Pi from the sky

A null test of general relativity from a population of gravitational wave observations
Carl-Johan Haster
Our understanding of observed Gravitational Waves (GWs) comes from matching data to known signal models describing General Relativity (GR). These models, expressed in the post-Newtonian formalism, contain the mathematical constant π. Allowing π to vary thus enables a strong, universal and generalisable null test of GR. From a population of 22 GW observations, we make an astrophysical measurement of π=3.115+0.048−0.088, and prefer GR as the correct theory of gravity with a Bayes factor of 321. We find the variable π test robust against simulated beyond-GR effects.
Read more at https://arxiv.org/abs/2005.05472

Click to access 2005.05472.pdf

The golden age of neutron-star physics has arrived

These stellar remnants are some of the Universe’s most enigmatic objects — and they are finally starting to give up their secrets.

Powerful magnetic and electric fields whip charged particles around, in a computer simulation of a spinning neutron star. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

When a massive star dies in a supernova, the explosion is only the beginning of the end. Most of the stellar matter is thrown far and wide, but the star’s iron-filled heart remains behind. This core packs as much mass as two Suns and quickly shrinks to a sphere that would span the length of Manhattan. Crushing internal pressure — enough to squeeze Mount Everest to the size of a sugar cube — fuses subatomic protons and electrons into neutrons.

Astronomers know that much about how neutron stars are born. Yet exactly what happens afterwards, inside these ultra-dense cores, remains a mystery. Some researchers theorize that neutrons might dominate all the way down to the centre. Others hypothesize that the incredible pressure compacts the material into more exotic particles or states that squish and deform in unusual ways.

Now, after decades of speculation, researchers are getting closer to solving the enigma, in part thanks to an instrument on the International Space Station called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER).

Last December, this NASA space observatory provided astronomers with some of the most precise measurements ever made of a neutron star’s mass and radius1,2, as well as unexpected findings about its magnetic field1,3. The NICER team plans to release results about more stars in the next few months. Other data are coming in from gravitational-wave observatories, which can watch neutron stars contort as they crash together. With these combined observations, researchers are poised to zero in on what fills the innards of a neutron star.

For many in the field, these results mark a turning point in the study of some of the Universe’s most bewildering objects. “This is beginning to be a golden age of neutron-star physics,” says Jürgen Schaffner-Bielich, a theoretical physicist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

Launched in 2017 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the US$62-million NICER telescope sits outside the space station and collects X-rays coming from pulsars — spinning neutron stars that radiate charged particles and energy in enormous columns that sweep around like beams from a lighthouse. The X-rays originate from million-degree hotspots on a pulsar’s surface, where a powerful magnetic field rips charged particles off the exterior and slams them back down at the opposing magnetic pole.

NICER detects these X-rays using 56 gold-coated telescopes, and time-stamps their arrival to within 100 nanoseconds. With this capability, researchers can precisely track hotspots as a neutron star whips around at up to 1,000 times per second. Hotspots are visible as they swing across the object. But neutron stars warp space-time so strongly that NICER also detects light from hotspots facing away from Earth. Einstein’s general theory of relativity provides a way to calculate a star’s mass-to-radius ratio through the amount of light-bending. That and other observations allow astrophysicists to pin down the masses and radii of the deceased stars. Those two properties could help in determining what is happening down in the cores.

Deep, dark mystery
Neutron stars get more complicated the deeper one goes. Beneath a thin atmosphere made mostly of hydrogen and helium, the stellar remnants are thought to boast an outer crust just a centimetre or two thick that contains atomic nuclei and free-roaming electrons. Researchers think that the ionized elements become packed together in the next layer, creating a lattice in the inner crust. Even further down, the pressure is so intense that almost all the protons combine with electrons to turn into neutrons, but what occurs beyond that is murky at best (see ‘Dense matter’).

Crucially, each possibility would push back in a characteristic way against a neutron star’s colossal gravity. They would generate different internal pressures and therefore a larger or smaller radius for a given mass. A neutron star with a Bose–Einstein condensate centre, for instance, is likely to have a smaller radius than one made from ordinary material such as neutrons. One with a core made of pliable hyperon matter could have a smaller radius still.

“The types of particles and the forces between them affect how soft or squashy the material is,” says Anna Watts, a NICER team member at the University of Amsterdam.

Differentiating between the models will require precise measurements of the size and mass of neutron stars, but researchers haven’t yet been able to push their techniques to fine-enough levels to say which possibility is most likely. They typically estimate masses by observing neutron stars in binary pairs. As the objects orbit one another, they tug gravitationally on each other, and astronomers can use this to determine their masses. Roughly 35 stars have had their masses measured in this way, although the figures can contain error bars of up to one solar mass. A mere dozen or so have also had their radii calculated, but in many cases, the techniques can’t determine this value to better than a few kilometres — as much as one-fifth of the size of a neutron star.

