Thinking in Spacetime

The Open Mic session in Al’s coffee shop is still going string. The crowd’s still muttering after Jeremy stuck a pin in Big Mike’s “coincidence” balloon when Jim steps up. Jim’s an Astrophysics post‑doc now so we quiet down expectantly. “Nice try, Mike. Here’s another mind expander to play with. <stepping over to the whiteboard> Folks, I give you … a hypotenuse. ‘That’s just a line,’ you say. Ah, yes, but it’s part of some right triangles like … these. Say three different observers are surveying the line from different locations. Alice finds her distance to point A is 300 meters and her distance to point B is 400. Applying Pythagoras’ Theorem, she figures the A–B distance as 500 meters. We good so far?”

A couple of Jeremy’s groupies look doubtful. Maybe‑an‑Art‑Major shyly raises a hand. “The formula they taught us is a2+b2=c2. And aren’t the x and y supposed to go horizontal and vertical?”

“Whoa, nice questions and important points. In a minute I’m going to use c for the speed of light. It’s confusing to use the same letter for two different purposes. Also, we have to pay them extra for double duty. Anyhow, I’m using d for distance here instead of c, OK? To your next point — Alice, Bob and Carl each have their own horizontal and vertical orientations, but the A–B line doesn’t care who’s looking at it. One of our fundamental principles is that the laws of Physics don’t depend on the observer’s frame of reference. In this situation that means that all three observers should measure the same length. The Pythagorean formula works for all of them, so long as we’re working on a flat plane and no-one’s doing relativistic stuff, OK?”

Tentative nods from the audience.

“Right, so much for flat pictures. Let’s up our game by a dimension. Here’s that same A–B line but it’s in a 3D box. <Maybe‑an‑Art‑Major snorts at Jim’s amateur attempt at perspective.> Fortunately, the Pythagoras formula extends quite nicely to three dimensions. It was fun figuring out why.”

Jeremy yells out. “What about time? Time’s a dimension.”

“For sure, but time’s not a length. You can’t add measurements unless they all have the same units.”

“You could fix that by multiplying time by c. Kilometers per second, times seconds, is a length.” His groupies go “Oooo.”

“Thanks for the bridge to spacetime where we have four coordinates — x, y, z and ct. That makes a big difference because now A and B each have both a where and a when — traveling between them is traveling in space and time. Computationally there’s two paths to follow from here. One is to stick with Pythagoras. Think of a 4D hypercube with our A–B line running between opposite vertices. We’re used to calculating area as x×y and volume as x×y×z so no surprise, the hypercube’s hypervolume is x×y×z×(ct). The square of the A–B line’s length would be b2=(ct)2+d2. Pythagoras would be happy with all of that but Einstein wasn’t. That’s where Alice and Bob and Carl come in again.”

“What do they have to do with it?”

“Carl’s sitting steady here on good green Earth, red‑shifted Alice is flying away at high speed and blue‑shifted Bob is flashing toward us. Because of Lorentz contractions and dilations, they all measure different A–B lengths and durations. Each observer would report a different value for b2. That violates the invariance principle. We need a ruggedized metric able to stand up to that sort of punishment. Einstein’s math professor Hermann Minkowski came up with a good one. First, a little nomenclature. Minkowski was OK with using the word ‘point‘ for a location in xyz space but he used ‘event‘ when time was one of the coordinates.”

“Makes sense, I put events on my calendar.”

“Good strategy. Minkowski’s next step quantified the separation between two events by defining a new metric he called the ‘interval.’ Its formula is very similar to Pythagoras’ formula, with one small change: s2=(ct)2–d2. Alice, Bob and Carl see different distances but they all see the same interval.”

Minus? Where did that come from?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Maybe even smaller?

There’s a sofa in my office. Sometimes it’s used to seat some clients for a consultation, sometimes I use it for a nap. This evening Anne and I are sitting on it, close together, after a meal of Eddie’s Pizza d’amore.

“I’ve been thinking, Sy. I don’t want to use my grow-shrink superpower very much.”

“Fine with me, I like the size you are. Why’d you decide that?”

