Has the Light From Behind a Black Hole Been Seen? Does the Claim Ring True?

Back in 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) made history as its scientists used it to create an image of a huge black hole — or rather, of the “accretion disk” of material surrounding a black hole — at the center of the galaxy M87. The dark central gap reveals where the disk’s material vanishes from view, as it presumably flows toward and disappears into the black hole.  

EHT’s image of the M87 galaxy’s black hole’s accretion disk, created from radio-wave measurements. [How do we know there’s a black hole there? I left an answer in the comments.]

What the image actually shows is a bit complicated, because there is not only “light” (actually, radio waves, an invisible form of light, which is what EHT measures) from the disk that travels directly to us but also (see the Figure below) light that travels around the back of the black hole.  That light ends up focused into a sharp ring, an indirect image of the accretion disk.  (This is an oversimplication, as there are additional rings, dimmer and close together, from light that goes round the black hole multiple times. But it will be a decade before we can hope to image anything other than the first ring.)

BHDisk2.png
Left: A glowing accretion disk (note it does not touch the black hole). Light from the right side of the disk forms a direct, broad image (orange) heading toward us, and also a focused, narrow, indirect image (green) heading toward us from the left side, having gone round the back of the black hole. (Right) From the entire accretion disk, the direct image forms a broad disk, while the indirect image would be seen, with a perfect telescope, as a narrow circle of bright light: the photon ring. Unfortunately, the EHT blurs this picture to the point that the photon ring and the disk’s direct image cannot be distinguished from one another. [Long and careful explanation given here.]

Regrettably, that striking bright and narrow “photon ring” can’t be seen in the EHT image, because EHT, despite its extraordinary capabilities, doesn’t yet have good enough focus for that purpose.  Instead, the narrow ring is completely blurred out, and drowned in the direct image of the light from the wider but overall brighter accretion disk. (I should note that EHT originally seemed to claim the image did show the photon ring, but backed off after a controversy.) All that can be observed in the EHT image at the top of this post is a broad, uneven disk with a hole in it.

The news this week is that a group within EHT is claiming that they can actually detect the photon ring, using new and fancy statistical techniques developed over a year ago.  This has gotten a lot of press, and if it’s true, it’s quite remarkable. 

However, having looked at the paper, I’m skeptical of this claim, at least so far.  Here’s why.

  1. Normally, if you claim to have detected something for the first time, you make it clear to what extent you’ve ruled out the possibility it actually isn’t there… i.e., if there’s only a 0.01% chance that it’s absent, that’s a strong argument that it’s present. I don’t see this level of clarity in the paper.
  2. Almost everyone is pretty darn sure that in reality the photon ring is actually present. That introduces a potential bias when you search for it; at least unconsciously, you’re not weighing the present vs. absent options equally. For this reason, it’s important to demonstrate that you’ve eliminated that bias. I don’t see that the authors have done this.
  3. Simulations of black hole surroundings and theoretical estimates both suggest that the photon ring should have significantly less overall brightness than the broad accretion disk. However, the ring measured in this paper has the majority of the total light (60%). The authors explain this by saying this is typical of their method: it combines some of the disk light near the photon ring (i.e., background) with the actual photon ring (i.e. signal). But normally one doesn’t claim to have detected a signal until one has measured and effectively subtracted the background. Without doing so, how can we be sure that the ring that the authors claim to have measured isn’t entirely background, or estimate how statistically significant is their claim of detection?

I’ve included more details on the following section, but the bottom line is that I’d like a lot more information before I’d believe the photon ring’s really been detected.

Read more

Could CERN open a portal to… somewhere? (anywhere?)

For general readers:

Is it possible that the particle physicists hard at work near Geneva, Switzerland, at the laboratory known as CERN that hosts the Large Hadron Collider, have opened a doorway or a tunnel, to, say, another dimension? Could they be accessing a far-off planet orbiting two stars in a distant galaxy populated by Jedi knights?  Perhaps they have opened the doors of Europe to a fiery domain full of demons, or worse still, to central Texas in summer?

