By Hazel Anna Rogers
Space is on our minds.
With the recent controversy surrounding billionaire escapades into space – Jeff Bezos paid $5.5 billion for a mere four minutes in space – people have begun questioning whether space travel and research are bygone dreams that should be left alone in favor of research into how to solve both the climate crisis and rampant inequalities that exist around the globe. I am one of those people. I challenge anyone to convince me that Bezos’ billions (at the time of writing he is worth around $205 billion) are not better spent ending world hunger, paying for covid-vaccinations for those in low-income countries, and helping to bring clean water to the billions that do not have access to it, though I recognize this is not a simple debate.
Yet, I am a dreamer. We all are. Each of us dreams, whether rooted in reality or entirely fantastical. It is beautiful to dream of space and its endlessly mystifying expanse. Just like many of our own dreams, space feels so untouchable, so far flung from our reality here on earth. We have always explored, and space seems merely a complex extension of this seemingly natural human compulsion. I disagree with a $5.5 billion ticket for a four minute joyride, but I cannot stop myself entirely from acknowledging the magic of space and all the information and intelligence it can offer. Certain things we now take for granted found their beginnings through astronomy and space research; accurate weather readings, UV (ultraviolet) lenses to protect our eyes against the sun, solar power, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that help navigate your visit to your granny in South Kensington last week. As we speak, space researchers are conducting numerous experiments with the aim of both extending human life and curing certain diseases – these experiments cannot be done on earth as they need specific conditions offered by the gravitational differences on the human body in space. On the International Space Station (ISS), research has focused on why gravity affects white blood cells (specifically T cells) which leads to astronauts having lower immunity in space. Using this research, scientists may be able to create more effective medical drugs and procedures back on Earth. (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03085-8).
Furthermore, research is being conducted into the feasibility of space mining, which would help to solve some aspects of climate change in that humans would need to rely less on the natural resources found on earth, which are inevitably in limited supply.
Check out this infographic (NASA):
So, space travel isn’t as pointless as it may seem on a surface level.
Some advances in space research may appear less relatable to our day-to-day lives on earth, but they are no less vital in spite of this. The work of the builder is frequently overshadowed by the bombast of the architect. Often, the work behind the scenes that we never hear about are those that have the potential to have the greatest impact on our lives. Such was the case with the work of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the graduate student who discovered the first ‘pulsar’ in 1967.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967
A pulsar is a neutron star that is extremely magnetized, spinning, and compact, and which jettisons millions of particles (which come out as radiation beams) at near to the speed of light out from its magnetic poles. When a star appears to be twinkling, what is in fact happening is this so-called ‘pulsation’ effect.
Neutron stars are about 1.4 times as dense as our sun, and their gravitational field is approximately 2 x 1011 of earth’s. These stars are hypothesized to be one particular way in which stars ‘die’; once all their nuclear energy has been used up, they sort of explode – in what is called a supernova. During a supernova, the external layers of the neutron star are blown away, and its center collapses under its extreme gravity. Supposedly, the star’s collapse is so extreme that neutrons are formed (from a combination of protons and electrons). These neutron stars, though in some ways akin to our sun, have a mass of 4 to 8 times that of our own star. Simply put, a pulsar is simply a neutron star that is rotating. (https://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/objects/pulsars1.html.old)
Bell Burnell was employed by Anthony Hewish in 1967 to build a new radio telescope in order to further investigate quasars (the shining centres of far-away galaxies – poetic, isn’t it?). Once built, Bell ran the telescope single-handedly for 6 months and discovered no less than a hundred new quasars. In the same year, Bell Burnell marked a tiny piece of data from one of the hundreds of pages of data she analyzed with a question mark. This little misnomer seemed to be just a ‘scruff’, a mistake in the data readings. But it kept cropping up in exactly the same place, just over a second apart on each radio pulse reading. Bell Burnell began discovering more and more of these tiny pulses, and, despite her supervisor Hewish reassuring her that they were merely artificial signals, she continued pursuing the dubbed ‘LGM-1’ scruffs (LGM = Little Green Men).
What were these strange irregularities? Were they indeed signs from aliens?
Eventually, the ‘scruffs’ were named pulsars, and Hewish and Bell Burnell published a paper in 1968 explaining this phenomena, a discovery that led to Hewish and his colleague Sir Martin Ryle being offered the 1974 Nobel Prize. Astonishingly, Bell Burnell’s name was hardly mentioned until recently. Due to her marriage – which occurred shortly after her discovery – and her becoming a mother, Bell Burnell’s work in astronomy was disregarded and she has only recently been able to rekindle her love for neutron stars as a visiting professor at Oxford.
Why are pulsars important? Why should you care about them? In the same way that you wear a seatbelt so that, should you be in a crash, you might be saved from death, knowledge of pulsars can help scientists to predict potential cosmic collisions that might or might not involve earth. Pulsars are great time-keepers too because of how incredibly regular their pulses are. No clock is more accurate that a pulsing neutron star. Thus, if a pulsar’s pulsing gets a bit shaky, a scientist might conclude that there is something in the vicinity affecting its blinking. This makes pulsars greatly important for quantifying the effects of extreme physics, which are often times incredibly subtle. Light emanations from pulsars can also offer insight into the physics of the stars themselves. Such physics is so extraordinarily removed from anything we might witness on earth that the behavior of matter within pulsating neutron stars is called ‘nuclear pasta’. This is due to the bizarre arrangement of atoms into strange shapes that one might liken to different pasta shapes.
Pulsars have even proved useful in testing such theories as that of the ‘universal force of gravity’, as explained in Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the $3-million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, a sum she decided to donate to initiatives helping to support poorer and under-represented physics students in the UK (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/news-jocelyn-bell-burnell-breakthrough-prize-pulsars-astronomy). Maybe Bezos should take a leaf or two from Bell Burnell’s book, though this is another story altogether.
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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel Anna Rogers include It’s DNA Day Again and An Appreciation of the Humble Map.
The blog’s last post was SETI Chat: Can We Define Life? Other posts on space exploration include Von Braun and Dreams of Mars and Kepler Update and SETI.
The Carl Kruse SETI profile is here.