Better A Saber Than A Club?

There’s a glass-handled paper-knife on my desk, a reminder of a physics experiment gone very bad back in the day. “Y’know, Vinnie, this knife gives me an idea for another Star Trek weapons technology.”

“What’s that, Sy?”

“Some kinds of wave have another property in addition to frequency, amplitude and phase. What do you know about seismology?”

“Not a whole lot. Uhh … earthquakes … Richter scale … oh, and the Insight lander on Mars has seen a couple dozen marsquakes in the first six months it was looking for them.”

“Cool. Well, where I was going is that earthquakes have three kinds of waves. One’s like a sound wave — it’s called a Pwave or pressure wave and it’s a push-pull motion along the direction the wave is traveling. The second is called an Swave or shear wave. It generates motion in some direction perpendicular to the wave’s path.”

“Not only up-and-down?”

“No, could be any perpendicular direction. Deep in the Earth, rock can slide any which-way. One big difference between the two kinds is that a Pwave travels through both solid and molten rock, but an Swave can’t. Try to apply shearing stress to a fluid and you just stir it around your paddle. The side-to-side shaking isn’t transmitted any further along the wave’s original path. The geophysicists use that difference among other things to map out what’s deep below ground.”

“Parallel and perpendicular should cover all the possibilities. What’s the third kind?”

“It’s about what happens when either kind of deep wave hits the surface. A Pwave will use up most of its energy bouncing things up and down. So will an Swave that’s mostly oriented up-and-down. However, an Swave that’s oriented more-or-less parallel to the surface will shake things side-to-side. That kind’s called a surface wave. It does the most damage and also spreads out more broadly than a P- or Swave that meets the surface with the same energy.”

“This is all very interesting but what does it have to do with Starfleet’s weapons technology? You can’t tell a Romulan captain what direction to come at you from.”

“Of course not, but you can control the polarization angle in your weapon beams.”

“Polarization angle?”

Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave
Electric (E) field is red
Magnetic (B) field is blue
(Image by Loo Kang Wee and
Fu-Kwun Hwang from Wikimedia Commons)

“Yeah. I guess we sort of slid past that point. Any given Swave vibrates in only one direction, but always perpendicular to the wave path. Does that sound familiar?”

“Huh! Yeah, it sounds like polarized light. You still got that light wave movie on Old Reliable?”

“Sure, right here. The red arrow represents the electric part of a light wave. Seismic waves don’t have a magnetic component so the blue arrow’s not a thing for them. The beam is traveling along the y‑axis, and the electric field tries to move electrons up and down in the yz plane. A physicist would say the light beam is planepolarized. Swaves are polarized the same way. See the Enterprise connection?”

“Not yet.”

“Think about the Star Trek force-projection weapons — regular torpedoes, photon torpedoes, ship-mounted phasers, tractor beams, Romulan pulse cannons and the like. They all act like a Pwave, delivering push-pull force along the line of fire. Even if Starfleet’s people develop a shield-shaker that varies a tractor beam’s phase, that’s still just a high-tech version of a club or cannon ball. Beamed Swaves with polarization should be interesting to a Starfleet weapons designer.”

“You may have something. The Bridge crew talks about breaking through someone’s shield. Like you’re using a mace or bludgeon. A polarized wave would be more like an edged knife or saber. Why not rip the shield instead? Those shields are never perfect spheres around a ship. If your beam’s polarization angle happens to match a seam where two shield segments come together — BLOOEY!”

“That’s the idea. And you could jiggle that polarization angle like a jimmy — another way to confuse the opposition’s defense system.”

“I’m picturing a Klingon ship’s butt showing through a rip in its invisibility cloak. Haw!”

~~ Rich Olcott

How To Wave A Camel

“You’re sayin’, Sy, no matter what kind of wave we got, we can break it down by amplitude, frequency and phase?”

“Right, Vinnie. Your ears do that automatically. They grab your attention for the high-amplitude loud sounds and the high-frequency screechy ones. Goes back to when we had to worry about predators, I suppose.”

“I know about music instruments and that, but does it work for other kinds of waves?”

“It works for waves in general. You can match nearly any shape with the right combination of sine waves. There’s a few limitations. The shape has to be single-valued — no zig-zags — and it has to be continuous — no stopping over here and starting over there..”

“Ha! Challenge for you then. Use waves to draw a camel. Better yet– make it a two-humped camel.”

