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Friday, December 9, 2016

F3 The Interview

            Nina sat awkwardly, trying to figure out what to do with her hands while the sound technician wordlessly adjusted the boom microphone in front of her.
            “Live in three, two, one,” the man in the sound booth said.
            “And welcome to Science Talk. This is Linda Heinz, your host. We’ve got a good show lined up for all of you, today. We’ve got Duncan Thomas, an astrophysics professor from Columbia, who will explain how the Tyson deep space array is able to capture not just images of other stars, but allow us to peer back to the origins of the universe in ways that the James Webb telescope could only dream of. But before we get to Professor Thomas, we have here Dr. Nina Elsbeth who works for ISA’s Extra Solar Conditions Group. Welcome, Doctor.”
            “Thanks Linda. Please, call me Nina.”
            “All right, we’ve had you and your colleagues on the show before to explain the galactic weather patterns of dark energy winds, but we have a lot of listeners asking about how the sails work. Can you explain that to us.”
            Oh, great. Guess that’s why Walker pushed it off to me.
            “Sure, thing, Linda,” she managed a weak smile. “The sails are made from a platinum and cobalt alloy. We discovered, quite accidentally, that this alloy has special properties outside our solar system. So far, it is the only substance that interacts with dark matter and dark energy.”
            “And by interact you mean?”
            “Well, all other normal matter has properties, such as my hand not being able to pass through this table. They both have mass, and exert forces that prevent one object from passing through the table. Dark matter isn’t like that. It has mass, but it can pass through other matter. We call it dark because we can’t interact with it. We don’t know much about it. We can detect it because it does interact with gravity, just not EM forces, or nuclear forces, apparently.
“The same is true for dark energy. We believe dark energy is the counterforce to gravity, pushing and accelerating the universe apart, whereas gravity pulls and tries to hold it together. Because there is so much more dark energy in the universe than normal matter, spacetime is continuing to expand.”
“This is fascinating, Doctor, but how do the sails actually interact with the dark energy? What makes this alloy special?”
And there’s the question we’ve all been dreading.
Nina gave a rueful smile and shook her head. “We don’t know. We suspected that prolonged ionization of the alloy might give it special properties.”
“Ionization from what source?”
“Hermes was the first probe with this particular alloy on it, and it used an ion engine. The platinum-cobalt mesh was part of that engine, where it was continuously bombarded by the ion thrust.”
“But you said suspected. Is that no longer the case?”
“After that we constructed small sails for Odyssey I and II, and subsequently bombarded them as well. When we finally launched the Frontier probe with its nanosats, we took the opportunity to make a few sails that we didn’t bombard with ions. They functioned just as well as the other sails.”
“So why platinum-cobalt?”
Nina shrugged. “Again, we don’t know. Platinum has always been a particularly fascinating metal for its catalytic properties. This could simply be another fascinating property of the metal.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot of guessing involved, right now.”
Nina tried not to take that personally. For over ten years they had theorized and run the math, but the negative results were very frustrating.
“There is, Linda, but that’s science. This is an entirely new realm of understanding when it comes to astrophysics. Let me put it another way. We now have gravity engines and can make artificial gravity. That discovery came as a result of finally discovering and understanding graviton particles. But the discoveries that led to gravitons began millennia ago. Aristotle famously wrote about gravity and falling motion back in the fourth century BC. But that was the extent of it. We knew that objects fell. Aristotle attributed it to an object’s nature. He also believed that things that weighed more would fall faster.
“It wasn’t until almost 1600 AD that Galileo came along to prove that weight had nothing to do with it. That’s almost two thousand years without any further understanding of how gravity works. Newton came along in the latter half of the seventeenth century to derive his equations. Einstein came along in the early twentieth century to give us relativity and his prediction of gravity waves. One hundred years after that, we confirmed the existence of gravity waves. It took nearly a hundred years after that to discover the graviton, much less figure out how to do anything with it.
“When it comes to dark energy, we’re back to Aristotle. We’ve finally observed this phenomenon, but we’re scrabbling around guessing as to what’s going on. We just don’t have the instruments and observational data yet to fully understand the why behind it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use it until we have a better understanding.”
“Well said, Nina. Well, it’s time for a quick break, then we’ll be back with Nina to answer some caller questions.”
“We’re back in sixty,” said the technician in the sound booth.
“That was really good, Nina,” Linda said. “You didn’t get too technical, and the history was a nice touch. People like hearing about that, and it puts the slow process of science in perspective.”
“Thanks. These shows always make me nervous.”
“You’re doing fine. The tough part will be the questions. Inevitably there are some scientists who will call in to contradict what you’re saying. Some of them can get quite belligerent, but we’ve gotten pretty good at screening the calls.”
“Okay, good.”
“In five, four, three, two, one.”

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