Astronomy lecture-workshop — Day 2

Today I attended the second day of the Science Academies’ lecture-workshop on astrophysics. Continuing from yesterday (you can read the update here), Professors G Srinivasan and Biman Nath gave their last lectures for this event. And two new speakers, Prof Uday Shankar, a radio astronomer at the Raman Research Institute and Dr Sreekumar, an ex-NASA scientist now working at ISRO, joined us with their lectures on Radio and X-ray Astrophysics respectively.

From Chandrashekhar to Hawking

Prof Srinivasan began from Chandrashekhar and his first attempt to understand White Dwarfs—or Quantum Stars as they were then called—and his further attempts when he arrived at what we now called the Chandrashekhar Limit. He explored the problems encountered, the concepts of Inverse Beta-Decay, neutron stars, predictions made by theories that came much later and so on, in trying to explain the various possible ends that stars may meet.

For the curious reader, apparently, a quake on a neutron star (owing to its density) will equal roughly 45 on the Richter scale on Earth. This is perhaps sufficient to shift the entire Earth from its orbital position!

Having then reached Einstein’s work, Schwarzchild’s solution of Einstein’s equations and the idea of Black Holes, Prof Srinivasan—who has worked with Roger Penrose and Hawking—spent some time sharing his experiences of those raging times when physicists all over the world—Beckenstein, Carter, Hawking, Israel, Kerr, Penrose and Zeldovich—were trying to figure out how, why and whether Black Holes would radiate.

With this ended his four lectures for this event and he left us having placed on the stage the current obstacles standing in the way between our understanding of the universe and the Theory of Everything.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy

In his final lecture of the workshop, Prof Nath explored the missing mass problem in the universe, the methods we adopt to detect Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and the formation of the first stars.

The problem he approached very systematically was how a dust grain is important to initiate the formation of a star, and—a dust grain necessarily being a heavy element—the early universe had non of it. This posed a problem as to how the very first stars formed. He explained the Hydrogen and electron addition to create a hydrogen molecule which, being the heaviest thing present then, acted as a sufficiently large ‘dust grain.’

Prof Nath explored the inhomogeneity in the cosmos and how it was increasing and causing matter to clump, providing such wonderful examples and simulations as the Millenium Simulation created by the Max Planck Institute. He ended his lecture brushing the concept of how one would detect intergalactic trace elements and how the planned Murchinson Widefield Array of telescopes in the West Australian desert is expected to ‘keep astrophysicists busy for the next decade or so.’

Radio Astronomy

Prof Uday Shankar’s first of two talks dealt with a broad introduction to Radio Astronomy, its usefulness and history and some technical aspects associated with it. In an hour sprinkled with informal communication and anecdotes of his own life as a student, Prof Shankar went on to explore how specific intensity of radio signals is dependent of spatial distribution of radio emission, its frequency, its wavelength, its polarisation studies and time period.

He related the times of Karl Jansky and Grote Reber and their discovery of radio astronomy as a science and building of the first radio telescope, respectively. He ended his introductory lecture listing the three major achievements of radio astronomy: the observations of the 21cm radiations of hydrogen; the detection of pulsars, quasars &c. and how it helped look back up to about 0.8 times the age of the universe; and, lastly, its discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiations.

Bremsstrahlung, Black Holes and Binary systems in X-ray astronomy

The emission of X-rays of various types, by various phenomenon, the expulsion of X-rays owing to accretion discs in binary systems and the role of the distance of the Innermost Stable Circular Orbit [ISCO] in black holes of the prograde, non-spinning and anterograde types formed the basis of Dr Sreekumar’s first lecture.

An ex-NASA physicist with a doctorate from the University of New Hampshire and presently working for ISRO, Dr Sreekumar had tonnes of experience and knowledge to share. His lucid explanation of how one ought to read a mapped version of the universe, understand Active Galactic Nuclei and the Unification Model made the splendid one hour seem to pass with unimaginable pleasure.

Promising to speak of ISRO’s forthcoming missions tomorrow—the last day of the workshop—Dr Sreekumar spoke of Bera Rubin, SOHO’s discoveries and the mysteries of the Sun’s corona, which we are yet to answer.

Thus ended the second day of the Astrophysics workshop. I decided to keep my explanation handy and brief so as not to bore my readers who are not particularly fond of physics jargon. The details of the day was as I have said and I would be more than happy to share my experiences in more detail if anybody would fancy learning how two days with great minds is. It does sound like fun, does it not?

In God we Trust?

