On Gravity, Charge And Geese

A beautiful April day, far too nice to be inside working.  I’m on a brisk walk toward the lake when I hear puffing behind me.  “Hey, Moire, I got questions!”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.  Ask away while we hike over to watch the geese.”

“Sure, but slow down , will ya?  I been reading this guy’s blog and he says some things I wanna check on.”

I know better but I ask anyhow.  “Like what?”

“Like maybe the planets have different electrical charges  so if we sent an astronaut they’d get killed by a ginormous lightning flash.”

“That’s unlikely for so many reasons, Mr Feder.  First, it’d be almost impossible for the Solar System to get built that way.  Next, it couldn’t stay that way if it had been.  Third, we know it’s not that way now.”

“One at a time.”

“OK.  We’re pretty sure that the Solar System started as a kink in a whirling cloud of galactic dust.  Gravity spanning the kink pulled that cloud into a swirling disk, then the swirls condensed to form planets.  Suppose dust particles in one of those swirls, for whatever reason, all had the same unbalanced electrical charge.”

“Right, and they came together because of gravity like you say.”

I pull Old Reliable from its holster.  “Think about just two particles, attracted to each other by gravity but repelled by their static charge.  Let’s see which force would win.  Typical interstellar dust particles run about 100 nanometers across.  We’re thinking planets so our particles are silicate.  Old Reliable says they’d weigh about 2×1018 kg each, so the force of gravity pulling them together would be …  oh, wait, that’d depend on how far apart they are.  But so would the electrostatic force, so let’s keep going.  How much charge do you want to put on each particle?”

“The minimum, one electron’s worth.”

“Loading the dice for gravity, aren’t you?  Only one extra electron per, umm, 22 million silicon atoms.    OK, one electron it is …  Take a look at Old Reliable’s calculation.gravity vs electrostatic calculation Those two electrons push their dust grains apart almost a quintillion times more strongly than gravity pulls them together.  And the distance makes no difference — close together or far apart, push wins.  You can’t use gravity to build a planet from charged particles.”

“Wait, Moire, couldn’t something else push those guys together — magnetic fields, say, or a shock wave?”

“Sure, which is why I said almost impossible.  Now for the second reason the astronaut won’t get lightning-shocked — the solar wind.  It’s been with us since the Sun lit up and it’s loaded with both positive- and negative-charged particles.  Suppose Venus, for instance, had been dealt more than its share of electrons back in the day.  Its net-negative charge would attract the wind’s protons and alpha particles to neutralize the charge imbalance.  By the same physics, a net-positive planet would attract electrons.  After a billion years of that, no problem.”

“All right, what’s the third reason?”

“Simple.  We’ve already sent out orbiters to all the planets.  Descent vehicles have made physical contact with many of them.  No lightning flashes, no fried electronics.  Blows my mind that our Cassini mission to Saturn did seven years of science there after a six-year flight, and everything worked perfectly with no side-trips to the shop.  Our astronauts can skip worrying about high-voltage landings.”

“Hey, I just noticed something.  Those F formulas look the same.”  He picks up a stick and starts scribbling on the dirt in front of us.  “You could add them up like F=(Gm1m2+k0q1q2)/r2.  See how the two pieces can trade off if you take away some mass but add back some charge?  How do we know we’ve got the mass-mass pull right and not mixed in with some charge-charge push?”

Geese and ducks“Good question.  If protons were more positive than electrons, electrostatic repulsion would always be proportional to mass.  We couldn’t separate that force from gravity.  Physicists have separately measured electron and proton charge.  They’re equal (except for sign) to 10 decimal places.  Unfortunately, we’d need another 25 digits of accuracy before we could test your hypothesis.”

“Aw, look, the geese got babies.”

“The small ones are ducks, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Far out, man

Egg in the UniverseThe thing about Al’s coffee shop is that there’s generally a good discussion going on, usually about current doings in physics or astronomy.  This time it’s in the physicist’s corner but they’re not writing equations on the whiteboard Al put up over there to save on paper napkins.  I step over there and grab an empty chair.

