In Memory of Joe Polchinski, the Brane Master

This week, the community of high-energy physicists — of those of us fascinated by particles, fields, strings, black holes, and the universe at large — is mourning the loss of one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, Joe Polchinski. It pains me deeply to write these words.

Everyone who knew him personally will miss his special qualities — his boyish grin, his slightly wicked sense of humor, his charming way of stopping mid-sentence to think deeply, his athleticism and friendly competitiveness. Everyone who knew his research will feel the absence of his particular form of genius, his exceptional insight, his unique combination of abilities, which I’ll try to sketch for you below. Those of us who were lucky enough to know him both personally and scientifically — well, we lose twice.

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Polchinski — Joe, to all his colleagues — had one of those brains that works magic, and works magically. Scientific minds are as individual as personalities. Each physicist has a unique combination of talents and skills (and weaknesses); in modern lingo, each of us has a superpower or two. Rarely do you find two scientists who have the same ones.

Joe had several superpowers, and they were really strong. He had a tremendous knack for looking at old problems and seeing them in a new light, often overturning conventional wisdom or restating that wisdom in a new, clearer way. And he had prodigious technical ability, which allowed him to follow difficult calculations all the way to the end, on paths that would have deterred most of us.

One of the greatest privileges of my life was to work with Joe, not once but four times. I think I can best tell you a little about him, and about some of his greatest achievements, through the lens of that unforgettable experience.

[To my colleagues: this post was obviously written in trying circumstances, and it is certainly possible that my memory of distant events is foggy and in error.  I welcome any corrections that you might wish to suggest.]

Our papers between 1999 and 2006 were a sequence of sorts, aimed at understanding more fully the profound connection between quantum field theory — the language of particle physics — and string theory — best-known today as a candidate for a quantum theory of gravity. In each of those papers, as in many thousands of others written after 1995, Joe’s most influential contribution to physics played a central role. This was the discovery of objects known as “D-branes”, which he found in the context of string theory. (The term is a generalization of the word `membrane’.)

I can already hear the Lee Smolins and Peter Woits of the world screaming at me. ‘A discovery in string theory,’ some will shout, pounding the table, ‘an untested theory that’s not even wrong, should not be called a discovery in physics.’ Pay them no mind; they’re not even close, as you’ll see by the end of my remarks.

The Great D-scovery

In 1989, Joe, working with two young scientists, Jin Dai and Rob Leigh, was exploring some details of string theory, and carrying out a little mathematical exercise. Normally, in string theory, strings are little lines or loops that are free to move around anywhere they like, much like particles moving around in this room. But in some cases, particles aren’t in fact free to move around; you could, for instance, study particles that are trapped on the surface of a liquid, or trapped in a very thin whisker of metal. With strings, there can be a new type of trapping that particles can’t have — you could perhaps trap one end, or both ends, of the string within a surface, while allowing the middle of the string to move freely. The place where a string’s end may be trapped — whether a point, a line, a surface, or something more exotic in higher dimensions — is what we now call a “D-brane”.  [The `D’ arises for uninteresting technical reasons.]

Joe and his co-workers hit the jackpot, but they didn’t realize it yet. What they discovered, in retrospect, was that D-branes are an automatic feature of string theory. They’re not optional; you can’t choose to study string theories that don’t have them. And they aren’t just surfaces or lines that sit still. They’re physical objects that can roam the world. They have mass and create gravitational effects. They can move around and scatter off each other. They’re just as real, and just as important, as the strings themselves!


Fig. 1: D branes (in green) are physical objects on which a fundamental string (in red) can terminate.

It was as though Joe and his collaborators started off trying to understand why the chicken crossed the road, and ended up discovering the existence of bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, and jet aircraft.  It was that unexpected, and that rich.

And yet, nobody, not even Joe and his colleagues, quite realized what they’d done. Rob Leigh, Joe’s co-author, had the office next to mine for a couple of years, and we wrote five papers together between 1993 and 1995. Yet I think Rob mentioned his work on D-branes to me just once or twice, in passing, and never explained it to me in detail. Their paper had less than twenty citations as 1995 began.

In 1995 the understanding of string theory took a huge leap forward. That was the moment when it was realized that all five known types of string theory are different sides of the same die — that there’s really only one string theory.  A flood of papers appeared in which certain black holes, and generalizations of black holes — black strings, black surfaces, and the like — played a central role. The relations among these were fascinating, but often confusing.

And then, on October 5, 1995, a paper appeared that changed the whole discussion, forever. It was Joe, explaining D-branes to those of us who’d barely heard of his earlier work, and showing that many of these black holes, black strings and black surfaces were actually D-branes in disguise. His paper made everything clearer, simpler, and easier to calculate; it was an immediate hit. By the beginning of 1996 it had 50 citations; twelve months later, the citation count was approaching 300.

So what? Great for string theorists, but without any connection to experiment and the real world.  What good is it to the rest of us? Patience. I’m just getting to that.

What’s it Got to Do With Nature?

Our current understanding of the make-up and workings of the universe is in terms of particles. Material objects are made from atoms, themselves made from electrons orbiting a nucleus; and the nucleus is made from neutrons and protons. We learned in the 1970s that protons and neutrons are themselves made from particles called quarks and antiquarks and gluons — specifically, from a “sea” of gluons and a few quark/anti-quark pairs, within which sit three additional quarks with no anti-quark partner… often called the `valence quarks’.  We call protons and neutrons, and all other particles with three valence quarks, `baryons”.   (Note that there are no particles with just one valence quark, or two, or four — all you get is baryons, with three.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, physicists discovered short-lived particles much like protons and neutrons, with a similar sea, but which  contain one valence quark and one valence anti-quark. Particles of this type are referred to as “mesons”.  I’ve sketched a typical meson and a typical baryon in Figure 2.  (The simplest meson is called a “pion”; it’s the most common particle produced in the proton-proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider.)



Fig. 2: Baryons (such as protons and neutrons) and mesons each contain a sea of gluons and quark-antiquark pairs; baryons have three unpaired “valence” quarks, while mesons have a valence quark and a valence anti-quark.  (What determines whether a quark is valence or sea involves subtle quantum effects, not discussed here.)

But the quark/gluon picture of mesons and baryons, back in the late 1960s, was just an idea, and it was in competition with a proposal that mesons are little strings. These are not, I hasten to add, the “theory of everything” strings that you learn about in Brian Greene’s books, which are a billion billion times smaller than a proton. In a “theory of everything” string theory, often all the types of particles of nature, including electrons, photons and Higgs bosons, are tiny tiny strings. What I’m talking about is a “theory of mesons” string theory, a much less ambitious idea, in which only the mesons are strings.  They’re much larger: just about as long as a proton is wide. That’s small by human standards, but immense compared to theory-of-everything strings.

