Quasar Queer, Quasar Near?

From a UCSD press release:  An international team of astronomers has discovered within the heart of a nearby spiral galaxy a quasar whose light spectrum indicates that it is billions of light years away. The finding poses a cosmic puzzle: How could a galaxy 300 million light years away contain a stellar object several billion light years away?

The team’s findings, which were presented today in San Diego at the January meeting of the American Astronomical Society and which will appear in the February 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, raise a fundamental problem for astronomers who had long assumed that the “high redshifts” in the light spectra of quasars meant these objects were among the fastest receding objects in the universe and, therefore, billions of light years away.

“Most people have wanted to argue that quasars are right at the edge of the universe,” said Geoffrey Burbidge, a professor of physics and astronomer at the University of California at San Diego’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences and a member of the team. “But too many of them are being found closely associated with nearby, active galaxies for this to be accidental. If this quasar is physically associated with this galaxy, it must be close by.”

Astronomers generally estimate the distances to stellar objects by the speed with which they are receding from the earth. That recession velocity is calculated by measuring the amount the star’s light spectra is shifted to the lower frequency, or red end, of the light spectrum. This physical phenomenon, known as the Doppler Effect, can be experienced by someone standing near train tracks when the whistle or engine sounds from a moving train becomes lower in pitch, or sound frequency, as the train travels past.

Astronomers have used redshifts and the known brightness of stars as fundamental yardsticks to measure the distances to stars and galaxies. However, Burbidge said they have been unable to account for the growing number of quasi-stellar objects, or quasars–intense concentrations of energy believed to be produced by the swirling gas and dust surrounding massive black holes–with high redshifts that have been closely associated with nearby galaxies.

“If it weren’t for this redshift dilemma, astronomers would have thought quasars originated from these galaxies or were fired out from them like bullets or cannon balls,” he added.

The discovery reported by the team of astronomers, which includes his spouse, E. Margaret Burbidge, another noted astronomer and professor of physics at UCSD, is especially significant because it is the most extreme example of a quasar with a very large redshift in a nearby galaxy.

“No one has found a quasar with such a high redshift, with a redshift of 2.11, so close to the center of an active galaxy,” said Geoffrey Burbidge.

Margaret Burbidge, who reported the team’s finding at the meeting, said the quasar was first detected by the ROSAT X-ray satellite operated by the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany and found to be closely associated with the nucleus of the spiral galaxy NGC 7319. That galaxy is unusual because it lies in a group of interacting galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet.

Using a three-meter telescope operated by the University of California at Lick Observatory in the mountains above San Jose and the university’s 10-meter Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, she and her team measured the redshifts of the spiral galaxy and quasar and found that the quasar appears to be interacting with the interstellar gas within the galaxy.

Because quasars and black holes are generally found within the most energetic parts of galaxies, their centers, the astronomers are further persuaded that this particular quasar resides within this spiral galaxy. Geoffrey Burbidge added that the fact that the quasar is so close to the center of this galaxy, only 8 arc seconds from the nucleus, and does not appear to be shrouded in any way by interstellar gas make it highly unlikely that the quasar lies far behind the galaxy, its light shining through the galaxy near its center by “an accident of projection.”

“If this quasar is close by, its redshift cannot be due to the expansion of the universe,” he adds. “If this is the case, this discovery casts doubt on the whole idea that quasars are very far away and can be used to do cosmology.”

Other members of the team, besides Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, included Vesa Junkkarinen, a research physicist at UCSD; Pasquale Galianni of the University of Lecce in Italy; and Halton Arp and Stefano Zibetti of the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

16 thoughts on “Quasar Queer, Quasar Near?”

  1. This is the most enjoyable story I’ve read in sciscoop since the one that you wrote which drew me in as a poster/contributer (one of your fractal fern stories). And this story gives me a chance to ask a question that either you or Arthur will certainly be able to answer for me. I know nothing about how astronomical observations are made.

    If I stand beside a track and train goes by, it is obvious to me that the audible signal that I receive has had its frequency expanded or compressed at any moment because I am also subject to the same signal over all moments. Essentially what I mean is that it is obvious there is a doppler phenomenon because I can hear that the frequency changing over time. And if I analyze I can figure out what the nominal frequency of the signal is, or would have been if I zeroed the derivative by moving with the train.

    If I’m sitting here on planet earth looking at a star I do not understand how we can know what the redshift is. This has never been explained to me in any popular cosmology or observation article I’ve ever read. It seems to be a given that it is easy to know. I don’t think that it is as easy as the example in the previous paragraph since the amount of change over days/months/years is so small. My suspicion has always been that our instruments are just not sensitive enough to do it by analyses of direct observeration (admittedly a presumption on my part). So (if that assumption is correct) how do we do it? Or am I naive regarding our engineering skills?

