Calvin And Hobbes And i

Hobbes 2I so miss Calvin and Hobbes, the wondrous, joyful comic strip that cartoonist Bill Watterson gave us between 1985 and 1995.  Hobbes was a stuffed toy tiger — except that 6-year-old Calvin saw him as a walking, talking man-sized tiger with a sarcastic sense of humor.

So many things in life and physics are like Hobbes — they depend on how you look at them.  As we saw earlier, a fictitious force disappears when viewed from the right frame of reference.  There’s that particle/wave duality thing that Duc de Broglie “blessed” us with.  And polarized light.

In an earlier post I mentioned that light is polar, in the sense that a single photon’s electric field acts to vibrate an electron (pole-to-pole) within a single plane.
wavesIn this video, orange, green and blue electromagnetic fields shine in from one side of the box onto its floor.  Each color’s field is polar because it “lives” in only one plane.  However, the beam as a whole is unpolarized because different components of the total field direct recipient electrons into different planes giving zero net polarization.  The Sun and most other familiar light sources emit unpolarized light.

When sunlight bounces at a low angle off a surface, say paint on a car body or water at the beach, energy in a field that is directed perpendicular to the surface is absorbed and turned into heat energy.  (Yeah, I’m skipping over a semester’s-worth of Optics class, but bear with me.)  In the video, that’s the orange wave.

At the same time, fields parallel to the surface are reflected.  That’s what happens to the blue wave.

Suppose a wave is somewhere in between parallel and perpendicular, like the green wave.  No surprise, the vertical part of its energy is absorbed and the horizontal part adds to the reflection intensity.  That’s why the video shows the outgoing blue wave with a wider swing than its incoming precursor had.

The net effect of all this is that low-angle reflected light is polarized and generally more intense than the incident light that induced it.  We call that “glare.”  Polarizing sunglasses can help by selectively blocking horizontally-polarized electric fields reflected from water, streets, and that *@%*# car in front of me.

David Jessop’s brilliant depiction of plane and circularly polarized light

Things can get more complicated. The waves in the first video are all in synch — their peaks and valleys match up (mostly). But suppose an x-directed field and a y-directed field are headed along the same course.  Depending on how they match up, the two can combine to produce a field driving electrons along the x-direction, the y-direction, or in clockwise or counterclockwise circles.  Check the red line in this video — RHC and LHC depict the circularly polarized light that sci-fi writers sometimes invoke when they need a gimmick.

Physicists have several ways to describe such a situation mathematically.  I’ve already used the first, which goes back 380 years to René Descartes and the Cartesian x, y,… coordinate system he planted the seed for.  We’ve become so familiar with it that reading a graph is like reading words.  Sometimes easier.

In Cartesian coordinates we write x– and y-coordinates as separate functions of time t:
x = f1(t)
y = f2(t)
where each f could be something like 0.7·t2-1.3·t+π/4 or whatever.  Then for each t-value we graph a point where the vertical line at the calculated x intersects the horizontal line at the calculated y.

But we can simplify that with a couple of conventions.  Write √(-1) as i, and say that i-numbers run along the y-axis.  With those conventions we can write our two functions in a single line:
x + i y = f1(t) + i f2(t)
One line is better than two when you’re trying to keep track of a big calculation.

But people have a long-running hang-up that’s part theory and part psychology.  When Bombelli introduced these complex numbers back in the 16th century, mathematicians complained that you can’t pile up i thingies.  Descartes and others simply couldn’t accept the notion, called the numbers “imaginary,” and the term stuck.

Which is why Hobbes the way Calvin sees him is on the imaginary axis.

~~ Rich Olcott

Is cyber warfare imaginary?

Rule One in hooking the reader with a query headline is: Don’t answer the question immediately.  Let’s break that one.  Yes, cyber warfare is imaginary, but only for a certain kind of “imaginary.”  What kind is that, you ask.  AaaHAH!

Antonio Prohías’ Mad Magazine spies
didn’t normally use cyber weaponry

It all has to do with number lines.  If the early Greek theoreticians had been in charge, the only numbers in the Universe would have been the integers: 1, 2, 3,….  Life is simple when your only calculating tool is an abacus without a decimal point.  Zero hadn’t been invented in their day, nor had negative numbers.

