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Stretch Marks of the Universe

John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-68
Keywords: quantized redshift Big Bang Hubble expansion cosmology quantization
Published in the November-1994 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 3/2/94 and is copyrighted ©1994 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.

    This column is about the apparent quantization of cosmological red-shifts, the persistent astronomical observation that the red-shifts and velocities of distant galaxies are not randomly distributed but rather grouped in clumps of similar values. About eight years ago I had considered an AV column on this mysterious phenomenon, but after looking at the data then available I decided against it. As an experimental physicist I've seen too many "structures" in poor-statistics data that vanished as the statistics improved. Over the years, however, the red-shift data has improved to the point where the evidence that this is a real effect is now fairly convincing. So here it is, a persistent and puzzling astronomical observation that does not fit with our present understanding of the laws of physics and the universe and that has no accepted explanation.

    We live in an expanding universe. Eon by eon, century by century, second by second as the universe expands the fabric of space itself is stretching like the rubber of an inflating balloon. The galaxies that punctuate the vast open spaces of the universe are growing farther apart as this expansion progresses. If two galaxies are separated by a distance of a billion light-years, their separation is growing by about .007 light-years every year. In other words, due to the expansion of space itself they are speeding away from each other at about 0.7% of the speed of light.

    The remarkable expansion of the universe was discovered in 1929 by CalTech astronomer Edwin Hubble, who showed that distant galaxies are systematically moving away from us and from each other. Hubble did this using the absorption lines of gaseous atoms as a star speedometer. As starlight emerges through the cool outer atmosphere of a star, the light at a few special frequencies is soaked up by certain atoms (hydrogen, helium, carbon) that have electron clouds tuned to absorb light at just these frequencies. If this starlight, arriving at an astronomer's telescope, is passed through a prism or diffraction grating to make a rainbow-like spectrum of colors, dark bands appear in the spectrum at those frequencies where atomic absorption has occurred. From careful laboratory measurements we know the frequency positions of atomic absorption lines to high precision, but 19th century astronomers discovered that in distant stars and galaxies these frequencies are shifted downward in frequency. The shift is usually towards the red end of the spectrum and is therefore called a "red shift". Astronomers assume that red shift is produced by the Doppler effect, which predicts a frequency reduction proportional to the velocity of a light source that is moving away from the observer.

    Hubble was interested in systematic variations of the red-shift in stars. He selected populations of similar celestial objects, usually galaxies of a particular type, and examined the relation of the red-shifts of their absorption lines to their relative brightness (and therefore distance). What he found is now known as Hubble's Law: the red shift in the spectra of the objects grew as the objects became more distant. The farther away an object, the faster it is receding from us. This, Hubble concluded, is because the universe itself is expanding.

    Hubble's discovery led to a profound shift in our view of the cosmos. Before Hubble, the universe had been viewed as an eternal object in some poorly-understood steady state, and the common assumption of cosmology was that the present era in which we are making observations is in no way special, that the universe would look much the same at any point in time. Building on Hubble's work by extrapolating the expansion of the universe back to its starting point, physicist George Gamow suggested the Big Bang model, which portrays the universe as an evolving object with a pre-history that is very different from the present state. The discovery in 1965 of the cosmological microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson demonstrated the validity of Gamow's ideas and transformed the Big Bang model from a curious cosmological speculation to the standard model of cosmology.

    Dr. William J. Tifft of the University of Arizona is one of many astronomers who have continued Hubble's work by performing increasingly precise red-shift measurements. Tifft's technique has been to focus attention on stars in the arms of many spiral galaxies and to measure the observed red shift of each. Since such galaxies should be randomly distributed in the universe, one would expect the red shifts to also be random and to form a smooth distribution. Instead, in 1978 Tifft found that the red-shifts were grouped into clusters of similar values, and that the clusters were regularly spaced with a separation equivalent to velocity shifts of 72 kilometers per second. Such a "quantized" red-shift is completely unexpected and cannot be readily explained. Therefore, it is not surprising that Tifft's first reports of this phenomenon were met with great skepticism on the astrophysics community. Some skeptics noted that Tifft's quantization velocity is not much different from 60 kilometers per second, the semi-annual variation in the Earth's orbital velocity vector in its orbit around the Sun, and suggested that this velocity variation had produced the effect.

