Thursday, September 25, 2014
Location to be announced

2014 Caltech Teaching Conference

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Avery Library – Avery House

Semana Latina Keynote Speaker – Dr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Friday, May 16, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

The Role of Writing in Building a Research Career

50 Years Ago: The First Look at a Dry Mars

In 1964, Caltech astronomy professor Guido Münch and Jet Propulsion Laboratory space scientists Lewis Kaplan and Hyron Spinrad pushed the world's second-largest telescope to its limits and dashed—at least for the next few decades—any hopes of finding liquid water on Mars.

Back in the late 1800s, it was widely assumed that Mars was a planet with abundant water, just like Earth. Astronomers were mapping Mars's polar caps, which advanced and retreated as the seasons changed; a dark "wave," apparently of vegetation, which swept from the pole toward the equator every spring; and even ruler-straight lines that might have been canals dug by an alien civilization. Today, we know that the ice caps grow larger because the winters are cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide right out of Mars's thin air; the seasonal darkening is a wind-driven redistribution of the dust that blankets the planet; and the canals were optical illusions enhanced by wishful thinking.

The notion of a moist Mars began to evaporate at the turn of the 20th century. In 1909, Lick Observatory dispatched a team of astronomers to climb Mount Whitney—whose summit, at 14,500 feet, rises above some four-fifths of Earth's atmospheric water vapor. Pointing a small telescope at Mars, the team measured no water vapor in excess of that in the rarefied air around them, although observatory director William Wallace Campbell cautioned the Associated Press that their technique, "the only method known, is not a sensitive one." Campbell diplomatically noted that "the question of life under these conditions is the biologist's problem rather than the astronomer's."

Bigger telescopes make for more sensitive measurements, and by the 1920s the world's largest telescopes were just north of Pasadena at the Mount Wilson Observatory. In 1926, observatory director Walter Adams and Charles St. John wrote in the Astrophysical Journal that "the quantity of water-vapor in the atmosphere of Mars, area for area, was 6 per cent of that over Mount Wilson . . . This indicates extreme desert conditions over the greater portion of the Martian hemisphere toward us at the time." The 60-inch telescope they used was second in size and power only to the adjacent 100-inch Hooker telescope, with which Adams revisited the question in 1937 and 1939 and revised his figures downward. In 1941 he wrote, "If water vapor lines are present . . . they cannot be more than 5 per cent as strong as in the earth's atmosphere and are probably very much less."

The "lines" Adams referred to are spectral ones. The spectrum of light contains all the colors of the rainbow, plus wavelengths beyond, that we can't see. Every gas in the atmosphere—both Earth's and Mars's—absorbs a specific collection of these colors. Passing the light from a telescope through a device called a spectrograph spreads out the rainbow and reveals the missing wavelengths, allowing the gases that absorbed them to be identified.

In those days, spectra were usually recorded as shades of gray on glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion—essentially the same technique photographer Matthew Brady had used to document the Civil War. Once the plates were developed, the missing wavelengths showed up as black lines that were painstakingly analyzed under a microscope. Each line's location indicated its wavelength, while its darkness and thickness were related to the absorber's abundance. And therein lay the problem: the wide, black blots left on the plate by Earth's dense blanket of air made the thin, faint lines from the tenuous atmosphere of Mars hard to see, let alone measure. The best opportunities to find the lines occur at approximately two-year intervals. Earth travels in a tighter orbit around the sun than Mars does, and as we pass Mars on the inside track our close approach maximizes the apparent difference in our velocities. This shifts Mars's spectrum ever so slightly away from Earth's—if you have an instrument powerful enough to discern the separation.

Unfortunately, some passes are closer than others. When Earth overtook Mars in 1963, the latter was at the point in its orbit most distant from the sun. Although the two planets were as close to each other as they were going to get that time around, the velocity effect was minimized—imagine looking out the window of a moving train at a distant farmhouse instead of the nearby telephone poles. But the Hooker's spectrograph had recently been upgraded; Kaplan and Spinrad were expert spectroscopists; and Münch was a wizard at making very sensitive emulsions, so the trio decided to look for the lines anyway. With little prospect for success, the experiment was allotted a set of low-value nights that began more than two months after Earth had passed Mars and started to pull ahead. At its closest approach, Mars had been 62,000,000 miles away; by the time Münch and company got their turn at the telescope, that distance had nearly doubled. Their telescope was no longer the best available, having been overtaken as the world's largest by the 200-inch Hale telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory. Even the weather conspired against them; four nights of work yielded exactly one usable exposure.