“Hi folks, what’s the fuss about?”

“Hi, Mr Moire, we’re arguing about where the outer edge of the Solar System is.  I said it’s Pluto’s orbit, like we heard in high school — 325 lightminutes from the Sun.”

The looker beside him pipes up.  “Jeremy, that’s just so bogus.”  Kid keeps scoring above his level, don’t know how he does it.  “Pluto doesn’t do a circular orbit, it’s a narrow ellipse so average distance doesn’t count.  Ten percent of the time Pluto’s actually closer to the Sun than Neptune is, and that’s only 250 lightminutes out.”

Then the looker on his other side chimes in.  Doing good, kid.  “How about the Kuiper Belt?  A hundred thousand objects orbiting the Sun out to maybe twice Neptune’s distance, so it’s 500 lightminutes.”

Third looker, across the table.  You rock, Jeremy.  “Hey, don’t forget the Scattered Disk, where the short-period comets drop in from.  That goes out to 100 astronomical units, which’d be … 830 lightminutes.”

One of Cathleen’s Astronomy grad students can’t help diving in despite he’s only standing nearby, not at the table.  “Nah, the edge is at the heliopause.”

<several voices> “The what?”

“You know about the solar wind, right, all the neutral and charged particles that get blown out of the Sun?  Mass-density-wise it’s a near-vacuum, but it’s not nothing.  Neither is the interstellar medium, maybe a few dozen hydrogen and helium atoms per cubic meter but that adds up and they’re not drifting on the same vector the Sun’s using.  The heliopause is the boundary where the two flows collide.  Particles in the solar wind are hot, relatively speaking, compared to the interstellar medium.  Back in 2012, our outbound spacecraft Voyager 1 detected a sharp drop in temperature at 121 astronomical units.  You guys are talking lightminutes so that’d be <thumb-pokes his smartphone> how about that? almost exactly 1000 lightminutes out.  So there’s your edge.”

Now Al’s into it.  “Hold on, how about the Oort Cloud?”

“Mmm, good point.  Like this girl said <she bristles at being called ‘girl’>, the short-period comets are pretty much in the ecliptic plane and probably come in from the Scattered Disk.  But the long-period comets seem to come in from every direction.  That’s why we think the Cloud’s a spherical shell.  Furthermore, the far points of their orbits generally lie in the range between 20,000 and 50,000 au’s, though that outer number’s pretty iffy.  Call the edge at 40,000 au’s <more thumb-poking> that’d be 332,000 lightminutes, or 3.8 lightdays.”

“Nice job, Jim.”  Cathleen speaks up from behind him.  “But let’s think a minute about why that top number’s iffy.”

“Umm, because it’s dark out there and we’ve yet to actually see any of those objects?”

“True.  At 40,000 au’s the light level is 1/40,000² or 1/1,600,000,000 the sunlight intensity we get on Earth.  But there’s another reason.  Maybe that ‘spherical shell’ isn’t really a sphere.”

I have to ask.  “How could it not be?  The Sun’s gravitational field is spherical.”

“Right, but at these distances the Sun’s field is extremely weak.  The inverse-square law works for gravity the same way it does for light, so the strength of the Sun’s gravitational field out there is also 1/1,600,000,000 of what keeps the Earth on its orbit.  External forces can compete with that.”

“Yeah, I get that, Cathleen, but 3.8 lightdays is … over 400 times closer than the 4½ lightyear distance to the nearest star.  The Sun’s field at the Cloud is stronger than Alpha Centauri’s by at least a factor of 400 squared.”

“Think bigger, Sy.  The galactic core is 26,000 lightyears away, but it’s the center of 700 billion solar masses.  I’ve run the numbers.  At Jim’s Oort-Cloud ‘edge’ the Galaxy’s field is 11% as strong as the Sun’s.  Tidal forces will pull the outer portion of the Cloud into an egg shape pointed to the center of the Milky Way.”

Jeremy’s agog.  “So the edge of the Solar System is 1,000 times further than Pluto?  Wow!”



