goes wild very suddenly. The storm was subsiding by midnight Universal time, so it was mostly over by midnight New York time.

What the figure shows is that after a first geomagnetic storm very early Friday, a strong geomagnetic storm started (as shown by the sharp jump in the GOES Hp chart) later on Friday, a little after noon New York time ["UTC" is currently New York + 4/5 hours], and that it was short — mostly over before midnight. Those of you out west never had a chance; it was all over before the sun set. Only people in far western Europe had good timing. Whatever the media was saying about later Friday night and Saturday night was somewhere between uninformed and out of date.  Your best bet was to be looking at this chart, which would have shown you that (despite predictions, which for auroras are always quite uncertain) there was nothing going on after Friday midnight New York time.

But the second reason is something that the figure doesn’t show. Even though this was a strong geomagnetic storm (the Kp index reached 7, the strongest in quite some time), the auroras didn’t migrate particularly far south. They were seen in the northern skies of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, but not (as far as I know) in Massachusetts. Certainly I didn’t see them. That just goes to show you (AccuWeather, and other media, are you listening?) that predicting the precise timing and extent of auroras is educated guesswork, and will remain so until current knowledge, methods and information are enhanced. One simply can’t know for sure how far south the auroras will extend, even if the impact on the geomagnetic field is strong.

For those who did see the auroras on Friday night, it was quite a sight. And for the rest of us who didn’t see them this time, there’s no reason for us to give up. Solar maximum is not over, and even though this is a rather weak sunspot cycle, the chances for more auroras over the next year or so are still pretty good.

Finally, a lesson for those who went out and stared at the sky for hours after the storm was long over — get your scientific information from the source!  There’s no need, in the modern world, to rely on out-of-date media reports.

Auroras — Quantum Physics in the Sky — Tonight?

Maybe. If we collectively, and you personally, are lucky, then maybe you might see auroras — quantum physics in the sky — tonight.

Before I tell you about the science, I’m going to tell you where to get accurate information, and where not to get it; and then I’m going to give you a rough idea of what auroras are. It will be rough because it’s complicated and it would take more time than I have today, and it also will be rough because auroras are still only partly understood.

Bad Information

First though — as usual, do NOT get your information from the mainstream media, or even the media that ought to be scientifically literate but isn’t. I’ve seen a ton of misinformation already about timing, location, and where to look. For instance, here’s a map from AccuWeather, telling you who is likely to be able to see the auroras.

Don't believe this map by AccuWeather.  Oh, sure, they know something about clouds.  But auroras, not much.

Don’t believe this map by AccuWeather. Oh, sure, they know something about clouds. But auroras, not much.

See that line below which it says “not visible”? This implies that there’s a nice sharp geographical line between those who can’t possibly see it and those who will definitely see it if the sky is clear. Nothing could be further than the truth. No one knows where that line will lie tonight, and besides, it won’t be a nice smooth curve. There could be auroras visible in New Mexico, and none in Maine… not because it’s cloudy, but because the start time of the aurora can’t be predicted, and because its strength and location will change over time. If you’re north of that line, you may see nothing, and if you’re south of it you still might see something.  (Accuweather also says that you’ll see it first in the northeast and then in the midwest.  Not necessarily.  It may become visible across the U.S. all at the same time.  Or it may be seen out west but not in the east, or vice versa.)

Auroras aren’t like solar or lunar eclipses, absolutely predictable as to when they’ll happen and who can see them. They aren’t even like comets, which behave unpredictably but at least have predictable orbits. (Remember Comet ISON? It arrived exactly when expected, but evaporated and disintegrated under the Sun’s intense stare.) Auroras are more like weather — and predictions of auroras are more like predictions of rain, only in some ways worse. An aurora is a dynamic, ever-changing phenomenon, and to predict where and when it can be seen is not much more than educated guesswork. No prediction of an aurora sighting is EVER a guarantee. Nor is the absence of an aurora prediction a guarantee one can’t be seen; occasionally they appear unexpectedly.  That said, the best chance of seeing one further away from the poles than usual is a couple of days after a major solar flare — and we had one a couple of days ago.

