Archive for star formation

Orion Nebula (Herschel, after Turner)

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 6, 2013 by telescoper

I stumbled across this wonderful image (and associated description) yesterday and thought I’d share it. It’s a region of the Orion Nebula (which is located in the  Midlands region of Orion’s “sword”, i.e. the long thing hanging down below his belt).  It’s a turbulent region of dust and gas in which stars are forming. This image was taken in the far-infrared part of the spectrum by the Herschel Space Observatory, which is now defunct but much data remains to be analysed. Because the image was taken at wavelengths much longer than optical light, the colours are obviously “false”. I don’t work on star formation so I tend to see images like this just as beautiful things to be enjoyed for themselves rather than as a subject for scientific research. In fact, I have no difficulty at all in describing this picture as a work of art, slightly reminiscent of the cloudscapes and seascapes of  J.M.W Turner in that it is, at the same time, both a representation of a natural phenomenon and  an abstract creation that transcends it. You can click on the image to make it larger…


UPDATE: I see that someone else has thought of the parallel with Turner!

The Ant Whitworth Caption Competition

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 26, 2012 by telescoper

Last week a number of colleagues joined friends from around the world at a star formation conference in Crete to celebrate the scientific career of our esteemed Professor Anthony Whitworth who recently celebrated his nth birthday (n→∞). I wasn’t there myself, but an anonymous informant (Derek Ward-Thompson) gave me this photograph of said Professor, apparently taken at the conference dinner:

Don’t ask me what’s going on, but I think this picture is ripe fodder for a caption competition!

Please let me have your suggestions through the comments box…

Astronomy Jobs at Cardiff!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 1, 2012 by telescoper

Just a quick post to advertise a couple of job opportunities in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. For further details you can look at the official website, but here is an outline:

Two Faculty Positions in Astrophysics

Observational and theoretical studies of star-formation and/or extrasolar planetary systems.

The School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has immediate vacancies for two permanent faculty appointments in Astrophysics.  We are seeking experts in observational and theoretical studies of star-formation and/or extra-solar planetary systems to conduct world-class research and research-led teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level.  The appointments will be at any level from Lecturer to Professor depending on the experience of the candidate; we expect at least one of the appointments to be at a junior level.

Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has undergone substantial expansion in the past few years and has very strong research groups in gravitational-wave physics, astronomical instrumentation, extragalactic astronomy and cosmology, star-formation and condensed matter physics.  There are presently 18 academic staff involved in astrophysics and relativity, with 15 post-doctoral researchers and 22 PhD students.

The appointment will be made at a level commensurate with experience.

The advertisement is also available on the AAS Jobs Register, or will be when they get their act together and put it online. The AAS website is just one of a number that have been recently improved, with the result that they’re much less efficient than they were before.

Anyway, I’m just passing on the advertisement so please don’t send me your CVs! If you’d like to apply please do so using the official Cardiff University jobs page, which also has a lot of general information about the City and the University.

P.S. There have been quite a few job vacancies in astronomy around the UK recently – Edinburgh, Surrey, Liverpool, Exeter etc. I wonder why that is, and where the money is coming from?


Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 10, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a busy day today,  so I’ve decided to be lazy and plunder the online stack of juicy Herschel images for a pretty picture to show. This one has done the rounds in the popular media recently, which is not surprising given how strange it looks.

Image Credits: ESA / PACS & SPIRE Consortium, Dr. Annie Zavagno, LAM, HOBYS Key Programme Consortia

This image shows a Galactic bubble (technically an HII emission region) called RCW 120 that contains an embryonic star that looks set to turn into one of the brightest stars in the Galaxy. It lies about 4300 light-years away. The star is not visible at these infrared avelengths but its radiation pressure pushes on the surrounding dust and gas. In the approximately 2.5 million years the star has existed, it has raised the density of matter in the bubble wall by so much that the material trapped there can now collapse to form new stars.

The bright knot to the right of the base of the bubble is an unexpectedly large, embryonic star, triggered into formation by the power of the central star. Herschel’s observations have shown that it already contains between 8-10 times the mass of our Sun. The star can only get bigger because it is surrounded by a cloud containing an additional 2000 solar masses.

Not all of that will fall onto the star, because even the largest stars in the Galaxy do not exceed 150 solar masses. But the question of what stops the matter falling onto the star is an astrophysical puzzle. According to theory, stars should stop forming at about 8 solar masses. At that mass they should become so hot that they shine powerfully at ultraviolet wavelengths exerting so much radiation pressure that it should push the surrounding matter away, much as the central star did to form this bubble in the first place. But this mass limit is must be exceeded sometimes, otherwise there would be no giant stars in the Galaxy. So astronomers would like to know how some stars can seem to defy physics and grow so large. Is this newly discovered stellar embryo destined to grow into a stellar monster? At the moment, nobody knows but further analysis of this Herschel image could give us invaluable clues.