But as Münch wrote in the January 1964 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, that "strongly hypersensitized" plate gave "a spectrogram of excellent quality which shows faint but unmistakable lines which have been ascribed to H20 in Mars' atmosphere . . . After comparing our plate with other ones found in the Mount Wilson files, we have convinced ourselves that ours is the spectrogram of Mars with the highest resolving power ever taken."

Even so, the lines were barely strong enough to be usable. The preliminary water-vapor calculation, announced in May 1963, had an error factor of 10. It would take another six months to work out the definitive number—a figure equivalent to 0.01 ± 0.006 per cent of the amount of water vapor over Mount Wilson, and 100 times less than the 6 percent Adams and St. John had referred to as "extreme desert conditions" 40 years earlier. Furthermore, a slightly stronger carbon dioxide line enabled a direct estimate of Mars's atmospheric pressure: 25 millibars (2.5 percent of Earth's surface pressure)—one-quarter of the best previous estimates. (Munch and his collaborators noted in passing that although their value for carbon dioxide was not itself surprising, "what would appear indeed surprising is that the . . . value for the atmospheric pressure [is] so low that CO2 itself becomes a major constituent"—entirely unlike Earth, where nitrogen and oxygen make up 99 percent of the air we breathe.) Based on these results, Mars was now officially as arid as the moon, and nearly as airless.

Confirmation would follow in 1965, when JPL's Mariner 4 became the first spacecraft to visit Mars. The behavior of Mariner's radio signal as the spacecraft passed behind Mars revealed that its actual atmospheric pressure was lower still: 5 to 9 millibars, or less than 1 percent of Earth's. And the 20 televised pictures of Mars's cratered, moonlike surface—some shot from as little as 6,000 miles above it—cemented the comparison.

Professor of Physics Robert Leighton (BS '41, MS '44, PhD '47), who had been the principal investigator on Mariner 4's Television Experiment, as it was called, and Associate Professor of Planetary Science Bruce Murray, a member of the TV team, would use Münch's and Mariner's data as cross-checks on a detailed thermal model of Mars that they wrote for Caltech's IBM 7094 mainframe computer—a pioneering feat in its own right. Their results, published in 1966, correctly predicted that most of Mars's carbon dioxide was actually not in the atmosphere, but instead lay locked up in the polar caps in the form of dry ice; the paper also made the unprecedented suggestion that seasonal advance of each polar cap would freeze out so much carbon dioxide that the atmospheric pressure would drop by as much as 20 percent twice every Mars year. These predictions have since been confirmed many times over, and form part of our basic understanding of how Mars works.

And what of water on present-day Mars, which is where this story began? Leighton and Murray wrote that "considerable quantities of water-ice permafrost may be present in the subsurface of the polar regions" just a few tens of centimeters down—permafrost that was finally discovered in 2002 by JPL's Mars Odyssey mission. 

Writer: 
Douglas Smith
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community
Friday, May 30, 2014

Caltech Teaching Assistant Training for 2014-2015 Year

Markovic Elected to Great Britain's Royal Society

Vladimir Markovic, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Mathematics at Caltech, has been named a fellow of Great Britain's Royal Society. He is one of 50 new fellows and 10 foreign members elected in 2014. Markovic's election brings to seven the number of fellows and foreign members of the Royal Society currently on the Caltech faculty.

Membership in the Royal Society is bestowed each year on a small number of the world's scientists. The oldest scientific academy in existence, the Royal Society was established in 1660 under the patronage of King Charles II for the purpose of "improving natural knowledge," and it helped usher in the age of modern science. Today, the society seeks to promote science leaders who champion innovation for the benefit of humanity and the planet.

Markovic studies the shapes and structures of mathematical spaces called manifolds. A line is a one-dimensional manifold while a plane would be two-dimensional. In its citation for Markovic, the Royal Society wrote, "Markovic is a world leader in the area of quasiconformal homeomorphisms and low dimensional topology and geometry. He has solved many famous and difficult problems. With Jeremy Kahn, he proved William Thurston's key conjecture that every closed hyperbolic 3-manifold contains an almost geodesic immersed surface."

