by Erik Baard
As New York City sloshes out of another rainy Sunday, let’s take comfort in a new discovery that the universe shines twice as brightly as we’d believed.
Scientists collaborating in Europe and Australia reported in the most recent Astronomical Journal Letters that half of cosmic light is blocked by dust clouds before it can reach our eyes and telescopes. Personally, I find that to be a good thing – clouds foster life on Earth and in the heavens alike. Dust between the stars is comprised of the elements and compounds that can eventually assemble into rocky planets, plants, and animals and the very physical phenomenon we call thought.
Not a bad tradeoff for a less crystalline cosmic view.
Astrophysicists have known for years that they had a major screw-up creeping around somewhere in their calculations – the radiance of dust was greater than the totality of stars themselves!
Cristina Popescu of the University of Central Lancashire and Richard Tufts of the Max Plank Institute for Nuclear Physics cranked out a better model using fresh observational data from 10,000 disc-shaped galaxies. By comparing myriad viewing angles, the two were able to determine how much light was obscured by dust in galaxies that face us straight on. From there they could factor in other slants, accounting for the billions of nuclear furnaces (hey, remember solar energy is just piggybacking on a totally unregulated reactor sited very far away) of each galaxy.
By pinning down that sample, astronomers and astrophysicists were able to return to the greater challenge of finding out how much all that exists is obscured, grain by grain.