Lightwaves

Through the first few episodes, the new Cosmos series has been ok to good.  Lots of folks have detailed likes and dislikes.  But I have to admit….I really liked the last episode.  Two reasons:  people…..and light.

I personally enjoy the history of science as seen through the lens of the individuals involved.  To see how their lives influenced what they did and appreciate what they discovered with mere stone knives and bearskins is a lot of fun.  Last night I enjoyed the story of Joseph Fraunhofer.  I’d seen it before, but it’s a great story of a very bright individual who began as an indentured apprentice but who nevertheless made huge contributions to our understanding of the information contained in light.  The tragedy of the story is not that he died young, probably from toxic chemicals used in glass making.  Rather, the tragedy is that today, among the seven billion people on the planet…there are many Fraunhofers, Newtons, Einsteins….and we should be finding those folks and giving them room to use their intellect.  These individuals weren’t just smart…there are enough at the high end of the IQ bell curve….they are different, they imagine the world in new ways that lead to fresh insights.  I count it a loss that we do not know most of them.

Light…..is amazing.  Going to the Moon was cool, the sky at night always beautiful, but I fell in love when I found out how much information is carried to us by light.  Tiny points of starlight that give us the story of the stars, lets us ask crazy questions like what things are made of, how far, how old…and actually get answers.  The light from the planets, comets, asteroids..and distant gamma ray bursts, all of it has an amazing amount of information.  Spreading the light to see the spectra….is magical.  Case Western Reserve University had a wonderful wide field telescope with a prism that was used for surveys.  Glass plates, 4 inches on a side, covered with tiny spectra.  And you could learn to read them, and recognize that here was a white dwarf, there was a Cepheid variable…..how cool!

stellar spectra

Prettier than fingerprints

At high dispersion, every star is unique.  You can’t get lost in space as long as you can find a bright star!  You can identify them by their spectra.  We still call the absorption features Fraunhofer lines.

Not to ruin the romance, professional spectra are not generally colored  (except for fun).  Even the phototgraphic plate emulsions were black and white to get maximum detail.  And today, they are not of course photographs plus we are often in non-visual wavelengths.  But still….the story is written in the light.

spectrum

What we actually see

cas a

If you had x-ray eyes

Light….lets us go from the rings of Saturn (ice, some rock) all the way to the dawn of time, the cosmic microwave background.  Across time and space.  Warped by black holes. How cool is that?

I don’t have the time, really….but it was all I could do to not seriously consider buying a spectrograph for the telescope when one was being sold locally.

You never get over your first love…..

 

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