Comments of the Week #21: From Quantum Observations to the Sun

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” -Albert Einstein

It’s been a fabulous, fun-filled week over at the main Starts With A Bang blog, and we’ve taken on a variety of topics that range from the small and subtle to the large and… less subtle. In a span of only seven days, we’ve explored the following topics and questions (and go ahead and click if you missed anything):

As always, we’ve set up synopses here and given you the opportunity to comment and interact with one another and with me. So let’s dive in to your Comments of the Week!

Image credit: the HOW and WHY — Behind Reality — via http://www.thehowandwhy.com/doubleslit.html.
Image credit: the HOW and WHY — Behind Reality — via http://www.thehowandwhy.com/doubleslit.html.

From eric on the topic of quantum observations: “[I]t typically is only a matter of time until an “observer” particle comes along. But you should look up the delayed choice quantum eraser concept. If you destroy all information gained from the interacting “observer” particle – even long after the interaction has occurred – the state of the system in the past goes back to indetermina[te]/wave-like.

You have to be careful with experiments like the “delayed choice quantum eraser” one, because it isn’t the same as a single high-energy interaction. If I shone a high-energy photon on an electron going through a double slit as it went through one slit or the other, I’d destroy the interference pattern whether I looked or not.

The delayed-choice quantum eraser concept is a little more subtle.

What you have to imagine is that you have two entangled particles — photons, for example — that are in an indeterminate state of some type. You can separate them, measure/determine the (polarization) properties of one and “determine” the properties of the other.

Images credit: original schematics via Walborn, Cunha, Pádua, and Monken; via Wikimedia Commons user Patrick Edwin Moran.
Images credit: original schematics via Walborn, Cunha, Pádua, and Monken; via Wikimedia Commons user Patrick Edwin Moran.

If you measure the polarization of one photon, you determine it on the other one; that’s the left-hand diagram. But if you throw in, say, a diagonal polarizer (to add back a mixture of polarizations), you can restore the interference pattern in the other photon. That’s how a quantum eraser works, and variants that delay that choice have been verified: that interference pattern will appear or disappear if you do the determining even after the measurements have been made.

But make no mistake, it’s still about having an interaction of sufficient strength and quality to determine the outcome of a system. The only “oddness” is that if you determine the outcome of one system that’s entangled with another, you also determine the outcome of the other system instantaneously. In other words, quantum “determinism” is a non-local phenomenon.

Image credit: NASA / Albert Einstein Institute / Zuse Institute Berlin / M. Koppitz and L. Rezzolla.
Image credit: NASA / Albert Einstein Institute / Zuse Institute Berlin / M. Koppitz and L. Rezzolla.

From jt on the topic of the largest objects meeting their twins: “I’ve read a few other things about neutron star mergers and how they produce very heavy elements, [e.g.,] gold. As I understand it, a neutron star is basically made up of, well, neutrons that are stabilized by the intense gravity and surrounded by a thin shell of iron. So with very few protons around how does the formation of gold, etc happen?

Well, I very much hope that one of the articles you read about neutron star mergers was this one that I wrote! (Because I can at least vouch that it’s correct.) First, I want you to imagine how a neutron star formed: from the collapse of a core of a supermassive star! Although fusion typically can’t get you up past iron/nickel/cobalt, as it isn’t energetically favorable, the atoms themselves cannot stand up against the relentless collapsing pressure of gravitation. As a result, they collapse down into a much denser, more stable set of matter: a giant atomic nucleus that’s electrically neutral, hence, a neutron star.

It would love to collapse down to a black hole, but the Pauli exclusion principle — because every quark in there is a fermion — is still strong enough to prevent that mass from collapsing further. You’d need to get a neutron star mass of around 3 solar masses to get enough gravity together in one place to make that collapse possible.

But what is it that happens, then, when two of these objects merge?

Image credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.
Image credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.

The vast majority of their mass will collapse down into a black hole, but about 0.1% of the initial system’s mass will get ejected from the energy of the collision. When there’s an energy release, you all-of-a-sudden can overcome energy barriers, and will spontaneously settle into (on average) more stable energy states. In terms of atomic nuclei, where will that put you?

Image credit: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, via http://www.dlt.ncssm.edu/tiger/chem2.htm.
Image credit: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, via http://www.dlt.ncssm.edu/tiger/chem2.htm.

Although it would be very clean to say “back at iron,” that’s not accurate. Instead, it’s better to say “back towards iron,” from an incredibly large mass of neutrons. So yes, you’ll create things like gold, platinum, radon, and lead, but you’ll also create not only elements like bismuth and uranium, but trans-uranic elements like plutonium, curium and einsteinium, as well as elements that we probably have not yet discovered!