Why did people think mesons were strings? Because there was experimental evidence for it! (Here’s another example.)  And that evidence didn’t go away after quarks were discovered. Instead, theoretical physicists gradually understood why quarks and gluons might produce mesons that behave a bit like strings. If you spin a meson fast enough (and this can happen by accident in experiments), its valence quark and anti-quark may separate, and the sea of objects between them forms what is called a “flux tube.” See Figure 3. [In certain superconductors, somewhat similar flux tubes can trap magnetic fields.] It’s kind of a thick string rather than a thin one, but still, it shares enough properties with a string in string theory that it can produce experimental results that are similar to string theory’s predictions.


Fig. 3: One reason mesons behave like strings in experiment is that a spinning meson acts like a thick string, with the valence quark and anti-quark at the two ends.

And so, from the mid-1970s onward, people were confident that quantum field theories like the one that describes quarks and gluons can create objects with stringy behavior. A number of physicists — including some of the most famous and respected ones — made a bolder, more ambitious claim: that quantum field theory and string theory are profoundly related, in some fundamental way. But they weren’t able to be precise about it; they had strong evidence, but it wasn’t ever entirely clear or convincing.

In particular, there was an important unresolved puzzle. If mesons are strings, then what are baryons? What are protons and neutrons, with their three valence quarks? What do they look like if you spin them quickly? The sketches people drew looked something like Figure 3. A baryon would perhaps become three joined flux tubes (with one possibly much longer than the other two), each with its own valence quark at the end.  In a stringy cartoon, that baryon would be three strings, each with a free end, with the strings attached to some sort of junction. This junction of three strings was called a “baryon vertex.”  If mesons are little strings, the fundamental objects in a string theory, what is the baryon vertex from the string theory point of view?!  Where is it hiding — what is it made of — in the mathematics of string theory?


Fig. 4: A fast-spinning baryon looks vaguely like the letter Y — three valence quarks connected by flux tubes to a “baryon vertex”.  A cartoon of how this would appear from a stringy viewpoint, analogous to Fig. 3, leads to a mystery: what, in string theory, is this vertex?!

[Experts: Notice that the vertex has nothing to do with the quarks. It’s a property of the sea — specifically, of the gluons. Thus, in a world with only gluons — a world whose strings naively form loops without ends — it must still be possible, with sufficient energy, to create a vertex-antivertex pair. Thus field theory predicts that these vertices must exist in closed string theories, though they are linearly confined.]


The baryon puzzle: what is a baryon from the string theory viewpoint?

No one knew. But isn’t it interesting that the most prominent feature of this vertex is that it is a location where a string’s end can be trapped?

Everything changed in the period 1997-2000. Following insights from many other physicists, and using D-branes as the essential tool, Juan Maldacena finally made the connection between quantum field theory and string theory precise. He was able to relate strings with gravity and extra dimensions, which you can read about in Brian Greene’s books, with the physics of particles in just three spatial dimensions, similar to those of the real world, with only non-gravitational forces.  It was soon clear that the most ambitious and radical thinking of the ’70s was correct — that almost every quantum field theory, with its particles and forces, can alternatively be viewed as a string theory. It’s a bit analogous to the way that a painting can be described in English or in Japanese — fields/particles and strings/gravity are, in this context, two very different languages for talking about exactly the same thing.

The saga of the baryon vertex took a turn in May 1998, when Ed Witten showed how a similar vertex appears in Maldacena’s examples. [Note added: I had forgotten that two days after Witten’s paper, David Gross and Hirosi Ooguri submitted a beautiful, wide-ranging paper, whose section on baryons contains many of the same ideas.] Not surprisingly, this vertex was a D-brane — specifically a D-particle, an object on which the strings extending from freely-moving quarks could end. It wasn’t yet quite satisfactory, because the gluons and quarks in Maldacena’s examples roam free and don’t form mesons or baryons. Correspondingly the baryon vertex isn’t really a physical object; if you make one, it quickly diffuses away into nothing. Nevertheless, Witten’s paper made it obvious what was going on. To the extent real-world mesons can be viewed as strings, real-world protons and neutrons can be viewed as strings attached to a D-brane.


The baryon puzzle, resolved.  A baryon is made from three strings and a point-like D-brane. [Note there is yet another viewpoint in which a baryon is something known as a skyrmion, a soliton made from meson fields — but that is an issue for another day.]

It didn’t take long for more realistic examples, with actual baryons, to be found by theorists. I don’t remember who found one first, but I do know that one of the earliest examples showed up in my first paper with Joe, in the year 2000.


Working with Joe

That project arose during my September 1999 visit to the KITP (Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) in Santa Barbara, where Joe was a faculty member. Some time before that I happened to have studied a field theory (called N=1*) that differed from Maldacena’s examples only slightly, but in which meson-like objects do form. One of the first talks I heard when I arrived at KITP was by Rob Myers, about a weird property of D-branes that he’d discovered. During that talk I made a connection between Myers’ observation and a feature of the N=1* field theory, and I had one of those “aha” moments that physicists live for. I suddenly knew what the string theory that describes the N=1*  field theory must look like.

But for me, the answer was bad news. To work out the details was clearly going to require a very difficult set of calculations, using aspects of string theory about which I knew almost nothing [non-holomorphic curved branes in high-dimensional curved geometry.] The best I could hope to do, if I worked alone, would be to write a conceptual paper with lots of pictures, and far more conjectures than demonstrable facts.

But I was at KITP.  Joe and I had had a good personal rapport for some years, and I knew that we found similar questions exciting. And Joe was the brane-master; he knew everything about D-branes. So I decided my best hope was to persuade Joe to join me. I engaged in a bit of persistent cajoling. Very fortunately for me, it paid off.

I went back to the east coast, and Joe and I went to work. Every week or two Joe would email some research notes with some preliminary calculations in string theory. They had such a high level of technical sophistication, and so few pedagogical details, that I felt like a child; I could barely understand anything he was doing. We made slow progress. Joe did an important warm-up calculation, but I found it really hard to follow. If the warm-up string theory calculation was so complex, had we any hope of solving the full problem?  Even Joe was a little concerned.

Image result for polchinski joeAnd then one day, I received a message that resounded with a triumphant cackle — a sort of “we got ’em!” that anyone who knew Joe will recognize. Through a spectacular trick, he’d figured out how use his warm-up example to make the full problem easy! Instead of months of work ahead of us, we were essentially done.

