# Rockfall

<continued>  The coffee shop crowd had gotten rowdy in response to my sloppy physics, but everyone hushed when I reached for my holster and drew out Old Reliable.  All had heard of it, some had seen it in action — a maxed-out tablet with customized math apps on speed-dial.

“Let’s take this nice and slow.  Suppose we’ve got an non-charged, non-spinning solar-mass black hole.  Inside its event horizon the radius gets weird but let’s pretend we can treat the object like a simple sphere.  The horizon’s half-diameter, we’ll call it the radius, is rs=2G·M/c²G is Newton’s gravitational constant, M is the object’s mass and c is the speed of light.  Old Reliable says … about 3 kilometers.  Question is, what happens when we throw a rock in there?  To keep things simple, I’m going to model dropping the rock gentle-like, dead-center and with negligible velocity relative to the hole, OK?”

<crickets>

“Say the rock has the mass of the Earth, almost exactly 3×10-6 the Sun’s mass.  The gravitational potential energy released when the rock hits the event horizon from far, far away would be E=G·M·m/rs, which works out to be … 2.6874×1041 joules.  What happens to that energy?”

rs depends on mass, Mr Moire, so the object will expand.  Won’t that push on what’s around it?”

“You’re thinking it’d act like a spherical piston, Jeremy, pushing out in all directions?”

“Yeah, sorta.”

“After we throw in a rock with mass m, the radius expands from rs to rp=2G·(M+m)/c².  I set m to Earth’s mass and Old Reliable says the new radius is … 3.000009 kilometers.  Granted the event horizon is only an abstract math construct, but suppose it’s a solid membrane like a balloon’s skin.  When it expands by that 9 millimeters, what’s there to push against?  The accretion disk?  Those rings might look solid but they’re probably like Saturn’s rings — a collection of independent chunks of stuff with an occasional gas molecule in-between.  Their chaotic orbits don’t have a hard-edged boundary and wouldn’t notice the 9-millimeter difference.  Inward of the disk you’ve got vacuum.  A piston pushing on vacuum expends zero energy.  With no pressure-volume work getting done that can’t be where the infall energy goes.”

“How about lift-a-weight work against the hole’s own gravity?”

“That’s a possibility, Vinnie.  Some physicists maintain that a black hole’s mass is concentrated in a shell right at the event horizon.  Old Reliable here can figure how much energy it would take to expand the shell that extra 9 millimeters.  Imagine that simple Newtonian physics applies — no relativistic weirdness.  Newton proved that a uniform spherical shell’s gravitational attraction is the same as what you’d get from having the same mass sitting at the shell’s geometric center.  The gravitational pull the shell exerts on itself originally was E=G·M²/rs.  Lifting the new mass from rs to rp will cost ΔE=G·(M+m)²/r– G·M²/rs.  When I plug in the numbers…  That’s interesting.”

Vinnie’s known me long enough to realize “That’s interesting” meant “Whoa, I certainly didn’t expect THAT!

“So what didja expect and whatcha got?”

“What I expected was that lift-it-up work would also be just a small fraction of the infall energy and the rest would go to heat.  What I got for ΔE here was 2.6874×1041 joules, exactly 100% of the input.  I wonder what happens if I use a bigger planet.  Gimme a second … OK, let’s plot a range …  How ’bout that, it’s linear!”

“Alright, show us!”

All the infall energy goes to move the shell’s combined mass outward to match the expanded size of the event horizon.  I’m amazed that such a simple classical model produces a reasonable result.”

“Like Miss Plenum says, Mr Moire, sometimes the best science comes from surprises.”

“I wouldn’t show it around, Jeremy, except that it’s consistent with Hawking’s quantum-physics result.”

“How’s that?”

“Remember, he showed that a black hole’s temperature varies as 1/M.  We know that temperature is ΔE/ΔS, where the entropy change ΔS varies as .  We’ve just found that ΔE varies as M.  The ΔE/ΔS ratio varies as M/M²=1/M, just like Hawking said.”

Then Jennie got into the conversation.

~~ Rich Olcott

# Abstract Horses

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

“C’mon in, Jeremy, the door’s open.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are those the virtual particles?”

