RIP, Dr Hawking

Today I depart from my normal schedule and the current story line and science line.  A giant has left us and I want to pay proper tribute.

Dr Stephen Hawking enjoyed telling people of his fortunate birth date, exactly 300 years after Galileo Galilei passed away.  He liked a good joke, and I think he’d be tickled with this additional connection to the man whose work made Hawking’s work possible:
RIP Hawking

The equation in the center of this cut is Hawking’s favorite result, which he wanted to be carved on his gravestone.  It links a black hole’s entropy (S) to its surface area (A).  The other letters denote a collection of constants that have been central to the development of theoretical Physics over the past century and a half:

  • k is Boltzmann’s constant, which links temperature with kinetic energy
  • c is the speed of light, the invariance of which led Einstein to Relativity
  • G is Newton’s universal gravitational constant
  • h is Planck’s constant, the “quantum of action”

Hawking spent much of his career thinking deeply about the implications of Einstein’s concepts.  Newton’s equations support excellent descriptions of everyday physical motions, from the fall of raindrops to the orbits of solar systems.  Einstein’s equations led to insights about conditions at the most extreme — velocities near lightspeed, masses millions of times the Sun’s but packed into a volume only a few dozen miles wide.

But Hawking also pondered extremes of the ultimately large and the ultimately small — the edge of the Universe and distances far smaller than atomic nuclei.  Because his physical condition prohibited speech or quick jottings, he was forced to develop extraordinary powers of concentration and visualization that enabled him to encapsulate in a few phrases insights that would take others books to develop and communicate.

Hawking wrote books, too, of course, of a quality and clarity that turned his name and Science into watchwords for the general public as well as the physics community.  By his life and how he lived it he was an inspiration to many, abled and otherwise.  Science needs its popularizers, though some in the field deprecate them as hangers-on.  Hawking managed to bridge that gap with ease and grace, a giant with standing on either side.

Requiescat in pace, Dr Hawking.  Thank you.

~~ Rich Olcott


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.”


“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.

A Perspective on Gravity

“I got another question, Moire.”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.”

“When someone’s far away they look smaller, right, and when someone’s standing near a black hole they look smaller, too.  How’s the black hole any different?”

“The short answer is, perspective depends on the distance between the object and you, but space compression depends on the distance between the object and the space-distorting mass.  The long answer’s more interesting.”

“And you’re gonna tell it to me, right?”

“Of course.  I never let a teachable moment pass by.  Remember the August eclipse?”

“Do I?  I was stuck in that traffic for hours.”

“How’s it work then?”

“The eclipse?  The Moon gets in front of the Sun and puts us in its shadow. ‘S weird how they’re both the same size so we can see the Sun’s corundum and protuberances.”

“Corona and prominences.  Is the Moon really the same size as the Sun?”

“Naw, I know better than that.  Like they said on TV, the Moon’s about ¼ the Earth’s width and the Sun’s about 100 times bigger than us.  It’s just they look the same size when they meet up.”

“So the diameter ratio is about 400-to-1.  Off the top of your head, do you know their distances from us?”

“Millions of miles, right?”

“Not so much, at least for the Moon.  It’s a bit less than ¼ of a million miles away.  The Sun’s a bit less than 100 million miles away.”

“I see where you’re going here — the distances are the same 400-to-1 ratio.”

“Bingo.  The Moon’s actual size is 400 times smaller than the Sun’s, but perspective reduces the Sun’s visual size by the same ratio and we can enjoy eclipses.  Let’s try another one.  To keep the arithmetic simple I’m going to call that almost-100-million-mile distance an Astronomical Unit.  OK?”

“No problemo.”

“Jupiter’s diameter is about 10% of the Sun’s, and Jupiter is about 5 AUs away from the Sun.  How far behind Jupiter would we have to stand to get a nice eclipse?”

“Oh, you’re making me work, too, huh?  OK, I gotta shrink the Sun by a factor of 10 to match the size of Jupiter so we gotta pull back from Jupiter by the same factor of 10 times its distance from the Sun … fifty of those AUs.”

