Between a Molecule and a Star

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on

This a brief follow-up on my most recent post about some of Alan Lightman’s writing. In that one, I was writing about an essay collected in one of his books. In another essay in that book, “A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court,” a time traveler to the past tries to convince people he is not crazy and really is from the future. He tells them about the science of the future. Unfortunately, he is not a scientist and his grasp of things like television and quantum physics is – like most of us – quite superficial. He is put on trial and judged by science minds of the time. Thomas Edison is one who is not convinced about his time traveling or the science he tries to relate to the court.

In another piece, Isaac Newton comes to Lightman’s MIT university office. Alan has trouble convincing Isaac about where science is today too. Explaining science to non-scientists (or scientists of the past) is not easy, but it is important.

I have read a small shelf of books by Lightman starting with Einstein’s Dreams which I read when it was the assigned freshman common book for my son at Virginia Tech. The book imagines many dreams Einstein might have had as he worked through his theories. I skimmed it again today when I took out my grandfather’s pipe again since I knew Einstein was a pipe smoker. I found this little passage:

Einstein and Besso sit in a small fishing boat at anchor in the river. Besso is eating a cheese sandwich while Einstein puffs on his pipe and slowly reels in a lure.
“Do you usually catch anything here, smack in the middle of the Aare?” asks
Besso, who has never been fishing with Einstein before.
“Never,” answers Einstein, who continues to cast.

Ah, yes. Sitting and fishing and smoking a pipe and not expecting (perhaps not wanting) to catch a fish seems like a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Trout season opened in New Jersey last weekend. I surveyed people fishing at a local lake and there were serious anglers, parents, and kids trying for the first time and some people who seemed happy to cast out a line and let it be as they sat in the sunlight on a cold morning doing some Einsteinian dreaming.

The other Lightman book I have recommended is Mr g: A Novel about the Creation which begins, “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” This story of Creation is narrated by God who is bored with living in the shimmering Void with his bickering Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope, and so creates time, space, matter, stars, planets, consciousness, and finally intelligent beings with moral dilemmas. As Mr. g watches our universe – his favorite even with its problems – grow into maturity, he begins to understand how the act of creation can change the Creator himself. (my original post on this book)

One last recommendation requires no reading; only thinking. It is Lightman’s new series on PBS, Searching – Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science. He approaches the Big Questions in small ways that don’t boggle the mind of nonscientists. Very necessary work.

One mathematical point made in the series that stuck with me and made me wonder concerns the powers of 10 – a mathematical thing that was best explained to me in a short documentary film. Compared, in a numerical sense, we are almost exactly midway between the masses of atoms and the stars. I don’t know how that changes things but it seems so “right.” We are intermediate in size between the Sun, at a billion meters in diameter, and a molecule of connected atoms at a billionth of a meter.

Older Than the Universe

Estimates say that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, but there is a star that was dated at more than 14 billion years old. That can’t be possible, right? Can anything be older than the universe?

I saw a mention of this and so did some digging and found a longer article in All About Space magazine about this paradox.

The oldest star with a well-determined age in our galaxy is popularly called the Methuselah star and it is officially named HD 140283. It is 190.1 light-years away. Astronomers had set its age at about 14.5 billion years, which would make it older than the universe.

Methuselah was the nickname given by the press to the star in reference to the Biblical patriarch who was the longest-lived of all the figures in the Bible and was said to have died at age 969.

A post on the NASA website goes a bit deeper.  Astronomers have been observing this star for more than 100 years. It is located in the constellation Libra.

In 2000, using the Hipparcos satellite, the star was estimated to be 16 billion years old. That bothered scientists who were using 13.8 billion as the age of the universe.


Non-believers in science probably would say that no one can know the age of the universe. Some religious people would say it always existed and that God existed before the universe.  Scientists determined from observations of the cosmic microwave background that 13.8 billion years was the age of the universe.

This very old star is a metal-poor subgiant which means it is predominantly hydrogen and helium and contains very little iron. That composition means the star must have come into being before iron became commonplace – before or close to the Big Bang.

So how is this paradox explained? Is the cosmology wrong about the age of the universe? Is stellar physics wrong? Is the star’s distance wrong?