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

“Sure.  Uhh… bye.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Ya got potential, kid, but how much?

Dusk at the end of January, not my favorite time of day or year.  I was just closing up the office when I heard a familiar footstep behind me.  “Hi, Vinnie.  What’s up?”

“Energy, Sy.”

“Energy?”

“Energy and LIGO.  Back in flight school we learned all about trading off kinetic energy and potential energy.  When I climb I use up the fuel’s chemical energy to gain gravitational potential energy.  When I dive I convert gravitational potential energy into  kinetic energy ’cause I speed up.  Simple.”

“So how do you think that ties in with LIGO?”

“OK, back when we pretended we was in those two space shuttles (which you sneaky-like used to represent photons in a LIGO) and I got caught in that high-gravity area where space is compressed, we said that in my inertial frame I’m still flying at the same speed but in your inertial frame I’ve slowed down.”

“Yeah, that’s what we worked out.”

“Well, if I’m flying into higher gravity, that’s like diving, right, ’cause I’m going where gravity is stronger like closer to the Earth, so I’m losing gravitational potential energy.  But if I’m slowing down I’ve gotta be losing kinetic energy, too, right?  So how can they both happen?  And how’s it work with photons?”

“Interesting questions, Vinnie, but I’m hungry.  How about some dinner?”

We took the elevator down to Eddie’s pizza joint on the second floor.  I felt heavier already.  We ordered, ate and got down to business.

“OK, Vinnie.  Energy with photons is different than with objects that have mass, so let’s start with the flying-objects case.  How do you calculate gravitational potential energy?”

“Like they taught us in high school, Sy, ‘little g’ times mass times the height, and ‘little g’ is some number I forget.”

“Not a problem, we’ll just suppose that ‘little g’ times your plane’s mass is some convenient number, like 1,000.  So your gravitational potential energy is 1000×height, where the height’s in feet and the unit of energy is … call it a fidget.  OK?”

“Saves having to look up that number.”

“Uhh… twenty million fidgets.”

“Great.  You maintain level flight to Denver.  As you pass over the Rockies you notice your altimeter now reads 6,000 feet because of that 14,000-foot mountain you’re flying over.  What’s your gravitational potential energy?”

“Six million fidgets.  Or is it still twenty?”

“Well, if God forbid you were to drop out of the sky, would you hit the ground harder in California or Colorado?”

“California, of course.  I’d fall more than three times as far.”

“So what you really care about isn’t some absolute amount of potential energy, it’s the relative amount of smash you experience if you fall down this far or that far.  ‘Height’ in the formula isn’t some absolute height, it’s height above wherever your floor is.  Make sense?”

“Mm-hm.”

“That’s an essential characteristic of potential energy — electric, gravitational, chemical, you name it.   It’s only potential.  You can’t assign a value without stating the specific transition you’re interested in.  You don’t know voltages in a circuit until you put a resistance between two specific points and meter the current through it.  You don’t know gravitational potential energy until you decide what location you want to compare it with.”

“And I suppose a uranium atom’s nuclear energy is only potential until a nuke or something sets it off.”

“You got the idea.  So, when you flew into that high-gravity compressed-space sector, what happened to your gravitational potential energy?”

“Like I said, it’s like I’m in a dive so I got less, right?”

“Depends on what you’re going to fall onto, doesn’t it?”

“No, wait, it’s definitely less ’cause I gotta use energy to fly back out to flat space.”

“OK, you’re comparing here to far away.  That’s legit.  But where’s that energy go?”

“Ahh, you’re finally getting to the kinetic energy side of my question –”

“Whoa, look at the time!  Got a plane to catch.  We’ll pick this up next week.  Bye.”

“Hey, Sy, your tab! …  Phooey, stuck for it again.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Three ways to look at things

A familiar shadow loomed in from the hallway.

“C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“I brought some sandwiches, Sy.”

“Oh, thanks, Vinnie.”

“Don’t mention it.    An’ I got another LIGO issue.”

“Yeah?”

