Maybe It’s Just A Coincidence

Raucous laughter from the back room at Al’s coffee shop, which, remember, is situated on campus between the Physics and Astronomy buildings. It’s Open Mic night and the usual crowd is there. I take a vacant chair which just happens to be next to the one Susan Kim is in. “Oh, hi, Sy. You just missed a good pitch. Amanda told a long, hilarious story about— Oh, here comes Cap’n Mike.”

Mike’s always good for an offbeat theory. “Hey, folks, I got a zinger for you. It’s the weirdest coincidence in Physics. Are you ready?” <cheers from the physicists in the crowd> “Suppose all alone in the Universe there’s a rock and a planet and the rock is falling straight in towards the planet.” <turns to Al’s conveniently‑placed whiteboard> “We got two kinds of energy, right?”

Potential Energy    Kinetic Energy

Nods across the room except for Maybe-an-Art-major and a couple of Jeremy’s groupies. “Right. Potential energy is what you get from just being where you are with things pulling on you like the planet’s gravity pulls on the rock. Kinetic energy is what potential turns into when the pulls start you moving. For you Physics smarties, I’m gonna ignore temperature and magnetism and maybe the rock’s radioactive and like that, awright? So anyway, we know how to calculate each one of these here.”

PE = GMm/R    KE = ½mv²

“Big‑G is Newton’s gravitational constant, big‑M is the planet’s mass, little‑m is the rock’s mass, big‑R is how far apart the things are, and little‑v is how fast the rock’s going. They’re all just numbers and we’re not doing any complicated calculus or relativity stuff, OK? OK, to start with the rock is way far away so big‑R is huge. Big number on the bottom makes PE’s fraction tiny and we can call it zero. At the same time, the rock’s barely moving so little‑v and KE are both zero, close enough. Everybody with me?”

More nods, though a few of the physics students are looking impatient.

“Right, so time passes and the rock dives faster toward the planet Little‑v and kinetic energy get bigger. Where’s the energy coming from? Gotta be potential energy. But big‑R on the bottom gets smaller so the potential energy number gets, wait, bigger. That’s OK because that’s how much potential energy has been converted. What I’m gonna do is write the conversion as an equation.

GMm/R=½mv²

“So if I tell you how far the rock is from the planet, you can work the equation to tell me how fast it’s going and vice-versa. Lemme show those straight out…”

v=(2GM/R)    R=2GM/v²

Some physicist hollers out. “The first one’s escape velocity.”

“Good eye. The energetics are the same going up or coming down, just in the opposite direction. One thing, there’s no little‑m in there, right? The rock could be Jupiter or a photon, same equations apply. Suppose you’re standing on the planet and fire the rock upward. If you give it enough little‑v speed energy to get past potential energy equals zero, then the rock escapes the planet and big‑R can be whatever it feels like. Big‑R and little‑v trade off. Is there a limit?”

A couple of physicists and an astronomy student see where this is going and start to grin.

“Newton physics doesn’t have a speed limit, right? They knew about the speed of light back then but it was just a number, you could go as fast as you wanted to. How about we ask how far the rock is from the planet when it’s going at the speed of light?”

R=2GM/

Suddenly Jeremy pipes up. “Hey that’s the Event Horizon radius. I had that in my black hole term paper.” His groupies go “Oooo.”

“There you go, Jeremy. The same equation for two different objects, from two different theories of gravity, by two different derivations.”

“But it’s not valid for lightspeed.”

“How so?”

“You divided both sides of your conversion equation by little‑m. Photons have zero mass. You can’t divide by zero.”

Everyone in the room goes “Oooo.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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