NICER’s hotspot method has been used by the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, which launched in 1999 and is still in operation. NICER is four times more sensitive and has hundreds of times better time resolution than the XMM-Newton. Over the next two to three years, the team expects to be able to use NICER to work out the masses and radii of another half a dozen targets, pinning down their radii to within half a kilometre. With this precision, the group will be well placed to begin plotting out what is known as the neutron-star equation of state, which relates mass to radius or, equivalently, internal pressure to density.

If scientists are particularly lucky and nature happens to serve up especially good data, NICER might help eliminate certain versions of this equation. But most physicists think that, on its own, the observatory will probably narrow down rather than completely rule out models of what happens in the mysterious objects’ cores.

“This would still be a huge advance on where we are now,” says Watts.

Field lines
NICER’s first target was J0030+0451, an isolated pulsar that spins roughly 200 times per second and is 337 parsecs (1,100 light years) from Earth, in the constellation Pisces….
… read more at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00590-8

Profiles of James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz: 2019 Nobel Laureates in Physics

Neta Bahcall, Adam Burrows

Published in PNAS, 117, 2, 799 – 801 (January 2020)

Mankind has long been fascinated by the mysteries of our Universe: How old and how big is the
Universe? How did the Universe begin and how is it evolving? What is the composition of the
Universe and the nature of its dark-matter and dark-energy? What is our Earth’s place in the cosmos
and are there other planets (and life) around other stars?

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics honors three pioneering scientists for their fundamental contributions to basic cosmic questions – Professor James Peebles (Princeton University), Michel Mayor (University of Geneva), and Didier Queloz (University of Geneva and the University of Cambridge) – “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos,” with one half to James Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology,” and the other half jointly to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.” We summarize the historical and scientific backdrop to this year’s Physics Nobel.

Read more at https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2001/2001.08511.pdf

New evidence shows that the key assumption made in the discovery of dark energy is in error

High precision age dating of supernova host galaxies reveals that the luminosity evolution of supernovae is significant enough to question the very existence of dark energy

Figure 1. Luminosity evolution mimicking dark energy in supernova (SN) cosmology. The Hubble residual is the difference in SN luminosity with respect to the cosmological model without dark energy (the black dotted line). The cyan circles are the binned SN data from Betoule et al. (2014). The red line is the evolution curve based on our age dating of early-type host galaxies. The comparison of our evolution curve with SN data shows that the luminosity evolution can mimic Hubble residuals used in the discovery and inference of the dark energy (the black solid line).

The most direct and strongest evidence for the accelerating universe with dark energy is provided by the distance measurements using type Ia supernovae (SN Ia) for the galaxies at high redshift. This result is based on the assumption that the corrected luminosity of SN Ia through the empirical standardization would not evolve with redshift.

New observations and analysis made by a team of astronomers at Yonsei University (Seoul, South Korea), together with their collaborators at Lyon University and KASI, show, however, that this key assumption is most likely in error. The team has performed very high-quality (signal-to-noise ratio ~175) spectroscopic observations to cover most of the reported nearby early-type host galaxies of SN Ia, from which they obtained the most direct and reliable measurements of population ages for these host galaxies. They find a significant correlation between SN luminosity and stellar population age at a 99.5% confidence level. As such, this is the most direct and stringent test ever made for the luminosity evolution of SN Ia. Since SN progenitors in host galaxies are getting younger with redshift (look-back time), this result inevitably indicates a serious systematic bias with redshift in SN cosmology. Taken at face values, the luminosity evolution of SN is significant enough to question the very existence of dark energy. When the luminosity evolution of SN is properly taken into account, the team found that the evidence for the existence of dark energy simply goes away (see Figure 1).

Commenting on the result, Prof. Young-Wook Lee (Yonsei Univ., Seoul) who was leading the project said; “Quoting Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but I am not sure we have such extraordinary evidence for dark energy. Our result illustrates that dark energy from SN cosmology, which led to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, might be an artifact of a fragile and false assumption”.

Other cosmological probes, such as CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) and BAO (Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations), are also known to provide some indirect and “circumstantial” evidence for dark energy, but it was recently suggested that CMB from Planck mission no longer supports the concordance cosmological model which may require new physics (Di Valentino, Melchiorri, & Silk 2019). Some investigators have also shown that BAO and other low-redshift cosmological probes can be consistent with a non-accelerating universe without dark energy (see, for example, Tutusaus et al. 2017). In this respect, the present result showing the luminosity evolution mimicking dark energy in SN cosmology is crucial and is very timely.

This result is reminiscent of the famous Tinsley-Sandage debate in the 1970s on luminosity evolution in observational cosmology, which led to the termination of the Sandage project originally designed to determine the fate of the universe.

Read more at https://astro.yonsei.ac.kr/galaxy/galaxy01/research.do?mode=view&articleNo=78249 and https://arxiv.org/abs/1912.04903

A Forbidden Transition Allowed for Stars

The discovery of an exceptionally strong “forbidden” beta-decay involving fluorine and neon could change our understanding of the fate of intermediate-mass stars.

Researchers have measured the forbidden nuclear transition between 20F and 20Ne. This measurement allowed them to make a new calculation of the electron-capture rate of 20Ne, a rate that is important for predicting the evolution of intermediate-mass stars.

Every year roughly 100 billion stars are born and just as many die. To understand the life cycle of a star, nuclear physicists and astrophysicists collaborate to unravel the physical processes that take place in the star’s interior. Their aim is to determine how the star responds to these processes and from that response predict the star’s final fate. Intermediate-mass stars, whose masses lie somewhere between 7 and 11 times that of our Sun, are thought to die via one of two very different routes: thermonuclear explosion or gravitational collapse. Which one happens depends on the conditions within the star when oxygen nuclei begin to fuse, triggering the star’s demise. Researchers have now, for the first time, measured a rare nuclear decay of fluorine to neon that is key to understanding the fate of these “in between” stars . Their calculations indicate that thermonuclear explosion and not gravitational collapse is the more likely expiration route.

The evolution and fate of a star strongly depend on its mass at birth. Low-mass stars—such as the Sun—transition first into red giants and then into white dwarfs made of carbon and oxygen as they shed their outer layers. Massive stars—those whose mass is at least 11 times greater than the Sun’s—also transition to red giants, but in the cores of these giants, nuclear fusion continues until the core has turned completely to iron. Once that happens, the star stops generating energy and starts collapsing under the force of gravity. The star’s core then compresses into a neutron star, while its outer layers are ejected in a supernova explosion. The evolution of intermediate-mass stars is less clear. Predictions indicate that they can explode both via the gravitational collapse mechanism of massive stars and by a thermonuclear process . The key to finding out which happens lies in the properties of an isotope of neon and its ability to capture electrons.

The story of fluorine and neon is tied to what is known as a forbidden nuclear transition. Nuclei, like atoms, have distinct energy levels and thus can exist in different energy states. For a given radioactive nucleus, the conditions within a star, such as the temperature and density of its plasma, dictate its likely energy state. The quantum-mechanical properties of each energy state then determine the nucleus’ likely decay path. The decay is called allowed if, on Earth, the decay path has a high likelihood of occurring. If, instead, the likelihood is low, the transition is termed forbidden. But in the extreme conditions of a star’s interior, these forbidden transitions can occur much more frequently. Thus, when researchers measure a nuclear reaction in the laboratory, the very small contribution from a forbidden transition is often the most critical one to measure for the astrophysics applications….

Read more at https://physics.aps.org/articles/v12/151

 

Aside

Is the expansion of the universe accelerating? All signs still point to yes

David Rubin, Jessica Heitlauf
Type Ia supernovae (SNe Ia) provided the first strong evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. With SN samples now more than ten times larger than those used for the original discovery and joined by other cosmological probes, this discovery is on even firmer ground. Two recent, related studies (Nielsen et al. 2016 and Colin et al. 2019, hereafter N16 and C19, respectively) have claimed to undermine the statistical significance of the SN Ia constraints. Rubin & Hayden (2016) (hereafter RH16) showed N16 made an incorrect assumption about the distributions of SN Ia light-curve parameters, while C19 also fails to remove the impact of the motion of the solar system from the SN redshifts, interpreting the resulting errors as evidence of a dipole in the deceleration parameter. Building on RH16, we outline the errors C19 makes in their treatment of the data and inference on cosmological parameters. Reproducing the C19 analysis with our proposed fixes, we find that the dipole parameters have little effect on the inferred cosmological parameters. We thus affirm the conclusion of RH16: the evidence for acceleration is secure.

Read more at https://arxiv.org/abs/1912.02191

Read also: “No Dark Energy? No Chance, Cosmologists Contend

The aromatic Universe

The rich molecular structures of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — essentially planar flakes of fused benzene rings — and their fullerene cousins are revealed through their vibrational and electronic spectra.

In this artistic impression, large polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules exposed to the strong radiation field of a star first lose all their peripheral hydrogen atoms (white atoms, top right) and are transformed into small graphene flakes whose fragile, dangling carbon rings at the corners break off. That degradation is then followed by the loss of carbon atoms. The loss creates pentagons (red) in the dehydrogenated PAH molecule, which bends the structure out of the plane and culminates in the formation of a C60 fullerene

A. Candian, J. Zhen, A.G.G.M. Tielens
Over the past 20 years, ground- and space-based observations have revealed that the universe is filled with molecules. Astronomers have identified nearly 200 types of molecules in the interstellar medium (ISM) of our galaxy and in the atmospheres of planets; for the full list, see http://www.astrochymist.org. Molecules are abundant and pervasive, and they control the temperature of interstellar gas. Not surprisingly, they directly influence such key macroscopic processes as star formation and the evolution of galaxies.
read more at https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1908/1908.05918.pdf