Candle, Candle, Burning Bright

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy, it’s Susan Kim. I did a little research after our chat. The whale oil story isn’t quite what we’re told.”

“Funny, I’ve been reading up on whales, too. So what’s your chemical discovery?”

“What do we get from a fire, Sy?”

“Light, heat and leftovers.”

“Mm-hm, and back in 18th Century America, there was plenty of wood and coal for heat. Light was the problem. I can’t imagine young Abe Lincoln reading by the flickering light of his fireplace — he must have had excellent eyesight. If you wanted a mostly steady light you burned some kind of fat, either wax candles or oil lamps.”

“Wait, aren’t fat and wax and oil three different things?”

“Not to a chemist. Fat’s the broadest category, covers molecules and mixtures with chains of ‑CH2‑ groups that don’t dissolve in water. Maybe the chains include a few oxygen atoms but the molecules are basically hydrocarbons. Way before we knew about molecules, though, we started classifying fats by whether or not the material is solid at room temperature. Waxes are solid, oils are liquid. You’re thinking about waxy‑looking coconut oil, aren’t you?”

“Well….”

“Coconuts grow where rooms are warm so we call it an oil, OK? I think it’s fun that you can look at a molecular structure and kind of predict whether the stuff will be waxy or oily.”

“How do you do that?”

“Mmm… It helps to know that a long chain of ‑CH2‑ groups tends to be straight‑ish but if there’s an ‑O‑ link in the chain the molecule can bend and even rotate there. Also, you get a kink in the chain wherever there’s a –CH=CH– double bond. We call that a point of unsaturation.”

“Ah, there’s a word I recognize, from foodie conversations. Saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated — that’s about double bonds?”

“Yup. So what does your physicist intuition make of all that?”

“I’d say the linear saturated molecules ought to pack together better than the bendy unsaturated ones. Better packing means lower entropy, probably one of those solid waxes. The more unsaturation or more ‑O‑ links, the more likely something’s an oil. How’d I do?”

“Spot on, Sy. Now carry it a step further. Think of a –CH2– chain as a long methane. How do suppose the waxes and oils compare for burning?”

“Ooo, now that’s interesting. O2 has much better access to fuel molecules if they’re in the gas phase so a good burn would be a two‑step process — first vaporization and then oxidation. Oils are already liquid so they’d go gaseous more readily than an orderly solid wax of the same molecular weight. Unless there’s something about the –O– links that ties molecules together…”

“Some kinds have hydrogen-bond bridging but most of them don’t.”

“OK. Then hmm… Are the double-bond kinks more vulnerable to oxygen attack?”

“They are, indeed, which is why going rancid is a major issue with the polyunsaturated kinds.”

“Oxidized hydrocarbon fragments can be stinky, huh? Then I’d guess that oil flames tend to be smellier than wax flames. And molecules we smell aren’t getting completely oxidized so the flame would probably be smokier, too. And sootier. Under the same conditions, of course.”

“Uh-huh. Would you be surprised if I told you that flames from waxes tend to be hotter than the ones from oils?”

“From my experience, not surprised. Beeswax candlelight is brighter and whiter than the yellow‑orange light I saw when the frying oil caught fire. Heat glow changes red to orange to yellow to white as the source gets hotter. Why would the waxes burn hotter?”

“I haven’t seen any studies on it. I like to visualize those straight chains as candles burning from the ends and staying alight longer than short oil fragments can, but that’s a guess. Ironic that a hydrogen flame is just a faint blue, even though it’s a lot hotter than any hydrocarbon flame. Carbon’s the key to flamelight. Anyway, the slaughter started when we learned a mature sperm whale’s head holds 500 gallons of waxy spermaceti that burns even brighter than beeswax.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Whale image adapted from a photo by Gabriel Barathieu CC BY SA 2.0

The Venetian Blind Problem

Susan Kim gives me the side‑eye. “Sy, I get real suspicious when someone shows me a graph with no axis markings. I’ve seen that ploy used too often by people pushing a bias — you don’t know what happens offstage either side and you don’t know whether an effect was large or small. Your animated chart was very impressive, how that big methane infrared absorption peak just happens to fill in the space between CO2 and H2O peaks. But how wide is the chart compared to the whole spectrum? Did you cherry‑pick a region that just happens to make your point?”

“Susan, how could you accuse me of such underhanded tactics? But I confess — you’re right, sort of. <more tapping on Old Reliable’s keyboard> The animation only covered the near‑IR wavelengths from 1.0 to 5.0 micrometers. Here’s the whole strip from 0.2 micrometers in the near UV, out to 70 micrometers in the far IR. Among other things, it explains the James Webb Space Telescope, right, Al?”