  2. Arp is of course well known to have been pushing the “quasar’s aren’t distant objects” meme for a while, with a variety of different arguments (redshifts caused by something else, etc.). The Burbridge’s are perhaps less well known, but have also long been proponents of steady-state cosmology. That’s all well and good, it’s fine to have alternative theories, but the “Big Bang Never Happened” folks are, in my opinion, not good for science. Number one, they are denying a lot of compelling evidence, and relying instead on coincidence (statistics seems to show all these anomalies can be just random, from what I’ve seen).

    But number two, even if they’re not directly promoting it, this stuff is great grist for the mill of “Creation Scientists”, who are quite happy to deny the Big Bang and live in a world that was created just 6000 years ago…

  3. Any glowing light source (especially astronomical ones) doesn’t put out a perfect rainbow when you pass its light through a prism.  If you look very closely (as Newton didn’t in his original prism rainbow experiments, but Wollaton and Fraunhofer did in the early 1800s) you will see a pattern of very thin black lines (gaps) among all the pretty colors.  These black gaps in the spectrum occur because atoms in the light source are absorbing all the photons of that particular wavelength and not letting them out of the star or quasar or mercury vapor street lamp or whatever.  So by looking at what black bands you see, you can tell what elements are in a glowing light source – that’s how we categorize stars.  

    Do this experiment in a lab with an at-rest glowing pure hydrogen vapor source and you get a certain pattern of black bands at certain exact frequencies.  To find the redshift of an astronomical object, you first look for the PATTERN of black lines in its spectra and THEN  see what FREQUENCY they’re at.  The pattern of black lines is the same regardless of speed.  Their frequencies depends on relative speeds between object and observer via the doppler shift.

    This is why so much of astronomy is dependent on looking at other wavelenghts than visible light.  Quasar redshifts are so extreme the normal Fraunhofer lines are out of the visible range and you’ve got to be able to take really accurate spectra at weird non-visible wavelenghts to get the redshift readings.

  4. I’m on a little shakier ground in my understanding here, but I think this all leads to an extension of the old “is the red I see the same as the red you see” philosophical arguments about perception of color.  In reality, neither one of us truly ever sees red (i think…somebody correct me if this is wrong).  Instead, the (spectrographic) mechanisms in our eyes record that there is an ABSENCE of red color on the skin of an apple, and our consciousness INTERPRETS that as an EXCESS of red.  So we say “an apple is red” when in reality the apple is preferentially ABSORBING red light photons and thereby PREVENTING red photons from being reflected off of it from the illumination source and being seen by our eye.

    Same thing with red filter over our eyes.  All red light gets absorbed by the filter, none reaches our eyes.  Our consciousness REGISTERS this as “everything looking red” – but this is a PERCEPTION TRICK that is not an accurate description of WHAT KIND OF LIGHT IS ACTUALLY REACHING OUR EYES.

    Now, if the red filter is blocking red light, how do we know what “red” **looks** like?  I think it’s because we’ve TRULY seen it AT OTHER TIMES for example when we were looking at a YELLOW object that didn’t absorb red.  Our subconscious (in my theory here) registered what red looked like THEN for future use when we “see” a red apple or look at the world through rose colored shades.

    So when you “see” red, what you’re really seing is a superimposed memory of what “red” looked like when you truly and subconsciously saw it at a previous time, because according to the physics of light, you can’t possibly be seeing it “now”.

    Which leads to an interesting experiment to try on your newborn baby.  I didn’t have the guts to try this on mine; if you try it on yours, let us here on SciScoop know how it all turns out!!!  Take your newborn kid and at birth put red goggles over their cute little eyes.  Leave in place until they go to their first day of school.  Just before they get on the bus for the first time and out of your mad scientific clutches, take off the goggles and give them a red apple for the teacher.  Ask them what color the apple is.  I’m betting they’d say black – because their brain will up to that time have never processed a red photon to categorize for future use in the conscious perception of color!!!!

    This is of course what color blindness is – but I’m saying it can be induced artificially with filters from birth instead of defective rods and cones from your parent’s genes.  The INTERESTING part of the experiment would be to give the kid a red apple when he got home and ask again what color it was.  With filters gone and perfect rods and cones at work in her eyes, would her brain have realized during the day that there was a “new” color to suddenly now incorporate into the conscious perception of color?  Would this incorporation of a ‘new” color EVER occur?

    Another perception experiment I read about when I was a kid was wear a set of glasses with a reversing prism in it long enough, you wouldn’t always see things as “upside down” or “mirror image” – you will wake up one morning and the image will “look right” with the special glasses on – and “look wrong” with them OFF.  YOu have to stopo wearing the glasses for several days for the effect to go away and “see normally” again.  I wanted to try this, but my dad wouldn’t let me.  With my luck, the efect wouldn’t have gone away and I’d be stuck with reversing glasses all my life.  Thanks, dad.

    My point is that all of our scientific observations , not just vision, is filtered through our minds – and that we can become seduced by what we perceive instead of what IS.