“A Bactrian camel, eh? OK, there’s pizza riding on this, you understand. <keys clicking> All right, image search for Bactrian camel … there’s a good one … scan for its upper profile … got that … tack on some zeroes fore and aft … dump that into my Fourier analysis engine … pull the coefficients … plot out the transform — wait, just for grins, plot it out in stages on top of the original … here you are, Vinnie, you owe me pizza.”

“OK, what it it?”

“Your Bactrian camel.”

“Yeah, I can see that, but what’s with the red line and the numbers?”

“OK, the red line is the sum of a certain number of sine waves with different frequencies but they all start and end at the same places. The number says how many waves were used in the sum. See how the ‘1‘ line is just a single peak, ‘3‘ is more complicated and so on? But I can’t just add sine waves together — that’d give the same curve no matter what data I use. Like in a church choir. The director doesn’t want everyone to sing at top volume all the time. Some passages he wants to bring out the alto voices so he hushes the men and sopranos, darker passages he may want the bases and baritones to dominate. Each section has to come in with its own amplitude.”

“So you give each sine wave an amplitude before you add ’em together. Makes sense, but how do you know what amplitudes to give out?”

“That gets into equations, which I know you don’t like. In practice these days you get all the amplitudes in one run of the Fast Fourier Transform algorithm, but it’s easier to think of it as the stepwise process that they used before the late 1960s. You start with the lowest-frequency sine wave that fits between the start- and end-points of your data.”

“Longest wavelength to match the data length, gotcha.”

“Mm-hm. So you put in that wave with an amplitude near the average value of your data in the middle art of the range. That’s picture number 1.”

“Step 2 is to throw in the next shorter wavelength that fits, right? Half the wavelength, with an amplitude to match the differences between your data and wave 1. And then you keep going.”

“You got the idea. Early physicists and their grad students used up an awful lot of pencils, paper and calculator time following exactly that strategy. Painful. The FFT programs freed them up to do real thinking.”

“So you get a better and better approximation from adding more and more waves. What stopped you from getting it perfect?”

“Two things — first, you can’t use more waves than about half the number of data points. Second, you see the funny business at his nose? Those come from edges and sudden sharp changes, which Fourier doesn’t handle well. That’s why edges look flakey in JPEG images that were saved in high-compression mode.”

“Wait, what does JPEG have to do with this?”

“JPEG and most other kinds of compressed digital image, you can bet that Fourier-type transforms were in play. Transforms are crucial in spectroscopy, astronomy, weather prediction, MP3 music recordings –“

Suddenly Vinnie’s wearing a big grin. “I got a great idea! While that Klingon ship’s clamped in our tractor beam, we can add frequencies that’d make them vibrate to Brahms’ Lullaby.”

“Bad idea. They’d send back Klingon Opera.”

~~ Rich Olcott

How To Phase A Foe

“It’s Starfleet’s beams against Klingon shields, Vinnie. I’m saying both are based on wave phenomena.”

“What kind of wave, Sy?”

“Who knows? They’re in the 24th Century, remember. Probably not waves in the weak or strong nuclear force fields — those’d generate nuclear explosions. Could be electromagnetic waves or gravitational waves, could be some fifth or sixth force we haven’t even discovered yet. Whatever, the Enterprise‘s Bridge crew keeps saying ‘frequency’ so it’s got to have some sort of waveishness.”

“OK, you’re sayin’ whatever’s waving, if it’s got frequency, amplitude and phase then we can talk principles for building a weapon system around it. I can see how Geordi’s upping the amplitude of the Enterprise‘s beam weapons would help Worf’s battle job — hit ’em harder, no problem. Jiggling the frequencies … I sort of see that, it’s what they always talk about doing anyway. But you say messing with beam phase can be the kicker. What difference would it make if a peak hits a few milliseconds earlier or later?”

“There’s more than one wave in play. <keys clicking> Here’s a display of the simplest two-beam interaction.”

“I like pictures, but this one’s complicated. Read it out to me.”

“Sure. The bottom line is our base case, a pure sine wave of some sort. We’re looking at how it’s spread out in space. The middle line is the second wave, traveling parallel to the first one. The top line shows the sum of the bottom two at each point in space. That nets out what something at that point would feel from the combined influence of the two waves. See how the bottom two have the same frequency and amplitude?”

“Sure. They’re going in the same direction, right?”

“Either that or exactly the opposite direction, but it doesn’t matter. Time and velocity aren’t in play here, this is just a series of snapshots. When I built this video I said, ‘What will things look like if the second beam is 30° out of phase with the first one? How about 60°?‘ and so on. The wheel shape just labels how out-of-phase they are, OK?”