Mortals and Portals

Well, now.  If we’re talking about a kind of tunnel that human beings and the like could move through, then there’s a big obstacle in the way.  That obstacle is the rigidity of space itself.

The notion of a “wormhole”, a sort of tunnel in space and time that might allow you to travel from one part of the universe to another without taking the most obvious route to get there, or perhaps to places for which there is no other route at all, isn’t itself entirely crazy. It’s allowed by the math of Einstein’s theory of space and time and gravity.  However, the concept comes with immensely daunting conceptual and practical challenges.  At the heart of all of them, there’s a basic and fundamental problem: bending and manipulating space isn’t easy.  

Read more

The Standard Model More Deeply: Gluons and the Math of Quark “Color”

For readers who want to dig deeper; this is the second post of two, so you should read the previous one if you haven’t already. (Readers who would rather avoid the math may prefer this post.)

In a recent post I described, for the general reader and without using anything more than elementary fractions, how we know that each type of quark comes in three “colors” — a name which refers not to something that you can see by eye, but rather to the three “versions” of strong nuclear charge. In the post previous to today’s, I went into more detail about how the math of “color” works; you’ll need to read that post first, and since I will sometimes refer to its figures, you may want to keep in handy in another tab.

Read more

The Standard Model More Deeply: The Simplified Math of Quark “Color”

For non-expert readers who want to dig a bit deeper. This is the first post of two, the second of which will appear in a day or two:

In my last post I described, for the general reader and without using anything more than elementary fractions, how we know that each type of quark comes in three “colors” — a name which refers not to something that you can see by eye, but rather to the three “versions” of strong nuclear charge. Strong nuclear charge is important because it determines the behavior of the strong nuclear force between objects, just as electric charge determines the electric forces between objects. For instance, elementary particles with no strong nuclear charge, such as electrons, W bosons and the like, aren’t affected by the strong nuclear force, just as electrically neutral elementary particles, such as neutrinos, are immune to the electric force.

But a big difference is that there’s only one form or “version” of electric charge: in the language of professional physicists, protons have +1 unit of this charge, electrons have -1 unit of it, a nucleus of helium has +2 units of it, etc. By contrast, the strong nuclear charge comes in three versions, which are sometimes referred to as “redness”, “blueness” and “greenness” (because of a vague but highly imprecise analogue with the inner workings of the human eye). These versions of the charge combine in novel ways we don’t see in the electric context, and this plays a major role in the protons and neutrons found in every atom. It’s the math that lies behind this that I want to explain today; we’ll only need a little bit of trigonometry and complex numbers, though we’ll also need some careful reasoning.

Read more

Celebrating the Standard Model: How We Know Quarks Come in Three “Colors”

A post for general readers:

Within the Standard Model, the quarks (and anti-quarks) are my favorite particles, because they are so interesting and so diverse. Physicists often say, in their whimsical jargon, that quarks come in various “flavors” and “colors”.   But don’t take these words seriously! They’re just labels; neither has anything to do with taste or vision. We might just as well have said the quarks come in “gerflacks” and “sharjees”; or better, we might have said “types” and “versions”. 

Today I’ll show you how one can easily see that each of the six flavors of quark comes in three colors (i.e., each gerflack/type of quark comes in three sharjees/versions.)  All we’ll need to do is examine a simple property of the W boson, one of the other particles in the Standard Model.

[Another way to say this is that the Standard Model is often described as having a kind of symmetry named “SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1)”; today we’ll put the “3” in SU(3). ]

Gerflacks and Sharjees of Quarks

We know there are six types/gerflacks/flavors of quarks because each type of quark has its own unique mass and lifetime, a fact that’s relatively easy to confirm experimentally.  Quarks 1 and 2 are called down and up, quarks 3 and 4 are called strange and charm, and quarks 5 and 6 are called bottom and top; again, the whimsical names don’t have any meaning, and we often just label them d, u, s, c, b, t.

