The Force(s) of Geometry

There’s a lot more to Geometry than congruent triangles.  Geometry can generate hurricanes and slam you to the floor.

It all starts (of course) with Newton.  His three laws boil down to

Effect is to Cause as Change of Motion is to Force.

They successfully account for the physical movement of pretty much everything bigger than an atom.  But sometimes the forces are a bit weird and it takes Geometry to understand them.

Side forceFor instance, suppose Fred and Ethel collaborate on a narwhale research project.  Fred is based in San Diego CA and Ethel works out of Norfolk VA. They fly to meet their research vessel at the North Pole. Fred’s plane follows the green track, Ethel’s plane follows the yellow one.  At the start of the trip, they’re on parallel paths going straight north (the dotted lines).  After a few hours, though, Ethel notices the two planes pulling closer together.

Ethel calls on her Newton knowledge to explain the phenomenon.  “It can’t be Earth’s gravity moving us together, because that force points down to Earth’s center and this is a sideways motion.  Our planes each weigh about 2000 kilograms and we’re still 2,000 kilometers apart.  By Newton’s F = G m1m2/r2 equation, the gravitational force between us should be (6.7×10-11 N m2/kg2) x (2000 kg) x (2000 kg) / (2,000 m)2 = 6.7×10-11 newtons, way too small to account for our speed of approach.  Both planes were electrically grounded when we fueled up, so we’re both carrying a neutral electric charge and it can’t be an electrostatic force.  If it were magnetic my compass would be going nuts and it’s not.  Woo-hoo, I’ve discovered a new kind of force!”

See what I did there?  Fred and Ethel would have stayed a constant distance apart if Earth were a cylinder.  Parallel lines running up a cylinder never meet.  But Earth is a sphere, not a cylinder.  Any pair of lines on a sphere must meet, sooner or later.  Ethel’s “sideways force” is a product of Geometry.

Images extracted from NOAA’s SOS Explorer app, available from

Hurricanes, too.  This video shows a day in the life of Hurricane Sandy.  Weather geeks will find several interesting details there, but for now just notice the centers of  counter-clockwise rotation (the one off the Florida coast is Sandy).  Storm centers in the Northern Hemisphere virtually always spin counterclockwise.  Funny thing is, in the Southern Hemisphere those centers go clockwise instead.

The difference has to do with angular momentum.  We could get all formal vector math here, but the easy way is to consider how fast the air is moving in different parts of the world.

We’ve all seen at least one ice show act where skaters form a spinning line. The last skater to join up (usually it’s a short girl) has to push like mad to catch the end of that moving line and everyone applauds her success. Meanwhile the tall girl at the center of the line is barely moving except to fend off dizziness.

YellowknifeThe line rotates as a unit — every skater completes a 360o rotation in the same time. Similarly, everywhere on Earth a day lasts for exactly 24 hours.

Skaters at the end of the line must skate faster than those further in because they have to cover a greater distance in the same amount of time.  The same geometry applies to Earth’s atmosphere.  The Earth is 25,000 miles around at the equator but only 12,500 miles around near the latitude of Whitehorse, Canada.  By and large, a blob of air at the equator must move twice as fast as a blob at 60o north.

chain 2Now suppose our speedy skater hits a slushy patch of ice.  Her end of the line is slowed down, so what happens to the rest of the line?  It deforms — there’s a new center of rotation that forces the entire line to curl around towards the slow spot.  Similarly, that blob near the Equator in the split-Earth diagram curls in the direction of the slower-moving air to its north, which is counter-clockwise.

In the Southern hemisphere, “slower” is southward and clockwise.

If not for Geometry (those differing circle sizes), we wouldn’t have hurricanes.  Or gravity — but that’s another story.

~~ Rich Olcott

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