In 2004, Markovic received awards recognizing his early career achievements from the London Mathematical Society and the Leverhulme Trust. In 2012, he was awarded the Clay Research Award. Earlier this year, he was an invited speaker at the International Congress of Mathematics in Seoul, South Korea.

Born in Germany, Markovic earned a BSc and PhD from the University of Belgrade in Serbia in 1995 and 1998, respectively. Before joining the Caltech faculty as a professor in 2011, he was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, an associate professor at SUNY Stony Brook, and a professor at the University of Warwick. He was named Caltech's John D. MacArthur Professor of Mathematics in 2013.

 Markovic is currently on leave, teaching at the University of Cambridge.

Writer: 
Kimm Fesenmaier
Home Page Title: 
Mathematician Elected to Royal Society
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community

To Supernova or Not to Supernova: A 3-D Model of Stellar Core Collapse

What happens when massive stars collapse? One potential result is a core-collapse supernova. Astronomers can make observations of such events that tell us what is happening on the surface of a star when it explodes in a supernova, but it is considerably more difficult to know what is driving the process inside the star at its hot, dense core.

Astrophysicists attempt to simulate these events based on the properties of different kinds of stars and knowledge of the fundamental interactions of mass and energy, hopefully providing astronomers with ready predictions that can be tested with observational data.

In a recent publication, Caltech postdoctoral scholar Philipp Mösta and Christian Ott, professor of theoretical astrophysics, present a three-dimensional model of a rapidly rotating star with a strong magnetic field undergoing the process of collapse and explosion . . . or at least trying to.

Stars with a very rapid spin and a strong magnetic field are comparatively rare: no more than one in a hundred massive stars (those at least 10 times the mass of our sun) have these features. According to Mösta and Ott's research, when these bodies undergo core collapse, small perturbations around its axis of rotation may inhibit the process that would ordinarily lead to a supernova explosion.

Previous models of the collapse of rapidly rotating magnetized stellar cores assumed perfect symmetry around the axis of rotation. In effect, these models were two-dimensional. The models yielded the expectation that as these cores collapsed, the strong magnetic field combined with the rapid spin would squeeze the stellar material out into two narrow "jets" along the axis of symmetry, as shown at left.

Assuming perfect symmetry around the axis of rotation can be excused in part as a matter of simplifying the scenario so that it could be simulated on an ordinary computer rather than the kind of supercomputer that Mösta and Ott's three-dimensional simulations require: 20,000 processors to output 500 terabytes—over 500 trillion bytes—of  data that represent only some 200 milliseconds in time. But, says Ott, "Even working with paper and pencil, writing down equations and discussing them with other theoretical astrophysicists, we should have known that small perturbations can trigger an instability in the stellar core. Nothing in nature is perfect. As we learn from this model, even small asymmetries can have a dramatic effect on the process of stellar collapse and the subsequent supernova explosion."

When Mösta and Ott took on the ambitious task of simulating a magnetorotational core collapse in three dimensions, they introduced a small asymmetry into their initial conditions: a 1 percent perturbation (a kink) around the axis of symmetry. "You can think of it like the vertebrae in your spine," says Ott. "If one vertebra is slightly offset, there will be greater pressure on one side of the spinal column, and less pressure on the other side. This causes the disk and the material between the vertebrae to be squeezed toward the side with less pressure. The same thing happens when you introduce a kink in the axis of symmetry of a collapsing star with a strong magnetic field."

With an ever-so-slightly distorted magnetic field, the core is still constrained in the middle, just as it is in the axially symmetric model. But instead of producing two perfectly matched jets, the magnetic distortion—it is called a "kink instability"—produces two asymmetric, misshapen lobes, as shown at right. "Even more noteworthy," says Mösta, "is the fact that in the three-dimensional model, the explosion—the supernova—never quite gets off the ground."

This slideshow illustrates the three-dimensional simulation in a step-by-step fashion.

