Symmetrical Eavesdropping

“Wait, Sy, you’ve made this explanation way more complicated than it has to be. All I asked about was the horrible whirling I’d gotten myself into. The three angular coordinates part would have done for that, but you dragged in degrees of freedom and deep symmetry and even dropped in that bit about ‘if measurable motion is defined.’ Why bother with all that and how can you have unmeasurable motion?”

“Curiosity caught the cat, didn’t it? Let’s head down to Eddie’s and I’ll treat you to a gelato. Your usual scoop of mint, of course, but I recommend combining it with a scoop of ginger to ease your queasy.”

“You’re a hard man to turn down, Sy. Lead on.”

<walking the hall to the elevators> “Have you ever baked a cake, Anne?”

“Hasn’t everyone? My specialty is Crazy Cake — flour, sugar, oil, vinegar, baking soda and a few other things but no eggs.”

“Sounds interesting. Well, consider the path from fixings to cake. You’ve collected the ingredients. Is it a cake yet?”

“Of course not.”

“Ok, you’ve stirred everything together and poured the batter into the pan. Is it a cake yet?”

“Actually, you sift the dry ingredients into the pan, then add the others separately, but I get your point. No, it’s not cake and it won’t be until it’s baked and I’ve topped it with my secret frosting. Some day, Sy, I’ll bake you one.”

<riding the elevator down to 2> “You’re a hard woman to turn down, Anne. I look forward to it. Anyhow, you see the essential difference between flour’s journey to cakehood and our elevator ride down to Eddie’s.”

“Mmm… OK, it’s the discrete versus continuous thing, isn’t it?”

“You’ve got it. Measuring progress along a discrete degree of freedom can be an iffy proposition.”

“How about just going with the recipe’s step number?”

“I’ll bet you use a spoon instead of a cup to get the right amount of baking soda. Is that a separate step from cup‑measuring the other dry ingredients? Sifting one batch or two? Those’d change the step‑number metric and the step-by-step equivalent of momentum. It’s not a trivial question, because Emmy Noether’s symmetry theorem applies only to continuous coordinates.”

“We’re back to her again? I thought—”

The elevator doors open at the second floor. We walk across to Eddie’s, where the tail‑end of the lunch crowd is dawdling over their pizzas. “Hiya folks. You’re a little late, I already shut my oven down.”

“Hi, Eddie, we’re just here for gelato. What’s your pleasure, Anne?”

“On Sy’s recommendation, Eddie, I’ll try a scoop of ginger along with my scoop of mint. Sy, about that symmetry theorem—”

“The same for me, Eddie.”

“Comin’ up. Just find a table, I’ll bring ’em over.”

We do that and he does that. “Here you go, folks, two gelati both the same, all symmetrical.”

“Eddie, you’ve been eavesdropping again!”

“Who, me? Never! Unless it’s somethin’ interesting. So symmetry ain’t just pretty like snowflakes? It’s got theorems?”

“Absolutely, Eddie. In many ways symmetry appears to be fundamental to how the Universe works. Or we think so, anyway. Here, Anne, have an extra bite of my ginger gelato. For one thing, Eddie, symmetry makes calculations a lot easier. If you know a particular system has the symmetry of a square, for instance, then you can get away with calculating only an eighth of it.”

“You mean a quarter, right, you turn a square four ways.”

“No, eight. It’s done with mirrors. Sy showed me.”

“I’m sure he did, Anne. But Sy, what if it’s not a perfect square? How about if one corner’s pulled out to a kite shape?”

“That’s called a broken symmetry, no surprise. Physicists and engineers handle systems like that with a toolkit of approximations that the mathematicians don’t like. Basically, the idea is to start with some nice neat symmetrical solution then add adjustments, called perturbations, to tweak the solution to something closer to reality. If the kite shape’s not too far away from squareness the adjusted solution can give you some insight onto how the actual thing works.”

“How about if it’s too far?”

“You go looking for a kite‑shaped solution.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Deep Symmetry

“Sy, I can understand mathematicians getting seriously into symmetry. They love patterns and I suppose they’ve even found patterns in the patterns.”

“They have, Anne. There’s a whole field called ‘Group Theory‘ devoted to classifying symmetries and then classifying the classifications. The split between discrete and continuous varieties is just the first step.”

“You say ‘symmetry‘ like it’s a thing rather than a quality.”

