Chasing Rainbows

“C’mon, Sy, Newton gets three cheers for tying numbers to the rainbow’s colors and all that, but what’s it got to do with that three speeds of light thing which is where we started this discussion?”

“Vinnie, they weren’t just numbers, they were angles. The puzzle was why each color was bent to a different degree when entering or leaving the prism. That was an inconvenient truth for Newton.”

“Inconvenient? There’s a loaded word.”

“Indeed. A little context — Newton was in a big brouhaha about whether light was particles or waves. Newton was a particle guy all the way, battling wave theory proponents like Euler and Descartes and their followers on the Continent. Even Hooke in London had a wave theory. Newton’s problem was that his beam deflections happened right at the prism’s air‑glass interfaces.”

“What difference does that … wait, you mean that there’s no bending inside the prism? Light inside still goes straight but in a different direction?”

“That’s it, exactly. The deflection angles are the same, whether the beam hits the prism near the short‑path tip or the long‑path base. No evidence of further deviation inside the prism unless it has bubbles — Newton had to discard or mask off some bad prisms. Explaining the no‑curvature behavior is difficult in a particle framework, easy in a wave framework.”

“Really? I don’t see why.”

Left: faster medium, right: slower medium
Credit: Ulflund, under Creative Commons 1.0

“Suppose light is particles, which by definition are local things affected only by local forces. The medium’s effects on a particle would happen in the bulk material rather than at the interface. The effect would accumulate as the particles travel further through the medium. The bend should be a curve. Unfortunately for Newton, that’s not what his observations showed.”

“OK, scratch particles. Why not scratch waves, too?”

“Waves have no problem with abrupt variation at an interface, They flip immediately to a new stable mode. For example. here’s an animation showing an abrupt speed change at the interface between a fast‑travel medium like air and a slow‑travel medium like glass or water. See how one end of each bar gets slowed down while the other end is still moving at speed? By the time the whole bar is inside, its path has slewed to the refraction angle.”

“Like a car sliding on ice when a rear wheel sticks for an moment, eh Sy?”

“That was not a fun ride, Vinnie.”

“I enjoyed it. Whatever, I get how going air‑to‑glass or vice‑versa can change a beam’s direction. But if everything’s going through the same angle, how do rainbows happen?”

“Everything doesn’t go through the same angle. Frequencies make a difference. Go back to the video and keep your eye on one bar as it sweeps up the interface. See how the sweep’s speed controls the deflection angle?”

“Yeah, if the sweep went slower the beam would get a chance to bend further. Faster sweeps would bend it less. But what could change the sweep speed?

“Two things. One, change the medium to one with a different transmission speed. Two, change the wave itself so it has a different speed. According to Snell’s Law, the important parameter for a pair of media is their ratio of fast‑speed divided by slow‑speed. If the fast medium is a vacuum that ratio is the slow medium’s index of refraction. The greater the index, the greater the bend.”

“Changing the medium doesn’t apply. I got one prism, it’s got one index, but I still get a whole rainbow.”

“Right, rainbows are about how one prism treats a bunch of waves with different time and space frequencies.”

“Space frequency?”

“If you measure a wave in meters it’s cycles per meter.”

“Wavelength upside down. Got it.”

“Whether you figure in frequencies or intervals, the wave speed works out the same.”

“Speed of light, finally.”

“Point is, when a wave goes through any medium, its time frequency doesn’t change but its space frequency does. Interaction with local charge shortens the wavelength. Short‑wavelength blue waves are held back more than long‑wavelength red ones. The different angles make your rainbow. The hold‑back is why refraction indices are usually greater than one.”

“Usually?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Through A Prism Brightly

Familiar footsteps outside my office. “C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Sy, gotta minute?”

“Sure, Vinnie, business is slow. What’s up?”

“Business is slow for me, too. I was looking over some of your old posts—”

“That slow, eh?”

“You know it. Anyway, I’m hung up on that video where light’s got two different speeds.”

“Three, really.”

“That’s even worse. What’s the story?”

“Well, first thing, it depends on where the light is. If you’re out in the vacuum, far away from atoms, they’re all the same, c. Simple.”

“Matter messes things up, then.”

“Of course. Our familiar kind of matter, anyway, made of charges like quarks and electrons. Light’s whole job is to interact with charges. When it does, things happen.”

“Sure — photon bangs into a rock, it stops.”

“It’s not that simple. Remember the wave-particle craziness? Light’s a particle at either end of its trip but in between it’s a wave. The wave could reflect off the rock or diffract around it. Interstellar infra-red astronomy depends upon IR scooting around dust particles so we can see the stars behind the dust clouds. What gets interesting is when the light encounters a mostly transparent medium.”