“Give me a sec. … OK, so when they’re exactly in sync the angle’s zero and … yup, the top line has twice the amplitude of the bottom one. But what happened to the top wave at 180°? Like it’s not there?”

“It’s there, it’s just zero in the region we’re looking at. The two out-of-phase waves cancel each other in that interval. That’s how your noise-cancelling earphones work — an incoming sound wave hits the earphone’s mic and the electronics generate a new sound wave that’s exactly out-of-phase at your ear and all you hear is quiet.”

“I’ve wondered about that. The incoming sound has energy, right, and my phones are using up energy. I know that because my battery runs down. So how come my head doesn’t fry with all that? Where does the energy go?”

“A common question, but it confuses cause and effect. Yes, it looks like the flatline somehow swallows the energy coming from both sides but that’s not what happens. Instead, one side expends energy to counter the other side’s effect. Flatlines signal success, but you generally get it only in a limited region. Suppose these are sound waves, for example, and think about the molecules. When an outside sound source pushes distant molecules toward your ear, that produces a pressure peak coming at you at the speed of sound, right?”

“Yeah, then…”

“Then just as the pressure peak arrives to push local molecules into your ear, your earphone’s speaker acts to pull those same molecules away from it. No net motion at your ear, so no energy expenditure there. The energy’s burned at either end of the transmission path, not at the middle. Don’t worry about your head being fried.”

“Well that’s a relief, but what does this have to do with the Enterprise?”

“Here’s a sketch where I imagined an unfriendly encounter between a Klingon cruiser and the Enterprise after Geordi upgraded it with some phase-sensitive stuff. Two perpendicular force disks peaked right where the Klingon shield troughed. The Klingon’s starboard shield generator just overloaded.”

“That’ll teach ’em.”

“Probably not.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Top Choice

Al grabs me as I step into his coffee shop. “Sy, ya gotta stop Vinnie, he’s using up paper napkins again, and he’s making a mess!”

Sure enough, there’s Vinnie at his usual table by the door. He’s got a kid’s top, a big one, spinning on a little stand. He’s methodically dropping crumpled-up paper wads onto it and watching them fly off onto the floor. “Hey, Vinnie, what’s the project?”

“Hi, Sy. I’m trying to figure how come these paper balls are doing a circle but when they fly off they always go in a straight line, at least at first. They got going-around momentum, right, so how come they don’t make a spiral like stars in a galaxy?”

Astronomy professor Cathleen’s standing in the scone line. She never misses an opportunity to correct a misconception. “Galaxy stars don’t spray out of the center in a spiral, Vinnie. Like planets going around a star, stars generally follow elliptical orbits around the galactic center. A star that’s between spiral arms now could be buried in one ten million years from now. The spiral arms appear because of how the orbits work. One theory is that the innermost star orbits rotate their ellipse axes more quickly than the outer ones and the spirals form where the ellipses pile up. Other theories have to do with increased star formation or increased gravitational attraction within the pile-up regions. Probably all three contribute to the structures. Anyhow, spirals don’t form from the center outward.”

My cue for some physics. “What happens in a galaxy is controlled by gravity, Vinnie, and gravity doesn’t enter into what you’re doing. Except for all that paper falling onto Al’s floor. There’s no in-plane gravitational or electromagnetic attraction in play when your paper wads leave the toy. Newton would say there’s no force acting to make them follow anything other than straight lines once they break free.”

“What about momentum? They’ve got going-around momentum, right, shouldn’t that keep them moving spirally?”

I haul out Old Reliable for a diagram. “Thing is, your ‘going-around momentum,’ also known as ‘angular momentum,’ doesn’t exist. Calm down, Vinnie, I mean it’s a ‘fictitious force‘ that depends on how you look at it.”

“Is this gonna be frames again?”

“Yup. Frames are one of our most important analytical tools in Physics. Here’s your toy and just for grins I’ve got it going around counterclockwise. That little white circle is one of your paper wads. In the room’s frame that wad in its path is constantly converting linear momentum between the x-direction and the y-direction, right?”

“East-West to North-South and back, yeah, I get that.”

“Such a mess to calculate. Let’s make it easier. Switch to the perspective of a frame locked to the toy. In that frame the wad can move in two directions. It can fly away along the radial direction I’ve called r, or it can ride along sideways in the s-direction.”

“So why hasn’t it flown away?”

“Because you put some spit on it to make it stick — don’t deny it, I saw you. While it’s stuck, does it travel in the r direction?”

