I have added some observations from the book below, as well as some links covering people/ideas/stuff discussed/mentioned in the book.

“On average, out of every 100 newly born star systems, 60 are binaries and 40 are triples. Solitary stars like the Sun are later ejected from triple systems formed in this way.”

“…any object will become a black hole if it is sufficiently compressed. For any mass, there is a critical radius, called the Schwarzschild radius, for which this occurs. For the Sun, the Schwarzschild radius is just under 3 km; for the Earth, it is just under 1 cm. In either case, if the entire mass of the object were squeezed within the appropriate Schwarzschild radius it would become a black hole.”

“It only became possible to study the centre of our Galaxy when radio telescopes and other instruments that do not rely on visible light became available. There is a great deal of dust in the plane of the Milky Way […] This blocks out visible light. But longer wavelengths penetrate the dust more easily. That is why sunsets are red – short wavelength (blue) light is scattered out of the line of sight by dust in the atmosphere, while the longer wavelength red light gets through to your eyes. So our understanding of the galactic centre is largely based on infrared and radio observations.”

“there is strong evidence that the Milky Way Galaxy is a completely ordinary disc galaxy, a typical representative of its class. Since that is the case, it means that we can confidently use our inside knowledge of the structure and evolution of our own Galaxy, based on close-up observations, to help our understanding of the origin and nature of disc galaxies in general. We do not occupy a special place in the Universe; but this was only finally established at the end of the 20th century. […] in the decades following Hubble’s first measurements of the cosmological distance scale, the Milky Way still seemed like a special place. Hubble’s calculation of the distance scale implied that other galaxies are relatively close to our Galaxy, and so they would not have to be very big to appear as large as they do on the sky; the Milky Way seemed to be by far the largest galaxy in the Universe. We now know that Hubble was wrong. […] the value he initially found for the Hubble Constant was about seven times bigger than the value accepted today. In other words, all the extragalactic distances Hubble inferred were seven times too small. But this was not realized overnight. The cosmological distance scale was only revised slowly, over many decades, as observations improved and one error after another was corrected. […] The importance of determining the cosmological distance scale accurately, more than half a century after Hubble’s pioneering work, was still so great that it was a primary justification for the existence of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).”

“The key point to grasp […] is that the expansion described by [Einstein’s] equations is an expansion of space as time passes. The cosmological redshift is not a Doppler effect caused by galaxies moving outward through space, as if fleeing from the site of some great explosion, but occurs because the space between the galaxies is stretching. So the spaces between galaxies increase while light is on its way from one galaxy to another. This stretches the light waves to longer wavelengths, which means shifting them towards the red end of the spectrum. […] The second key point about the universal expansion is that it does not have a centre. There is nothing special about the fact that we observe galaxies receding with redshifts proportional to their distances from the Milky Way. […] whichever galaxy you happen to be sitting in, you will see the same thing – redshift proportional to distance.”

“The age of the Universe is determined by studying some of the largest things in the Universe, clusters of galaxies, and analysing their behaviour using the general theory of relativity. Our understanding of how stars work, from which we calculate their ages, comes from studying some of the smallest things in the Universe, the nuclei of atoms, and using the other great theory of 20th-century physics, quantum mechanics, to calculate how nuclei fuse with one another to release the energy that keeps stars shining. The fact that the two ages agree with one another, and that the ages of the oldest stars are just a little bit less than the age of the Universe, is one of the most compelling reasons to think that the whole of 20th-century physics works and provides a good description of the world around us, from the very small scale to the very large scale.”

“Planets are small objects orbiting a large central mass, and the gravity of the Sun dominates their motion. Because of this, the speed with which a planet moves […] is inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the centre of the Solar System. Jupiter is farther from the Sun than we are, so it moves more slowly in its orbit than the Earth, as well as having a larger orbit. But all the stars in the disc of a galaxy move at the same speed. Stars farther out from the centre still have bigger orbits, so they still take longer to complete one circuit of the galaxy. But they are all travelling at essentially the same orbital speed through space.”

“The importance of studying objects at great distances across the Universe is that when we look at an object that is, say, 10 billion light years away, we see it by light which left it 10 billion years ago. This is the ‘look back time’, and it means that telescopes are in a sense time machines, showing us what the Universe was like when it was younger. The light from a distant galaxy is old, in the sense that it has been a long time on its journey; but the galaxy we see using that light is a young galaxy. […] For distant objects, because light has taken a long time on its journey to us, the Universe has expanded significantly while the light was on its way. […] This raises problems defining exactly what you mean by the ‘present distance’ to a remote galaxy”

“Among the many advantages that photographic and electronic recording methods have over the human eye, the most fundamental is that the longer they look, the more they see. Human eyes essentially give us a real-time view of our surroundings, and allow us to see things – such as stars – that are brighter than a certain limit. If an object is too faint to see, once your eyes have adapted to the dark no amount of staring in its direction will make it visible. But the detectors attached to modern telescopes keep on adding up the light from faint sources as long as they are pointing at them. A longer exposure will reveal fainter objects than a short exposure does, as the photons (particles of light) from the source fall on the detector one by one and the total gradually grows.”

“Nobody can be quite sure where the supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies today came from, but it seems at least possible that […] merging of black holes left over from the first generation of stars [in the universe] began the process by which supermassive black holes, feeding off the matter surrounding them, formed. […] It seems very unlikely that supermassive black holes formed first and then galaxies grew around them; they must have formed together, in a process sometimes referred to as co-evolution, from the seeds provided by the original black holes of a few hundred solar masses and the raw materials of the dense clouds of baryons in the knots in the filamentary structure. […] About one in a hundred of the galaxies seen at low redshifts are actively involved in the late stages of mergers, but these processes take so little time, compared with the age of the Universe, that the statistics imply that about half of all the galaxies visible nearby are the result of mergers between similarly sized galaxies in the past seven or eight billion years. Disc galaxies like the Milky Way seem themselves to have been built up from smaller sub-units, starting out with the spheroid and adding bits and pieces as time passed. […] there were many more small galaxies when the Universe was young than we see around us today. This is exactly what we would expect if many of the small galaxies have either grown larger through mergers or been swallowed up by larger galaxies.”

Links of interest:

Galaxy (‘featured article’).
Leonard Digges.
Thomas Wright.
William Herschel.
William Parsons.
The Great Debate.
Extinction (astronomy).
Henrietta Swan Leavitt (‘good article’).
Cepheid variable.
Ejnar Hertzsprung. (Before reading this book, I had no idea one of the people behind the famous Hertzsprung–Russell diagram was a Dane. I blame my physics teachers. I was probably told this by one of them, but if the guy in question had been a better teacher, I’d have listened, and I’d have known this.).
Globular cluster (‘featured article’).
Vesto Slipher.
Redshift (‘featured article’).
Refracting telescope/Reflecting telescope.
Disc galaxy.
Edwin Hubble.
Milton Humason.
Doppler effect.
Milky Way.
Orion Arm.
Stellar population.
Sagittarius A*.
Minkowski space.
General relativity (featured).
The Big Bang theory (featured).
Age of the universe.
Malmquist bias.
Type Ia supernova.
Dark energy.
Cosmic microwave background.
Cold dark matter.
Lambda-CDM model.
Lenticular galaxy.
Active galactic nucleus.
Hubble Ultra-Deep Field.
Stellar evolution.
Velocity dispersion.
Hawking radiation.
Ultimate fate of the universe.



February 5, 2017 - Posted by | astronomy, books, cosmology, Physics

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