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Among the astonishing concepts coming into view at this year’s American Astronomical Society was a homegrown explanation for how pulsars sling light through the universe.
John Singleton and Andrea Schmidt of Los Alamos National Laboratory have taken their observational analysis of a poorly understood cosmic phenomenon to the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C., as part of what is expected to be the largest gathering of astronomers in history.
On Tuesday, LANL mathematician Schmidt spoke on “Pulsar Emissions from Radio Waves to Gamma Rays,” along with Singleton of the lab’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, who spoke on a related topic, “A New Model of Pulsar Emission.”
With 3,500 attendees and 2,200 scientific presentations on this year’s program, the pair stood out when they were featured in one of the eleven press conferences sprinkled over the four days of meetings. They also participated in a special video stream into the online virtual world of Second Life where invitation-only avatars were gathered for selected talks on Astronomy Island 2009, a digital space created especially for the International Year of Astronomy.
In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Singleton said the new faster-than-light, or superluminal model for pulsars is closely related to a device known as a polarization synchrotron that he has developed and tested with group of LANL-United Kingdom researchers.
The polarization synchrotron has potential applications as a new type of radio or radar.
“It makes a very focused radio beam that could replace conventional transmitters, using lower power to transmit over a longer distance,” Singleton said.
Pulsars are rapidly spinning, super dense, highly magnetized stars, remnants of supernovae, especially notable for their emission of amazingly regular, short bursts of radio waves.
Schmidt has done much of the mathematical work for the model, enabling the researchers to visualize a set of extremely complex problems that is
leading to a fuller explanation about the mechanism by which a pulsar emits its far-reaching radiation.
“Our model has given the whole range of the pulsar’s emission spectrum, with a small number of adjustable parameters,” he said. The adjustments are made for differences such as slightly different atmospheres, like local weather conditions on Earth.
In a press release, the investigators said their analysis of several pieces of observational data “suggests that pulsars emit the electromagnetic version of the well-known sonic boom from accelerating supersonic aircraft. Just as the boom can be very loud a long way from the aircraft, the analogous signals from the pulsar remain intense over a very long distance.”
The “boom” is slung into space, according to the superluminal model, by circulating polarization currents that travel faster than the speed of light.
While some have called them “lawbreakers” for violating Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity that hypothesizes light as the universal speed limit, Singleton and Schmidt say no scientific laws are violated in their model.
Singleton has compared the phenomenon to the “Mexican Wave” in a sports stadium where fans stand up to create a rapidly moving wave that circles the field. Like those individual fans, individual particles are not moving fast, compared to the wave that is created. Similarly, the superluminal current that is created under the highly charged conditions of a rotating pulsar is traveling faster than the speed of light, The particles barely move.
While the polarization synchrotron is a practical machine demonstrating the proof of principal on Earth, the superluminal polarization currents are actually very common in the universe.
The LANL researchers model can also be used to calculate gamma ray bursts and a wide spectrum of emissions from not just pulsars, but other exotic cosmic explosions, like quasars, magnetars and blazars.
Singleton said he is finding the observer community to be more receptive to the concept than theoreticians, perhaps because it could disrupt a number of alternative theories.
“If it becomes widely accepted,” he said, “this superluminal model will plow through the subject and require some rethinking.”
He said the term “light slinger” was a descriptive phrase suggested by a Dutch poet, Jabez van Cleef.