From then on, it was great fun! Almost every week had the same pattern. I’d be thinking about a quantum field theory phenomenon that I knew about, one that should be visible from the string viewpoint — such as the baryon vertex. I knew enough about D-branes to develop a heuristic argument about how it should show up. I’d call Joe and tell him about it, and maybe send him a sketch. A few days later, a set of notes would arrive by email, containing a complete calculation verifying the phenomenon. Each calculation was unique, a little gem, involving a distinctive investigation of exotically-shaped D-branes sitting in a curved space. It was breathtaking to witness the speed with which Joe worked, the breadth and depth of his mathematical talent, and his unmatched understanding of these branes.

[Experts: It’s not instantly obvious that the N=1* theory has physical baryons, but it does; you have to choose the right vacuum, where the theory is partially Higgsed and partially confining. Then to infer, from Witten’s work, what the baryon vertex is, you have to understand brane crossings (which I knew about from Hanany-Witten days): Witten’s D5-brane baryon vertex operator creates a  physical baryon vertex in the form of a D3-brane 3-ball, whose boundary is an NS 5-brane 2-sphere located at a point in the usual three dimensions. And finally, a physical baryon is a vertex with n strings that are connected to nearby D5-brane 2-spheres. See chapter VI, sections B, C, and E, of our paper from 2000.]

Throughout our years of collaboration, it was always that way when we needed to go head-first into the equations; Joe inevitably left me in the dust, shaking my head in disbelief. That’s partly my weakness… I’m pretty average (for a physicist) when it comes to calculation. But a lot of it was Joe being so incredibly good at it.

Fortunately for me, the collaboration was still enjoyable, because I was almost always able to keep pace with Joe on the conceptual issues, sometimes running ahead of him. Among my favorite memories as a scientist are moments when I taught Joe something he didn’t know; he’d be silent for a few seconds, nodding rapidly, with an intent look — his eyes narrow and his mouth slightly open — as he absorbed the point.  “Uh-huh… uh-huh…”, he’d say.

But another side of Joe came out in our second paper. As we stood chatting in the KITP hallway, before we’d even decided exactly which question we were going to work on, Joe suddenly guessed the answer! And I couldn’t get him to explain which problem he’d solved, much less the solution, for several days!! It was quite disorienting.

This was another classic feature of Joe. Often he knew he’d found the answer to a puzzle (and he was almost always right), but he couldn’t say anything comprehensible about it until he’d had a few days to think and to turn his ideas into equations. During our collaboration, this happened several times. (I never said “Use your words, Joe…”, but perhaps I should have.) Somehow his mind was working in places that language doesn’t go, in ways that none of us outside his brain will ever understand. In him, there was something of an oracle.

Looking Toward The Horizon

Our interests gradually diverged after 2006; I focused on the Large Hadron Collider [also known as the Large D-brane Collider], while Joe, after some other explorations, ended up thinking about black hole horizons and the information paradox. But I enjoyed his work from afar, especially when, in 2012, Joe and three colleagues (Ahmed Almheiri, Don Marolf, and James Sully) blew apart the idea of black hole complementarity, widely hoped to be the solution to the paradox. [I explained this subject here, and also mentioned a talk Joe gave about it here.]  The wreckage is still smoldering, and the paradox remains.

Then Joe fell ill, and we began to lose him, at far too young an age.  One of his last gifts to us was his memoirs, which taught each of us something about him that we didn’t know.  Finally, on Friday last, he crossed the horizon of no return.  If there’s no firewall there, he knows it now.

What, we may already wonder, will Joe’s scientific legacy be, decades from now?  It’s difficult to foresee how a theorist’s work will be viewed a century hence; science changes in unexpected ways, and what seems unimportant now may become central in future… as was the path for D-branes themselves in the course of the 1990s.  For those of us working today, D-branes in string theory are clearly Joe’s most important discovery — though his contributions to our understanding of black holes, cosmic strings, and aspects of field theory aren’t soon, if ever, to be forgotten.  But who knows? By the year 2100, string theory may be the accepted theory of quantum gravity, or it may just be a little-known tool for the study of quantum fields.

Yet even if the latter were to be string theory’s fate, I still suspect it will be D-branes that Joe is remembered for. Because — as I’ve tried to make clear — they’re real.  Really real.  There’s one in every proton, one in every neutron. Our bodies contain them by the billion billion billions. For that insight, that elemental contribution to human knowledge, our descendants can blame Joseph Polchinski.

Thanks for everything, Joe.  We’ll miss you terribly.  You so often taught us new ways to look at the world — and even at ourselves.

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The Significance of Yesterday’s Gravitational Wave Announcement: an FAQ

Yesterday’s post on the results from the LIGO/VIRGO network of gravitational wave detectors was aimed at getting information out, rather than providing the pedagogical backdrop.  Today I’m following up with a post that attempts to answer some of the questions that my readers and my personal friends asked me.  Some wanted to understand better how to visualize what had happened, while others wanted more clarity on why the discovery was so important.  So I’ve put together a post which  (1) explains what neutron stars and black holes are and what their mergers are like, (2) clarifies why yesterday’s announcement was important — and there were many reasons, which is why it’s hard to reduce it all to a single soundbite.  And (3) there are some miscellaneous questions at the end.

First, a disclaimer: I am *not* an expert in the very complex subject of neutron star mergers and the resulting explosions, called kilonovas.  These are much more complicated than black hole mergers.  I am still learning some of the details.  Hopefully I’ve avoided errors, but you’ll notice a few places where I don’t know the answers … yet.  Perhaps my more expert colleagues will help me fill in the gaps over time.

Please, if you spot any errors, don’t hesitate to comment!!  And feel free to ask additional questions whose answers I can add to the list.


What are neutron stars and black holes, and how are they related?

Every atom is made from a tiny atomic nucleus, made of neutrons and protons (which are very similar), and loosely surrounded by electrons. Most of an atom is empty space, so it can, under extreme circumstances, be crushed — but only if every electron and proton convert to a neutron (which remains behind) and a neutrino (which heads off into outer space.) When a giant star runs out of fuel, the pressure from its furnace turns off, and it collapses inward under its own weight, creating just those extraordinary conditions in which the matter can be crushed. Thus: a star’s interior, with a mass one to several times the Sun’s mass, is all turned into a several-mile(kilometer)-wide ball of neutrons — the number of neutrons approaching a 1 with 57 zeroes after it.

