The Stuff Between the Galaxies

What is It?

This computer simulation by Matt Hall (NCSA) and Eric Hallman (Univ. Colorado) shows the warm-hot intergalactic medium (blue) that runs along filaments between galaxies and galaxy clusters.  (Click to biggify.)

This computer simulation by Matt Hall (NCSA) and Eric Hallman (Univ. Colorado) shows the warm-hot intergalactic medium (blue) that runs along filaments between galaxies and galaxy clusters. (Click to biggify.)

Living in a galaxy is like living in a big city.  There’s always something going on, there’s always somebody around. Even if you live out in the country, you’re still not that far from the nearest neighbor or town or burg or hamlet. But, let’s say you lived out in the desert, hundreds of kilometers from anything. You’d be surrounded by nothing, right?

Well, not exactly. It depends on how you define “nothing.”  If you think that a lack of towns or neighbors means there’s nothing out there, that’s one way to think of it. But, you’d still have sand and plants and animals surrounding you. They’re not in your social set, but that doesn’t  mean they don’t exist.

The same thing goes for galaxies and the space between them.  That space may look empty, but it’s  not.  Our galaxy is part of a cluster of galaxies called the Local Group.  The space between our galaxy and the ones next door is filled with material even though (to us with visible-light eyes) it looks like it’s empty.

While you may have heard that there’s a dark matter halo out there surrounding the Milky Way, there’s also regular old baryonic matter.

How do we know this? Bruce Dorminey, who writes for ScienceNow Daily News, sent me an article he wrote about a detection of regular matter between galaxies that was done using x-rays.

How so?  As light travels through the intergalactic medium, it encounters “stuff” — atoms of gases in clouds.  As light from more distant objects runs through those clouds, some of it is absorbed by the material.  We can actually see the fingerprints of this absorption when we look at that light through a spectrograph.

It turns out that these clouds are likely absorbing x-rays (which are also part of the electromagnetic spectrum). David Buote of the University of California at Irvine and a group of astronomers used the Chandra X-ray observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory to look at a portion of an object called the Sculptor Wall, part of a large collection of galaxies that lie about 400 million light-years away.  They were specifically looking for the fingerprints of O VII — oxygen that has been stripped of five of its eight electrons.  This O VII is part of what astronomers call the “warm-hot intergalactic medium” — a sort of rarefied plasma that absorbs various wavelengths of light, including x-rays.  Buote and his colleagues are saying that there’s an excellent chance that their discovery will hold up and that they have found another way to probe the matter that exists in the intergalactic medium. Their research will be published in the April 20th issue of Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers have long known that the intergalactic void wasn’t completely empty, but this new work shows us what’s filling it in some places. It has pretty important implications for how we understand what astronomers call the “large-scale structure of the universe.”  This is because we are still trying to understand just how matter is distributed — whether it’s regular matter or dark matter.  In the long term, astronomers use studies like this to model just how galaxies are formed and how the universe has evolved since it began 13.7 billion years ago.

GOP Neutron Stars

as a Metaphor for Density?  Stupidity?  Both?

This one’s too good to pass up.   I’m gonna have to go political on ya here.  I don’t do it too often, so if you’re looking for science, come back for the next entry, where I’ll be talking about some really deep cosmic stuff. If you don’t mind a bit of politics with your science, read on.

Okay, ready?

This week, GOP something-or-other hopeful,  former exorcist and current governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal gave one of the worst political speeches it has ever been America’s privilege to have heard. If he had any good points, they were lost in a sea of inadequacy and mistaken understanding of what’s really happening in this country. I expected better from him. Instead, we got dross.

I won’t go into great detail here, but it was funny/sad to hear him go after science the way he did. I suppose this is to be expected from a GOP hopeful who has to appeal to some imaginary voting base that thinks that science is icky and shouldn’t be funded (unless of course the science is being done in their home states).  I’m finding the whole uproar pretty funny, but if I were a GOP strategist with any brains, I’d be heading for the exits whenever this guy opens his mouth.

Well, it wasn’t long before science  blogs began picking up on Jindal’s anti-science rant against (among other things) volcano monitoring. I suspect that somebody on his staff saw that and thought it would be a good thing to rant against, since there aren’t any volcanoes in Lousiana.  There are, however, a lot of hurricanes that hit Lousiana, and the state is still struggling with the effects of them.  I wonder what Jindal would do if a fellow GOPper started ranting against all the money we’re spending on weather predictions and understanding how our climate works? Funny how he didn’t mention that…

Anyway, one of the blogs I read– called Weird Things– headlined its story on Jindal’s Rant “the GOP’s Rising Neutron Star.” It’s a funny read and makes entirely justifiable fun of Jindal’s words (and his other “accomplishments” in the world of science education in Louisiana). (Note: this is a great site to read — some posts are more “adult” than others  — and they ARE all thought-provoking and honest.)

Yeah, sure the neutron star monicker is a geek joke. But it’s a good one and a great pun besides. How so? Well, let’s look at what neutron stars are and how the description might be applicable to this specific person and his political party’s continually evolving (pun intended) stance on science.

Neutron stars are incredibly dense remnants of formerly bloated, massive stars that collapsed in on themselves in supernova events after belching out much of their outer atmosphere to surrounding space.  The material at the heart of these objects is a sort of degenerate gas, which means that it’s incredibly denser than anything in the universe (outside of a black hole).

Does that sort of fit with what’s going on out there with a political group that has lost its way? Yeah, it does.

We have incredibly dense ideas belching out from a bloated, massive group of politicians who are losing their mass. Their party is in a state of slow, but inexorable collapse under its own weight of missed opportunities, misleading opinion, and out-and-out political chicanery over the past 8-10 years.  They’ve become this sort of strange degenerate lump of matter that occasionally belches out these odd blasts against science.

Jindal’s not the only GOP neutron star out there. Former presidential candidate and science maladept John McCain is on the science warpath again. This time, instead of yelling about overhead projectors that he thinks are what planetarium projectors are, McCain is going after the ‘Imiloa Science Center earmark in the federal budget.  (Now, the issue of earmarks could be the subject of a separate discussion here, so if you’re going to yell at me in comments about that, don’t. That’s not where I’m going with this and I happen to think that all these things should be in the regular budget, but that’s beside the point here. )

McCain doesn’t like astronomy, does he?  Interesting, since he lives in and represents a state that gets quite a bit of money from the government for astronomy observatories.  (In fact, Arizona is one of a bunch of states (including Alaska and Louisiana) who get MORE federal tax money than they pay out.  Interesting, that.)

Perhaps McCain’s mad because Flandrau Planetarium in Tucson is closing down.  Who knows?  He’s found a good rant and he’s stickin’ with it.  And, I see that Jindal is sticking with his “anti-volcano” stance, too.  Fine. Let ’em.  We’ll remember it the next time he bellies up to the science funding trough for some hurricane study money. And, when John McCain yells about planetarium pork or whatever’s on his plate for the day, we can remind him that there’s a perfectly fine planetarium in Arizona that could also use an earmark or two. (You can also read about Flandrau’s budget cuts and closure here.)

When it comes to science and science education, the U.S. needs to be revamping its efforts, putting more resources into those very subjects that have been the source of so much of our wealth over the years.  I don’t think any reasonable person would say that science funding hurts the country.  What’s hurting our country now is NOT the money being sent for research and development and education. And these clowns who yell about science know that. They’re just grandstanding for an increasingly shrinking, but frightened base of voters and lobbyists.  No doubt when the money comes down the sluice, they’ll take it but keep pointing their voters to the shininess of their Fools’ Gold-type anti-science rants.  That’s degenerate.