Good Information and How to Use it

If you want accurate information about auroras, you want to get it from the Space Weather Prediction Center, click here for their main webpage. Look at the colorful graph on the lower left of that webpage, the “Satellite Environment Plot”. Here’s an example of that plot taken from earlier today:

The "Satellite Environment Plot" from earlier today; focus your attention on the two lower charts, the one with the red and blue wiggly lines (GOES Hp) and on the one with the bars (Kp Index).  How to use them is explained in the text.

The “Satellite Environment Plot” from earlier today; focus your attention on the two lower charts, the one with the red and blue wiggly lines (GOES Hp) and on the one with the bars (Kp Index). How to use them is explained in the text.

There’s a LOT of data on that plot, but for lack of time let me cut to the chase. The most important information is on the bottom two charts. Continue reading

BICEP2’s Cosmic Polarization: Published, Reduced in Strength

I’m busy dealing with the challenges of being in a quantum superposition, but you’ve probably heard: BICEP2’s paper is now published, with some of its implicit and explicit claims watered down after external and internal review. The bottom line is as I discussed a few weeks ago when I described the criticism of the interpretation of their work (see also here).

  • There is relatively little doubt (but it still requires confirmation by another experiment!) that BICEP2 has observed interesting polarization of the cosmic microwave background (specifically: B-mode polarization that is not from gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization; see here for more about what BICEP2 measured)
  • But no one, including BICEP2, can say for sure whether it is due to ancient gravitational waves from cosmic inflation, or to polarized dust in the galaxy, or to a mix of the two; and the BICEP2 folks are explicitly less certain about this, in the current version of their paper, than in their original implicit and explicit statements.

And we won’t know whether it’s all just dust until there’s more data, which should start to show up in coming months, from BICEP2 itself, from Planck, and from other sources. However, be warned: the measurements of the very faint dust that might be present in BICEP2’s region of the sky are extremely difficult, and the new data might not be immediately convincing. To come to a consensus might take a few years rather than a few months.  Be patient; the process of science, being self-correcting, will eventually get it straight, but not if you rush it.

Sorry I haven’t time to say more right now.

The BICEP2 Dust-Up Continues

The controversy continues to develop over the interpretation of the results from BICEP2, the experiment that detected “B-mode” polarization in the sky, and was hailed as potential evidence of gravitational waves from the early universe, presumably generated during cosmic inflation. [Here's some background info about the measurement].

Two papers this week (here and here) gave more detailed voice to the opinion that the BICEP2 team may have systematically underestimated the possible impact of polarized dust on their measurement.  These papers raise (but cannot settle) the question as to whether the B-mode polarization seen by BICEP2 might be entirely due to this dust — dust which is found throughout our galaxy, but is rather tenuous in the direction of the sky in which BICEP2 was looking.

I’m not going to drag my readers into the mud of the current discussion, both because it’s very technical and because it’s rather vague and highly speculative. Even the authors of the two papers admit they leave the situation completely unsettled.  But to summarize, the main purpose and effect of these papers seems to be this:

Continue reading

A Bright Flash in the Neighborhood

NOTE ADDED: FALSE ALARM!  DISREGARD! HERE’S SWIFT’S DETAILED EXPLANATION AS TO WHY! with my own brief summary below.

Comparable in size to the Milky Way, our host galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy is the most distant object easily visible (in dark skies) to the naked eye; it lies 2.5 million light-years away.  About 2.5 million years ago, something in this distant star city went “boom”.  And in doing so it flashed, brightly, in high-energy photons — particles of light (or, more precisely, particles of electromagnetic radiation, of which visible light is just an example) — photons that carry many thousands of times more energy than do the photons that our eyes are designed to see.

File:Andromeda Galaxy (with h-alpha).jpg

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo from Creative Commons), which contains perhaps 100 billion stars or more. Something in here exploded a while back, and we just found out about it.