“Nope, only in the s direction. Which should make it spiral like I said.”

“I’m not done yet. One of Newton’s major innovations was the idea of infinitesimal changes, also known as little-bits. The s-direction is straight, not curved, but it shifts around little-bit by little-bit as the top rotates. Newton’s Laws say force is required to alter momentum. What force influences the wad’s s-momentum?”

“Umm … that line you’ve marked c.”

“Which is the your spit’s adhesive force between the paper and the top. The wad stays stuck until the spit dries out and no more adhesion so no more c-force. Then what happens?”

“It flies off.”

“In which direction?”

“Huh! In the r-direction.”

“And in a straight line, just like Newton said. What you called ‘going-around momentum’ becomes ‘radial momentum’ and there’s no spiraling, right?”

“I guess you’re right, but I miss spirals.”

Al comes over with a broom. “Now that’s settled, Vinnie, clean up!”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks for the question, Jen Keeler. Stay tuned.

The Big Chill

Jeremy gets as far as my office door, then turns back. “Wait, Mr Moire, that was only half my question. OK, I get that when you squeeze on a gas, the outermost molecules pick up kinetic energy from the wall moving in and that heats up the gas because temperature measures average kinetic energy. But what about expansion cooling? Those mist sprayers they set up at the park, they don’t have a moving outer wall but the air around them sure is nice and cool on a hot day.”

“Another classic Jeremy question, so many things packed together — Gas Law, molecular energetics, phase change. One at a time. Gas Law’s not much help, is it?”

“Mmm, guess not. Temperature measures average kinetic energy and the Gas Law equation P·V = n·R·T gives the total kinetic energy for the n amount of gas. Cooling the gas decreases T which should reduce P·V. You can lower the pressure but if the volume expands to compensate you don’t get anywhere. You’ve got to suck energy out of there somehow.”

Illustrations adapted from drawings by Trianna

“The Laws of Thermodynamics say you can’t ‘suck’ heat energy out of anything unless you’ve got a good place to put the heat. The rule is, heat energy travels voluntarily only from warm to cold.”

“But, but, refrigerators and air conditioners do their job! Are they cheating?”

“No, they’re the products of phase change and ingenuity. We need to get down to the molecular level for that. Think back to our helium-filled Mylar balloon, but this time we lower the outside pressure and the plastic moves outward at speed w. Helium atoms hit the membrane at speed v but they’re traveling at only (v-w) when they bounce back into the bulk gas. Each collision reduces the atom’s kinetic energy from ½m·v² down to ½m·(v-w)². Temperature goes down, right?”

“That’s just the backwards of compression heating. The compression energy came from outside, so I suppose the expansion energy goes to the outside?”

“Well done. So there has to be something outside that can accept that heat energy. By the rules of Thermodynamics, that something has to be colder than the balloon.”

“Seriously? Then how do they get those microdegree above absolute zero temperatures in the labs? Do they already have an absolute-zero thingy they can dump the heat to?”

“Nope, they get tricky. Suppose a gas in a researcher’s container has a certain temperature. You can work that back to average molecular speed. Would you expect all the molecules to travel at exactly that speed?”

“No, some of them will go faster and some will go slower.”

“Sure. Now suppose the researcher uses laser technology to remove all the fast-moving molecules but leave the slower ones behind. What happens to the average?”

“Goes down, of course. Oh, I see what they did there. Instead of the membrane transmitting the heat away, ejected molecules carry it away.”

“Yup, and that’s the key to many cooling techniques. Those cooling sprays, for instance, but a question first — which has more kinetic energy, a water droplet or the droplet’s molecules when they’re floating around separately as water vapor?”

“Lessee… the droplet has more mass, wait, the molecules total up to the same mass so that’s not the difference, so it’s droplet velocity squared versus lots of little velocity-squareds … I’ll bet on the droplet.”

“Sorry, trick question. I left out something important — the heat of vaporization. Water molecules hold pretty tight to each other, more tightly in fact than most other molecular substances. You have to give each molecule a kick to get it away from its buddies. That kick comes from other molecules’ kinetic energy, right? Oh, and one more thing — the smaller the droplet, the easier for a molecule to escape.”

“Ah, I see where this is going. The mist sprayer’s teeny droplets evaporate easy. The droplets are at air temperature, so when a molecule breaks free some neighbor’s kinetic energy becomes what you’d expect from air temperature, minus break-free energy. That lowers the average for the nearby air molecules. They slow their neighbors. Everything cools down. So that’s how sprays and refrigerators and such work?”

“That’s the basic principle.”

“Cool.”

~ Rich Olcott

Thanks to Mitch Slevc for the question that led to this post.

The Hot Squeeze

A young man’s knock, eager yet a bit hesitant.

“C’mon in, Jeremy, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Mr Moire. How’s your Summer so far? I got an ‘A’ on that black hole paper, thanks to your help. Do you have time to answer a question now that Spring term’s over?”

“Hi, Jeremy. Pretty good, congratulations, and a little. What’s your question?”

“I don’t understand about the gas laws. You squeeze a gas, you raise its temperature, but temperature’s the average kinetic energy of the molecules which is mass times velocity squared but mass doesn’t change so how does the velocity know how big the volume is? And if you let a gas expand it cools and how does that happen?”

“A classic Jeremy question. Let’s take it a step at a time, big-picture view first. The Gas Law says pressure times volume is proportional to the amount of gas times the temperature, or P·V = n·R·T where n measures the amount of gas and R takes care of proportionality and unit conversions. Suppose a kid gets on an airplane with a balloon. The plane starts at sea level pressure but at cruising altitude they maintain cabins at 3/4 of that. Everything stays at room temperature, so the balloon expands by a third –“

Kid drawing of an airplane with a red balloon
Adapted from a drawing by Xander

“Wait … oh, pressure down by 3/4, volume up by 4/3 because temperature and n and R don’t change. OK, I’m with you. Now what?”

“Now the plane lands at some warm beach resort. We’re back at sea level but the temp has gone from 68°F back home to a basky 95°F. How big is the balloon? I’ll make it easy for you — 68°F is 20°C is 293K and 95°F is 35°C is 308K.”

“Volume goes up by 308/293. That’s a change of 15 in about 300, 5% bigger than back home.”

“Nice estimating. One more stop on the way to the molecular level. Were you in the crowd at Change-me Charlie’s dark matter debate?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t get close to the table.”

“Always a good tactic. So you heard the part about pressure being a measure of energy per unit of enclosed volume. What does that make each side of the Gas Law equation?”

“Umm, P·V is energy per volume, times volume, so it’s the energy inside the balloon. Oh! That’s equal to n·R·T but R‘s a constant and n measures the number of molecules so T = P·V/n·R makes T proportional to average kinetic energy. But I still don’t see why the molecules speed up when you squeeze on them. That just packs the same molecules into a smaller volume.”

“You’re muddling cause and effect. Let’s try to tease them apart. What forces determine the size of the balloon?”

“I guess the balance between the outside pressure pushing in, versus the inside molecules pushing out by banging against the skin. Increasing their temperature means they have more energy so they must bang harder.”

“And that increases the outward pressure and the balloon expands until things get back into balance. Fine, but think about individual molecules, and let’s pretend that we’ve got a perfect gas and a perfect balloon membrane — no leaks and no sticky collisions. A helium-filled Mylar balloon is pretty close to that. When things are in balance, molecules headed outward approach the membrane with some velocity v and bounce back inward with the same velocity v though in a different direction. Their kinetic energy before hitting the membrane is ½m·v²; after the collision the energy’s also ½m·v² so the temperature is stable.”

“But that’s at equilibrium.”

“Right, so let’s increase the outside pressure to squeeze the balloon. The membrane closes in at some speed w. Out-bound molecules approach the membrane with velocity v just as before but the membrane’s speed boosts the bounce. The ‘before’ kinetic energy is still ½m·v² but the ‘after’ value is bigger: ½m·(v+w)². The total and average kinetic energy go up with each collision. The temperature boost comes from the energy we put into the squeezing.”

“So the heating actually happens out at the edges.”

“Yup, the molecules in the middle don’t know about it until hotter molecules collide with them.”

“The last to learn, eh?.”

“Always the case.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Thanks to Mitch Slevc for the question that led to this post.

Seesaw to The Stars

I look around the playground. “Where’s the seesaw, Teena?”

“They took it away. That’s good ’cause I hated that thing!”

“Why’s that, Sweetie?”

“I never could play right on it. Almost never. Sometimes there’d be a kid my size on the other end and that worked OK, but a lot of times a big kid got on the other end and bounced me up in the air. The first time I even fell off and they laughed.”

“Well, I can understand that. I’m sure you’ve been nicer than that to the littler kids.”

“Uh-huh, except for Bratty Brian, but he liked it when I bounced him. He called it ‘going to the Moon’.”