Spectrum of Earth’s atmosphere. Adapted
under the Creative Commons 3.0 license
from Robert Wohde’s work
with the HITRAN2004 spectroscopic database,

“I know the Webb’s set up for IR astronomy from space, Sy. Wait, does this graph say there’s too much water vapor blocking the galaxy’s IR and that’s why they’re putting the scope like millions of miles away out there?”

“Not quite. The mission designers’ problem was the Sun’s heat, not Earth’s water vapor. The solution was to use Earth itself to shield the device from the Sun’s IR emissions. The plan is to orbit the Webb around the Earth‑Sun L2 point, about a million miles further out along the Sun‑Earth line. Earth’s atmosphere being only 60 miles thick, most of it, the Webb will be quite safe from our water molecules. No, our steamy atmosphere’s only a problem for Earth‑based observatories that have to peer through a Venetian blind with a few missing slats at very specific wavelengths.”

“Don’t forget, guys, the water spectrum is a barrier in both directions. Wavelengths the astronomers want to look at can’t get in, but also Earth’s heat radiation at those wavelengths can’t get out. Our heat balance depends on the right amount of IR energy making it out through where those missing slats are. That’s where Sy’s chart comes in — it identifies the wavelengths under threat by trace gases that aren’t so trace any more.”

“And we’re back to your point, Susan. We have to look at the whole spectrum. I heard one pitch by a fossil fuel defender who based his whole argument on the 2.8‑micrometer CO2 peak. ‘It’s totally buried by water’s absorption,‘ he claimed. ‘Can’t possibly do us any further damage.’ True, so far as it goes, but he carefully ignored CO2‘s other absorption wavelengths. Pseudoscience charlatan, ought to be ashamed of himself. Methane’s not as strong an absorber as CO2, but its peaks are mostly in the right places to do us wrong. Worse, both gas concentrations are going up — CO2 is 1½ times what it was in Newton’s day, and methane is 2½ times higher.”

“Funny how they both go up together. I thought the CO2 thing was about humanity burning fossil fuels but you said methane operations came late to that game.”

“Right on both counts, Al. Researchers are still debating why methane’s risen so bad but I think they’re zeroing in on cow gas — belches and farts. By and large, industry has made the world’s population richer over the past two centuries. People who used to subsist on a grain diet can now afford to buy meat so we’ve expanded our herds. Better off is good, but there’s an environmental cost.”

Al gets a far-away look. “Both those gases have carbon in them, right? How about we burn methane without the carbon in, just straight hydrogen?”

Susan gets excited. “Several groups in our lab are working on exactly that possibility, Al. The 2H2+O2→2H2O reaction yields 30% more energy per oxygen atom than burning methane. We just need to figure out how to use hydrogen economically.”

~~ Rich Olcott

It’s A Trap!

Late morning, no-one else in his coffee shop so Al pulls up a chair. “OK, Susan, so coal’s a mess for ash and air pollution but also each carbon from coal gives us less energy than a carbon from methane. So why the muttering against switching to natural gas?”

“Big-ticket reasons, Al. One, natural gas isn’t pure methane. Mostly methane, sure, but depending on the source you get a whole collection of other things in the mix — heavier hydrocarbons like propane and butane, stinky sulfides and amines, even helium and mercury. Gas from a well has to be purified before you’d want it piped to your house.”

“Piped. Oh, yeah, pipelines. Probably a lot more efficient than coal transport but I see how they get problems, too.”

“Indeed they do. Pipelines break and leak and some idiots even use them for target practice. The worst kind of waste.”

“Yeah, when the oil gets out and ruins the land or someone’s water supply.”

“That’s bad locally, all right, but it’s when methane leaks out that the global damage starts.”

“Global?”

“Mm-hm, because methane’s a gas and mixes in with the rest of the atmosphere. If a pipeline or a truck or anything springs a leak in, say, Chicago, the methane molecules can go anywhere.”

“So?”

“So a couple of things. A decade in the atmosphere oxidizes most methane molecules to, guess what, CO2, the same problematic CO2 we get from burning coal. But before it degrades, methane’s an even bigger heat‑trapper than CO2 is.”

“Whaddaya mean, heat‑trapper?”

“Do you want to take this, Sy? It’s more Physics than Chemistry and besides, my mocha latte’s getting cold.”

“Hmm, there’s a bunch of moving parts in this. Al, you owe Susan a warm-up while I think.”

“Here ya go, Susan.”

“Thanks, Al. I’ll get you guys started. Why did my coffee get cold?”