“Nice observation. In this context, it is. Something may be symmetrical, that’s a quality. Or it may be subject to a symmetry operation, say a reflection across its midline. Or it may be subject to a whole collection of operations that match the operations of some other object, say a square. In that case we say our object has the symmetry of a square. It turns out that there’s a limited number of discrete symmetries, few enough that they’ve been given names. Squares, for instance, have D4 symmetry. So do four-leaf clovers and the Washington Monument.”

“OK, the ‘4’ must be in there because you can turn it four times and each time it looks the same. What’s the ‘D‘ about?”

Dihedral, two‑sided, like two appearances on either side of a reflection. That’s opposed to ‘C‘ which comes from ‘Cyclic’ like 1‑2‑3‑4‑1‑2‑3‑4. My lawn sprinkler has C4 symmetry, no mirrors, but add one mirror and bang! you’ve got eight mirrors and D4 symmetry.”

“Eight, not just four?”

“Eight. Two mirrors at 90° generate another one 45° between them. That’s the thing with symmetry operations, they combine and multiply. That’s also why there’s a limited number of symmetries. You think you’ve got a new one but when you work out all the relationships it turns out to be an old one looked at from a different angle. Cubes, for instance — who knew they have a three‑fold rotation axis along each body diagonal, but they do.”

“I guess symmetry can make physics calculations simpler because you only have to do one symmetric piece and then spread the results around. But other than that, why do the physicists care?”

“Actually they don’t care much about most of the discrete symmetries but they care a whole lot about the continuous kind. A century ago, a young German mathematician named Emmy Noether proved that within certain restrictions, every continuous symmetry comes along with a conserved quantity. That proof suddenly tied together a bunch of Physics specialties that had grown up separately — cosmology, relativity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, optics, classical Newtonian mechanics, fluid mechanics, nuclear physics, even string theory—”

“Very large to very small, I get that, but how can one theory have that range? And what’s a conserved quantity?”

“It’s theorem, not theory, and it capped two centuries of theoretical development. Conserved quantities are properties that don’t change while a system evolves from one state to another. Newton’s First Law of Motion was about linear momentum as a conserved quantity. His Second Law, F=ma, connected force with momentum change, letting us understand how a straight‑line system evolves with time. F=ma was our first Equation of Motion. It was a short step from there to rotational motion where we found a second conserved quantity, angular momentum, and an Equation of Motion that had exactly the same form as Newton’s first one, once you converted from linear to angular coordinates.”

“Converting from x-y to radius-angle, I take it.”

“Exactly, Anne, with torque serving as F. That generalization was the first of many as physicists learned how to choose the right generalized coordinates for a given system and an appropriate property to serve as the momentum. The amazing thing was that so many phenomena follow very similar Equations of Motion — at a fundamental level, photons and galaxies obey the same mathematics. Different details but the same form, like a snowflake rotated by 60 degrees.”

“Ooo, lovely, a really deep symmetry!”

“Mm-hm, and that’s where Noether came in. She showed that for a large class of important systems, smooth continuous symmetry along some coordinate necessarily entails a conserved quantity. Space‑shift symmetry implies conservation of momentum, time‑shift symmetry implies conservation of energy, other symmetries lock in a collection of subatomic quantities.”

“Symmetry explains a lot, mm-hm.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Edged Things and Smooth Things

Yeughh, Sy, that whirling, the entire Universe spinning around me in every direction at once.”

“Well, you were at a point of spherical symmetry, Anne.”

“There’s that word ‘symmetryagain. Right side matches left side, what else is there to say?”

“A whole lot, especially after the mathematicians and physicists started playing with the basic notion.”

“Which is?”

“Being able to execute a transformation without making a relevant difference.”

“Relevant?”

“To the context. Swapping the king of spades for the king of hearts would be relevant in some card games but not others, right? If it doesn’t affect the play or the scoring, swapping those two when no‑one’s looking would be a legitimate symmetry operation. Spin a snowflake 60° and it looks the same unless you care exactly where each molecule is. That’s rotational symmetry, but there’s lots of geometric symmetry operations — reflections, inversions, glides, translations—”

“Translation is a symmetry operation?”

