3600 and Some Photos

Yesterday we were supposed to get a big thunderstorm pass through the city. Unfortunately, it passed well south and my girlfriend and I knew we were going to be out of luck.

Knowing that she had storm chassed a little in the past with some friends, on a whim I asked if she wanted to try and chase the storm. Her eyes light up and we grabbed our cameras and took to the road.

I had the task of suggesting where to go as she drove her car. I had little idea of what I was doing, but I could see from the radar images in Environment Canada’s app that we needed to head south and east of the city. She coached me a little on how you want to get close to a storm but not be in the rain. With her advice, I plotted a course out to the perimeter and off an access road not far from the city’s water reservoir.

We set up by a culvert and had an okay view of the storm. The last time I took my camera out was in the winter when we went meteor watching. I did get a single meteor that time, so I was hoping that I would have better luck with the lightning that afternoon.

I used a wild west technique with the intervalometer from Magic Lantern. Short, fast, continuous photos! With 50 photos in rapid succession, I was still missing the lighting bursts. The storm was moving away from us and we also ran into a bathroom and snack problem, having left the house without thinking about how long we’d be out photographing.

Thankfully, the truck stop known as Deacon’s Corner wasn’t too far and that would also put us on the Trans-Canada Highway and take us south-east again. Hopefully, we could catch up with it.

Back in the car, a short hop and a brief bathroom break we were back on the road, regrettably without snacks. I’ve begun to realize that there are few options for lactose intolerant people as quick road snacks. It’s either covered in chocolate or has lactic acid or whey powder. Our small thermoses of tea and coffee would have to sustain us.

We raced along the Trans-Canada making sure to stay in the speed limits and found ourselves passing a train. It was an odd feeling to be outpacing a leviathan of the rails. A quick turn off the highway put us on the opposite side of the tracks and beside a beautiful field of yellow canola.

As we set up, we had the odd drop of rain, but we never had more than a few drops at a time. The perfect distance from the storm. This time I just let my camera take pictures until it ran out of memory or battery, whichever occurred first. After a while, the train caught up with us and I turned my camera to have it visible off to the side. Mother nature was not kind enough to create any lighting as the train rumbled gently passed us. Can’t win them all.

After a while, my camera stopped taking pictures. My memory card was full. 6300 and some photos. I could only hope that I had captured some of the beautiful lighting strikes that we had seen. My girlfriend had a fraction of that, having stayed with taking 50 pictures at a time.

Back at home we slowly sifted through our photos, sipping on tea as we snuggled on the cough. Our eyes fixed on our respective computer screens. I realized that my lenses were incredibly dirty and in desperate need of a cleaning.

Thankfully though, there we did get some nice lighting shots. We would let out exclamations of excitement when we’d find one in our photos and the other would lean in to see.

In all, I managed to get 12 strikes, but only three really stood out. I combined two together because they were back to back in the sequence of photos and the combined photo turned out okay.

Not bad for an afternoon out and on the spur of the moment adventure. I hope we get to do it again this summer.

– KMSB

When a Theory is not a Theory

I was reading an article online from the Express when I read the following: “Black holes are often found at the hearts of galaxies and up until April this year have been purely theoretical.“ The statement threw me for a bit of a loop, mostly because black holes have been an active part of astrophysics since the discovery of Cygnus X-1 in 1971. Using the day to day word theoretical misleads the general public into thinking that black holes were not confirmed in science until this past April with the discovery of M87*’s shadow. This is a dangerous statement to make.

In day to day language, theory is used to mean a hunch or an educated guess. However, in the sphere of science, a theory is an explanation of what something is or how it works. Theories are often large bodies of work and research and are quite detailed.

Take gravity for example. Newton’s law of universal gravitation does not explain what gravity is, it only shows mathematically how two bodies affect each other through gravitational attraction. It is the theory of general relativity that explains how gravity works and what it is (a result of mass curving space-time). Black holes are part of the general theory of relativity. To start they were a mathematical quirk of Einstein’s field equations, but the discovery of Cygnus X-1 showed that black holes were not a mathematical quirk.

Further observations about black holes have been made over time adding to the theory and supporting the existence of these massive objects. Accretion disks, relativistic jets, active galactic nuclei, gravitational waves and other observations were all documented well before the Event Horizon Telescope document M87*’s shadow.