Then Pythagoras did his experiments with harmony and harp strings, and the Greeks had to admit that ratios of integers are rational.

More trouble from Pythagoras: his a2+b2=c2 equation naturally led to c=√(a2+b2).  Unfortunately, for most integer values of a and b, c can’t be expressed as either an integer or a ratio of integers.  The Greeks labeled such numbers (including π) as irrational and tried to ignore them.

Move ahead to the Middle Ages, after Europe had imported zero and the decimal point from Brahmagupta’s work in India, and after the post-Medieval rise of trade spawned bookkeepers who had to cope with debt.  At that point we had a continuous number line running from “minus a whole lot” to “plus you couldn’t believe” (infinity wasn’t seriously considered in Western math until the 17th century).

By then European mathematicians had started playing around with algebraic equations and had stumbled into a problem.  They had Brahmagupta’s quadratic formula (you know, that [-b±√(b2-4a·c)]/2a thing we all sang-memorized in high school).  What do you do when b2 is less than 4a·c and you’re looking at the square root of a negative number?

Back in high school they told us, “Well, that means there’s no solution,” but that wasn’t good enough for Renaissance Italy.  Rafael Bombelli realized there’s simply no room for weird quadratic solutions on the conventional number line.  He made room by building a new number line perpendicular to it.  The new line is just like the old one, except everything on it is multiplied by i=√(-1).

(Bombelli used words rather than symbols, calling his creation “plus of minus.”  Eighty years later, René Descartes derisively called Bombelli’s numbers “imaginary,” as opposed to “real” numbers, and pasted them with that letter i.  Those labels have stuck for 380 years.  Except for electricity theoreticians who use j instead because i is for current.)

AxesSuppose you had a graph with one axis for counting animal things and another for counting vegetable things.  Animals added to animals makes more animals; vegetables added to vegetables makes more vegetables.  If you’ve got a chicken, two potatoes and an onion, and you share with your buddy who has a couple of carrots, some green beans and another onion, you’re on your way to a nice chicken stew.

Needs salt, but that’s on yet another axis.

Bombelli’s rules for doing arithmetic on two perpendicular number lines work pretty much the same.  Real numbers added to reals make reals, imaginaries added to imaginaries make more imaginaries.  If you’ve got numbers like x+i·y that are part real and part imaginary, the separate parts each follow their own rule.  Multiplication and division work, too, but I’ll let you figure those out.

The important point is that what happens on each number line can be specified independently of what happens on the other, just like the x and y axes in Descartes’ charts.  Together, Bombelli’s and Descartes’ concepts constitute a nutritious dish for physicists and mathematicians.

Scientists love to plot different experimental results against each other to see if there’s an interesting relationship in play.  For certain problems, for example, it’s useful to plot real-number energy of motion (kinetic energy) against some other variable on the i-axis.

Two-time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to speak of “kinetic warfare,” where people get killed, as opposed to the “non-kinetic” kind.  Apparently, he would have visualized cyber somewhere up near the i-axis.  In that scheme, cyber warriors with their ones and zeros are Bombelli-imaginary even if they’re real.

 ~~ Rich Olcott


How rockets don’t work

WoodyI was only 10 years old but already had Space Fever thanks to Chesley Bonestell’s artwork in Collier’s and Life magazines.  I eagerly joined the the movie theater ticket line to see George Pal’s Destination Moon.  I loved the Woody Woodpecker cartoon (it’s 12 minutes into the YouTube video) that explained rockets to a public just getting used to jet planes.  But the explanation’s wrong.

Go ahead, follow the link and watch the cartoon.  I’ll wait here.

Pretty far-sighted for 1950, eh?  And it’s amazing how much they got right, including how the driving force for the Space Race was international politics.  But oh, the physics…

Yeah, they tacitly acknowledged Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The cartoon implies that the action is the pellets coming out of the barrel and the reaction is Woody getting knocked back.  But that can’t be right: if it were true you wouldn’t get any kick when you fire a blank cartridge — but you do.  Let’s take a close look at just what actions are in play.