“In this connection, ‘translation‘ means movement or swapping between two different places in space. The idea came from crystals. Think of a 3D checkerboard, except the borderlines aren’t necessarily perpendicular. Perfect crystals are like that. Every cube‑ish cell contains essentially the same arrangement of atoms. In principle you could swap the contents of any two cells without making a difference in any of the crystal’s measurable properties. That’d be a translation symmetry operation.”

“Glides make me think of ice skating.”

“The glide operation makes me think of a chess knight’s move — a translation plus a reflection across the translation path. Think of wet footprints crossing a dry floor. That’s one example of combining operations to create additional symmetries. You can execute 48 unique symmetry operations on a cube even without the translation‑related ones. In my grad school’s crystallography class they taught us about point group and wallpaper and space group symmetries. It blew me away — beautiful in both mathematical and artistic senses. You’ve seen M C Escher’s art?”

“Of course, I love it. I pushed into his studio once to watch him work but he spotted me and shouted something Dutch at me. I’ve wondered what he thought when I pushed out of there.”

“His pieces drew heavily on geometric symmetries. So did Baroque art, music and architecture.”

“Music? Oh, yes — they had motifs and whole sections you could swap, and rhythm patterns and tunes you could read forwards and backwards like in a mirror… We’ve come a long way from snowflake symmetry, haven’t we?”

“We’re just getting started. Here’s where the Physics folks generalized the idea. Your unfortunate experience in space is right on the edge of what most people consider as symmetry. Were you impressed with the cube’s 48 operations?”

“I suppose. I haven’t had time to think about it.”

“A sphere has an infinite number. You could pick any of an infinite number of lines through its center. Each is an axis for an infinite number of rotational symmetries. Times two because there’s an inversion point at the center so the rotation could go in either direction. Then each line is embedded in an infinite number of reflection planes.”

“Goodness, no wonder I was dizzy. But it’s still geometry. What was the edge that the physicists went past?”

“The border between step‑at‑a‑time discrete symmetries and continuous ones. Rotate that snowflake 60° and you’ve got a match; anything not a multiple of 60° won’t pair things up. Across the border, some of the most important results in modern Physics depend on continuous symmetries.”

“How can you even have a continuous symmetry?”

“Here, I’ll draw a circle on this square of paper. I can rotate the square by 90, 180 or 270 degrees and everything’s just the way it was. But if the square’s not relevant because we’re only interested in the circle, then I can rotate the paper by any amount I like and it’s a no‑difference transformation, right?”

“Continuous like on an infinite line but it’s wrapped around.”

“Exactly, and your infinite line is another example — any translation along that line, by a mile or a millimeter, is a perfectly good symmetry operation.”

“Ooo, and time, too. I experience time as an infinite line.”

“So does everyone. but most only travel in one direction.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Ways To Get Dizzy

<FZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzttt!> “Urk … ulp … I need to sit down, quick.”

“Anne? Welcome back, the couch is over there. Goodness, you do look a little green. Can I get you something to drink?”

“A little cool water might help, thanks.”

“Here. Just sit and breathe. That wasn’t your usual fizzing sound when you visit my office. When you’re ready tell me what happened. Must have been an experience, considering some of your other superpower adventures. Where did you ‘push‘ to this time?”

“Well, you know when I push forward I go into the future and when I push backward I go into the past. When I push up or down I get bigger or smaller. You figured out how pushing sideways kicks me to alternate probabilities. And then <shudder> there was that time I found a new direction to push and almost blew up the Earth.”

“Yes, that was a bad one. I’d think you’ve pretty well used up all the directions, though.”

“Not quite. This time I pushed outwards, the same in every direction.”

“Creative. And what happened?”

“Suddenly I was out in deep space, just tumbling in the blackness. There wasn’t an up or down or anything. I couldn’t even tell how big I was. I could see stars way off in the distance or maybe they were galaxies, but they were spinning all crazy. It took me a minute to realize it was me that was spinning, gyrating in several ways at once. It was scary and nauseating but I finally stopped part of it.”

“Floating in space with nothing to kill your angular momentum … how’d you manage to stabilize yourself at all?”

“Using my push superpower, of course. The biggest push resistance is against the past. I pulled pastward from just my shoulders and that stopped my nose‑diving but I was still whirling and cart‑wheeling. I tried to stop that with my feet but that only slowed me down and I was getting dizzy. My white satin had transformed into a spacesuit and I definitely didn’t want to get sick in there so I came home.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Oh, that was simple, I pulled inward. I had to um, zig‑zag? until I got just the right amount.”