“I get suspicious when you emphasize ‘mostly.’ Mostly how?”

“Transparent means no absorption. The only thing that’s completely transparent is empty space. Anything made of normal matter can’t be completely transparent, because every kind of atom absorbs certain frequencies.”

“Glass is transparent.”

“To visible light, but even that depends on the glass. Ever notice how cheap drinking glasses have a greenish tint when you look down at the rim? Some light absorption, just not very much. Even pure silica glass is opaque beyond the near ultraviolet. … Okay, bear with me on this. Why do you suppose Newton made such a fuss about prisms?”

“Because he saw it made a rainbow in sunlight and thought that was pretty?”

“Nothing so mild. We’re talking Newton here. No, it had to do with one of his famous ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong‘ battles. Aristotle said that sunlight is pure white‑color, and that objects emit various kinds of darkness to overcome the white and produce colors for us. That was academic gospel for 2000 years until Newton decided it was wrong. He went to war with Aristotle using prisms as his primary weapons.”

“So that’s why he invented them?”

“No, no, they’d been around for millennia, ever since humans discovered that prismatic quartz crystals in a beam of sunlight throw rainbows. Newton’s innovation was to use multiple prisms arrayed with lenses and mirrors. His most direct attack on Aristotle used two prisms. He aimed the beam coming out of the first prism onto a reversed second prism. Except for some red and violet fringes at the edges, the light coming out of the second prism matched the original sunlight beam. That proved colors are in the light, not in Aristotle’s darknesses.”

“Newton won. End of story.”

“Not by a long shot. Aristotle had the strength of tradition behind him. A lot of Continental academics and churchmen had built their careers around his works. Newton’s earlier battles had won him many enemies and some grudging respect but few effective allies. Worse, Newton published his experiments and observations in a treatise which he wrote in English instead of the conventional scholarly Latin. Typical Newtonian belligerence, probably. The French academicians reacted by simply rejecting his claims out of hand. It took a generational turnover before his thinking was widely accepted.”

“Where do speeds come into this?”

“Through another experiment in Newton’s Optics treatise. If he used a card with a hole in it to isolate, say, green light in the space between the two prisms, the light beam coming from the second prism was the matching green. No evidence of any other colors. That was an important observation on its own, but Newton’s real genius move was to measure the diffraction angles. Every color had its own angle. No matter the conditions, any particular light color was always bent by the same number of degrees. Newton had put numbers to colors. That laid the groundwork for all of spectroscopic science.”

“And that ties to speed how?”

~~ Rich Olcott

‘Twixt A Rock And A Vortex

A chilly late December walk in the park and there’s Vinnie on a lakeside bench, staring at the geese and looking morose. “Hi, Vinnie, why so down on such a bright day?”

“Hi, Sy. I guess you ain’t heard. Frankie’s got the ‘rona.”

Frankie??!? The guys got the constitution of an ox. I don’t think he’s ever been sick in his life.”

“Probably not. Remember when that bug going around last January had everyone coughing for a week? Passed him right by. This time’s different. Three days after he showed a fever, bang, he’s in the hospital.”

“Wow. How’s Emma?”

“She had it first — a week of headaches and coughing. She’s OK now but worried sick. Hospital won’t let her in to see him, of course, which is a good thing I suppose so she can stay home with the kids and their schoolwork.”

“Bummer. We knew it was coming but…”

“Yeah. Makes a difference when it’s someone you know. Hey, do me a favor — throw some science at me, get my mind off this for a while.”

“That’s a big assignment, considering. Let’s see … patient, pandemic … Ah! E pluribus unum and back again.”

“Come again?”

“One of the gaps that stand between Physics and being an exact science.”

“I thought Physics was exact.”

“Good to fifteen decimal places in a few special experiments, but hardly exact. There’s many a slip ‘twixt theory and practice. One of the slips is the gap between kinematic physics, about how separate objects interact, and continuum physics, where you’re looking at one big thing.”

“This is sounding like that Loschmidt guy again.”

“It’s related but bigger. Newton worked on both sides of this one. On the kinematics side there’s billiard balls and planets and such. Assuming no frictional energy loss, Newton’s Three Laws and his Law of Gravity let us calculate exact predictions for their future trajectories … unless you’ve got more than three objects in play. It’s mathematically impossible to write exact predictions for four or more objects unless they start in one of a few special configurations. Newton didn’t do atoms, no surprise, but his work led to Schrödinger’s equation for an exact description of single electron, single nucleus systems. Anything more complicated, all we can do is approximate.”

“Computers. They do a lot with computers.”

“True, but that’s still approximating. Time‑step by time‑step and you never know what might sneak in or out between steps.”

“What’s ‘continuum‘ about then? Q on Star trek?”

