Squeezing past Newton’s infinity

One of the most powerful moments in musical theater — Philip Quast Quastin his Les Miz role of Inspector Javert, praising the stars for the steadfastness and reverence for law that they signify for him.  The performance is well worth a listen.

Javert’s certitude came from Newton’s sublimely reliable mechanics — the notion that every star’s and planet’s motion is controlled by a single law, F~(1/r2).  The law says that the attractive force between any pair of bodies is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.  But as Javert’s steel-clad resolve hid a fatal spark of mercy towards Jean Valjean, so Newton’s clockworks hold catastrophe at their axles.

Newton’s gravity law has a problem.  As the distance approaches zero, the predicted force approaches infinity.  The law demands that nearby objects accelerate relentlessly at each other to collide with infinite force, after which their combined mass attracts other objects.  In time, everything must collapse in a reverse of The Big Bang.

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables about 180 years after Newton published his Principia.  A decade before Hugo’s book, Professeur Édouard Roche (pronounced rōsh) solved at least part of Newton’s problem.

Roche realized that Newton had made an important but crucial simplification.  Early in the Principia, he’d proven that for many purposes you can treat an entire object as though all of its mass were concentrated at a single point (the “center of mass”).  But in real gravity problems every particle of one object exerts an attraction for every particle of the other.

That distinction makes no difference when the two objects are far apart.  However, when they’re close together there are actually two opposing forces in play:

  • gravity, which preferentially affects the closest particles, and
  • tension, which maintains the integrity of each structure.

Binary star pair demonstrating Roche lobes, image courtesy of Cronodon.com

Roche noted that the gravity fields of any pair of objects must overlap.  There will always be a point on the line between them where a particle will be tugged equally in either direction.  If two bodies are close and one or both are fluid (gases and plasmas are fluid in this sense), the tension force is a weak competitor.  The partner with the less intense gravity field will lose material across that bridge to the other partner. Binary star systems often evolve by draining rather than collision.

Now suppose both bodies are solid.  Tension’s game is much stronger.  Nonetheless, as they approach each other gravity will eventually start ripping chunks off of one or both objects.  The only question is the size of the chunks — friable materials like ices will probably yield small flakes, as opposed to larger lumps made from silicates and other rocky materials.  Roche described the final stage of the process, where the less-massive body shatters completely.  The famous rings of Saturn and the less famous rings of Neptune, Uranus and Jupiter all appear to have been formed by this mechanism.

Roche was even able to calculate how close the bodies need to be for that final stage to occur. The threshold, now called the Roche Limit, depends on the size and mass of each body. You can get more detail here.

Klingon3And then there’s spaghettification.  That’s a non-relativistic tidal phenomenon that occurs near an extremely dense body like a neutron star or a black hole.  Because these objects pack an enormous amount of mass into a very small volume, the force of gravity at a close-in point is significantly greater than the force just a little bit further out. Any object, say a Klingon Warbird that ignored peril markings on a space map (Klingons view warnings as personal challenges), would find itself stretched like a noodle between high gravity on the side near the black hole and lower gravity on the opposite side.  (In this cartoon, notice how the stretching doesn’t care which way the pin-wheeling ship is pointed.)

Nature abhors singularities.  Where a mathematical model like Newton’s gravity law predicts an infinity, Nature generally says, “You forgot something.”  Newton assumed that objects collide as coherent units.  Real bodies drain, crumble, or deform to slide together.  Look to the apparent singularities to find new physics.

~~ Rich Olcott


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