Gravity from Another Perspective

“OK, we’re looking at that robot next to the black hole and he looks smaller to us because of space compression down there.  I get that.  But when the robot looks back at us do we look bigger?”

We’re walking off a couple of Eddie’s large pizzas.  “Sorry, Mr Feder, it’s not that simple.  Multiple effects are in play but only two are magnifiers.”

“What isn’t?”

“Perspective for one.  That works the same in both directions — the image of an object shrinks in direct proportion to how far away it is.  Relativity has nothing to do with that principle.”

“That makes sense, but we’re talking black holes.  What does relativity do?”

“Several things, but it’s complicated.”

“Of course it is.”

“OK, you know the difference between General and Special Relativity?”

“Yeah, right, we learned that in kindergarten.  C’mon.”

“Well, the short story is that General Relativity effects depend on where you are and Special Relativity effects depend on how fast you’re going.  GR says that the scale of space is compressed near a massive object.  That’s the effect that makes our survey robot appear to shrink as it approaches a black hole.  GR leaves the scale of our space larger than the robot’s.  Robot looks back at us, factors out the effect of perspective, and reports that we appear to have grown.  But there’s the color thing, too.”

“Color thing?”

“Think about two photons, say 700-nanometer red light, emitted by some star on the other side of our black hole.  One photon slides past it.  We detect that one as red light.  The other photon hits our robot’s photosensor down in the gravity well.  What color does the robot see?”

“It’s not red, ’cause otherwise you wouldn’t’ve asked me the question.”

“Check.”

“Robot’s down there where space is compressed…  Does the lightwave get compressed, too?”

“Yup.  It’s called gravitational blue shift.  Like anything else, a photon heading towards a massive object loses gravitational potential energy.  Rocks and such make up for that loss by speeding up and gaining kinetic energy.  Light’s already at the speed limit so to keep the accounts balanced the photon’s own energy increases — its wavelength gets shorter and the color shifts blue-ward.  Depending on where the robot is, that once-red photon could look green or blue or even X-ray-colored.”

“So the robot sees us bigger and blue-ish like.”Robots and perspective and relativity 2“But GR’s not the only player.  Special Relativity’s in there, too.”

“Maybe our robot’s standing still.”

“Can’t, once it gets close enough.  Inside about 1½ diameters there’s no stable orbit around the black hole, and of course inside the event horizon anything not disintegrated will be irresistibly drawn inward at ever-increasing velocity.  Sooner or later, our poor robot is going to be moving at near lightspeed.”

“Which is when Special Relativity gets into the game?”

“Mm-hm.  Suppose we’ve sent in a whole parade of robots and somehow they maintain position in an arc so that they’re all in view of the lead robot.  The leader, we’ll call it RP-73, is deepest in the gravity well and falling just shy of lightspeed.  Gravity’s weaker further out — trailing followers fall slower.  When RP-73 looks back, what will it see?”

“Leaving aside the perspective and GR effects?  I dunno, you tell me.”

“Well, we’ve got another flavor of red-shift/blue-shift.  Speedy RP-73 records a stretched-out version of lightwaves coming from its slower-falling followers, so so it sees their colors shifted towards the red, just the opposite of the GR effect.  Then there’s dimming — the robots in the back are sending out n photons per second but because of the speed difference, their arrival rate at RP-73 is lower.  But the most interesting effect is relativistic aberration.”

“OK, I’ll bite.”

“Start off by having RP-73 look forward.  Going super-fast, it intercepts more oncoming photons than it would standing still.”

“Bet they look blue to it, and really bright.”

“Right on.  In fact, its whole field of view contracts towards its line of flight.  The angular distortion continues all the way around.  Rearward objects appear to swell.”

“So yeah, we’d look bigger.”

“And redder.  If RP-73 is falling fast enough.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Timothy Heyer for the question that inspired this post.
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