A new age calculation came via data from the Hubble telescope. It involves the rate of expansion of space, an analysis of the microwave background from the big bang, and measurements of radioactive decay. The short answer is that now they have marked the star’s age as overlapping the universe’s age

Scientists who deal with these very large numbers have a fudge factor and for the age of the universe, it seems to be an uncertainty factor of 800 million years, though a follow-up study updated the star’s age to 14.27 billion years.

Why does it matter when the universe began? Will it change my daily life? I don’t think knowing will change your life dramatically but it is one of those questions we have wanted to answer for a very long time.

The universe is expanding. Edwin Hubble showed that almost a hundred years ago. Everyone has heard of the Big Bang  – though for some people it’s only about a TV series. But if you at least paid attention to the show’s theme song you’d know that:

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait…
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries
That all started with the big bang! Hey!

There certainly was once a state of hot denseness that exploded out and that stretched space. That means there was a starting point and we should be able to measure when that point occurred. The universe is still expanding from that very big bang.

The latest theories I found suggest that the discrepancies in the timeline may be due to dark energy, or causal set theory or gravitational waves or ripples in the fabric of space and time created by pairs of dead stars.

Do I understand any of that?  No, but apparently trying to answer the big questions leads scientists to lots of other useful information, in the way that going to the Moon or Mars leads to all kinds of inventions and discoveries.

I think searching for the answer might be more important than finding the answer.

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule sounds like a superhero or a metal rock band.  It is heroic, in a way, and it is rock.

To welcome in 2019, just after the Earthly celebrations, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule. Formerly known by the very un-superhero names Kuiper Belt Object an 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule is the farthest object that any craft has ever visited. It is a tiny fragment of the early solar system.

An artistic rendering of New Horizons when it flew by Pluto Image: NASA/APL

New Horizons successfully “phoned home” at 10:28 a.m. EST, letting NASA scientists know all of its systems survived the flyby of Ultima Thule. The first real images will now slowly trickle in over the coming hours and days.

I view this as wonderful an awesome is the true wonder and awe senses of those words.

Maybe even more amazing is that New Horizons will send information back to Earth. I don’t even get a good WiFi signal when I bring my laptop upstairs to the bedroom. The New Horizons exploratory spacecraft is about four billion miles (6.6 billion km) from us. Wow.  It takes about a bit more than six hours for the signals to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network.

On New Year’s Day morning, New Horizons signaled that it had made the flyby unharmed.

Some may dismiss all this about a far-out space rock as trivial. How does it help me in my daily life? I can’t speak intelligently on the scientific data obtained and how it will be used, but I see great value in us pushing further and knowing more about what is “out there” and where it all came from. And if that doesn’t fit into your view of science and religion, I guess we’ll just have to disagree.

Updates on New Horizons at and NASA’s mission to Pluto
and the Kuiper Belt from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Want to know where the name Ultima Thule comes from? Check out this post on another one of my blogs.

Taking Spinoza Off a Dusty Shelf

I was sorting through old, college books in preparation for yet another book donation as I thin out my shelves of the books I read and will likely never reread – or bought and never did or will read. A philosophy class book on Benedict de (AKA Baruch) Spinoza fits into the former category.

I flipped through the pages and saw some of my of notes and marginalia. It is hard to believe I read this and perhaps even understood it at one time.

“everything in the universe is made of a single substance”
“the universe is subject to natural laws”
“soul and body are not separate – 2 parts of same thing”

In a section that I apparently found very interesting and heavily annotated, I noted:

“God does not stand outside the universe”
“the universe IS God”

This was heavy stuff for a college freshman. Now, I don’t recall enough about Spinoza’s philosophy to even fake a decent book report, but that last margin note about God is where I seem to have arrived philosophically at this late stage of my life.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. The family took refuge in Amsterdam, where there was a vibrant community of Jewish merchants and intellectuals. Spinoza fit in but was excommunicated from the Jewish community for questioning the existence of miracles.

He supported himself making lenses, and in his spare time studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology.