Maybe it’s the pellets plus the gases behind it pushing forward and the gun pushing backward?  Sort of, but where do the gases come from?  Right, the exploding charge next to your cheek in the receiver.  Those gases move equally in all directions.  Some of them push pellets down the barrel.  Some of them push on the back end of the receiver which pushes the gun stock which mashes your shoulder.  But there’s bunches of molecules that uselessly collide with the receiver’s walls.

Action and reaction balance out just fine but only when you consider the gases moving outward from the center of the BANG.  For instance, if left and right didn’t balance perfectly the piece would crash into your ear or swing around and flatten your nose or the back of your head.

Both shotguns and conventional rockets get their propulsive energy from chemical combustion.  The reason gun parts have to be strong is all those hot molecules dashing in every direction other than down and up the barrel.  A chemical rocket casing has to be strong for the same reason.

Chemical combustion is just not an efficient use of propellant mass.  Just look at this NASA image of a SpaceX Falcon 9 during a DSCOVR launch — huge side-flare from molecules that make no contribution to forward thrust:DSCOVR launch
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a way to put all our propulsion energy into moving the vehicle forward?

There’s good news and not-so-good news.  People are working on a few other options, all of which depend on forces we know how to steer: electric and magnetic.  Unfortunately, each of them has drawbacks.

Unlike rockets, ion thrusters use an electric or magnetic field to accelerate ions (duh!) away from the vehicle.  It’s a much more efficient process because there’s little off-axis action/reaction — all the propellant heads out the nozzle (action) and all the push-back force (reaction) acts directly on the vehicle.

But… ions resist being crowded together so you can’t blast huge quantities out the nozzle like you’d need to for a launch from Earth.  Up in space, though, ion thrusters are perfect for satellite attitude adjustment and similar low-power tasks.  The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres used an ion thruster to boost the spacecraft continuously from Earth to target.  It’d be impractical to build a chemical-powered system to do that.

Rather than send out atoms one by one, a rail-gun drive could use high-power magnetic fields to accelerate lumps of iron down a track and away.  Iron goes one way, vessel goes the other.  Might work in the Asteroid Belt where lumps of iron are there by the billions, but on the other hand I’d rather not be a Belter tooling along in my mining tug only to be hit amidships by someone’s cast-off reaction mass.

And then there’s the Q-thruster and EmDrive.  I hope to eventually include enough physics background in this blog that we can discuss the controversies and prospects for new-physics drives based on space warps and such.  You can check out Dr Harold White’s video for some of that.  It’d be sooo cool if they work.

~~ Rich Olcott

Smoke and a mirror

Etna jellyfish pairGrammie always grimaced when Grampie lit up one of his cigars inside the house.  We kids grinned though because he’d soon be blowing smoke rings for us.  Great fun to try poking a finger into the center, but we quickly learned that the ring itself vanished if we touched it.

My grandfather can’t take credit for the smoke ring on the left — it was “blown” by Mt Etna.  Looks very like the jellyfish on the right, doesn’t it?  When I see two such similar structures, I always wonder if the resemblance comes from the same physics phenomenon.

This one does — the physics area is Fluid Dynamics, and the phenomenon is a vortex ring. We need to get a little technical and abstract here: to a physicist a fluid is anything that’s composed of particles that don’t have a fixed spatial relationship to each other. Liquid water is a fluid, of course (its molecules can slide past each other) and so is air.  The sun’s ionized protons and electrons comprise a fluid, and so can a mob of people and so can vehicle traffic (if it’s moving at all).  You can use Fluid Dynamics to analyze motion when the individual particles are numerous and small relative to the volume in question.

Ring x-section
Adapted from a NOAA page

You get a vortex whenever you have two distinct fluids in contact but moving at sufficiently different velocities.  (Remember that “velocity” includes both speed and direction.)  When Grampie let out that little puff of air (with some smoke in it), his fast-moving breath collided with the still air around him.  When the still air didn’t get out of the way, his breath curled back toward him.  The smoke collected in the dark gray areas in this diagram.