[NB I often reblog my older articles—those worth a read—from my previous, fleeting weblog addresses. Today I give you one of my most controversial articles addressing the issues of the belief in a higher presence: scientists, theism and atheism. I, for one, am quite the atheist although they are, where I live, the persona non grata!]


We have seen, and not rarely at that, that the sensitive question of the presence of god has been openly debated by physicists. And, unlike it may appear at first, not all have debated against it. Indeed we have had a good number of them who have been firm believers in a God.

From Newton, who was an ardent believer in a supreme deity (in fact this belief in the unseen was what made Newton fall so easily for an unseen force in nature he called gravity,) to Einstein, who often referred to God as the old man in his writings, some of the greatest minds in physics have been ardent believers in the existence of God.

Perhaps we have not seen them speak very often or be carried away by His existence, but this is not the only reason why people often picture physicists almost as atheists. The actual reason, as physicist Michio Kaku points out, is a slight misunderstanding. It is because, when physicists speak of a God, they speak of a God of a kind dramatically different from that which the common man refers to. 

“Because the hyperspace theory has opened up new, profound links between physics and abstract mathematics, some people have accused scientists of creating a new theology based on mathematics.”

–Michio Kaku, in his book, Hyperspace

I find it rather surprising that I only recently read Hyperspace. But, in my defense, I was perhaps a little over one-year of age when the book was first written.

What particularly struck me about the book was its intense examination of science, society and religion towards the concluding end of the book.

‘We have rejected the mythology of religion,’ Kaku says, masterfully putting what I, myself, often tell many people, ‘only to embrace an even stranger religion based on curved space-time, particle symmetries and cosmic expansions.’

This is indeed true for it is not the first, and certainly will not be the last, time that any student of physics viewed his subject as his religion. While it may appear interesting to some to point out, at this juncture, at figures like Newton, we must understand that, while these physics giants did have extremely strong religious views and beliefs, they also studied physics with equal intensity.

I have brushed upon the question of physics replacing a Godly figure once before, in my earlier weblog, when I had commented on Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design (you can still read the article here.)

When I wrote that post there was a verbal cold war raging between Hawking and various factions siding with what I thought were extremist views of religion. The misquote (or perhaps misunderstanding, for that is one of the subtler talents of our media) of Hawking’s statement that the need for a supreme being has been replaced by physics, to mean physics has disproved the existence of God, kept fanatics of religion occupied for a good thirty days.

By the time the debate subsided (I would not say ended for nobody really knows which side won) Hawking’s book had shot to fame, I had read it, recommended it and reviewed it enough to know that what these two physicists had spoken of was really the unanimously approved idea among physics circles.

I had struggled with a good explanation for the concept because it was the kind that, while really being clear to us, was not something we could explain. But my struggle (not a literal one!) ended in rather a shock when I realised that the book that held a remarkable means of explanation of this idea had actually been written years ago. (This, in fact, reminded me of Veneziano’s and Suzuki’s stumbling upon mathematics that was decades old to explain a very modern problem–the string theory.)

Physicist Kaku’s idea, as he explains in his book, Hyperspace, is to create a distinction between the picture of God that scientists have in mind and the common man has in mind when debating this issue. He believes we can fork the word God as (i.e. to mean) either aGod of Miracles or a God of Order.

The common man’s idea of a God is of the God of Miracles. But, as is well-known, miracles  being hardly periodic, or even repetitive for that matter, are out-of-bounds of the explanation of science. In science we only explain things that are periodic, or at least repetitive, simply because only such phenomena really aid our technique of questioning, observation, theorising, prediction and experimentation.

The God of Miracles is what is supposed to correct unfavourable situations out of the blue, is supposed to take care of things you have disregarded yourself and is supposed to help you get rid of reaping the rotten harvest you sowed. I trust I have made my point.

Now the God of Order is the God most scientists refer to when debating such matters and it is the God they believe the common man has in mind too.

Let me explain this with an example: Einstein was a firm believer, unto death, that there was a certain divine order in the universe; that there was a subtle principle governing the universe. He likened the universe, therefore, to marble. He said that what we ought to do is clear out what is existent on the surface and uncover this underlying order.

This strikes me to be somewhat along the same lines as the freemasonry belief of ordo ab chao, meaning order from chaos.

The God of Order, thus, is that divine being (if such a being does, indeed, exist) who is responsible for the order in the universe.

The pivotal aspect here is not in the type or the classification of a God, which might even seem blasphemous to some, but is in the fact that, while the God of Miracles cannot be explained by science–and indeed we do not even attempt to do so–the God of Order is what we have been trying to understand in all the thousands of years of studying physics.