“Good one, Susan. Al, it’s a universal principle — left to itself, energy spreads out. Heat finds ways to travel from a concentrated, high‑temperature source to low‑temperature absorbers. The exceptions occur when some extra process expends energy to pump heat in the other direction. So, that coffee naturally lost heat to the table by conduction, to the air by convection and to the general environment by radiation. The only thing that can stop those processes is perfect insulation. That’s the thing about the atmosphere.”

“Whoa, that’s a jump or three too fast.”

“OK, let’s follow a sunbeam aimed in the Earth’s direction. Its photons carry a wide range of energies, ultraviolet down to far infrared. On the way in, a UV photon hits an atmospheric ozone molecule and gets absorbed. No more UV photon but now the molecule is in an excited state. It calms down by joggling its neighbor molecules, that’s heat transfer, and maybe emitting a longer wavelength photon or two. Ozone filters out incoming UV and in the process spreads out the photon’s concentrated energy. What’s left in the sunbeam is visible and infrared light that gets down to us. You with me?”

“Makes sense so far.”

“Good. Next stage is that the visible and IR light heat the Earth, which then re-radiates the energy as infrared light mostly at longer wavelengths. The problem is that not all the IR gets out. Water molecules absorb some wavelengths in that range. Every absorption event means more heat distribution into the atmosphere when the molecule relaxes. Ocean evaporation maintains a huge number of IR‑blocking water molecules in the atmosphere.”

“I heard that ‘some‘ weasel‑word. Other wavelengths still make it through, right?”

I unholster Old Reliable, tap a few keys. “Here’s water’s absorption pattern in the mid‑to‑far‑infrared. A high peak means absorption centered at that wavelength. This is scaled per molecule per unit area, so double the molecules gives you double the absorption.”

Spectrum profiles from M. Etminan, et al., doi:10.1002/2016GL071930

“Lots of blank space between the peaks, though.”

“Which is where CO2 and methane get into the game. It’s like putting green and blue filters in front of a red one. With enough of those insulating molecules up there there’s no blank space and lots of imbalance from trapped heat.”

“Methane’s worse.”

“Lots worse.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Hyperbolas But Not Hyperbole

Minus? Where did that come from?”

<Gentle reader — If that question looks unfamiliar, please read the preceding post before this one.>

Jim’s still at the Open Mic. “A clever application of hyperbolic geometry.” Now several of Jeremy’s groupies are looking upset. “OK, I’ll step back a bit. Jeremy, suppose your telescope captures a side view of a 1000‑meter spaceship but it’s moving at 99% of lightspeed relative to you. The Lorentz factor for that velocity is 7.09. What will its length look like to you?”

“Lorentz contracts lengths so the ship’s kilometer appears to be shorter by that 7.09 factor so from here it’d look about … 140 meters long.”

“Nice, How about the clocks on that spaceship?”

“I’d see their seconds appear to lengthen by that same 7.09 factor.”

“So if I multiplied the space contraction by the time dilation to get a spacetime hypervolume—”

“You’d get what you would have gotten with the spaceship standing still. The contraction and dilation factors cancel out.”

“How about if the spaceship went even faster, say 99.999% of lightspeed?”

“The Lorentz factor gets bigger but the arithmetic for contraction and dilation still cancels. The hypervolume you defined is always gonna be just the product of the ship’s rest length and rest clock rate.”

His groupies go “Oooo.”

One of the groupies pipes up. “Wait, the product of x and y is a constant — that’s a hyperbola!”

“Bingo. Do you remember any other equations associated with hyperbolas?”

“Umm… Yes, x2–y2 equals a constant. That’s the same shape as the other one, of course, just rotated down so it cuts the x-axis vertically.”

Jeremy goes “Oooo.”

Jim draws hyperbolas and a circle on the whiteboard. That sets thoughts popping out all through the crowd. Maybe‑an‑Art‑major blurts into the general rumble. “Oh, ‘plus‘ locks x and y inside the constant so you get a circle boundary, but ‘minus‘ lets x get as big as it wants so long as y lags behind!”

Another conversation – “Wait, can xy=constant and x2–y2=constant both be right?”
  ”Sure, they’re different constants. Both equations are true where the red and blue lines cross.”

A physics student gets quizzical. “Jim, was this Minkowski’s idea, or Einstein’s?”

“That’s a darned good question, Paul. Minkowski was sole author of the paper that introduced spacetime and defined the interval, but he published it a year after Einstein’s 1905 Special Relativity paper highlighted the Lorentz transformations. I haven’t researched the history, but my money would be on Einstein intuitively connecting constant hypervolumes to hyperbolic geometry. He’d probably check his ideas with his mentor Minkowski, who was on the same trail but graciously framed his detailed write‑up to be in support of Einstein’s work.”

