Archive for spectroscopy

Open for Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy (and Astrophysics)…

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve been here on campus at the University of Sussex all day helping out with an Admissions Day. We were all a bit apprehensive in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences about today simply because so many students and guests were scheduled to come that we wondered how well we could organize the large number of groups being shown around. There was also the question of the British weather. It was very cold this morning, with flurries of snow as I made my way to campus. I was wondering whether the weather might put some people off travelling, but as it happened we had a lot of visitors and although we were very busy there was a very good buzz about the place.

Notwithstanding the inclement weather this morning there are also definite signs that spring is on the way:

IMG-20130221-00065

Anyway, it was nice to have the chance to talk to prospective students and parents in both Mathematics and Physics & Astronomy. Although Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy are combined within the School, there are clear distinctions between the way Mathematics and Physics are taught so the topics discussed with Mathematics students tended to be different from those in Physics and Astronomy. However, a chat with one group led eventually to the question What’s the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics? This is something I’m asked quite often, and have blogged about before, but I thought I’d repeat it here for those who might stumble across it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following primary definition for astronomy:

The science which treats of the constitution, relative positions, and motions of the heavenly bodies; that is, of all the bodies in the material universe outside of the earth, as well as of the earth itself in its relations to them.

Astrophysics, on the other hand, is described as

That branch of astronomy which treats of the physical or chemical properties of the celestial bodies.

So astrophysics is regarded as a subset of astronomy which is primarily concerned with understanding the properties of stars and galaxies, rather than just measuring their positions and motions.

It is possible to assign a fairly precise date when astrophysics first came into use in English because, at least in the early years of the subject, it was almost exclusively associated with astronomical spectroscopy. Indeed the OED gives the following text as the first occurence of astrophysics, in 1869:

As a subject for the investigations of the astro-physicist, the examination of the luminous spectras of the heavenly bodies has proved a remarkably fruitful one

The scientific analysis of astronomical spectra began with a paper by   William Hyde Wollaston in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Vol. 102, p. 378, 1802. He was the first person to notice the presence of dark bands in the optical spectrum of the Sun. These bands were subsequently analysed in great detail by Joseph von Fraunhofer in a paper published in 1814 and are now usually known as Fraunhofer lines.  Technical difficulties  made it impossible to obtain spectra of stars other than the Sun for a considerable time, but  William Huggins finally succeeded in 1864. A drawing of his pioneering spectroscope is shown below.

Meanwhile, fundamental work by Gustav Kirchoff and Robert Bunsen had been helping  to establish an understanding of the spectra produced by hot gases.  The identification of features in the Sun’s spectrum  with similar lines produced in laboratory experiments led to a breakthrough in our understanding of the Universe whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. The Sun and stars were inaccessible to direct experimental test during the 19th Century (as they are now). But spectroscopy now made it possible to gather evidence about their chemical composition as well as physical properties. Most importantly, spectroscopy provided definitive evidence that the Sun wasn’t made of some kind of exotic unknowable celestial material, but of the same kind of stuff (mainly Hydrogen) that could be studied on Earth.  This realization opened the possibility of applying the physical understanding gained from small-scale experiments to the largest scale phenomena that could be seen. The science of astrophysics was born.

One of the leading journals in which professional astronomers and astrophysicists publish their research is called the Astrophysical Journal, which was founded in 1895 and is still going strong. The central importance of the (still) young field of spectroscopy can be appreciated from the subtitle given to the journal:

Initially the branch of physics most important to astrophysics was atomic physics since the lines in optical spectra are produced by electrons jumping between different atomic energy levels. Spectroscopy of course remains a key weapon in the astrophysicist’s arsenal but nowadays the term astrophysics is taken to mean any application of physical laws to astronomical objects. Over the years, astrophysics has therefore gradually incorporated nuclear and particle physics as well as thermodynamics, relativity and just about every other branch of physics you can think of.

I realise, however, that this  isn’t really the answer to the question that potential students want to ask. What they (probably) want to know is what is the difference between undergraduate courses called Astronomy and those called Astrophysics? The answer to this one depends very much on where you want to study. Generally speaking the differences are in fact quite minimal. You probably do a bit more theory in an Astrophysics course than an Astronomy course, for example. Your final-year project might have to be observational or instrumental if you do Astronomy, but might be theoretical in Astrophysics.  If you compare the complete list of modules to be taken, however, the difference will be very small.

Over the last twenty years or so, most Physics departments in the United Kingdom have acquired some form of research group in astronomy or astrophysics and have started to offer undergraduate degrees with some astronomical or astrophysical content. My only advice to prospective students wanting to find which course is for them is to look at the list of modules and projects likely to be offered. You’re unlikely to find the name of the course itself to be very helpful in making a choice.

