Turn This Way to Turn That Way

“I don’t understand, Sy. I get that James Webb Space Telescope uses its reaction wheels like a ship uses a rudder to change direction by pushing against something outside. Except the rudder pushes against water but the reaction wheels push against … what, the Universe?”

“Maybe probably, Al. We simply don’t know how inertia works. Newton just took inertia as a given. His Laws of Motion say that things remain at rest or persist in linear motion unless acted upon by some force. He didn’t say why. Einstein’s General Relativity starts from his Equivalence Principle — gravitational inertia is identical to mechanical inertia. That’s held up to painstaking experimental tests, but why it works is still an open question. Einstein liked Mach’s explanation, that we experience these inertias because matter interacts somehow with the rest of the Universe. He didn’t speculate how that interaction works because he didn’t like Action At A Distance. The quantum field theory people say that everything’s part of the universal field structure, which sounds cool but doesn’t help much. String theory … ’nuff said.”

“Hey, Moire, what’s all that got to do with the reaction wheel thing? JWST can push against one all it wants but it won’t go anywhere ’cause the wheel’s inside it. What’s magic about the wheels?”

JWST doesn’t want to go anywhere else, Mr Feder. We’re happy with it being in its proper orbit, but it needs to be able to point to different angles. Reaction wheels and gyroscopes are all about angular momentum, not about the linear kind that’s involved with moving from place to place.”

“HAH! JWST is moving place to place, in that orbit! Ain’t it got linear momentum then?”

Newton’s Principia, Proposition II, Theorem II

“In a limited way, pun intended. Angular momentum is linear momentum plus a radial constraint. This goes back to Newton and his Principia book. I’ve got a copy of his basic arc‑splitting diagram here in Old Reliable. The ABCDEF line is a section of some curve around point S. He treated it as a succession of short line segments ABc, BCd, CDe and so on. If JWST is at point B, for instance, Newton would say that it’s traveling with a certain linear momentum along the BCd line. However, it’s constrained to move along the arc so it winds up at D instead d. To account for the constraint Newton invented centripetal force to pull along the Sd line. He then mentally made the steps smaller and smaller until the sequence of short lines matched the curve. At the limit, a sequence of little bits of linear momentum becomes angular momentum. By the way, this step‑reduction process is at the heart of calculus. Anyway, JWST uses its reaction wheels to swing itself around, not to propel itself.”

“And we’re back to my original question, Sy. What makes that swinging happen?”

“Oh, you mean the mechanical reality. Easy, Al. Like I said, three pairs of motorized wheels are mounted on JWST‘s frame near the center of mass. Their axles are at mutual right angles. Change a wheel’s angular momentum, you get an equal opposing change to the satellite’s. Suppose the Attitude Control System wants the satellite to swing to starboard. That’d be clockwise viewed from the cold side. ACS must tell a port/starboard motor to spin its wheel faster counterclockwise. If it’s already spinning clockwise, the command would be to put on the brakes, right? Either way, JWST swings clockwise. With the forward/aft motors and the hot‑side/cold‑side motors, the ACS is equipped to get to any orientation. See how that works?”

“Hang on.” <handwaving ensues> “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Hey, Moire. What if the wheel’s already spinning at top speed in the direction the ACS wants more of?”

“Ah, that calls for a momentum dump. JWST‘s equipped with eight small rocket engines called thrusters. They convert angular momentum back to linear momentum in rocket exhaust. Suppose we need a further turn to starboard but a port/starboard wheel is nearing threshold spin rate. ACS puts the brakes on that wheel, which by itself would turn the satellite to port. However, ACS simultaneously activates selected thrusters to oppose the portward slew. Cute, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Gelato Model

“Eddie, this ginger gelato’s delicious — not too sweet and just the right amount of ginger bite.”

“Glad you like it, Anne.”

On the way down here, Sy was telling me about how so many things in the Universe run on the same mathematics if you look at them with the right coordinate system. Sy, how do you pick ‘the right coordinate system?”

“The same way you pick the right property to serve as a momentum in Newton’s Equation of Motion — physical intuition. You look for things that fit the system. Sometimes that puts you on the road to understanding, sometimes not. Eddie, you keep track of your gelato sales by flavor. How are they doing?”

“Pistachio’s always a good seller, Sy, but ginger has been coming on strong this year.”