“Hardly, we’re talking predictability here. Q’s thing is unpredictability. A physics continuum is a solid or fluid with no relevant internal structure, just an unbroken mass from one edge to the other. Newton showed how to analyze a continuum’s smooth churning by considering the forces that act on an imaginary isolated packet of stuff at various points in there. He basically invented the idea of viscosity as a way to account for friction between a fluid and the walls of the pipe it’s flowing through.”

“Smooth churning, eh? I see a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“The eddies and whirlpools I see when I row — not smooth.”

“Good point. In fact, that’s the point I was getting to. We can use extensions of Newton’s technique to handle a single well‑behaved whirlpool, but in real life big whirlpools throw off smaller ones and they spawn eddies and mini‑vortices and so on, all the way down to atom level. That turns out to be another intractable calculation, just as impossible as the many‑body particle mechanics problem.”

“Ah‑hah! That’s the gap! Newton just did the simple stuff at both ends, stayed away from the middle where things get complicated.”

“Exactly. To his credit, though, he pointed the way for the rest of us.”

“So how can you handle the middle?”

“The same thing that quantum mechanics does — use statistics. That’s if the math expressions are average‑able which sometimes they’re not, and if statistical numbers are good enough for why you’re doing the calculation. Not good enough for weather prediction, for instance — climate is about averages but weather needs specifics.”

“Yeah, like it’s just started to snow which I wasn’t expecting. I’m heading home. See ya, Sy.”

“See ya, Vinnie. … Frankie. … Geez.

~~ Rich Olcott

To Swerve And Project

A crisp Fall dawn, crisp fallen leaves under my feet as I jog the path by the park’s lake.

“Hey! Moire! How about these red sunrises and sunsets? Remind you of Mars?”

“Morning, Mr Feder. Not much, and definitely not dawn or dusk. Those tend more to blue, as a matter of fact.”

“Waitaminnit, Moire. I seen that Brad Pitt Martian movie, him driving hisself all alone across that big plain — the place is blood‑red.”

“Think a minute, Mr Feder. If he was all alone, who was running the cameras?”

“Uhhh, right. Movie. Yeah, they were really on Earth so they could director the lighting and all. But they said they’d scienced the … heck out of it.”

“Oh they did, better than most movies, but artistic license took over in a couple of places. People expect Mars to be red, not mostly clay colored like it really is, so the producers served up red.”

“Wait, I remember the conversation about Earth is blue because of the oceans and Mars is red because of its rusty atmosphere. So what’s with the sky colors?”

“Looking up at sunlight through an atmosphere is very different from looking down at the surface. It all has to do with how what’s in the atmosphere interacts with sunlight. Take Earth’s blue sky, for instance.”

“My favorite color.”

“Sure it is. OK, the Sun’s disk takes up much less than 1% of the sky but that’s enough to give us all our sunlight photons. A fraction of them run into something on the way down to Earth’s surface. What happens depends on how big the something is compared to the photon wavelength. Much larger things, maybe an airplane, completely block the photons and we get a shadow.”

“Obviously.”

“Yeah, but life’s more interesting for smaller somethings. For things like air molecules and dust particles that are much smaller than the the wavelength of visible light, the waves generally swerve around the particle. How much they swerve depends on the wavelength — extreme blue light bends about ten times more than extreme red light for the same scattering particle. So suppose there’s a kid a few miles away from us looking at the sky while we’re looking at it here. There’s a sunbeam with a rainbow‑load of photons headed for the kid, but there are dust particles in the way. Get the picture?”

“Sure, sure, get on with it.”

“So some of the light swerves. The red swerves a little but the blue light swerves ten times as much, enough that it heads straight for us. What color do we see when we look in that direction?”

“Blue, of course.”

“Blue everywhere in the lit‑up sky except when we look straight at the Sun.”

“What about these pretty red sunsets and the red skies over the wildfires?”

“Two different but related phenomena. Sunsets first. An incoming photon with just the right wavelength may simply be absorbed by a molecule. Doesn’t happen often, but there’s lots of molecules. Turns out that oxygen and ozone absorb blue light more strongly than red light. When we’re looking horizontally towards a sunset we’re looking through many more oxygen molecules than when we look vertically. We see the red part of a blue‑filtered version of that swerve rainbow.”

“And the fire skies?”

“The fires released huge amounts of fine smoke particles, just the right size for color‑scattering. Blue light swerves again and again until it’s either absorbed or shot out to space. Red light survives.”

Upper image – Golden Gate Bay under fiery skies, Sept 2020
Lower image – Sunset from Gusev Crater, Mars
Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

“So what’s different about Mars?”

