A Deep View Down Broadway

Abell 2744 Parallel Deep Field from the Hubble Frontier Fields Project Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)

Abell 2744 Parallel Deep Field from the Hubble Frontier Fields Project
Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)

[Note: this blog post also appears on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]

One of the more philosophical concepts that astronomers have to deal with on an everyday basis is the commingling of space and time in astronomical images.

The underlying idea is straightforward. The speed of light is finite. Light from a star or nebula or galaxy takes a measurable amount of time to cross the space between it and us. Hence, the light we see now left that object at some previous time. We view astronomical objects as they were in the past. As I like to say, looking out in space is also looking back in time.

The implications of this maxim are considerable, especially in dealing with the deep field images from Hubble (see the accompanying image of the Abell 2744 Parallel deep field). Such images contain a wonderful assortment of galaxies, with a few stars here and there. Each object is at a different position in space, both in the two-dimensional sense of a different position within the image and in the three-dimensional sense of being at a different distance from Earth. Further, objects at different distances are seen at different times in the past. Hence, astronomers must examine these deep field images in four-dimensional space-time.

Tackling the expanse of space and time in these images can be mind-boggling. We’ll start with the stars, which are easier to understand. All the stars are local, within our Milky Way galaxy. These stars are generally hundreds to thousands of light-years away. The light we observe today might have left the star while the pyramids of Egypt were being built. Because stars don’t change appreciably on scales of thousands of years, stars in deep fields are just like stars in other astronomical images.

The galaxies, however, stretch much farther into space. The nearest are many millions of light-years away, while the most distant are around ten billion light-years away. Galaxies don’t change much on million-year timescales. For example, it takes over 200 million years for our Sun to orbit once within our galaxy. Even though the light may have left a galaxy when dinosaurs first started to dominate our planet, the same galaxy would look similar today. Thus, the nearby galaxies in these images are comparable to local galaxies.

Given billions of years, however, galaxies do change, and these deep field images provide compelling evidence. Distant galaxies do not have the standard spiral and elliptical shapes. They are often elongated, have bright spots of star formation, and are much smaller in size. We see galaxies as they were before the Sun, Earth, and the solar system formed. We study the development of galaxies over time to see how they form and grow. The perplexing point is that, for any given galaxy in the image, there is no distinct visual indicator of its distance in space or time. The layers of the universe are jumbled together across the image, and it is a grand puzzle of cosmology to sort them out.

The usual method to determine distances, and therefore times, is to measure the cosmological redshift of each galaxy. That concept has been discussed in a Frontier Fields blog post by Dr. Brandon Lawton: “Light Detectives: Using Color to Estimate Distance”. Thus, I’d like to take this essay in a different direction.

The Manhattan Deep Field

When discussing the cosmic mixture of space-time with an artist visiting from Spain, I happened upon a novel idea for a human-centric analogy.

Imagine you are in New York City, specifically Times Square in Manhattan. You look down Broadway to the southern end of the island about 4 miles away. If the speed of light were extremely slow, traveling only one mile per century, what would you see?

Each mile down Broadway would represent one hundred years of New York’s history. Each block would be 5 to 10 years earlier in the development of the metropolis.

A quarter of a mile away, the southern end of the theater district would appear as it did in the early 1990s when “Miss Saigon” came to Broadway. Only a few blocks farther would be the disco era and the civil unrest of the 1960s, then the World War II years and the Great Depression.

The Empire State Building, about a mile away, would vanish, as it was not built until 1931. At a similar distance, Madison Square Garden would be seen hosting heavyweight boxing matches in its original building, before the demolition and re-construction in the late 1920s.

Progressing another mile down Broadway to Union Square would travel back past the Civil War, Tammany Hall politics, economic growth fostered by the Erie Canal, and Alexander Hamilton’s original run on the New York stage.

The mile beyond to the SoHo district progresses through the times of New York as the capital of the United States, the Revolutionary War, the founding of Columbia University, and the importation of slaves by the Dutch West Indies Company.

The final mile to Battery Park leads through the colonial era alternately dominated by Dutch or English foreign powers, past the garrison of Fort Amsterdam, to the island’s Native American roots and the initial explorations by Henry Hudson.

A “slow speed of light” view from Times Square would lay out the entire history of the city of New York in a single view. The commingling of space and time would make it the historian’s exceptional equivalent of the astronomer’s standard observation: a deep view down Broadway.