Some of these photons, after traveling for millions of years across space, arrived at Earth this afternoon.  They showed up in the Swift satellite’s telescopes, which are designed precisely to notice these things.  And Swift’s telescopes identified these photons as arriving from a location somewhere within Andromeda… within a globular cluster of stars, a tightly-knit neighborhood within the city that is Andromeda.  NOTE ADDED: Actually, a combination of low-probability events caused

  • a false alarm, of a sort that’s rare but not unexpected: a known object in Andromeda that emits X-rays appeared to brighten, as a result of electronic noise in Swift’s instruments (such noise is always present, in all scientific instruments, and it is normal to occasionally get a strong burst of it)
  • followed (due perhaps to a poorly-timed computer problem at Swift’s data center, which slowed the arrival of more complete information the Swift people know why but haven’t explained it in detail) by a delay in identifying this apparent brightening as a false alarm;

all of which is explained here.  The apparent brightening, which was rather mild, would in fact have been completely disregarded if it hadn’t occurred in Andromeda; for relatively nearby objects like Andromeda, the Swift team sets a low threshold for false alarms, because something real would be so amazingly important and exciting that we can’t afford to miss it. 

What caused this colossal explosion, perhaps the nearest of its type ever observed by modern astronomers?  That is the burning question that astronomers, and their friends in gravitational physics and particle physics, are aching to know.  It is likely that by tomorrow morning, and certainly within the next couple of days, we’ll know much more… perhaps we’ll even learn something of great importance.  NOTE ADDED: And indeed, we know.

For the moment, though, there’s lots of guessing, most all of which will turned out to be wrong.  (Maybe, some are speculating, this is a gamma-ray burst, perhaps caused by a merger of two neutron stars, with consequent bursts of neutrinos and gravitational waves that we might detect; but right now there’s no evidence for this, so don’t get your hopes up.)  You can read many breathless articles by following the Twitter hashtag #GRBm31.  Admittedly you might be better off without it.  NOTE ADDED: Yep.

But do stay tuned as the facts emerge.  The opportunity to observe such a nearby explosion is rare.  So this is certainly going to be interesting… and maybe, if we’re very lucky, it will be more than merely interesting…

NOTE ADDED: Actually, we were very unlucky, and it was completely uninteresting —except as an illustration that it can be very difficult, in the heat of a moment when data is sparse, to distinguish between something scientifically fascinating and a weird fluke.  Scientists do expect these things to happen sometimes.  Fortunately, science is self-correcting.  Even if Swift’s team hadn’t identified this signal as a fluke in their data, other telescopes would have been unable to find the object they’d identified, and doubts would quickly have emerged as a result.  If something’s real, everyone will see it.  

The lesson, in my view, is that when new scientific results are announced, be patient.  Give the experts a little time to check things, and don’t do science the way Twitter does.

And finally: if you are inclined to criticize the Swift team, you’re making a big mistake.  On the contrary, they did exactly what they were supposed to do, as quickly as they could.  Gamma-ray bursts [GRBs] are extremely rare and extremely valuable and extremely brief; Swift’s job is to let the scientific community know, as quickly as possible, that one may have been seen, so that others may look at it.  Inevitably, someone with such a job will occasionally give a false alarm.  Swift has discovered so many GRB’s, and made so many direct and indirect contributions to our knowledge about them and about other objects in the sky, that scientists, while disappointed that this was a false alarm, will certainly not view Swift as irresponsible.  

A week ago, regarding BICEP2’s results coming into question, Seth Zenz wrote a nice, short article on Why, in Science, it’s OK to be Wrong.  I recommend it.

Dark Matter Debates

Last week I attended the Eighth Harvard-Smithsonian Conference on Theoretical Astrophysics, entitled “Debates on the Nature of Dark Matter”, which brought together leading figures in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics. Although there wasn’t much that was particularly new, it was a very useful conference for taking stock of where we are. I thought I’d bring you a few selected highlights that particularly caught my eye. Continue reading

Will BICEP2 Lose Some of Its Muscle?

A scientific controversy has been brewing concerning the results of BICEP2, the experiment that measured polarized microwaves coming from a patch of the sky, and whose measurement has been widely interpreted as a discovery of gravitational waves, probably from cosmic inflation. (Here’s my post about the discovery, here’s some background so you can understand it more easily. Here are some of my articles about the early universe.)  On the day of the announcement, some elements of the media hailed it as a great discovery without reminding readers of something very important: it’s provisional!