None of these observations, including the observation of a shadow, have moved black holes out of the realm of scientific theory. Instead, they help keep black holes as active parts of the general theory of relativity.

Science writers and communicators need to take extra caution when using terms like theory, theoretical, law, fact, hypothesis or conjecture. They have different meanings inside and outside of the sphere of science and using them inappropriately can build a false impression of what science does; that in turn can cause misunderstandings and mistrust of science as a whole.

I am not without fault and am often rereading and refamiliarizing myself with the different terms. It is part and parcel of the job as a science communicator. One of my go-to’s is this article from liveScience.com. Writer or reader, it is probably worth a second look and remember to give critical consideration when you see those terms in an article.

– KMSB

A Black Hole’s Shadow and your Cloak of Invisibility

The buzz around the lunch table and my group’s D&D table is about the image of the black hole shadow in the galaxy M87 (M87*). People are talking, discussing, conjecturing and even imagining the future of space or time travel. Moments like this are great for both the scientific community and the public as it creates intrigue, wonder, and gets both communities talking with each other.

The shadow is really quite amazing, though it should not be confused with the event horizon as some lunchtime conversations have. The shadow of M87* is something separate from the event horizon and perhaps the best way to describe the shadow is to chat D&D, or Harry Potter if you prefer. Either way, we need to talk cloaks of invisibility.

Black holes are already invisible by their own right. They pull in light that comes towards them and trap it forever. This makes photographing them directly a pipe dream because there is never any light leaving them for us to see. The only way to see the presence of black holes is either when they have an accretion disk or strong jets, like M87*, or through their gravitational influence, like Sagittarius A* at the centre of our galaxy zipping stars around it at breakneck speeds.

A perfect cloak of invisibility might not absorb light like a black hole but instead works by bending the light around the person and focusing it on the other side again, giving the appearance of no one being in the way of the light. This type of cloak will also prevent you from ever being photographed because you too are not sending out any light to be captured by a camera. Unfortunately, not every treasure chest in your dungeon will have one, nor do most average witches and wizards have access to a personal Dumbledore. Us regular dungeon crawlers and novice wizards and witches are more likely to get a cloak of partial invisibility (or a cloak of un-invisibility, which is mostly good for a half decent ghost costume at your next themed party).

A perfect cloak of invisibility (left) and a black hole (right).

If we are lucky enough to get a partial cloak of invisibility it will bend light around you, but it may have some tells. The fringes might shimmer, objects might be blurry, or your feet are clearly visible because it is too short and there goes that lovely bonus on your sneak attack rolls (and forget that practical joke of levitating your friend’s lunch with wingardium leviosa unseen).

Black holes can act as a partial cloak of invisibility when lensing distant objects behind them. We still cannot see the black hole directly, but we see the multiple images of the object behind it being projected in a ring around the black hole. In this way, it gives itself away without revealing any interesting details about itself.

A cloak of partial invisibility (left) and a black hole lensing a distant object (right).


Like a lensing black hole, your cloak of partial invisibility is not working out very well and you’ve been spotted. If you can’t stay out of sight, maybe try being seen but not recognized. For this trick, you’ll need a hula hoop of light, available in lower level dungeons or your local Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.

By keeping the hula hoop of light spinning around you, you might give yourself away, but people will probably be too distracted by the really neat shadow you’re creating between you and the hula hoop.

Most of the light from the part of the hoop that is behind you is absorbed by your faulty cloak of invisibility. Some of the light, however, is bent around you and focussed in front of you ahead of where the absorbed light should have been focused. The region where the absorbed light should have appeared is dark because it has no light being bent into it – in effect a shadow.

Ah, but what of the light from the ring in front of you that is cast backwards you say? Sharp eye young adventurer (wizard or witch), but just like the light from behind, the light going from the ring towards you gets absorbed by the faulty cloak or bent around behind you – no reflected light reaches an observer. With this disguise, you might not go unnoticed, but you could try for the Guinness Book of World Records as the first shadow to ever hula hoop.

Cloak and hula hoop of light (left) compared with a black hole and photon ring (right).

In the case of M87* its hula hoop of light is the photon ring that surrounds it. Just like our hoop, most of the light from behind the black hole is pulled in, while some of it is bent around and refocused in front ahead of where the missing light would appear under perfect conditions – just like with our cloak.