It also reminds me a little bit of the Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey…

Protostars in the Rosette Nebula

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 13, 2010 by telescoper

Every now and again I remember that I should  pretend that this is an astronomy blog. A new press release from the European Space Agency just reminded me again, by unveiling a wonderful new Herschel image of part of the Rosette Nebula:

This isn’t really one for the cosmologists as it concerns a star-forming region in our own Galaxy. Herschel collects the infrared light given out by cool dust; this image is a three-colour composite made of wavelengths at 70 microns (blue), 160 microns (green) and 250 microns (red). It was made with observations from Herschel’s Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) and the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE). The bright smudges are dusty cocoons containing massive protostars. The small spots near the centre of the image are lower mass protostars.

This is a wonderful demonstration of how Herschel is able to see massive objects – probably about ten times the mass of the Sun - previously hidden from view within the nebular dust. Studies such as this will help astronomers understand much better the processes by which stars form in regions such as this.

PS. If you want to know why this is called the Rosette Nebula, you need to see what the whole thing looks like in optical light:

The Cosmic Web

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2009 by telescoper

When I was writing my recent  (typically verbose) post about chaos  on a rainy saturday afternoon, I cut out a bit about astronomy because I thought it was too long even by my standards of prolixity. However, walking home this evening I realised I could actually use it in a new post inspired by a nice email I got after my Herschel lecture in Bath. More of that in a minute, but first the couple of paras I edited from the chaos item…

Astronomy provides a nice example that illustrates how easy it is to make things too complicated to solve. Suppose we have two massive bodies orbiting in otherwise empty space. They could be the Earth and Moon, for example, or a binary star system. Each of the bodies exerts a gravitational force on the other that causes it to move. Newton himself showed that the orbit followed by each of the bodies is an ellipse, and that both bodies orbit around their common centre of mass. The Earth is much more massive than the Moon, so the centre of mass of the Earth-Moon system is rather close to the centre of the Earth. Although the Moon appears to do all the moving, the Earth orbits too. If the two bodies have equal masses, they each orbit the mid-point of the line connecting them, like two dancers doing a waltz.

Now let us add one more body to the dance. It doesn’t seem like too drastic a complication to do this, but the result is a mathematical disaster. In fact there is no known mathematical solution for the gravitational three-body problem, apart from a few special cases where some simplifying symmetry helps us out. The same applies to the N-body problem for any N bigger than 2. We cannot solve the equations for systems of gravitating particles except by using numerical techniques and very big computers. We can do this very well these days, however, because computer power is cheap.

Computational cosmologists can “solve” the N-body problem for billions of particles, by starting with an input list of positions and velocities of all the particles. From this list the forces on each of them due to all the other particles can be calculated. Each particle is then moved a little according to Newton’s laws, thus advancing the system by one time-step. Then the forces are all calculated again and the system inches forward in time. At the end of the calculation, the solution obtained is simply a list of the positions and velocities of each of the particles. If you would like to know what would have happened with a slightly different set of initial conditions you need to run the entire calculation again. There is no elegant formula that can be applied for any input: each laborious calculation is specific to its initial conditions.

Now back to the Herschel lecture I gave, called The Cosmic Web, the name given to the frothy texture of the large-scale structure of the Universe revealed by galaxy surveys such as the 2dFGRS:

One of the points I tried to get across in the lecture was that we can explain the pattern – quite accurately – in the framework of the Big Bang cosmology by a process known as gravitational instability. Small initial irregularities in the density of the Universe tend to get amplified as time goes on. Regions just a bit denser than average tend to pull in material from their surroundings faster, getting denser and denser until they collapse in on themselves, thus forming bound objects.

This  Jeans instability  is the dominant mechanism behind star formation in molecular clouds, and it leads to the rapid collapse of blobby extended structures  to tightly bound clumps. On larger scales relevant to cosmological structure formation we have to take account of the fact that the universe is expanding. This means that gravity has to fight against the expansion in order to form structures, which slows it down. In the case of a static gas cloud the instability grows exponentially with time, whereas in an expanding background it is a slow power-law.

This actually helps us in cosmology because the process of structure formation is not so fast that it destroys all memory of the initial conditions, which is what happens when stars form. When we look at the large-scale structure of the galaxy distribution we are therefore seeing something which contains a memory of where it came from. I’ve blogged before about what started the whole thing off here.

Here’s a (very low-budget) animation of the formation of structure in the expanding universe as computed by an N-body code. The only subtlety in this is that it is in comoving coordinates, which expand with the universe: the box should really be getting bigger but is continually rescaled with the expansion to keep it the same size on the screen.

You can see that filaments form in profusion but these merge and disrupt in such a way that the characteristic size of the pattern evolves with time. This is called hierarchical clustering.

