December 12, 2019

How to Measure the Height a Building… with a Barometer!

(Editor’s Note: This week’s big expose post is totally tongue and cheek, but does serve as a good creative mental exercise in scientific thinking. Back in our High School pre-Internet days, an interesting science dilemma came our way (we used to read BOOKS and NEWSPAPERS in those benighted days). This idea, like so many others, has morphed over decades (via the Internet) to monstrous (re: silly) proportions. It appears to have had its hoary roots way back in a Saturday Review article dated December 21, 1968 and, well, things just get crazier from there…More images are forthcoming!)

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16.03.10:Relativity Triumphant over Bizarre Binary.

For years, a unique binary system has plagued Einsteinian physics. DI Herculis (DI Her) is a seemingly innocuous binary star about 2,000 light years distant. Type B stars each about five times the mass of our Sun, these stars are in a mutual orbital embrace about 0.2 A.U. apart. Visually, the system is at magnitude +8.5, and the orbit is inclined along our line of sight so that mutual eclipses occur every 10.55 days. First recorded in 1900, this feature allows the systems’ mass, luminosity and orbital characteristics to be known to a high degree of precession. For the past several decades, however, astronomer Ed Guinan at Villanova University couldn’t shake an odd effect; namely, periastron of the two stars is advancing at a rate of only ¼ what’s predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Is an unseen companion lurking in the DI Her system, or is it Albert himself who was wrong? Prediction of such anomalies as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury is one of the great cornerstones of relativity.  In a massive system such as DI Her, this effect should be even more pronounced. Like the Pioneer anomaly, several would-be theorists have pointed to this discrepancy as a potential chink in the relativistic armor…

Enter Simon Albrecht of MIT. Using a 1.93-meter telescope to obtain a high-resolution spectrograph of the two suns, a bizarre fact has become apparent; both stars are tipped on their rotational axes, giving them an orbital “kick” at their closest approach. This configuration adequately accounts for the relativistic anomaly. Apparently, DI Her underwent a close passage of another star or massive object sometime in its history. Guinan is relieved, but will no doubt continue to receive a flood of email from alternate-gravity theorists!