“I remember Alice saying, ‘Three inches is such a wretched height to be.’ She was thinking about what her cat would do to her at that height. I’m thinking about what an amoeba might do to me if I were down to bacteria-size and I wouldn’t be able to see it coming because I’d be too small to see light. It would be even messier further down.”

“Well, mess is the point of quantum mechanics — all we get is the averages because it’s all chaos at the quantum level. Bohr would say we can’t even talk about what’s down there, but you’d be in the thick of it.”

She shudders delicately, leans in tighter. <long, very friendly pause> “Where’d that weird number come from, Sy?”

“What weird number?”

“Ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fifth. You mentioned it as a possible bottom to the size range.”

Now you’re asking?”

“I’ve got this new superpower, I need to think about stuff.  Besides, we’ve finished the pizza.”

<sigh> “This conversation reminds me of our elephant adventure.  Oh well.  Umm. It may have started on a cold, wet afternoon. You know, when your head’s just not up to real work so you grab a scratchpad and start doodling? I’ll bet Max Planck was in that state when he started fiddling with universal constants, like the speed of light and his own personal contribution ħ, the quantum of action.”

“He could change their values?”

“No, of course not. But he could combine them in different ways to see what came out. Being a proper physicist he’d make sure the units always came out right. I’m not sure which unit-system he worked in so I’ll just stick with SI units, OK?”

“Why should I argue?”

“No good reason to. So… c is a velocity so its units are meters per second. Planck’s constant ħ is energy times time, which you can write either as joule-seconds or kilogram-meter² per second. He couldn’t just add the numbers together because the units are different. However, he could divide the one by the other so the per-seconds canceled out. That gave him kilogram-meters, which wasn’t particularly interesting. The important step was the next one.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense.”

“He threw Newton’s gravitational constant G into the mix. Its units are meter³ per kilogram per second². ‘Ach, vut a mess,’ he thought, ‘but maybe now ve getting somevere. If I multiply ħ by G the kilograms cancel out und I get meter5 per second³. Now … Ah! Divide by c³ vich is equal to multiplying by second³/meter³ to cancel out all the seconds and ve are left mit chust meter² vich I can take the square root uff. Wunderbar, it is simply a length! How ’bout that?‘”

“Surely he didn’t think ‘how ’bout that?‘”

“Maybe the German equivalent. Anyway, doodling like that is one of the ways researchers get inspirations. This one was so good that (Għ/c³)=1.6×10-35 meter is now known as the Planck length. That’s where your ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fifth comes from.”

“That’s pretty small. But is it really the bottom?”

“Almost certainly not, for a couple of different reasons. First, although the Planck formula looks like a fundamental limit, it’s not. In the same report Planck re-juggled his constants to define the Planck mass (ħc/G)=2.2×10-8 kilograms or 22 micrograms. Grains of sand weight less than that. If Planck’s mass isn’t a limit, Planck’s length probably isn’t either. Before you ask, the other reason has to do with relativity and this is not the time for that.”

“Mmm … so if space is quantized, which is where we started, the little bits probably aren’t Planck-sized?”

“Who knows? But my guess is, no, probably much smaller.”

“So I wouldn’t accidentally go out altogether like a candle then. That’s comforting to know.”

My turn to shudder. <another long, friendly pause>.

~~Rich Olcott

Keep calm and stay close to home

Again with the fizzing sound.  Her white satin still looked good.  A little travel-worn, but on her that looked even better.  Her voice still sounded like molten silver — “Hello.”White satin and drunkard walk

“Hello, Anne.  Where you been?”

“You wouldn’t believe.  I don’t believe.  I’ve got to get some control over this.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I never know where I’ll be next.  Or when.  Or even how it’ll look when I get there.  We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

“Yes, we have, and you told me your memory works in circles.  We figured out that when you ‘push,’ you relocate to a reality with a different probability.”

“But it could also be a different time.  Future, past, it’s so confusing.  Sometimes I meet myself and I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.  We never know what to say to each other.  It’s horrible way to be.”

“It sounds awful.  Here, have a tissue.  So, how can I help you?”

“You do theory stuff.  Can you physics a way to let me steer through all this?”

<fizzing sound> Another Anne appeared, next to my file cabinet on the far side of the office.  “Don’t mind me, just passing through.”  <more fizzing>  She flickered away.  My ears itched a little.

“See?  And she always knows more than I do, except when I know more than she does.”

“I’m beginning to get the picture.  Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Anything, if it’ll help solve this.”

“When you time-hop, do you use the same kind of ‘push’ feeling that sends you to different probabilities?”

“No-o, it’s a little different, but not much.”

“We found that you have to ‘push’ harder to get to a less-probable reality.  Is there the same kind of difference between past and future hopping?”

“Now you mention it, yes!  It’s always easier to jump to the future.  I have to struggle sometimes when I get too far ahead of myself.”

“Can you do time and probability together?”

“Hard to say.  When I hop I mostly just try to work out when I am, much less whether things are odd.”

“Give it a shot.  Try a couple of ‘nearby places’ and come back here/now.  Just use tiny ‘pushes.’ I don’t want you to get lost again.”

“Me neither.  OK, here I go.” <prolonged flickering and fizzing> “Is this the right place?  I tried a couple of hops here in your office, and <charming blush> stole some of your papers.  Here.”

“Perfect, Anne, objective evidence is always best.  Let’s see…  Yep, this report is one I finished a week ago, looks OK, and this one … I recognize the name of a client I’ve not yet hooked, but the spelling!  The letter ‘c’ isn’t there at all — ‘rekognize,’ ‘sirkle,’ ‘siense’ — that’s low probability for sure.”

“Actually, it felt like higher probability.”

“Whatever.  One more question.  I gather that most of your hops are more-or-less good ones but every once in a while you drop into a complete surprise, something you’re totally not used to.”


“I’ll bet the surprises happen when you’re in a jam and do a get me out of here jump.”

“Huh!  I’d not made that connection, but you’re right.”

“I think I’ve got the picture.  When you ‘push,’ you somehow displace yourself on a surface that has two dimensions — time and probability.  You move around in those two dimensions independently from how you move in 3-D space.  I take it you’re comfortable dong that but you want more control over it, right?”

“Mmm, yeah.  It’s kind of my special superpower, you know?  I don’t want to give it up entirely.”

“Good, because I wouldn’t know how to make that happen for you.  Best I can do is give you some strategy coaching, OK?”

“That’d be a big help.”Drunkard

“Stay calm.”

“That’s it?  Where’s the physics in that?”

“Ever hear of the Drunkard’s Walk?”

“I’ve seen a few.”

“Well, you’re doing one.”

“Beg pardon?”

“It’s math talk for a stepwise process where every step goes in a random direction.  Your problem is that some of the steps are way too big.  Keep the steps small and you’ll stay in familiar territory.”

<molten silver, coming closer> “Like … here?”

“Stay calm.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Through The Looking Glass, Darkly

The Acme Building is quiet on summer evenings.  I was in my office, using the silence to catch up on paperwork.  Suddenly I heard a fizzing sound.  Naturally I looked around.  She was leaning against the door frame.

White satin looked good on her, and she looked good in it.  A voice like molten silver — “Hello, Mr Moire.”White satin and chessboard 1

“Hello yourself.  What can I do for you?”

“I’m open to suggestions, but first you can help me find myself.”

“Excuse me, but you’re right here.  And besides, who are you?”

“Not where I am but when I am.  Anne.”

“You said it right the first time.”

“No, no, my name is Anne.  At the moment.  I think.  Oh, it’s so confusing when your memory works in circles but not very well.  Do you have the time?”

“Well, I was busy, but you’re here and much more interesting.”

“No, I mean, what time is it?”

I showed her my desk clock — date, time, even the phase of the moon.

“Half past gibbous already?  Oh, bread-and-butter…”

“Wait — circles?  Time’s one-dimensional.  Clock readings increase or decrease, they don’t go sideways.”

“You don’t know Time as well as I do, Mr Moire.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.  Time can be triangular, haven’t you noticed?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“That paperwork you’re working on, are you near a deadline?”


“And given that expanse of time, you feel free to permit distractions.  There are so many distractions.”

“You’re very distracting.”

“Thank you, I guess.  But suppose you had an important deadline coming up tomorrow.   That broad flow of possibilities at the beginning of the project has narrowed to just two — finish or don’t finish.  Your Time has closed in until you.”

“So you’re saying we can think of Time as two-dimensional.  The second dimension being…?”

“I don’t know.  I just go there.  That’s the problem.”

“Hmm… When you do, do you feel like you’re turning left or right?”

“No turning or moving forward or backward.  Generally I have to … umm… ‘push’ like I’m going uphill, but that only works if there’s a ‘being pushed’ when I get past that.  Otherwise I’m back where I started, whatever that means.”

“What do you see?  What changes during the episode?”

“Little things. <brief fizzing sound.  She … flickered.>  Like ‘over there’ you’re wearing a bright green T-shirt instead of what you’re wearing here.  And you’re using pen-and-paper instead of that laptop.  Green doesn’t suit you.”

“I know, which is why there’s nothing green in my wardrobe, here.  But that gives me an idea.  Did you always have to ‘push’ to get ‘over there’?”


“Fine.  OK, I’m going to flip this coin.  While it’s in the air, ‘push’ just lightly and come back to tell me which way the coin fell.”

<fizzing> “Heads.”

“It’s tails here.  OK, we’re going to do that again but this time ‘push’ much harder.”

<louder fizzing> “That was weird.  Your coin rolled off the desk and landed on edge in a crack in the floor so it’s not heads or tails.”

“AaaHAH!”Coins 1


“Your ‘over theres’ have different levels of probability than ‘over here.’  They’re different realities.  Actually, I’ll bet you travel across ranges of probability.  Or tunnel through them, maybe.  That’d why you have to ‘push’ to get past something that’s less probable in order to get to something that’s more probable.  Like getting past a reality where the coin can just hang in the air or fly apart.”

“I’ve done that.  Once I sneezed while ‘pushing’ and wound up sitting at a tea party where the cream and sugar just refused to stir into the tea.  When I ‘pushed’ from there I practically fell into a coffee shop where the coffee was well-behaved.”

“Case closed.  Now I can answer your question.  Spacewise, you’re in my office on the twelfth floor.  Timewise, I just showed you my clock.  As for which reality, you’re in one with a very high probability because, well, you’re here.”

“So provincial.  Oh, Mr Moire, how little you know.” <fizzing>

On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, high above the city, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott

Superluminal Superman

Comic book and movie plotlines often make Superman accelerate up to lightspeed and travel backward in time.  Unfortunately, well-known fundamental Physics principles forbid that.  But suppose Green Lantern or Dr Strange could somehow magic him past the Lightspeed Barrier.  Would that let him do his downtimey thing?

Light_s hourglass
Light’s Hourglass

A quick review of Light’s Hourglass.  According to Einstein we live in 4D spacetime.  At any moment you’re at a specific time t relative to some origin time t=0 and a specific 3D location (x,y,z) relative to a spatial origin (0,0,0).  Your spacetime address is (ct,x,y,z) where c is the speed of light.  This diagram shows time running vertically into the future, plus two spatial coordinates x and y.  Sorry, I can’t get z into the diagram so pretend it’s zero.

The two cones depict all the addresses which can communicate with the origin using a flash of light.  Any point on either cone is at just the right distance d=√(++) to match the distance that light can travel in time t.  The bottom cone is in the past, which is why we can see the light from old stars.  The top cone is in the future, which is why we can’t see light from stars that aren’t born yet.

If he obeys the Laws of Physics as we know them, Superman can travel anywhere he wants to inside the top cone.  He goes upward into the future at the rate of one second per second, just like anybody.  On the way, he can travel in space as far from (ct,0,0,0) as he likes so long as it’s not farther than the distance that light can travel the same route at his current t.

From our perspective, the Hourglass is a stack of circles (spheres in 3D space) centered on (ct,0,0,0).  From Supey’s perspective at time t he’s surrounded by a figure with radius ct that Physics won’t let him break through.  That’s his Lightspeed Barrier, like the Sonic Barrier but 900,000 times faster.

Suppose Green Lantern has magicked Supey up to twice lightspeed along the x-axis.  At moment t, he’s at (ct,2ct,0,0), twice as far as light can get.  In the diagram he’s outside the top cone but above the central disk.

Now GL pours on the power to accelerate Superman.  Each increment gets the Man of Steel closer to that disk.  He’s always “above” it, though, because he’s still moving into the future.  Only if he were to get to infinite speed could he reach the disk.

However, at infinite speed he’d go anywhere/everywhere instantaneously which would be confusing to even his Kryptonian intellect.  On the way he might run into things (stars, black holes,…) with literally zero time to react.

But the plotlines have Tall-Dark-and-Muscular flying into the past, breaching that disk and traveling downwards into the bottom cone.  Can GL make that happen?

Enter the Lorentz correction.  If you have rest mass m0 and you’re traveling at speed v, your effective mass is m=m0/√[1-(v/c)²]. That raises a couple of issues when you exceed lightspeed.

Suppose GL decelerates Superluminal Supey down towards lightspeed.  The closer he approaches c from higher speeds, the smaller that square root gets and the greater the effective mass.  It’s the same problem Superman faced when accelerating up to lightspeed.  That last mile per second down to c requires an infinite amount of braking energy — the Lightspeed Barrier is impermeable in both directions.

The other problem is that if v>c there’s a negative number inside that square root.    Above lightspeed, your effective mass becomes Bombelli-imaginary.  Remember Newton’s famous F=m·a?  Re-arrange it to a=F/m.  A real force applied to an object with imaginary mass produces an imaginary acceleration.  “Imaginary” in Physics generally means “perpendicular in some sense” and remember we’re in 4D here with time perpendicular to space.

GL might be able to shove Superman downtime, but he’d have to

  1. squeeze inward at hiper-lightspeed with exactly the same force along all three spatial dimensions, to make sure that “perpendicular” is only along the time axis
  2. start Operation Squish at some time in his own future to push towards the past.

Nice trick.  Would Superman buy in?

~~ Rich Olcott

Superman flying at lightspeed? Umm… no

Back when I was in high school I did a term paper for some class (can’t remember which) ripping the heck out of Superman physics.  Yeah, I was that kind of kid.  If I recall correctly, I spent much of it slamming his supposed vision capabilities — they were fairly ludicrous even to a HS student and that was many refreshes of the DC universe ago.FTL SupermanBut for this post let’s consider a trope that’s been taken off the shelf again and again since those days, even in the movies.  This rendition should get the idea across — Our Hero, in a desperate effort to fix a narrative hole the writers had dug themselves into, is forced to fly around the Earth at faster-than-light speeds, thereby reversing time so he can patch things up.

So many problems…  Just for starters, the Earth is 8000 miles wide, Supey’s what, 6’6″?, so on this scale he shouldn’t fill even a thousandth of a pixel.  OK, artistic license.  Fine.

Second problem, only one image of the guy.  If he’s really passing us headed into the past we should see two images, one coming in feet-first from the future and the other headed forward in both space and time.  Oh, and because of the Doppler effect the feet-first image should be blue-shifted and the other one red-shifted.

Of course both of those images would be the wrong shape.  The FitzGerald-Lorentz Contraction makes moving objects appear shorter in the direction of motion.  In other words, if the Man of Steel were flying just shy of the speed of light then 6’6″ tall would look to us more like a disk with a short cape.

Tall-Dark-And-Muscular has other problems to solve on his way to the past.  How does he get up there in the first place?  Back in the day, DC explained that he “leaped tall buildings in a single bound.”   That pretty much says ballistic high-jump, where all the energy comes from the initial impulse.  OK, but consider the rebound effects on the neighborhood if he were to jump with as much energy as it would take to orbit a 250-lb man.  People would complain.

Remember Einstein’s famous E=mc²?  That mass m isn’t quite what most people think it is.  Rather, it’s an object’s rest mass m0 modified by a Lorentz correction to account for the object’s kinetic energy.   In our hum-drum daily life that correction factor is basically 1.00000…   When you get into the lightspeed ballpark it gets bigger.

Here’s the formula with the Lorentz correction in red: m=m0/√[1-(v/c)2].  The square root nears zero as Superman’s velocity v approaches lightspeed c.  When the divisor gets very small the corrected mass gets very large.  If he got to the Lightspeed Barrier (where v=c) he’d be infinitely massive.

So you’ve got an infinite mass circling the Earth about 7 times a second — ocean tides probably couldn’t keep up, but the planet would be shaking enough to fracture the rock layers that keep volcanoes quiet.  People would complain.

Of course, if he had that much mass, Earth and the entire Solar System would be orbiting him.

On the E side of Einstein’s equation, Superman must attain that massive mass by getting energy from somewhere.  Gaining that last mile/second on the way to infinity is gonna take a lot of energy.

But it’s worse.  Even at less than lightspeed, the Kryptonian isn’t flying in a straight line.  He’s circling the Earth in an orbit.  The usual visuals show him about as far out as an Earth-orbiting spacecraft.  A GPS satellite’s stable 24-hour orbit has a 26,000 mile radius so it’s going about 1.9 miles/sec.  Superman ‘s traveling about 98,000 times faster than that.  Physics demands that he use a powered orbit, continuously expending serious energy on centripetal acceleration just to avoid flying off to Vega again.

The comic books have never been real clear on the energy source for Superman’s feats.  Does he suck it from the Sun?  I sure hope not — that’d destabilize the Sun and generate massive solar flares and all sorts of trouble.

Not even the DC writers would want Superman to wipe out his adopted planet just to fix up a plot point.

~~ Rich Olcott

Light’s hourglass

Terry Pratchett’s anthropomorphic character Death (who always speaks in UPPER CASE with a voice that sounds like tombstones falling) has a thing about hourglasses.  So do physicists, but theirs don’t have sand in them.  And they don’t so much represent Eternity as describe it.  Maybe.

The prior post was all about spacetime events (an event is the combination of a specific (x,y,z) spatial location with a specific time t) and how the Minkowski diagram divides the Universe into mutually exclusive pieces:

  • “look but don’t touch” — the past, all the spacetime events which could have caused something to happen where/when we are
  • “touch but don’t look” — the future, the events where/when we can cause something to happen
  • “no look, no touch” — the spacelike part that’s so far away that light can’t reach us and we can’t reach it without breaching Einstein’s speed-of-light constraint
  • “here and now” — the tiny point in spacetime with address (ct,x,y,z)=(0,0,0,0)

Light_s hourglassLast week’s Minkowski diagram was two-dimensional.  It showed time running along the vertical axis and Pythagorean distance d=√(x²+y²+z²) along the horizontal one.  That was OK in the days before computer graphics, but it  loaded many different events onto the same point on the chart.  For instance, (0,1,0,0), (0,-1,0,0), (0,0,1,0) and (0,0,0,1) (and more) are all at d=1.

This chart is one dimension closer to what the physicists really think about.  Here we have x and y along distinct axes.  The z axis is perpendicular to all three, and if you can visualize that you’re better at it than I am.  The xy plane (and the xyz cube if you’re good at it) is perpendicular to t.

That orange line was in last week’s diagram and it means the same thing in this one.  It contains events that can use light-speed somehow to communicate with the here-and-now event.  But now we see that the line into the future is just part of a cone (or a hypercone if you’re good at it).

If we ignite a flash of light at time t=0, at any positive time t that lightwave will have expanded to a circle (or bubble) with radius d=c·t. The circles form the “future” cone.

Another cone extends into the past.  It’s made up of all the events from which a flash of light at time at some negative t would reach the here-and-now event.

The diagram raises four hotly debated questions:

  • Is the pastward cone actually pear-shaped?  It’s supposed to go back to The Very Beginning.  That’s The Big Bang when the Universe was infinitesimally small.  Back then d for even the furthest event from (ct,0,0,0) should have been much smaller than the nanometers-to-lightyears range of sizes we’re familiar with today.  But spacetime was smaller, too, so maybe everything just expanded in sync once we got past Cosmic Inflation.  We may never know the answer.
  • What’s outside the cones?  You think what you see around you is right now?  Sorry.  If the screen you’re reading this on is a typical 30 inches or so distant, the light you’re seeing left the screen 2½ nanoseconds ago.  Things might have changed since then.  We can see no further into the Universe than 14 billion lightyears, and even that only tells us what happened 14 billion years ago.  Are there even now other Earth-ish civilizations just 15 billion lightyears away from us?  We may never know the answer.
  • How big is “here-and-now”?  We think of it as a size=zero mathematical point, but there are technical grounds to think that the smallest possible distance is the Planck length, 1.62×10-35 meters.  Do incidents that might affect us occur at a smaller scale than that?  Is time quantized?  We may never know the answers.
  • Do the contents of the futureward cone “already” exist in some sense, or do we truly have free will?  Einstein thought we live in a block universe, with events in future time as fixed as those in past time.  Other thinkers hold that neither past not future are real.  I like the growing block alternative, in which the past is real and fixed but the future exists as maybes.  We may never know the answer.

~~ Rich Olcott

You can’t get there from here

In this series of posts I’ve tried to get across several ideas:

  • By Einstein’s theories, in our Universe every possible combination of place and time is an event that can be identified with an “address” like (ct,x,y,z) where t is time, c is the speed of light, and x, y and z are spatial coordinates
  • The Pythagorean distance between two events is d=√[(x1-x2)2+(y1-y2)2+(z1-z2)2]
  • The Minkowski interval between two events is √[(ct1-ct2)2 d2]
  • When i=√(-1) shows up somewhere, whatever it’s with is in some way perpendicular to the stuff that doesn’t involve i

That minus sign in the third bullet has some interesting implications.  If the time term is bigger then the spatial term, then the interval (that square root) is a real number.  On the other hand, if the time term is smaller, the interval is an imaginary number and therefore is in some sense perpendicular to the real intervals.

We’ll see what that means in a bit.  But first, suppose the two terms are exactly equal, which would make the interval zero.  Can that happen?

Sure, if you’re a light wave.  The interval can only be zero if d=(ct1-ct2).  In other words, if the distance between two events is exactly the distance light would travel in the elapsed time between the same two events.

In this Minkowski diagram, we’ve got two number lines.  The real numbers (time) run vertically (sorry, I know we had the imaginary line running upward in a previous post, but this is the way that Minkowski drew it).  Perpendicular to that, the line of imaginary numbers (distance) runs horizontally, which is why that starscape runs off to the right.Minkowski diagram
The smiley face is us at the origin (0,0,0,0).  If we look upwards toward positive time, that’s the future at our present locationLooking downward to negative time is looking into the past.  Unless we move (change x and/or y and/or z), all the events in our past and future have addresses like (ct,0,0,0).

What about all those points (events) that aren’t on the time axis?  Pick one and use its address to figure the interval between it and us.  In general, the interval will be a complex number, part real and part imaginary, because the event you picked isn’t on either axis.

The two orange lines are special.  Each of them is drawn through all the events for which the distance is equal to ct.  All the intervals between those events and us are zero.  Those are the events that could be connected to us by a light beam.

The orange connections go one way only — someone in our past (t less than zero) can shine a light at us that we’ll see when it reaches us.  However, if someone in our future tried to shine a light our way, well, the passage of time wouldn’t allow it (except maybe in the movies).  Conversely, we can shine a light at some spatial point (x,y,z) at distance d=√(x2+y2+z2) from us, but those photons won’t arrive until the event in our future at (d,x,y,z).

space VennThe rest of the Minkowski diagram could do for a Venn diagram.  We at (0,0,0,0) can do something that will cause something to happen at (ct,x,y,z) to the left of the top orange line.  However, we won’t be able to see that effect until we time-travel forward to its t.  That region is “reachable but not seeable.”

Similarly, events to the left of the bottom orange line can affect us (we can see stars, for instance) but they’re in our past and we can’t cause anything to happen then/there.  The region is “seeable but not reachable.”

Then there’s the overlap, the segment between the two orange lines.  Events there are so far away in spacetime that the intervals between them and us are imaginary (in the mathematical sense).  To put it another way, light can’t get here from there.  Neither can cause and effect.

Physicists call that third region space-like, as opposed to the two time-like regions.  Without a warp drive or some other way around Einstein’s universal speed limit, the edge of “space-like” will always be The Final Frontier.

