Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, January 8, 2024

A cosmic slide whistle

In 1894, physicist Albert Michelson said, "It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles [in science] have been firmly established …  An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals."

The irony of this statement is twofold.  First, within thirty years, the entire field of physics would be upended twice, by Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity, and from the development by Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrödinger of the Quantum Model.  Second, it was the null result from the experiment Michelson himself performed with Edward Morley that disproved the existence of the luminiferous aether and directly led to Einstein's revolutionary theories about the nature of light and motion.

The fact is, there is still a ton of stuff we don't fully understand, and then there are all the things that we don't even know we don't know.  The universe is full of mystery, and there will be plenty to keep scientists occupied for a very, very long time.

Take, for example, a paper last week in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society about a bizarre twist on an already poorly-understood phenomenon -- the fast radio burst.  These sudden explosive blasts in the radio region of the spectrum, lasting between 0.001 and 3 seconds, pack as much energy in that time as the entire Sun emits in three days.  Some are transient, but others -- like the euphoniously-named FRB 180916.J0158+65 -- have a regular periodicity, in this particular case 16.35 days.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons ESO/M. Kornmesser, Artist’s impression of a fast radio burst traveling through space and reaching Earth, CC BY 4.0]

Since their discovery in 2007, hundreds of fast radio bursts have been observed.  Given their unpredictability and ephemeral nature -- you have to have your radio telescope aimed at exactly the right place in the sky at exactly the right time, and you have a window of under three seconds to see them -- it's probable that they are insanely common, and we just miss 99% of them.  Canadian astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi estimates that over ten thousand fast radio bursts happen somewhere in the sky every single day, so there's potentially a huge amount of data out there to study if we can only figure out a way to observe them.

Explanations for what these things could be are all over the map, and include hitherto-unknown behavior of neutron stars, magnetars, black holes, collapsing/dying supergiant stars, or some combination thereof.

Or an alien intelligence trying to signal us.  Admit it, you knew this had to come up.

The bottom line is the astrophysicists still don't know what causes fast radio bursts, much less why some repeat and some don't.  And the whole thing just got a lot weirder with the discovery by observers at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, who found a fast radio burst that had 35 explosive outbursts -- and each one slid up the frequency scale before it ended, drawing comparisons to an enormous outer space slide whistle.

What could cause a fast radio burst to sweep up the frequency scale in that fashion is, at the moment, beyond guessing.  All we know is that is that what was already a mystery just became a hell of a lot more mysterious.

So I think Michelson may have been a wee bit hasty in proclaiming science to be settled except insofar as calculating things to six decimal places.  I suspect that a closer estimate -- if it were possible to do such a thing -- is that the bits of the universe we understand well are hugely outnumbered by the bits we still haven't a clue about.  I prefer the assessment made by Carl Sagan: "Out there, something incredible is still waiting to be known."


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