That curl is the essence of vorticity and turbulence.  The general underlying rule is “faster curls toward slower,” just like that skater video in my previous post.  Suppose fluid is flowing through a pipe.  Layers next to the outside surface move slowly whereas the bulk material near the center moves quickly.  If the bulk is going fast enough, the speed difference will generate many little whorls against the circumference, converting pump energy to turbulence and heat.  The plant operator might complain about “back pressure” because the fluid isn’t flowing as rapidly as expected from the applied pressure.

But Grampie didn’t puff into a pipe (he’s a cigar man, right?), he puffed into the open air.  Those curls weren’t just at the top and bottom of his breath, they formed a complete circle all around his mouth.  If his puff didn’t come out perfectly straight, the smoke had a twist to it and circulated along that circle, the way Etna’s ring seems to be doing (note the words In and Out buried in the diagram’s gray blobs).  When a vortex closes its loop like that, you’ve got a vortex ring.

A vortex ring is a peculiar beast because it seems to have a life of its own, independent of the surrounding medium.  Grampie’s little puff of vortical air usually retained its integrity and carried its smoke particles for several feet before energy loss or little fingers broke up the circulation.

To show just how special vortex rings are, consider the jellyfish.  Until I ran across this article, I’d thought that jellyfish used jet propulsion like octopuses and squids do — squirt water out one way to move the other way.  Not the case.  Jellyfish do something much more sophisticated, something that makes them possibly “the most energy-efficient animals in the world.”

jellyfish vortices

Thanks to a very nice piece of biophysics detective work (read the paper, it’s cool, no equations), we now know that a jellyfish doesn’t just squirt.  Rather, it relaxes its single ring of muscle tissue to open wide.  That motion pulls in a pre-existing vortex ring that pushes against the bell.  On the power stroke, the jellyfish contracts its bell to push water out (OK, that’s a squirt) and create another vortex ring rolling in the opposite direction.  In effect, the jellyfish continually builds and climbs a ladder of vortex rings.

Vortex rings are encapsulated angular momentum, potentially in play at any size in any medium.

~~ Rich Olcott

Smack-dab in the middle

BridgeSee that little guy on the bridge, suspended halfway between all the way down and all the way up?  That’s us on the cosmic size scale.

I suspect there’s a lesson there on how to think about electrons and quantum mechanics.

Let’s start at the big end.  The physicists tell us that light travels at 300,000 km/s, and the astronomers tell us that the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old.  Allowing for leap years, the oldest photons must have taken about 4.3×1017 seconds to reach us, during which time they must have covered 1.3×1026 meters.  Double that to get the diameter of the visible Universe, 2.6×1026 meters.  The Universe probably is even bigger than that, but far as I can see that’s as far as we can see.

At the small end there’s the Planck length, which takes a little explaining.  Back in 1899, Max Planck published his epochal paper showing that light happens piecewise (we now call them photons).  In that paper, he combined several “universal constants” to derive a convenient (for him) universal unit of length: 1.6×10-35 meters.  It’s certainly an inconvenient number for day-to-day measurements (“Gracious, Junior, how you’ve grown!  You’re now 8×1034 Planck-lengths tall.”).  However, theoretical physicists have saved barrels of ink and hours of keyboarding by using Planck-lengths and other such “natural units” in their work instead of explicitly writing down all the constants.

Furthermore, there are theoretical reasons to believe that the smallest possible events in the Universe occur at the scale of Planck lengths.  For instance, some theories suggest that it’s impossible to measure the distance between two points that are closer than a Planck-length apart.  In a sense, then, the resolution limit of the Universe, the ultimate pixel size, is a Planck length.

sizelineSo that’s the size range of the Universe, from 1.6×10-35 up to 2.6×1026 meters. What’s a reasonable way to fix a half-way mark between them?

It makes no sense to just add the two numbers together and divide by two the way we’d do for an arithmetic average. That’d be like adding together the dime I owe my grandson and the US national debt — I could owe him 10¢ or $10, but either number just disappears into the trillions.

The best way is to take the geometrical average — multiply the two numbers and take the square root.  I did that.  It’s the X in the sizeline, at 6.5×10-5 meters, or about the diameter of a fairly large bacterium.  (In the diagram, VSC is the Vega Super Cluster, AG is the Andromeda Galaxy, and the numbers are those exponents of 10.)