~~ Rich Olcott

Water, Water Everywhere — How Come?

Lunch time, so I elbow my way past Feder and head for the elevator.  He keeps peppering me with questions.

“Was Einstein ever wrong?”

“Sure. His equations pointed the way to black holes but he thought the Universe couldn’t pack that much mass into that small a space.  It could.  There are other cases.”

We’re on the elevator and I punch 2.  “Where you going?  I ain’t done yet.”

“Down to Eddie’s Pizza.  You’re buying.”

“Awright, long as I get my answers.  Next one — if the force pulling an electron toward a nucleus goes as 1/r², when it gets to where r=0 won’t it get stuck there by the infinite force?”

“No, because at very short distances you can’t use that simple force law.  The electron’s quantum wave properties dominate and the charge is a spread-out blur.”

The elevator stops at 7.  Cathleen and a couple of her Astronomy students get on, but Feder just peppers on.  “So I read that everywhere we look in the Solar System there’s water.  How come?”

I look over at Cathleen.  “This is Mr Richard Feder of Fort Lee, NJ.  He’s got questions.  Care to take this one?  He’s buying the pizza.”

“Well, in that case.  It all starts with alpha particles, Mr Feder.”

The elevator door opens on 2, we march into Eddie’s, order and find a table.  “What’s an alpha particle and what’s that got to do with water?”

Alpha particle

Two protons and two neutrons, assembled as an alpha particle

“An alpha particle’s a fragment of nuclear material that contains two protons and two neutrons.  99.999% of all helium atoms have an alpha particle for a nucleus, but alphas are so stable relative to other possible combinations that when heavy atoms get indigestion they usually burp alpha particles.”

“And the water part?”

“That goes back to where our atoms come from — all our atoms, but in particular our hydrogen and oxygen.  Hydrogen’s the simplest atom, just a proton in its nucleus.  That was virtually the only kind of nucleus right after the Big Bang, and it’s still the most common kind.  The first generation of stars got their energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei to make helium.  Even now, that’s true for stars about the size of the Sun or smaller.  More massive stars support hotter processes that can make heavier elements.  Umm, Maria, do you have your class notes from last Tuesday?”

“Yes, Professor.”

“Please show Mr Feder that chart of the most abundant elements in the Universe.  Do you see any patterns in the second and fourth columns, Mr Feder?”

Element Atomic number Mass % *103 Atomic weight Atom % *103
Hydrogen 1 73,900 1 92,351
Helium 2 24,000 4 7,500
Oxygen 8 1,040 16 81
Carbon 6 460 12 48
Neon 10 134 20 8
Iron 26 109 56 2
Nitrogen 7 96 14 <1
Silicon 14 65 32 <1

“Hmm…  I’m gonna skip hydrogen, OK?  All the rest except nitrogen have an even atomic number, and all of ’em except nitrogen the atomic weight is a multiple of four.”

“Bravo, Mr Feder.  You’ve distinguished between two of the primary reaction paths that larger stars use to generate energy.  The alpha ladder starts with carbon-12 and adds one alpha particle after another to go from oxygen-16 on up to iron-56.  The CNO cycle starts with carbon-12 and builds alphas from hydrogens but a slow step in the cycle creates nitrogen-14.”

“Where’s the carbon-12 come from?”

“That’s the third process, triple alpha.  If three alphas with enough kinetic energy meet up within a ridiculously short time interval, you get a carbon-12.  That mostly happens only while a star’s going nova, simultaneously collapsing its interior and spraying most of its hydrogen, helium, carbon and whatever out into space where it can be picked up by neighboring stars.”

“Where’s the water?”

“Part of the whatever is oxygen-16 atoms.  What would a lonely oxygen atom do, floating around out there?  Look at Maria’s table.  Odds are the first couple of atoms it runs across will be hydrogens to link up with.  Presto!  H2O, water in astronomical quantities.  The carbon atoms can make methane, CH4; the nitrogens can make ammonia, NH3; and then photons from Momma star or somewhere can help drive chemical reactions  between those molecules.”