The God of Order is synonymous to order in the universe, the laws, the concepts and the ideologies that exist in physics; and this is our attempt at understanding how this being (if, I repeat, indeed there is such a being) works–and it is possible merely because, within our known, visible universe, this God of Order has a remarkably constant manner of functioning.

Our exploits, be it classical physics, relativistic physics or string theory, all are attempts (I daresay they are quite successful ones) at understanding how things work.

Some have asked me why we even need to do that; why can we not just let things work as they do? Why bother taking the trouble to understand them?

This question, it turns out, is not a new one. In fact the astronomer Johannes Kepler had answered this question finely back in the 16th century.

He likened the human mind to birds. His words, as best as I recall them, are these:

“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens.”

–Johannes Kepler

Returning to our present day (still ensuing) debate, I expect that this distinction (while some may detest it) will no doubt help reduce our misunderstandings; and also our problems with regard to blasphemous physicists trying to oust God from his omnipotent seat in some place as unknown to us as the underlying principles that the universe operates on.

What are your views?

15 of the best quotes from The Big Bang Theory

 

The 15 conversations/quotes I have listed below are among my many personal favourites. If you have any of your own, do share them below!

1.

Sheldon: I made tea. 
Leonard: I don’t want tea. 
Sheldon: I didn’t make tea for you. This is my tea. 
Leonard: Then why are you telling me? 
Sheldon: It’s a conversation starter. 
Leonard: That’s a lousy conversation starter. 
Sheldon: Oh, is it? We’re conversing. Checkmate.

2.

Sheldon: Why are you crying? 
Penny: Because I’m stupid! 
Sheldon: That’s no reason to cry. One cries because one is sad. For example, I cry because others are stupid, and that makes me sad.

3.

Raj: I don’t like bugs, okay? They freak me out.
Sheldon: Interesting. You’re afraid of insects and women. Ladybugs must render you catatonic.

4.

Leonard: For God’s sake, Sheldon, do I have to hold up a sarcasm sign every time I open my mouth?  
Sheldon (intrigued): You have a sarcasm sign?

5.

Sheldon: Under normal circumstances I’d say I told you so. But, as I have told so with such vehemence and frequency already the phrase has lost all meaning. Therefore, I will be replacing it with the phrase, I have informed you thusly.

6.

Sheldon: Proxima Centauri’s the nearest star. The celestial bodies that follow are:
Alpha Centauri A, Toli, Barnard’s Star, Wolf 359, Laland 21185, Sirius A, Sirius B, BL Ceti, UV Ceti, Ross 154, Ross 248, Epsilon Eridani,? Lac 9352, Ross 128, EZ Aquarii A, EZ Aquarii B,? EZ Aquarii C, Procyon A.
Those are the stars that are nearest to me,
Tra la la and fiddle dee dee!

7.

Sheldon: Is my hamburger medium-well? 
Leonard: Yes. 
Sheldon: Dill slices not sweet? 
Leonard: Yes. 
Sheldon: Individual relish packets? 
Leonard: Yes. 
Sheldon: Onion rings? 
Leonard: Yes. 
Sheldon: Extra-breading? 
Leonard: I asked. 
Sheldon: What did they say? 
Leonard: No. 
Sheldon: Did you protest? 
Leonard: Yes. 
Sheldon: Vociferously? 
Leonard: No. 
Sheldon: Well, then what took you so long?

8.

Wolowitz (watching America’s Next Top Model): Oh, look! That’s the future Mrs. Wolowitz. No, wait! That’s the future Mrs. Wolowitz. With her head in the lap of… what a coincidence… is the future Mrs. Wolowitz. 
Leonard: Yeah, and they can all move in with you and your mother. The current Mrs. Wolowitz.

9.

(Arguing over the name for their team after having jointly decided to take part in the University Physics Bowl:) 
Sheldon: Teams are traditionally named after fierce creatures thus intimidating one’s opponent. 
Raj: Then we could be the Bengal tigers. 
Sheldon: Poor choice. You know, gram for gram no animal exceeds the relative fighting strength of the army ant. 
Raj: Maybe so, but you can’t incinerate a Bengal tiger with a magnifying glass.

10.

Wolowitz: Raj, did you ever tell your sister about the time Sheldon got punched by Bill Gates?
Priya: Oh, God, you’re kidding.
Raj: No, Gates gave a speech at the university. Sheldon went up to him afterwards and said, “Maybe if you weren’t so distracted by sick children in Africa you could have put a little more thought into Windows Vista.”