Setting the two simulations—two-dimensional and three-dimensional—alongside one another provide a dramatic visualization of the impact of even a small asymmetry in a rapidly-rotating, magnetized body. In a video that compares the two, 186 milliseconds of core collapse are slowed to fill two minutes of real time. The two events look very similar for about 20 milliseconds, before the kink instability in the three-dimensional model begins to deform the stellar core and constrain its progress toward supernova.

The kink instability in the three-dimensional simulation leads to a "wobbling" of the central funnel of material that is pushed out by the ultra-dense and hot stellar core, a proto-neutron star. "As the material expands, it gets wound in tubes around the spin axis of the star, like water being expelled vigorously from a garden hose left lying on the ground," says Mösta. In the three-dimensional view illustrated here, regions in which the magnetic field pressure dominates are yellow, while regions that are dominated by the normal pressure of the stellar gas are blue, red, and black.

Unlike the two-dimensional, axially symmetric simulations with their uniform jets along the axis of rotation, the three-dimensional simulations of Mösta and Ott result in two lobes of twisted and highly magnetized material that are only slowly pushed outward and do not show signs of a runaway explosion at the end of the simulation. More and longer simulations on more powerful supercomputers will be needed to determine the final fate of core collapse in a rapidly rotating magnetized star.

"We can be smarter in our simulations now," says Ott. "We are wrestling with a more interesting if less perfect universe—the one we actually live in."

The paper, "Magnetorotational Core-collapse Supernovae in Three Dimensions," appeared in the April 3, 2014, issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters and is authored by Mösta, Ott, Sherwood Richers, Roland Haas, Anthony Piro, Kristen Boydstun, Ernazar Abdikamalov, and Christian Reisswig, all of Caltech, and Erik Schnetter of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in  Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and NASA.

Writer: 
Cynthia Eller
Home Page Title: 
To Supernova or Not to Supernova
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News

Simulating Milliseconds of Stellar Collapse: A Conversation with Christian Ott

Theoretical astrophysicists infer what sort of physical processes might cause the observed behavior of the universe; observational astrophysicists—astronomers—observe the universe to determine what is out there and how it is behaving.

Theoretical and observational astrophysics overlap more often than you might think. Astrophysicists with their varying specializations are in constant conversation with one another, weighing theory against observation and vice versa. Certainly this is true in the area of gravitational waves, first theorized by Albert Einstein nearly a hundred years ago as part of his general theory of relativity. While gravity is weak compared to other forces in the universe, gravitational waves actually squeeze and ripple space-time, creating physical effects in the universe that have not been successfully explained by any other mechanism.

There is excellent observational evidence for the existence of gravitational waves, including the behavior of the Hulse-Taylor pulsar, a binary system first discovered in 1974, and the recent finding by Caltech professor Jamie Bock and his coauthors that the cosmic microwave background has a polarization pattern specific to the gravitational waves that would have been released during the period of rapid inflation at the beginning of the universe. As of today, however, gravitational waves have not been directly detected, though not for want of trying. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), a collaboration between Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently being refitted with a new technology called Advanced LIGO. When Advanced LIGO goes online in 2015, there is hope that it will be able to directly detect gravitational waves as they come to the earth.

Christian Ott, professor of theoretical astrophysics at Caltech, is eagerly awaiting data from Advanced LIGO. Ott formulates scenarios for what happens when stars collapse, and one result of stellar collapse is the rapid release of gravitational waves, just the kind that LIGO hopes to detect.

Much about the collapse of massive stars is well understood. But there are crucial hundreds of milliseconds in this process that determine whether a star will collapse into a black hole or into a neutron star, and these milliseconds are still a matter of highly educated and informed speculation. It is these fractions of a second that consume Ott's interest. His scenarios for stellar collapse are stories told with multiple terabytes of computer memory and petaflops of computing power—stories that are plausible, but whose truth is still unknown. One day detections of gravitational waves will help to confirm or contradict the models of stellar collapse that Ott is creating.

How did you get interested in astrophysics?

I've had an interest in this since I was a child growing up near Frankfurt, Germany. My father was an amateur astronomer. We had a small telescope at home, and we would look at the stars and the planets and the moon. After high school I chose to go to Heidelberg University to study physics and astronomy. As a freshman I read a book by Kip Thorne (Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus) in German translation: Black Holes and Time Warps. He has a way of explaining these things so that even a layperson can understand them, and I became fascinated with black holes, neutron stars, and regions of strongly curved space-time. Honestly, Caltech seemed to me to be some mythical place. I wasn't even daring to dream about a place like this, and now I'm a professor here. It seems crazy to me.