“You’re saying that the water astronomers find on the planets and moons and comets comes from alpha particles inside stars?”

“We’re star dust, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Curiosity in The Internet Market

“I got another question, Moire.”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.  Let’s hear it.”

“I read on the Internet that there’s every kind of radioactivity coming out of lightning bolts.  So is that true, how’s it happen and how come we’re not all glowing in the dark?”

“Well, now, like much else you read on the Internet there’s a bit of truth in there, and a bit of not-truth, all wrapped up in hype.  The ‘every kind of radioactivity’ part, for instance, that’s false.”

“Oh yeah?  What’s false about that?”

“Kinds like heavy-atom fission and alpha-particle ejection.  Neither have been reported near lightning strikes and they’re not likely to be.  Lightning travels through air.  Air is 98% nitrogen and oxygen with a sprinkling of light atoms.  Atoms like that don’t do those kinds of radioactivity.”

“So what’s left?”

“There’s only two kinds worth worrying about — beta decay, where the nucleus spits out an electron or positron, and some processes that generate gamma-rays.  Gamma’s a high-energy photon, higher even than X-rays.  Gamma photons are strong enough to ionize atoms and molecules.”

“You said ‘worth worrying about.’  I like worrying.  What’s in the not-worth-it bucket?”

“Neutrinos.  They’re so light and interact so little with matter that many physicists think of them as just an accounting device.  Trillions go through you every second and you don’t notice and neither do they.  Really, don’t worry about them.”

“Easy for you to say.  Awright, so how does lightning make the … I guess the beta and gamma radioactivity?”

“We know the general outlines, although a lot of details have yet to be filled in.  What do you know about linear accelerators?”

“Not a clue.  What is one?”

Lighting and a diagram of a linac

Linac diagram adapted from
Sgbeer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

“It’s a technology for making high-energy electrons and other charged particles.  Picture a straight evacuated pipe equipped with ring electrodes at various distances from the source end.  The source could be an electron gun or maybe a rig that spits out ions of some sort.  Voltages between adjacent electrodes downstream of a particle will give it a kick when it passes en route to the target end.  By using the right voltages at the right times you can boost an electron’s kinetic energy into the hundred-million-eV range.  That’s a lot of kinetic energy.  Got that picture?”

“Suppose that I do.  Then what?”

“Lightning is the same thing but without the pipe and it’s not straight.  The electrons have an evacuated path, because plasma formation drives most of the molecules out of there.  Activity inside the clouds gives them high voltages, up to a couple hundred megavolts.  But on top of that there’s bremsstrahlung.”


Bremsstrahlung — German for braking radiation.  You know how your car’s tires squeal when you make a turn at speed?”

“One of my favorite sounds, ‘specially when … never mind.  What about it?”

“That’s your tires converting your forward momentum into sound waves.  Electrons do that, too, but with electromagnetism.  The lightning path zigs and zags.  An electron’s path has to follow suit.  At each swerve, the electron throws off some of its kinetic energy as an electromagnetic wave, otherwise known as a photon.  Those can be very high-energy photons, X-rays or even gamma-rays.”

“So that’s where the gammas come from.”

“Yup.  But there’s more.  Remember those nitrogen atoms?  Ninety-nine-plus percent of them are nitrogen-14, a nice, stable isotope with seven protons and seven neutrons.  If a sufficiently energetic gamma strikes a nitrogen-14, the atom’s nucleus can kick out a neutron and turn into unstable nitrogen-13.  That nucleus emits a positron to become stable carbon-13.  So you’ve got free neutrons and positrons to add to the radiation list.”

“With all that going on, how come I’m not glowing in the dark?”

“‘Because the radiation goes away quickly and isn’t contagious.  Most of the neutrons are soaked up by  hydrogen atoms in passing water molecules (it’s raining, remember?).  Nitrogen-13 has a 10-minute half-life and it’s gone.  The remaining neutrons, positrons and gammas can ionize stuff, but that happens on the outsides of molecules, not in the nuclei.  Turning things radioactive is a lot harder to do.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Maybe I want to.”

