Should These Three Be Alike?

“What’s all the hubbub in the back room, Al? I’m a little early for my afternoon coffee break and your shop’s usually pretty quiet about now.”

“It’s Cathleen’s Astronomy class, Sy. The department double-booked their seminar room so she asked to use my space until it’s straightened out.”

“Think I’ll eavesdrop.” I slide in just as she’s getting started.

“OK, folks, settle. Last class I challenged you with a question. Venus and Mars both have atmospheres that are dominated by carbon dioxide with a little bit of nitrogen. Earth is right in between them. How come its atmosphere is so different? I gave each of you a piece of that to research. Jeremy, you had the null question. Should we expect Earth’s atmosphere to be about the same as the other two?”

Venus coudtops image by Damia Bouic
JAXA / ISAS / DARTS / Damia Bouic

“I think so, ma’am, on the basis of the protosolar nebula hypothesis. The –“

“Wait a minute, Jeremy. Sy, I saw you sneak in. Jeremy, explain that term to him.”

“Yes’m. Uh, a nebula is a cloud of gas and dust out in space. It could be what got shot out of an exploding star or it could be just a twist in a stream of stuff drifting through the Galaxy. If the twist kinks up, gravity pulls the material on either side of the kink towards the middle and you get a rotating disk. Most of what’s in the disk falls towards its center. The accumulated mass at the center lights up to be a star. Meanwhile, what’s left in the disk keeps most of the original angular momentum but it doesn’t whirl smoothly. There’s going to be local vortices and they attract more stuff and grow up to be planets. That’s what we think happens, anyway.”

“Good summary. So what does that mean for Mars, Venus and the Earth?”

“Their orbits are pretty close together, relative to the disk’s radius, so they ought to have encountered about the same mixture of heavy particles and light ones while they were getting up to size. The light ones would be gas atoms, mostly hydrogen and helium. Half the other atoms are oxygen and they’d react to produce oxides — water, carbon monoxide, grains of silica and iron oxide. And oxygen and nitrogen molecules, of course.”

“Of course. Was gravity the only actor in play there?”

“No-o-o, once the star lit up its photons and solar wind would have pushed against gravity.”

“So three actors. Would photons and solar wind have the same effect? Anybody?”

Silence, until astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes speaks up. “No, they’d have different effects. The solar wind is heavy artillery — electrons, protons, alpha particles. They’ll transfer momentum to anything they hit, but they’re more likely to hit a large particle like a dust grain than a small one like an atom. On average, the big particles would be pushed away more.”

“And the photons?”

“A photon is selective — it can only transfer momentum to an atom or molecule that can absorb exactly the photon’s energy. But each kind of atom has its own set of emission and absorption energies. Most light emitted by transitions within hydrogen atoms won’t be absorbed by anything but another hydrogen atom. Same thing for helium. The Sun’s virtually all hydrogen and helium. The photons they emit would move just those disk atoms and leave the heavier stuff in place.”

“That’s only part of the photon story.”

“Oh? Oh, yeah. The Sun’s continuous spectrum. The Sun is hot. Heat jiggles whole ions. Those moving charges produce electromagnetic waves just like charge moving within an atom, but heat-generated waves can have any wavelength and interact with anything. They can bake dust particles and decompose compounds that contain volatile atoms. Then those atoms get swept away in the general rush.”

“Which has the greater effect, solar wind or photons?”

“Hard to say without doing the numbers, but I’d bet on the photons. The metal-and-silicate terrestrial planets are close to the Sun, but the mostly-hydrogen giants are further out.”

“All that said, Jeremy, what’s your conclusion?”

“It sure looks like Earth’s atmosphere should be intermediate between Mars and Venus. How come it’s not?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Maybe even smaller?

There’s a sofa in my office. Sometimes it’s used to seat some clients for a consultation, sometimes I use it for a nap. This evening Anne and I are sitting on it, close together, after a meal of Eddie’s Pizza d’amore.

“I’ve been thinking, Sy. I don’t want to use my grow-shrink superpower very much.”

“Fine with me, I like the size you are. Why’d you decide that?”

“I remember Alice saying, ‘Three inches is such a wretched height to be.’ She was thinking about what her cat would do to her at that height. I’m thinking about what an amoeba might do to me if I were down to bacteria-size and I wouldn’t be able to see it coming because I’d be too small to see light. It would be even messier further down.”