“Three things — Mars dust is different from Earth’s, its atmosphere is a lot thinner, and there’s practically no atmospheric water or oxygen. Rusty Mars dust is the size of smoke particles. With no rain or snow to settle out the dust, it stays aloft all the time. Rust is red because it absorbs blue light and reflects only the red part. With less diffused sunlight, Mars’ sky is basically the black of space overlaid with a red tint. Sunsets are blue‑ish because what blue light there is can travel further.”

“Earth skies are better.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Far And Dusty Traveler

Cathleen takes the mic. “Quick coffee and scone break, folks, then Jim will continue our ‘IR, Spitzer And The Universe‘ symposium.” <pause> “OK, we’re back in business. Jim?”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Well, we’ve discussed finding astronomical molecules with infra-red. Now for a couple of other IR applications. First up — looking at things that are really far away. Everyone here knows that the Universe is expanding, right?”

<general murmur of assent, although the probably-an-Art-major looks startled>

“Great. Because of the expansion, light from a far-away object gets stretched out to longer wavelengths on its way to us. Say a sodium atom shot a brilliant yellow-gold 590-nanometer photon at us, but at the time the atom was 12.5 million lightyears away. By the time that wave reaches us it’s been broadened to 3540 nanometers, comfortably into the infra-red. Distant things are redder, sometimes too red to see with an optical telescope. The Spitzer Space Telescope‘s infra-red optics let us see those reddened photons. And then there’s dust.”

<voice from the crowd> “Dust?”

Cosmic dust, pretty much all the normal matter that’s not clumped into stars and planets. Some of it is leftovers from early times in the Universe, but much of it is stellar wind. Stars continuously spew particles in their normal day-to-day operation. There’s a lot more of that when one explodes as a nova or supernova. Dust particles come in all sizes but most are smaller than the ones in tobacco smoke.”

<same voice> “If they’re so small, why do we care about them?”

“Two reasons. First, there’s a lot of them. Maybe only a thousand particles per cubic kilometer of space, but there’s a huge number of cubic kilometers in space and they add up. More important is what the dust particles are made of and where we found them. Close inspection of the dust is like doing astronomical archaeology, giving us clues about how stars and galaxies evolved.”

<Vinnie, skeptical as always> “So what’s infra-red got to do with dust?”

“Depends on what kind of astronomy you’re interested in. Dust reflects and emits IR light. Frequency patterns in the light can tell us what that dust made of. On the other hand there’s the way that dust doesn’t interact with infra-red.”

<several voices> “Wait, what?”

The Milky Way from Black Rock Desert NV
By Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

“If Al’s gotten his video system working … ah, he has and it does. Look at this gorgeous shot of the Milky Way Galaxy. See all the dark areas? That’s dust blocking the visible light. The scattered stars in those areas are simply nearer to us than the clouds. We’d like to study what’s back beyond the clouds, especially near the galaxy’s core. That’s a really interesting region but the clouds block its visible light. Here’s the neat part — the clouds don’t block its infra-red light.”

<other voices> “Huh?” “Why wouldn’t they?”

“It’s the size of the waves versus the size of the particles. Take an extreme case — what’s the wavelength of Earth’s ocean tides?”

<Silence, so I speak up.> “Two high tides a day, so the wavelength is half the Earth’s circumference or about 12’500 miles.”

“Right. Now say you’re at the beach and you’re out there wading and the water’s calm. Would you notice the tide?”

“No, rise or fall would be too gentle to affect me.”

“Now let’s add a swell whose peak-to-peak wavelength is about human-height scale.”

“Whoa, I’d be dragged back and forth as each wave passes.”

“Just for grins, let’s replace that swell with waves the same height but only a millimeter apart. Oh, and you’re wearing SCUBA equipment.”

“Have mercy! Well, I should be able to stand in place because I wouldn’t even feel the peaks and troughs as separate waves, just a foamy massage. Thanks for the breathing assistance, though.”

“You’re welcome, and thanks for helping with the thought experiment. Most cosmic dust particles are less than 100 nanometers across. Infra-red wavelengths run 100 to 1000 times longer than that. Infra-red light from those cloud-hidden stars just curves around particles that can stop visible lightwaves cold. Spitzer Space Telescope and its IR-sensitive kin provide deeper and further views than visible light allows.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Above The Air, Below The Red

Vinnie and I walk into Al’s coffee shop just as he sets out a tray of scones. “Odd-looking topping on those, Al. What is it?”

“Dark cherry and dark chocolate, Sy. Something about looking infra-red. Cathleen special-ordered them for some Astronomy event she’s hosting in the back room. Carry this tray in there for me?”

Vinne grabs the tray and a scone. “Sure, Al. … Mmm, tasty. … Hi, Cathleen. Here’s your scones. What’s the event?”