“You got it.  And by the way, that 55 AU total is just outside the farthest point of Pluto’s orbit.  It took the New Horizons spacecraft nine years to get there.  Anyhow, perspective’s all about simple ratios and proportions, straight lines all the way.  So … on to space compression, which isn’t.”

“We’re not going to do calculus, are we?”

“Nope, just some algebra.  And I’m going to simplify things just a little by saying that our black hole doesn’t spin and has no charge, and the object we’re watching, say a survey robot, is small relative to the black hole’s diameter.  Of course, it’s also completely outside the event horizon or else we couldn’t see it.  With me?”

“I suppose.”

“OK, given all that, suppose the robot’s as-built height is h and it’s a distance r away from the geometric center of an event horizon’s sphere.  The radius of the sphere is rs.  Looking down from our spaceship we’d see the robot’s height h’ as something smaller than h by a factor that depends on r.  There’s a couple of different ways to write the factor.  The formula I like best is h’=h√[(r-rs)/r].”

“Hey, (r-rs) inside the brackets is the robot’s distance to the event horizon.”

“Well-spotted, Mr Feder.  We’re dividing that length by the distance from the event horizon’s geometric center.  If the robot’s far away so that r>>rs, then (r-rs)/r is essentially 1.0 and h’=h.  We and the robot would agree on its height.  But as the robot closes in, that ratio really gets small.  In our frame the robot’s shrinking even though in its frame its height doesn’t change.”

“We’d see it getting smaller because of perspective, too, right?”

“Sure, but toward the end relativity shrinks the robot even faster than perspective does.”

“Poor robot.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Carol, who inspired this post by asking Mr Feder’s question but in more precise form.

Shopping The Old Curiosity

“Still got questions, Moire.”

“This’ll be your last shot this year, Mr Feder.  What’s the question?”

“They say a black hole absorbs all the light that falls on it. But the theory of blackbody radiation says a perfect absorber is also a perfect radiator. Emission should be an exact opposite flow to the incoming flow in every direction. Wouldn’t a black hole be shiny like a ball bearing?”Black hole as ball bearing 1
“A perfectly good question, but with crucial imperfections. Let’s start with the definition of a perfect absorber — it’s an object that doesn’t transmit or reflect any light. Super-black, in other words. So by definition it can’t be a mirror.”

“OK, maybe not a mirror, but the black hole has to send out some kind of exact opposite light to balance the arriving light.”

“Yes, but not in the way you think. Blackbody theory does include the assumption that the object is in equilibrium, your ‘exact opposite flow.’ The object must indeed send out as much energy as it receives, otherwise it’d heat up or cool down. But the outbound light doesn’t necessarily have to be at the same frequencies as the inbound light had. In fact, it almost never will.”

“How come not?”

“Because absorption and emission are two different processes and they play by different rules. If we’re including black holes in the discussion there are four different processes. No, five.  Maybe six.”

“I’m listening.”

“Good. Blackbody first. When a photon is absorbed by regular matter, it affects the behavior of some electron in there. Maybe it starts spending more time in a different part of the molecule, maybe it moves faster — one way or another, the electron configuration changes and that pulls the atomic nuclei away from where they were and the object’s atoms wobble differently. So the photon raises the object’s internal kinetic energy, which means raising its temperature, and we’ve got energy absorption, OK?”

“Yeah, and…?”

“At some later time, to keep things in equilibrium that additional energy has to be gotten rid of. But you can’t just paint one bit of energy red, say it’s special and follow it until it’s emitted. The whole molecule or crystal or whatever has excess energy as the result of all the incoming photons. When the total gets high enough, something has to give.  The object emits some photons to get rid of some of the excess. The only thing you can say about the outbound photons is that they generally have a lower energy than the incoming ones.”

“Why’s that?”

“Think of a bucket that’s brim-full and you’re dumping in cupfuls of water. Unless you’re pouring slowly and carefully, the dribbles escaping over the bucket’s rim will generally be many small amounts sloshing out more often than those cupfuls come in.  For light that’s fluorescence.”

“I suppose. What about the black hole?”