That’s worth marveling at.  Sixty orders of magnitude between the size of the Universe and the size of the ultimate pixel.  Yet from blue whales to bacteria, Earth’s life just happens to occupy the half-dozen orders right in the middle of the range.  We think that’s it.

Could this be another case of the geocentric fallacy?  Humans were so certain that Earth was the center of the Universe, before Brahe and Galileo and Newton proved otherwise.  Is there life out there at scales much larger or much smaller than we imagine?

Who knows? But here’s an intriguing physics/quantum angle I’d like to promote.  We know a lot about structures bigger than us — solar systems and binary stars and galaxy clusters on up.  We know a few sizes and structures a bit smaller — viruses and molecules and atoms.  We’re aware of quarks and gluons that reside inside protons and atomic nuclei, but we don’t know their size or structure.

Even a proton is huge on the Planck-length scale.  At 1.8×10-15 meters the proton measures some 1020 Planck-lengths.  There’s as much scale-space between the Planck-length and the proton as there is between the Earth (1.3×107 meters) and the Universe.

It’s hard to believe that Terra infravita’s area has no structure whereas Terra supravita is so … busy.  The Standard Model’s “ultimate particles,” the electrons and photons and neutrinos and quarks and gluons, all operate down there somewhere.   It’s reasonable to suppose that they reflect a deeper architecture somewhere on the way down to the Planck-length foam.

Newton wrote (in Latin), “I do not make hypotheses.”  But golly, it’s tempting.

~~ Rich Olcott

There’s a lot of not much in Space

A while ago I drove from Denver to Fort Worth, and I was impressed. See, there’s a lot of not much in eastern Colorado. It’s pretty much the same in western Oklahoma except there’s less not much because there’s less of Oklahoma – but Texas has way more not much than anybody.

That gives Texas not much to brag about, but they do the best they can, bless their hearts.

What got me started on this rant was a a pair of astronomical factoids Katherine Kornei wrote in the Nov 2014 Discover magazine.

“If galaxies were shrunk to the size of apples, neighboring galaxies would be only a few meters apart….”
“If the stars within galaxies were shrunk to the size of oranges, they would be separated by 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles).”

Apple orangeSo there’s a lot of not much between galaxies, but a whole lot more not much, relatively speaking, within them. I just measured an apple and an orange in my kitchen. They’re both about the same size, 3 inches in diameter, so I have no idea why she chose different fruits – perhaps she wanted to avoid comparing apples and oranges.

Anyway, if you felt like doing the galaxy visualization you could put two apple galaxies on the floor about 12 feet apart and then line up about 50 apples between them. A fair amount of space for more galaxies.

To see inside a galaxy you could put one orange star in Miami FL, and its on-the-average nearest orange neighbor in Seattle WA. Then you could set out a long skinny row of just about 63 million oranges in between. Oh, and on this scale the nearest galaxy would be about 2 billion miles (or 43 quadrillion oranges) away. Way more not much inside a galaxy than between two neighboring ones.

So if we squeeze all those apples and oranges together we’d get rid of all the empty space, right?

Not by a long shot. Nearly all those stars are balls of very hot gas, which means they’re made up of atoms crossing empty space inside the star to collide with other atoms. Relative to the size of the atoms, how much empty space is there inside the star?

Matryoshkii 1For example, every chemistry student learns that 6×1023 molecules of any gas take up a volume of 22.4 liters at normal Earth temperature and pressure. For a single-atom gas like helium that works out to about 22 atom-widths between atoms.

Now think about emptiness inside the Sun. If it’s a typical star (which it is) and if all of its atoms are hydrogen (which they mostly are) and if the average density of the Sun (1408 kg/m3) applied all the way down to the center of the Sun (which it doesn’t), and if we believe NASA’s numbers for the Sun (hey, why not?), then the average density works out to about 0.7 atom-widths between neighbors.

So no empty space to squeeze out of the Sun, eh? Well, actually there is quite a lot, because those atoms are mostly empty space, too.