“Your choice, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Planetary Pastry, Third Course

The Al’s Coffee Shop Astronomy gang is still discussing Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.  Cathleen‘s holding court, which is natural because she’s the only for-real Astronomer in the group…  “So here’s what we’ve got.  The rim of the Great Red Spot goes hundreds of miles an hour in the wrong direction compared to hurricanes on Earth.  An Earth hurricane’s eye is calm but the Jupiter Spot’s rim encloses a complex pattern of high winds.  Heat transport and cloud formation on Earth are dominated by water, but Jupiter’s atmospheric dynamic has two active players — water and ammonia.”

“Here’s your pastries, Cathleen.  I brought you a whole selection.  Don’t nobody sneeze on ’em, OK?”

“Oh, they’re perfect, Al.  Thanks.  Let’s start with this bear claw.  We’ll pretend it’s the base of the weather column.  On Earth that’d be mostly ocean, some land surface and some ice.  They’re all rough-ish and steer air currents, which is why there’s a rain shadow inland of coastal mountain ranges.”pastries 2

“Jupiter doesn’t have mountains?”

“We’re virtually certain it doesn’t, Sy.  The planet’s density is so low that it can’t have much heavy material.  It’s essentially an 88,000-mile-wide ball of helium-diluted liquid hydrogen topped by a 30-mile-high weather column.  Anything rocky sank to the core long ago.  The liquid doesn’t even have a real surface.”

<Al and Sy> “Huh?”

“Jovian temps are so low that even at moderate pressures there’s no boundary between gaseous and liquid phases.  Going downward you dive through clear ‘air,’ then progress through an increasingly opalescent haze until you realize you’re swimming.  Physicists just define the ‘surface’ to be the height where the pressure is one atmosphere.  That level’s far enough down that water and ammonia freeze to form overlying cloud layers but hydrogen and helium are still gases.  It could conceivably look like home there except the sky would be weird colors and you don’t see a floor.”

“If the boundary is that blurry, it’s probably pretty much frictionless — weather passes over it without slowing down or losing energy, right?”


“So there’s way too much slivered almonds and stuff on that bear claw. On this scale it ought to have a mirror finish.”

“Good point.  But now we can start stacking weather onto it.  Here’s my doughnut, to represent the Great Red Spot or any of the other long-lived anticyclones.”

“Auntie who?”

“A-n-t-i-cyclone, Al.  Technical term for a storm that disobeys the Coriolis theory.”

“Uh-HUH. So why’s it do that?”

“Well, at this point we can only go up one level in the cause-and-effect chain.  <pulling out smartphone>  NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft sent back data for this this wonderful video


Jupiter seen by Voyager 1 probe with blue filter in 1979. One image was taken every Jupiter day (approximately 10 hours).  Credit: NASA

“Basically, the Spot is trapped between two jet streams, one going westward at 135 mph and the other going eastward at 110 mph.  I’ll use these biscotti to represent them.pastries with arrows

“Hey, that’s like a rack-and-pinion gear setup, with two racks and an idler, except the idler gear’s four times as wide as the Earth.”

“A bit less than that these days, Sy.  The Spot’s been shrinking and getting rounder.  Every year since 1980 it’s lost about 300 miles east-west and about 60 miles north-south.  As of 2014 it was about 2.8 Earth-widths across.  And no, we don’t know why.  Theories abound, though.”

“What’s one of them?”

“Believe it or not, climate change.  On Jupiter, not Earth.  One group of scientists at Berkeley tackled a couple of observations

  • Unlike Earth, which is much hotter near the Equator than near the poles, Jupiter’s Equator is only a few degrees warmer than its poles.
  • Three persistent White Ovals near the Great Red Spot merged to form a single White Oval that recently turned red but only around the edges.

Their argument is long, technical and still controversial.  However, their proposal is that merging the three ovals disrupted the primary heat transport mechanism that had been evening out Jupiter’s temperature.  IF that’s true, and if it’s the case that Jupiter’s jet streams are powered by heat transport, then maybe disrupted heat patterns are interfering with  the Great Red Spot’s rack-and-pinion machine.  And maybe more.”