“The problem with a black hole is the mystery of what’s inside its event horizon. It probably doesn’t contain matter in the form of electrons and nuclei but we don’t know. There are fundamental reasons why information about what’s inside can’t leak out to us. All we can say is that when a light wave encounters a black hole, it’s trapped by the intense gravity field and its energy increments the black hole’s mass.  The mechanism … who knows?”

“Like I said, it gets absorbed. And gets emitted as Hawking radiation.”

“Sorry, that’s exactly what doesn’t happen. Hawking radiation arises from a different pair of processes. Process 1 generates pairs of virtual particles, which could be photons, electrons or something heavier. That happens at a chaotic but steady rate throughout the Universe.  Usually the particle pairs get back together and annihilate.  However, right next to the black hole’s event horizon there’s Process 2, in which one member of a virtual pair flies inward and the other member flies outward as a piece of Hawking radiation. Neither process even notices incoming photons. That’s not mirroring or even fluorescence.”

“Phooey, it was a neat idea.”

“That it was, but facts.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to lifeisthermal for inspiring this post.
  • Thus endeth a full year of Sy Moire stories.  I hope you enjoyed them.  Here’s to a new year and new ideas for all.

At The Old Curiosity Shop

An imposing knock at the door, both impetuous and imperious.  I figured it for an Internet denizen.  “C’mon in, the door’s open.”

“You’re Moire?”

“I am.  And you are..?”

“The name’s Feder, Richard Feder, from Fort Lee, NJ.  I’m a stand-in for some of your commenters.”

“Ah, the post of business past.  You have a question?”

“Yeah.  How come hot water can freeze faster than cold water?”

“That’s really two questions. The first is, ‘Can hot water freeze faster than cold water?’ and the second is, ‘How come?‘  To the surprise of a lot of physicists, the experimental answer to the first question is, ‘Yes, sometimes.‘  But it’s only sometimes and even that depends on how you define freeze.”

“What’s to define?  Frozen is frozen.”

“Not so fast.  Are we talking surface ice formation, or complete solidification, or maybe just descent to freezing temperature?  Three very different processes.  There’s multiple reports of anomalous behavior for each one, but many of the reports have been contested by other researchers.  Lots of explanations, too.  The situation reminds me of Anne’s Elephant.”

“Why an elephant?  And who’s Anne?”

“Remember the old story about the blind men trying to figure out an elephant?  The guy touching its trunk said it’s a snake, the one at its side said it’s a wall, the dude at its leg said it’s a tree, and so on?  The descriptions differed because each observer had limited knowledge of something complicated.  This chilled-water issue is like that — irreproducible experiments because of uncontrolled unknown variables, mostly maybes on the theory side because we’re still far from a fundamental understanding.”

“Who’s Anne?”

“Anne is … an experience.  I showed her how the notion of Entropy depends on how you look at it.  Scientists have looked at this paradoxical cooling effect pretty much every way you can think of, trying to rule out various hypotheses.  Different teams have both found and not found the anomaly working with distilled water and with tap water, large amounts and small, in the open air and in sealed containers, in glass or metal containers, with and without stirring, with various pre-washing regimens or none, using a variety of initial and final temperatures.  They’ve clocked the first appearance of surface ice and complete opacity of the bulk.  They’ve tracked temperature’s trajectory in the middle of the container or near its wall… you name it.  My favorite observation was the 20th Century’s first-published one — in 1963 Erasto Mpemba noticed the effect while preparing ice cream.”

“What flavor?  Never mind.  Is there a verdict?”

“Vaguely.  Once you get approximately the right conditions, whether or not you see the effect seems to be a matter of chance.  The more sophisticated researchers have done trials in the hundreds and then reported percentages, rather than just ‘we see it’ or not.  Which in itself is interesting.”many elephants

“How’s that?”

“Well, to begin with, the percents aren’t zero.  That answers your first question — warm water sometimes does freeze faster than cold.  Better yet, the variability tells us that the answer to your second question is at the nanoscopic level.  Macroscopic processes, even chemical ones, have statistics that go the same way all the time.  Put a lit match to gasoline in air, you’ll always get a fire.  But if you set out 100 teaspoons of water under certain conditions and 37 of them freeze and the others don’t, something very unusual must be going on that starts with just a few molecules out of the 10²³ in those teaspoons.”