OK, I cheated up there about the Sun, because virtually all of the Sun’s atoms have been dissociated into separated electrons and nuclei. The nucleus is much smaller than than its atom – by a factor of 60,000 or so. Think of a grape seed in the middle of a football field.

To sum it upward, we’ve got a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, one inside the next. At the center is a collection of grape seeds, billions and billions of them, each in their own football field. The football fields are all balled into a stellar orange (or maybe an apple), but there are billions of those crammed into a galactic apple (or maybe an orange) that’s about ten feet away from the nearest other piece of fruit.

As Douglas Adams wrote in Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy,

“Space … is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…”

The thing to realize is that the function of all that space is to keep everything from being in the same place. That’s important.

~~ Rich Olcott

Prime years and such

I’ve liked 4s and 6s ever since when, but lately 3s and 7s have been cropping up.  A lot.  And they have a really weird connection with 2016.

For me New Year has always been an opportunity to inspect the upcoming year’s number for interesting properties.

Maybe the easiest way for a number to be interesting is to be prime, that is, not divisible by anything other than itself and one.  My Uncle Harold once proved to me that all odd numbers are prime.

“One’s a prime, and so are three and five.  How about seven?  Seven’s prime.  Nine?  Not a prime but we can throw that one out as experimental error.  Eleven?  Prime.  Thirteen?  Prime.  Case closed.”

They use that logic a lot in politics nowadays.

There are a few prime-ity tests that just need a quick glance.  Take 2015 for example.  Ends with a “5” so it’s got to be divisible by five.  Not a prime.  A number ending with a “0” is like ending with twice five so it’s not prime either.

Take 2016.  Ends in an even digit so it’s divisible by two.  Not a prime.  Moreover, it fails the “nines test” — add up all the digits (2+0+1+6=9).  If the total is nine or divisible by nine then the number itself is divisible by nine (and by three) so it’s non-prime.  2016 is also divisible by seven but that’s not as easy to diagnose.

That’s about it for quickies.  Beyond those tests you have to slog through dividing the target by every prime number from three up to the target’s square root.  Why stop there?  Because any factor bigger than the square root will have a partner smaller than the square root.

Remember Party Like It’s 1999 (prime)?  Very popular when the Artist Then Known As Prince produced it in 1982 (not a prime).  Unfortunately, we who were working on Y2K projects were too busy to party that year so we couldn’t celebrate 1999 being prime until it was all over.

Y2K itself, 2000, definitely wasn’t prime.  If you know that 1999 is prime you know 2000 can’t be because after you get past 1-2-3, no two adjacent numbers can be prime — one of them would have to be even.  Next-but-one can work, though: both 1997 and 1999 are prime.  Primes separated by two like that are twin primes.

If 2016 won’t be a prime year, is there another way it can be special?  Hmmm…  2016 isn’t a perfect square, nor is it the sum of two squares.  Neither its square nor its cube are particularly noteworthy, but the square PLUS the cube is kinda cute: their sum is 8,197,604,352 which contains every digit just once.

According to The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, 2016 is a hexagonal number.  Start with a dot.  Make that dot one corner of a hexagon of dots.  Then add a hexagon around that, one more dot per side,  keeping the original dot as a corner (like the plan for a starter motte-and-bailey castle)…Hexagonal numbers Keep going until the outermost hexagon has 32 dots along each edge.  All the hexagons together will have exactly 2016 dots.

The OEIS says that 2016 is a participant in at least 925 more special sequences, so I guess it’s a pretty cool number after all.

Those 3s and 7s?  Here they come….

My nominee for Puzzle King of The World is my good friend Jimmy.  I challenged him once to find the connection between

  • the British Army’s WWII section number (2701) for Alan Turing’s super-secret cryptography unit at Bletchley Park, and
  • Jean Valjean’s prisoner number (24601) in Les Misérables 

Turns out it’s all about the primes.  2701 is the product of two primes: 73×37.  24601 is also the product of two primes 73×337.   Better yet, both of the product expressions are palindromes in their digits (7337, 73337). To put whipped cream on top, I first noticed the connection during my 73rd year.