“Ohh, yeah.  Now we got that frame thing settled, how does it apply to what you wrote back when?  I got a copy here…”

The local speed of light (miles per second) in a vacuum is constant.  Where space is compressed, the miles per second don’t change but the miles get smaller.  The light wave slows down relative to the uncompressed laboratory reference frame.

“Ah, I admit I was a bit sloppy there.  Tell you what, let’s pretend we’re piloting a pair of space shuttles following separate navigation beams that are straight because that’s what light rays do.  So long as we each fly a straight line at constant speed we’re both using the same inertial frame, right?”

“Sure.”

“And if a gravity field suddenly bent your beam to one side, you’d think you’re still flying straight but I’d think you’re headed on a new course, right?”

“Yeah, because now we’d have different inertial frames.  I’d think your heading has changed, too.”

“So what does the guy running the beams see?”

“Oh, ground-pounders got their own inertial frame, don’t they?  Uhh… He sees me veer off and you stay steady ’cause the gravity field bent only my beam.”

“Right — my shuttle and the earth-bound observer share the same inertial frame, for a while.”

“A while?”

“Forever if the Earth were flat because I’d be flying straight and level, no threat to the shared frame.  But the Earth’s not flat.  If I want to stay at constant altitude then I’ve got to follow the curve of the surface rather than follow the light beam straight out into space.  As soon as I vector downwards I have a different frame than the guy on the ground because he sees I’m not in straight-line motion.”

“It’s starting to get complicated.”

“No worries, this is as bad as it gets.  Now, let’s get back to square one and we’re flying along and this time the gravity field compresses your space instead of bending it.  What happens?  What do you experience?”

“Uhh… I don’t think I’d feel any difference.  I’m compressed, the air molecules I breath are compressed, everything gets smaller to scale.”

“Yup.  Now what do I see?  Do we still have the same inertial frame?”

“Wow.  Lessee… I’m still on the beam so no change in direction.  Ah!  But if my space is compressed, from your frame my miles look shorter.  If I keep going the same miles per second by my measure, then you’ll see my speed drop off.”

“Good thinking but there’s even more to it.  Einstein showed that space compression and time dilation are two sides of the same phenomenon.  When I look at you from my inertial frame, your miles appear to get shorter AND your seconds appear to get longer.”

“My miles per second slow way down from the double whammy, then?”

“Yup, but only in my frame and that other guy’s down on the ground, not in yours.”

“Wait!  If my space is compressed, what happens to the space around what got compressed?  Doesn’t the compression immediately suck in the rest of the Universe?”

“Einstein’s got that covered, too.  He showed that gravity doesn’t act instantaneously.  Whenever your space gets compressed, the nearby space stretches to compensate (as seen from an independent frame, of course).  The edge of the stretching spreads out at the speed of light.  But the stretch deformation gets less intense as it spreads out because it’s only offsetting a limited local compression.”

“OK, let’s get back to LIGO.  We got a laser beam going back and forth along each of two perpendicular arms, and that famous gravitational wave hits one arm broadside and the other arm cross-wise.  You gonna tell me that’s the same set-up as me and you in the two shuttles?”

“That’s what I’m going to tell you.”

“And the guy on the ground is…”

“The laboratory inertial reference.”

(sounds of departing footsteps and closing door)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# A Shift in The Flight

I heard a familiar squeak from the floorboard outside my office.

“C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.  What can I do for you?”

“I still got problems with LIGO.  I get that dark energy and cosmic expansion got nothin’ to do with it.  But you mentioned inertial frame and what’s that about?”

“Does the Moon go around the Earth or does the Earth go around the Moon?”

“Huh?  Depends on where you are, I guess.”

“Well, there you are.”

“Waitaminnit!  That can’t be all there is to it!”

“You’re right, there’s more.  It all goes back to Newton’s First Law.”  (showing him my laptop screen)  “Here’s how Wikipedia puts it in modern terms…”

In an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a net force.

“That’s really a definition rather than a Law.  If you’re looking at an object and it doesn’t move relative to you or else it’s moving at constant speed in a straight line, then you and the object share the same inertial frame.  If it changes speed or direction relative to you, then it’s in a different inertial frame from yours and Newton’s Laws say that there must be some force that accounts for the difference.”