“I can understand that, too. If things go just right you come off your seat and float like an astronaut for a moment. I bet he held onto the handles tight.”

“Yeah, I just wasn’t ready for it the first time.”

“Y’know, there’s another way that Brian’s bounces were like a rocket trip to somewhere. They went through the same phases of acceleration and deceleration.”

“Uncle Sy, you know you’re not allowed to use words like that around me without ‘splaining them.”

“Mmm, they both have to do with changing speed. Suppose you’re standing still. Your speed is zero, right? When you start moving your speed isn’t zero any more and we say you’ve accelerated. When you slow down again we say you’re decelerating. Make sense?”

“So when Bratty Brian gets on the low end of the seesaw he’s zero. When I squinch down at my end he accelerates –“

“Right, that’s like the boost phase of a rocket trip.”

“… And when he’s floating at the very top –“

“Like astronauts when they’re coasting, sort of but not really.”

“… And then they decelerate when they land. Bratty Brian did, too. I guess deceleration is like acceleration backwards. But why such fancy words?”

“No-one paid much attention to acceleration until Mr Newton did. He changed Physics forever when he said that all accelerations involve a force of some kind. That thought led him to the whole idea of gravity as a force. Ever since then, when physicists see something being accelerated they look for the force that caused it and then they look for what generated the force. That’s how we learned about electromagnetism and the forces that hold atoms together and even dark matter which is ultra-mysterious.”

“Ooo, I love mysteries! What did Mr Newton tell us about this one?”

“Nothing, directly, but his laws gave us a clue about what to look for. Tell me what forces were in play during Brian’s ‘moon flight’.”

“Let’s see. He accelerated up and then he accelerated down. I guess while he was on the seesaw seat at the beginning the up-acceleration came from an up-force from his end of the board. And the down-acceleration came from gravity’s force. But the gravity force is there all along, isn’t it?”

“Good point. What made the difference is that your initial force was greater than gravity’s so Brian went up. When your force stopped, gravity’s force was all that mattered so Brian came back down again.”

“So it’s like a tug-of-war, first I won then gravity won.”

“Exactly. Now how about the forces when you were on the merry-go-round?”

“OK. Gravity’s always there so it was pulling down on me. The merry-go-round was pushing up?”

“Absolutely. A lot of people think that’s weird, but whatever we stand on pushes up exactly as hard as gravity pulls us down. Otherwise we’d sink into the ground or fly off into space. What about other forces?”

“Oh, yeah, Mr Newton’s outward force pushed me off until … holding the handles made the inward force to keep me on!”

“Nice job! Now think about a galaxy, millions of stars orbiting around like on a merry-go-round. They feel an outward force like you did, and they feel an inward force from gravity so they all stay together instead of flying apart. But…”

“But?”

“Mr Newton’s rules tell us how much gravity the stars need to stay together. The astronomers tell us that there aren’t enough stars to make that much gravity. Dark matter supplies the extra.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Conversation of Energy

Teena’s next dash is for the slide, the high one, of course. “Ha-ha, Uncle Sy, beat you here. Look at me climbing up and getting potential energy!”

“You certainly did and you certainly are.”

“Now I’m sliding down all kinetic energy, wheee!” <thump, followed by thoughtful pause> “Uncle Sy, I’m all mixed up. You said momentum and energy are like cousins and we can’t create or destroy either one but I just started momentum coming down and then it stopped and where did my kinetic energy go? Did I break Mr Newton’s rule?”

“My goodness, those are good questions. They had physicists stumped for hundreds of years. You didn’t break Mr Newton’s Conservation of Momentum rule, you just did something his rule doesn’t cover. I did say there are important exceptions, remember.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t say what they are.”

“And you want to know, eh? Mmm, one exception is that the objects have to be big enough to see. Really tiny things follow quantum rules that have something like momentum but it’s different. Uhh, another exception is the objects can’t be moving too fast, like near the speed of light. But for us the most important exception is that the rule only applies when all the energy to make things move comes from objects that are already moving.”

“Like my marbles banging into each other on the floor?”

“An excellent example. Mr Newton was starting a new way of doing science. He had to work with very simple systems and and so his rules were very simple. One Sun and one planet, or one or two marbles rolling on a flat floor. His rules were all about forces and momentum, which is a combination of mass and speed. He said the only way to change something’s momentum was to push it with a force. Suppose when you push on a marble it goes a foot in one second and has a certain momentum. If you push it twice as hard it goes two feet in one second and has twice the momentum.”

