November 10, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Astronomers Missed Half the Visible Universe

Dark matter still has “no explanation whatsoever,” and meanwhile, half of the real stars in the universe have been hiding in plain sight.

Like government accountants saying “Whoops” at finding twice as much debt in their books as thought, astronomers have stumbled upon a whole population of stars that may outnumber all the known stars in the universe.  Stars flung out from galaxies constitute a “mystery sea of stars,” Science Daily says.  A Caltech rocket instrument surprised astronomers with a glow they think comes from these wanderers:

Using an experiment carried into space on a NASA suborbital rocket, astronomers have detected a diffuse cosmic glow that appears to represent more light than that produced by known galaxies in the universe. The discovery suggests that many such previously undetected stars permeate what had been thought to be dark spaces between galaxies, forming an interconnected sea of stars.

While it’s always delightful to learn something new about space, it’s also embarrassing to find half of visible reality undiscovered till now.  “Measuring such large fluctuations surprised us, but we carried out many tests to show the results are reliable,” the study leader confessed.  The discovery means that part of the glow does not come from the first galaxies after the big bang, but is more recent:

Initially some researchers proposed that this light came from the very first galaxies to form and ignite stars after the Big Bang. Others, however, have argued the light originated from stars stripped from galaxies in more recent times. CIBER was designed to help settle the debate.

Fluctuations in the glow appear to be too bright to be from the first galaxies.  The light, furthermore, is too bluish:

In short, Zemcov says, “although we designed our experiment to search for emission from first stars and galaxies, that explanation doesn’t fit our data very well. The best interpretation is that we are seeing light from stars outside of galaxies but in the same dark matter halos. The stars have been stripped from their parent galaxies by gravitational interactions — which we know happens from images of interacting galaxies — and flung out to large distances.

It will take more work to be sure, but that’s the best explanation they have for now.  S. H. Moseley titled his write-up of the paper in Science Magazine, “The other half of the universe?”  This may represent a case where astronomers were fooled by cosmic steganography:

The history of astronomy has largely been concerned with the study of discrete objects: planets, stars, and galaxies. From such observations, we have discovered the nature and evolutionary histories of these objects. It is natural to ask whether these studies provide a comprehensive picture of the evolution of the universe, or whether large numbers of objects too faint to detect individually or intrinsically diffuse sources may be present. On page 732 of this issue, Zemcov et al. (1) present results from a study of near-infrared background light that reveal that as many as half of all stars have been stripped from galaxies in their many collisions and mergers over the history of the universe. At galactic distances, the stars are faint but can be detected in ensemble through the spatial variations in sky brightness caused by their spatial distributions. It is remarkable that such a major component of the universe could have been hiding in plain sight as an infrared background between the stars and galaxies.

Although this diffuse glow is not the same as the cosmic microwave background (CMB), “The existence of such a population of sources complicates the measurement of the fluctuations from the early universe,”  Moseley says, suggesting that the BICEP team may have more worries to deal with (see 9/25/14).  So here is something majorly new after decades of the Hubble Space Telescope and other high-tech instruments scanning the skies at all wavelengths.  Moseley’s astonishment is as palpable as a bang: “It should not be easy to hide half the stars in the universe!

Mysteries and Dark Secrets

That’s not the only surprise.  Astronomers are dealing with these additional mysteries announced recently:

  1. Mystery over monster cosmic cloud” (BBC News).  Astronomers are debating “a cosmic confrontation between a huge gas cloud and the black hole at the centre of our galaxy.”  Is it a merger?  Why should we be so lucky to see it happen?
  2. Quasar puzzle (Nature): “An infrared census of accreting supermassive black holes across a wide range of cosmic times indicates that the canonical understanding of how these luminous objects form and evolve may need to be adjusted.”
  3. “First ultraluminous pulsar: NuSTAR discovers impossibly bright dead star” (PhysOrg): A compact powerhouse with the energy of 10 million suns is not a black hole, but a pulsar.  This pulsar “takes the top prize in the weirdness category.
  4. “The mystery of pulsar rarity at the center of our galaxy” (PhysOrg):  Where are they?  “With so many stars, astronomers estimate that there should be hundreds of dead ones. But to date, scientists have found only a single young pulsar at the galactic center where there should be as many as 50.”  It seems really suspect to pose this ad hoc rescue device: “Maybe those pulsars are absent because dark matter, which is plentiful in the galactic center, gloms onto the pulsars, accumulating until the pulsars become so dense they collapse into a black hole.”  See next story.
  5. “Universe is older than it looks” (PhysOrg): Can a star be older than the universe? Explaining a “Methuselah star” requires tweaks to dark matter and dark energy theories, but “Dark energy and dark matter are, as have been discussed widely, controversial physical phenomena for which we have absolutely no explanation whatsoever,” the article whimpers.
  6. “Hungry black hole eats faster than thought possible” (PhysOrg):  Step aside, Takeru Kobayashi: a black hole 12 million light-years away “is ingesting a weight equivalent to 100 billion billion hot dogs every minute.
  7. “Dark matter: Out with the WIMPs, in with the SIMPs?” (Science Magazine and PhysOrg): Now that Weakly Interacting Massive Particles appear to be figments of astronomers’ dreams (10/06/14), how about “Strongly Interacting Massive Particles”?  Are these like Homer SIMPSon?   “Like cops tracking the wrong person, physicists seeking to identify dark matter—the mysterious stuff whose gravity appears to bind the galaxies—may have been stalking the wrong particle.” Is anyone paying attention to the Keystone Cosmologists any more?  Science Daily shows how to spin-doctor an embarrassing fact into an aura of triumphal progress.
  8. Antimatter Imbalance: Stuff Happens (Science Daily): There should be equal amounts of matter and antimatter from a big bang, but there’s almost no antimatter found.  “Something must have happened to cause extra CP violation and, thus, form the universe as we know it,” Sheldon Stone, a “Distinguished Professor,” says in a tad undistinguished manner.
  9. Epic Fail: maybe it wasn’t the Higgs (PhysOrg): That particle that won its discoverers a Nobel Prize may not have been the Higgs boson, a Denmark physicist says.
  10. The revolution devours itself (Science Daily): Dark energy is swallowing up the dark matter, astronomers claim.

Now that we all have increased confidence in the ability of astronomers and cosmologists to tell us how things came to be, we can rest assured that the “hard sciences” of physics, chemistry and astronomy are the best examples of solid science in the world (see, for example a confident story in Science Daily).  Relativity and quantum mechanics are the pillars of modern physics.  What could possibly go wrong?

  • “New math and quantum mechanics: Fluid mechanics suggests alternative to quantum orthodoxy” (MIT via Science Daily): The famed “Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics has stood the test of time for decades, but MIT astronomers think an older, discarded interpretation, the “pilot-wave theory,” deserves a second look.
  • “Why a Physics Revolution Might Be on Its Way” (Live Science): The field of physics “may be turned on its head soon,” a “renowned physicist” Nima Arkani-Hamed thinks.  Why?

For one, he said, the tried and true physics of relativity and quantum mechanics don’t get along well. The problem is that in some sense, the principles behind these theories seem to be impossible when physicists dig a little deeper into them, Arkani-Hamed said. Scientists run into a lot of problems when they try to apply these theories to the entirety of space and time.

The two ideas are also incredibly constraining, and they make it challenging for physicists to think outside the box and develop new ideas and theories, Arkani-Hamed said.

Like Murphy said, there’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always time to do it over.  At least today’s scientists aren’t as bad as the chemists who lied, prevaricated, and made up fictional “elements” back in the day (“Chemists behaving badly,” Nature).  Are they?

We just thought you would like to know how trustworthy the modern culture’s purveyors of wisdom and truth can be. For some probing questions about cosmologist’s claims, with some clever unmasking of scientific pretensions, see  David Berlinski’s 2009 essay “The State of the Matter” The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays.

With far too few pulsars out there, it might be worthwhile to “think outside the box” of billions of years.  In any case, think about the above headlines next time some compromising creationist praises the big bang theory, and tells you that Biblical interpretation must be built on the unimpeachable foundation of secular science.


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  • John C says:

    If the Nobel Prize winners are proven wrong, do they have to return their prize? If President Obama continues to escalate a war that was declining, does he have to return his peace prize?

  • Russell says:

    General Relativity is metaphysically based on the idea of mechanistic determinism. The Quantum Theory is based on the metaphysical idea of chance. So in modern physics we seem to have the same dialectic faced by the early Greek philosophers of fate and chance. I suspect this is a consequence of both the early Greeks and modern scientist assuming the universe is ultimately impersonal (uncreated matter/energy and impersonal forces) rather than ultimately personal, created and governed by a personal God.

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