But to understand why each type of quark comes in three versions/sharjees/colors is more subtle, because two quarks of the same “flavor” which differ only by their “color” appear the same in experiments (despite our intuition for what the word “color” usually means.)

What, in fact, is a “color”? Each color/sharjee/version is a kind of strong nuclear charge, analogous to electric charge, which we encounter in daily life through static electricity and other phenomena. Electric charge determines which objects attract and repel each other via electrical forces. Electrons have electric charge, and so do quarks; that’s why electrical forces affect them. But quarks, unlike electrons, have strong nuclear charge too, and those charges determine how quarks attract or repel one another via the the strong nuclear force.  

And here’s the interesting point: whereas there is only one version of electric charge (electrons and protons and atomic nuclei have different amounts of it, but it is different amounts of the same thing), there are three different versions/sharjees/colors of strong nuclear charge.  They are often called “red”, “green” and “blue”, or “redness”, “greeness” and “blueness”. (Remember, these are just names for sharjees — for versions of strong nuclear charge. In no sense do they represent actual colors that your eyes would see, any more than the six types/flavors of quarks would taste differently.)

Read more

The Standard Model More Deeply: The Nature of Neutrinos

Earlier this week I explained how neutrinos can get their mass within the Standard Model of particle physics, either by engaging with the Higgs field once, the way the other particles do, or by engaging with it twice. In the first case, the neutrinos would be “Dirac fermions”, just like electrons and quarks. In the second, they’d be “Majorana fermions”. Decades ago, in the original Standard Model, neutrinos were thought not to have any mass at all, and were “Weyl fermions.” Although I explained in my last post what these three types of fermions are, today I want go a little deeper, and provide you with a diagrammatic way of understanding the differences among them, as well as a more complete view of the workings of the “see-saw mechanism”, which may well be the cause of the neutrinos’ exceptionally small masses.

[N.B. On this website, mass means “rest mass” except when otherwise indicated.]

The Three Types of Fermions

What’s a fermion? All particles in our world are either fermions or bosons. Bosons are highly social and are happy to all do the same thing, as when huge numbers of photons are all locked in synch to make a laser. Fermions are loners; they refuse to do the same thing, and the “Pauli exclusion principle” that plays a huge role in atomic physics, creating the famous shell structure of atoms, arises from the fact that electrons are fermions. The Standard Model fermions and their masses are shown below.

Figure 1: The masses of the known elementary particles, showing how neutrino masses are much smaller and much more uncertain than those of all the other particles with mass. The horizontal grey bar shows the maximum masses from cosmic measurements; the vertical grey bars give an idea of where the masses might lie based on current knowledge, indicating the still very substantial uncertainty.

Read more

Celebrating the Standard Model: Why Are Neutrino Masses So Small?

For the general reader interested in particle physics or astronomy:

Most of the Standard Model’s particles have a mass [a rest mass, to be precise], excepting only the photon (the particle of light) and the gluon (found in protons and neutrons.) For reasons not understood at all, these masses stretch out over a range of a trillion or more.

If it weren’t for the three types of neutrinos, the range would be a mere 400,000, from the top quark’s mass (172 GeV/c2) to the electron’s (0.000511 GeV/c2), still puzzling large. But neutrinos make the puzzle extreme! The universe’s properties strongly suggest that the largest mass among the neutrinos can’t be more than 0.0000000001 GeV/c2 , while other experiments tell us it can’t be too much less. The masses of the other two may be similar, or possibly much smaller.

Figure 1: The masses of the known elementary particles, showing how neutrino masses are much smaller and much more uncertain than those of all the other particles with mass. The horizontal grey bar shows the maximum masses from cosmic measurements; the vertical grey bars give an idea of where the masses might lie based on current knowledge, indicating the still very substantial uncertainty.