~~ Rich Olcott

Does a photon experience time?

My brother Ken asked me, “Is it true that a photon doesn’t experience time?”  Good question.  As I was thinking about it I wondered if the answer could have implications for Einstein’s bubble.

When Einstein was a grad student in Göttingen, he skipped out on most of the classes given by his math professor Hermann Minkowski.  Then in 1905 Einstein’s Special Relativity paper scooped some work that Minkowski was doing.  In response, Minkowski wrote his own paper that supported and expanded on Einstein’s.  In fact, Minkowski’s contribution changed Einstein’s whole approach to the subject, from algebraic to geometrical.

But not just any geometry, four-dimensional geometry — 3D space AND time.  But not just any space-AND-time geometry — space-MINUS-time geometry.  Wait, what?Pythagoras1

Early geometer Pythagoras showed us how to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle from the lengths of the other two sides. His a2+b2 = c2 formula works for the diagonal of the enclosing rectangle, too.

Extending the idea, the body diagonal of an x×y×z cube is √(x2+y2+z2) and the hyperdiagonal  of a an ct×x×y×z tesseract is √(c2t2+x2+y2+z2) where t is time.  Why the “c“?  All terms in a sum have to be in the same units.  x, y, and z are lengths so we need to turn t into a length.  With c as the speed of light, ct is the distance (length) that light travels in time t.

But Minkowski and the other physicists weren’t happy with Pythagorean hyperdiagonals.  Here’s the problem they wanted to solve.  Suppose you’re watching your spacecraft’s first flight.  You built it, you know its tip-to-tail length, but your telescope says it’s shorter than that.  George FitzGerald and Hendrik Lorentz explained that in 1892 with their length contraction analysis.

What if there are two observers, Fred and Ethel, each of whom is also moving?  They’d better be able to come up with the same at-rest (intrinsic) size for the object.

Minkowski’s solution was to treat the ct term differently from the others.  Think of each 4D address (ct,x,y,z) as a distinct event.  Whether or not something happens then/there, this event’s distinct from all other spatial locations at moment t, and all other moments at location (x,y,z).

To simplify things, let’s compare events to the origin (0,0,0,0).  Pythagoras would say that the “distance” between the origin event and an event I’ll call Lucy at (ct,x,y,z) is √(c2t2+x2+y2+z2).

Minkowski proposed a different kind of “distance,” which he called the interval.  It’s the difference between the time term and the space terms: √[c2t2 + (-1)*(x2+y2+z2)].

If Lucy’s time is t=0 [her event address (0,x,y,z)], then the origin-to-Lucy interval is  √[02+(-1)*(x2+y2+z2)]=i(x2+y2+z2).  Except for the i=√(-1) factor, that matches the familiar origin-to-Lucy spatial distance.

Now for the moment let’s convert the sum from lengths to times by dividing by c2.  The expression becomes √[t2-(x/c)2-(y/c)2-(z/c)2].  If Lucy is at (ct,0,0,0) then the origin-to-Lucy interval is simply √(t2)=t, exactly the time difference we’d expect.

Finally, suppose that Lucy departed the origin at time zero and traveled along x at the speed of light.   At any time t, her address is (ct,ct,0,0) and the interval for her trip is √[(ct)2-(ct)2-02-02] = √0 = 0.  Both Fred’s and Ethel’s clocks show time passing as Lucy speeds along, but the interval is always zero no matter where they stand and when they make their measurements.

Feynman diagramOne more step and we can answer Ken’s question.  A moving object’s proper time is defined to be the time measured by a clock affixed to that object.  The proper time interval between two events encountered by an object is exactly Minkowski’s spacetime interval.  Lucy’s clock never moves from zero.

So yeah, Ken, a photon moving at the speed of light experiences no change in proper time although externally we see it traveling.

Now on to Einstein’s bubble, a lightwave’s spherical shell that vanishes instantly when its photon is absorbed by an electron somewhere.  We see that the photon experiences zero proper time while traversing the yellow line in this Feynman diagram.  But viewed from any other frame of reference the journey takes longer.  Einstein’s objection to instantaneous wave collapse still stands.

~~ Rich Olcott

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