This is not a Birkeland Current

Filaments of dust obscure starlight near the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO

Filaments of dust obscure starlight near the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO


Aug 08, 2013

It twists like a Birkeland Current; it’s stringy like a Birkeland Current; it’s dense like a Birkeland Current; but Everyone Knows (if they want to pursue a career in astronomy) that There is No Such Thing as Electricity in Space.

The press release for this new image of the Pipe Nebula recalls René Magritte’s painting of a pipe, on which he painted “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). His point was that the image was not the thing. Images must be interpreted.

Aah! says the canny epistemologer, but so must sensory impressions be interpreted: even “the thing” is an interpretation in reference to some general, usually preconceived, ideas about the context (aka a theory). We become so used to interpreting things according to our familiar and habitual preconceptions that we are unaware we’re interpreting. “Obviously” (the word of the day for the unexamined mind), it’s gravity, what else could it be period. Modern consensus astronomers seem to miss that point.

Interpreted in conformity with consensus astronomy, this is another “dark” thing to display on their shelf of dark things: dark matter, dark energy, and really-really dark holes. It’s “a vast dark cloud of interstellar dust.” It’s “so thick it can block out the light from the stars beyond.” “The dust and gas will clump together under the influence of gravity and more and more material will be attracted until the star is formed.”

Did you notice the preconceived idea that darkened the interpretation? “[U]nder the influence of gravity.” Anyone familiar with Alfvén’s work might have added “or electricity,” thereby admitting a twinkle of scientific provisionality into the darkness of the Closed Gravitational Mind.

The preconceived idea of the Electric Universe is, of course, a Birkeland Current. It does have a few characteristics to recommend it: The z-pinch force along a current will attract material almost like gravity does, but with important exceptions: The z-pinch force is cylindrical, not spherical (hence attracting material into filaments). It’s also more powerful, declining with the first power of the distance, not the square. The double layers that form along the boundaries of the currents tend to produce sharply defined edges on the filaments. And it has been observed in laboratory settings to trigger instabilities that might be interpreted as star-like.

But such an idea is…unfamiliar. Maybe we can call it a “dark” idea.

Mel Acheson

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