This idea of a time-warped view of New York provides an analogy to what Hubble uncovers: the history of galaxies compressed and jumbled within each deep field. Perhaps it can help you to look at these images from that requisite four-dimensional perspective. These deep field images are truly a trip down memory lane.

The Final Frontier of the Universe

[Note: this article is cross-posted on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]


Gravitational lensing in galaxy cluster Abell S1063 Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz (STScI)

Fifty years ago, in 1966, the Star Trek television series debuted. Given the incredible longevity of the franchise, it seems remarkable that the original television series only lasted three seasons.

Each episode famously began with the words “Space: the final frontier.” To me, those thoughts evoke an idea of staring into the night sky and yearning to know what is out there. They succinctly capture an innate desire for exploration, adventure, and understanding. Such passions are the same ones that drive astronomers to decipher the universe through science.

While Captain Kirk and company could make a physical voyage into interstellar space, our technology has (so far) only taken humans to the Moon and sent our probes across the solar system. For the rest of the cosmos, we must embark on an intellectual journey. Telescopes like Hubble are the vehicles that bring the universe to us.

To explore remote destinations, the Enterprise relied upon a faster-than-light warp drive. Astronomy, in turn, can take advantage of gravitational warps in space-time to boost the light of distant galaxies. Large clusters of galaxies are so massive that, under the dictates of general relativity, they warp the space around them. Light that travels through that warped space is redirected, distorted, and amplified by this “gravitational lensing.”

Gravitational lensing enables Hubble to see fainter and more-distant galaxies than would otherwise be possible. It is the essential “warp factor” that motivates the Frontier Fields project, one of the largest Hubble observation programs ever. The “frontier” in the name of the project reflects that these images will push to the very limits of how deeply Hubble can see out into space.

But is this the “final frontier” of astronomy? Not yet.

Abell S1063 Parallel Field - This deep galaxy image is of a random field located near the galaxy cluster Abell S1063. As part of the Frontier Fields Project, while one of Hubble's instruments was observing the cluster, another instrument observed this field in parallel. These deep fields provide invaluable images and statistics about galaxies stretching toward the edge of the observable universe.

Abell S1063 Parallel Field – This deep galaxy image is of a random field located near the galaxy cluster Abell S1063. As part of the Frontier Fields Project, while one of Hubble’s instruments was observing the cluster, another instrument observed this field in parallel. These deep fields provide invaluable images and statistics about galaxies stretching toward the edge of the observable universe.

The expanding universe stretches the light that travels across it. Light from very distant galaxies travels across the expanding universe for so long that it becomes stretched beyond the visible and near-infrared wavelengths Hubble can detect. To see the most distant galaxies, one needs a space telescope with Hubble’s keen resolution, but at infrared wavelengths.

In what may have been an homage to the Star Trek television series with Captain Picard, the project for such a telescope was originally called the “Next Generation Space Telescope.” Today we know it as the James Webb Space Telescope, and it is slated to launch in October 2018. Webb has a mirror 6.5 meters (21 feet) across, can observe wavelengths up to ten times longer than Hubble can observe, and is the mission that will detect and study the first appearances of galaxies in the universe.

In the Star Trek adventures, Federation starships explore our galaxy, and much of that only within our local quadrant. Astronomical observatories do the same for scientific studies of planets, stars, and nebulae in our Milky Way; and go beyond to galaxies across millions and billions of light-years of space. Telescopes like Hubble and Webb carry that investigation yet further, past giant clusters of galaxies, and out to the deepest reaches of the cosmos. With deference to Gene Roddenberry, one might say “Space telescopes: the final frontier of the universe.”


A Century Later, General Relativity is Still Making Waves

[Note: this article is cross-posted on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]

In November 1915, Albert Einstein published a series of papers that laid out the ideas, equations, and some astronomical applications of the general theory of relativity. While Isaac Newton described gravity as a force between two massive bodies, Einstein’s general relativity re-interprets gravity as a geometric distortion of space and time (see my previous blog post “Einstein’s Crazy Idea” ).

One example cited in those papers was that general relativity can explain the extra precession of Mercury’s orbit that Newton’s formulation does not explain. Another prediction, the bending of light as it passes a massive object, was tested and shown accurate less than four years later. This effect, called gravitational lensing has been shown in tremendous detail by the Hubble Space Telescope (see my previous blog post “Visual “Proof” of General Relativity“), and is one of the prime motivations behind the Frontier Fields project.