What spurred your interest in gravitational waves?

Heidelberg University has an exchange program with the University of Arizona, so I came to spend a year there during college. Shortly after I arrived, I was telling a graduate student about my interest in neutron stars and black holes, and he recommended that I talk to Professor Adam Burrows, now at Princeton University. I wasn't too excited about gravitational waves at that point. I remember that quite well. But Professor Burrows set me to work on calculating gravitational waves from supernovae. That was 2001, and I've been working on similar questions ever since.

What do you find exciting about supernovae?

What most people don't realize is that without supernova explosions, we wouldn't be here.

There are two kinds of supernova explosions. Type Ia, those that come from white dwarf stars, are responsible for about 80 percent of the iron in the universe, and core-collapse supernovae, or Type II, which come from massive stars, are responsible for the remaining 20 percent of the iron. Without supernovae, there wouldn't be iron for our blood; there wouldn't be iron in Earth's core; there wouldn't be iron to make steel. Type II supernovae are also responsible for most of the oxygen and carbon in the universe. Without this enrichment of heavy elements, there would be no life, there would be no planets . . . it would be a pretty boring place.

So blowing stuff up and chemically polluting the universe, as supernovae do, is crucially important. But for fundamental physics, it's actually more interesting to examine the collapse itself.

The physics of stars up to that time is pretty well understood: we know where the pressure comes from in the iron core of a star; we know about thermonuclear reactions. However, as a star collapses the core becomes unbelievably dense. Eventually the electrons, which are exerting pressure in the opposite direction of gravity, are themselves squeezed out in a process called electron capture. In electron capture, a proton and an electron combine to make a neutron and a neutrino, a tiny subatomic particle with no electrical charge. When all of the neutrons and protons are packed together that tightly, the nuclear force kicks in. Usually the nuclear force binds protons and neutrons together, but when you try to squeeze protons and neutrons too close to one another, the nuclear force acts in the opposite direction: it has the effect of an outward pressure against the gravitational pull of a collapsing star. We don't understand this mechanism very well, but if we didn't have the nuclear force, all stars would collapse to black holes. There would be no neutron stars or supernovae. As it is, there are three outcomes we know of when stars collapse: Stars can collapse directly into black holes with no supernova; they can experience a weak supernova and a collapse into a neutron star that then collapses into a black hole within hours or days; or there can be a strong supernova that leaves a neutron star behind, apparently forever.

What determines whether stellar collapses result in neutron stars rather than black holes?

You tell me.

You don't know?

It's what we call "an area of active research." Advanced LIGO should help us to answer this question. When you see supernovae with telescopes, you're looking at optical waves, and these come pretty late in the process of stellar collapse; it's not easily connected to what's actually happening deep inside the star. A star collapse is a highly energetic event and should create substantial gravitational waves. When we detect gravitational waves, we will get information about what is going on earlier in the process. Depending on the precise shape—the amplitudes and frequencies—of the gravitational waves we detect, we can get a finer sense of exactly what is happening in the core of a star when it collapses.

Gravitational waves would arrive on Earth up to a day before we would see the light from the supernova, depending on how far away from us the supernova occurs. The same is true of neutrinos. Although neutrinos are remarkably tiny, a supernova produces an enormous quantity of neutrinos that fly out into the universe. When a star collapses, 99 percent of the gravitational energy released goes into neutrinos; only a tiny portion of the remainder takes the form of gravitational waves. We can already detect neutrinos on Earth, and we have even detected them directly from a supernova in 1987 that occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbor galaxy of our Milky Way. If a stellar collapse occurs anywhere near us, we should detect tens of thousands of neutrinos.

So if you detected these specific gravitational waves or a lot of neutrinos, you could alert the entire scientific community to point their telescopes at the sky the next day to see the supernova?