One of the astronomy students sniffs. “Wait, different observers see the same s2=(ct)2d2 interval between two events? I suppose there’s algebra to prove that.”

“There is.”

“That’s all very nice in a geometric sort of way, but what does s2 mean and why should we care whether or not it’s constant?”

“Fair questions, Vera. Mmm … you probably care that intervals set limits on what astronomers see. Here’s a Minkowski map of the Universe. We’re in the center because naturally. Time runs upwards, space runs outwards and if you can imagine that as a hypersphere, go for it. Light can’t get to us from the gray areas. The red lines, they’re really a hypercone, mark where s2=0.”

From the back of the room — “A zero interval?”

“Sure. A zero interval means that the distance between two events exactly equals lightspeed times light’s travel time between those events. Which means if you’re surfing a lightwave between two events, you’re on an interval with zero measure. Let’s label Vera’s telescope session tonight as event A and her target event is B. If the A–B interval’s ct difference is greater then its d difference then she can see Bif the event is in our past but not beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background. But if a Dominion fleet battle is approaching us through subspace from that black dot, we’ll have no possible warning before they’re on us.”

Everyone goes “Oooo.”

~~ Rich Olcott

There’s Always An Angle

“No, Moire, when I said the glasses get dark or light depending I was talking about those glasses that just block out shiny, like from windows across the street when the Sun hits ’em just wrong.”

“I got this, Sy. That’s about polarized light, Feder, and polarized sunglasses. Sy and me, we talked about that when we were thinkin’ Star Trek weapons.”

“You guys talk about everything, Vinnie.”

“Pretty much. Anyhow, it goes back to how electrons make light. Electrons got charge and that makes an electric field around them, right? When you jiggle an electron up and down the field jiggles and sooner or later that’ll make some other electron jiggle like maybe in your eye and you see that as light. How’m I doing, Sy?”

“You’re on a roll. Keep it going.”

“Okay, so the electron doesn’t have to jiggle only up and down, it can do side‑to‑side if it feels like it or anything in between and the field goes along with all of that. When you got a lot of electrons doing that together, different‑angle waves go out and that poor second electron gets shoved all around the compass, right?”

“Hey, don’t all those jiggles just cancel each other out?”

“Nah, ’cause their timing’s off. They’re not in sync or nothing so the jiggles push in every direction random‑like.”

“How about lasers? I thought their waves all marched in sync.”

“They’re in sync strong‑and‑weak, but I guess whether they’re up‑and‑down in sync depends on the technology, right, Sy?”

“Right, Vinnie. Simple diode laser beams usually aren’t polarized, but special-purpose lasers may be designed with polarization in the package. Of course, any beam can be polarized if it’s bounced off something at just the right angle.”

“What’s the angle got to do with it, Moire?”

“I bet I know. Sy. Is that bounce angle connected to the prism stuff?”

“Nice shot, Vinnie. Carry on.”

“Ok, Feder, follow me ’cause this is a little complicated. Sy, can I borrow your whiteboard?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks. All right, this thick green wiggle is a regular light ray’s electric field, coming in at a low angle and jiggling in all directions. It hits a window or something, that’s the black line, and some of it gets reflected, that’s the red wiggle, and some gets through but not as much which is why the second green line is skinny. The fast‑slow marks are about wave speeds but it’s why the skinny wiggle runs at that weird angle. We good?”

“Mostly, I guess, but where does the polarization come in?”

“I’m gettin’ there. That’s what the dots are about. I’m gonna pretend that all those different polarization directions boil down to either up‑and‑down, that’s the wiggles, and side to side, that’s the dots. Think of the dots as wiggle coming out and going back in cross‑ways to the up‑and‑down. It’s OK to do that, right, Sy?”

“Done in the best families, Vinnie. Charge on.”

“So anyway, the up‑and‑down field can sink into the window glass and mess around with the atoms in there. They pass some of the energy down through the glass but the rest of it gets gets thrown back out like I show it.”

“But there’s no dots going down.”

“Ah-HAH! The side‑to‑side field doesn’t sink into the glass at all ’cause the atoms ain’t set up right for that. That side‑to‑side energy bounces back out and hits you in the eyes which is why you use those polarizing sunglasses.”

“But how do those glasses work is what I asked to begin with.”

“That’s all I got, Sy, your turn.”