Last year, scientists celebrated the centennial of general relativity. The theory has been a resounding success in diverse astronomical situations. However, there was one major prediction that had not yet been tested: gravitational waves.

General relativity predicts that mass not only can create distortions in space-time, but also can create waves of those distortions propagating across space-time. In cosmology, the global expansion of space over time is a familiar concept. For a gravitational wave, space also stretches / shrinks, but that localized distortion moves across space at the speed of light.


The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is one of the projects designed to observe the minute distortions of gravitational waves. It consists of two detectors, one in Hanford, WA, and one in Livingston, LA. Each detector has two perpendicular arms, consisting of ultra-high-vacuum chambers four kilometers (two and a half miles) in length.

For the experiment, a laser light source is split and sent down and back each arm. By measuring how the laser light signals interfere with each other when recombined, extremely precise measurements of any change in distances can be made. The idea is that when a gravitational wave passes by, the minuscule stretch of one arm and shrink of the other will be observable.


The signal observed in the LIGO event GW150914

On September 14, 2015, both LIGO detectors observed an event (see the accompanying image). The pattern in the signal indicates that a series of gravitational waves passed through the detectors in about two-tenths of a second. It is extremely important that multiple detectors saw the same event so that local disturbances can be ruled out. Plus, the time delay between the detectors helps measure the speed of the waves.

To analyze the event, the LIGO team used computer simulations. The shape and duration of the event waveform matched that expected for the merger of two black holes. The amplitude of the detection helped determine how far away the black-hole merger took place. The best fit is a merger of a 36-solar-mass black hole with a 29-solar-mass black hole to form a 62-solar-mass black hole, about 1.3 billion light-years away.

The energetics of the merger are simply astounding.Recognizing that 36 + 29 = 65, one can see that three solar masses of material did not end up in the resulting black hole. Instead, it was converted in the energy that created the gravitational wave. Released in less than half a second, the peak wattage of the event was greater than the visible light wattage from all the stars in the observable universe.

And yet, when detected on Earth, the measured space distortion was smaller than the size of a proton. The reason it took a century to find gravitational waves is because one has to measure subatomic displacements. Gravity is demonstrably the weakest of the four fundamental forces. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to produces a gravitational wave that can be seen at cosmic distances.


There are several major results from this observation. The detection shows, for the first time, that both black-hole mergers and gravitational waves exist. The time delay between detectors, and analysis of the signal at different frequencies, demonstrates that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. All the results are consistent with the predictions of general relativity.

This event marks the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy. With more detectors coming online and planned improvements to current detectors, the field is burgeoning. Dozens to thousands of black-hole or neutron-star mergers, with more detail about each event, should be found in the next decade.

More than a billion years ago, two black holes merged in a distant galaxy, emitted a tremendous amount of energy, and created a gravitational ripple moving across space. Recently, the LIGO project detected this almost infinitesimal motion of space; a deviation much smaller than the size of an atom. With that amazing observation, the last major prediction of general relativity was verified. A century later, Einstein still rules.

How Hubble “Sees” Gravity

[Note: this post is cross-posted on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]

Gravity is the familiar force of nature responsible for the diverse motions of a baseball thrown high into the air, a planet orbiting a star, or a star orbiting within a galaxy. Astronomers have long observed such motions and deduced the amount of gravity, and therefore the amount of matter, present in the planet, star, or galaxy. When taken to the extreme, gravity can also create some intriguing visual effects that are well suited to Hubble’s high-resolution observations.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity expresses how very large mass concentrations distort the space around them. Light passing through that distorted space is re-directed, and can produce a variety of interesting imagery. The bending of light by gravity is similar to the bending of light by a glass lens, hence we call this effect “gravitational lensing”.


An “Einstein Cross” gravitational lens.

The simplest type of gravitational lensing is called “point source” lensing. There is a single concentration of matter at the center, such as the dense core of a galaxy. The light of a distant galaxy is re-directed around this core, often producing multiple images of the background galaxy (see the image above for an example). When the lensing approaches perfect symmetry, a complete or almost complete circle of light is produced, called an “Einstein ring”. Hubble observations have helped to greatly increase the number of Einstein rings known to astronomers.