From the very beginning of the BICEP2 story, I’ve been reminding you (here and here) that it is very common for claims of great scientific discoveries to disappear after further scrutiny, and that a declaration of victory by the scientific community comes much more slowly and deliberately than it often does in the press. Every scientist knows that while science, as a collective process viewed over time, very rarely makes mistakes, individual experiments and experimenters are often wrong.  (To its credit, the New York Times article contained some cautionary statements in its prose, and also quoted scientists making cautionary statements.  Other media outlets forgot.)

Doing forefront science is extremely difficult, because it requires near-perfection. A single unfortunate mistake in a very complex experiment can create an effect that appears similar to what the experimenters were looking for, but is a fake. Scientists are all well-aware of this; we’ve all seen examples, some of which took years to diagnose. And so, as with any claim of a big discovery, you should view the BICEP2 result as provisional, until checked thoroughly by outside experts, and until confirmed by other experiments.

What could go wrong with BICEP2?  On purely logical grounds, the BICEP2 result, interpreted as evidence for cosmic inflation, could be problematic if any one of the following four things is true:

1) The experiment itself has a technical problem, and the polarized microwaves they observe actually don’t exist.

2) The polarized microwaves are real, but they aren’t coming from ancient gravitational waves; they are instead coming from dust (very small grains of material) that is distributed around the galaxy between the stars, and that can radiate polarized microwaves.

3) The polarization really is coming from the cosmic microwave background (the leftover glow from the Big Bang), but it is not coming from gravitational waves; instead it comes from some other unknown source.

4) The polarization is really coming from gravitational waves, but these waves are not due to cosmic inflation but to some other source in the early universe.

The current controversy concerns point 2. Continue reading

Modern Physics: Increasingly Vacuous

One of the concepts that’s playing a big role in contemporary discussions of the laws of nature is the notion of “vacua”, the plural of the word “vacuum”. I’ve just completed an article about what vacua are, and what it means for a universe to have multiple vacua, or for a theory that purports to describe a universe to predict that it has multiple vacua. In case you don’t want to plunge right in to that article, here’s a brief summary of why this is interesting and important.

Outside of physics, most people think of a vacuum as being the absence of air. For physicists thinking about the laws of nature, “vacuum” means space that has been emptied of everything — at least, emptied of everything that can actually be removed. That certainly means removing all particles from it. But even though vacuum implies emptiness, it turns out that empty space isn’t really that empty. There are always fields in that space, fields like the electric and magnetic fields, the electron field, the quark field, the Higgs field. And those fields are always up to something.

First, all of the fields are subject to “quantum fluctuations” — a sort of unstoppable jitter that nothing in our quantum world can avoid.  [Sometimes these fluctuations are referred to as ``virtual particles''; but despite the name, those aren't particles.  Real particles are well-behaved, long-lived ripples in those fields; fluctuations are much more random.] These fluctuations are always present, in any form of empty space.

Second, and more important for our current discussion, some of the fields may have average values that aren’t zero. [In our own familiar form of empty space, the Higgs field has a non-zero average value, one that causes many of the known elementary particles to acquire a mass (i.e. a rest mass).] And it’s because of this that the notion of vacuum can have a plural: forms of empty space can differ, even for a single universe, if the fields of that universe can take different possible average values in empty space. If a given universe can have more than one form of empty space, we say that “it has more than one vacuum”.

There are reasons to think our own universe might have more than one form of vacuum — more than just the one we’re familiar with. It is possible that the Standard Model (the equations used to describe all of the known elementary particles, and all the known forces except gravity) is a good description of our world, even up to much higher energies than our current particle physics experiments can probe. Physicists can predict, using those equations, how many forms of empty space our world would have. And their calculations show that our world would have (at least) two vacua: the one we know, along with a second, exotic one, with a much larger average value for the Higgs field. (Remember, this prediction is based on the assumption that the Standard Model’s equations apply in the first place.)  An electron in empty space would have a much larger mass than the electrons we know and love (and need!)

The future of the universe, and our understanding of how the universe came to be, might crucially depend on this second, exotic vacuum. Today’s article sets the stage for future articles, which will provide an explanation of why the vacua of the universe play such a central role in our understanding of nature at its most elemental.