“So another guy’s plane flying straight and level with me has a piece of my inertial frame?”

“Yep, even if you’re on different vectors.  You only lose that linkage if either airplane accelerates or curves off.”

“So how’s that apply to LIGO’s laser beams?  I thought light always traveled in straight lines.”

“It does, but what’s a straight line?”

“Shortest distance between two points — I been to flight school, Sy.”

“Fine.  So if you fly from London to Mexico City on this globe here you’d drill through the Earth?”

“Of course not, I’d take the Great Circle route that goes through those two cities.  It’s the shortest flight path.  Hey, how ’bout that, the circle goes through NYC and Atlanta, too.”

“Cool observation, but that line looks like a curve from where I sit.”

“Yeah, but you’re not sittin’ close to the globe’s surface.  I gotta fly in the flight space I got.”

“So does light.  Photons always take the shortest available path, though sometimes that path looks like a curve unless you’re on it, too.  Einstein predicted that starlight passing through the Sun’s gravitational field would be bent into a curve.  Three years later, Eddington confirmed that prediction.”

“Light doesn’t travel in a straight line?”

“It certainly does — light’s path defines what is a straight line in the space the light is traveling through.  Same as your plane’s flight path defines that Great Circle route.  A gravitational field distorts the space surrounding it and light obeys the distortion.”

“You’re getting to that ‘inertial frames’ stuff, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I think we’re ready for it.  You and that other pilot are flying steady-speed paths along two navigation beams, OK?”

“Sure they are, but radio’s just low-frequency light.  Stay with me.  So the two of you are zinging along in the same inertial frame but suddenly a strong gravitational field cuts across just your beam and bends it.  You keep on your beam, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“And now you’re on a different course than the other plane.  What happened to your inertial frame?”

“It also broke away from the other guy’s.”

“Because you suddenly got selfish?”

“No, ’cause my beam curved ’cause the gravity field bent it.”

“Do the radio photons think they’re traveling a bent path?”

“Uh, no, they’re traveling in a straight line in a bent space.”

“Does that space look bent to you?”

“Well, I certainly changed course away from the other pilot’s.”

“Ah, but that’s referring to his inertial frame or the Earth’s, not yours.  Your inertial frame is determined by how those photons fly, right?  In terms of your frame, did you peel away or stay on-beam?”

“OK, so I’m on-beam, following a straight path in a space that looks bent to someone using a different inertial frame.  Is that it?”

“You got it.”

(sounds of departing footsteps and closing door)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Breathing Space

It was December, it was cold, no surprise.  I unlocked my office door, stepped in and there was Vinnie, standing at the window.  He turned to me, shrugged a little and said, “Morning, Sy.”  That’s Vinnie for you.

“Morning, Vinnie.  What got you onto the streets this early?”

“I ain’t on the streets, I’m up here where it’s warm and you can answer my LIGO question.”

“And what’s that?”

“I read your post about gravitational waves, how they stretch and compress space.  What the heck does that even mean?”

“Funny thing, I just saw a paper by Professor Saulson at Syracuse that does a nice job on that.  Imagine a boxful of something real light but sparkly, like shiny dust grains.  If there’s no gravitational field nearby you can arrange rows of those grains in a nice, neat cubical array out there in empty space.  Put ’em, oh, exactly a mile apart in the x, y, and z directions.  They’re going to serve as markers for the coordinate system, OK?”

“I suppose.”

“Now it’s important that these grains are in free-fall, not connected to each other and too light to attract each other but all in the same inertial frame.  The whole array may be standing still in the Universe, whatever that means, or it could be heading somewhere at a steady speed, but it’s not accelerating in whole or in part.  If you shine a ray of light along any row, you’ll see every grain in that row and they’ll all look like they’re standing still, right?”

“I suppose.”

“OK, now a gravitational wave passes by.  You remember how they operate?”

“Yeah, but remind me.”

(sigh)  “Gravity can act in two ways.  The gravitational attraction that Newton identified acts along the line connecting the two objects acting on each other.  That longitudinal force doesn’t vary with time unless the object masses change or their distance changes.  We good so far?”

“Sure.”

“Gravity can also act transverse to that line under certain circumstances.  Suppose we here on Earth observe two black holes orbiting each other.  The line I’m talking about is the one that runs from us to the center of their orbit.  As each black hole circles that center, its gravitational field moves along with it.  The net effect is that the combined gravitational field varies perpendicular to our line of sight.  Make sense?”

“Gimme a sec…  OK, I can see that.  So now what?”

“So now that variation also gets transmitted to us in the gravitational wave.  We can ignore longitudinal compression and stretching along our sight line.  The black holes are so far away from us that if we plug the distance variation into Newton’s F=m1m2/r² equation the force variation is way too small to measure with current technology.

“The good news is that we can measure the off-axis variation because of the shape of the wave’s off-axis component.  It doesn’t move space up-and-down.  Instead, it compresses in one direction while it stretches perpendicular to that, and then the actions reverse.  For instance, if the wave is traveling along the z-axis, we’d see stretching follow compression along the x-axis at the same time as we’d see compression following stretching along the y-axis.”

“Squeeze in two sides, pop out the other two, eh?”

“Exactly.  You can see how that affects our grain array in this video I just happen to have cued up.  See how the up-down and left-right coordinates close in and spread out separately as the wave passes by?”

“Does this have anything to do with that ‘expansion of the Universe’ thing?”

“Well, the gravitational waves don’t, so far as we know, but the notion of expanding the distance between coordinate markers is exactly what we think is going on with that phenomenon.  It’s not like putting more frosting on the outside of a cake, it’s squirting more filling between the layers.  That cosmological pressure we discussed puts more distance between the markers we call galaxies.”

“Um-hmm.  Stay warm.”

(sound of departing footsteps and door closing)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Gentle pressure in the dark

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

Vinnie clomps in and he opens the conversation with, “I don’t believe that stuff you wrote about LIGO.  It can’t possibly work the way they say.”

“Well, sir, would you mind telling me why you have a problem with those posts?”  I’m being real polite, because Vinnie’s a smart guy and reads books.  Besides, he’s Vinnie.

“I’m good with your story about how Michelson’s interferometer worked and why there’s no æther.  Makes sense, how the waves mess up when they’re outta step.  Like my platoon had to walk funny when we crossed a bridge.  But the gravity wave thing makes no sense.  When a wave goes by maybe it fiddles space but it can’t change where the LIGO mirrors are.”

“Gravitational wave,” I murmur, but speak up with, “What makes you think that space can move but not the mirrors?”

“I seen how dark energy spreads galaxies apart but they don’t get any bigger.  Same thing must happen in the LIGO machine.”

“Not the same, Vinnie.  I’ll show you the numbers.”

“Ah, geez, don’t do calculus at me.”

“No, just arithmetic we can do on a spreadsheet.” I fire up the laptop and start poking in  astronomical (both senses) numbers.  “Suppose we compare what happens when two galaxies face each other in intergalactic space, with what happens when two stars face each other inside a galaxy.  The Milky Way’s my favorite galaxy and the Sun’s my favorite star.  Can we work with those?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“OK, we’ll need a couple of mass numbers.  The Sun’s mass is… (sound of keys clicking as I query Wikipedia) … 2×1030 kilograms, and the Milky Way has (more key clicks) about 1012 stars.  Let’s pretend they’re all the Sun’s size so the galaxy’s mass is (2×1030)×1012 = 2×1042 kg. Cute how that works, multiplying numbers by adding exponents, eh?”

“Cute, yeah, cute.”  He’s getting a little impatient.

“Next step is the sizes.  The Milky Way’s radius is 10×104 lightyears, give or take..  At 1016 meters per lightyear, we can say it’s got a radius of 5×1020 meters.  You remember the formula for the area of a circle?”

“Sure, it’s πr2.” I told you Vinnie’s smart.

“Right, so the Milky Way’s area is 25π×1040 m2.  Meanwhile, the Sun’s radius is 1.4×109 m and its cross-sectional area must be 2π×1018 m2.  Are you with me?”

“Yeah, but what’re we doing playing with areas?  Newton’s gravity equations just talk about distances between centers.”  I told you Vinnie’s smart.