“In motion terns, pistachio’s momentum is constant but ginger is gaining momentum, right?”

“S’what I said.”

“Measured in dollars or trayfuls?”

“In batches. I make it all in-house. I’m proud of that. Dollars, too, of course, but that’s just total for all flavors.”

“Batches all the same size?”

“Some are, some not, depending. If I had a bigger machine I could make more but I do what I can.”

“There you go, Anne, each gelato flavor is like a separate degree of freedom. Eddie’s tracked sales since he started so we can take that date as the origin. Measuring change along any degree in either batches or dollars we have perfectly respectable coordinates although the money view of the system is fuzzier. Velocity is batches per unit time, there’s even a speed limit, and ginger has accelerated. Sound familiar?”

“Sounds like you’re setting up a Physics model.”

“Call it gelato trend physics, but I don’t think I can push the analogy much further. The next step would be to define a useful momentum like Newton did with his Law of Motion.”

F=ma? That’s about acceleration, isn’t it?”

“Probably not in Newton’s mind. Back in his day they were arguing about which was conserved, energy or momentum. It was a sloppy argument because no‑one agreed on crisp definitions. People could use words like ‘quantity of motion‘ to refer to energy or momentum or even something else. Finally Newton defined momentum as ‘mass times velocity‘, but first he had to define ‘mass‘ as ‘quantity of matter‘ to distinguish it from weight which he showed is a force that’s indirectly related to mass.”

“So is it energy or momentum that’s conserved?”

“Both, once you’ve got good definitions of them. But my point is, our car culture has trained us to emphasize acceleration. Newton’s thinking centered on momentum and its changes. In modern terms he defined force as momentum change per unit time. I’m trying to think of a force‑momentum pair for Eddie’s gelato. That’s a problem because I can’t identify an analog for inertia.”

“Inertia? What’s that got to do with my gelato?”

“Not much, and that’s the problem. Inertia is resistance to force. Who can resist gelato? If it weren’t for inertia, the smallest touch would be enough to send an object at high speed off to forever. The Universe would be filled with dust because stars and planets would never get the chance to form. But here we are, which I consider a good thing. Where does inertia come from? Newton changed his mind a couple of times. To this day we only have maybe‑answers to that question.”

“You know we want to know, Sy.”

“Einstein’s favorite guess was Mach’s Principle. There’s about a dozen different versions of the basic idea but they boil down to matter interacting with the combined gravitational and electromagnetic fields generated by the entire rest of the Universe.”

“Wow. Wait, the stars are far away and the galaxies are much, much further away. Their fields would be so faint, how can they have any effect at all?”

“You’re right, Anne, field intensity per star does drop with distance squared. But the number of stars goes up with distance cubed. The two trends multiply together so the force trends grow linearly. It’s a big Universe and size matters.”

“So what about my gelato?”

“We’ll need more research, Eddie. Another scoop of ginger, Anne?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Space Potatoes

“Uncle Sy, what’s the name of the Moon face that’s just a sliver?”

“It’s called a crescent, Teena, and it’s ‘phase,’ not ‘face’. Hear the z-sound?”

“Ah-hah, one of those spelling things, huh?”

“I’m afraid so. What brought that question up?”

“I was telling Bratty Brian about the Moon shadows and he said he saw a cartoon about something that punched a hole in the Moon and left just the sliver.”

“Not going to happen, Sweetie. Anything as big as the Moon, Mr Newton’s Law of Gravity says that it’ll be round, mostly, except for mountains and things.”

“Cause there’s something really heavy in the center?”

“No, and that’s probably what shocked people the most back in those days. They had Kings and Emperors, remember, and a Pope who led all the Christians in Europe. People expected everything to have some central figure in charge. That’s why they argued about whether the center of the Universe was the Earth or the Sun. Mr Newton showed that you don’t need anything at all at the center of things.”

“But then what pulls the things together?”

“The things themselves and the rules they follow. Remember the bird murmuration rules?”

“That was a long time ago, Uncle Sy. Umm… wasn’t one rule that each bird in the flock tries to stay about the same distance from all its neighbors?”