No! I would tell everyone to turn their big telescopes away, so the instruments would not be destroyed! Imagine if Betelgeuse blows up in a supernova—it's a red supergiant star twenty times the mass of the sun. If that goes, it's going to be as bright as the full moon for an entire month. At the very least, astronomers would need to put filters on their telescopes to protect them from the intense light.

Writer: 
Cynthia Eller
Home Page Title: 
Simulating Milliseconds of Stellar Collapse
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No

Fu, Harrison, and Preskill Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Three professors at Caltech have been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The announcement was made Tuesday, April 29, in Washington D.C.

The new Caltech electees are Gregory C. Fu, Altair Professor of Chemistry; Fiona A. Harrison, Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics; and John P. Preskill, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics.

Fu is a synthetic organic chemist focusing on transition-metal catalysis and nucleophilic catalysis. He is currently developing enantioselective reactions and exploring the use of copper and nickel catalysts. In 2012, Fu won the Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society. He is a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2007) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (2005).

Harrison specializes in observational and experimental high-energy astrophysics. She is the principal investigator for NASA's NuSTAR Explorer Mission. Harrison is recognized for her leadership in the design, development and launch of NuSTAR, as well as leading the team in the mission's scientific return.  As a result of almost two decades of technology development, NuSTAR is revolutionizing our view of the high-energy X-ray sky. Harrison was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014, was elected as a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2012, and won a NASA Outstanding Public Leadership Medal in 2013.

Preskill is a theoretical physicist who began his career in particle physics (in particular, the interface between particle physics and cosmology) before moving to a specialization in quantum information and quantum computing. In 2000, Preskill founded the Institute for Quantum Information with the aim of harnessing principles of quantum mechanics to aid in particularly challenging information-processing tasks. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

The election of Fu, Harrison, and Preskill brings the total Caltech membership to 75 faculty and three trustees.

Writer: 
Cynthia Eller
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community

The Intergalactic Medium Unveiled: Caltech's Cosmic Web Imager Directly Observes "Dim Matter"

Caltech astronomers have taken unprecedented images of the intergalactic medium (IGM)—the diffuse gas that connects galaxies throughout the universe—with the Cosmic Web Imager, an instrument designed and built at Caltech. Until now, the structure of the IGM has mostly been a matter for theoretical speculation. However, with observations from the Cosmic Web Imager, deployed on the Hale 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory, astronomers are obtaining our first three-dimensional pictures of the IGM. The Cosmic Web Imager will make possible a new understanding of galactic and intergalactic dynamics, and it has already detected one possible spiral-galaxy-in-the-making that is three times the size of our Milky Way.

The Cosmic Web Imager was conceived and developed by Caltech professor of physics Christopher Martin. "I've been thinking about the intergalactic medium since I was a graduate student," says Martin. "Not only does it comprise most of the normal matter in the universe, it is also the medium in which galaxies form and grow."

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, theoreticians have predicted that primordial gas from the Big Bang is not spread uniformly throughout space, but is instead distributed in channels that span galaxies and flow between them. This "cosmic web"—the IGM—is a network of smaller and larger filaments crisscrossing one another across the vastness of space and back through time to an era when galaxies were first forming and stars were being produced at a rapid rate.

Martin describes the diffuse gas of the IGM as "dim matter," to distinguish it from the bright matter of stars and galaxies, and the dark matter and energy that compose most of the universe. Though you might not think so on a bright sunny day or even a starlit night, fully 96 percent of the mass and energy in the universe is dark energy and dark matter (first inferred by Caltech's Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s), whose existence we know of only due to its effects on the remaining 4 percent that we can see: normal matter. Of this 4 percent that is normal matter, only one-quarter is made up of stars and galaxies, the bright objects that light our night sky. The remainder, which amounts to only about 3 percent of everything in the universe, is the IGM.

As Martin's name for the IGM suggests, "dim matter" is hard to see. Prior to the development of the Cosmic Web Imager, the IGM was observed primarily via foreground absorption of light—indicating the presence of matter—occurring between Earth and a distant object such as a quasar (the nucleus of a young galaxy).

"When you look at the gas between us and a quasar, you have only one line of sight," explains Martin. "You know that there's some gas farther away, there's some gas closer in, and there's some gas in the middle, but there's no information about how that gas is distributed across three dimensions."

