“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C. Clarke
Thought I’d change pace for a post or two, so much bad news around, pandemic, fake news, elections. So, when I saw the article I’m going to tear apart (NOT), it looked like a welcome diversion.
The article is about a spinning neutron star 4500 light-years from Earth (nerdy or what?). While in galactic terms that’s almost next door (the known Universe stretches for 14 billion light years in all directions), that’s still a long ways, way too many marathons, even ultras (as in ultra-marathons) for those who like to hoof it.
There’s a helluva lot of stars out there so what’s so special about this one? Well, a scientist has managed to use already-calculated measurements of the spin of the neutron star to infer a deformation with a distance of several micrometers thick. Yep, with these results he has managed to place a measure on something with the thickness of a bacterium that is 4500 light years away. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Yep, if it’s not fake news, a hoax or just a mistake.
I was wary about this, so I tracked the scientist down in his research institution in India. For those who are interested it’s the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which to my untrained eye looks pretty heavy duty. BTW the name of the scientist is Dr. Sudip Bhattacharyya and you can find his esteemed website here together with the details of hundreds of impenetrable and probably mind-numbing articles (in a geeky way) which he has published in the area of astronomy and astrophysics. So yes, it looks like he’s real and it isn’t fake news.
OK so with that out of the way, so what? Why should anyone care a fig for a star, far, far away?
How tall is ET?
Well let’s get a couple of things straight. He didn’t actually see ET. In fact, what he did was use measures of the neutron star spin using new mathematical techniques he applied so you can calculate stuff from it like the infinitesimal physical deformation of the star while it is spinning.
You can’t use that to figure out what ET looked like though. First of all, the method just doesn’t allow it. Blame me and my fevered imagination for the ET angle. Sorrrry.
Second, if ET were indeed there, he would have been squashed flat in less than a nanosecond due to almost infinite gravity. So, it would have been a really unwise place for ET to be hanging out there anyway. So, actually it was a cosmic blessing Dr. Sudip didn’t see him because it would have been fatal for ET, and then we couldn’t have seen him anyway.
If you get my meaning…
But here’s my thinking, for what little it’s worth. To place a limit on a deformation less than the thickness of a bacterium over a distance of 4500 light-years is truly amazing, the mind boggles at the very thought.
And here’s another thing. We are now getting blasé about all the many discoveries of exoplanets out there. Clearly there are untold trillions of them. But what’s on them? With some cunning sleights of hand scientists can infer if they have an atmosphere and sometimes even what might be in it.
But seeing something of the size of ET is, or has been, way beyond our ken. While the good doctor’s method doesn’t let us see them yet, for the first time it heralds the potential that we could. Think of that! Being able to physically see real stuff, maybe even animals where there is life, on exoplanets. That’s more than a breakthrough, that’s nothing short of a miracle. Or even science maybe, following Arthur C.?
BTW such precocity isn’t always the province of our own US scientists. Did you notice that NASA recently failed to notice an asteroid that narrowly missed Earth? Maybe it was because one of our biggest radio telescopes (Arecibo) was recently damaged, although I doubt it. So, NASA goofed up on that one. Let’s hope it doesn’t do that when it counts, like when the next asteroid is supposed to skim – or crash into - Earth on November 2 (the day before the US election, in case you didn’t remember).
Still, there’s one big potential downside to the research by Dr. Sudip. If we can see ET, he can see us. If not from the neutron star, then from one of the exoplanets whose inhabitants I dare to imagine we’ll soon be able to see.
Maybe ET will be a good-looking celebrity type and it’s worth taking the risk of getting a gander at “him/her/them”. But if not, we’ll need to be careful.