“It’s a memorial symposium for the Spitzer Space Telescope, Vinnie. Spitzer‘s been an infra-red workhorse for almost 17 years and NASA formally retired it at the end of January.”

“What’s so special about infra-red? It’s just light, right? We got the Hubble for that.”

“A perfect cue for Jim’s talk. <to crowd> Grab a scone and settle down, everyone. Welcome to our symposium, ‘IR , Spitzer And The Universe.’ Our first presentation today is entitled ‘What’s So Special About Infra-red?‘ Jim, you’re on.”

“Thanks, Cathleen. This is an introductory talk, so I’ll keep it mostly non-technical. So, question for everybody — when you see ‘IR‘, what do you think of first?”

<shouts from the crowd> “Pizza warmer!” “Invisible light!” “Night-vision goggles!”

“Pretty much what I expected. All relevant, but IR’s much more than that. To begin with, many more colors than visible light. We can distinguish colors in the rainbow because each color’s lightwave has a different frequency. Everybody OK with that?”

<general mutter of assent>

“OK. Well, the frequency at the violet end of the visible spectrum is a bit less than double the frequency at the red end. In music when you double the frequency you go up an octave. The range of colors we see from red to violet is less than an octave, about like going from A-natural to F-sharp on the piano. The infra-red spectrum covers almost nine octaves. An 88-key piano doesn’t even do eight.”

<voice from the crowd, maybe an Art major> “Wow, if we could see infra-red think of all the colors there’d be!”

“But you’d need a whole collection of specialized eyes to see them. With light, every time you go down an octave you reduce the photon’s energy capacity by half. Visible light is visible because its photons have just enough energy to cause an electronic change in our retinas’ photoreceptor molecules. Five octaves higher than that, the photons have enough energy to knock electrons right out of a molecule like DNA. An octave lower than visible, almost nothing electronic.”

<Vinnie’s always-skeptical voice> “If there’s no connecting with electrons, how does electronic infra-red detection work?”

“Two ways. A few semiconductor configurations are sensitive to near- and mid-infra-red photons. The Spitzer‘s sensors are grids of those configurations. To handle really low-frequency IR you have to sense heat directly with bolometer techniques that track expansion and contraction.”

<another skeptical voice> “OK then, how does infra-red heating work?”

“Looks like a paradox, doesn’t it? Infra-red photons are too low-energy to make a quantum change in a molecule’s electronic arrangement, but we know that the only way photons can have an effect is by making quantum changes. So how come we feel infra-red’s heat? The key is, photons can interact with any kind of charged structure, not just electrons. If a molecule’s charges aren’t perfectly balanced a photon can vibrate or rotate part of a molecule or even the whole thing. That changes its kinetic energy because molecular motion is heat, right? Fortunately for the astronomers, gas vibrations and rotations are quantized, too. An isolated water molecule can only do stepwise changes in vibration and rotation.”

“Why’s that fortunate?”

“Because that’s how I do my research. Every kind of molecule has its own set of steps, its own set of frequencies where it can absorb light. The infra-red range lets us do for molecules what the visual range lets us do for atoms. By charting specific absorption bands we’ve located and identified interstellar clouds of water, formaldehyde and a host of other chemicals. I just recently saw a report of ‘helonium‘, a molecular ion containing helium and hydrogen, left over from when the Universe began. Infra-red is so cool.”

“No, it’s warm.”

Image suggested by Alex

~~ Rich Olcott

The Sight And Sound of Snow

<ring> “Moire here.”

“Uncle Sy! Uncle Sy! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!”

“Yes, Teena, it started last night after you went to bed. But it’s real early now and I haven’t had breakfast yet. I’ll be over there in a little while and we can do snow stuff.”

“Yaaay! I’ll have breakfast, too. Mommie, can we have oatmeal with raisins?” <click>


<knock, knock> “Uncle Sy! You’re here! I wanna go sledding! Get my sled out, please?”

“G’morning, Sis. G’morning, Teena. Get your snowsuit and boots on, Sweetie. Want to come along, Sis? It’s a cold, dry snow, not much wind.”

“No, I’ll just stay warm and get the hot chocolate ready.”

“Bless you for that, Sis. OK, young’un, ready to go?”

“Ready! Pull me on the sled to the sledding hill, Uncle Sy!”


“Ooo, it’s so quiet. Why’s it always quiet when snow’s falling, Uncle Sy? Is the world holding its breath? And why is snow white? When I hold snow in my hand it melts and then it’s no-color.”

“Always the good questions. Actually, these two are related and they both have to do with the shape of snowflakes. Here, hold out your arm and let’s see if you can catch a few. No, don’t try to chase them, the breeze from your arm will blow them away. Just let them fall onto your arm. That’s right. Now look at them real close.”