11.

Stephanie: So, how was your day? 
Leonard: Y’know, I’m a physicist – I thought about stuff.
Stephanie: That’s it?
Leonard: I wrote some of it down.

12.

Leonard: I had a great idea. Do you know how we’re always having to stop and solve differential equations, like when you’re doing Fourier equations or using the Schroedinger equation?
Sheldon: Howard doesn’t, he’s only an engineer.

13.

Leonard: I love cheesecake. 
Sheldon: You’re lactose-intolerant. 
Leonard: I don’t eat it. I just think it’s a good idea.

14.

Sheldon: *On cinoyter screen* Greetings, hamburger toucher. You are probably wondering why you cannot IM with your little friends about how much you heart various things. Well, this recorded message is alerting you that I am putting an end to your parasitic piggybacking upon our WiFi. If you want to remedy the situation you can contact the phone company, set up your own WiFi and pay for it, or you may apologize to me.
Penny: Well?
Leonard: I reiterate, knuckle under.
Penny: No, no, no, no, no. It is on. I am gonna introduce your friend to a world of hurt.
Leonard: Oh, Penny, you don’t want to get into it with Sheldon. The guy is one lab accident away from being a supervillain.

15.

Sheldon: I need your help in a matter of semiotics.
Penny: What?
Sheldon: Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols as a branch of the philosophy related to linguistics.
Penny: Okay, honey, I know you think you are explaining yourself, but you’re really not.

On why aliens exist

Many circumstances have changed of late. India has entered, today, her 64th year of independence; the Hubble telescope discovered the beautiful Necklace Nebula; Jay Leno came up with a video metaphor for the US economy; a friend of mine returned to his blog after months of exile; and astronomers discovered an alien world blacker than coal, a Jupiter-sized exoplanet that radiates less than 1% sunlight incident on it (and I still maintain that TrES-2B can be used as a blackbody for an astronomical-scale experiment if we can find sufficient funding!)

Speaking of exoplanets, it occurs to me that the one debate that has never bothered to cool down has been that of the existence of aliens. This is exactly why I decided to examine where we now stand on this issue. But, before we go ahead, I must warn you that my opinions are rather biased for I take sides with the believers. If one sentence were to sum up my views on Alien life in outer space, I reckon it would be the famous statement from Carl Sagan’s (brilliant) novel, Contact:

“Do you think aliens exist out there in space?”

“I suppose if they don’t, it would be an awful waste of space.”

How alien life sprang

Considering that the requirements for aliens to live are pretty similar to those of humans (or organisms on earth, if you will) it would also necessarily mean that Aliens would not look different from us. As Hawking aptly puts it, they may already be among us.

I see an implication in this. For one, they definitely look like us. Also, they have to be scientifically advanced or they would not have been able to travel down here without our noticing it. Biologically, their skeletal structures can tell us how advanced they are based on how different/advanced their skulls (for instance) are. But then we would have to point them out with certainty first!

While we are on the topic of biological views, it is interesting to note that as recently as three decades ago, the scales had tipped in favour of the non-believers. In 1970, French biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod declared, rather outrageously, that “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance,” because the reigning belief was that life resulted from—as an article I recall, first published in Scientific American, put it—‘a chemical fluke so imporbable that it is unlikely to ever happen again.’

Christian de Duve, the Belgian biologist, countered this view in 1995 stating that life was a cosmic imperative almost bound to arise on any earth-like planet. This was good news for astrobiologists as it finally proves they were not a waste of tax-payers’ money. Recently, NYU’s Robert Shapiro dubbed this as biological determinism and said that the existence of life was well written into the laws of nature.

The Fermi Paradox

In a casual discussion regarding aliens with his colleagues, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi is said to have suddenly exclaimed, out of the blue, the words ‘Where are they?’ This seemingly unimportant sentence went to become one of the most famous paradoxes in all of physics. We are trying to answer these to this day and Fermi’s speedy estimation based upon the then-known latest statistical data of the universe and its objects continues to elude us. It is perhaps the one largest obstacle to believers.

I will not dwell upon the maths involved, but, in a nutshell, the idea is that a fairly accurate estimation of the number of planets in existence and other similar factors within the known universe clearly point out to the fact that aliens—if they did exist—should have visited us a long time ago and repeatedly ever since. And if they are indeed doing so, where are they?