Matt Matuszewski, a former graduate student at Caltech who helped to build the Cosmic Web Imager and is now an instrument scientist at Caltech, likens this line-of-sight view to observing a complex cityscape through a few narrow slits in a wall: "All you would know is that there is some concrete, windows, metal, pavement, maybe an occasional flash of color. Only by opening the slit can you see that there are buildings and skyscrapers and roads and bridges and cars and people walking the streets. Only by taking a picture can you understand how all these components fit together, and know that you are looking at a city."

Martin and his team have now seen the first glimpse of the city of dim matter. It is not full of skyscrapers and bridges, but it is both visually and scientifically exciting.

The first cosmic filaments observed by the Cosmic Web Imager are in the vicinity of two very bright objects: a quasar labeled QSO 1549+19 and a so-called Lyman alpha blob in an emerging galaxy cluster known as SSA22. These objects were chosen by Martin for initial observations because they are bright, lighting up the surrounding IGM and boosting its detectable signal.

Observations show a narrow filament, one million light-years long, flowing into the quasar, perhaps fueling the growth of the galaxy that hosts the quasar. Meanwhile, there are three filaments surrounding the Lyman alpha blob, with a measured spin that shows that the gas from these filaments is flowing into the blob and affecting its dynamics.

The Cosmic Web Imager is a spectrographic imager, taking pictures at many different wavelengths simultaneously. This is a powerful technique for investigating astronomical objects, as it makes it possible to not only see these objects but to learn about their composition, mass, and velocity. Under the conditions expected for cosmic web filaments, hydrogen is the dominant element and emits light at a specific ultraviolet wavelength called Lyman alpha. Earth's atmosphere blocks light at ultraviolet wavelengths, so one needs to be outside Earth's atmosphere, observing from a satellite or a high-altitude balloon, to observe the Lyman alpha signal.

However, if the Lyman alpha emission lies much further away from us—that is, it comes to us from an earlier time in the universe—then it arrives at a longer wavelength (a phenomenon known as redshifting). This brings the Lyman alpha signal into the visible spectrum such that it can pass through the atmosphere and be detected by ground-based telescopes like the Cosmic Web Imager.

The objects the Cosmic Web Imager has observed date to approximately 2 billion years after the Big Bang, a time of rapid star formation in galaxies. "In the case of the Lyman alpha blob," says Martin, "I think we're looking at a giant protogalactic disk. It's almost 300,000 light-years in diameter, three times the size of the Milky Way."

The Cosmic Web Imager was funded by grants from the NSF and Caltech. Having successfully deployed the instrument at the Palomar Observatory, Martin's group is now developing a more sensitive and versatile version of the Cosmic Web Imager for use at the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. "The gaseous filaments and structures we see around the quasar and the Lyman alpha blob are unusually bright. Our goal is to eventually be able to see the average intergalactic medium everywhere. It's harder, but we'll get there," says Martin.

Plans are also under way for observations of the IGM from a telescope aboard a high-altitude balloon, FIREBALL (Faint Intergalactic Redshifted Emission Balloon); and from a satellite, ISTOS (Imaging Spectroscopic Telescope for Origins Surveys). By virtue of bypassing most, if not all, of our atmosphere, both instruments will enable observations of Lyman alpha emission—and therefore the IGM—that are closer to us; that is, that are from more recent epochs of the universe.

Two papers describing the initial data from the Cosmic Web Imager have been published in the Astrophysical Journal: "Intergalactic Medium Observations with the Cosmic Web Imager: I. The Circum-QSO Medium of QSO 1549+19, and Evidence for a Filamentary Gas Inflow" and "Intergalactic Medium Observations with the Cosmic Web Imager: II. Discovery of Extended, Kinematically-linked Emission around SSA22 Lyα Blob 2." The Cosmic Web Imager was built principally by three Caltech graduate students—the late Daphne Chang, Matuszewski, and Shahinur Rahman—and by Caltech principal research scientist Patrick Morrissey, who are all coauthors on the papers. Additional coauthors are Martin, Anna Moore, Charles Steidel, and Yuichi Matsuda.

Writer: 
Cynthia Eller
Home Page Title: 
The Intergalactic Medium Unveiled
Listing Title: 
Cosmic Web Imager Directly Observes "Dim Matter"
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News

Pages