A Beetled Brow

Vinnie’s brow was wrinkling so hard I could hear it over the phone. “Boltzmann, Boltzmann, where’d I hear that name before? … Got it! That’s one of those constants, ain’t it, Sy? Molecules or temperature or something?”

“The second one, Vinnie. Avagadro was the molecule counter. Good memory. Come to think of it, both Boltzmann and Avagadro bridged gaps that Loschmidt worked on.”

“Loschmidt’s thing was the paradox, right, between Newton saying events can back up and thermodynamics saying no, they can’t. You said Boltzmann’s Statistical Mechanics solved that, but I’m still not clear how.”

“Let me think of an example. … Ah, you’ve got those rose bushes in front of your place. I’ll bet you’ve also put up a Japanese beetle trap to protect them.”

“Absolutely. Those bugs would demolish my flowers. The trap’s lure draws them away to my back yard. Most of them stay there ’cause they fall into the trap’s bag and can’t get out.”

“Glad it works so well for you. OK, Newton would look at individual beetles. He’d see right off that they fly mostly in straight lines. He’d measure the force of the wind and write down an equation for how the wind affects a beetle’s flight path. If the wind suddenly blew in the opposite direction, that’d be like the clock running backwards. His same equation would predict the beetle’s new flight path under the changed conditions. You with me?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Boltzmann would look at the whole swarm. He’d start by evaluating the average point‑to‑point beetle flight, which he’d call ‘mean free path.’ He’d probably focus on the flight speed and in‑the‑air time fraction. With those, if you tell him how many beetles you’ve got he could generate predictions like inter‑beetle separation and how long it’d take an incoming batch of beetles to cross your yard. However, predicting where a specific beetle will land next? Can’t do that.”

“Who cares about one beetle?”

“Well, another beetle might. …
Just thought of a way that Statistical Mechanics could actually be useful in this application. Once Boltzmann has his numbers for an untreated area, you could put in a series of checkpoints with different lures. Then he could develop efficiency parameters just by watching the beetle flying patterns. No need to empty traps. Anyhow, you get the idea.”

Japanese Beetle, photo by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org
under Creative Commons BY 3.0

“Hey, I feel good emptying that trap, I’m like standing up for my roses. Anyway, so how does Avagadro play into this?”

“Indirectly and he was half a century earlier. In 1805 Gay‑Lussac showed that if you keep the pressure and temperature constant, it tales two volumes of hydrogen to react with one volume of oxygen to produce one volume of water vapor. Better, the whole‑number‑ratio rule seemed to hold generally. Avagadro concluded that the only way Gay‑Lussac’s rule could be general is if at any temperature and pressure, equal volumes of every kind of gas held the same number of molecules. He didn’t know what that number was, though.”

“HAW! Avagadro’s number wasn’t a number yet.”

“Yeah, it took a while to figure out. Then in 1865, Loschmidt and a couple of others started asking, “How big is a gas molecule?” Some gases can be compressed to the liquid state. The liquids have a definite volume, so the scientists knew molecules couldn’t be infinitely small. Loschmidt put numbers to it. Visualize a huge box of beetles flying around, bumping into each other. Each beetle, or molecule, ‘occupies’ a cylinder one beetle wide and the length of its mean free path between collisions. So you’ve got three volumes — the beetles, the total of all the cylinders, and the much larger box. Loschmidt used ratios between the volumes, plus density data, to conclude that air molecules are about a nanometer wide. Good within a factor of three. As a side result he calculated the number of gas molecules per unit volume at any temperature and pressure. That’s now called Loschmidt’s Number. If you know the molecular weight of the gas, then arithmetic gives you Avagadro’s number.”

“Thinking about a big box of flying, rose‑eating beetles creeps me out.”

  • Thanks to Oriole Hart for the story‑line suggestion.

~~ Rich Olcott

Bridging A Paradox

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy. Vinnie. Hey, I’ve been reading through some of your old stuff—”

“That bored, eh?”

“You know it. Anyhow, something just don’t jibe, ya know?”

“I’m not surprised but I don’t know. Tell me about it.”

“OK, let’s start with your Einstein’s Bubble piece. You got this electron goes up‑and‑down in some other galaxy and sends out a photon and it hits my eye and an atom in there absorbs it and I see the speck of light, right?”

“That’s about the size of it. What’s the problem?”