Gravitational lensing in galaxy cluster Abell 2218

More complex gravitational lensing arises in observations of massive clusters of galaxies. While the distribution of matter in a galaxy cluster generally does have a center, it is never perfectly circularly symmetric and is usually significantly lumpy. Background galaxies are lensed by the cluster with their images often appearing as short thin “lensed arcs” around the outskirts of the cluster. Hubble’s images of galaxy clusters, such as Abell 2218 (above) and Abell 1689, showed the large number and detailed distribution of these lensed images throughout massive galaxy clusters.

These lensed images also act as probes of the matter distribution in the galaxy cluster. Astronomers can measure the motions of the galaxies within a cluster to determine the total amount of matter in the cluster. The result indicates that the most of the matter in a galaxy cluster is not in the visible galaxies, does not emit light, and is thus called “dark matter”. The distribution of lensed images reflects the distribution of all matter, both visible and dark. Hence, Hubble’s images of gravitational lensing have been used to create maps of dark matter in galaxy clusters.

In turn, a map of the matter in a galaxy cluster helps provide better understanding and analysis of the gravitational lensed images. A model of the matter distribution can help identify multiple images of the same galaxy or be used to predict where the most distant galaxies are likely to appear in a galaxy cluster image. Astronomers work back and forth between the gravitational lenses and the cluster matter distribution to improve our understanding of both.


Three lensed images of a distant galaxy seen through a cluster of galaxies.

On top of it all, gravitational lenses extend Hubble’s view deeper into the universe. Very distant galaxies are very faint. Gravitational lensing not only distorts the image of a background galaxy, it can also amplify its light. Looking through a lensing galaxy cluster, Hubble can see fainter and more distant galaxies than otherwise possible. The Frontier Fields project has examined multiple galaxy clusters, measured their lensing and matter distribution, and identified a collection of these most distant galaxies.

While the effects of normal gravity are measurable in the motions of objects, the effects of extreme gravity are visible in images of gravitational lensing. The diverse lensed images of crosses, rings, arcs, and more are both intriguing and informative. Gravitational lensing probes the distribution of matter in galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as well as enables observations of the distant universe. Hubble’s data will also provide a basis and guide for the future James Webb Space Telescope, whose infrared observations will push yet farther into the cosmos.


A “smiley face” gravitational lens in a galaxy cluster.

The distorted imagery of gravitational lensing often is likened to the distorted reflections of funhouse mirrors, but don’t take that comparison too far. Hubble’s images of gravitational lensing provide a wide range of serious science.

The Marvel of Gravitational Lensing

A Giant Lensed Galaxy Arc

A Giant Lensed Galaxy Arc
The view of a distant galaxy (nearly 10 billion light-years away) has been warped into a nearly 90-degree arc of light by the gravity of the galaxy cluster known as RCS2 032727-132623 (about 5 billion light-years away).
Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Rigby (NASA GSFC), K. Sharon (KICP, U Chicago), and M. Gladders and E. Wuyts (U Chicago)

One of the coolest marvels in the universe is a phenomenon known as “gravitational lensing.” Unlike many topics in astronomy, the images are not what makes it appealing. Gravitational lensing produces streaks, arcs, and other distorted views that are intriguing, but don’t qualify for cosmic beauty pageants. What makes these images special is the intellectual understanding of how they are created, and the fact that they are even possible at all. The back story takes an ordinary, everyday process, and transforms it into cosmic proportions.

Most of us are familiar with the workings of a glass lens. If you have ever used a magnifying glass, you have seen how it changes the view of an object seen through it.

The glass lens collects light across its surface, which is generally much larger than the pupil of a human eye. Hence, a lens can amplify brightness. In addition, the path of a light ray is bent when it passes through the glass lens. [To be specific, the path bends when the light crosses from air to glass, and again when it crosses back from glass to air.] This bending is called refraction, and the common lens shape will focus the light to a point. When we view that collected light, our view of the object can be bigger or smaller depending on the distances involved, both from the object to the lens and from the lens to our eyes. In summary, a glass lens can amplify and magnify the light from an object.

Glass lenses, however, are not the only way that the path of light can be changed. Another way to redirect light comes from Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

My three-word summary of general relativity is “mass warps space.” The presence of a massive object, like a star, warps the space around it. When light crosses through warped space, it will change its direction. The result is that light that passes close enough to a massive object will be deflected. This deflection by mass is similar to refraction by glass.