“OK, we’ll do gravity first.  Suppose we’ve got our Milky Way facing another Milky Way an average inter-galactic distance away.  That’s about 60 galaxy radii,  about 300×1020 meters.  The average distance between stars in the Milky Way is about 4 lightyears or 4×1016 meters.  (I can see he’s hooked so I take a risk)  You’re so smart, what’s that Newton equation?”

“Alright, I’m impressed.  Let’s go for force.”

“Force equals Newton’s G times the product of the masses divided by the square of the distance.”

“Full credit, Vinnie.  G is about 7×10-11 newton-meter²/kilogram², so we’ve got a gravity force of (typing rapidly) (7×10-11)×(2×1042)×(2×1042)/(300×1020)² = 3.1×1029 N for the galaxies, and (7×10-11)×(2×1030)×(2×1030)/(4×1016)² = 1.75×1017 N for the stars.  Capeesh?”

“Yeah, yeah.  Get on with it.”

“Now for dark energy.  We don’t know what it is, but theory says it somehow exerts a steady pressure that pushes everything away from everything.  That outward pressure’s exerted here in the office, out in space, everywhere.  Pressure is force per unit area, which is why we calculated areas.

“But the pressure’s really, really weak.  Last I saw, the estimate’s on the order of 10-9 N/m².  So our Milky Way is pushed away from that other one by a force of (10-9)×(25π×1040) ≈ 1031 N, and our Sun is pushed away from that other star by a force of (10-9)×(2π×1018) ≈ 1010 N with rounding.  Here, look at the spreadsheet summary…”

Force, newtons Between Galaxies Between stars
Gravity 3.1×1029 1.75×1017
Dark energy 1031 1010
Ratio 3.1×10-2 17.5×106

“So gravity’s force pulling stars together is 18 million times stronger than dark energy’s pressure pushing them apart.  That’s why the galaxies aren’t expanding.”

“Gotta go.”

(sound of door-slam )

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Gettin’ kinky in space

Things were simpler in the pre-Enlightenment days when we only five planets to keep track of.  But Haley realized that comets could have orbits, Herschel discovered Uranus, and Galle (with Le Verrier’s guidance) found Neptune.  Then a host of other astronomers detected Ceres and a host of other asteroids, and Tombaugh observed Pluto in 1930.

Astronomers relished the proliferation — every new-found object up there was a new test case for challenging one or another competing theory.

Here’s the currently accepted narrative…  Long ago but quite close-by, there was a cloud of dust in the Milky Way galaxy.  Random motion within it produced a swirl that grew into a vortex dozens of lightyears long.

Consider one dust particle (we’ll call it Isaac) afloat in a slice perpendicular to the vortex.  Assume for the moment that the vortex is perfectly straight, the dust is evenly spread across it, and all particles have the same mass.  Isaac is subject to two influences — gravitational and rotational.

Gravity pulls Isaac towards towards every other particle in the slice.  Except for very near the slice’s center there are generally more particles (and thus more mass) toward and beyond the center than back toward the edge behind him.  Furthermore, there will generally be as many particles to Isaac’s left as to his right.  Gravity’s net effect is to pull Isaac toward the vortex center.

But the vortex spins.  Isaac and his cohorts have angular momentum, which is like straight-line momentum except you’re rotating about a center.  Both of them are conserved quantities — you can only get rid of either kind of momentum by passing it along to something else.  Angular momentum keeps Isaac rotating within the plane of his slice.

An object’s angular momentum is its linear momentum multiplied by its distance from the center.  If Isaac drifts towards the slice’s center (radial distance decreases), either he speeds up to compensate or he transfers angular momentum to other particles by colliding with them.

But vortices are rarely perfectly straight.  Moreover, the galactic-cloud kind are generally lumpy and composed of different-sized particles.  Suppose our vortex gets kinked by passing a star or a magnetic field or even another vortex.  Between-slice gravity near the kink shifts mass kinkward and unbalances the slices to form a lump (see the diagram).  The lump’s concentrated mass in turn attracts particles from adjacent slices in a viscous cycle (pun intended).