This leaves a dark region in front of the black hole between it and the distorted image of the photon ring (The ring is larger on the bottom because it is rotating towards us at that point. The Doppler shift makes it brighter – that’s another article.). The shadow exists in front of the event horizon but behind the ring and this is why it is interesting. The shadow’s presence is sort of a rough outline of the event horizon, but unlike the event horizon, the light that goes into the shadow has a chance of escaping – albeit slim. This is also what makes the image so amazing, by seeing the shadow we are effectively looking at a black hole. We have finally taken a picture of the one thing we’ve not been able to take a picture of directly. By seeing a shadow we have an outline of the event horizon! I would call that rolling a natural 20 or a performing a perfect Patronus as far as photos go.

-KSMogk

The Darkest Black

Image of the black hole at the centre of M87 Image from: Akiyama, K., Alberdi, A., Alef, W., Asada, K., Azulay, R., Baczko, A.-K., … Ziurys, L. (2019). First M87 Event Horizon Telescope Results. II. Array and Instrumentation. The Astrophysical Journal, 875(1), L2. http://doi.org/10.3847/2041-8213/ab0c96

On April 10th The Event Horizon Telescope Collaborative released an image so exciting that I, like my parents with the Moon landing, will remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it – which happened to be on my partner’s stationary bike in our garage watching the YouTube broadcast on my smartphone.

The image that popped up on the screen before me was a ring of orange hues, weighted and thicker towards the bottom left. A dark, gaping, empty, expanse of black sat inside the ring. I was looking at a black hole and the shadow its event horizon. The orange hues were ionized gasses dizzyingly swirling around it at speeds a fraction of the speed of light; sending out their blazingly hot swansong before crossing a frontier into an area of space so unknown we can only conjecture at what is behind the veil of the event horizon.

The light from that gas travelled incredible distances of time and space before reaching not our eyes, but a group of radio telescopes spanning the globe, interconnected through an ambitious and creative collaborate effort. The end result of which is nothing short of breathtaking.

Being so enthralled in the image, I missed a good portion of what the researchers announced about their findings so far. To get an idea, I turned to the five articles that were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and thumbed through them. Between the formulas, diagrams and interpretations, I quickly saw the incredible amount of collaboration and work that went into capturing and processing the images taken between April 4 and 11, 2017. Numerous radio telescopes across the Earth all had to simultaneously have good weather, the petabytes of data that had to be transferred, standardized, aligned and consolidated. New algorithms were created, faster data processing were invented and countless hours spent to produce an image of a dark region in space, the shadow of the black hole, at the centre of M87 that spans 19 to 38 microarcseconds!

If you are like me, you want to know how much that is in light years not arcseconds and you’re not worried about the margins of error. Let us have a little fun and work that out for ourselves. We’ll need a few things: the small angle formula, the distance to M87 and a calculator.

The small angle formula (SAF) is: arcseconds = 206,265(diameter of object/ distance to object)

The distance to M87 is about 53.5 million Light Years

Let us take the upper end of the measurement because who really wants a small shadow? 38 microarcseconds become … 3.8 x 10^-5 arcseconds.

We want the diameter of the shadow, that means we rewrite the SAF to become diameter of object = (distance to object x arcseconds)/206,265 then plug in the numbers.

diameter = (53,500,000 x 0.000,038)/206,265

We get around 0.01 light years which we can convert into km by multiplying by 9.5 x 10^12 … and voila! 9.5 x 10^10 km or 95 billion km! Not bad for a shadow.

An Evening With Friends and the Perseids

It has been a while since I have taken out my camera to do some astrophotography. In fact, I think the last time I did any was during the solar eclipse last summer.

Thankfully, I have good friends who like evening skies as much as I do and they made plans to head out and watch the Perseids–of course, they invited me along.

It was a great night full that started off with all of us muttering to ourselves trying to remember how to set up the right functions on our cameras to take shots for the evening.

After about ten minutes we were all set up and soon sitting back in our lawn chairs looking skywards. The evening did not disappoint. Between Mason jar cake, homemade mint tea cocoa and conversations that took us from catching up to discussing the hermit kingdom, we saw many bright, brief, and beautiful meteors.

Unfortunately, my camera didn’t catch any of them in the 120 pictures I took, but I was able to stack the images into a nice Morse code star trail image. Two of my friends lucked and caught a meteor in at least one of their images.

All this means that we will just have to head out again for the next big meteor shower.