He wrote and published three books in his lifetime, but only his first book, Principles of the Philosophy of Rene Descartes, actually carried his name because he was afraid that if he published his ideas, he would be branded a heretic by both Jews and Christians.

“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind,
a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” -B. Spinoza



Dark Matter, Dark Energy

Dark matter bothers me. It also bothers scientists.

Galaxies don’t rotate by the same physics that we know and understand. Scientists noticed that stars at a galaxy’s edge rotate faster than expected. How can we explain that? There must be matter that is invisible to us that is there.

In 1998 and the Hubble Space Telescope observations of a very distant supernovae showed that a long time ago the universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. We once believed that gravity was causing the slowing expansion of the universe, but this showed that it was accelerating.

expansion of universe
A diagram reveals showing the rate of expansion since the universe’s birth 15 billion years ago. The curve changes noticeably about 7.5 billion years ago, when objects in the universe began flying apart at a faster rate. Astronomers theorize that the faster expansion rate is due to a mysterious, dark force that is pulling galaxies apart. Credit: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

Astronomers know more about what dark matter is not than what it actually is. Roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest is, well, everything on Earth. This “normal matter” is less than 5% of the universe. Actually, that hardly makes it qualify as the”norm.”

Most of the universe is made up of dark energy, and that mysterious force drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. The next largest ingredient is dark matter, and that only interacts with the rest of the universe through its gravity.

At one time, the theory was that MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects) was the cause.  A MACHO, such as a brown dwarf, would be so massive that it would bend light around them. We know they exist, and we know they are out there, even though they are too dark for us to see. But this theory fell out of favor because there are not enough of them to make the galaxy-rotation math work.

Astrophysicists next came up with the WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles – the scientists do have a sense of humor). Maybe the universe is full of very small things we can’t see.

And maybe dark matter is made up of a different object we have never observed. One candidate is the neutralino.

We keep looking. The Large Hadron Collider, one of the most expensive science experiments ever built, is looking, but hasn’t found them.

But we do know that the universe is “heavier” than what we can see.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

Dark matter doesn’t keep me up at night. But it did bother Alvy in the film Annie Hall.

The Moon, Jupiter and Spica

This past Memorial Day Weekend, we had some clear skies and some rainy ones. On one clear evening in Paradelle I was able to see a very bright “star” near the moon. It looks like a star, but it is Jupiter.

Venus sets in the west not too long after the sun sets, and the Moon and Jupiter were the two brightest objects in the sky.

I knew to look for a fainter true star. It is fainter but still one of the brightest stars, even in the moon’s glare. This is Spica. It is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. I’m not very knowledgeable about the zodiac, but I know it is a key star in that study.

Spica is a first-magnitude star, but it appears much fainter than Jupiter. That is because Jupiter is relatively close (or at least nearer)to Earth. This is what draws me to gazing at the night sky is my semi-knowledgeable way: the idea that Spica is about 262 light-years away, and I am looking at its light.

The universe makes me think about the original meanings of words like WONDERful and AWEsome.

Spica is the easiest star to spot in Virgo. There is a saying to find Spica you can “follow the arc of the Big Dipper to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.” But that probably doesn’t make it any easier for the average Earthling to find because most people know very little about the night sky.

Besides Spica, other bright stars in Virgo include many I had never heard of: β Virginis (Zavijava), γ Virginis (Porrima), δ Virginis (Auva) and ε Virginis (Vindemiatrix). Other fainter stars that were also given names are ζ Virginis (Heze), η Virginis (Zaniah), ι Virginis (Syrma) and μ Virginis (Rijl al Awwa).

Again, the wonder and awe of all this is discovering that one of the stars, 70 Virginis, has one of the first known extrasolar planetary systems and it contains a confirmed planet 7.5 times the mass of Jupiter. I can’t even really grasp the size of my own Earth. And the star Chi Virginis has one of the most massive planets ever detected, at a mass of 11.1 times that of Jupiter. And there are 35 verified exoplanets orbiting 29 stars in Virgo.

All this makes me feel like such a small part of the universe. But i also makes me feel part of the universe.


This first appeared on One-Page Schoolhouse