Pan of Andromeda galaxy

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Last year, NASA/ESA released a giant image of the Andromeda galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. At 4.3 Gb and 1.5 billion pixels this composite of 411 images is completely impractical for most of us, but fortunately one random internet denizen created a stunning panning video:

The Andromeda galaxy is the nearest large galaxy to our own galaxy, the Milky Way. (There are also several dozen smaller galaxies in our “Local Group”). Even though it is 2 million light years away, you can see Andromeda with the naked eye. In the video, the scenery gets brighter towards the end, as the view approaches the galactic centre where there are more stars. NASA has more details, and you can also download the image in various sizes or use a zoomable browser tool.

The helical model: do planets move in spirals?

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A 2012 viral video showed the planets moving in a spiral (“helix”) pattern due to the Sun’s motion through space. It also criticised the “heliocentric” conception of the Sun as being at rest with the planets on roughly circular orbits around it. This raises an interesting question about frames of reference:

(See also the 3rd and improved version embedded later). The author, music producer “DjSadhu”, has made a beautiful animation complete with Tron-style trails for artistic effect. However the main issue is the claim, “The old heliocentric model of our solar system… is not only boring but incorrect.” He continues, “Our Solar System moves through space at 70,000 km/hr”. He calls the planet orbits “rotation” for the stationary Sun perspective, and “vortex” for the moving Sun perspective; this is not standard terminology but we can understand his point.

This issue is that it is equally valid to choose either frame of reference. If we choose a non-rotating frame centred on the Sun, then from this perspective the Sun is at rest and the planets move in circles (approximately). If instead we choose a non-rotating frame centred on our Milky Way galaxy, then from this perspective the Sun is moving at 800,000 km/h (a dozen times higher than the figure in the video) and the planets move in helices, approximately. We could take this further and incorporate the galaxy’s own motion relative to the local universe, or any other natural (described earlier) or hypothetical motion one chooses.

The animator scoured NASA’s website but couldn’t find the helical model. He is probably correct that most of the public has an “incomplete” view, and that “even astronomers” don’t see it this way “even though they may have all the facts that support it.” However, neither would this model be a surprise to them. The concept of relativity of motion is well-known in physics — look up “Galileo’s ship”, a celebrated idea from 400 years ago. I suspect that many physicists would indeed think, “Oh that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way”, but then also quickly shrug their shoulders and think, “But it’s correct.” But on the other hand, the video fails to understand the merits of the usual conception: it works and it’s simpler! If you are studying planetary orbits in the Solar System, then typically you would ignore external influences as being very minor, and likely choose a coordinate system centred on the Sun (which gives an effective interpretation that the Sun is not moving). The principle of relativity — that the laws of physics are independent (in some sense) of the frame you choose — is a cornerstone of physics, and was furthered by Einstein amongst others. The animator is clearly unaware of what physics/mathematics/philosophy even says on this topic.

Astronomers Phil Plait and Rhys Taylor raised other issues, especially with a second video, including:

  • the Sun does not precede the planets (DjSadhu claims this criticism only applies to the 2nd video), and it is not “dragging the planets in its wake”
  • the Sun does not follow a spiral pattern around the galaxy — this is a misunderstanding of Earth’s precession — but the Sun does bob up and down a little
  • the plane of the Solar System makes an angle of 60° with the Sun’s path through the galaxy, not 90°
  • the correct terminology is “helix”, not “vortex” which applies to fluid flow. The animator’s distinction between “rotation” and “vortex”
  • dubious sources
  • the metaphysical analogy “Life spirals” with pictures of spiral aloe, a fern, rose, spiral galaxy, DNA double helix, shell, and a plughole vortex, was never going to go down well with many scientists.

Taylor wrote:

[Y]ou presented the idea of helical paths as though it were some revolutionary new model. You could have very easily checked with more or less any astronomer who would have told you that we already know this is the case. True, a shiny animation did not exist to show it… [B]ut in context it was saying, “I’m an unqualified DJ who’s overturned all of astronomy“.

To his credit, the animator listened to many of these criticisms. He did also request that people focus on the central claim. Putting aside some things, at his best he writes, “I’m willing to take it down a notch and say there’s more to reality than the heliocentric dinner-plate diagrams. Fair enough?”

This third video, version “2.0”, was praised by Taylor as a “win-win scenario”, stating “bravo, Sadhu, I salute you.” I am discussing this story because I feel it has more merits than flaws overall. So thank-you DjSadhu for sharing your artistic talents! See related animations by Vsauce (16:55–17:54 point, 19:48–end), and Taylor.

Motion of the Milky Way

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Our small planet is part of a complicated hierarchy of structure in the heavens:

  • The Earth rotates once per day, so a person standing on the equator moves at 1700 km/h, relative to the centre of the Earth
  • The Earth orbits the Sun at 100,000 km/h, relative to the Sun (in a non-rotating frame of reference)
  • The Sun orbits the centre of our Milky Way galaxy at 800,000 km/h
  • The Milky Way is approaching the centre of our “Local Group” of galaxies at 200,000 km/h. (This is my rough estimate, based merely on the fact that Andromeda and the Milky Way are approaching one another at twice this speed, and these are the dominant two members of the galaxy group.)
  • The Local Group is falling towards the Virgo Cluster at around 400,000 — 1,000,000 km/h, the “Virgocentric flow”. (This is after subtracting the Hubble flow. Note the Local Group and Virgo Cluster are both contained within the Virgo Supercluster, an even larger structure.)
  • The Virgo Supercluster is moving towards the “Great Attractor” region at 1,000,000 km/h, according to an older source. (The Great Attractor is due to the Hydra-Centaurus Supercluster, or the even larger Laniakea Supercluster which encompasses all of the above and more. The Norma Cluster marks the centre.)
  • The Laniakea Supercluster is moving towards the Shapley Supercluster.
Map of the sky showing the "hot" and "cold" spots of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This unevenness ("anisotropy") is due to the motion of the Solar System, as the Earth's motion relative to the Sun has already been subtracted. This is from the COsmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite in the early 1990s.
Map of the sky showing the “hot” and “cold” spots of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This unevenness or dipole is due to the motion of the Solar System, where the Earth’s motion relative to the Sun has presumably already been subtracted. This is from the COsmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite in the early 1990s, the first detailed map. In most pictures of the CMB this anisotropy has already been subtracted out, leaving much finer hot/cold dimples.

Going back a step, an alternate method is to measure the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This radiation is nearly uniform in all directions, but shows a hot and cold spot (see Lineweaver 1996  for history). Since this is 100 times more pronounced than the finer fluctuations, it makes sense to interpret it as a Doppler effect due to motion. Hence, the Solar System’s motion is calculated as 1,300,000 km/h in the direction of the constellation Leo. By subtracting off the Sun’s estimated motion, the Local Group has a velocity of 2,200,000 km/h in the direction of the constellation Hydra. This is relative to the “CMB rest frame”, assumed to coincide with the Hubble flow, which is the average motion of matter at large scales and is thought of as being “at rest”. However understand this “rest frame” is just a natural and convenient choice, and not the centuries-old concept of “absolute rest” held by Isaac Newton.

Gravitational waves detected!

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Physicists are very excited, because the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves has just been announced! The signal matches the prediction for two black holes colliding.  This will likely mean a Nobel Prize for someone. This is a tremendous scientific achievement, representing a vast global collaboration between scientists, advanced technology, government funding, and simple good luck.

The signal lasted for just 1/5 of a second, but scientists have extracted an impressive amount of information from it. This video plays the “chirp” which was detected, converting the gravitational wave signal to sound so you can hear it. The video repeats the chirp 8 times, half of those scaled to a higher frequency where human hearing is more sensitive.

The LIGO detectors have two 4km long pipes housing laser light for detecting gravitational waves. This is the Hanford, Washington instrument
The signal was picked up by the two “LIGO” detectors in the United States. These have two 4km long pipes at right angles, housing laser light which measures the miniscule expansion and contraction of space caused by a passing gravitational wave. This is the Hanford, Washington instrument; the other is in Livingston, Louisiana.

But understand that calling it “sound” is metaphorical, for instance when someone gave a demonstration by playing a cello on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) TV. A gravitational wave is a ripple through the “fabric” of space itself and travels at the speed of light, whereas a sound wave transmits via air molecules bumping together and travels a million times more slowly. It should also be clarified that the gravitational waves would have been emitted for a far longer period than 0.2 seconds, it’s just they were too weak to be detected by us.

Gravitational waves are a consequence of general relativity, and were first predicted by Einstein in 1916. Though not an area of my research so far, I have looked in-depth at the measurement of distances in relativity, which is somewhat related. I look forward to learning and sharing more.

A new 9th planet?

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There’s news today that some scientists predict the existence of a ninth planet. No one has actually found anything, but this is inferred from the orbits of certain icy objects in the outer Solar System. It may have 10 times the mass of the Earth, and take 10,000 or 20,000 years to orbit the Sun, due to its distance far beyond the known planets.Planet NineScientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) claim “Planet Nine” would have an orbit like the above (yellow) to account for the depicted handful of bodies (purple orbits) lying in one direction. They hope to detect it in the next 5 years. It’s not my area, and I have no opinion on this personally, but am happy to wait and see what consensus forms. Still, it’s an opportunity to share some history of planetary discovery.

Artist's conception of the hypothetical Planet Nine
Artist’s conception of the hypothetical Planet Nine

This has happened before. Neptune was discovered because of irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. Pluto was discovered by the same motivation. (Further irregularities in Neptune and Uranus’ orbits had led to a search. However it turned out Neptune’s mass had been overestimated, and besides Pluto was too small to affect these planets much.) Similarly the unexplained rotation of Mercury’s orbit led to speculation of a new innermost planet “Vulcan”, but just like the Star Trek planet it remains fictional. In fact Einstein successfully explained Mercury’s behaviour using an early version of general relativity.