So then of course I went looking for other 3…7 and 7…3 primes. There aren’t a lot of them. Going all the way out to 1037 I found:

37 73
337 733
 (3,337 is 47×71, not a prime) 7,333
333,337 733,333

Pretty good symmetry there.

OK, back to number 2016. I asked Mathematica®, “How many different pairs of primes, like 1999 and 17, sum to 2016?”

What do you suppose the answer was?  Yup, “73.”

Oh, and the next prime year is 2017.  It’ll be great.

~~ Rich Olcott

Circular Logic

We often read “singularity” and “black hole” in the same pop-science article.  But singularities are a lot more common and closer to us than you might think. That shiny ball hanging on the Christmas tree over there, for instance.  I wondered what it might look like from the inside.  I got a surprise when I built a mathematical model of it.

To get something I could model, I chose a simple case.  (Physicists love to do that.  Einstein said, “You should make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”)

I imagined that somehow I was inside the ball and that I had suspended a tiny LED somewhere along the axis opposite me.  Here’s a sketch of a vertical slice through the ball, and let’s begin on the left half of the diagram…Mirror ball sketch

I’m up there near the top, taking a picture with my phone.

To start with, we’ll put the LED (that yellow disk) at position A on the line running from top to bottom through the ball.  The blue lines trace the light path from the LED to me within this slice.

The inside of the ball is a mirror.  Whether flat or curved, the rule for every mirror is “The angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence.”  That’s how fun-house mirrors work.  You can see that the two solid blue lines form equal angles with the line tangent to the ball.  There’s no other point on this half-circle where the A-to-me route meets that equal-angle condition.  That’s why the blue line is the only path the light can take.  I’d see only one point of yellow light in that slice.

But the ball has a circular cross-section, like the Earth.  There’s a slice and a blue path for every longitude, all 360o of them and lots more in between.  Every slice shows me one point of yellow light, all at the same height.  The points all join together as a complete ring of light partway down the ball.  I’ve labeled it the “A-ring.”

Now imagine the ball moving upward to position B.  The equal-angles rule still holds, which puts the image of B in the mirror further down in the ball.  That’s shown by the red-lined light path and the labeled B-ring.

So far, so good — as the LED moves upward, I see a ring of decreasing size.  The surprise comes when the LED reaches C, the center of the ball.  On the basis of past behavior, I’d expect just a point of light at the very bottom of the ball (where it’d be on the other side of the LED and therefore hidden from me).

Nup, doesn’t happen.  Here’s the simulation.  The small yellow disk is the LED, the ring is the LED’s reflected image, the inset green circle shows the position of the LED (yellow) and the camera (black), and that’s me in the background, taking the picture…g6z

The entire surface suddenly fills with light — BLOOIE! — when the LED is exactly at the ball’s center.  Why does that happen?  Scroll back up and look at the right-hand half of the diagram.  When the ball is exactly at C, every outgoing ray of light in any direction bounces directly back where it came from.  And keeps on going, and going and going.  That weird display can only happen exactly at the center, the ball’s optical singularity, that special point where behavior is drastically different from what you’d expect as you approach it.

So that’s using geometry to identify a singularity.  When I built the model* that generated the video I had to do some fun algebra and trig.  In the process I encountered a deeper and more general way to identify singularities.

<Hint> Which direction did Newton avoid facing?

* – By the way, here’s a shout-out to Mathematica®, the Wolfram Research company’s software package that I used to build the model and create the video.  The product is huge and loaded with mysterious special-purpose tools, pretty much like one of those monster pocket knives you can’t really fit into a pocket.  But like that contraption, this software lets you do amazing things once you figure out how.

~~ Rich Olcott

Buttered Cats — The QM perspective

You may have heard recently about the “buttered cat paradox,” a proposition that starts from two time-honored claims:

  • Cats always land on their feet.
  • Buttered toast always lands buttered side down.

“The paradox arises when one considers what would happen if one attached a piece of buttered toast (butter side up) to the back of a cat, then dropped the cat from a large height. …
“[There are those who suggest] that the experiment will produce an anti-gravity effect. They propose that as the cat falls towards the ground, it will slow down and start to rotate, eventually reaching a steady state of hovering a short distance from the ground while rotating at high speed as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat’s feet attempt to land on the ground.”


