Continued Controversy on the Ring of Light

For general readers: A week or so ago, I wrote about my skepticism concerning the claim of a “detection” of the photon ring that’s widely expected to lie hidden within the image of a black hole. A nice article in Science News appeared today outlining the current controversy, with some quotes from scientists with differing … Read more

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.

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Black Holes, Mercury, and Einstein: The Role of Dimensional Analysis

In last week’s posts we looked at basic astronomy and Einstein’s famous E=mc2 through the lens of the secret weapon of theoretical physicists, “dimensional analysis”, which imposes a simple consistency check on any known or proposed physics equation.  For instance, E=mc2 (with E being some kind of energy, m some kind of mass, and c the cosmic speed limit [also the speed of light]) passes this consistency condition.

But what about E=mc or E=mc4 or E=m2c3 ? These equations are obviously impossible! Energy has dimensions of mass * length2 / time2. If an equation sets energy equal to something, that something has to have the same dimensions as energy. That rules out m2c3, which has dimensions of mass2 * length3 / time3. In fact it rules out anything other than E = # mc2 (where # represents an ordinary number, which is not necessarily 1). All other relations fail to be consistent.

That’s why physicists were thinking about equations like E = # mc2 even before Einstein was born. 

The same kind of reasoning can teach us (as it did Einstein) about his theory of gravity, “general relativity”, and one of its children, black holes.  But again, Einstein’s era wasn’t first to ask the question.   It goes back to the late 18th century. And why not? It’s just a matter of dimensional analysis.

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Dimensional Analysis: A Secret Weapon in Physics

It’s not widely appreciated how often physicists can guess the answer to a problem before they even start calculating. By combining a basic consistency requirement with scientific reasoning, they can often use a heuristic approach to solving problems that allows them to derive most of a formula without doing any work at all. This week I want to introduce this to you, and show you some of its power.

The trick, called “dimensional analysis” or “unit analysis” or “dimensional reasoning”, involves requiring consistency among units, sometimes called “dimensions.” For instance, the distance from the Earth to the Sun is, obviously, a length. We can state the length in kilometers, or in miles, or in inches; each is a unit of length. But for today’s purposes, it’s irrelevant which one we use. What’s important is this: the Earth-Sun distance has to be expressed in some unit of length, because, well, it’s a length! Or in physics-speak, it has the “dimensions of length.”

For any equation in physics of the form X = Y, the two sides of the equation have to be consistent with one another. If X has dimensions of length, then Y must also have dimensions of length. If X has dimensions of mass, then Y must also. Just as you can’t meaningfully say “I weigh twelve meters” or “I am seventy kilograms old”, physics equations have to make sense, relating weights to weights, or lengths to lengths, or energies to energies. If you see an equation X=Y where X is in meters and Y is in Joules (a measure of energy), then you know there’s a typo or a conceptual mistake in the equation.

In fact, looking for this type of inconsistency is a powerful tool, used by students and professionals alike, in checking calculations for errors. I use it both in my own research and when trying to figure out, when grading, where a student went wrong.

That’s nice, but why is it useful beyond checking for mistakes?

Sometimes, when you have a problem to solve involving a few physical quantities, there might be only one consistent equation relating them — only one way to set an X equal to a Y. And you can guess that equation without doing any work.

Well, that’s pretty abstract; let’s see how it works in a couple of examples.

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Coordinate Independence, Kepler, and Planetary Orbits

Could you, merely by changing coordinates, argue that the Sun gravitationally orbits the Earth?  And could Einstein’s theory of gravity, which works equally well in all coordinate systems, allow you to do that?  

Despite some claims to the contrary — that all Copernicus really did was choose better coordinates than the ancient Greek astronomers — the answer is: No Way. 

How badly does the Sun’s path, nearly circular in Earth-centered (geocentric) coordinates, violate the Earth’s version of Kepler’s law?  (Kepler’s third law is the relation T=R3/2 between the period T of a gravitational orbit and the distance R, which is half the long axis of the ellipse that the orbit forms.)   Since the Moon takes about a month to orbit the Earth, and the Sun is about 400 = 202 times further from Earth than the Moon, the period of the Sun would be 4003/2 = 8000 times longer than the Moon’s, i.e. about 600 years, not 1 year. 

But is this statement coordinate-independent? Can it serve to prove, even in Einstein’s theory, that the Earth orbits the Sun and the Sun does not orbit the Earth? Yes, it is, and yes, it does. That’s what I claimed last time, and will argue more carefully today.