However, the vast majority of these elements decay incredibly rapidly; there is not a single atom of anything heavier than plutonium left over from the formation of our Solar System. Instead, our elemental abundance looks like this.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user 28bytes, via CC-BY-SA-3.0.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user 28bytes, via CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Do you notice how there’s more lead (Pb) than anything else nearby? That’s got a lot to do with all the heavier elements that we created decaying down in a chain that terminates with lead. So we don’t need protons; we just need the neutron star to break up and then undergo (incredibly rapid) nuclear decays — mostly Beta decay — until it arrives at a quasi-stable configuration. Some of these configurations will be the heavier pre-lead elements in the periodic table (like tungsten, gold, mercury, etc.), while others will be heavier-than-lead elements which will then conventionally decay down to lead. And that’s the story of the heavy elements from neutron stars!

Image credit: SDSS.
Image credit: SDSS.

From Sierra Nevada on the question of the Universe being left-handed: “How is the dipole of the rotation axis identified? Angular momentum can only be said to have a “handedness” if the axis of rotation some kind of “up” or “down” dipole. How can we tell which way is up in the axis of a spinning galaxy?”

This is, of course, a convention only. From our point of view, we call a galaxy whose arms radiate outwards in a counterclockwise fashion “right-handed” and one whose arms radiate outwards in a clockwise fashion “left-handed”. We also talk about handedness having either a monopole or a dipole term, meaning that either:

  • Monopole: there is a left/right-handedness asymmetry overall, which would correspond to there being more of one orientation of galaxy regardless of what direction we looked in. This would correspond to a particular orientation centered on-or-near us.
  • Dipole: there is a preponderance of left-handed galaxies in one direction and an equal-and-opposite preponderance of right-handed galaxies in the other. This would correspond to a preferred axis of rotation for galaxies in the Universe, as indicated by figure (a) below.
Image credit: Michael J. Longo, 2011, via http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.2815.
Image credit: Michael J. Longo, 2011, via http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.2815.

When we talk about things as being “left-handed” or “clockwise” or something to that effect, we’re talking about a naming convention and nothing more. Our Solar System, for instance, we say is “right-handed” or “counterclockwise,” but that’s only true if we consider it as viewed from the north pole; viewing it from the south pole makes everything appear left-handed or clockwise. If it was unclear the first time, I hope this helps clarify.

Image credit: NASA.
Image credit: NASA.

From Anon Amust on solar storms: “Particles are not ‘bent’, they are deflected. Sloppy language for a science based article.

There is an important distinction between bending and deflection when it comes to materials science: the “bending moment” is the measure of something like a beam’s internal stresses; it’s the thing that allows it to carry a load. Deflection, on the other hand, talks about the physical displacement of that beam under a load.

However, this particular example talks about how the path of a charged particle changes in the presence of a magnetic field, and the two words are interchangeable here. Thanks for the unnecessary and unfounded insult, though; we all know that people who write on the internet don’t get enough of them!

Image credit: NASA.
Image credit: NASA.

And finally, from Hank Roberts on that same topic: “I think you may be either missing the point of some of concerns, or setting up a straw man argument. The concern (at least as expressed by more responsible sources) isn’t that anyone is facing direct, personal danger for a CME but rather that the resulting infrastructure damage (GPS, power grid, air traffic control systems, mission critical electronics in utilities, hospitals, manufacturing, etc.) would be a massive blow to the world economy, and people would suffer from the secondary and tertiary impacts of this.

Wow, I must have been really unclear in the article I wrote; I thought I was very straightforward in talking about that the major set of damage would be done to electronics and electrical equipment, and in how harmless it would be to humans directly. In 1989, for instance, we got a taste of this when we got hit by an X20-class solar flare. (By comparison, the Carrington event of 1859 was at least an X40-class flare!)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Daniel Wilkinson; data via the GOES satellite.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Daniel Wilkinson; data via the GOES satellite.

The dangers to humans will be from electrical fires, no doubt, but the longer-term danger will be from disrupted and destroyed infrastructure, as Hank correctly asserts. When scientists talk about the need to upgrade the power grid, the concern isn’t only that we’ll experience a blackout, the major concern is that the current grid will be rendered completely useless! The danger is not to us directly — as the 1859 Carrington event killed nobody directly — but through our electronics. Remember that the flare scale is linear-logarithmic, so an X20 flare is 20 times as powerful as an X1 flare, but an X1 flare is 10 times as powerful as an M1 flare. The strongest one we’ve ever measured directly (so, that’s occurred in the past 25 years or so) is an X28 flare, but somewhere between X40 and X60, if it occurs and is directed at us, could cause the catastrophe we’ve been talking about.

Thanks for a very good week, and let’s have an even better one coming up!