“I ain’t done yet. OK, the photon can’t give away any energy on the way here ’cause it’s quantum and quantum energy comes in packages. And when it hits my eye I get the whole package, right?”

“Yes, and?”

“And so there’s no energy loss and that means 100% efficient and I thought thermodynamics says you can’t do that.”

“Ah, good point. You’ve just described one version of Loschmidt’s Paradox. A lot of ink has gone into the conflict between quantum mechanics and relativity theory, but Herr Johann Loschmidt found a fundamental conflict between Newtonian mechanics, which is fundamental, and thermodynamics, which is also fundamental. He wasn’t talking photons, of course — it’d be another quarter-century before Planck and Einstein came up with that notion — but his challenge stood on your central issue.”

“Goody for me, so what’s the central issue?”

“Whether or not things can run in reverse. A pendulum that swings from A to B also swings from B to A. Planets go around our Sun counterclockwise, but Newton’s math would be just as accurate if they went clockwise. In all his equations and everything derived from them, you can replace +t with ‑t to make run time backwards and everything looks dandy. That even carries over to quantum mechanics — an excited atom relaxes by emitting a photon that eventually excites another atom, but then the second atom can play the same game by tossing a photon back the other way. That works because photons don’t dissipate their energy.”

“I get your point, Newton-style physics likes things that can back up. So what’s Loschmidt’s beef?”

“Ever see a fire unburn? Down at the microscopic level where atoms and photons live, processes run backwards all the time. Melting and freezing and chemical equilibria depend upon that. Things are different up at the macroscopic level, though — once heat energy gets out or randomness creeps in, processes can’t undo by themselves as Newton would like. That’s why Loschmidt stood the Laws of Thermodynamics up against Newton’s Laws. The paradox isn’t Newton’s fault — the very idea of energy was just being invented in his time and of course atoms and molecules and randomness were still centuries away.”

“Micro, macro, who cares about the difference?”

“The difference is that the micro level is usually a lot simpler than the macro level. We can often use measured or calculated micro‑level properties to predict macro‑level properties. Boltzmann started a whole branch of Physics, Statistical Mechanics, devoted to carrying out that strategy. For instance, if we know enough about what happens when two gas molecules collide we can predict the speed of sound through the gas. Our solid‑state devices depend on macro‑level electric and optical phenomena that depend on micro‑level electron‑atom interactions.”

“Statistical?”

“As in, ‘we don’t know exactly how it’ll go but we can figure the odds…‘ Suppose we’re looking at air molecules and the micro process is a molecule moving. It could go left, right, up, down, towards or away from you like the six sides of a die. Once it’s gone left, what are the odds it’ll reverse course?”

“About 16%, like rolling a die to get a one.”

“You know your odds. Now roll that die again. What’s the odds of snake‑eyes?”

“16% of 16%, that’s like 3 outa 100.”

“There’s a kajillion molecules in the room. Roll the die a kajillion times. What are the odds all the air goes to one wall?”

“So close to zero it ain’t gonna happen.”

“And Boltzmann’s Statistical Mechanics explained why not.”

“Knowing about one molecule predicts a kajillion. Pretty good.”

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, looking South
Photo by Rich Niewiroski Jr. / CC BY 2.5

~~ Rich Olcott

Breaking Up? Not So Hard

<transcript of smartphone dictation by Sy Moire, hard‑boiled physicist>
Day 173 of self‑isolation….
Perfect weather for a brisk solitary walk, taking the park route….
There’s the geese. No sign of Mr Feder, just as well….

Still thinking about Ms Baird and her plan for generating electric power from a black hole named Lonesome….
Can just hear Vinnie if I ever told him about this which I can’t….
“Hey, Sy, nothin’ gets out of a black hole except gravity, but she’s using Lonesome‘s magnetic field to generate electricity which is electromagnetic. How’s that happen?”
Good question….

Hhmph, that’s one angry squirrel….
Ah, a couple of crows pecking the ground under its tree. Maybe they’re too close to its acorn stash….

We know a black hole’s only measurable properties are its mass, charge and spin….
And maybe its temperature, thanks to Stephen Hawking….
Its charge is static — hah! cute pun — wouldn’t support continuous electrical generation….
The Event Horizon hides everything inside — we can’t tell if charge moves around in there or even if it’s matter or anti‑matter or something else….
The no‑hair theorem says there’s no landmarks or anything sticking out of the Event Horizon so how do we know the thing’s even spinning?