One of the things that drew me into astrophysics as a discipline (my current position is Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics as well as being Head of School) is that it involves such a wide range of techniques and applications, putting apparently esoteric things together in interesting ways to develop a theoretical understanding of a complicated phenomenon. I only had a very limited opportunity to study astrophysics during my first degree as I specialised in Theoretical Physics.  This wasn’t just a feature of Cambridge. The attitude in most Universities in those days was that you had to learn all the physics before applying it to astronomy. Over the years this has changed, and most departments offer some astronomy right from Year 1.

I think this change has been for the better because I think the astronomical setting provides a very exciting context to learn physics. If you want to understand, say, the structure of the Sun you have to include atomic physics, nuclear physics, gravity, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and hydrostatics all at the same time. This sort of thing makes astrophysics a good subject for developing synthetic skills while more traditional physics teaching focusses almost exclusively on analytical skills.

The Origins of the Expanding Universe

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 30, 2012 by telescoper

Not having much time to write anything particularly original, I thought I’d use this blog to advertise a forthcoming centenary celebration which I hope to attend and speak at, if my recovery goes to plan.  The text below is taken from the conference website for a meeting due to take place at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona from September 13-15. I’m sure they won’t mind me borrowing it, as it helps promote the event.  Registration is open until 10th August…

On September 17, 1912, Vesto Slipher obtained the first radial velocity of a “spiral nebula” – the Andromeda Galaxy. Using the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory, he followed up with more Doppler shifts, and wrote a series of papers establishing that large velocities, usually in recession, are a general property of the spiral nebulae. Those early redshifts were recognized as remarkable by Slipher, and were critical to the discovery of what came eventually to be called the expanding Universe. Surprisingly, Slipher’s role in the story remains almost unknown to much of the astronomical community.

The nature, and especially the distance, of spiral nebulae was fiercely argued – most famously in the 1920 Shapley-Curtis debate. Hubble’s 1923 discovery of Cepheids in Andromeda, along with Henrietta Leavitt’s period-luminosity relation for Cepheids, led to a distance scale for the nebulae, enabling Lemaitre (1927) to derive a linear relation between velocity and distance (including a “Hubble constant” and, by 1931, a Primeval Atom theory).

Meanwhile, a new concept of space and time was formulated by Einstein, providing a new language in which to understand the large-scale Universe. By 1932, all the major actors had arrived on stage, and Universal expansion – the most general property of the Universe yet found – acquired a solid basis in observation and in the (relativistic) concept of space. “Space expands”… or does it? How did Lemaitre and Hubble interpret this concept? How do we interpret it? It continues to evolve today, with cosmic inflation and dark energy presenting new challenges still not fully assimilated.

This conference is in honor of Vesto Melvin Slipher and is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the first measured Doppler shift in a Galaxy (then known as a Spiral-Nebula) on September 17, 1912:Slipher 1913 Lowell Obs 2, 56

We are bringing together astronomers and historians of science to explore the beginnings and trajectories of the subject, at the place where it began. 

Spire Spectra

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 27, 2009 by telescoper

OK, so it turns out I lied about not posting today. It’s not because I’m a dishonest professor, though. It’s just that I couldn’t resist drawing your attention to the new results that have just been released by the European Space Agency. To whet your appetite, have a shufty at this exquisite far infrared spectrum of the star VY Canis Majoris taken using the SPIRE instrument for which Cardiff is the lead institute.

VY Canis Majoris (VY CMa) is a red hypergiant, an enormous evolved star located in the constellation Canis Major. With a radius 2600 times that of the Sun, it is the largest known star and it is also one of the most luminous stars known. It is located about 4900 light years away from Earth, has a luminosity in excess of 100,000  solar luminosities, and a mass in the range 30-40 solar masses.

The shell of gas it has ejected displays a complex structure, the so-created circumstellar envelope is among the most remarkable chemical laboratories known in the universe, creating a rich set of organic and inorganic molecules and dust species. Through stellar winds, these inorganic and organic compounds are injected into the interstellar medium, from which new stars orbited by new planets may form. Most of the carbon supporting life on planet Earth was probably made by this kind of evolved star. VY CMa is close to the end of its life and could explode as a supernova at any time.

Spectroscopic results may be a bit less photogenic than pretty pictures, but they often yield much more physically relevant information than simple images. As I’ve mentioned before, it is in spectroscopy where we find the difference between astronomy and astrophysics (or, less politely, between stamp collecting and science).  In this case the spectrum gives a detailed breakdown of the chemical mixture present in the matter ejected by this star.

You can find other stunning examples of Herschel’s infrared spectroscopic capabilities here and you can read more about the involvement of Cardiff astronomers in these stunning new science results on our own pages here.

There’s also a story on the BBC Website.

Astronomy or Astrophysics?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 25, 2009 by telescoper

A chance encounter with the parent of a prospective student the other day led eventually to the question What’s the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics? This is something I’m asked quite often so I thought I’d comment on here for those who might stumble across it.