If the star is big but not too big, the neutron ball stiffens and holds its shape, and the star explodes outward, blowing itself to pieces in a what is called a core-collapse supernova. The ball of neutrons remains behind; this is what we call a neutron star. It’s a ball of the densest material that we know can exist in the universe — a pure atomic nucleus many miles(kilometers) across. It has a very hard surface; if you tried to go inside a neutron star, your experience would be a lot worse than running into a closed door at a hundred miles per hour.

If the star is very big indeed, the neutron ball that forms may immediately (or soon) collapse under its own weight, forming a black hole. A supernova may or may not result in this case; the star might just disappear. A black hole is very, very different from a neutron star. Black holes are what’s left when matter collapses irretrievably upon itself under the pull of gravity, shrinking down endlessly. While a neutron star has a surface that you could smash your head on, a black hole has no surface — it has an edge that is simply a point of no return, called a horizon. In Einstein’s theory, you can just go right through, as if passing through an open door. You won’t even notice the moment you go in. [Note: this is true in Einstein’s theory. But there is a big controversy as to whether the combination of Einstein’s theory with quantum physics changes the horizon into something novel and dangerous to those who enter; this is known as the firewall controversy, and would take us too far afield into speculation.]  But once you pass through that door, you can never return.

Black holes can form in other ways too, but not those that we’re observing with the LIGO/VIRGO detectors.

Why are their mergers the best sources for gravitational waves?

One of the easiest and most obvious ways to make gravitational waves is to have two objects orbiting each other.  If you put your two fists in a pool of water and move them around each other, you’ll get a pattern of water waves spiraling outward; this is in rough (very rough!) analogy to what happens with two orbiting objects, although, since the objects are moving in space, the waves aren’t in a material like water.  They are waves in space itself.

To get powerful gravitational waves, you want objects each with a very big mass that are orbiting around each other at very high speed. To get the fast motion, you need the force of gravity between the two objects to be strong; and to get gravity to be as strong as possible, you need the two objects to be as close as possible (since, as Isaac Newton already knew, gravity between two objects grows stronger when the distance between them shrinks.) But if the objects are large, they can’t get too close; they will bump into each other and merge long before their orbit can become fast enough. So to get a really fast orbit, you need two relatively small objects, each with a relatively big mass — what scientists refer to as compact objects. Neutron stars and black holes are the most compact objects we know about. Fortunately, they do indeed often travel in orbiting pairs, and do sometimes, for a very brief period before they merge, orbit rapidly enough to produce gravitational waves that LIGO and VIRGO can observe.

Why do we find these objects in pairs in the first place?

Stars very often travel in pairs… they are called binary stars. They can start their lives in pairs, forming together in large gas clouds, or even if they begin solitary, they can end up pairing up if they live in large densely packed communities of stars where it is common for multiple stars to pass nearby. Perhaps surprisingly, their pairing can survive the collapse and explosion of either star, leaving two black holes, two neutron stars, or one of each in orbit around one another.

What happens when these objects merge?

Not surprisingly, there are three classes of mergers which can be detected: two black holes merging, two neutron stars merging, and a neutron star merging with a black hole. The first class was observed in 2015 (and announced in 2016), the second was announced yesterday, and it’s a matter of time before the third class is observed. The two objects may orbit each other for billions of years, very slowly radiating gravitational waves (an effect observed in the 70’s, leading to a Nobel Prize) and gradually coming closer and closer together. Only in the last day of their lives do their orbits really start to speed up. And just before these objects merge, they begin to orbit each other once per second, then ten times per second, then a hundred times per second. Visualize that if you can: objects a few dozen miles (kilometers) across, a few miles (kilometers) apart, each with the mass of the Sun or greater, orbiting each other 100 times each second. It’s truly mind-boggling — a spinning dumbbell beyond the imagination of even the greatest minds of the 19th century. I don’t know any scientist who isn’t awed by this vision. It all sounds like science fiction. But it’s not.

How do we know this isn’t science fiction?

We know, if we believe Einstein’s theory of gravity (and I’ll give you a very good reason to believe in it in just a moment.) Einstein’s theory predicts that such a rapidly spinning, large-mass dumbbell formed by two orbiting compact objects will produce a telltale pattern of ripples in space itself — gravitational waves. That pattern is both complicated and precisely predicted. In the case of black holes, the predictions go right up to and past the moment of merger, to the ringing of the larger black hole that forms in the merger. In the case of neutron stars, the instants just before, during and after the merger are more complex and we can’t yet be confident we understand them, but during tens of seconds before the merger Einstein’s theory is very precise about what to expect. The theory further predicts how those ripples will cross the vast distances from where they were created to the location of the Earth, and how they will appear in the LIGO/VIRGO network of three gravitational wave detectors. The prediction of what to expect at LIGO/VIRGO thus involves not just one prediction but many: the theory is used to predict the existence and properties of black holes and of neutron stars, the detailed features of their mergers, the precise patterns of the resulting gravitational waves, and how those gravitational waves cross space. That LIGO/VIRGO have detected the telltale patterns of these gravitational waves. That these wave patterns agree with Einstein’s theory in every detail is the strongest evidence ever obtained that there is nothing wrong with Einstein’s theory when used in these combined contexts.  That then in turn gives us confidence that our interpretation of the LIGO/VIRGO results is correct, confirming that black holes and neutron stars really exist and really merge. (Notice the reasoning is slightly circular… but that’s how scientific knowledge proceeds, as a set of detailed consistency checks that gradually and eventually become so tightly interconnected as to be almost impossible to unwind.  Scientific reasoning is not deductive; it is inductive.  We do it not because it is logically ironclad but because it works so incredibly well — as witnessed by the computer, and its screen, that I’m using to write this, and the wired and wireless internet and computer disk that will be used to transmit and store it.)


What makes it difficult to explain the significance of yesterday’s announcement is that it consists of many important results piled up together, rather than a simple takeaway that can be reduced to a single soundbite. (That was also true of the black hole mergers announcement back in 2016, which is why I wrote a long post about it.)

So here is a list of important things we learned.  No one of them, by itself, is earth-shattering, but each one is profound, and taken together they form a major event in scientific history.

First confirmed observation of a merger of two neutron stars: We’ve known these mergers must occur, but there’s nothing like being sure. And since these things are too far away and too small to see in a telescope, the only way to be sure these mergers occur, and to learn more details about them, is with gravitational waves.  We expect to see many more of these mergers in coming years as gravitational wave astronomy increases in its sensitivity, and we will learn more and more about them.

New information about the properties of neutron stars: Neutron stars were proposed almost a hundred years ago and were confirmed to exist in the 60’s and 70’s.  But their precise details aren’t known; we believe they are like a giant atomic nucleus, but they’re so vastly larger than ordinary atomic nuclei that can’t be sure we understand all of their internal properties, and there are debates in the scientific community that can’t be easily answered… until, perhaps, now.