“Nice job, Vinnie. How they cut the glare, Mr Feder, is by blocking only Vinnie’s side‑to‑side waves. Glare is mostly polarized light reflected off of horizontal surfaces like water and roadway. Block that and you’re happy. How they work is by selective absorption. The lenses are made of long, skinny molecules stretched out in parallel and doped with iodine molecules. Iodine’s a big, mushy atom with lots of loosely-held electrons, able to absorb many frequencies but only some polarizations. If a light wave passes by jiggling in the wrong direction, its energy gets slurped. No more glare.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Dark Glasses

My office door THUMPs as Richard Feder barrels in. Vinnie’s half out of his chair with his fists balled up but he settles back down when he sees who it is. “Moire, I gotta question.”

“Afternoon, Mr Feder. What brings you to the 12th floor of the Acme Building?”

“My dentist’s up here. They gave me these really dark glasses for when they aimed a bright light in my mouth to harden something in there so I wondered why’re they so dark an’ what about those glasses that can’t make up their minds?”

“Well, Mr Feder, as usual you’ve asked a jumbled question. Let’s see. The answers all boil down to what light is made of and what the glasses are made of.”

“I thought it was photon particles, Sy. The light, I mean.”

“It is, Vinnie, but photons only act like particles when they’re emitted and when they’re absorbed. In between, they act like waves. Dark glasses are all about photons as waves. The simplest case is the plain dark glasses.”

“Yeah, Moire, simple’s good.”

“They’re black because they’ve been doped with black chemicals. If your glasses are actually made of glass, the manufacturer probably dumped iron and sulfur into the melt. When heated those elements combine to form black iron sulfide particles spread throughout the mass. If the glasses are plastic, the manufacture mixed black dye into the formula. Either way, the more dopant added, the blacker the product and the fewer waves make it through the lens.”

“Great, Sy, but how come the black? I remember that Sun-spectrum poster that Al had up in his shop once. Lotsa sharp dark lines that Cathleen said were from different elements absorbing little slices of that rainbow background. But there were plenty of colors left over to make white.”

“Impressive memory, Vinnie. That was what, three years ago? Anyhow, those absorption lines come from separated atoms floating in the hot gas of the solar atmosphere. Quantum mechanics says that an isolated atom has a characteristic set of electron configurations, each with its own energy level. Say an incoming photon meets a gas atom. If the photon’s energy just matches the difference between the atom’s current configuration and some other configuration, suddenly the atom’s in the new configuration and no more photon. It has to match just right or no absorption. Those sharp lines come from that selectivity, OK?”

“So how do you get total black from selective atoms?”

“You don’t. You get black from less‑selective molecules and larger structures. Atoms right next to each other bring entanglement into the action — which electron is where on which atom? Many more configurations, many more differences between energy level pairs, many more lines that can overlap to make broad absorption bands. Suppose you’ve got some glass or plastic doped to have a single band sucking up everything between orange and green. Shine white light into it. Only red light and blue light come through. We see that as purple, a color that’s not even in the spectrum. Make that band even broader like it is with metals and rocks and iron sulfide; nothing gets through.”

“Then how do they do those glasses that get dark or light depending? The factory can’t put chemicals in but take ’em out temporary‑like when you walk inside.”

“Good point. In fact, the glass composition stays the same, sort of. The factory puts in chemicals that change their structure depending on the light level. If you dope optical glass with silver chloride crystallites, for instance, UV light can energize a chloride’s electron up to where it can leave the chloride and be captured by a silver ion. Do that with enough silver ions in the crystallite and you have a tiny piece of silver metal. Enough pieces and the glass looks gray, at least until heat energy joggles things back to the silver chloride ground state. For plastic lenses they use a subtler strategy — large‑ish molecules with spread‑out electron structures. UV light energizes an electron to another level and the molecule twitches to an opaque alternate form that relaxes when heat shakes it down.”

“Heat, huh? No wonder mine don’t work so good on the beach.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Things That Won’t Work

Vinnie gets a far-away look in his eye. I wait. “Ya know, Sy, there oughtta be a way.”

“A way to what?”

“I ain’t giving up on this faster-than-light communication stuff. I know Einstein said it couldn’t happen because it’d flip cause and effect and he didn’t like that, but that feels too much like philosophy books I’ve read that boil down to, ‘This thing can’t be true because I don’t want it to be.’ Maybe there’s something we ain’t thought of yet.”

“Lots of people have played with that challenge for decades. Do you have any fresh ideas?”

