Reflection, Rotation And Spacetime

“Afternoon, Al.”

“Hiya, Sy. Hey, which of these two scones d’ya like better?”

“”Mm … this oniony one, sorta. The other is too vegetable for me ‑ grass, I think, and maybe asparagus? What’s going on?”

“Experimenting, Sy, experimenting. I’m going for ‘Taste of Spring.’ The first one was spring onion, the second was fiddlehead ferns. I picked ’em myself.”

“Very seasonal, but I’m afraid neither goes well with coffee. I’ll take a caramel scone, please, plus a mug of my usual mud.”

“Aw, Sy, caramel’s a winter flavor. Here you go. Say, while you’re here, maybe you could clear up something for me?”

“I can try. What’s the something?”

“After your multiverse series I got out my astronomy magazines to read up on the Big Bang. Several of the articles said that we’ve gone through several … um, I think they said ‘epochs‘ … separated by episodes of symmetry breaking. What’s that all about?”

“It’s about a central notion in modern Physics. Name me some kinds of symmetry.”

“Mmm, there’s left‑right, of course, and the turning kind like a snowflake has. Come to think — I like listening to Bach and Vivaldi when I’m planet‑watching. I don’t know why but their stuff reminds me of geometry and feels like symmetry.”

“Would it help to know that the word comes from the Greek for ‘same measure‘? Symmetry is about transformations, like your mirror and rotation operations, that affect a system but don’t significantly change to its measurable properties. Rotate that snowflake 60° and it looks exactly the same. Both the geometric symmetries you named are two‑dimensional but the principle applies all over the place. Bach and the whole Baroque era were just saturated with symmetry. His music was so regular it even looked good on the page. Even buildings and artworks back then were planned to look balanced, as much mass and structure on the left as on the right.”

“I don’t read music, just listen to it. Why does Bach sound symmetric?”

“There’s another kind of symmetry, called a ‘translation‘ don’t ask why, where the transformation moves something along a line within some larger structure. That paper napkin dispenser, for instance. It’s got a stack of napkins that all look alike. I pull one off, napkins move up one unit but the stack doesn’t look any different.”

“Except I gotta refill it when it runs low, but I get your drift. You’re saying Bach takes a phrase and repeats it over and over and that sounds like translational symmetry along the music’s timeline.”

“Yup, maybe up or down a few tones, maybe a different register or instrument. The repeats are the thing. Play his Third Brandenberg Concerto next time you’re at your telescope, you’ll see what I mean.”

“Symmetry’s not just math then.”

“Like I said, it’s everywhere. You’ve seen diagrams of DNA’s spiral staircase. It combines translation with rotation symmetry, does about 10 translation steps per turn, over and over. The Universe has a symmetry you don’t see at all. No‑one did until Lorentz and Poincaré revised Heaviside’s version of Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations for Minkowski space. Einstein, Hilbert and Grossman used that work to give us and the Universe a new symmetry.”

“Einstein didn’t do the math?”

“The crew I just named were world‑class in math, he wasn’t. Einstein’s strengths were his physical intuition and his ability to pick problems his math buddies would find interesting. Look, Newton’s Universe depends on absolute space and time. The distance between two objects at a given time is always the same, no matter who’s measuring it or how fast anyone is moving. All observers measure the same duration between two incidents regardless. Follow me?”

“Makes sense. That’s how things work hereabouts, anyway.”

“That’s how they work everywhere until you get to high speeds or high gravity. Lorentz proved that the distances and durations you measure depend on your velocity relative to what you’re measuring. Extreme cases lead to inconsistent numbers. Newton’s absolute space and time are pliable. To Einstein such instability was an abomination. Physics needs a firm foundation, a symmetry between all observers to support consistent measurements throughout the Universe. Einstein’s Relativity Theory rescued Physics with symmetrical mathematical transformations that enforce consistency.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Frame Game

A familiar footstep outside my office, “C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Sy, how ya doin’?”

“Can’t complain. Yourself?”

“Fine, fine. Hey, I been thinking about something you said while Al and us were talking about rockets and orbits and such. You remember that?”

“We’ve done that in quantity. What statement in particular?”

“It was about when you’re in the ISS, you still see like 88% of Earth’s gravity. But I seen video of those astronauts just floating around in the station. Seems to me those two don’t add up.”

“Hah! We’re talking physics of motion here. What’s the magic word?”

“You’re saying it’s frames? I thought black holes did that.”

“Black holes are an extreme example, but frame‑thinking is an essential tool in analyzing any kind of relative motion. Einstein’s famous ‘happy thought‘ about a man in a free‑falling elevator—”

“Whoa, why is that a happy thought? I been nervous about elevators ever since that time we got stuck in one.”

“At least it wasn’t falling, right? Point is, the elevator and whoever’s in it agree that Newton’s First Law of Motion is valid for everything they see in there.”

“Wait, which Law is that?”

“‘Things either don’t move or else they move at a steady pace along a straight line.’ Suppose you’re that guy—”

“I’d rather not.”

“… and the elevator is in a zero‑gravity field. You take something out of your pocket, put it the air in front of you and it stays there. You give it a tap and it floats away in a straight line. Any different behavior means that your entire frame — you, the elevator and anything else in there — is being accelerated by some force. Let’s take two possibilities. Case one, you and the elevator are resting on terra firma, tightly held by the force of gravity.”

“I like that one.”

“Case two, you and the elevator are way out in space, zero‑gravity again, but you’re in a rocket under 1-g acceleration. Einstein got happy because he realized that you’d feel the same either way. You’d have no mechanical way to distinguish between the two cases.”