“Good memory. That was one of the rules. The others were to fly in the same general direction as everybody else and to try stay near the middle of the flock. Those three rules pretty much kept the whole flock together and protected most of the birds from predators. Mr Newton had simpler rules for rocks and things floating in space. His first rule was. ‘Keep going in the direction you’ve been going unless something pulls you in another direction.’ We call that inertia. The second rule explained why rocks fly differently than birds do.”

“Rocks don’t fly, Uncle Sy, they fall down.”

“Better to think of it as flying towards other things. Instead of the safe‑distance rule, Mr Newton said, ‘The closer two things are, the harder they pull together.’ Simple, huh?”

“Oh, like my magnet doggies.”

“Yes, exactly like that, except gravity always attracts. There’s no pushing away like magnets do when you turn one around. Suppose that back when the Solar System was being formed, two big rocks got close. What would happen?”

“They’d bang together.”

“And then?”

“They’d attract other rocks and more and more. Bangbangbangbang!”

“Right. What do you suppose happens to the energy from those bangs? Remember, we’re out in space so there’s no air to carry the sound waves away.”

“It’d break the rocks into smaller rocks. But the energy’s still there, just in smaller pieces, right?”

“The most broken-up energy is heat. What does that tell you?”

“The rock jumble must get … does it get hot enough to melt?”

“It can So now suppose there’s a blob of melted rock floating in space, and every atom in the melted rock is attracted to every other atom. Pretend you’re an atom out at one end of the blob.”

“I see as many atoms to one side as to the other so I’m gonna pull in towards the middle.”

“And so will all the other atoms. What shape is that going to make the blob?”

“Ooooh. Round like a planet. Or the Sun. Or the Moon!”

“So now tell me what would happen if someone punched a hole in the Moon?”

“All the crumbles at the crescent points would get pulled in towards the middle. It wouldn’t be a crescent any more!”

“Exactly. Mind you, if it doesn’t melt it may not be spherical. Melted stuff can only get round because molten atoms are free to move.”

“Are there not-round things in space?”

“Lots and lots. Small blobs couldn’t pull themselves spherical before freezing solid. They could be potato‑shaped, like the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Some rocks came together so gently that they didn’t melt. They just stuck together, like Asteroid Bennu where our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft sampled.”

“Space has surprising shapes, huh?”

“Space always surprises.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Xander and Alex who asked the question.

Rotation, Revolution and The Answer

“Sy, I’m startin’ to think you got nothin’. Al and me, we ask what’s pushing the Moon away from us and you give us angular momentum and energy transfers. C’mon, stop dancin’ around and tell us the answer.”

“Yeah, Sy, gravity pulls things together, right, so how come the Moon doesn’t fall right onto us?”

“Not dancing, Vinnie, just laying some groundwork for you. Newton answered Al’s question — the Moon is falling towards us, but it’s going so fast it overshoots. That’s where momentum comes in, Vinnie. Newton showed that a ball shot from a cannon files further depending on how much momentum it gets from the initial kick. If you give it enough momentum, and set your cannon high enough that the ball doesn’t hit trees or mountains, the ball falls beyond the planet and keeps on falling forever in an elliptical orbit.”

“Forever until it hits the cannon.”

“hahaha, Al. Anyway, the ball achieves orbit by converting its linear momentum to angular momentum with the help of gravity. The angular momentum pretty much defines the orbit. In Newton’s gravity‑determined universe, momentum and position together let you predict everything.”

“Linear and angular momentum work the same way?”

“Mostly. There’s only one kind of linear momentum — straight ahead — but there are two kinds of angular momentum — rotation and revolution.”

“Aw geez, there’s another pair of words I can never keep straight.”

“You and lots of people, Vinnie. They’re synonyms unless you’re talking technicalese. In Physics and Astronomy, rotation with the O gyrates around an object’s own center, like a top or a planet rotating on its axis. Revolution with the E gyrates around some external location, like the planet revolving around its sun. Does that help?”

“Cool, that may come in handy. So Newton’s cannon ball got its umm, revolution angular momentum from linear momentum so where does rotation angular momentum come from?”

“Subtle question, Vinnie, but they’re actually all just momentum. Fair warning, I’m going to avoid a few issues that’d get us too far into the relativity weeds. Let’s just say that momentum is one of those conserved quantities. You can transfer momentum from one object to another and convert between forms of momentum, but you can’t create momentum in an isolated system.”

“That sounds a lot like energy, Sy.”