Of course the question of “Does X orbit Y?” is already complicated in Newtonian gravity.  There are many situations in which the question could be ambiguous (as when X and Y have almost equal mass), or when they form part of a cluster of large mass made from many objects of small mass (as with stars within a galaxy.)  But this kind of ambiguity is not what’s in question here.  Professor Muller of the University of California Berkeley claimed that what is uncomplicated in Newtonian gravity is ambiguous in Einsteinian gravity.  And we’ll see now that this is false.

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Even in Einstein’s General Relativity, the Earth Orbits the Sun (& the Sun Does Not Orbit the Earth)

Back before we encountered Professor Richard Muller’s claim that “According to [Einstein’s] general theory of relativity, the Sun does orbit the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun,” I was creating a series of do-it-yourself astronomy posts. (A list of the links is here.) Along the way, we rediscovered for ourselves one of the key laws of the planets: Kepler’s third law, which relates the time T it takes for a planet to orbit the Sun to its distance R from the Sun. Because we’ll be referring to this law and its variants so often, let me call it the “T|R law”. [For elliptical orbits, the correct choice of R is half the longest distance across the ellipse.] From this law we figured out how much acceleration is created by the Sun’s gravity, and concluded that it varies as 1/R2.

That wasn’t all. We also saw that objects that orbit the Earth — the Moon and the vast array of human-built satellites — satisfy their own T|R law, with the same general relationship. The only difference is that the acceleration created by the Earth’s gravity is less at the same distance than is the Sun’s. (We all secretly know that this is because the Earth has a smaller mass, though as avid do-it-yourselfers we admit we didn’t actually prove this yet.)

T|R laws are indeed found among any objects that (in the Newtonian sense) orbit a common planet. For example, this is true of the moons of Jupiter, as well as the rocks that make up Jupiter’s thin ring.

Along the way, we made a very important observation. We hadn’t (and still haven’t) succeeded in figuring out if the Earth goes round the Sun or the Sun goes round the Earth. But we did notice this:

This was all in a pre-Einsteinian context. But now Professor Muller comes along, and tells us Einstein’s conception of gravity implies that the Sun goes round the Earth just as much (or just as little) as the Earth goes round the Sun. And we have to decide whether to believe him.

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Earth Orbits the Sun, or Not? Why Coordinates Can’t Be Relevant to the Question.

We’ve been having some fun recently with Sun-centered and Earth-centered coordinate systems, as related to a provocative claim by certain serious scientists, most recently Berkeley professor Richard Muller. They claim that in general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity, the same fantastic mathematical invention which predicted black holes and gravitational waves and gravitational lensing) the statement that “The Sun Orbits the Earth” is just as true as the statement that “The Earth Orbits the Sun”… or that perhaps both statements are equally meaningless.

But, uh… sorry. All this fun with coordinates was beside the point. The truth, falsehood, or meaninglessness of “the Earth orbits the Sun” will not be answered with a choice of coordinates. Coordinates are labels. In this context, they are simply ways of labeling points in space and time. Changing how you label a system changes only how you describe that system; it does not change anything physically meaningful about that system. So rather than focusing on coordinates and how they can make things appear, we should spend some time thinking about which things do not depend on our choice of coordinates.

And so our question really needs to be this: does the statement “The Earth Orbits the Sun (and not the other way round)” have coordinate-independent meaning, and if so, is it true?

Because we are dealing with the coordinate-independence of a four-dimensional spacetime, which is not the easiest thing to think about, it’s best to build some intuition by looking at a two-dimensional spatial shape first. Let’s look at what’s coordinate-independent and coordinate-dependent about the surface of the Earth.

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Earth Around the Sun, or Not? The Earth-Centered Coordinates You Should Worry About

We’re more than a week into a discussion of Professor Richard Muller’s claim that “According to the general theory of relativity, the Sun does orbit the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun. And they both orbit together around a place in between. And both the Sun and the Earth are orbiting the Moon.” Though many readers have made interesting and compelling attempts to prove the Earth orbits the Sun, none have yet been able to say why Muller is wrong.

A number of readers suggested, in one way or another, that we go far from the Sun and Earth and use the fact that out there, far from any complications, Newtonian physics should be good. From there, we can look back at the Sun and Earth, and see what’s going on in an unbiased way. Although Muller would say that you could still claim the Sun orbits the Earth by using “geocentric” coordinates centered on the Earth, these readers argued that such coordinates would not make sense in this distant, Newtonian region.

Are they correct about this?

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