From the detailed pattern of the gravitational waves of this one neutron star merger, scientists already learn two things. First, we confirm that Einstein’s theory correctly predicts the basic pattern of gravitational waves from orbiting neutron stars, as it does for orbiting and merging black holes. Unlike black holes, however, there are more questions about what happens to neutron stars when they merge. The question of what happened to this pair after they merged is still out — did the form a neutron star, an unstable neutron star that, slowing its spin, eventually collapsed into a black hole, or a black hole straightaway?

But something important was already learned about the internal properties of neutron stars. The stresses of being whipped around at such incredible speeds would tear you and I apart, and would even tear the Earth apart. We know neutron stars are much tougher than ordinary rock, but how much more? If they were too flimsy, they’d have broken apart at some point during LIGO/VIRGO’s observations, and the simple pattern of gravitational waves that was expected would have suddenly become much more complicated. That didn’t happen until perhaps just before the merger.   So scientists can use the simplicity of the pattern of gravitational waves to infer some new things about how stiff and strong neutron stars are.  More mergers will improve our understanding.  Again, there is no other simple way to obtain this information.

First visual observation of an event that produces both immense gravitational waves and bright electromagnetic waves: Black hole mergers aren’t expected to create a brilliant light display, because, as I mentioned above, they’re more like open doors to an invisible playground than they are like rocks, so they merge rather quietly, without a big bright and hot smash-up.  But neutron stars are big balls of stuff, and so the smash-up can indeed create lots of heat and light of all sorts, just as you might naively expect.  By “light” I mean not just visible light but all forms of electromagnetic waves, at all wavelengths (and therefore at all frequencies.)  Scientists divide up the range of electromagnetic waves into categories. These categories are radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays, listed from lowest frequency and largest wavelength to highest frequency and smallest wavelength.  (Note that these categories and the dividing lines between them are completely arbitrary, but the divisions are useful for various scientific purposes.  The only fundamental difference between yellow light, a radio wave, and a gamma ray is the wavelength and frequency; otherwise they’re exactly the same type of thing, a wave in the electric and magnetic fields.)

So if and when two neutron stars merge, we expect both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves, the latter of many different frequencies created by many different effects that can arise when two huge balls of neutrons collide.  But just because we expect them doesn’t mean they’re easy to see.  These mergers are pretty rare — perhaps one every hundred thousand years in each big galaxy like our own — so the ones we find using LIGO/VIRGO will generally be very far away.  If the light show is too dim, none of our telescopes will be able to see it.

But this light show was plenty bright.  Gamma ray detectors out in space detected it instantly, confirming that the gravitational waves from the two neutron stars led to a collision and merger that produced very high frequency light.  Already, that’s a first.  It’s as though one had seen lightning for years but never heard thunder; or as though one had observed the waves from hurricanes for years but never observed one in the sky.  Seeing both allows us a whole new set of perspectives; one plus one is often much more than two.

Over time — hours and days — effects were seen in visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared light, X-rays and radio waves.  Some were seen earlier than others, which itself is a story, but each one contributes to our understanding of what these mergers are actually like.

Confirmation of the best guess concerning the origin of “short” gamma ray bursts:  For many years, bursts of gamma rays have been observed in the sky.  Among them, there seems to be a class of bursts that are shorter than most, typically lasting just a couple of seconds.  They come from all across the sky, indicating that they come from distant intergalactic space, presumably from distant galaxies.  Among other explanations, the most popular hypothesis concerning these short gamma-ray bursts has been that they come from merging neutron stars.  The only way to confirm this hypothesis is with the observation of the gravitational waves from such a merger.  That test has now been passed; it appears that the hypothesis is correct.  That in turn means that we have, for the first time, both a good explanation of these short gamma ray bursts and, because we know how often we observe these bursts, a good estimate as to how often neutron stars merge in the universe.

First distance measurement to a source using both a gravitational wave measure and a redshift in electromagnetic waves, allowing a new calibration of the distance scale of the universe and of its expansion rate:  The pattern over time of the gravitational waves from a merger of two black holes or neutron stars is complex enough to reveal many things about the merging objects, including a rough estimate of their masses and the orientation of the spinning pair relative to the Earth.  The overall strength of the waves, combined with the knowledge of the masses, reveals how far the pair is from the Earth.  That by itself is nice, but the real win comes when the discovery of the object using visible light, or in fact any light with frequency below gamma-rays, can be made.  In this case, the galaxy that contains the neutron stars can be determined.

Once we know the host galaxy, we can do something really important.  We can, by looking at the starlight, determine how rapidly the galaxy is moving away from us.  For distant galaxies, the speed at which the galaxy recedes should be related to its distance because the universe is expanding.

How rapidly the universe is expanding has been recently measured with remarkable precision, but the problem is that there are two different methods for making the measurement, and they disagree.   This disagreement is one of the most important problems for our understanding of the universe.  Maybe one of the measurement methods is flawed, or maybe — and this would be much more interesting — the universe simply doesn’t behave the way we think it does.

What gravitational waves do is give us a third method: the gravitational waves directly provide the distance to the galaxy, and the electromagnetic waves directly provide the speed of recession.  There is no other way to make this type of joint measurement directly for distant galaxies.  The method is not accurate enough to be useful in just one merger, but once dozens of mergers have been observed, the average result will provide important new information about the universe’s expansion.  When combined with the other methods, it may help resolve this all-important puzzle.

Best test so far of Einstein’s prediction that the speed of light and the speed of gravitational waves are identical: Since gamma rays from the merger and the peak of the gravitational waves arrived within two seconds of one another after traveling 130 million years — that is, about 5 thousand million million seconds — we can say that the speed of light and the speed of gravitational waves are both equal to the cosmic speed limit to within one part in 2 thousand million million.  Such a precise test requires the combination of gravitational wave and gamma ray observations.

Efficient production of heavy elements confirmed:  It’s long been said that we are star-stuff, or stardust, and it’s been clear for a long time that it’s true.  But there’s been a puzzle when one looks into the details.  While it’s known that all the chemical elements from hydrogen up to iron are formed inside of stars, and can be blasted into space in supernova explosions to drift around and eventually form planets, moons, and humans, it hasn’t been quite as clear how the other elements with heavier atoms — atoms such as iodine, cesium, gold, lead, bismuth, uranium and so on — predominantly formed.  Yes they can be formed in supernovas, but not so easily; and there seem to be more atoms of heavy elements around the universe than supernovas can explain.  There are many supernovas in the history of the universe, but the efficiency for producing heavy chemical elements is just too low.

It was proposed some time ago that the mergers of neutron stars might be a suitable place to produce these heavy elements.  Even those these mergers are rare, they might be much more efficient, because the nuclei of heavy elements contain lots of neutrons and, not surprisingly, a collision of two neutron stars would produce lots of neutrons in its debris, suitable perhaps for making these nuclei.   A key indication that this is going on would be the following: if a neutron star merger could be identified using gravitational waves, and if its location could be determined using telescopes, then one would observe a pattern of light that would be characteristic of what is now called a “kilonova” explosion.   Warning: I don’t yet know much about kilonovas and I may be leaving out important details. A kilonova is powered by the process of forming heavy elements; most of the nuclei produced are initially radioactive — i.e., unstable — and they break down by emitting high energy particles, including the particles of light (called photons) which are in the gamma ray and X-ray categories.  The resulting characteristic glow would be expected to have a pattern of a certain type: it would be initially bright but would dim rapidly in visible light, with a long afterglow in infrared light.  The reasons for this are complex, so let me set them aside for now.  The important point is that this pattern was observed, confirming that a kilonova of this type occurred, and thus that, in this neutron star merger, enormous amounts of heavy elements were indeed produced.  So we now have a lot of evidence, for the first time, that almost all the heavy chemical elements on and around our planet were formed in neutron star mergers.  Again, we could not know this if we did not know that this was a neutron star merger, and that information comes only from the gravitational wave observation.


Did the merger of these two neutron stars result in a new black hole, a larger neutron star, or an unstable rapidly spinning neutron star that later collapsed into a black hole?

We don’t yet know, and maybe we won’t know.  Some scientists involved appear to be leaning toward the possibility that a black hole was formed, but others seem to say the jury is out.  I’m not sure what additional information can be obtained over time about this.

If the two neutron stars formed a black hole, why was there a kilonova?  Why wasn’t everything sucked into the black hole?

Black holes aren’t vacuum cleaners; they pull things in via gravity just the same way that the Earth and Sun do, and don’t suck things in some unusual way.  The only crucial thing about a black hole is that once you go in you can’t come out.  But just as when trying to avoid hitting the Earth or Sun, you can avoid falling in if you orbit fast enough or if you’re flung outward before you reach the edge.

The point in a neutron star merger is that the forces at the moment of merger are so intense that one or both neutron stars are partially ripped apart.  The material that is thrown outward in all directions, at an immense speed, somehow creates the bright, hot flash of gamma rays and eventually the kilonova glow from the newly formed atomic nuclei.  Those details I don’t yet understand, but I know they have been carefully studied both with approximate equations and in computer simulations such as this one and this one.  However, the accuracy of the simulations can only be confirmed through the detailed studies of a merger, such as the one just announced.  It seems, from the data we’ve seen, that the simulations did a fairly good job.  I’m sure they will be improved once they are compared with the recent data.




A Scientific Breakthrough! Combining Gravitational and Electromagnetic Waves

Gravitational waves are now the most important new tool in the astronomer’s toolbox.  Already they’ve been used to confirm that large black holes — with masses ten or more times that of the Sun — and mergers of these large black holes to form even larger ones, are not uncommon in the universe.   Today it goes a big step further.

It’s long been known that neutron stars, remnants of collapsed stars that have exploded as supernovas, are common in the universe.  And it’s been known almost as long that sometimes neutron stars travel in pairs.  (In fact that’s how gravitational waves were first discovered, indirectly, back in the 1970s.)  Stars often form in pairs, and sometimes both stars explode as supernovas, leaving their neutron star relics in orbit around one another.  Neutron stars are small — just ten or so kilometers (miles) across.  According to Einstein’s theory of gravity, a pair of stars should gradually lose energy by emitting gravitational waves into space, and slowly but surely the two objects should spiral in on one another.   Eventually, after many millions or even billions of years, they collide and merge into a larger neutron star, or into a black hole.  This collision does two things.

  1. It makes some kind of brilliant flash of light — electromagnetic waves — whose details are only guessed at.  Some of those electromagnetic waves will be in the form of visible light, while much of it will be in invisible forms, such as gamma rays.
  2. It makes gravitational waves, whose details are easier to calculate and which are therefore distinctive, but couldn’t have been detected until LIGO and VIRGO started taking data, LIGO over the last couple of years, VIRGO over the last couple of months.

It’s possible that we’ve seen the light from neutron star mergers before, but no one could be sure.  Wouldn’t it be great, then, if we could see gravitational waves AND electromagnetic waves from a neutron star merger?  It would be a little like seeing the flash and hearing the sound from fireworks — seeing and hearing is better than either one separately, with each one clarifying the other.  (Caution: scientists are often speaking as if detecting gravitational waves is like “hearing”.  This is only an analogy, and a vague one!  It’s not at all the same as acoustic waves that we can hear with our ears, for many reasons… so please don’t take it too literally.)  If we could do both, we could learn about neutron stars and their properties in an entirely new way.

Today, we learned that this has happened.  LIGO , with the world’s first two gravitational observatories, detected the waves from two merging neutron stars, 130 million light years from Earth, on August 17th.  (Neutron star mergers last much longer than black hole mergers, so the two are easy to distinguish; and this one was so close, relatively speaking, that it was seen for a long while.)  VIRGO, with the third detector, allows scientists to triangulate and determine roughly where mergers have occurred.  They saw only a very weak signal, but that was extremely important, because it told the scientists that the merger must have occurred in a small region of the sky where VIRGO has a relative blind spot.  That told scientists where to look.

The merger was detected for more than a full minute… to be compared with black holes whose mergers can be detected for less than a second.  It’s not exactly clear yet what happened at the end, however!  Did the merged neutron stars form a black hole or a neutron star?  The jury is out.

At almost exactly the moment at which the gravitational waves reached their peak, a blast of gamma rays — electromagnetic waves of very high frequencies — were detected by a different scientific team, the one from FERMI. FERMI detects gamma rays from the distant universe every day, and a two-second gamma-ray-burst is not unusual.  And INTEGRAL, another gamma ray experiment, also detected it.   The teams communicated within minutes.   The FERMI and INTEGRAL gamma ray detectors can only indicate the rough region of the sky from which their gamma rays originate, and LIGO/VIRGO together also only give a rough region.  But the scientists saw those regions overlapped.  The evidence was clear.  And with that, astronomy entered a new, highly anticipated phase.

Already this was a huge discovery.  Brief gamma-ray bursts have been a mystery for years.  One of the best guesses as to their origin has been neutron star mergers.  Now the mystery is solved; that guess is apparently correct. (Or is it?  Probably, but the gamma ray discovery is surprisingly dim, given how close it is.  So there are still questions to ask.)

Also confirmed by the fact that these signals arrived within a couple of seconds of one another, after traveling for over 100 million years from the same source, is that, indeed, the speed of light and the speed of gravitational waves are exactly the same — both of them equal to the cosmic speed limit, just as Einstein’s theory of gravity predicts.

Next, these teams quickly told their astronomer friends to train their telescopes in the general area of the source. Dozens of telescopes, from every continent and from space, and looking for electromagnetic waves at a huge range of frequencies, pointed in that rough direction and scanned for anything unusual.  (A big challenge: the object was near the Sun in the sky, so it could be viewed in darkness only for an hour each night!) Light was detected!  At all frequencies!  The object was very bright, making it easy to find the galaxy in which the merger took place.  The brilliant glow was seen in gamma rays, ultraviolet light, infrared light, X-rays, and radio.  (Neutrinos, particles that can serve as another way to observe distant explosions, were not detected this time.)

And with so much information, so much can be learned!

Most important, perhaps, is this: from the pattern of the spectrum of light, the conjecture seems to be confirmed that the mergers of neutron stars are important sources, perhaps the dominant one, for many of the heavy chemical elements — iodine, iridium, cesium, gold, platinum, and so on — that are forged in the intense heat of these collisions.  It used to be thought that the same supernovas that form neutron stars in the first place were the most likely source.  But now it seems that this second stage of neutron star life — merger, rather than birth — is just as important.  That’s fascinating, because neutron star mergers are much more rare than the supernovas that form them.  There’s a supernova in our Milky Way galaxy every century or so, but it’s tens of millenia or more between these “kilonovas”, created in neutron star mergers.

If there’s anything disappointing about this news, it’s this: almost everything that was observed by all these different experiments was predicted in advance.  Sometimes it’s more important and useful when some of your predictions fail completely, because then you realize how much you have to learn.  Apparently our understanding of gravity, of neutron stars, and of their mergers, and of all sorts of sources of electromagnetic radiation that are produced in those merges, is even better than we might have thought. But fortunately there are a few new puzzles.  The X-rays were late; the gamma rays were dim… we’ll hear more about this shortly, as NASA is holding a second news conference.

Some highlights from the second news conference:

  • New information about neutron star interiors, which affects how large they are and therefore how exactly they merge, has been obtained
  • The first ever visual-light image of a gravitational wave source, from the Swope telescope, at the outskirts of a distant galaxy; the galaxy’s center is the blob of light, and the arrow points to the explosion.

  • The theoretical calculations for a kilonova explosion suggest that debris from the blast should rather quickly block the visual light, so the explosion dims quickly in visible light — but infrared light lasts much longer.  The observations by the visible and infrared light telescopes confirm this aspect of the theory; and you can see evidence for that in the picture above, where four days later the bright spot is both much dimmer and much redder than when it was discovered.
  • Estimate: the total mass of the gold and platinum produced in this explosion is vastly larger than the mass of the Earth.
  • Estimate: these neutron stars were formed about 10 or so billion years ago.  They’ve been orbiting each other for most of the universe’s history, and ended their lives just 130 million years ago, creating the blast we’ve so recently detected.
  • Big Puzzle: all of the previous gamma-ray bursts seen up to now have always had shone in ultraviolet light and X-rays as well as gamma rays.   But X-rays didn’t show up this time, at least not initially.  This was a big surprise.  It took 9 days for the Chandra telescope to observe X-rays, too faint for any other X-ray telescope.  Does this mean that the two neutron stars created a black hole, which then created a jet of matter that points not quite directly at us but off-axis, and shines by illuminating the matter in interstellar space?  This had been suggested as a possibility twenty years ago, but this is the first time there’s been any evidence for it.
  • One more surprise: it took 16 days for radio waves from the source to be discovered, with the Very Large Array, the most powerful existing radio telescope.  The radio emission has been growing brighter since then!  As with the X-rays, this seems also to support the idea of an off-axis jet.
  • Nothing quite like this gamma-ray burst has been seen — or rather, recognized — before.  When a gamma ray burst doesn’t have an X-ray component showing up right away, it simply looks odd and a bit mysterious.  Its harder to observe than most bursts, because without a jet pointing right at us, its afterglow fades quickly.  Moreover, a jet pointing at us is bright, so it blinds us to the more detailed and subtle features of the kilonova.  But this time, LIGO/VIRGO told scientists that “Yes, this is a neutron star merger”, leading to detailed study from all electromagnetic frequencies, including patient study over many days of the X-rays and radio.  In other cases those observations would have stopped after just a short time, and the whole story couldn’t have been properly interpreted.



LIGO and VIRGO Announce a Joint Observation of a Black Hole Merger

Welcome, VIRGO!  Another merger of two big black holes has been detected, this time by both LIGO’s two detectors and by VIRGO as well.

Aside from the fact that this means that the VIRGO instrument actually works, which is great news, why is this a big deal?  By adding a third gravitational wave detector, built by the VIRGO collaboration, to LIGO’s Washington and Louisiana detectors, the scientists involved in the search for gravitational waves now can determine fairly accurately the direction from which a detected gravitational wave signal is coming.  And this allows them to do something new: to tell their astronomer colleagues roughly where to look in the sky, using ordinary telescopes, for some form of electromagnetic waves (perhaps visible light, gamma rays, or radio waves) that might have been produced by whatever created the gravitational waves. Continue reading

Watch for Auroras

Those of you who remember my post on how to keep track of opportunities to see northern (and southern) lights will be impressed by this image from .

The latest space weather overview plot

The top plot shows the number of X-rays (high-energy photons [particles of light]) coming from the sun, and that huge spike in the middle of the plot indicates a very powerful solar flare occurred about 24 hours ago.  It should take about 2 days from the time of the flare for its other effects — the cloud of electrically-charged particles expelled from the Sun’s atmosphere — to arrive at Earth.  The electrically-charged particles are what generate the auroras, when they are directed by Earth’s magnetic field to enter the Earth’s atmosphere near the Earth’s magnetic poles, where they crash into atoms in the upper atmosphere, exciting them and causing them to radiate visible light.

The flare was very powerful, but its cloud of particles didn’t head straight for Earth.  We might get only a glancing blow.  So we don’t know how big an effect to expect here on our planet.  All we can do for now is be hopeful, and wait.

In any case, auroras borealis and australis are possible in the next day or so.  Watch for the middle plot to go haywire, and for the bars in the lower plot to jump higher; then you know the time has arrived.

An Experience of a Lifetime: My 1999 Eclipse Adventure

Back in 1999 I saw a total solar eclipse in Europe, and it was a life-altering experience.  I wrote about it back then, but was never entirely happy with the article.  This week I’ve revised it.  It could still benefit from some editing and revision (comments welcome), but I think it’s now a good read.  It’s full of intellectual observations, but there are powerful emotions too.

If you’re interested, you can read it as a pdf, or just scroll down.



A Luminescent Darkness: My 1999 Eclipse Adventure

© Matt Strassler 1999

After two years of dreaming, two months of planning, and two hours of packing, I drove to John F. Kennedy airport, took the shuttle to the Air France terminal, and checked in.  I was brimming with excitement. In three days time, with a bit of luck, I would witness one the great spectacles that a human being can experience: a complete, utter and total eclipse of the Sun. Continue reading

Ongoing Chance of Northern (or Southern) Lights

As forecast, the cloud of particles from Friday’s solar flare (the “coronal mass emission”, or “CME”) arrived at our planet a few hours after my last post, early in the morning New York time. If you’d like to know how I knew that it had reached Earth, and how I know what’s going on now, scroll down to the end of this post and I’ll show you the data I was following, which is publicly available at all times.

So far the resulting auroras have stayed fairly far north, and so I haven’t seen any — though they were apparently seen last night in Washington and Wyoming, and presumably easily seen in Canada and Alaska. [Caution: sometimes when people say they’ve been “seen”, they don’t quite mean that; I often see lovely photos of aurora that were only visible to a medium-exposure camera shot, not to the naked eye.]  Or rather, I should say that the auroras have stayed fairly close to the Earth’s poles; they were also seen in New Zealand.

Russia and Europe have a good opportunity this evening. As for the U.S.? The storm in the Earth’s magnetic field is still going on, so tonight is still a definite possibility for northern states. Keep an eye out! Look for what is usually a white or green-hued glow, often in swathes or in stripes pointing up from the northern horizon, or even overhead if you’re lucky.  The stripes can move around quite rapidly.

Now, here’s how I knew all this.  I’m no expert on auroras; that’s not my scientific field at all.   But the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which needs to monitor conditions in space in case they should threaten civilian and military satellites or even installations on the ground, provides a wonderful website with lots of relevant data.

The first image on the site provides the space weather overview; a screenshot from the present is shown below, with my annotations.  The upper graph indicates a blast of x-rays (a form of light not visible to the human eye) which is generated when the solar flare, the magnetically-driven explosion on the sun, first occurs.  Then the slower cloud of particles (protons, electrons, and other atomic nuclei, all of which have mass and therefore can’t travel at light’s speed) takes a couple of days to reach Earth.  It’s arrival is shown by the sudden jump in the middle graph.  Finally, the lower graph measures how active the Earth’s magnetic field is.  The only problem with that plot is it tends to be three hours out of date, so beware of that! A “Kp index” of 5 shows significant activity; 6 means that auroras are likely to be moving away from the poles, and 7 or 8 mean that the chances in a place like the north half of the United States are pretty good.  So far, 6 has been the maximum generated by the current flare, but things can fluctuate a little, so 6 or 7 might occur tonight.  Keep an eye on that lower plot; if it drops back down to 4, forget it, but it it’s up at 7, take a look for sure!


Also on the site is data from the ACE satellite.  This satellite sits 950 thousand miles [1.5 million kilometers] from Earth, between Earth and the Sun, which is 93 million miles [150 million kilometers] away.  At that vantage point, it gives us (and our other satellites) a little early warning, of up to an hour, before the cloud of slow particles from a solar flare arrives.  That provides enough lead-time to turn off critical equipment that might otherwise be damaged.  And you can see, in the plot below, how at a certain time in the last twenty-four hours the readings from the satellite, which had been tepid before, suddenly started fluctuating wildly.  That was the signal that the flare had struck the satellite, and would arrive shortly at our location.


It’s a wonderful feature of the information revolution that you can get all this scientific data yourself, and not wait around hoping for a reporter or blogger to process it for you.  None of this was available when I was a child, and I missed many a sky show.  A big thank you to NOAA, and to the U.S. taxpayers who make their work possible.



Lights in the Sky (maybe…)

The Sun is busy this summer. The upcoming eclipse on August 21 will turn day into deep twilight and transfix millions across the United States.  But before we get there, we may, if we’re lucky, see darkness transformed into color and light.

On Friday July 14th, a giant sunspot in our Sun’s upper regions, easily visible if you project the Sun’s image onto a wall, generated a powerful flare.  A solar flare is a sort of magnetically powered explosion; it produces powerful electromagnetic waves and often, as in this case, blows a large quantity of subatomic particles from the Sun’s corona. The latter is called a “coronal mass ejection.” It appears that the cloud of particles from Friday’s flare is large, and headed more or less straight for the Earth.

Light, visible and otherwise, is an electromagnetic wave, and so the electromagnetic waves generated in the flare — mostly ultraviolet light and X-rays — travel through space at the speed of light, arriving at the Earth in eight and a half minutes. They cause effects in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that can disrupt radio communications, or worse.  That’s another story.

But the cloud of subatomic particles from the coronal mass ejection travels a few hundred times slower than light, and it takes it about two or three days to reach the Earth.  The wait is on.

Bottom line: a huge number of high-energy subatomic particles may arrive in the next 24 to 48 hours. If and when they do, the electrically charged particles among them will be trapped in, and shepherded by, the Earth’s magnetic field, which will drive them spiraling into the atmosphere close to the Earth’s polar regions. And when they hit the atmosphere, they’ll strike atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, which in turn will glow. Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights.

So if you live in the upper northern hemisphere, including Europe, Canada and much of the United States, keep your eyes turned to the north (and to the south if you’re in Australia or southern South America) over the next couple of nights. Dark skies may be crucial; the glow may be very faint.

You can also keep abreast of the situation, as I will, using NOAA data, available for instance at

The plot on the upper left of that website, an example of which is reproduced below, shows three types of data. The top graph shows the amount of X-rays impacting the atmosphere; the big jump on the 14th is Friday’s flare. And if and when the Earth’s magnetic field goes nuts and auroras begin, the bottom plot will show the so-called “Kp Index” climbing to 5, 6, or hopefully 7 or 8. When the index gets that high, there’s a much greater chance of seeing auroras much further away from the poles than usual.

The latest space weather overview plot

Keep an eye also on the data from the ACE satellite, lower down on the website; it’s placed to give Earth an early warning, so when its data gets busy, you’ll know the cloud of particles is not far away.

Wishing you all a great sky show!