“That explains the odd fizzing. I’m glad you got back. Looks like you’re feeling better now.”

“Mostly. Whew! So, Mr Physicist Sy, help me understand it all. <her voice that sounds like molten silver> Please?”

“Well. Um. There’s a couple of ways to go here. I’ll start with degrees of freedom, okay?”

“Whatever you say.”

“Right. You’re used to thinking in straight‑line terms of front/back, left/right and up/down, which makes sense if you’re on a large mostly‑flat surface like on Earth. In mathspeak each of those lines marks an independent degree of freedom because you can move along it without moving along either of the other two.”

“Like in space where I had those three ways to get dizzy.”

“Yup, three rotations at right angles to each other. Boatmen and pilots call them pitch, roll and yaw. Three angular degrees of freedom. Normal space adds three x-y-z straight‑line degrees, but you wouldn’t have been able to move along those unless you brought along a rocket or something. I guess you didn’t, otherwise you could have controlled that spinning.”

“Why would I have carried a rocket when I didn’t know where I was going? Anyhow, my push‑power can drive my straight‑line motion except I didn’t know where I was and that awful spinning had me discombobulated”

“Frankly, I’m glad I don’t know how you feel. Anyhow, if measurable motion is defined along a degree of freedom the measurement is called a coordinate. Simple graphs have an x-coordinate and a y-coordinate. An origin plus almost any three coordinates makes a coordinate system able to locate any point in space. The Cartesian x-y-z system uses three distances or you can have two distances and an angle, that’s cylindrical coordinates, or two angles and one distance and that’s polar coordinates.”

“Three angles?”

“You don’t know where you are.”

<shudder>
 <shudder>

~~ Rich Olcott

Chutes And Landers

From: Robin Feder <rjfeder@fortleenj.com>
To: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
Subj: Questions

Hello again, Mr Moire. Kalif and I have a question. We were talking about falling out of stuff and we wondered how high you have to fall out of to break every bone in your body. We asked our science teacher Mr Higgs and he said it was something that you or Randall Munroe could answer and besides he (Mr Higgs) had to get ready for his next online. Can you tell us? Sincerely, Robin Feder


From: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
To: Robin Feder <rjfeder@fortleenj.com>
Subj: Re: Questions

Hello again, Robin. You do take after your Dad, don’t you? Please give my best to him and to Mr Higgs, who has a massive job. Mr Munroe may already have answered your question somewhere, but I’ll give it a shot.

You’ve assumed that the higher the fall, the harder the hit and the more bones broken. It’s not that simple. Suppose, for instance, that your fall is onto the Moon, whose gravity is 1/6 that of Earth. For any amount of impact, however high the fall would have been on Earth, it’d be six times higher on the Moon. So the answer depends where you’re falling.

But the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere worth paying attention to. That’s important because atmospheres impose a speed limit, technically known as terminal velocity, that depends on a whole collection of things

  • the Mass of the falling object
  • the local strength of Gravity
  • the Density of the atmosphere
  • the object’s cross‑sectional Area in the direction of fall

The first two produce the downward pull of gravity, the others produce the upward push of air resistance. Fun fact — in Galileo’s “All things fall alike” experiments, he always used spheres in order to cancel the effects of air resistance in his comparisons.

Let’s put some numbers to it. Suppose someone’s at Earth’s “edge of space” 100 kilometers up. From the PE=m·g·h formula for gravitational potential energy and dividing out their mass which I don’t know, they have 9.8×105 joules/kilogram of potential energy relative to Earth’s surface. Now suppose they convert that potential to kinetic energy by falling to the surface with no air resistance. Using KE=m·v² I calculate they’d hit at about 1000 meters/second. But in real life, the terminal velocity of a falling human body is about 55 meters/second.

That Area item is why parachutes work. Make a falling object’s area larger and it’ll have to push aside more air molecules on its way down. Anyone wanting to survive a fall wants as much area as they can get. A parachute’s fabric canopy gives them a huge area and a big help. Parachute drops normally hit at about 5 meters/second. Trained people walk away from that all the time. Mostly.

Which gets to the matter of how you land. Parachute training schools and martial arts dojos give you the same advice — don’t try to stop your fall, just tuck in your chin and twist to convert vertical kinetic energy to rolling motion. Rigid limbs lead to bones breaking, ligaments tearing and joints going out of joint.