The Drake Equation

Drake substituted the data as follows, from his 1961 estimates:

N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10 civilizations in our galaxy

However, based on the present lower estimates: 

N = 6 × 0.5 × 2 × 0.33 × 1×10-7 × 0.01 × 420 = 8.316×10^-7 = 0.0000008 civilizations in our galaxy

The basic ideas therefore are simply this: back in 1961, our probability estimate was 0.08 and now (with more accurate estimates) it comes down dramatically to 0.0000008. And yet, why do we believe in alien existence?

The Anthropic Principle

In support of Fermi’s idea, it is important to note how, in spite of our above observations, in our galaxy there has to exist (by definition) at least one civilisation of intelligent life.

Fermi worked on the assumption that there exists only one civilisation in the galaxy capable of intersidereal travel at speeds incomparable to that of light. That said, if this civilisation was interested in galactic conquest (for that is how the human mind works—or at least that is how Fermi pictured it) then, given that the geometrically progressing number of ships to travel in, made up for the low speed of travelling, it would take no more than 10 million years for them to colonise the entire galaxy—a small number considering that our universe is 13 billion years old!

My argument

Some of you might still be wondering why I still support the believers. While there appears to be a mountain of an observation opposing the idea, there is one fatal flaw.

If everything the non-believers say is still true, then it would necessarily mean that the civilisation of extraterrestrials in question is far more technologically advanced than us.

As some scientists point out, at the present rate of wireless information transport system we are developing on Earth, it would be a matter of a few years before the Earth went silent. To expand on this prophesy, our present satellite communication systems have the habit of adding to the cosmic background radiations (in a way, creating a lot of noise,) while they are in the process of transferring data.

This means that the Earth and in turn the civilisation on it would be detectable by extraterrestrials when they map the almost uncanny expulsion of such electromagnetic radiation/waves. Given that, in a few years, new technology would replace the present ones to create an almost noiseless system for said purpose, it would make Earth stand out less. If our planet would be discovered, it would be through the same means that we employ in our Kepler satellite. That is to say, there would be absolutely no way to determine the existence of a civilisation on earth unless we sent out a beam of EM waves on purpose; or they actually took the trouble of coming down here to observe us with their own two (or more) eyes.

Having previously seen that the galactic-conquering civilisation is, by natural requirement, technologically more advanced, it would mean that they have passed this stage and therefore cannot be detected by any means we have now. In other words, to detect a civilisation, we ought to have technology advanced enough to gather their spatial footprints. And, since we are not more advanced, there would be no way of determining if anybody is out there. This leaves open the possibility that there could, indeed, be somebody there else (as I said previously) it would be an awful waste of space!

An absurdity to conclude with

A strange-looking website recently quizzed and categorised me as a mid-level nerd (whatever that means) but, having the term nerd in the equation would easily explain my fascination for everything from outerspace and fantasy: Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The Big Bang Theory, LOTR, superheroes, comics, action figures and the list can go on! It would perhaps not surprise you when I say I have yet another seemingly absurd belief to which I have found no worthy counter-argument (yet!) And, parenthetically, it is an amusing situation to picture.

What if we, on earth, are the galactic-conquering civilisation we spoke of earlier? What is we, perhaps, are the ones who were brought to earth to settle in place of its original, scientifically-backward inhabitants (like the neanderthals?) What if the reason we haven’t been visited by anybody is because everybody else has already been conquered? (As I said, there is sufficient time to conquer a few galactic clusters—and 13 billion is only the age of the visible universe, and not the absolute value!) What if—and I may be trespassing onto Sci-Fi lands here—we are the guinea pigs of our own civilisation, let to start from scratch, allowed to see a fictionalised human history and evolution, and eventually bound to be captured only to be replaced by more game? After all, we see what we want to see.

Silly as it may seem, you will find no logical, scientifically approving opposition for any of the questions I posed in the previous paragraph. And, while we will get an answer in the future, it would serve as a compelling plot to a Sci-Fi book if I ever decide to write one.

In the meanwhile, you might want to take up sides with the believers or non-believers. One question I would humbly request you to ask yourself in the process is, are you arrogant enough to believe that the entire universe was created for just one civilisation, living on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

Or you can just watch Discovery’s latest take on this topic, Curiosity, read the currently trending Twitter topic, which, for reasons beyond me, happens to be #AlienInvasion; and then comment below on what you think. Do Aliens exist?

Peter Walker

The supreme arrogance of religious thinking: that a carbon-based bag of mostly water on a speck of iron-silicate dust around a boring dwarf star in a minor galaxy in an underpopulated local group of galaxies in an unfashionable suburb of a supercluster would look up at the sky and declare, ‘It was all made so that I could exist!’