“Weird odds.”

This experiment’s even more interesting.  You’ve got two bottles of water.  You heat up bottle A and let it cool to room temperature.  B‘s been at room temperature all along.  You put ’em both in the fridge and track their temperatures.  A cools quicker.”

“That’s where I came in.”

“Both start at the same temperature, finish at the same temperature, and their Joules-per-second energy-shedding rates should be the same.  A cools in less time so A releases less heat.  Entropy change is released heat energy divided by temperature.  Somehow, bottle A went into the fridge with less entropy than B had.  Why?  We don’t really know.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • – Thanks to Ilias Tirovolas, whose paper inspired this post.

Meanwhile, back at the office

Closing time.  Anne and I stroll from Al’s coffee shop back to the Acme Building.  It’s a clear night with at least 4,500 stars, but Anne’s looking at the velvet black between them.

“What you said, Sy, about the Universe not obeying Conservation of Energy — tell me more about that.”

“Aaa-hmmm … OK.  You’ve heard about the Universe expanding, right?”

“Ye-es, but I don’t know why that happens.”

“Neither do the scientists, but there’s pretty firm evidence that it’s happening, if only at the longest scales.  Stars within galaxies get closer together as they radiate away their gravitational energy.  But the galaxies themselves are getting further apart, as far out as we can measure.”

“What’s that got to do with Conservation of Energy?”

“Well, galaxies have mass so they should be drawn together by gravity the way that gravity pulls stars together inside galaxies.  But that’s not what’s happening.  Something’s actively pushing galaxies or galaxy clusters away from each other.  Giving the something a name like ‘dark energy‘ is just an accounting gimmick to pretend the First Law is still in effect at very large distances — we don’t know the energy source for the pushing, or even if there is one.  There’s a separate set of observations we attribute to a ‘dark energy‘ that may or may not have the same underlying cause.  That’s what I was talking about.”Fading white satin

We’re at the Acme Building.  I flash my badge to get us past Security and into the elevator.  As I reach out to press the ’12’ button she puts her hand on my arm.  “Sy, I want to see if I understand this entropy-elephant thing.  You said entropy started as an accounting gimmick, to help engineers keep track of fuel energy escaping into the surroundings.  Energy absorbed at one temperature they called the environment’s heat capacity.  Total energy absorbed over a range of temperatures, divided by the difference in temperature, they called change in entropy.”

The elevator lets us out on my floor and we walk to door 1217.  “You’ve got it right so far, Anne.  Then what?”

“Then the chemists realized that you can predict how lots of systems will work from only knowing a certain set of properties for the beginning and end states.  Pressure, volume, chemical composition, whatever, but also entropy.  But except for simple gases they couldn’t predict heat capacity or entropy, only measure it.”

My key lets us in.  She leans back against the door frame.  “That’s where your physicists come in, Sy.  They learned that heat in a substance is actually the kinetic energy of its molecules.  Gas molecules can move around, but that motion’s constrained in liquids and even more constrained in solids.  Going from solid to liquid and from liquid to gas absorbs heat energy in breaking those constraints.  That absorbed heat appears as increased entropy.”

She’s lounging against my filing cabinet.  “The other way that substances absorb heat is for parts of molecules to rotate and vibrate relative to other parts.  But there are levels.  Some vibrations excite easier than others, and many rotations are even easier.  In a cold material only some motions are active.  Rising temperature puts more kinds of motion into play.  Heat energy spreads across more and more sub-molecular absorbers.”

She’s perched on the edge of my desk.  “Here’s where entropy as possibility-counting shows up.  More heat, more possibilities, more entropy.  Now we can do arithmetic and prediction instead of measuring.  Anything you can count possibilities for you can think about defining an entropy for, like information bits or black holes or socks.  But it’ll be a different entropy, with its own rules and its own range of validity.  … And…”Riding the Elephant

She’s looming directly over me.  Her dark eyes are huge.