Ah, we know a black hole’s external structures — the jets, the Ergosphere belt and the accretion disk — rotate because we see red- and blue-shifted radiation from them….
The Ergosphere rotates in lockstep with Lonesome‘s contents because of gravitational frame-dragging….
Probably the disk and the jets do, too, but that’s only a strong maybe….
But why should the Ergosphere’s rotation generate a magnetic field?

How about Newt Barnes’ double‑wheel idea — a belt of charged light‑weight particles inside a belt of opposite‑charged heavy particles all embedded in the Ergosphere and orbiting at the black hole’s spin rate….
Could such a thing exist? Can simple particle collisions really split the charges apart like that?….

OK, fun problem for strolling mental arithmetic. Astronomical “dust” particles are about the size of smoke particles and those are about a micrometer across which is 10‑6 meter so the volume’s about (10‑6)3=10‑18 cubic meter and the density’s sorta close to water at 1 gram per cubic centimeter or a thousand kilograms per cubic meter so the particle mass is about 10‑18×103=10‑15 kilogram. If a that‑size particle collided with something and released just enough kinetic energy to knock off an electron, how fast was it going?

Ionization energy for a hydrogen atom is 13 electronvolts, so let’s go for a collision energy of at least 10 eV. Good old kinetic energy formula is E=½mv² but that’s got to be in joules if we want a speed in meters per second so 10 eV is, lemme think, about 2×10‑18 joules/particle. So is 2×2×10‑18/10‑15 which is 4×10‑3 or 40×10‑4, square root of 40 is about 6, so v is about 6×10‑2 or 0.06 meters per second. How’s that compare with typical speeds near Lonesome?

Ms Baird said that Lonesome‘s mass is 1.5 Solar masses and it’s isolated from external gravity and electromagnetic fields. So anything near it is in orbit and we can use the circular orbit formula v²=GM/r….
Dang, don’t remember values for G or M. Have to cheat and look up the Sun’s GM product on Old Reliable….
Ah-hah, 1.3×1020 meters³/second so Lonesome‘s is also near 1020….
A solar‑mass black hole’s half‑diameter is about 3 kilometers so Lonesome‘s would be about 5×103 meters. Say we’re orbiting at twice that so r‘s around 104 meters. Put it together we get v2=1020/104=1016 so v=108 meters/sec….
Everything’s going a billion times faster than 10 eV….
So yeah, no problem getting charged dust particles out there next to Lonesome….

Just look at the color in that tree…
Weird when you think about it. The really good color is summertime chlorophyll green when the trees are soaking up sunlight and turning CO2 into oxygen for us but people get excited about dying leaves that are red or yellow…

Well, now. Lonesome‘s Event Horizon is the no-going-back point on the way to its central singularity which we call infinity because its physics are beyond anything we know. I’ve just closed out another decade of my life, another Event Horizon on my own one‑way path to a singularity…

Hey! Mr Feder! Come ask me a question to get me out of this mood.

Author’s note — Yes, ambient radiation in Lonesome‘s immediate vicinity probably would account for far more ionization than physical impact, but this was a nice exercise in estimation and playing with exponents and applied physical principles.

~~ Rich Olcott

Big Bang│Gnab Gib?

Anne’s an experienced adventurer, but almost exploding the Earth when she tried transporting herself into an anti‑Universe was a jolt. It takes her a while to calm down. Fortunately, I’m there to help. <long soothing pause> “Sy, I promise that’s one direction I’ll never ‘push’ to go again.”

“No reason to go there and big reasons not to. <long friendly pause> Hmm. You’ve told me that when you use your superpower to go somewhere, you can feel whether there’d be a wall or something in the way. That’s how you know to get to a safer location before you ‘push.’ Didn’t you get that feeling before you went to meet anti‑Anne?”

“No, it felt just like just any other ‘push.’ Why?”

“I’m curious. Could you feel for just a second in the direction opposite to anti‑Anne? For Heaven sake don’t go there! Just look, OK?”

“All right … <shiver> Now, that’s weird. There’s nothing there, except there’s not even a there there, if you know what I mean.”

“I think I do, and you’ve just given us one more clue to where you almost went. Whoa, no more shivering, you’re back here safe where there’s normal matter and real locations, OK? <another soothing pause> That’s better. So, I was assuming a binary situation, an anti‑Universe obeying a Charge‑Parity‑Time symmetry that’s exactly the reverse of ours. The math allows only the two possibilities. You observed ‘no there there’ when you tried for a third option. That’s support for the assumption.”