So let’s talk bones. Adults have about 210 of them, about 90 fewer than when they were a kid. Bones start out as separate bony patches embedded in cartilage. The patches eventually join together as boney tissue and the cartilage proportion decreases with age. Bottom line — kid bones are bendy, old bones snap more easily. For your question, breaking “every bone in your body” is a bigger challenge if you’re young.

But all bones aren’t equal — some are more vulnerable than others. Sesamoid bones, like the ones at the base of your thumb, are millimeter‑sized and embedded in soft tissue that protects them. The tiny “hammer, anvil and stirrup” ear bones are buried deep in hard bony tissue that protects them, too. Thanks to bones and soft tissues that would absorb nearly all the energy of impact, these small bones are almost invulnerable.

To summarize, no matter how high up from Earth you fall from, you can’t fall fast enough to hit hard enough to break every bone in your body. Be careful anyhow.

Regards,
Sy Moire.

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Xander and Lucas for their input.

Here’s a Different Angle

“OK, Sy, so there’s a bulge on the Moon’s side of the Earth and the Earth rotates but the bulge doesn’t and that makes the Moon’s orbit just a little bigger and you’ve figured out that the energy it took to lift the Moon raised Earth’s temperature by a gazillionth of a degree, I got all that, but you still haven’t told Al and me how the lifting works.”

“You wouldn’t accept it if I just said, ‘The Moon lifts itself by its bootstraps,’ would you?”

“Not for a minute.”

“And you don’t like equations. <sigh> OK, Al, pass over some of those paper napkins.”

“Aw geez, Sy.”

“You guys asked the question and this’ll take diagrams, Al. Ante up. … Thanks. OK, remember the time Cathleen and I caught Vinnie here at Al’s shop playing with a top?”

“Yeah, and he was spraying paper wads all over the place.”

“I wasn’t either, Al, it was the top sending them out with centri–…, some force I can never remember whether it’s centrifugal or centripetal.”

“Centrifugal, Vinnie, –fugal– like fugitive, outward‑escaping force. It’s one of those ‘depends on how you look at itfictitious forces. From where you were sitting, the wads looked like they were flying outward perpendicular to the top’s circle. From a wad’s point of view, it flew in a straight line tangent to the circle. It’s like we have two languages, Room and Rotor. They describe the same phenomena but from different perspectives.”

“Hey, it’s frames again, ain’t it?”

“Newton’s inertial frames? Sort‑of but not quite. Newton’s First Law only holds in the Room frame — no acceleration, motion is measured by distance, objects at rest stay put. Any other object moves in a straight line unless its momentum is changed by a force. You can tackle a problem by considering momentum and force components along separate X and Y axes. Both X and Y components work the same way — push twice as hard in either direction, get twice the acceleration in that direction. Nice rules that the Rotor frame doesn’t play by.”

“I guess not. The middle’s the only place an object can stay put, right?”

“Exactly, Al. Everything else looks like it’s affected by weird, constantly‑varying forces that’re hard to describe in X‑Y terms.”

“So that breaks Newton’s physics?”

“Of course not. We just have to adapt his F=m·a equation (sorry, Vinnie!) to Rotor conditions. For small movements we wind up with two equations. In the strict radial direction it’s still F=m·a where m is mass like we know it, a is acceleration outward or inward, and F is centrifugal or centripetal, depending. Easy. Perpendicular to ‘radial‘ we’ve got ‘angular.’ Things look different there because in that direction motion’s measured by angle but Newton’s Laws are all about distances — speed is distance per time, acceleration is speed change per time and so forth.”

“So what do you do?”

“Use arc length. Distance along an arc is proportional to the angle, and it’s also proportional to the radius of the arc, so just multiply them together.”

“What, like a 45° bend around a 2-foot radius takes 90 feet? That’s just wrong!”

“No question, Al. You have to measure the angle in the right units. Remember the formula for a circle’s circumference?”

“Sure, it’s 2πr.”

“Which tells you that a full turn’s length is times the radius. We can bridge from angle to arc length using rotational units so that a full turn, 360°, is units. We’ll call that unit a radian. Half a circle is π radians. Your 45° angle in radians is π/4 or about ¾ of a radian. You’d need about (¾)×(2) or 1½ feet of whatever to get 45° along that 2-foot arc. Make sense?”