“You’re right, Al, the two are closely related. Newton thought that momentum was THE conserved quantity and all motion depended on it. His arch‑enemy Leibniz said THE conserved quantity was kinetic energy, which he called vis viva. That disagreement was just one battle in the Newton‑Leibniz war. It took science 200 years to understand the momentum/kinetic energy/potential energy triad.”

“Wait, Sy, I’ve seen NASA steer a rocketship and give it a whole different momentum. I don’t see no conservation.”

“You missed an important word, Vinnie — isolated. Momentum calculations apply to mechanical systems — no inputs of mass or non‑mechanical energy. Chemical or nuclear fuels break that rule and get you into a different game.”

“Ah-hahh, so if the Earth and Moon are isolated…”

“Exactly, and you’re way ahead of me. Like we said, no significant net forces coming from the Sun or Jupiter, so no change to our angular momentum.”

“Hey, wait, guys. Solar power. I know we’ve got a ton of sunlight coming in every day.”

“Not relevant, Al. Even though sunlight heats the Earth, mass and momentum aren’t affected by temperature. Anyhow, we’re finally at the point where I can answer your question.”

“About time.”

“Hush. OK, here’s the chain. Earth rotates beneath the Moon and gets its insides stirred up by the Moon’s gravity. The stirring is kinetic energy extracted from the energy of the Earth‑Moon system. The Moon’s revolution or the Earth’s rotation or both must slow down. Remember the M=m·r·c/t equation for angular momentum? The Earth‑Moon system is isolated so the angular momentum M can’t change but the angular velocity c/t goes down. Something’s got to compensate. The system’s mass m doesn’t change. The only thing that can increase is distance r. There’s your answer, guys — conservation of angular momentum forces the Moon to drift outward.”

“Long way to the answer.”

“To the Moon and back.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Moon Shot

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Mr Moire, it’s Jeremy. Hey, I’ve been reading through some old science fiction stories and I ran across some numbers that just don’t look right.”

“Science fiction can be pretty clunky. Some Editors let their authors play fast and loose on purpose, just to generate Letters to The Editor. Which author and what story?”

“This is Heinlein, Mr Moire. I know his ideas about conditions on Mars and Venus were way off but that was before we had robot missions that could go there and look. When he writes about space navigation, though, he’s always so specific it looks like he’d actually done the calculations.”

“OK, which story and what numbers?”

“This one’s called, let me check, Gentlemen, Be Seated. It’s about these guys who get trapped in a tunnel on the Moon and there’s a leak letting air out of the tunnel so they seal the leak when one of the guys —”

“I know the story, Jeremy. I’ve always wondered if it was Heinlein or his Editor who got cute with the title. Anyway, which numbers bothered you?”

“I kinda thought the title came first. Anyway, everybody knows that the Earth’s gravity is six times the Moon’s, but he says that the Earth’s mass is eighty times the Moon’s and that’s why the Earth raises tides on the Moon except they’re rock tides, not water tides, and the movement makes moonquakes and one of them might have caused the leak. So why isn’t the Earth’s gravity eighty times the Moon’s, not six?”

“Read me the sentence about eighty.”

“Umm … here it is, ‘Remember, the Earth is eighty times the mass of the Moon, so the tidal stresses here are eighty times as great as the Moon’s effect on Earth tides.‘ I checked the masses in Wikipedia and eighty is about right.”

“I hadn’t realized the ratio was that large, I mean that the Moon is that small. One point for Heinlein. Anyway, you’re comparing north and east. The eighty and the six both have to do with gravity but they’re pointing in different directions.”

“Huh? I thought gravity’s pull was always toward the center.”

“It is, but it makes a difference where you are and which center you’re thinking about. You’re standing on the Earth so the closest center to you is Earth’s and most of the gravity you feel is the one-gravity pull from there. Suppose you’re standing on the Moon —”

“One-sixth, I know, Mr Moire, but why isn’t it one‑eightieth?”

“Because on the Moon you’re a lot closer to the center of the Moon than you were to the center of the Earth back on Earth. Let’s put some numbers to it. Got a calculator handy?”

“Got my cellphone.”

“Duh. OK, Newton showed us that an object’s gravitational force is proportional to the object’s mass divided by the square of the distance to the center. Earth’s radius is about 4000 miles and the Moon’s is about a quarter of that, so take the mass as 1/80 and divide by 1/4 squared. What do you get?”