“Well, mess is the point of quantum mechanics — all we get is the averages because it’s all chaos at the quantum level. Bohr would say we can’t even talk about what’s down there, but you’d be in the thick of it.”

She shudders delicately, leans in tighter. <long, very friendly pause> “Where’d that weird number come from, Sy?”

“What weird number?”

“Ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fifth. You mentioned it as a possible bottom to the size range.”

Now you’re asking?”

“I’ve got this new superpower, I need to think about stuff.  Besides, we’ve finished the pizza.”

<sigh> “This conversation reminds me of our elephant adventure.  Oh well.  Umm. It may have started on a cold, wet afternoon. You know, when your head’s just not up to real work so you grab a scratchpad and start doodling? I’ll bet Max Planck was in that state when he started fiddling with universal constants, like the speed of light and his own personal contribution ħ, the quantum of action.”

“He could change their values?”

“No, of course not. But he could combine them in different ways to see what came out. Being a proper physicist he’d make sure the units always came out right. I’m not sure which unit-system he worked in so I’ll just stick with SI units, OK?”

“Why should I argue?”

“No good reason to. So… c is a velocity so its units are meters per second. Planck’s constant ħ is energy times time, which you can write either as joule-seconds or kilogram-meter² per second. He couldn’t just add the numbers together because the units are different. However, he could divide the one by the other so the per-seconds canceled out. That gave him kilogram-meters, which wasn’t particularly interesting. The important step was the next one.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense.”

“He threw Newton’s gravitational constant G into the mix. Its units are meter³ per kilogram per second². ‘Ach, vut a mess,’ he thought, ‘but maybe now ve getting somevere. If I multiply ħ by G the kilograms cancel out und I get meter5 per second³. Now … Ah! Divide by c³ vich is equal to multiplying by second³/meter³ to cancel out all the seconds and ve are left mit chust meter² vich I can take the square root uff. Wunderbar, it is simply a length! How ’bout that?‘”

“Surely he didn’t think ‘how ’bout that?‘”

“Maybe the German equivalent. Anyway, doodling like that is one of the ways researchers get inspirations. This one was so good that (Għ/c³)=1.6×10-35 meter is now known as the Planck length. That’s where your ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fifth comes from.”

“That’s pretty small. But is it really the bottom?”

“Almost certainly not, for a couple of different reasons. First, although the Planck formula looks like a fundamental limit, it’s not. In the same report Planck re-juggled his constants to define the Planck mass (ħc/G)=2.2×10-8 kilograms or 22 micrograms. Grains of sand weight less than that. If Planck’s mass isn’t a limit, Planck’s length probably isn’t either. Before you ask, the other reason has to do with relativity and this is not the time for that.”

“Mmm … so if space is quantized, which is where we started, the little bits probably aren’t Planck-sized?”

“Who knows? But my guess is, no, probably much smaller.”

“So I wouldn’t accidentally go out altogether like a candle then. That’s comforting to know.”

My turn to shudder. <another long, friendly pause>.

~~Rich Olcott

Small, yes, but how small?

Another quiet summer afternoon in the office. As I’m finishing up some paperwork I hear a fizzing sound I’d not heard in a while. “Hello, Anne, welcome back. Where’ve you been?”

Her white satin looks a bit speckled somehow but her voice still sounds like molten silver. “I’m not sure, Sy. That’s what I’ve come to you about.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Well, after we figured out that I can sort of ‘push’ myself across time and probability variation I realized that the different ‘pushes’ felt like different directions, kind of. When I go backward and forward in time it feels a little like falling backward or forward. Not really, but that’s the best way I can describe it. Moving to a different probability is a little like going left or right. So I wondered, what about up and down?”

“And I gather you tried that.”

“Sure, why not? What good’s a superpower if you don’t know what you can do with it? When I ‘push’ just a little upward thIS HAPPENS.”

“Whoa, watch out for the ceiling fan! Shrink back down again before you break the furniture or something.”

“Oh, I won’t, I’ve learned to be careful when I resize. Good thing I was outside and all by myself the first time I tried it. Took some practice to control how how much my size changes by how light or heavy I ‘pushed’.”

“I think I can see where this is going.”

“Mm-hm, it’s good to know what the limits are, right? I’ve got a pretty good idea of what would happen if I got huge. What I want to know is, what’ll I be getting into if I try ‘pushing’ down as hard as I can?”