“How could we have even two Universes?”

“It goes back to the high‑energy turmoil at the Big Bang’s singularity. Symmetry says the chaos in the singularity should have generated as many anti‑atoms, umm, as many positrons and anti‑protons, as their normal equivalents.”

“Positrons?”

“Anti‑electrons. Long story. The big puzzle is, where did those anti‑guys go? One proposal that’s been floating around is that while normal matter and our normal CPT symmetry expanded from the singularity to make our Universe, the anti‑matter and reversed symmetry expanded in some kind of opposite direction to make the anti‑Universe. You may have found that direction. Here, I’ll do a quick sketch on Old Reliable.”

“Looks like some of the banged‑up painted‑up battle shields I saw a thousand years ago.”

“It does, a little. Over on the top left is our normal‑matter Universe with galaxies and all, expanding out of the singularity at time zero. Time runs vertically upward from that point. I can’t draw three spatial dimensions so just one expanding sideways will have to do, OK?”

“No problem, I do x‑y‑z‑t thinking all the time when I use my superpower.”

“Of course you do. Well, coming down out of the singularity into minus‑time we’ve got the anti‑Universe. I’ve reversed the color scheme because why not, although I expect their colors would look exactly like ours because we know that photons are their own anti‑particles and should behave the same in both Universes.”

“They do. Anti‑Anne looked just like me, white satin and all.”

“Excellent, another clue. Anyway, see how minus‑time increases in the negative direction as the anti‑Universe expands just like plus‑time increases positively for us?”

“Mmm, yeah, but we only call them minus and plus because we’re standing outside of both of them. Looking from the inside, I’d say time in each increases towards expansion.”

“Good insight, you’re way ahead of me. That’s what I’ve drawn on the right side of the sketch. The two are perfectly equivalent except for CPT and anti‑CPT. Time direction, x‑y‑z space directions, even spin orientation, can all be made parallel between the two. However, the charges are reversed. Anti‑Anne’s atoms have positrons where we have electrons, negative anti‑protons where we have positive protons. When anti‑matter meets matter, there’s massive energy release from equivalent charged particles neutralizing each other.”

“Wait. Gravity. Wouldn’t anti‑matter particles repel each other? Your picture has galaxies and they couldn’t grow up with everything backwards.”

“Nope, you’re carrying this model too far. The only thing that’s reversed is charge. Masses work the same in each symmetry. Gravity pays attention to mass, not charge, and it’s always a force of attraction.”

“Anyway, not going back there.”

“Good.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Engineering A Black Hole

<bomPAH-dadadadaDEEdah> That weird ringtone on Old Reliable again. Sure enough, the phone function’s caller-ID display says 710‑555‑1701.  “Ms Baird, I presume?”

A computerish voice, aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation. “Commander Baird will be with you shortly, Mr Moire. Please hold.”

A moment later, “Hello, Mr Moire.”

“Ms Baird. Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Thank you, Mr Moire. I owe you for that.”

“How so?”

“Your posts about phase-based weaponry got me thinking. I assembled a team, we demonstrated a proof of concept and now Federation ships are being equipped with the Baird‑Prymaat ShieldSaw. Works a treat on Klingon and Romulan shielding. So thank you.”

“My pleasure. Where are you now?”

“I’m on a research ship called the Invigilator. We’re orbiting black hole number 77203 in our catalog. We call it ‘Lonesome‘.”

“Why that name?”

“Because there’s so little other matter in the space nearby. The poor thing barely has an accretion disk.”

“Sounds boring.”

“No, it’s exciting, because it’s so close to a theoretical ideal. It’s like the perfectly flat plane and the frictionless pulley — in real life there are always irregularities that the simple equations can’t account for. For black holes, our only complete solutions assume that the collapsed star is floating in an empty Universe with no impinging gravitational or electromagnetic fields. That doesn’t happen, of course, but Lonesome comes close.”

“But if we understand the theoretical cases and it nearly matches one, why bother with it at all?”

“Engineering reasons.”

“You’re engineering a black hole?”

“In a way, yes. Or at least that’s what we’re working on. We think we have a way to extract power from a black hole. It’ll supply inexhaustible cheap energy for a new Star Fleet anti‑matter factory. “

“I thought the only thing that could escape a black hole’s Event Horizon was Hawking radiation, and it cheats.”

“Gravity escapes honestly. Its intense field generates some unexpected effects. Your physicist Roger Penrose used gravity to explain the polar jets that decorate so many compact objects including black holes. He calculated that if a comet or an atom or something else breakable shatters when it falls into a spinning compact object’s gravitational field, some pieces would be trapped there but under the right conditions other pieces would slingshot outward with more energy than they had going in. In effect, the extra energy would come from the compact object’s angular momentum.”

“And that’s what you’re planning to do? How are you going to trap the expelled pieces?”

“No, that’s not what we’re planning. Too random to be controlled with our current containment field technology. We’re going pure electromagnetic, turning Lonesome into a giant motor‑generator. We know it has a stable magnetic field and it’s spinning rapidly. We’ll start by giving Lonesome some close company. There’s enough junk in its accretion disk for several Neptune‑sized planets. The plan is to use space tugs to haul in the big stuff and Bussard technology for the dust, all to assemble a pair of Ceres-sized planetoids. W’re calling them Pine and Road. We’ll park them in a convenient equatorial orbit in a Lagrange‑stable configuration so Pine, Road and Lonesome stay in a straight line.”

“Someone’s been doing research on old cinema.”

“The Interstellar Movie Database. Anyhow, when the planetoids are out there we string conducting tractor beams between them. If we locate Pine and Road properly, Lonesome’s rotating magnetic field lines will cross the fields at right angles and induce a steady electric current. Power for the anti‑matter synthesizers.”

“Ah, so like Penrose’s process you’re going to drain off some of Lonesome‘s rotational kinetic energy. Won’t it run out?”

Lonesome‘s mass is half again heavier than your Sun’s, Mr Moire. It’ll spin for a long, long time.”

“Umm … that ‘convenient orbit.’ Lonesome‘s diameter is so small that orbits will be pretty speedy. <calculating quickly with Old Reliable> Even 200 million kilometers away you’d circle Lonesome in less than 15 minutes. Will the magnetic field that far out be strong enough for your purposes?”

“Almost certainly so, but the gravimagnetodynamic equations don’t have exact solutions. We’re not going to know until we get there.”

“That’s how research works, all right. Good luck.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Edges of The Universe

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Um, Uncle Sy?”

“Hi, Teena! I didn’t know you knew my phone number. It’s past your bedtime. How are you? Is everything OK?”

“I’m fine. Mommie dialed you for me. I had a question she said you could answer better than her and that would be my bedtime story.”

“Your Mommie’s a very smart person in several ways. What’s your question?”

“Where’s the edge of the Universe?”

“Whoa! Where’d that question come from?”

“Well, I was lying on my bed and I thought, the edge of me is my skin and the edge of my room is the walls and the edge of our block is the street but I don’t know what any of the bigger edges are so I asked Mommie and she said to ask you. She’s writing something.”

“Of course she is. One answer is you’re smack on an edge, but some people think that’s a wrong answer so let’s talk about all the edges, OK?”

“On an edge??!? I’m in the middle of my bed.”

“Hey, I heard you sit up. Lie back down, this is supposed to be a bedtime story so we’re supposed to be calm, OK? All right, now. Once upon a time —”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Now hush and let me start. Once upon a time, people thought that the sky was a solid bowl or maybe a curtain that came down all the way to meet the Earth just over the horizon, and that was the edge of the Universe. But then people started traveling and they realized that the horizon moved when they did.”

“Like rainbows.”

“Exactly like rainbows. Eventually they’d traveled everywhere they could walk. As they went they made maps. According to the maps, the world they knew about was surrounded by ocean so the edge of the Universe was the ocean.”

“Except for Moana’s people that crossed the ocean.”

“Right, but even they only went from island to island. Their version of a map was as flat as the paper maps the European and Chinese explorers used.”

“But the world is really round like my world ball.”

“Yes, it is. It took humans a long time to accept that, because it meant their world couldn’t be all there is. A round world would have to float in space. Think about this — what’s the edge of our world?”

“Umm … the air?”

“Very good, sweetie. Way up, 60 miles high, the air gets so thin that we call that height the Edge of Space.”

“That’s the inside edge of space. Where’s the outside edge of space?”

“It’s moved outward as our astronomers have gotten better at looking far away. For a long time they thought that the outermost stars in our Milky Way galaxy marked the edge of the Universe. Then an astronomer named Edwin Hubble—”

“Oh, like the Hubble Space Telescope that made the pretty pictures in my ‘Stronomy book!”

“Mm-hm, the Hubble was named for him because he did such important work. Anyway, he showed that what people thought were stardust clouds inside the Milky Way were actually other galaxies like ours but far, far away. With the Hubble and other telescopes we’ve pushed out our known Universe to … I don’t even know the name of such a big number.”

“So that’s the edge?”

“We don’t think so, but we don’t know. Maybe space and galaxies go on forever, maybe galaxies peter out but space goes on, maybe something weird. But there’s a special ‘direction’ that we think does have an edge, maybe two.”

<yawn> “What’s that?”

“Time. One edge was the Big Bang, fourteen billion years ago. We’re pretty sure of that one. The scientists and philosophers argue about whether there’s another edge.”

“Wouldn’t jus’ be f’rever?”

“Mr Einstein thought it would. In fact, he thought that the future is as solidly real as the past is and we’re just watching from the windows of a train rolling along the time tracks.”

“Don’ like that, wanna do diffren’ things.”

“Me, too, sweetie. I prefer the idea that the future doesn’t exist yet; we’re on the front edge of time, building as we go. Dream about that, OK?”

“Okayyyyyy

~~ Rich Olcott

To Swerve And Project

A crisp Fall dawn, crisp fallen leaves under my feet as I jog the path by the park’s lake.

“Hey! Moire! How about these red sunrises and sunsets? Remind you of Mars?”

“Morning, Mr Feder. Not much, and definitely not dawn or dusk. Those tend more to blue, as a matter of fact.”

“Waitaminnit, Moire. I seen that Brad Pitt Martian movie, him driving hisself all alone across that big plain — the place is blood‑red.”

“Think a minute, Mr Feder. If he was all alone, who was running the cameras?”

“Uhhh, right. Movie. Yeah, they were really on Earth so they could director the lighting and all. But they said they’d scienced the … heck out of it.”

“Oh they did, better than most movies, but artistic license took over in a couple of places. People expect Mars to be red, not mostly clay colored like it really is, so the producers served up red.”

“Wait, I remember the conversation about Earth is blue because of the oceans and Mars is red because of its rusty atmosphere. So what’s with the sky colors?”

“Looking up at sunlight through an atmosphere is very different from looking down at the surface. It all has to do with how what’s in the atmosphere interacts with sunlight. Take Earth’s blue sky, for instance.”

“My favorite color.”

“Sure it is. OK, the Sun’s disk takes up much less than 1% of the sky but that’s enough to give us all our sunlight photons. A fraction of them run into something on the way down to Earth’s surface. What happens depends on how big the something is compared to the photon wavelength. Much larger things, maybe an airplane, completely block the photons and we get a shadow.”

“Obviously.”

“Yeah, but life’s more interesting for smaller somethings. For things like air molecules and dust particles that are much smaller than the the wavelength of visible light, the waves generally swerve around the particle. How much they swerve depends on the wavelength — extreme blue light bends about ten times more than extreme red light for the same scattering particle. So suppose there’s a kid a few miles away from us looking at the sky while we’re looking at it here. There’s a sunbeam with a rainbow‑load of photons headed for the kid, but there are dust particles in the way. Get the picture?”

“Sure, sure, get on with it.”

“So some of the light swerves. The red swerves a little but the blue light swerves ten times as much, enough that it heads straight for us. What color do we see when we look in that direction?”

“Blue, of course.”

“Blue everywhere in the lit‑up sky except when we look straight at the Sun.”

“What about these pretty red sunsets and the red skies over the wildfires?”

“Two different but related phenomena. Sunsets first. An incoming photon with just the right wavelength may simply be absorbed by a molecule. Doesn’t happen often, but there’s lots of molecules. Turns out that oxygen and ozone absorb blue light more strongly than red light. When we’re looking horizontally towards a sunset we’re looking through many more oxygen molecules than when we look vertically. We see the red part of a blue‑filtered version of that swerve rainbow.”

“And the fire skies?”

“The fires released huge amounts of fine smoke particles, just the right size for color‑scattering. Blue light swerves again and again until it’s either absorbed or shot out to space. Red light survives.”

Upper image – Golden Gate Bay under fiery skies, Sept 2020
Lower image – Sunset from Gusev Crater, Mars
Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

“So what’s different about Mars?”

“Three things — Mars dust is different from Earth’s, its atmosphere is a lot thinner, and there’s practically no atmospheric water or oxygen. Rusty Mars dust is the size of smoke particles. With no rain or snow to settle out the dust, it stays aloft all the time. Rust is red because it absorbs blue light and reflects only the red part. With less diffused sunlight, Mars’ sky is basically the black of space overlaid with a red tint. Sunsets are blue‑ish because what blue light there is can travel further.”

“Earth skies are better.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Traffic Control

Jeremy Yazzie @jeremyaz
hi @symoire, this is jeremy. ive been reading about the osiris‑rex mission to astrroid bennu and how they’re bringing back a sample – so complicated – fancy robot arm, n2 squirter, air‑cleaner thingy – y not just vacuum the dust or pick up a rock?


Sy Moire @symoire
@jeremyaz – quick answer is that Bennu and OSIRIS-REx are already surrounded by the vacuum of space. Sample collectors can’t suck any harder that that. I’ll email you a more complete answer later


Hi, Sy, can you believe this weather? Temps last week were twice today’s high.

Not to a physicist, Sis.
Those 90s and today’s 45 are just Fahrenheit
scale numbers.
Can’t do ratios between them, “twice” does not compute.
I don’t suppose it would help if we went centigrade and said last week’s highs were around 35 and today it’s 5?

No, that’s worse, today’s down by 85% from last week.

Centigrade’s another scale you can’t do ratio arithmetic in. Kelvins is the way to go.
Temp in K tracks the average molecular kinetic energy.
Starts at zero where nothing’s moving and rises in proportion.
Last week’s highs ran around 308 K, today is 278 K.
Today we’re only 10% cooler than last week.

Physicists! Grrrr. However you measure the weather, it still feels cold. No picnic this weekend ;^(


From: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
To: Jeremy Yazzie <jeremyaz@college.edu>
Subj: OSIRIS-REx

Jeremy –

OK, now I’m back at the office I’ve got better tech for writing long answers.

First, the “grab a rock” idea has several issues

  • If you pick up a rock, you only have that rock, says nothing about any of its neighbors or the subsurface material it might have smacked into. Dust should be a much better representation of the whole asteroid.
  • The rock might not be willing to be picked up. When the scientists and engineers were planning the OSIRIS‑REx mission, they didn’t know Bennu’s texture — could be one solid rock or a bunch of middle‑size rocks firmly cemented together or a loose “rubble pile” of all‑size rocks and dust held together by gravity alone, or anything in between.
  • Have you ever played one of those arcade games where you try to pick up a toy with a suspended claw gadget and all you’ve got is a couple of control knobs and a button? Picking up a specific rock, even a willing one, is hard when you’re a robot operating 15 light‑minutes away from the home office.

So dust it is, but how to plan dust collection in low gravity when you know nothing about the texture? Something like a whisk broom and dust pan would work unless the surface is too uneven. Something like a drill or disk sander would be good, except to use either one you need a solid footing to work from or else you go spinning one way when the tool spins the other. (That was a problem on the International Space Station.) The Hayabusa2 mission to asteroid Ryugu used a high‑velocity impactor to create dust, but a bad ricochet or shrapnel could kill the OSIRIS‑REx mission. The planners decided that best alternative was puff‑and‑grab.

So why not an astronautical Roomba that just sucks in the dust? The thing about vacuum is that it’s a place where gas molecules aren’t. Suppose you’re a gas molecule. You’re surrounded by your buddies, all in motion and bouncing off of each other like on a crowded 3‑D dance floor. You stay more‑or‑less in place because you’re being hit more‑or‑less equally from every direction. Suddenly there’s a vacuum to one side. You’re not hit as much over there so that’s the direction you and a bunch of your buddies move. If you encounter a dust particle, it picks up your momentum and moves toward the emptiness where it could be trapped in somebody’s filter.

The planners decided to capture dust particles by entraining them in a flow of gas molecules through a filter. To make gas flow you need more gas on one side then the other. Gas molecules being few and far between in space, the obvious place to put your pusher gas is inside the filter. Hence the nitrogen squirt technique and the “air‑cleaner thingy.”

— Sy

Diagram of TAGSAM in operation
Adapted from asteroidmission.org/?attachment_id=1699
Credit: University of Arizona

~~ Rich Olcott