“They’re all spiky, not flat and pretty like the ones in my picture book!”

“That’s because they grew fast in a really cold cloud and didn’t have time to develop evenly. You have to work slow to make something that’s really pretty.”

“But if they’re spiky like this they can’t lay down flat together and be cozy!”

“Ah, that’s the key. Fresh spiky snowflakes make fluffy snow, which is why skiers love it. See how the flakes puff into the air when I scuff my boot? Those tiny spikes break off easily and make it easy for a ski to glide over the surface. Your sled, too — you’ve grown so big I’d be hard-put to pull you over wet snow. That fluffiness is why <hushed voice> it’s so quiet now.”

“Shhh … <whispered> yeah … <back to full voice> Wait, how does fluffy make quiet?”

“Because sound waves … Have we talked about sound waves? I guess we haven’t. OK, clap your hands once.”

<CLAP!>

“Good. When your hands came together they pushed away the air molecules that were between them. Those molecules pushed on the next molecules and those pushed on the next ones on and on until they got to your ear and you heard the sound. Make sense?”

“Ye-aa-uh. Is the push-push-push the wave?”

“Exactly. OK, now imagine that a wave hits a wall or some packed-down icy snow. What will happen?”

“It’ll bounce off like my paddle-ball toy!”

“Smart girl. Now imagine that a wave hits fluffy snow.”

“Um … it’ll get all lost bouncing between all the spikes, right?”

“Perfect. That’s exactly what happens. Some of the wave is scattered by falling snowflakes and much of what’s left spreads into the snow on the ground. That doesn’t leave much sound energy for us to hear.”

“You said that snow’s white because of what snow does to sound, but look, it’s so bright I have to squint my eyes!”

“That’s not exactly what I said, I said they’re related. Hmm… ah! You know that ornament your Mommie has hanging in the kitchen window?”

“The fairy holding the glass jewel? Yeah, when the sunlight hits it there’s rainbows all over the room! I love that!”

A beam or white light passing through two prisms.  The first produces a spectrum and the second remixes the colors to white.

“I do, too. White light like sunlight has all colors in it and that jewel splits the colors apart so you can see them. Well, suppose that jewel is surrounded by other jewels that can put the colors together again. Here’s a picture on my cellphone for a clue.”

“White goes to rainbow and back to white again … I’ll bet the snowflakes act like little jewels and bounce all the colors around but the light doesn’t get trapped and it comes out and we see the WHITE again! Right?”

“So right that we’re going home for hot chocolate.”

“Yaaay!”

~~ Rich Olcott

PS – A Deeper Look.

Fly High, Silver Bird

“TANSTAAFL!” Vinnie’s still unhappy with spacecraft that aren’t rocket-powered. “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!”

“Ah, good, you’ve read Heinlein. So what’s your problem with Lightsail 2?”

“It can’t work, Sy. Mostly it can’t work. Sails operate fine where there’s air and wind, but there’s none of that in space, just solar wind which if I remember right is just barely not a vacuum.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim speaks up. “You’re right about that, Vinnie. The solar wind’s fast, on the order of a million miles per hour, but it’s only about 10-14 atmospheres. That thin, it’s probably not a significant power source for your sailcraft, Al.”

“I keep telling you folks, it’s not wind-powered, it’s light-powered. There’s oodles of sunlight photons out there!”

“Sure, Al, but photons got zero mass. No mass, no momentum, right?”

Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave in motion
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)

My cue to enter. “Not right, Vinnie. Experimental demonstrations going back more than a century show light exerting pressure. That implies non-zero momentum. On the theory side … you remember when we talked about light waves and the right-hand rule?”

“That was a long time ago, Sy. Remind me.”

“… Ah, I still have the diagram on Old Reliable. See here? The light wave is coming out of the screen and its electric field moves electrons vertically. Meanwhile, the magnetic field perpendicular to the electric field twists moving charges to scoot them along a helical path. So there’s your momentum, in the interaction between the two fields. The wave’s combined action delivers force to whatever it hits, giving it momentum in the wave’s direction of travel. No photons in this picture.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes dives in. “When you think photons and electrons, Vinnie, think Einstein. His Nobel prize was for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Think about some really high-speed particle flying through space. I’m watching it from Earth and you’re watching it from a spaceship moving along with it so we’ve each got our own frame of reference.”

“Frames, awright! Sy and me, we’ve talked about them a lot. When you say ‘high-speed’ you’re talking near light-speed, right?”

“Of course, because that’s when relativity gets significant. If we each measure the particle’s speed, do we get the same answer?”

“Nope, because you on Earth would see me and the particle moving through compressed space and dilated time so the speed I’d measure would be more than the speed you’d measure.”