Clusters of galaxies are huge concentrations of mass, including both the normal matter we see in the visible light from galaxies and the unseen dark matter spread throughout. Many galaxy clusters are massive enough to produce noticeable deflections of the light passing through or near them. The combined gravity in the cluster can warp space to act like a lens that gathers, amplifies, and magnifies light. Such a gravitational lens will be lumpy, not smooth, and will generally create distorted images of background galaxies seen through them. Also, this lensing often produces multiple images of the same background galaxy, as light from that galaxy is re-directed toward us along multiple paths through the cluster.

The simple idea of a glass lens becomes both cosmic and complex in gravitational lensing. Imagine a lens stretching millions of light-years across (many million million millions of miles). We don’t need to construct such a lens, as nature has provided a good number of them through the warping of the fabric of space. These lenses allow us to see very distant galaxies in the universe, some of which could not otherwise be observed. That’s the marvelous reality of galaxy clusters acting as gravitational lenses.

A Black Hole Visits Baltimore

[NOTE: This post is the fourth in a four-part series. Previous posts are: 1) Einstein’s Crazy Idea, 2) Visual “Proof” of Gravitational Lensing, and 3) Gravitational Lensing in Action.]

For the final part of this series of blog posts, let’s bring things back to Earth. The demonstration of a physical process will always seem a bit arcane when using unfamiliar objects as the example. Most folks don’t have a working relationship with galaxies, let alone the strange varieties one gets in the distant universe. Instead of taking the viewer into the universe, it can be more intuitive to bring the cosmic phenomenon closer to home.

Suppose that, say, a black hole decided to take a short vacation. Perhaps it got tired of the enormous responsibilities of being such a tremendous distortion of space-time. It needed a weekend off to cool its jets (absurdly geeky pun intended – sorry). Around Baltimore, where I work, the black hole might go down to the Inner Harbor, enjoy the sights and activities, indulge in a crab feast, and leave completely rejuvenated. Now, while I haven’t yet tried to visualize a black hole eating crabs, and the concomitant singularity eruptions due to Old Bay seasoning, we can approximate what tourists might have seen during the visit.

A Black Hole Visits Baltimore

Credit: Frank Summers (STScI), special thanks to Brian McLeod (Harvard).

This scientific visualization presents a black hole of about the mass of Saturn passing through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The initial view from Federal Hill shows the usual boats, shops, and office buildings along the water. As the black hole passes across the harbor, the view of the background buildings is distorted due to gravitational lensing. Light is redirected such that, in the region around the singularity, imagery is flipped top/bottom and left/right, with multiple views of the same object. This transformation of a familiar skyline scene can help one imagine the transformation of unfamiliar galaxies in the distant universe.

Note: As in the previous simulated lensing image, a simplified, planar approach of gravitational lensing is used for this visualization. However, in this case, the foreground objects were not removed. The visual distortion of ship’s masts on the near side of the harbor would not occur. We humbly ask your indulgences.

While in graduate school, I had to solve problems using the complex collection of general relativity equations – but only a few times. And all of those instances were for problems with enough symmetry that things could be considerably simplified. I gained an appreciation for the essential character, and some of the beauty, of the mathematics behind it. However, as stated in the first post in this series, the whole concept still has a feeling of weirdness.

Perhaps that notion would have dissipated had I specialized in relativity. Instead, as I developed into a scientific visualization specialist, I’ve gotten to revisit things from a public presentation, rather than research, perspective. The visual allure of gravitational lensing can attract an audience for topics typically mired in equations. It shows how a simple magnifying glass can have a truly cosmic analogue. It helps explore the perspective changing shift in gravity from Newton’s force to Einstein’s geometric re-interpretation. It opens the pathway to deeper philosophical thoughts about the fabric of space-time and the very underpinnings of our universe. Now, that’s quite the opportunity for an outreach astrophysicist like me.

In this case, weird is cool.

Frontier Fields Public Lecture

Want to hear about the Frontier Fields project straight from the scientist? On August 5, 2014, principal investigator Dr. Jennifer Lotz gave a public lecture entitled “The Frontier Fields: a Sneak Peek at the First Billion Years of the Universe” and the recorded webcast is available at the link below.