This striking situation is illustrated in Figure 1, in which

  • I’ve used a “logarithmic plot”, which compresses the vertical scale; if I used a regular “linear” plot, you’d see only the heaviest few masses, with the rest crushed to the bottom;
  • For later use, I’ve divided the particles into two classes: “fermions” and “bosons”.
  • Also, though some of these particles have separate anti-particles, I haven’t shown them; it wouldn’t add anything, since the anti-particle of any particle type has exactly the same mass.

As you can see, the neutrinos are way down at the bottom, far from everyone else? What’s up with that? The answer isn’t known; it’s part of ongoing research. But today I’ll tell you why

  • once upon a time it was thought that the Standard Model solved this puzzle;
  • today we know of two simple solutions to it, but don’t know which one is right;
  • each of these requires a minor modification of the Standard Model: in one case a new type of particle, in another case a new phenomenon.

Read more

Celebrating the Standard Model: Atoms, Quarks and the Strong Nuclear Force

For the general reader:

Last week I showed you, without any technicalities, how to recognize the elementary forces of nature in the pattern of particle masses and lifetimes. This week we’ll start seeing what we can extract just from the particles’ masses alone… and what we cannot. Today we’ll focus on quarks and the strong nuclear force.

A key factor in nature, which plays an enormous role in everyday life, is the mass of a typical atom. [Note: on this website, “mass” always means “rest mass”, which does not increase with a particle’s speed.] This in turn arises mainly from the masses of protons and neutrons, which are about equal, and tiny: about 0.00000000000000000000000000167 kg (or 0.00000000000000000000000000368 pounds). Since those numbers are crazy-small, physicists use a different measure; we say the mass is about 1 GeV/c2, and more precisely, 0.938 GeV/c2. In any case, it’s tiny on human scales, but it’s some definite quantity, the same for every proton in nature. Where does this mass come from; what natural processes determine it?

You may have heard the simplistic remark that “a proton is made of three quarks” (two up quarks and a down quark), which would suggest these quarks have mass of about 1/3 of a proton, or about 0.313 GeV/c2. But something’s clearly amiss. If you look at websites and other sources about particle physics, they all agree that up and down quark masses are less than 0.01 GeV/c2; these days they usually say the up quark has mass of 0.002 GeV/c2 and the down quark has 0.005 GeV/c2. So if the proton were simply made of three quarks, it would naively have a mass of less than 1% of its actual mass.

What’s going on? A first little clue is that different sources sometimes quote different numbers for the quark masses. There are six types of quarks; from smallest mass to largest, they are up, down, strange (u,d,s, the three light quarks), charm, bottom (c,b, the two somewhat heavy quarks) and top (t, the super-heavy quark.) [Their names, by the way, are historical accidents and don’t mean anything.] But some websites say the up quark mass is 0.003 instead of 0.002 GeV/c2, a 50% discrepancy; the bottom quark’s mass is variously listed as 4.1 GeV/c2, 4.5 GeV/c2, and so forth. This is in contrast to, say, the electron’s mass; you’ll never see websites that disagree about that.

The origin of all these discrepancies is that quarks (and anti-quarks and gluons) are affected by the strong nuclear force, unlike electrons, Higgs bosons, and all the other known elementary particles. The strong forces that quarks undergo make everything about them less clear and certain. Among numerous manifestations, the most dramatic is that quarks (and anti-quarks and gluons) are never observed in isolation. Instead they’re always found in special combinations, called “hadrons“. A proton is an example, but there are many more. And the strong nuclear force can have a big effect on their masses.

The Modern Proton and the Masses of Quarks

A proton, in fact, is not simply made from three quarks, the way a hydrogen atom is simply made from a proton and an electron. As I described in this article, it’s vastly more complex; it’s made from three quarks plus lots of gluons plus lots of pairs of other quarks and anti-quarks. So the simple intuition we get from atoms does not apply to hadrons like the proton.

Read more

%d bloggers like this: