The Universe, Astronomy’s Lab

There’s a theme in a certain kind of science fiction.

Not in the type with laser swords and space elves, and not in cyberpunk dystopias…but when sci-fi tries to explore what humanity might do if it really got a chance to explore its own capabilities. In a word, the theme is scale.

We start out with a Dyson sphere, built around our own sun to trap its energy. As time goes on, the projects get larger and larger, involving multiple stars and, eventually, reshaping the galaxy.

There’s an expectation, though, that this sort of thing is far in our future. Treating the galaxy as a resource, as a machine, seems well beyond our present capabilities.

On Wednesday, Victoria Kaspi gave a public lecture at Perimeter about neutron stars. At the very end of the lecture, she talked a bit about something she covered in more detail during her colloquium earlier that day, called a Pulsar Timing Array.

Neutron stars are one of the ways a star can end its life. Too big to burn out quietly and form a white dwarf, and too small to collapse all the way into a black hole, the progenitors of neutron stars have so much gravity that they force protons and electrons to merge, so that the star ends up as a giant ball of neutrons, like an enormous atomic nucleus.

Many of these neutron stars have strong magnetic fields. A good number of them are what are called pulsars: stars that emit powerful pulses of electromagnetic radiation, often at regular intervals. Some of these pulsars are very regular indeed, rivaling atomic clocks in their precision. The idea of a Pulsar Timing Array is to exploit this regularity by using these pulsars as a gravitational wave telescope.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory, and we’ve observed their indirect effects, but so far we have yet to detect them directly. Attempts have been made: vast detectors like LIGO have been built that bounce light across long “arms”, trying to detect minute disruptions in space. The problem is, it’s hard to distinguish these disruptions from ordinary vibrations in the area, like minor earthquakes. Size also limits the effectiveness of these detectors, with larger detectors able to see the waves from bigger astronomical events.

Pulsar Timing Arrays sidestep both of those problems. Instead of trying to build a detector on the ground like LIGO (or even in space like LISA), they use the pulsars themselves as the “arms” of a galaxy-sized detector. Because these pulsars emit light so regularly, small disruptions can be a sign that a gravitational wave is passing by the earth and disrupting the signal. Because they are spread roughly evenly across the galaxy, we can correlate signals across multiple pulsars, to make sure we’re really seeing gravitational waves. And because they’re so far apart, we can use them to detect waves from some of the biggest astronomical events, like galaxies colliding.


Earth very much not to scale.

Longtime readers know that I find astronomy really inspiring, but Kaspi’s talk woke me up to a completely different aspect, that of our mastery of scale.

Want to dream of a future where we use the solar system and the galaxy as resources? We’re there, and we’ve been there for a long time. We’re a civilization that used nearby planets to bootstrap up the basic laws of motion before we even had light bulbs. We’ve honed our understanding of space and time using distant stars. And now, we’re using an array of city-sized balls of neutronium, distributed across the galaxy, as a telescope. If that’s not the stuff of science fiction, I don’t know what is.


By the way, speaking of webcast lectures, I’m going to be a guest on the Alda Center’s Science Unplugged show next week. Tune in if you want to hear about the sort of stuff I work on, using string theory as a tool to develop shortcuts for particle physics calculations.


3 thoughts on “The Universe, Astronomy’s Lab

    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      These things exist on a continuum. People found it inspiring when Carl Sagan told them they were all made of star-stuff. Photosynthesis is arguably more inspiring, for essentially the same reason: we’re ultimately fueled by a giant fusion reactor 150 million km away, and life has figured out how to eke as much energy from this reactor as possible.

      In this case, we’re not just watching the sky and passively lapping up information. We’re taking advantage of its extreme regularity (regularity that has more in common with our experience of technology than of nature) to infer something about a completely different part of the universe.

      This isn’t science fiction, sure. We’re not tossing stars around like billiard balls. But we’re plugged in to events on a galaxy-wide scale. We didn’t evolve to that, like we evolved around the presence of the sun. We built to it. Neutron stars shouldn’t matter to tiny monkeys like us, shouldn’t guide our behavior…but we made them do so. We incorporated them into our world.



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