Dr. Jennifer Lotz
The Frontier Fields: a Sneak Peek at the First Billion Years of the Universe

August 5, 2014

How we far can we go? What are the faintest objects the Hubble Space Telescope can possibly see? Can we get a sneak peek at the early universe before the James Webb Space Telescope is launched? These are the key questions we hope to answer with the Frontier Fields campaign. Over this three year program, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute will attempt to push the Hubble Space Telescope’s capabilities to its limits. This ambitious effort will combine the power of Hubble with the natural gravitational telescopes of massive clusters of galaxies that magnify more distant galaxies. Hubble will obtain the deepest ever optical and infrared images of six massive clusters, in parallel with the deep images of six neighboring “blank” fields. These observations will reveal galaxies about 10-20 times fainter than any previously seen, allowing astronomers to study the birth of galaxies like our own Milky Way.


This lecture is part of the monthly public lecture series at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Each month addresses a different cosmic topic, usually related to Hubble, but always venturing to some fascinating part of the universe. For more information, check out the web page on HubbleSite:  http://hubblesite.org/about_us/public_talks/


Gravitational Lensing in Action

In my previous blog post, Visual “Proof” of General Relativity, I discussed how gravitational lensing demonstrates the effects of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in a direct, visual manner. Images created by gravitational lenses show features that are not possible in Newton’s version of gravity.

Although seeing general relativity with your own eyes is kinda awesome, there’s one unsatisfying aspect: you only see the result, not the process. Since you don’t know exactly what those galaxies looked like before the gravitational lensing, it is hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of the distortions. We have no on/off switch for the mass of the galaxy cluster to be able to examine the un-lensed image and compare against the lensed one.


A simulation of gravitational lensing by a cluster of galaxies (click on image for larger version). The galaxies of cluster Abell 2744 (left) are inserted into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (right) to produce the combined image with gravitational lensing (center).

But we can demonstrate the process of gravitational lensing through scientific visualization. The images above show a simulation of gravitational lensing by a galaxy cluster. On the left is an image of only the galaxies that belong to galaxy cluster Abell 2744; all of the foreground and background objects have been removed. On the right is a deep field image of galaxies. In the center is a simulation of how the galaxies of Abell 2744 would distort the galaxy images in the deep field.

By carefully comparing galaxy images between the right and center panels, one can see how the un-lensed galaxies transform to their distorted lensed versions.  The elongated streaks and arcs in the center image generally come from compact, ellipse-shaped galaxies in the right image. But not all galaxies are changed, a fact easily seen by examining the larger, yellow galaxy in the lower right.

The explanation comes from the details of the simulated lensing. The deep field used above is a portion of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), and includes only galaxies for which we have a good measure of their distance. Using those distances and the distance to Abell 2744, we were able to place the galaxies of Abell 2744 at their correct positions within the deep field. HUDF galaxies which are closer than the galaxy cluster would not be lensed, and appear the same in the right and center images. Only those galaxies behind the cluster were transformed by the simulated lensing. Thus, the central image provides a proper simulation of what would be seen if Abell 2744 suddenly wandered across the sky and ended up in the middle of the HUDF.

I note that all of the background galaxies were combined into a single image at a set distance behind the cluster for simplicity. The full, and rather tedious, 3D calculation could have been performed, but was deemed unlikely to provide a significant visual difference for a public-level illustration. I further note that it is an occupational hazard of being a scientist that one feels compelled to provide such full-disclosure details.

The really difficult challenge is to do the reverse of this simulation. Start with an image of gravitational lensing and then work out the mass distribution of the galaxy cluster from the distribution of streaks and arcs. But, hey, no one said being an astrophysicist was easy.

In the final part of this series of blog posts, I’ll provide a more down-to-earth example of gravitational lensing.


Visual “Proof” of General Relativity

In a previous blog post, “Einstein’s Crazy Idea“, I discussed how Einstein’ s theory of general relativity is a reinterpretation of gravity. Newton’s original idea of gravity visualized it as a force between massive objects. Einstein instead surmised that the presence of mass warps space, and that curved space-time produces the motions we attribute to gravity. Earth’s orbit around the Sun is either a curved path through flat space (Newton) or a straight path through curved space (Einstein).

Both ideas of gravity produce the same observed motions for most cases. But there are a number of situations, generally involving very strong gravitational effects, where general relativity explains phenomena that gravitational forces get slightly wrong. The differences are often subtle and take quite a lot of explanation to appreciate. However, one example is visually obvious: gravitational lensing.