  5. Ricky’s explanation sounds fine to me!

    Luckily where I was an undergraduate, our physics department had a bunch of people looking at molecular spectra, following in the footsteps of the great (adopted) Canadian scientist Gerhard Herzberg. In one of the advanced lab courses I was able to actually take some spectra myself – the setup involved a lamp shining through a flask of molecules we were studying and also through a reference material, with a known spectrum – then the light goes through a slit and diffraction grating, and was focused on a photographic plate.

    My job was to compare the developed plates with and without the study material, and to measure the position of the absorption lines from the molecules we were studying. It’s fascinating to go from those numerical positions on a photograph to the quantum theory of molecular vibrations and rotations, and see how they match up. One of the most dramatic evidences that our world has numbers at its heart, even if it doesn’t look that way on the surface!

  6. I have had that explained to me before. Thank you Ricky. I remember now. Probably in first year physics, almost decades ago.


  7. It really doesn’t matter what quality of science is being done in the area. It seems clear that there is a mystery. And it also seems clear that quality science is likely able to solve the mystery. And so I think that this story wholly deserves to be on sciscoop and I thank Ricky for it, regardless what exposure it gives to any scientists considered to be fringe by other scientists.

    I have resigned myself to living with cranks and pseudo-science practioners. I can live around them. If they for example ever manage to take teaching evolution out of the schools in my jurisdiction, I will move. Faith and ignorance hand in hand is almost impossible to fight.

  8. Actually red apples don’t absorb red, they absorb the other wavelengths and reflect red. Otherwise red light would look “cyan” colored, and we’d call it cyan, not red.

    Of course there are some big differences between spectral colors and perceived colors – “brown” doesn’t appear anywhere on the spectrum, for example (nor do “white” and “black”). This wikipedia article is a good start on understanding the complexities. Reproduction of color is a lot harder than it looks!

  9. This new theory doesn’t seem to answer the question “Why are all of the quasars moving away from us?”. It seems to me the only two explanations for objects that are consistently red-shifted (and none blue-shifted) are the usual Hubble red-shift (i.e., is a result of the Big Bang and being really, really far away), or a gravitational explanation. The latter would be really interesting if anyone came up with a description that doesn’t violate all other known GR/SR phenomena. (Disclaimer: I did an MS in Phys/Astronomy and my thesis covered alternative space-time metrics.)

  10. I’m curious. What are the other theories for Quasar red-shift? Innate velocity should give us blue shifts, too.

    What about gravitational? Spectra formed by gas just above a black hole’s boundary should be red-shifted as it climbs out of the hole, right?


  11. It is indeed very weird that everything in the Universe is redshifted and nothing is blueshifted.  The Hubble constant is all about trying to explain EVERY SINGLE redshift for EVERY SINGLE astronomical object – even if such an explanation seems nuts for things as bright as quasars that should logically appear much dimmer if they’re really so far away.  Most theorists that object to such an absolute blanket explanation of redshift usually use the words “tired light” as part of their explanation.  In other words, there’s something unknown in the Universe besides Hubble expansion that’s causing all these redshifts, and it’s modifying the light (making it redder or “tired”)of some nearby objects in a way we don’t yet understand.  Instant Nobel Prize for the first person to prove that’s really happening in even one single case.

  12. Another possible reason to believe that we don’t yet fully understand what happens to photons and mass during long travels through empty space is of course the Pioneer Effect.  If it’s real.

  13. Blue shifts have been noted in the Local Group of galaxies. An oft noted example is Andromeda, which is very close by and speeding towards us. Our two galaxies (the two dominant members of the Local Group) are essentially free-falling towards each other, rapidly trading gravitational potential energy for kinetic energy. Many scientists consider them to be on an collision course many years hence, resulting in a giant elliptical galaxy.

  14. We’ve got a few mysteries to cover out there. Quite frankly, I don’t know of a decent theory to cover what we see out there. We’ve got…

    • Quantized redshifts as uncovered by Tifft 30 years ago. The phenomenon has not yet been put to bed.
    • If you follow any of Arp’s numerous observations on galaxies with multiple associated objects, it appears that the close objects (along what IIRC he would term an ejection axis) have the highest redshifts, and they decrease in sequence the further along the ejection curve they are.
    • Tired light simply can’t involve just distance travelled if redshifts are so different in such a close area

    So what are we left with? Something that’s mostly a local-to-the-object effect, yet must either apply most of its effect past the boundaries of the radiation-emitting matter (you’d get utterly smeared spectral lines otherwise), or must be an intrinsic property of the matter or emitted radiation itself.

    Accounting for the ‘general’ increase in redshifts with distance, though… has different implications if it’s a different phenomenon than with the quasars, or a manifestation of the same thing. (e.g. If it’s the same thing, then it’s either less likely to be an intrinsic property of the matter, because farther-away things aren’t “intrinsically” different)

    So what, pray tell, are we dealing with here?

    Any thoughts?

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