After extensive research (I poked around with Google a little), I’ve concluded that no-one has addressed the situation properly from the quantum mechanical perspective. The cat+toast system in flight clearly meets the Schrödinger conditions — we cannot make an a priori prediction one way or the other so we must consider the system to be in a 50:50 mix of both positions (cat-up and cat-down).

In a physical experiment with a live cat it’s probable that cat+toast actually would be rotating. As is the case with unpolarized light, we must consider the system’s state to be a 50:50 mixture of clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation about its roll axis (defined as one running from the cat’s nose to the base of its tail). Poor kitty would be spinning in two opposing directions at the same time.

Online discussions of the problem have alluded to some of the above considerations. Some writers have even suggested that the combined action of the two opposing adages could generate infinite rotational acceleration and even anti-gravity effects. Those are clearly incorrect conclusions – the concurrent counter-rotations would automatically cancel out any externally observable effects. As to the anti-gravity proposal, not even Bustopher Jones is heavy enough to bend space like a black hole. Anyway, he has white spats.

However, the community appears to have completely missed the Heisenbergian implications of the configuration.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle declares that it’s impossible to obtain simultaneous accurate values for two paired variables such as a particle’s position and momentum. The better the measurement of one variable, the less certain you can be of the other, and vice-versa. There’s an old joke about a cop who pulled a physicist to the side of the road and angrily asked her, “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”  “I’m afraid not, officer, but I know exactly where I am.”

It’s less commonly known that energy and time are another such pair of variables – the stronger the explosion, the harder it is to determine precisely when it started.

Suppose now that our cat+toast system is falling slowly, perhaps in a low-gravity environment. The landing, when it finally occurs, will be gentle and extend over an arbitrarily long period of time. Accordingly, the cat will remain calm and may not even awake from its usual slumberous state.

Tom and toastBy contrast, suppose that cat+toast falls rapidly. The resulting impact will occur over a very small duration. As we would expect from Heisenberg’s formulation, the cat will become really really angry and with strong probability will attack the researcher in a highly energetic manner.

From a theoretical standpoint therefore, we caution experimentalists to take proper precautions in preparing a laboratory system to test the paradox.

Next week – Getting more certain about Heisenberg

~~ Rich Olcott

Dimensional venturing, Part 2 – Twirling in 4-space

Last week we introduced the tesseract, which is to a cube what a cube is to a square — an extension into one more dimension.  That’s why it’s also called a hypercube.  The first tesseract diagrams I ever saw were so confusing — they looked like lots of overlapped squares tied together with lines that didn’t make much sense.  I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be easier to understand a tesseract if I could see it rotating?”

Years later computers and I had both moved ahead to where I could generate the pictures you see in this post.  What I learned while doing that was that 4-D figures have two equators.  In four dimensions, it’s possible for something to rotate in two perpendicular directions at the same time.  Read on and please don’t mind my doggerel — it doesn’t bite.

line2c The LINE is just a single stroke,
a path from here to there.
Stretch it out beside itself
and you will have a SQUARE.
Where’s its face when it turns around?
Gone, ’cause its back’s not there.
cube2c The CUBE’s a square
made thick, you see.
Length, breadth and depth
comprise a full 3-D.
Add yet a thickness more,
crosswise all to X, Y, Z.
A TESSERACT on a corner spins
but an XY-slice is all we see.
tess2czw But the axis, too, can rotate through
a path that’s drawn invisibly.
Four faces grow and shrink in place —
it’s hard to do that physically.
This tesseract is tumbling ’bout
two equators perpendicular.
Were I in such a state, I vow,
I’d be giddy, even sickular.

In the 4-D views, when one of the tesseract’s cubical faces appears to disappear into an adjacent face, what’s actually happening is that the face is sliding past the other face along that fourth dimension (which I called W because why not?)

You’re looking at a two-dimensional picture of the three-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional object as it moves in 5-space (X, Y, Z, W, and time — if it didn’t move in time then it couldn’t be spinning).

Next week — Herr Klein’s bottle, or rather flask, or rather surface.

~~ Rich Olcott