Galaxy Cluster Abell 1689

Hubble image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689, showing a large number of lensed arcs (click on the image for larger version). These arcs are distorted images of background galaxies, gravitationally lensed by the mass of the cluster.

The above image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689 is a prime example of gravitational lensing. Throughout the image are numerous small arcs, streaks, and strange-looking objects. Most of these are relatively normal galaxies (a few really are just strange-looking objects), whose images have been stretched and twisted by the galaxy cluster and general relativity.

The combined mass of the thousands of galaxies in the cluster (and their associated dark matter – a topic discussed in the What is Dark Matter? blog post) heavily distorts the space-time around the cluster. Light from more distant galaxies passes through that warped space. The images of those distant galaxies become distorted as if they were being seen through an odd-shaped glass lens. In fact, the physics of light redirection using gravity is entirely analogous to that using lenses. It is the optics of complex lenses, but using mass instead of glass.

Newton’s gravity can not produce such gravitational lensing. Well, to be complete, a gravitational force could produce half of the lensing effect of general relativity, but only if one assumes that photons (i.e., particles of light) have mass. Modern physics considers photons to be massless particles, and hence gravitational lensing does not exist in Newton’s version of gravity, only in Einstein’s general relativity.

For that reason, I like to say that pictures of gravitational lensing are visual “proof” of general relativity. You don’t have to delve into the astronomy, physics, or complex mathematics — just examine the image. Such distortions arise from general relativity.

Now, the visual distortions may be easy to spot, but that’s not to say that these images are easy to interpret. Just the opposite is true. I’ll provide some examples of the complexities of understanding gravitational lensing in my next blog post.

Einstein’s Crazy Idea

Total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919

One of the original plates from the 1919 solar eclipse used to measure the effects of general relativity. Click the image for a larger version, and note the horizontal lines that mark stars that were used for the measurements.

General relativity is just plain weird.

The basic idea of gravity we are taught in school comes from Isaac Newton’s “Principia” in 1687. Gravity is a force exerted by objects with mass. The greater the mass, the greater the gravitational force. The larger the distance between objects, the lesser the force ( it decreases with the square of the distance). The gravity of the Sun pulls on Earth and holds it, along with the other planets, asteroids, comets, etc., in orbit.

Not so, according to Albert Einstein in 1915. He came up with a completely new, and quite radical, alternative explanation.

Einstein’s crazy idea is that the presence of mass warps the fabric of space around it. Then, that warped space controls the motion of other masses nearby. Newton’s idea of a gravitational force is thus replaced with four-dimensional space-time geometry. Planets orbiting around stars, and stars traveling through galaxies — these are space-time distortions moving within other space-time distortions. As one famous description puts it: mass tells space how to warp, while warped space tells mass how to move. Yeah, weird.

On the face of it, Isaac and Albert are just describing the same phenomenon from two different points of view: the former sees a force, while the latter sees geometric distortions. And, since the algebraic equations of the gravitational force are so, so, so, so, so very much simpler than the tensor calculus of general relativity, why go to all the relativistic trouble?

The answer is that there are certain situations, generally involving very large masses, where Newton’s gravity is demonstrably wrong. The most famous of these is the precession of the perihelion of Mercury.

The orbit of Mercury is not fixed in space. Each time Mercury orbits the Sun, its orbit rotates by a minuscule amount. The position when Mercury is closest to the Sun, called perihelion, is used to measure this orbit rotation, called precession. While Newton’s gravity predicts a precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the measured value is significantly higher. This mismatch between prediction and observation is resolved by Einstein’s general relativity in that the warping of space at such a close distance to the Sun produces a slightly stronger precession than gravitational force.

The other famous demonstration of general relativity is the bending of light as it passes a massive object. Light rays also have their paths changed by passing through warped space. A total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, served to test this effect. During the eclipse, astronomers could see stars whose light had passed close to the Sun. Their apparent position on the sky would be shifted from their normal position due to passage through the warped space around the Sun. By observing the precise positions of such stars both before and during the eclipse, astronomers measured the effects of general relativity. (See the image accompanying this post.)

Those 1919 observations did much to confirm that this crazy idea of general relativity reflected the reality of the universe. We now have many tests of general relativity. Most are subtle and require significant explanation. However,  there is one that is visually striking, and which is critical to the scientific underpinnings of the Frontier Fields project. I’ll address that in my next blog post ( Visual “Proof” of General Relativity ).