“A couple possibles. Lessee if I’ve got this straight. We’ve got two separate message channels going — one that works instant-like for information between entangled quantum thingies, and one for everything else that’s stuck at lightspeed or less. Suppose I’ve got two entangled pizzas— nah, we’re really talking quantum stuff like electrons and photons so I’ll just say particles. Suppose I’ve got two entangled particles that are some ugly mix of red and green but we know when they’re de-linked they’ll be opposite. I send one to you the regular way but they’re still linked. I look at the one I still got and it’s red, say. The same moment, yours instantly went green but you don’t know that yet until you look or you get status information from me through the not‑instant channel. So the problem is getting information to leak between the two channels, right?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“OK, try this one. How about I use a magnetic field or something to force mine to red? And maybe a set time later I make it green to confirm I’m in control and it’s a real signal.”

“Sorry, as soon as you manipulate properties in part of an entangled system you break the entanglement and the other part is free to do whatever it wants to. Next?”

“Uhh … time synchronization. How about you and me set a certain time for me to look at mine? You can watch yours and when it flips or not you’ll know.”

“All that does is move the manipulation to the other end of the setup. Me looking at my particle resets yours to whatever color mine isn’t and that breaks the entanglement. Next?”

“Maybe something with a bunch of particles all entangled together? How about—”

“Nup, can’t base a strategy on that. Like everything else quantum, entanglement is statistical. There’s no guarantee that even in our two‑particle system I’ll see green if you see red — the odds are high but not 100%. There’s a proven theorem that says if two particles are ‘maximally entangled,’ adding a third to the system reduces the odds that any two will coordinate their behaviors. A bunch of particles would be even less stable. It’s called the monogamy theorem, care to guess why?”

“Physics fun with metaphors again, cute, but I can see this is a good one. You got anything?”

“Not having to do with entanglement, but I have been playing with a different idea, sort of a blank‑sky approach.”

“You mean blue‑sky.”

“Uh-uh, blank. Think about a sky made of dark matter. Dark matter’s subject to gravity but so far as we know it has absolutely no interaction with electromagnetism of any kind — doesn’t play with electrons, light waves, nothing. Einstein based part of his relativity work on Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations. In fact, that’s where the idea came from that ‘c‘ was the speed limit for the Universe. It was a good idea and there’s a huge amount of evidence that he was right. Everything in our Standard Model except the photon is subject to the Lorentz factor. Both light and gravity acting on normal matter travel at c‑speed. Well, maybe the value of c has something to do with how quarks work. Dark matter doesn’t have quarks. What if dark matter has a different speed limit, maybe a lot higher than c or even no limit at all? Maybe we could exploit that property somehow. How about a dark‑matter telegraph?”

“I’m thinking of my Grampa’s recipe for rabbit stew. ‘First you gotta catch your rabbit,’ he used to say,”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Pizza Connection

“Wait a minute, Sy. If Einstein’s logic proves we can’t have faster‑than‑light communication, what about all the entanglement hype I see in my science magazines?”

“Hype’s the right word, Vinnie. Entanglement’s a real effect, but it doesn’t play well as a communication channel.”

“OK, why not?”

“Let’s set the stage. We’re still in our personal spaceships and we’ve just ordered pizza from Eddie. The entanglement relationship is independent of time and distance so I’m going to skip over how fast we’re going and pretend that Eddie’s using transporter delivery technology, ok?”

“Fine with me,”

“Good. You order your usual double pepperoni with extra cheese, I ask for Italian sausage. Two pizza boxes suddenly appear on our respective mess tables. No reflection on Eddie, but suppose he has a history of getting orders crossed. The quantum formalism says because our orders were filled at the same time and in a single operation, the two boxes are entangled — we don’t know which is which. Before we open the boxes, each of us has a 50:50 shot of getting the right order. It’s like we’ve got a pair of Schrödinger pizzas, half one order and half the other until we look, right?”

“Won’t happen, Eddie’s a pro.”

“True, but stay with me here. I open my box and immediately I know which pizza you received, no matter how far away your ship is from mine. Is that instantaneous communication between us?”

“Of course not, I’m not gonna know which pizza either of us got until I open my own box. Then I’ll know what my meal’s gonna be and I’ll know what you’re having, too. Actually, I’m probably gonna know first because I get hungry sooner than you.”

“Good point. Anyway, entanglement doesn’t transmit human‑scale information. The only communication between us in our spaceships is still limited by Einstein’s rules. But this is a good setup for us to dig a little deeper into the quantum stuff. You rightly rejected the Schrödinger pizza idea because pizza’s human‑scale. One of those boxes definitely holds your pizza or else it definitely holds mine. There’s no in‑between mixtures with human‑scale pizzas. Suppose Eddie sent quantum‑scale nanopizzas, though. Now things get more interesting.”