“Uhh … 0.2 gravities.”

“One-fifth g. Close enough to one-sixth. If we used accurate numbers we’d be even closer. See how distance makes a difference?”

“Mm-hm. What about Heinlein’s tidal stuff?”

“Ah, now that’s looking in the other direction, where the distance is a lot bigger. Earth-to-Moon is about 250,000 miles. Standing on the Moon, you’d feel Earth’s one‑g gravity diminished by a factor of 4000/250000 squared. What’s that come to?”

“Umm… the distance factor is (4000/250000)² … I get 250 microgravities. Not much. Heinlein made a good bet with his characters deciding that the leak was caused by a nearby rocket crash instead of a moonquake.”

“How about Heinlein’s remark about the Moon’s effect on Earth?”

“Same distance but one eightieth the mass so I divide by 80 — three microgravities. Wow! That can’t possibly be strong enough to raise tides here.”

“It isn’t, though that’s the popular idea. What really happens is that the Moon’s field pulls water sideways from all directions towards the sub‑Lunar point. Sideways motion doesn’t fight Earth’s gravity, it just makes the water pile up in the center.”

“Hah, piled-up water. Weird. Well, I feel better about Heinlein now.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Hysterical Penguin

“Sy, you said that hysteresis researchers filled in two of Newton’s Physics gaps. OK, I get that he couldn’t do atomic stuff ’cause atoms hadn’t been discovered yet. What’s the other one?”

Proposition XI, Problem VI
from Book I of Newton’s Principia

“Non‑linearity.”

“You’re gonna have to explain that.”

“It’s a math thing. I know you don’t go for equations, so here’s a picture to get you started on how Newton solved problems. Look at all familiar?”

“Whoa, looks like something toward the end of my Geometry class.”

“Exactly. Newton was trained as a geometer and he was good at it. His general strategy was to translate a physical system to a geometrical structure and then work out its properties as a series of geometric proofs. The good news was that he proved a lot of things that started us on the way to quantitative science. The bad news was that his proofs were hard to extend to situations where the geometry wasn’t so easy.”

“That’s easy?”

“For Newton, maybe it was. Who knows? Anyway, the toolkit they gave you in Geometry class was what Newton had to work with — logic, straight lines and some special curves like ellipses and parabolas whose properties had been studied since Euclid, all on a flat plane. Nearly everything depended on finding proportionalities between different distances or areas — this line is twice that one but equal to a third, that sort of thing. Proportionality like that is built into equations like here+(velocity×time)=there. See how distance traveled is proportional to time? The equation plots as a straight line, which is why it’s called a linear equation.”

“So what’s non‑linear look like — all wiggle‑waggle?”

“Not necessarily. Things can vary smoothly along curves that aren’t those classical ones. Newton’s methods are blocked on those but Leibniz’s algebra‑based calculus isn’t. That’s why it won out with people who needed answers. What’s important here is that Newton’s lines can’t describe everything. Mmm… where does a straight line end?”

“Either at a T or never. Same thing for a parabola. Hey, ellipses don’t really end, either.”

“Mm-hm. Newton’s lines either stop abruptly or they continue forever. They don’t grow or peter out exponentially like things in real life do. Suppose something’s velocity changes, for instance.”

“That’s acceleration. I like accelerating.”

“So true, I’ve experienced your driving. But even you don’t accelerate at a constant rate. You go heavy or light or maybe brake, whatever, and our speed goes up or down depending. The only way Newton’s geometry can handle variable acceleration is to break it into mostly‑constant pieces and work one piece at a time. Come to think of it, that may be where he got the idea for his fluxions method for calculus. Fortunately for him, some things like planets and artillery shells move pretty close to what his methods predict. Unfortunately, things like disease epidemics and economies don’t, which is why people are interested in non‑linearity.”

“So what do these hysteresis guys do about it?”

“Mostly algebraic calculus or computer approximations. But there wasn’t just one group of hysteresis guys, there was a bunch of groups, each looking at different phenomena where history makes a difference. Each group had their own method of attack.”

“Like your elephant thing with Anne, lots of notions about entropy.”

Typical hysteresis loop
Red — initial evolution
Blue — subsequent changes

“How’d you find out about that?”