    Tifft's results were so controversial that several groups of astronomers set out to prove that they were wrong by gathering data on red shifts more broadly and from a wider variety of galaxy types. To the surprise of the would-be disprovers, they found evidence for the same red-shift quantization that Tifft had reported. For example, a group of astronomers associated with the Royal Observatory at Edinburgh, Scotland, examined 89 spiral galaxies picked at random and found a periodic bunching of red shifts in their data that was similar to the 72 km/s intervals found by Tifft. The data they used came from many different observatories and many different telescopes, and it is therefore unlikely that some instrumental effects or systematic errors produce the observed red-shift quantization. The quantized red-shift phenomenon is not exclusively a property of the visible light spectrum of stars. Recent results from precision radio-telescope observations of spiral galaxies also appear to support Tifft's results. The quantized red-shift phenomenon won't go away. Astronomers are coming to accept it as a real phenomenon.

    Are there theories that can explain the effect? Not really. Gravitational attraction is known to bunch galaxies into clusters of galaxies with similar red-shifts, but such bunches should be randomly distributed, not regularly spaced. Tifft's Arizona colleague W. John Cocke attempted to place the quantized red-shift effect in a theoretical ad hoc "quantum" framework by hypothesizing a "red shift" operator constructed to produce discrete recession velocities as eigenvalues of a wave equation. Cocke's approach, however, did not yield velocities spaced a even intervals. Instead, the squares of the velocities were equally spaced in the model. In later theoretical work, Nieto at Los Alamos devised a mathematical technique for producing evenly spaced velocities. However there is no physical justification for such a wave equation or red shift operator, nor is there any explanation of underlying mechanisms behind the suggested mathematics.

    This is a science fiction magazine where a striking new physical phenomenon without an explanation should be most welcome. The quantized red-shift effect should provide a fertile ground for physics and SF speculation. Are there gravitational standing waves supported by the "cavity resonator" of our closed universe that are bunching distant galaxies into regularly spaced groups? Is space not a uniform and isotropic as we think? Perhaps as the universe expands, the stretching of the fabric of space produces "stretch marks" where the weaker regions undergo rapid expansion while stronger regions do not. Such speculations cannot be easily reconciled with the high degree of smoothness observed on the cosmological microwave background by the recent measurements of the COBE satellite. Perhaps, as Tifft and his colleagues have suggested, there are unknown large-scale quantum phenomena in the universe for which we are only beginning to find evidence. At the beginning of the 20th century experimental physicists were probing the universe at smaller and smaller distance scales, work that precipitated the discovery of quantum mechanics, the theory of the quantization of the very small. Now, as we near the beginning of the 21st century, astronomers and astrophysicists are hard at work probing the universe at larger and larger distance scales. Will their observations precipitate a similar breakthrough discovery, the quantization of the very large? Watch this column for further developments.


References:

Quantized Red Shift Observation:
W. G. Tifft, Astrophysics Journal 221, 756 (1978),
W. J. Cocke and W. G. Tifft and , Astrophysics Journal 268, 56 (1983)

Theory of Quantized Red Shift:
W. J. Cocke, Astrophysics Letters 23, 239 (1983),
M. M. Nieto, Astrophysics Letters 25, 45 (1986).


SF Novels by John Cramer:  my two hard SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, are newly released as eBooks by Book View Cafe and are available at : http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/?s=Cramer .

AV Columns Online: Electronic reprints of about 177 "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer, previously published in Analog , are available online at: http://www.npl.washington.edu/av.


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