I teach a first-year course module entitled “Astrophysical Concepts”. One of the things I try to do in the first lecture is explain that difference. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following primary definition for astronomy:

The science which treats of the constitution, relative positions, and motions of the heavenly bodies; that is, of all the bodies in the material universe outside of the earth, as well as of the earth itself in its relations to them.

Astrophysics, on the other hand, is described as

That branch of astronomy which treats of the physical or chemical properties of the celestial bodies.

So astrophysics is regarded as a subset of astronomy which is primarily concerned with understanding the properties of stars and galaxies, rather than just measuring their positions and motions.

It is possible to assign a fairly precise date when astrophysics first came into use in English because, at least in the early years of the subject, it was almost exclusively associated with astronomical spectroscopy. Indeed the OED gives the following text as the first occurence of astrophysics, in 1869:

As a subject for the investigations of the astro-physicist, the examination of the luminous spectras of the heavenly bodies has proved a remarkably fruitful one

The scientific analysis of astronomical spectra began with a paper  William Hyde Wollaston in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Vol. 102, p. 378, 1802. He was the first person to notice the presence of dark bands in the optical spectrum of the Sun. These bands were subsequently analysed in great detail by Joseph von Fraunhofer in a paper published in 1814 and are now usually known as Fraunhofer lines.  Technical difficulties  made it impossible to obtain spectra of stars other than the Sun for a considerable time, but  William Huggins finally succeeded in 1864. A drawing of his pioneering spectroscope is shown below.

Meanwhile, fundamental work by Gustav Kirchoff and Robert Bunsen had been helping  to establish an understanding the spectra produced by hot gases.  The identification of features in the Sun’s spectrum  with similar lines produced in laboratory experiments led to a breakthrough in our understanding of the Universe whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. The Sun and stars were inaccessible to direct experimental test during the 19th Century (as they are now). But spectroscopy now made it possible to gather evidence about their chemical composition as well as physical properties. Most importantly, spectroscopy provided definitive evidence that the Sun wasn’t made of some kind of exotic unknowable celestial material, but of the same kind of stuff (mainly Hydrogen) that could be studied on Earth.  This realization opened the possibility of applying the physical understanding gained from small-scale experiments to the largest scale phenomena that could be seen. The science of astrophysics was born.

One of the leading journals in which professional astronomers and astrophysicists publish their research is called the Astrophysical Journal, which was founded in 1895 and is still going strong. The central importance of the (still) young field of spectroscopy can be appreciated from the subtitle given to the journal:

 

Initially the branch of physics most important to astrophysics was atomic physics since the lines in optical spectra are produced by electrons jumping between different atomic energy. Spectroscopy of course remains a key weapon in the astrophysicist’s arsenal but nowadays the term is taken to mean any application of physical laws to astronomical objects. Over the years, astrophysics has gradually incorporated nuclear and particle physics as well as thermodynamics, relativity and just about every other branch of physics you can think of.

I realise, however, that this  isn’t really the answer to the question that potential students want to ask. What they (probably) want to know is what is the difference between undergraduate courses called Astronomy and those called Astrophysics? The answer to this one depends very much on where you want to study. Generally speaking the differences are in fact quite minimal. You probably do a bit more theory in an Astrophysics course than an Astronomy course, for example. Your final-year project might have to be observational or instrumental if you do Astronomy, but might be theoretical in Astrophysics.  If you compare the complete list of modules to be taken, however, the difference will be very small.

Over the last twenty years or so, most Physics departments in the United Kingdom have acquired some form of research group in astronomy or astrophysics and have started to offer undergraduate degrees with some astronomical or astrophysical content. My only advice to prospective students wanting to find which course is for them is to look at the list of modules and projects likely to be offered. You’re unlikely to find the name of the course itself to be very helpful in making a choice.

One of the things that drew me into astrophysics as a discipline (my current position is Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics) is that it involves such a wide range of techniques and applications, putting apparently esoteric things together in interesting ways to develop a theoretical understanding of a complicated phenomenon. I only had a very limited opportunity to study astrophysics during my first degree as I specialised in Theoretical Physics.  This wasn’t just a feature of Cambridge. The attitude in most Universities in those days was that you had to learn all the physics before applying it to astronomy. Over the years this has changed, and most departments offer some astronomy right from Year 1.

I think this change has been for the better because I think the astronomical setting provides a very exciting context to learn physics. If you want to understand, say, the structure of the Sun you have to include atomic physics, nuclear physics, gravity, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and hydrostatics all at the same time. This sort of thing makes astrophysics a good subject for developing synthetic skills while more traditional physics teaching focusses almost exclusively on analytical skills. Indeed, my first-year Astrophysical Concepts course is really a course about modelling and problem-solving in physics.

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