“Eddie doesn’t mess up orders.”

<sigh> “Even Eddie can’t keep things straight if he sends out a pair of quantum‑scale pizzas. What’s inside a specific entangled box is called a local property. John Stewart Bell proved some statistical criteria for whether a quantum system’s properties are local or are somehow shared among the entangled objects. Scientists have applied his tests to everything from entangled photons up to little squares of diamond. They’ve tracked quantum properties from spin states to vibration modes. A lot of work went into plugging loopholes in Bell’s criteria.”

“What’d they find?”

“The results keep coming up non-local. Our quantum pizzas truly do not have separate characteristics hiding inside their boxes unless Eddie marked a box to destroy the symmetry. All the objects in an entanglement share all the applicable quantum property values until one object gets measured. Instantly, all the entangled objects snap into specific individual property values, like which box holds which pizza. They stop being entangled, too. That happens no matter how far apart they are. Those experimental results absolutely rule out the local‑property idea which was the most appealing version of the ‘underlying reality‘ that Einstein and Bohr argued over.”

“Wait, I can’t tell you anything faster than light, but these quantum thingies automatically do that instant‑like?”

“Annoying, isn’t it? But it’s a sparse form of messaging. My quantum pizza box can tell yours only two things, ‘I’ve been opened‘ and ‘I hold Italian sausage pizza.’ They’re one‑time messages at the quantum level and you as an observer can’t hear either one. Quantum theoreticians call the interaction ‘wave function collapse‘ but Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance.’ He hated even that limited amount of instantaneous communication because it goes directly against the first principle of Special Relativity. Relativity has been vigorously tested for over a century. It’s stood up to everything they’ve thrown at it — except for this little mouse nibbling at its base.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Speed Limit

“Wait, Sy, there’s something funny about that Lorentz factor. I’m riding my satellite and you’re in your spaceship to Mars and we compare notes and get different times and lengths and masses and all so we have to use the Lorentz factor to correct numbers between us. Which velocity do we use, yours or mine?”

“Good question, Vinnie. We use the difference between our two frames. We can subtract either velocity from the other one and replace v with that number. Strictly speaking, we’d subtract velocity components perpendicular to the vector between us. If I were to try to land on your satellite I’d have to expend fuel and energy to change my frame’s velocity to yours. When we matched frames the velocity difference would be zero, the Lorentz factor would be 1.0 and I’d see your solar array as a perfect 10×10‑meter square. Our clocks would tick in sync, too.”

“OK, now there’s another thing. That Lorentz formula compares our subtracted speeds to lightspeed c. What do we subtract to get c?”

“Deep question. That’s one of Einstein’s big insights. Suppose from my Mars‑bound spaceship I send out one light pulse toward Mars and another one in the reverse direction, and you’re watching from your satellite. No matter how fast my ship is traveling, Einstein said that you’d see both pulses, forward and backward, traveling at the same speed, c.”

“Wait, shouldn’t that be that your speed gets added to one pulse and subtracted from the other one?”

“Ejected mass works that way, but light has no mass. It measures its speed relative to space itself. What you subtract from c is zero. Everywhere.”

“OK, that’s deep. <pause> But another ‘nother thing—”

“For a guy who doesn’t like equations, you’re really getting into this one.”

“Yeah, as I get up to speed it grows on me. HAW!”

“Nice one, you got me. What’s the ‘nother thing?”

“I remembered how velocity is speed and direction but we’ve been mixing them together. If my satellite’s headed east and your spaceship’s headed west, one of us is minus to the other, right? We’re gonna figure opposite v‑numbers. How’s that work out?”

“You’re right. Makes no difference to the Lorentz factor because the square of a negative difference is the same as the square of its positive twin. You bring up an important point, though — the factor applies to both of us. From my frame, your clock is running slow. From your frame, mine’s the slow one. Einstein’s logic says we’re both right.”

“So we both show the same wrong time, no problem.”

“Nope, you see my clock running slow relative to your clock. I see exactly the reverse. But it gets worse. How about getting your pizza before you order it?”

“Eddie’s good, he ain’t that good. How do you propose to make that happen?”

“Well, I don’t, but follow me here. <working numbers on Old Reliable> Suppose we’re both in spaceships. I’m loafing along at 0.75c relative to Eddie’s pizza place on Earth and your ship is doing 3c. Also, suppose that we can transmit messages and mass much faster than lightspeed.”

“Like those Star Trek transporters and subspace radios.”