“Mm-hm. And using ENewton=mv² you’d assign it a larger energy than I would. We need a relativistic version of Newton’s formula. Einstein said that rest mass is what it is, independent of the observer’s frame, and we should calculate energy from EEinstein²=(pc)²+(mc²)², where p is the momentum. If the momentum is zero because the velocity is zero, we get the familiar EEinstein=mc² equation.”

“I see where you’re going, Newt. If you got no mass OR energy then you got nothing at all. But if something’s got zero mass but non-zero energy like a photon does, then it’s got to have momentum from p=EEinstein/c.”

“You got it, Vinnie. So either way you look at it, wave or particle, light carries momentum and can power Lightsail 2.”

Lightsail 2 flying over Earth, against a yellow background
Adapted from image by Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

“Question is, can sunlight give it enough momentum to get anywhere?”

“Now you’re getting quantitative. Sy, start up Old Reliable again.”

“OK, Newt, now what?”

“How much power can Lightsail 2 harvest from the Sun? That’ll be the solar constant in joules per second per square meter, times the sail’s area, 32 square meters, times a 90% efficiency factor.”

“Got it — 39.2 kilojoules per second.”

“That’s the supply, now for the demand. Lightsail 2 masses 5 kilograms and starts at 720 kilometers up. Ask Old Reliable to use the standard circular orbit equations to see how long it would take to harvest enough energy to raise the craft to another orbit 200 kilometers higher.”

“Combining potential and kinetic energies, I get 3.85 megajoules between orbits. That’s only 98 seconds-worth. I’m ignoring atmospheric drag and such, but net-net, Lightsail 2‘s got joules to burn.”

“Case closed, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Sail On, Silver Bird

Big excitement in Al’s coffee shop. “What’s the fuss, Al?”

Lightsail 2, Sy. The Planetary Society’s Sun-powered spacecraft. Ten years of work and some luck and it’s up there, way above Hubble and the ISS, boosting itself higher every day and using no fuel to do it. Is that cool or what?”

“Sun-powered? Like with a huge set of solar panels and an electric engine?”

“No, that’s the thing. It’s got a couple of little panels to power its electronics and all, but propulsion is all direct from the Sun and that doesn’t stop. Steady as she goes, Skipper, Earth to Mars in weeks, not months. Woo-hoo!”

Image by Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

Never the rah-rah type, Big Vinnie throws shade from his usual table by the door. “It didn’t get there by itself, Al. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket did the hard work, getting Lightsail 2 and about 20 other thingies up to orbit. Takes a lot of thrust to get out of Earth’s gravity well. Chemical rockets can do that, puny little ion drives and lightsails can’t.”

“Yeah, Vinnie, but those ‘puny’ guys could lead us to a totally different travel strategy.” A voice from the crowd, astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes. “Your big brawny rocket has to burn a lot of delta-v just to boost its own fuel. That’s a problem.”

Al looks puzzled. “Delta-v?”

“It’s how you figure rocket propellant, Al. With a car you think about miles per gallon because if you take your foot off the gas you eventually stop. In space you just keep going with whatever momentum you’ve got. What’s important is how much you can change momentum — speed up, slow down, change direction — and that depends on the propellant you’re using and the engine you’re putting it through. All you’ve got is what’s in the tanks.”

Al still looks puzzled. I fill in the connection. “Delta means difference, Al, and v is velocity which covers both speed and direction so delta-v means — “

“Got it, Sy. So Vinnie likes big hardware but bigger makes for harder to get off the ground and Newt’s suggesting there’s a limit somewhere.”

“Yup, it’s gotten to the point that the SpaceX people chase an extra few percent performance by chilling their propellants so they can cram more into the size tanks they use. I don’t know what the limit is but we may be getting close.”

Newt’s back in. “Which is where strategy comes in, Vinnie. Up to now we’re mostly using a ballistic strategy to get to off-Earth destinations, treating the vehicle like a projectile that gets all its momentum at the beginning of the trip. But there’s really three phases to the trip, right? You climb out of a gravity well, you travel to your target, and maybe you make a controlled landing you hope. With the ballistic strategy you burn your fuel in phase one while you’re getting yourself into a transfer orbit. Then you coast on momentum through phase two.”

“You got a better strategy?”

“In some ways, yeah. How about applying continuous acceleration throughout phase two instead of just coasting? The Dawn spacecraft, for example, was rocket-launched out of Earth’s gravity well but used a xenon-ion engine in continuous-burn mode to get to Mars and then on to Vesta and Ceres. Worked just fine.”