“Gimme a sec … OK, I’m with you.”

“Great. So if angular distance is radius times angle, then angular momentum which is mass times distance per time becomes mass times radius times angle per time.”

“”Hold on, Sy … so if I double the mass I double the momentum just like always, but if something’s spinning I could also double the angular momentum by doubling the radius or spinning it twice as fast?”

“Couldn’t have put it better myself, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Traffic Control

Jeremy Yazzie @jeremyaz
hi @symoire, this is jeremy. ive been reading about the osiris‑rex mission to astrroid bennu and how they’re bringing back a sample – so complicated – fancy robot arm, n2 squirter, air‑cleaner thingy – y not just vacuum the dust or pick up a rock?


Sy Moire @symoire
@jeremyaz – quick answer is that Bennu and OSIRIS-REx are already surrounded by the vacuum of space. Sample collectors can’t suck any harder that that. I’ll email you a more complete answer later


Hi, Sy, can you believe this weather? Temps last week were twice today’s high.

Not to a physicist, Sis.
Those 90s and today’s 45 are just Fahrenheit
scale numbers.
Can’t do ratios between them, “twice” does not compute.
I don’t suppose it would help if we went centigrade and said last week’s highs were around 35 and today it’s 5?

No, that’s worse, today’s down by 85% from last week.

Centigrade’s another scale you can’t do ratio arithmetic in. Kelvins is the way to go.
Temp in K tracks the average molecular kinetic energy.
Starts at zero where nothing’s moving and rises in proportion.
Last week’s highs ran around 308 K, today is 278 K.
Today we’re only 10% cooler than last week.

Physicists! Grrrr. However you measure the weather, it still feels cold. No picnic this weekend ;^(


From: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
To: Jeremy Yazzie <jeremyaz@college.edu>
Subj: OSIRIS-REx

Jeremy –

OK, now I’m back at the office I’ve got better tech for writing long answers.

First, the “grab a rock” idea has several issues

  • If you pick up a rock, you only have that rock, says nothing about any of its neighbors or the subsurface material it might have smacked into. Dust should be a much better representation of the whole asteroid.
  • The rock might not be willing to be picked up. When the scientists and engineers were planning the OSIRIS‑REx mission, they didn’t know Bennu’s texture — could be one solid rock or a bunch of middle‑size rocks firmly cemented together or a loose “rubble pile” of all‑size rocks and dust held together by gravity alone, or anything in between.
  • Have you ever played one of those arcade games where you try to pick up a toy with a suspended claw gadget and all you’ve got is a couple of control knobs and a button? Picking up a specific rock, even a willing one, is hard when you’re a robot operating 15 light‑minutes away from the home office.

So dust it is, but how to plan dust collection in low gravity when you know nothing about the texture? Something like a whisk broom and dust pan would work unless the surface is too uneven. Something like a drill or disk sander would be good, except to use either one you need a solid footing to work from or else you go spinning one way when the tool spins the other. (That was a problem on the International Space Station.) The Hayabusa2 mission to asteroid Ryugu used a high‑velocity impactor to create dust, but a bad ricochet or shrapnel could kill the OSIRIS‑REx mission. The planners decided that best alternative was puff‑and‑grab.

So why not an astronautical Roomba that just sucks in the dust? The thing about vacuum is that it’s a place where gas molecules aren’t. Suppose you’re a gas molecule. You’re surrounded by your buddies, all in motion and bouncing off of each other like on a crowded 3‑D dance floor. You stay more‑or‑less in place because you’re being hit more‑or‑less equally from every direction. Suddenly there’s a vacuum to one side. You’re not hit as much over there so that’s the direction you and a bunch of your buddies move. If you encounter a dust particle, it picks up your momentum and moves toward the emptiness where it could be trapped in somebody’s filter.

The planners decided to capture dust particles by entraining them in a flow of gas molecules through a filter. To make gas flow you need more gas on one side then the other. Gas molecules being few and far between in space, the obvious place to put your pusher gas is inside the filter. Hence the nitrogen squirt technique and the “air‑cleaner thingy.”

— Sy

Diagram of TAGSAM in operation
Adapted from asteroidmission.org/?attachment_id=1699
Credit: University of Arizona

~~ Rich Olcott

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