“What if I’ve got a bigger marble?”

“If you have a marble that’s twice as heavy and you give it the one-foot-per-second speed, it has twice the momentum. Once there’s a certain amount of momentum in one of Mr Newton’s simple systems, that’s that.”

“Oh, that’s why I’ve got to snap my steelie harder than the glass marbles ’cause it’s heavier. Oh!Oh!And when it hits a glass one, that goes faster than the steelie did ’cause it’s lighter but it gets the momentum that the steelie had.”

“Perfect. You Mommie will be so proud of you for that thinking.”

“Yay! So how are momentum and energy cousins?”

“Cous… Oh. What I said was they’re related. Both momentum and kinetic energy depend on both mass and speed, but in different ways. If you double something’s speed you give it twice the momentum but four times the amount of kinetic energy. The thing is, there’s only a few kinds of momentum but there are lots of kinds of energy. Mr Newton’s Conservation of Momentum rule is limited to only certain situations but the Conservation of Energy rule works everywhere.”

“Energy is bigger than momentum?”

“That’s one way of putting it. Let’s say the idea of energy is bigger. You can get electrical energy from generators or batteries, chemical energy from your muscles, gravitational energy from, um, gravity –“

“Atomic energy from atoms, wind energy from the wind, solar energy from the Sun –“

“Cloud energy from clouds –“

“Wait, what?”

“Just kidding. The point is that energy comes in many varieties and they can be converted into one another and the total amount of energy never changes.”

“Then what happened to my kinetic energy coming down the slide? I didn’t give energy to anything else to make it start moving.”

“Didn’t you notice the seat of your pants getting hotter while you were slowing down? Heat is energy, too — atoms and molecules just bouncing around in place. In fact, one of the really good rules is that sooner or later, every kind of energy turns into heat.”

“Big me moving little atoms around?”

“Lots and lots of them.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Conversation of Momentum

Teena bounces out of the sandbox, races over to the playground’s little merry-go-round and shoves it into motion. “Come help turn this, Uncle Sy, I wanna go fast!” She leaps onto the moving wheel and of course she promptly falls off. The good news is that she rolls with the fall like I taught her to do.

“Why can’t I stay on, Uncle Sy?”

“What’s your new favorite word again?”

“Mmmo-MMENN-tumm. But that had to do with swings.”

“Swings and lots of other stuff, including merry-go-rounds and even why you should roll with the fall. Which, by the way, you did very well and I’m glad about that because we don’t want you getting hurt on the playground.”

“Well, it does hurt a little on my elbow, see?”

“Let me look … ah, no bleeding, things only bend where they’re supposed to … I think no damage done but you can ask your Mommie to kiss it if it still hurts when we get home. But you wanted to know why you fell off so let’s go back to the sandbox to figure that out.”

<scamper!> “I beat you here!”

“Of course you did. OK, let’s draw a big arc and pretend that’s looking down on part of the merry-go-round. I’ll add some lines for the spokes and handles. Now I’ll add some dots and arrows to show what I saw from over here. See, the merry-go-round is turning like this curvy arrow shows. You started at this dot and jumped onto this dot which moved along and then you fell off over here. Poor Teena. So you and your momentum mostly went left-to-right.”

“But that’s not what happened, Uncle Sy. Here, I’ll draw it. I jumped on but something tried to push me off and then I did fall off and then I rolled. Poor me. Hey, my arm doesn’t hurt any more!”

“How about that? I’ve often found that thinking about something else makes hurts go away. So what do you think was trying to push you off? I’ll give you a hint with these extra arrows on the arc.”

“That looks like Mr Newton’s new directions, the in-and-out direction and the going-around one. Oh! I fell off along the in-and-out direction! Like I was a planet and the Sun wasn’t holding me in my orbit! Is that what happened, I had out-momentum?”

“Good thinking, Teena. Mr Newton would say that you got that momentum from a force in the out-direction. He’d also say that if you want to stand steady you need all the forces around you to balance each other. What does that tell you about what you need to do to stay on the merry-go-round?”

“I need an in-direction force … Hah, that’s what I did wrong! I jumped on but I didn’t grab the handles.”

“Lesson learned. Good.”

“But what about the rolling?”

“Well, in general when you fall it’s nearly always good to roll the way your body’s spinning and only try to slow it down. People who put out an arm or leg to stop a fall often stress it and and maybe even tear or break something.”

“That’s what you’ve told me. But what made me spin?”