You wrote those posts, Sy, about three years ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. Talk about history. Anyway, it took decades for the ecologists, epidemiologists, civil engineers and several kinds of physicist to realize that they all have systems that behave similarly when driven by a stressor. Starting at some neutral situation, the system evolves in the driver’s direction to some maximum deviation where increased stress has no further effect. When the stress is relieved, the system may stick temporarily at the strained position. When it does evolve away from there, maybe a reverse driver is needed to force a return to the starting situation. In fact, if the forward and reverse drivers are applied repeatedly the system may never get back to the initial unstressed position.”

“Like that iron nail. Not magnetic, then magnetic, then reversed.”

~~ 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

Engineering A Black Hole

<bomPAH-dadadadaDEEdah> That weird ringtone on Old Reliable again. Sure enough, the phone function’s caller-ID display says 710‑555‑1701.  “Ms Baird, I presume?”

A computerish voice, aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation. “Commander Baird will be with you shortly, Mr Moire. Please hold.”

A moment later, “Hello, Mr Moire.”

“Ms Baird. Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Thank you, Mr Moire. I owe you for that.”

“How so?”

“Your posts about phase-based weaponry got me thinking. I assembled a team, we demonstrated a proof of concept and now Federation ships are being equipped with the Baird‑Prymaat ShieldSaw. Works a treat on Klingon and Romulan shielding. So thank you.”

“My pleasure. Where are you now?”

“I’m on a research ship called the Invigilator. We’re orbiting black hole number 77203 in our catalog. We call it ‘Lonesome‘.”

“Why that name?”

“Because there’s so little other matter in the space nearby. The poor thing barely has an accretion disk.”

“Sounds boring.”

“No, it’s exciting, because it’s so close to a theoretical ideal. It’s like the perfectly flat plane and the frictionless pulley — in real life there are always irregularities that the simple equations can’t account for. For black holes, our only complete solutions assume that the collapsed star is floating in an empty Universe with no impinging gravitational or electromagnetic fields. That doesn’t happen, of course, but Lonesome comes close.”

“But if we understand the theoretical cases and it nearly matches one, why bother with it at all?”

“Engineering reasons.”

“You’re engineering a black hole?”

“In a way, yes. Or at least that’s what we’re working on. We think we have a way to extract power from a black hole. It’ll supply inexhaustible cheap energy for a new Star Fleet anti‑matter factory. “

“I thought the only thing that could escape a black hole’s Event Horizon was Hawking radiation, and it cheats.”

“Gravity escapes honestly. Its intense field generates some unexpected effects. Your physicist Roger Penrose used gravity to explain the polar jets that decorate so many compact objects including black holes. He calculated that if a comet or an atom or something else breakable shatters when it falls into a spinning compact object’s gravitational field, some pieces would be trapped there but under the right conditions other pieces would slingshot outward with more energy than they had going in. In effect, the extra energy would come from the compact object’s angular momentum.”

“And that’s what you’re planning to do? How are you going to trap the expelled pieces?”

“No, that’s not what we’re planning. Too random to be controlled with our current containment field technology. We’re going pure electromagnetic, turning Lonesome into a giant motor‑generator. We know it has a stable magnetic field and it’s spinning rapidly. We’ll start by giving Lonesome some close company. There’s enough junk in its accretion disk for several Neptune‑sized planets. The plan is to use space tugs to haul in the big stuff and Bussard technology for the dust, all to assemble a pair of Ceres-sized planetoids. W’re calling them Pine and Road. We’ll park them in a convenient equatorial orbit in a Lagrange‑stable configuration so Pine, Road and Lonesome stay in a straight line.”

“Someone’s been doing research on old cinema.”

“The Interstellar Movie Database. Anyhow, when the planetoids are out there we string conducting tractor beams between them. If we locate Pine and Road properly, Lonesome’s rotating magnetic field lines will cross the fields at right angles and induce a steady electric current. Power for the anti‑matter synthesizers.”

“Ah, so like Penrose’s process you’re going to drain off some of Lonesome‘s rotational kinetic energy. Won’t it run out?”

Lonesome‘s mass is half again heavier than your Sun’s, Mr Moire. It’ll spin for a long, long time.”

“Umm … that ‘convenient orbit.’ Lonesome‘s diameter is so small that orbits will be pretty speedy. <calculating quickly with Old Reliable> Even 200 million kilometers away you’d circle Lonesome in less than 15 minutes. Will the magnetic field that far out be strong enough for your purposes?”