When we first met, Sy, you asked what you could do for me.  You’ve helped me see that when I travel across time and probability I’m riding the Entropy Elephant.  I’d like to show my appreciation.  Can you think of a possibility?”

A dark night, in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.  On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott

Thoughts of Chair-man Moire

My apples and orange peels question, Sy,  isn’t that the same as Jeremy’s?  What’s the connection between heat capacity and counting?”

“You’re right, Anne.  Hmm.  Say, Al, all your coffee shop tables came with four chairs apiece, right?”

“Yup, four-tops every one, even in the back room.”

“You neaten them all up, four to a table, in the morning?”

“The night before.  There’s never time in the morning, customers demand coffee first thing.”

“But look, we’ve got six people seated at this table.  Where’d the extra chairs come from?”

“Other tables, of course.  Is this going somewhere?”

“Almost there.  So in fact the state of the room at any time will have some random distribution of chairs to tables.  You know on the average there’ll be four at a table, but you don’t know the actual distribution until you look, right?”

“Hey, we’re counting again.  You’re gonna say that’s about entropy ’cause the difference between four at a table and some other number is all random and there’s some formula to calculate entropy from that.”elephants and chairs

“True, Vinnie, but we’re about to take the next step.  How did these chairs wind up around this table?”

“We pulled them over, Mr. Moire.”

“My point is, Jeremy, we spent energy to get them here.  The more chairs that are out of position — ”

“The higher the entropy, but also the more energy went into the chairs.  It’s like that heat capacity thing we started with, the energy that got absorbed rather than driving the steam engine.”

“Awright, Anne!” from Jeremy <Jennie bristles a bit>, “and if all the chairs are in Al’s overnight position it’s like absolute zero.  Hey, temperature is average kinetic energy per particle so can we say that the more often a chair gets moved it’s like hotter?”

Jennie breaks in.  “Not a bit of it, Jeremy!  The whole metaphor’s daft.  We know temperature change times heat capacity equals the energy absorbed, right, and we’ve got a link between energy absorption and entropy, right, but what about if at the end of the day all the chairs accidentally wind up four at a table?  Entropy change is zero, right, but customers expended energy moving chairs about all day and Al’s got naught to set straight.”

“Science in action, I love it!  Anne and Jeremy, you two just bridged a gap it took Science a century to get across.  Carnot started us on entropy’s trail in 1824 but scientists in those days weren’t aware of matter’s atomic structure.  They knew that stuff can absorb heat but they had no inkling what did the absorbing or how that worked.  Thirty years later they understood simple gases better and figured out that average kinetic energy per particle bit.  But not until the 1920s did we have the quantum mechanics to show how parts of vibrating molecules can absorb heat energy stepwise like a table ‘absorbing’ chairs.  Only then could we do Vinnie’s state-counting to calculate entropies.”

“Yeah, more energy, spread across more steps, hiding more details we don’t know behind an average, more entropy.  But what about Jennie’s point?”

“Science is a stack of interconnected metaphors, Vinnie.  Some are better than others.  The trick is attending to the boundaries where they stop being valid.  Jennie’s absolutely correct that my four-chair argument is only a cartoon for illustrating stepwise energy accumulation.  If Al had a billion tables instead of a dozen or so, the odds on getting everything back to the zero state would disappear into rounding error.”

“How does black hole entropy play into this, Sy?”TSE classical vs BH

“Not very well, actually.  Oh, sure, the two systems have similar structures.  They’ve each got three inter-related central quantities constrained by three laws.  Here, I’ve charted them out on Old Reliable.”

“OK, their Second and Third Laws look pretty much the same, but their First Laws don’t match up.”

“Right, Al.  And even Bekenstein pointed out inconsistencies between classic thermodynamic temperature and what’s come to be called Hawking temperature.  Hawking didn’t agree.  The theoreticians are still arguing.  Here’s a funny one — if you dig deep enough, both versions of the First Law are the same, but the Universe doesn’t obey it.”

“That’s it, closing time.  Everybody out.”

~~ Rich Olcott