“Big changes ahead for the Big Planet.”


~~ Rich Olcott

Teena Meets The Eclipses

“Don’t look up until it suddenly gets really dark, Teena.  I’ll tell you when it’s time.”

“OK, Uncle Sy.  Oooo, look at the house where our tree makes a shadow!  It’s all over crescents!”

“Yep, wherever leaves overlap to make a pinhole, it’s like the one we made in our cardboard.  See, those crescents are just like the one our pinhole beams onto the sidewalk.”

“Yeah.  ‘Cause it’s the same Sun, right?”

“Sure is.”

“Are other little kids seeing the eclipse all over the world?  They’ve got the same Sun, too.”

“No, just the ones who happen to be on the shadow stripe that the Moon paints on the Earth.”

“How many kids is that?”

“Hard to tell.  Some families live where the shadow passes through, some families travel to be there, lots of other families just stay where they are.  No-one knows how many of each.  But we can make some not-very-good guesses.”

“The crescent’s going so slow.  Let’s make guesses while we’re waiting.”

“OK.  Let’s start by imagining that all the world’s people are spread evenly over the land and sea.”

“Even on the ocean?  Like everyone has a little boat?”

“Yep, and sleds or whatever on polar ice, people everywhere.  In our city there are eight blocks to a mile, so if we spread out the people there’d be one person every other block.”

“Every other block.  Like just on the black squares on our checker board.”

“Uh-huh.  The Moon’s shadow today will be a circle about 80 miles across and it’ll travel about 2500 miles across the whole country.  The stripe it paints would cover about 6½ million spread-out people.  Maybe 10 million if you count the people in little boats, ’cause the eclipse starts and ends over the ocean.”Local eclipses

“Lots of people.”

“Yes, but only about one person out of every thousand people in the world.”

“We’re pretty lucky then, huh?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Are there eclipses on other planets?”

“Of a sort, but only for planets that have a moon.  Poor Mercury and Venus don’t have moons so they never see an eclipse.”

“Aww. … Wait — you said ‘of a sort.’  Are there different kinds of eclipses?”

“You’re very alert this morning.  And yes, there are.  Two that get the publicity and two that we never see on Earth.  It has to do with perspective.”

“Per … perspec…?”

“Perspective.  The word originally meant very careful looking but it’s come to be about how things look from a particular point of view.  See that tree across the street?”


“Think your hand is bigger than the tree?”

“Of course not.  I climb that tree.”

“OK, put your hand between your eyes and the tree.”

“Oh!  My hand covers the whole tree!”

“Yup.  Nearer things look big and farther things look small.  That’s perspective.  Eclipses are all about perspective.”How big is the Sun

“How come?”

“The perspective principle works in the Solar System, too.  If you were to travel from Earth to Mars to Jupiter and so on, the Sun would look smaller at each planet.”

“Like the far-away trees look smaller than the close trees.  But what does that have to do with eclipses?”

“A planet gets an eclipse when one of its moons comes between it and the Sun.  That’s what’s happening right now here.  Our Moon is moving between us and the Sun and blocking its light.”

“But I don’t see the Moon, just the carved-out piece.”

“That’s because we’re looking at the unlit side of the Moon.  It’s so dim compared to the rest of the sky.  Anyway, the Moon’s width we see is just about the same as the Sun’s width.  The moons on the other planets don’t match up that well.  On Mars, for instance, its moon Phobos appears less than half the width of the Sun even though the Sun appears only 2/3 as wide as we see it.  Phobos can never cover the Sun entirely, so no true eclipse, just a transit.”

“Can the planet’s moon be bigger?”

“Sure.  On Jupiter, Europa’s width completely blocks out the Sun.  That’s called an occultation.  You can look up now.  Jupiter people can never see that corona.”

“Oooooo, so pretty.  We’re lucky, aren’t we?”