One of the questions I got by email after the talk was basically that if the same gravitational instability produced stars and large-scale structure, why wasn’t the whole universe just made of enormous star-like structures rather than all these strange filaments and things?

Part of the explanation is that the filaments are relatively transient things. The dominant picture is one in which the filaments and clusters
become incorporated in larger-scale structures but really dense concentrations, such as the spiral galaxies, which do
indeed look a bit like big solar systems, are relatively slow to form.

When a non-expanding cloud of gas collapses to form a star there is also some transient filamentary structure  but the processes involved go so rapidly that it is all swept away quickly. Out there in the expanding universe we can still see the cobwebs.

The Milky Way in a New Light

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2009 by telescoper

I note that the Herschel mission now has its own blog, so I no longer have to try to remember to put all the sexy images on here. However, at the end of a worrying week for UK astronomy, I thought it would be a good idea to put up one of the wonderful new infra-red images of the Milky Way just obtained from Herschel. This is the first composite colour picture made in “parallel mode”, i.e. by using the PACS and SPIRE instruments together. Together the two instruments cover a wavelength range from 70 to 500 microns. The resulting image uses red to represent the cooler long-wavelength emission (seen by SPIRE) and bluer colours show hotter areas. The region of active star formation shown is close to the Galactic plane; detailed images such as this, showing the intricate filamentary structure of the material in this stellar nursery, will help us to understand better how what the complex processes involved in stellar birth.

Misplaced Confidence

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 10, 2008 by telescoper

From time to time I’ve been posting items about the improper use of statistics. My colleague Ant Whitworth just showed me an astronomical example drawn from his own field of star formation and found in a recent paper by Matthew Bate from the University of Exeter.

The paper is a lengthy and complicated one involving the use of extensive numerical calculations to figure out the effect of radiative feedback on the process of star formation. The theoretical side of this subject is fiendishly difficult, to the extent that it is difficult to make any progress with pencil-and-paper techinques, and Matthew is one of the leading experts in the use of computational methods to tackle problems in this area.

One of the main issues Matthew was investigating was whether radiative feedback had any effect on the initial mass function of the stars in his calculations. The key results are shown in the picture below (Figure 8 from the paper) in terms of cumulative distributions of the star masses in various different situations.


The question that arises from such data is whether these empirical distributions differ significantly from each other or whether they are consistent with the variations that would naturally arise in different samples drawn from the same distribution. The most interesting ones are the two distributions to the right of the plot that appear to lie almost on top of each other.

Because the samples are very small (only 13 and 15 objects respectively) one can’t reasonably test for goodness-of-fit using the standard chi-squared test because of discreteness effects and because not much is known about the error distribution. To do the statistics, therefore, Matthew uses a popular non-parametric method called the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test which uses the maximum deviation D between the two distributions as a figure of merit to decide whether they match. If D is very large then it is not probable that it can have arisen from the same distribution. If it is smaller then it might have. As for what happens if it is very small then you’ll have to wait a bit.

This is an example of a standard (frequentist) hypothesis test in which the null hypothesis is that the empirical distributions are calculated from independent samples drawn from the same underlying form. The probability of a value of D arising as large as the measured one can be calculated assuming the null is true and is then the significance level of the test. If there’s only a 1% chance of it being as large as the measured value then the significance level is 1%.

So far, so good.

But then, in describing the results of the K-S test the paper states

A Kolmogorov-Smirnov (K-S) test on the …. distributions gives a 99.97% probability that the two IMFs were drawn from the same underlying distribution (i.e. they are statistically indistinguishable).

Agh! No it doesn’t! What it gives is a probability of 99.97% that the chance deviation between the two distributions is expected to be larger than that actually measured. In other words, the two distributions are surprisingly close to each other. But the significance level merely specifies the probability that you would reject the null-hypothesis if it were correct. It says nothing at all about the probability that the null hypothesis is correct. To make that sort of statement you would need to specify an alternative distribution, calculate the distribution of D based on it, and hence determine the statistical power of the test. Without specifying an alternative hypothesis all you can say is that you have failed to reject the null hypothesis.

Or better still, if you have an alternative hypothesis you can forget about power and significance and instead work out the relative probability of the two hypotheses using a proper Bayesian approach.

You might also reasonably ask why might D be so very small? If you find an improbably low value of chi-squared then it usually means either that somebody has cheated or that the data are not independent (which is assumed for the basis of the test). Qualitatively the same thing happens with a KS test.

In fact these two distributions can’t be thought of as independent samples anyway as they are computed from the same initial conditions but with various knobs turned on or off to include different physics. They are not “samples” drawn from the same population but slightly different versions of the same sample. The probability emerging from the KS machinery is therefore meaningless anyway in this context.

So a correct statement of the result would be that the deviation between the two computed distributions is much smaller than one would expect to arise from two independent samples of the same size drawn from the same population.

That’s a much less dramatic statement than is contained in the paper, but has the advantage of not being bollocks.


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