Reflections on the Total Eclipse of the Sun

I am hoping to capture some of the mystery and excitement from my girlfriend’s and my journey to Grand Island, Nebraska, to see the total solar eclipse. When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, the campsite was abuzz, not with the talk of the eclipse, but of old friends reuniting and introductions being made to individuals who would become new friends.

Later that evening, after getting settled into our campsite, the talk turned to the weather. We were getting updates and advice from Jan Anderson, who was elsewhere along the path of totality. Regrettably, we were looking at cloud cover for our campsite. Two plans were formed; one, to get up early and drive west as far as you could go past Alliance. The other, to only go a few hours east and hope for what my new friends called a sucker hole.

It was so energetic watching experienced amateur astronomers looking at all the weather models and discussing where the models did or did not overlap.

At first, my girlfriend and I were going to join the crew going west, but we decided to stay and be with friends. It was a good choice, because the next morning, after the models came out, we were forecast to have clear skies with scattered clouds. We had a lazy breakfast, then set up our cameras and telescopes with some friends from the Halifax R.A.S.C. We got all set up just as first contact arrived; the slightest piece of the Sun disappeared behind the tiniest hump of the Moon while looking through my hydrogen-alpha telescope. I chose to take pictures through my telescope, while my girlfriend used her zoom lens equipped with a white light solar filter.

About ten minutes in, after first contact, a bank of clouds started to roll in. Some of the camp was willing to wait and hope for a sucker hole, while others wanted to chase clear skies further west. My girlfriend and I packed up our gear, jumped in her car and followed her Halifax R.A.S.C. friends west on the interstate. We did our best to keep up with them, but their 85 M/Hr down the interstate was hard to keep up within the 75 M/Hr zones. Twice State Troopers puller over either the car ahead or behind of us. Not wanting to risk having a lecture from law enforcement while totality happened, we kept to the speed limits.

The Halifax crew never got pulled over, but we also did not see them again until we met up at the campsite after the eclipse. We did find a nice mile road just south of Highway 2, right on the centre line of totality. We had just enough time to set up our cameras and my telescope and to watch the last limb of the Sun disappear behind the Moon.

Within seconds of the Sun’s edge disappearing, I took off my eclipse glasses to catch a flash of light as the Sun disappeared from the sky. As the already darkening corn fields fell into the night of the Moon’s shadow, the Sun’s corona came into view as if it had always been in the sky and I was just too busy with my life to have noticed. I let out a gasp that encouraged my girlfriend to remove her eclipse glasses and look skyward.

I do not think my description could ever do it justice, nor can ay picture or painting truly capture its magnificence or awe. Even the image in my mind’s eye pales to the real sight.

The sky was dark with only the gentle glow of a few of the brighter stars and some planets to break up its hue. The corona surrounded a hole where the Sun was supposed to be. Like glass threads, the corona poured down and upwards from this hole in the sky. They did not move and were in sharp crystal like focus. Then they would move without moving, without blur. You would simply accept that they had always been in the new spot. The threads above were asymmetrical to the threads below, like the asymmetry in the face of a lover.

I took it in for a good minute before I, regrettably, decided to try and take a picture. I should have left it alone, as none of the pictures I took had any grandeur to them. I am still happy with them but should have just enjoyed the moment more. I did put my camera away after a few photos and took in the last few seconds of the eclipse. Suddenly a bright flash appeared on the outer edge of the Sun, the so-called diamond ring. I quickly put my eclipse glasses back on – totality was over.

It was only as the darkness slowly burnt off like a fog that I noticed the everything had become colder, that the birdsong had stopped, and that the ever-present song of crickets had grown louder in the shadow of the Moon. In all the experience has changed my life, but do not ask me how just yet. I am still trying to take it all in, still trying to process this wonder that is beautifully worked into the mathematical relationships of the disk size of the Moon with its distance from us in relation to the distance and disk size of the Sun: four hundred times smaller, four hundred times closer.

I am grateful for the clear skies we did get, even the campsite got it sucker hole! I am happy to have shared it with my girlfriend, to have heard the “Ohs,” and “Ahs.’ from the people on the other side of our cornfield, and thankful to possess a self-aware consciousness, granted by God or other means, to truly take in this spectacle, this wonder, this cosmic gem, this gravitationally regulated clockwork of Earth, Moon and Sun.

-KMSB