“One of Mr Newton’s basic principles was a rule called ‘Conservation of Momentum.’ It says that you can transfer momentum from one thing to another but you can’t create it or destroy it. There are some important exceptions but it’s a pretty good rule for the cases he studied. Your adventure was one of them. Look back at the picture I drew. You’d built up a lot of going-around momentum from pushing the merry-go-round to get it started. You still had momentum in that direction when you fell off. Sure enough, that’s the direction you rolled.”

“Is that the ‘Conversation of Energy’ thing that you and Mommie were talking about?”

“Conservation. It’s not the same but it’s closely related.”

“Why does it even work?”

“Ah, that’s such a deep question that most physicists don’t even think about it. Like gravity, Mr Newton described what inertia and momentum do, but not how they work. Einstein explained gravity, but I’m not convinced that we understand mass yet.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Momentous Occasion

<creak> Teena’s enjoying her new-found power in the swings. “Hey, Uncle Sy? <creak> Why doesn’t the Earth fall into the Sun?”

“What in the world got you thinking about that on such a lovely day?”

“The Sun gets in my eyes when I swing forward <creak> and that reminded me of the time we saw the eclipse <creak> and that reminded of how the planets and moons are all floating in space <creak> and the Sun’s gravity’s holding them together but if <creak> the Sun’s pulling on us why don’t we just fall in?” <creak>

“An excellent question, young lady. Isaac Newton thought about it long and hard back when he was inventing Physics.”

“Isaac Newton? Is he the one with all the hair and a long, skinny nose and William Tell shot an arrow off his head?”

“Well, you’ve described his picture, but you’ve mixed up two different stories. William Tell’s apple story was hundreds of years before Newton. Isaac’s apple story had the fruit falling onto his head, not being shot off of it. That apple got him thinking about gravity and how Earth’s gravity pulling on the apple was like the Sun’s gravity pulling on the planets. When he was done explaining planet orbits, he’d also explained how your swing works.”

“My swing works like a planet? No, my swing goes back and forth, but planets go round and round.”

“Jump down and we can draw pictures over there in the sandbox.”

<thump!! scamper!> “I beat you here!”

“Of course you did. OK, what’s your new M-word?”

“Mmmo-MMENN-tummm!”

“Right. Mr Newton’s Law of Inertia is about momentum. It says that things go in a straight line unless something interferes. It’s momentum that keeps your swing going.”

“B-u-u-t, I wasn’t going in a straight line, I was going in part of a circle.”

“Good observing, Teena, that’s exactly right. Mr Newton’s trick was that a really small piece of a circle looks like a straight line. Look here. I’ll draw a circle … and inside it I’ll put a triangle… and between them I’ll put a hexagon — see how it has an extra point halfway between each of the triangle’s points? — and up top I’ll put the top part of whatever has 12 sides. See how the 12-thing’s sides are almost on the circle?”

“Ooo, that’s pretty! Can we do that with a square, too?”

“Sure. Here’s the circle … and the square … and an octagon … and a 16-thing. See, that’s even closer to being a circle.”

“Ha-ha — ‘octagon’ — that’s like ‘octopus’.”

“For good reason. An octopus has eight arms and an octagon has eight sides. ‘Octo-‘ means ‘eight.’ So anyway, Mr Newton realized that his momentum law would apply to something moving along that tiny straight line on a circle. But then he had another idea — you can move in two directions at once so you can have momentum in two directions at once.”

“That’s silly, Uncle Sy. There’s only one of me so I can’t move in two directions at once.”

“Can you move North?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Can you move East?”

“Sure.”

“Can you move Northeast?”

“Oh … does that count as two?”

“It can for some situations, like planets in orbit or you swinging on a swing. You move side-to-side and up-and-down at the same time, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“When you’re at either end of the trip and as far up as you can get, you stop for that little moment and you have no momentum. When you’re at the bottom, you’ve got a lot of side-to-side momentum across the ground. Anywhere in between, you’ve got up-down momentum and side-to-side momentum. One kind turns into the other and back again.”

“So complicated.”

“Well, it is. Newton simplified things with revised directions — one’s in-or-out from the center, the other’s the going-around angle. Each has its own momentum. The swing’s ropes don’t change length so your in-out momentum is always zero. Your angle-momentum is what keeps you going past your swing’s bottom point. Planets don’t have much in-out momentum, either — they stay about their favorite distance from the Sun.”

“Earth’s angle-momentum is why we don’t fall in?”

“Yep, we’ve got so much that we’re always falling past the Sun.”

~~ Rich Olcott