“But they’re such low-thrust –“

“Hey, Vinnie, taking a long time to build up speed’s no problem when you’re on a long trip anyway. Dawn‘s motor averaged 1.8 kilometer per second of delta-v — that works out to … about 4,000 miles per hour of increased speed for every hour you keep the motor running. Adds up.”

“OK, I’ll give you the ion motor’s more efficient than a chemical system, but still, you need that xenon reaction mass to get your delta-v. You still gotta boost it up out of the well. All you’re doing with that strategy is extend the limit.”

Al dives back in. “That’s the beauty of Lightsail, guys. No delta-v at all. Just put it up there and light-pressure from the Sun provides the energy. Look, I got this slick video that shows how it works.”

Video courtesy of The Planetary Society.

~~ Rich Olcott

Fierce Roaring Beast

A darkish day calls for a fresh scone so I head for Al’s coffee shop. Cathleen’s there with some of her Astronomy students. Al’s at their table instead of his usual place behind the cash register. “So what’s going on with these FRBs?”

She plays it cool. “Which FRBs, Al? Fixed Rate Bonds? Failure Review Boards? Flexible Reed Baskets?”

Jim, next to her, joins in. “Feedback Reverb Buffers? Forged Razor Blades?
Fennel Root Beer?”

I give it a shot. “Freely Rolling Boulders? Flashing Rapiers and Broadswords? Fragile Reality Boundary?”

“C’mon, guys. Fast Radio Bursts. Somebody said they’re the hottest thing in Astronomy.”

Cathleen, ever the teacher, gives in. “Well, they’re right, Al. We’ve only known about them since 2007 and they’re among the most mystifying objects we’ve found out there. Apparently they’re scattered randomly in galaxies all over the sky. They release immense amounts of energy in incredibly short periods of time.”

“I’ll say.” Vinnie’s joins the conversation from the next table. “Sy and me, we been talking about using the speed of light to measure stuff. When I read that those radio blasts from somewhere last just a millisecond or so, I thought, ‘Whatever makes that blast happen, the signal to keep it going can’t travel above lightspeed. From one side to the other must be closer than light can travel in a millisecond. That’s only 186 miles. We got asteroids bigger than that!'”

“300 kilometers in metric.” Jim’s back in. “I’ve played with that idea, too. The 70 FRBs reported so far all lasted about a millisecond within a factor of 3 either way — maybe that’s telling us something. The fastest way to get lots of energy is a matter-antimatter annihilation that completely converts mass to energy by E=mc².  Antimatter’s awfully rare 13 billion years after the Big Bang, but suppose there’s still a half-kilogram pebble out there a couple galaxies away and it hits a hunk of normal matter. The annihilation destroys a full kilogram; the energy release is 1017 joules. If the event takes one millisecond that’s 1020 watts of power.”

“How’s that stand up against the power we receive in an FRB signal, Jim?”

“That’s the thing, Sy, we don’t have a good handle on distances. We know how much power our antennas picked up, but power reception drops as the square of the source distance and we don’t know how far away these things are. If your distance estimate is off by a factor of 10 your estimate of emitted power is wrong by a factor of 100.”

“Ballpark us.”

<sigh> “For a conservative estimate, say that next-nearest-neighbor galaxy is something like 1021 kilometers away. When the signal finally hits us those watts have been spread over a 1021-kilometer sphere. Its area is something like 1049 square meters so the signal’s power density would be around 10-29 watts per square meter. I know what you’re going to ask, Cathleen. Assuming the radio-telescope observations used a one-gigahertz bandwidth, the 0.3-to-30-Jansky signals they’ve recorded are about a million million times stronger than my pebble can account for. Further-away collisions would give even smaller signals.”

Looking around at her students, “Good self-checking, Jim, but for the sake of argument, guys, what other evidence do we have to rule out Jim’s hypothesis? Greg?”

“Mmm… spectra? A collision like Jim described ought to shine all across the spectrum, from radio on up through gamma rays. But we don’t seem to get any of that.”

“Terry, if the object’s very far away wouldn’t its shorter wavelengths be red-shifted by the Hubble Flow?”

“Sure, but the furthest-away one we’ve tagged so far is nearer than z=0.2. Wavelengths have been stretched by 20% or less. Blue light would shift down to green or yellow at most.”

“Fran?”

“We ought to get even bigger flashes from antimatter rocks and asteroids. But all the signals have about the same strength within a factor of 100.”

“I got an evidence.”

“Yes, Vinnie?”

“That collision wouldn’t’a had a chance to get started. First contact, blooie! the gases and radiation and stuff push the rest of the pieces apart and kill the yield. That’s one of the problems the A-bomb guys had to solve.”

Al’s been eaves-dropping, of course. “Hey, guys. Fresh Raisin Bread, on the house.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Friendly Resting Behemoths