After a while the lumpward drift depletes the whole neighborhood near the kink.  The vortex becomes host to a solar nebula, a concentrated disk of dust whirling about its center because even when you come in from a different slice, you’ve still got your angular momentum.  When gravity smacks together Isaac and a few billion other particles, the whole ball of whacks inherits the angular momentum that each of its stuck-together components had.  Any particle or planetoid that tries to make a break for it up- or down-vortex gets pulled back into the disk by gravity.

That theory does a pretty good job on the conventional Solar System — four rocky Inner Planets, four gas giant Outer Planets, plus that host of asteroids and such, all tightly held in the Plane of The Ecliptic.

How then to explain out-of-plane objects like Pluto and Eris, not to mention long-period comets with orbits at all angles?

We now know that the Solar System holds more than we used to believe.  Who’s in is still “objects whose motion is dominated by the Sun’s gravitational field,” but the Sun’s net spreads far further than we’d thought.  Astronomers now hypothesize that after its creation in the vortex, the Sun accumulated an Oort cloud — a 100-billion-mile spherical shell containing a trillion objects, pebbles to planet-sized.

At the shell’s average distance from the Sun (see how tiny Neptune’s path is in the diagram) Solar gravity is a millionth of its strength at Earth’s orbit.  The gravity of a passing star or even a conjunction of our own gas giants is enough to start an Oort-cloud object on an inward journey.

These trans-Neptunian objects are small and hard to see, but they’re revolutionizing planetary astronomy.

~~ Rich Olcott

# The question Newton couldn’t answer

250 years ago, when people were getting used to the idea that the planets circle the Sun and not the other way around, they wondered how that worked.  Isaac Newton said, “I can explain it with my Laws of Motion and my Law of Gravity.”

The first Law of Motion is that an object will move in a straight line unless acted upon by a force.  If you’re holding a ball by a string and swing the ball in a circle, the reason the ball doesn’t fly away is that the string is exerting a force on the ball.  Using Newton’s Laws, if you know the mass of the ball and the length of the string, you can calculate how fast the ball moves along that circle.

Newton said that the Solar System works the same way.  Between the Sun and each planet there’s an attractive force which he called gravity.  If you can determine three points in a planet’s orbit, you can use the Laws of Motion and the Law of Gravity to calculate the planet’s speed at any time, how close it gets to the Sun, even how much the planet weighs.

Astronomers said, “This is wonderful!  We can calculate the whole Solar System this way, but… we don’t see any strings.  How does gravity work?”

Newton was an honest man.  His response was, “I don’t know how gravity works.  But I can calculate it and that should be good enough.”

And that was good enough for 250 years until Albert Einstein produced his Theories of Relativity.  This graphic shows one model of Einstein’s model of “the fabric of space.”  According to the theory, light (the yellow threads) travels at 186,000 miles per second everywhere in the Universe.

As we’ve seen, the theory also says that space is curved and compressed near a massive object.  Accordingly, the model’s threads are drawn together near the dark circle, which could represent a planet or a star or a black hole.  If you were standing next to a black hole (but not too close). you’d feel fine because all your atoms and the air you breathe would shrink to the same scale.  You’d just notice through your telescope that planetary orbits and other things in the Universe appear larger than you expect.

This video shows how a massive object’s space compression affects a passing light wave.  The brown dot and the blue dot both travel at 186,000 miles per second, but “miles are shorter near a black hole.”  The wave’s forward motion is deflected around the object because the blue dot’s miles are longer than the miles traveled by the brown dot.

When Einstein presented his General Theory of Relativity in 1916, his calculations led him to predict that this effect would cause a star’s apparent position to be altered by the Sun’s gravitational field.

An observer at the bottom of this diagram can pinpoint the position of star #1 by following its light ray back to the star’s location.  Star #2, however, is so situated that its light ray is bent by our massive object.  To the observer, star #2’s apparent position is shifted away from its true position.

In 1919, English physicist-astronomer Arthur Eddington led an expedition to the South Atlantic to test Einstein’s prediction.  Why the South Atlantic?  To observe the total eclipse of the sun that would occur there.  With the Sun’s light blocked by the Moon, Eddington would be able to photograph the constellation Taurus behind the Sun.