“Almost certainly so, but the gravimagnetodynamic equations don’t have exact solutions. We’re not going to know until we get there.”

“That’s how research works, all right. Good luck.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Seesaw to The Stars

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

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

“Why’s that, Sweetie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?”

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

~~ Rich Olcott

Rhythm Method

A warm Summer day.  I’m under a shady tree by the lake, watching the geese and doing some math on Old Reliable.  Suddenly a text-message window opens up on its screen.  The header bar says 710-555-1701.  Old Reliable has never held a messaging app, that’s not what I use it for.  The whole thing doesn’t add up.  I type in, Hello?

Hello, Mr Moire.  Remember me?

Suddenly I do.  That sultry knowing stare, those pointed ears.  It’s been a yearHello, Ms Baird.  What can I do for you?

Another tip for you, Mr Moire.  One of my favorite star systems — the view as you approach it at near-lightspeed is so ... meaningful.  Your astronomers call it PSR J0337+1715.

So of course I head over to Al’s coffee shop after erasing everything but that astronomical designation.  As I hoped, Cathleen and a few of her astronomy students are on their mid-morning break.  Cathleen winces a little when she sees me coming.  “Now what, Sy?  You’re going to ask about blazars and neutrinos?”

I show her Old Reliable’s screen.  “Afraid not, Cathleen, I’ll have to save that for later.  I just got a message about this star system.  Recognize it?”

“Why, Sy, is that a clue or something?  And why is the lettering in orange?”

“Long story.  But what can you tell me about this star system?”

“Well, it’s probably one of the most compact multi-component systems we’re ever going to run across.  You know what compact objects are?”

“Sure.  When a star the size of our Sun exhausts most of its hydrogen fuel, gravity wins its battle against heat.  The star collapses down to a white dwarf, a Sun-full of mass packed into a planet-size body.  If the star’s a bit bigger it collapses even further, down to a neutron star just a few miles across.  The next step would be a black hole, but that’s not really a star, is it?”

“No, it’s not.  Jim, why not?”

“Because by definition a black hole doesn’t emit light.  A black hole’s accretion disk or polar jets might, but not the object itself.”

“Mm-hm.  Sy, your ‘object’ is actually three compact objects orbiting  around each other.  There’s a neutron star with a white dwarf going around it, and another white dwarf swinging around the pair of them.  Vivian, does that sound familiar?”

“That’s a three-body system, like the Moon going around the Earth and both going around the Sun.  Mmm, except really both white dwarfs would go around the neutron star because it’s heaviest and we can calculate the motion like we do the Solar System.”

“Not quite.  We can treat the Sun as motionless because it has 99% of the mass.  J0337+1715’s neutron star doesn’t dominate its system as much as the Sun does ours.  That outermost dwarf has 20% of its system’s mass.  Phil, what does that suggest to you?”

“It’d be like Pluto and Charon.  Charon’s got 10% of their combined mass and so Pluto and Charon both orbit a point 10% of the way out from Pluto.  From Earth we see Pluto wobbling side to side around that point.  So the neutron star must wobble around the point 20% outward towards the heavy dwarf.  Hey, star-wobble is how we find exoplanets.  Is that what this is about, Mr Moire?  Did someone measure its red-shift behavior?”PSR J0337+1715Cathleen saves me from answering.  “Not quite.  The study Sy’s chasing is actually a cute variation on red-shift measurements.  That ‘PSR‘ designation means the neutron star is a pulsar.  Those things emit electromagnetic radiation pulses with astounding precision, generally regular within a few dozen nanoseconds.  If we receive slowed-down pulses then the object’s going away; sped-up and it’s approaching, just like with red-shifting.  The researchers  derived orbital parameters for all three bodies from the between-pulse durations.  The heavy dwarf is 200 times further out than the light one, for instance.  Not an easy experiment, but it yielded an important result.”

My ears perk up.  “Which was…?”

“The gravitational force between the pulsar and each dwarf was within six parts per million of what Newton’s Laws prescribe.  That observation rules out whole classes of theories that tried to explain galaxies and galaxy clusters without invoking dark matter.”

Cool, huh?

Uh-huh.

~~ Rich Olcott