Refining the Distance Scale

I scan the new astrophysics papers regularly. I almost always find something I end up downloading and reading, either right then and there, or later when I have time to concentrate. Rarely do I stumble across a paper that I can't take my eyes away from, like a great novel. One of those times when, forsaking all else, you must get to the last page.

Yesterday I found a great paper. What I was most pleased with was the fact it was written in plain English, with good grammar and organization. I understood every bit of it from start to end! That almost never happens. I couldn't stop reading it.

I don't have a PhD in astronomy or physics. I do this because I love it, period. So I often find myself part way into a paper on some astrophysical phenomena that the author is trying to explain, but no lights are going on in my brain. Either the subject is too technical for me to grasp, or the author is writing about things at a level only the top five experts in the world would ever understand. Add the poor English skills of foreign scientists writing in a second language and things can get ugly fast.

At some point I have to decide to either suck it up and plow through, hoping that a light will come on somewhere in the process, or skim through the rest to see if anything interesting develops with the plot.

Rarely do I find myself whooping it up and commenting out loud about the paper in my hands.

Okay, enough teasing. The paper is Absolute Magnitudes of Dwarf Novae: Murmurs of Period Bounce by Joe Patterson. Obviously, the subject appeals to me because dwarf novae are my special area of interest. But let me quote you some examples of why I was so impressed with this paper.

The first paragraph:
"Distance is the sine qua non of astrophysics. A distance estimate is required to convert flux to luminosity, and stellar physics is all about luminosity, not flux. Unfortunately, distances to cataclysmic variables are particularly difficult to estimate, because the dominant light source is not a star, but an accretion disk- preventing straightforward application of physical methods developed for single stars."

That will never be stated more clearly, ever. Yet it has a conversational tone to it that invites you in to take a look around. Remember, this is a scientific paper!

There are some other gems near the beginning that particularly caught my attention.

"In the 1980's available data on dwarf nova eruptions consisted of a blend of photographic and visual magnitudes. But now we have access to searchable variable star records, especially that of the AAVSO. The human eye is the ideal detector for this purpose, since it is immune to changes in technology, and used by thousands of observers. Furthermore, the central wavelengths of the eye and the commonly used Johnson V filter are similar; and both detectors are broad enough to render line emission insignificant."

He gives praise to the observations of amateur observers, the AAVSO and explains why visual observations are scientifically valuable all in one breath! I have a new hero.

I won't spoil it by giving away the end, and if you want to find out what period bouncers are you're going to have to read the paper.

I'm going to print it out on fine paper, have it bound in a nice little cover, and get Joe to autograph it for me when I see him in Tucson later this month at the CV conference, 'Wild Stars in the Old West.'

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