Sure enough, in Eddington’s photographs the stars closest to the Sun were shifted in their apparent position relative to those further way.  Furthermore, the sizes of the shifts were almost embarrassingly close to Einstein’s predicted values.

Eddington presented his photographs to a scientific conference in Cambridge and thus produced the first public confirmation of Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Wait, how does an object bending a light ray connect with that object’s pull on another mass?  Another piece of Einstein’s theory says that if a light ray and a freely falling mass both start from the same point in spacetime, both will follow the same path through space.  American physicist John Archibald Wheeler said, “Mass bends space, and bent space tells mass how to move.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Gravity and other fictitious forces

In this post I wrote, “gravitational force is how we we perceive spatial curvature.”
Here’s another claim — “Gravity is like centrifugal force, because they’re both fictitious.”   Outrageous, right?  I mean, I can feel gravity pulling down on me now.  How can it be fictional?

“Fictitious,” not “fictional,” and there’s a difference.  “Fictional” doesn’t exist, but a fictitious force is one that, to put it non-technically, depends on how you look at it.

Newton started it, of course.  From our 21st Century perspective, it’s hard to recognize the ground-breaking impact of his equation F=a.  Actually, it’s less a discovery than a set of definitions.  Its only term that can be measured directly is a, the acceleration, which Newton defined as any change from rest or constant-speed straight-line motion.  For instance, car buffs know that if a vehicle covers a one-mile half-mile (see comments) track in 60 seconds from a standing start, then its final speed is 60 mph (“zero to sixty in sixty”).  Furthermore, we can calculate that it achieved a sustained acceleration of 1.47 ft/sec2.

Both F and m, force and mass, were essentially invented by Newton and they’re defined in terms of each other.  Short of counting atoms (which Newton didn’t know about), the only routes to measuring a mass boil down to

• compare it to another mass (for instance, in a two-pan balance), or
• quantify how its motion is influenced by a known amount of force.

Conversely, we evaluate a force by comparing it to a known force or by measuring its effect on a known mass.

Once the F=a. equation was on the table, whenever a physicist noticed an acceleration they were duty-bound to look for the corresponding force.  An arrow leaps from the bow?  Force stored as tension in the bowstring.  A lodestone deflects a compass needle?  Magnetic force.  Objects accelerate as they fall?  Newton identified that force, called it “gravity,” and showed how to calculate it and how to apply it to planets as well as apples.  It was Newton who pointed out that weight is a measure of gravity’s force on a given mass.

Incidentally, to this day the least accurately known physical constant is Newton’s G, the Universal Gravitational Constant in his equation F=G·m1·m2/r2.  We can “weigh” planets with respect to each other and to the Sun, but without an independently-determined accurate mass for some body in the Solar System we can only estimate G.  We’ll have a better value when we can see how much rocket fuel it takes to push an asteroid around.

But there are other accelerations that aren’t so easily accounted for.  Ever ride in a car going around a curve and find yourself almost flung out of your seat?  This little guy wasn’t wearing his seat belt and look what happened.  The car accelerated because changing direction is an acceleration due to a lateral force.  But the guy followed Newton’s First Law and just kept going in a straight line.  Did he accelerate?

This is one of those “depends on how you look at it” cases.  From a frame of reference locked to the car (arrows), he was accelerated outwards by a centrifugal force that wasn’t countered by centripetal force from his seat belt.  However, from an earthbound frame of reference he flew in a straight line and experienced no force at all.

Suppose you’re investigating an object’s motion that appears to arise from a new force you’d like to dub “heterofugal.”  If you can find a different frame of reference (one not attached to the object) or otherwise explain the motion without invoking the “new force,” then heterofugalism is a fictitious force.

Centrifugal and centripetal forces are fictitious.  The  “force” “accelerating” one plane towards another as they both fly to the North Pole in this tale is actually geometrical and thus also fictitious   So is gravity.

In this post you’ll find a demonstration of gravity’s effect on the space around it.  Just as a sphere’s meridians give the effect of a fictitious lateral force as they draw together near its poles, the compressive curvature of space near a mass gives the effect of a force drawing other masses inward.

~~ Rich Olcott