“Right. OK, at noon on my personal clock you tell me you’ve ordered pizza so I get one, too. Eddie slaps both our pizzas into his transporter 10 minutes later. The math works out that according to my clock you get your pizza 8.9 minutes before you put in your order. You like that?”

“Gimme a sec … nah, I don’t think so. If I read that formula right with v1 being you and v2 being me, if you run that formula for what I’d see with my velocity on the bottom, that’s a square root of a minus which can’t be right.”

“Yup, the calculation gives an imaginary number, 4.4i minutes, whatever that means. So between us we have two results that are just nonsense — I see effect before cause and you see a ridiculous time. To avoid that sort of thing, Einstein set his speed limit for light, gravity and information.”

“I’m willing to keep under it if you are.”

“Deal.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Relativity Factor

“Sy, it’s nice that Einstein agreed with Rayleigh’s wave theory stuff but why’d you even drag him in? I thought the faster‑than‑light thing was settled.”

“Vinnie, faster‑than‑light wasn’t even an issue until Einstein came along. Science had known lightspeed was fast but not infinite since Rømer measured it in Newton’s day. ‘Pretty fast,’ they said, but Newtonian mechanics is perfectly happy with any speed you like. Then along came Einstein.”

“Speed cop, was he?”

“Funny, Vinnie. No, Einstein showed that the Universe enforces the lightspeed limit. It’s central to how the Universe works. Come to think of it, the crucial equation had been around for two decades, but it took Einstein to recognize its significance.”

“Ah, geez, equations again.”

“Just this one and it’s simple. It’s all about comparing v for velocity which is how fast something’s going, to c the speed of light. Nothing mystical about the arithmetic — if you’re going half the speed of light, the factor works out to 1.16. Ninety‑nine percent of c gives you 7.09. Tack on another 9 and you’re up to 22.37 and so on.”

“You got those numbers memorized?”

“Mm-hm, they come in handy sometimes.”

“Handy how? What earthly use is it? Nothing around here goes near that fast.”

“Do you like your GPS? It’d be useless if the Lorentz factor weren’t included in the calculations. The satellites that send us their sync signals have an orbit about 84 000 kilometers wide. They run that circle once a sidereal day, just shy of 86 400 seconds. That works out to 3 kilometers per second and a Lorentz factor of 1.000 005.”

“Yeah, so? That’s pretty close to 1.0.”

“It’s off by 5 parts per million. Five parts per million of Earth’s 25 000-mile circumference is an eighth of a mile. Would you be happy if your GPS directed you to somewhere a block away from your address?”

“Depends on why I’m going there, but I get your point. So where else does this factor come into play?”

“Practically anywhere that involves a precision measurement of length or duration. It’s at the core of Einstein’s Special Relativity work. He thought about observing a distant moving object. It’s carrying a clock and a ruler pointed along the direction of motion. The observer would see ticks of the clock get further apart by the Lorentz factor, that’s time dilation. Meanwhile, they’d see the ruler shrink by the factor’s inverse, that’s space compression.”

“What’s this ‘distant observer‘ business?”

“It’s less to do with distance than with inertial frames. If you’re riding one inertial frame with a GPS satellite, you and your clock stay nicely synchronized with the satellite’s signals. You’d measure its 1×1‑meter solar array as a perfect square. Suppose I’m riding a spaceship that’s coasting to Mars. I measure everything relative to my own inertial frame which is different from yours. With my telescope I’d measure your satellite’s solar array as a rectangle, not a square. The side perpendicular to the satellite’s orbit would register the expected 1 meter high, but the side pointing along the orbit would be shorter, 1 meter divided by the Lorentz factor for our velocity difference. Also, our clocks would drift apart by that Lorentz factor.”

“Wait, Sy, there’s something funny about that equation.”

“Oh? What’s funny?”

“What if somebody’s speed gets to c? That’d make the bottom part zero. They didn’t let us do that in school.”

“And they shouldn’t — the answer is infinity. Einstein spotted the same issue but to him it was a feature, not a bug. Take mass, for instance. When they meet Einstein’s famous E=mc² equation most people think of the nuclear energy coming from a stationary lump of uranium. Newton’s F=ma defined mass in terms of a body’s inertia — the greater the mass, the more force needed to achieve a certain amount of acceleration. Einstein recognized that his equation’s ‘E‘ should include energy of motion, the ½mv² kind. He had to adjust ‘m‘ to keep F=ma working properly. The adjustment was to replace inertial mass with ‘relativistic mass,’ calculated as inertial mass times the Lorentz factor. It’d take infinite force to accelerate any relativistic mass up to c. That’s why lightspeed’s the speed limit.”

~~ Rich Olcott