“In more ways than you know, sweetie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Planetary Pastry, Second Course

We’re still sitting in Al’s coffee shop.  “OK, Cathleen, so Jupiter’s Great Red Spot acts like a hurricane turned inside-out.  Where’s the problem?”

“Just that it goes completely against all the computer models we’ve built to understand and predict hurricane activity.  It’ll take a whole new generation of even more complicated models for Jupiter-like planets.”

“Here’s the doughnuts you asked for, Cathleen.”

“Thanks, Al.  Perfect timing. <drawing on a paper napkin>  Let’s look at hurricanes first, OK, Sy?”


“We’ll start with this doughnut that I’ve just taken a bite out of.  First thing that happens is that warm ocean water heats up the overlying air.  Warmed air rises, so we’ve got an updraft.”

“And then?”

“The rising air is humid (ocean air, remember?).  As it rises it cools and forces moisture to condense out.  Upward flow stops when the warmed air hits the top of the troposphere.  But there’s still more warm air pushing up the plume.  The cooled air has to go somewhere so it spreads out.  That’s where these red arrows on my paper napkin go horizontal.  The cooled air, loaded with water droplets, is heavy so it starts sinking which is why the red arrows turn downward.  They move back across that ocean water again ’cause they’re caught in the inflow.  Full cycle and that’s number 1 here, got it?”


“Hey, Cathleen,  are you gonna need more paper napkins?”Donuts 1
“A couple should be enough, Al, thanks.  Now we get to number 2, the Coriolis thing. That’s always tough to talk students through but let’s try.  The Earth rotates once every 24 hours, right, and its circumference at the Equator is 25,000 miles, so relative to the Sun anything at the Equator is flying eastward at about 1,000 miles per hour.  Any place north of the Equator has to be going slower than that, and further north, even slower.  With me, Sy?”

“Gimme a minute … OK, I suppose.”

“Good.  Now suppose a balloon is floating in the breeze somewhere south of that rising plume.  Relative to the plume, it’ll have eastward momentum.  Now the balloon’s caught in the plume’s inflow but it doesn’t go straight in because of that eastward momentum.  Instead it’s going to arc around the plume.  See how I’ve got it coming in off-center?  Al, would that be clockwise or counterclockwise if you’re looking down from a satellite or something?”

“Umm … counterclockwise, yeah?”

“Mm-hm.  What about a balloon that starts out north of the plume?”

“Uhh … It’ll be going slower than the plume, so the plume gets ahead of it and it’ll arc … hey, counterclockwise again!”

“How ’bout that?  Anywhere in the northern hemisphere, air flowing into a low-pressure region will turn it counterclockwise.  As the inflow draws from greater distances, there’s a greater speed difference to drive the counterclockwise spin.  So that’s number 2 here.  Add those two cycles together and you’ve got number 3, which spirals all around the doughnut.  And there’s your hurricane.”

“Cool.  So how does that model not account for the Great Red Spot?”

“To begin with, the Spot’s in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere so it ought to be going clockwise which it definitely is not.  And there’s no broad band of surrounding clouds — just a lot of structure inside the ring, not outside.  There’s something else going on that swamps Coriolis.”

“So how’s Jupiter different from Earth?  Besides being bigger, of course.”

“Lots of ways, Sy.  You know how labels on healthcare products divide the contents into active ingredients and inert ingredients?  The inert ones just carry or modify the effects of the active ones.  Atmospheres work the same way.  On Earth the inert ingredients are nitrogen and oxygen…”

“Hey, oxygen’s important!”

“Sure, Al, but not when you’re modeling air movement.  The important active ingredient is water — it transports a lot of heat when it evaporates from one place and condenses somewhere else.  The biggest outstanding problem in Earth meteorology is accounting for clouds.”

“You’re gonna tell us that Jupiter’s inactive ingredients are hydrogen and helium, I suppose.”

“Precisely, Sy.  Jupiter has two active ingredients, water and ammonia, plus smaller amounts of sulfur and phosphorus compounds.  Makes for a crazy complicated modeling problem.  I’m going to need more pastries.”

“Comin’ up.”


~~ Rich Olcott