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Home » Jeremy Darling: Water in the Universe at TEDxBoulder (Transcript)

Jeremy Darling: Water in the Universe at TEDxBoulder (Transcript)

Jeremy Darling – TRANSCRIPT

OK, so I’m going to tell you about water in the universe, and the charge to you tonight is to think big, very, very big. So, why do we care about water in the universe? It’s because water is essential for life.

Where we find water, we find one of the key ingredients where we can find life. What we’re going to do tonight is a tour of the universe through the prism of water. At the top of the screen, I have a little meter for you to keep track of where we are in the universe. We’re going to start at the Earth and move out to the very early universe. So let’s start our tour, here we go.

We’re going to start here and now – here we are on the Earth – and we live in an amazing place in terms of water. You can see in this pressure-temperature diagram that there are three phases of water: solid, liquid, and gas. Every day, especially here in Colorado, we can see all three phases at once. So we see ice, we see liquid water, and we see clouds. But you can imagine if we leave the atmosphere of the Earth, the pressure drops and we can no longer have liquid water, we can only have ice or vapor.

Likewise, if we go out in the cold, cold, cold space, the pressure drops, the temperature drops as well, and we only have ice; all the water freezes out. Let’s take the next step on our tour, and we’re going to find water in a really extreme environment. You may be surprised to learn that there is water on the surface of our Sun. We can see these dark spots on the surface of the Sun; these are sunspots. They look dark because they’re slightly cooler than the rest of the Sun.

They are still very hot, about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you look in the centers of these sunspots, it turns out that water is spontaneously forming; there is a chemistry there forming water on the surface of the Sun. It’s a gas, but it’s still water. Very hot water. We’ll see water in very extreme environments later on in our tour; this is the first spot. So let’s move further out in the solar system, let’s look at the moon of Jupiter called Europa.

Remember, when we leave the atmosphere of the Earth, can we not only have a pressure, we have water freezing, ok, so we have ice, and this moon is basically a ball of ice. But you can imagine if you burrow down into this moon, things get warmer and the pressure would go up, and in fact it’s thought that there are liquid oceans here deep inside Europa. This is one of the places where we would probably first look for life in our solar system. Likewise, for this moon of Saturn. What the Cassini probe found looking in profile at the pole of this moon, Enceladus, is water geysers shooting out of cracks at the bottom of this moon.

There are actually geysers on this object spewing water into space which tells us that in fact it is warm and wet in the interior. OK, now let’s move even further out, let’s look at other stars. In fact, over the past 15 years, astronomers have been finding planets around other stars, but an amazing discovery just last year was of a planet that is only few times the mass of the Earth, but it was of a very low density. What that density implies is that there is a lot of water here. It’s not yet known whether this is some sort of water world, or whether it’s some sort of steam planet, but we do know there must be a lot of water.

This brings us to the idea of a habitable zone. If we look around other stars, where are we going to find places where life can exist? This is really the places where we can find liquid water, and it’s indicated by the blue band here. The vertical axis here is the mass of stars, it’s how bright a star is, and the horizontal axis is the distance from stars. So you can see for lower mass stars that are dimmer, you have to be closer. But what we see at the top is our solar system, – Earth is living in that lovely, habitable zone – and you can see that it changes versus various stars.

But what we’re increasingly finding – and stay tuned for this – is planets that are actually in that habitable zone, good places to find life. All right, so let’s move further out into the universe. In order to do this, what we need to do is find a way to detect water at great distances. And what water can do – it’s an amazing molecule – it makes a natural laser; leave water to its own devices, and it shoots out a beam of light. This light is in the radiowaves, so we call them maser which stems from microwave laser, but in any case, if you happen to be looking along that beam, it’s incredibly bright.

So what we do is we use the largest telescopes on Earth to search for water at great distances. What I would need you to think about now is this equivalency between distance and time. Light takes time to travel to us from distant objects, so we see objects as they were in the past. If we want to look earlier in the universe, we just look at more distant objects. So that’s what we’re going to do.

Let’s move out from nearby stars and look at our own galaxy. It turns out our galaxy is sprinkled with stellar nurseries, places where new stars are being born, new planets are being formed. Everywhere we look in our galaxy, where new stars are being formed, new planets are being born, we find water. There is water everywhere where we find new stars. Similarly, we can look at other galaxies.

Now we’re millions of light years away from where we live now, and we look at galaxies that are forming new stars and new planets, and it turns out that everywhere we look we find water; so we find water in all these places. Water permeates the universe, it’s in the interesting places we care about, it’s in places where we’re forming new stars and new planets. Water can also be used as a tool. If we look at the very, very centers of certain galaxies, a miraculous thing is seen. We see water orbiting in a disk, a beautiful, flat disk of water orbiting some dark mass that we cannot see.

This water is orbiting very, very rapidly: millions of miles per hour. What Kepler would tell you if you measure the speed of this rotation, this orbit, you measure its size, – this is how we measure the mass of the Sun, it has been known for hundreds of years – so what Johannes Kepler would say is that the dark object in there is massive, it’s huge, it’s 40 million times the mass of the Sun. We’ve detected a black hole using water. You don’t see anything there, but the water is telling us that there must be this incredibly massive object hiding in there.

The other thing that one could do is watch these little clouds of water move in real time as they orbit this black hole. And by knowing the speed at which they orbit, we can measure the distance to this object and other objects like it. What that tells you is when we measure distances to various objects in the universe, Einstein has told us through the theory of general relativity that the contents of the universe is equivalent to its gravity, so what is in the universe makes gravity, gravity is equivalent to curvature, so for measuring distances in a curved universe, the way we say it usually is that matter tells space how to curve, curvature tells matter how to move.

If we measure distances in a curved universe, we can figure out what is in it. What we find is kind of miraculous. About 5% of the universe is atoms, so it’s everything that we see around us every day, it’s stuff. But about 25%, a quarter of the universe, is dark matter, it’s matter we can’t see, it doesn’t interact with light. About 75% of the contents of the universe is this thing called dark energy, it’s a strange field that permeates the universe and in fact causes anti-gravity. It’s very strange, it’s causing an accelerating universe today. But all of these strange aspects of our universe can be revealed by using water as a tool to study it.

Now, let’s try to detect water in the most distant galaxies we can, let’s see how far back in time and how close to the Big Bang we can see water. And we do that by using a little assist. If we want to look really far away, our telescopes aren’t good enough. But nature gives us telescopes in the sky. I’ve already told you about how gravity is the same as curvature, so when we have some massive object, like in this simulation in the center of this image, the gravity causes curvature which in fact focuses light and acts like a lense; it’s called a gravitational lense. And did you see galaxies passing behind here? You’ll see them stretched and magnified, and you’ll see multiple images.

What that lets us do is to see objects that are very faint because they get magnified by this natural telescope. So here’s the situation: we have some object between us and a distant galaxy – maybe it’s a foreground galaxy – and it magnifies that background object and gives us multiple images. Here is the most distant water that has ever been detected. It’s 112 billion years ago, found by a colleague of mine just a few years ago in one of these gravitational lense systems.

So the message I want to leave you with today is that water fills the universe and we’re interested in it because water is necessary for life. But what water also does for us is it reveals the universe and shows us these dark objects like black holes, dark energy, and dark matter. Thank you.

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