“What’s that mean, mechanical?”

“It excludes sneaky ways of outside influence by magnetic fields and such. Anyhow, Einstein’s insight was key to extending Newton’s First Law to figuring acceleration for an entire frame. Like, for instance, an orbiting ISS.”

“Ah, you’re saying that floating astronauts in an 88% Earth-gravity field is fine because the ISS and the guys share the frame feeling that 88% but the guys are floating relative to that frame. But down here if we could look in there we’d see how both kinds of motion literally add up.”

“Exactly. It’s just much easier to think about only one kind at a time.”

“Wait. You said the ISS is being accelerated. I thought it’s going a steady 17500 miles an hour which it’s got to do to stay 250 miles up.”

“Is it going in a straight line?”

“Well, no, it’s going in a circle, mostly, except when it has to dodge some space junk.”

“So the First Law doesn’t apply. Acceleration is change in momentum, and the ISS momentum is constantly changing.”

“But it’s moving steady.”

“But not in a straight line. Momentum is a vector that points in a specific direction. Change the direction, you change the momentum. Newton’s Second Law links momentum change with force and acceleration. Any orbiting object undergoes angular acceleration.”

“Angular acceleration, that’s a new one. It’s degrees per second per second?”

“Yup, or radians. There’s two kinds, though — orbiting and spinning. The ISS doesn’t spin because it has to keep its solar panels facing the Sun.”

“But I’ve seen sci-fi movies set in something that spins to create artificial gravity. Like that 2001 Space Odyssey where the guy does his running exercise inside the ship.”

“Sure, and people have designed space stations that spin for the same reason. You’d have a cascade of frames — the station orbiting some planet, the station spinning, maybe even a ballerina inside doing pirouettes.”

“How do you calculate all that?”

“You don’t. You work with whichever frame is useful for what you’re trying to accomplish.”

“Makes my head spin.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Abstract Horses

It was a young man’s knock, eager and a bit less hesitant than his first visit.

“C’mon in, Jeremy, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Mr Moire, it’s me, Jerem…  How did ..?  Never mind.  Ready for my black hole questions?”

“I’ll do what I can, Jeremy, but mind you, even the cosmologists are still having a hard time understanding them.  What’s your first question?”

“I read where nothing can escape a black hole, not even light, but Hawking radiation does come out because of virtual particles and what’s that about?”

“That’s a very lumpy question.  Let’s unwrap it one layer at a time.  What’s a particle?”

“A little teeny bit of something that floats in the air and you don’t want to breathe it because it can give you cancer or something.”

“That, too, but we’re talking physics here.  The physics notion of a particle came from Newton.  He invented it on the way to his Law of Gravity and calculating the Moon’s orbit around the Earth.  He realized that he didn’t need to know what the Moon is made of or what color it is.  Same thing for the Earth — he didn’t need to account for the Earth’s temperature or the length of its day.  He didn’t even need to worry about whether either body was spherical.  His results showed he could make valid predictions by pretending that the Earth and the Moon were simply massive points floating in space.”

Accio abstractify!  So that’s what a physics particle is?”

“Yup, just something that has mass and location and maybe a velocity.  That’s all you need to know to do motion calculations, unless the distance between the objects is comparable to their sizes, or they’ve got an electrical charge, or they move near lightspeed, or they’re so small that quantum effects come into play.  All other properties are irrelevant.”

“So that’s why he said that the Moon was attracted to Earth like the apple that fell on his head was — in his mind they were both just particles.”

“You got it, except that apple probably didn’t exist.”

“Whatever.  But what about virtual particles?  Do they have anything to do with VR goggles and like that?”

“Very little.  The Laws of Physics are optional inside a computer-controlled ‘reality.’  Virtual people can fly, flow of virtual time is arbitrary, virtual electrical forces can be made weaker or stronger than virtual gravity, whatever the programmers decide will further the narrative.  But virtual particles are much stranger than that.”

“Aw, they can’t be stranger than Minecraft.  Have you seen those zombie and skeleton horses?”Horses

“Yeah, actually, I have.  My niece plays Minecraft.  But at least those horses hang around.  Virtual particles are now you might see them, now you probably don’t.  They’re part of why quantum mechanics gave Einstein the willies.”

“Quantum mechanics comes into it?  Cool!  But what was Einstein’s problem?  Didn’t he invent quantum theory in the first place?”

“Oh, he was definitely one of the early leaders, along with Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and that lot.  But he was uncomfortable with how the community interpreted Schrödinger’s wave equation.  His row with Bohr was particularly intense, and there’s reason to believe that Bohr never properly understood the point that Einstein was trying to make.”

“Sounds like me and my Dad.  So what was Einstein’s point?”

“Basically, it’s that the quantum equations are about particles in Newton’s sense.  They lead to extremely accurate predictions of experimental results, but there’s a lot of abstraction on the way to those concrete results.  In the same way that Newton reduced Earth and Moon to mathematical objects, physicists reduced electrons and atomic nuclei to mathematical objects.”

“So they leave out stuff like what the Earth and Moon are made of.  Kinda.”

“Exactly.  Bohr’s interpretation was that quantum equations are statistical, that they give averages and relative probabilities –”

“– Like Schrödinger’s cat being alive AND dead –”

“– right, and Einstein’s question was, ‘Averages of what?‘  He felt that quantum theory’s statistical waves summarize underlying goings-on like ocean waves summarize what water molecules do.  Maybe quantum theory’s underlying layer is more particles.”

“Are those the virtual particles?”

“We’re almost there, but I’ve got an appointment.  Bye.”

“Sure.  Uhh… bye.”

~~ Rich Olcott