“Kinda depends on how far down you go. I’m assuming your retinas scale their sensitivity with your size. When you get bigger do green things look blue and yellow things look green and so forth?”

“Yeah, orange juice had this weird yellow color. Tasted OK, though.”

“Right. So when you get smaller the colors you perceive will shift the other way, to shorter wavelengths — at first, yellow things will look red, blue things will look yellow and you’ll see ultraviolet as blue. When you get a thousand times smaller than normal, most things will look black because there’s not much X-ray illumination unless you’re close to a badly-shielded Crookes tube.”

“Good thing this ‘push’ ability also gave me some kind of extra feel-sense that’s not sight. Sometimes when I try to ‘push’ it ‘feels’ blocked until I move around a little. After the ‘push’ I see a wall or something I would have jumped into.”

“That’s a relief. I was wondering how you’d navigate when you’re a million times smaller than normal, at the single-cell level, or a million times smaller than that when you’d be atom-sized.”

“Then what comes?”

“Mmm… one more factor of a thousand would get you down to about the size of an atomic nucleus, but below that things get real fuzzy. It’s hard to get experimental data in the sub-nuclear size range because any photon with a wavelength that short is essentially an extremely-high-energy gamma ray, better at blowing nuclei apart than measuring them. Theory says you’d encounter nuclei as roiling balls of protons and neutrons, but each of those is a trio of quarks which may or may not be composed of even smaller things.”

“Is that the end of small?”

“Maybe not. Some physicists think space is quantized at scales near 10—35 meter. If they’re wrong then there’s no end.”


Quantized means something is measured out in whole numbers. Electric charge is quantized, for instance, because you can have one electron, two electrons, and so on, but you can’t have 1½ electrons. Some physicists think it’s possible that space itself is quantized. The basic idea is to somehow label each point in space with its own set of whole numbers.  There’d be no vacant space between points, just like there’s no whole number between two adjacent whole numbers.”

“So how small can I get?”

“Darned if I know.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Thanks to Jerry Mirelli for his thoughts that inspired this post and the next.

Fly High, Silver Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave in motion
Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave
Electric (E) field is red
Magnetic (B) field is blue
(Image by Loo Kang Wee and Fu-Kwun Hwang from Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK, Newt, now what?”

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

“Got it — 39.2 kilojoules per second.”

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

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

“Case closed, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Sail On, Silver Bird

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

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

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

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

Image by Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

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

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

Al looks puzzled. “Delta-v?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a better strategy?”

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

“But they’re such low-thrust –“

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

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

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

Video courtesy of The Planetary Society.

~~ Rich Olcott

Red Velvet with Icing

“So Jupiter’s white stripes are huge updrafts of ammonia snow and its dark stripes are weird chemicals we only see when downdrafted ammonia snow evaporates. Fine, but how does that account for my buddy the Great Red Spot? Have another lemon scone.”

“Thanks, Al, don’t mind if I do. Well, those ideas only sort-of account for Spot. The bad news is that they may not have to for much longer.”

“Huh? Why not?”

“Because it seems to be going away.”

“Hey, Sy, don’t mess with me. You know it’s been there for 400 years, why should it go away now?”

“I don’t know anything of the kind. Sure, the early telescope users saw a spot 350 years ago but there’s reason to think that it wasn’t in the same location as your buddy. Then there was a century-long gap when no-one recorded seeing anything special on Jupiter. Without good evidence either way, I think it’s entirely possible we’ve had two different spots. Anyway, the new one has been shrinking for the past 150 years.”

“The big hole must be filling in, then.”

“What hole?”

Juno GRS image, NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

“The Spot. If the dark-colored stripes are what we see when the bright ammonia ice evaporates, then the Spot’s gotta be a hole.”

“A reasonable conclusion from what we’ve said so far, but the Juno orbiter has given us more information. The Spot actually reaches 500 miles further up than the surrounding cloud tops.”

“But higher-up means colder, right? How come we don’t see the white snow?”

“That higher-is-colder rule does apply within Jupiter’s weather layer, mostly, but the Spot’s different. There seems to be a LOT of heat pouring straight up out of it, enough to warm the overlying atmosphere by several hundred degrees compared to the planetary average. That suppresses the ammonia ice, lifts whatever makes the red color and may even promote chemical reactions to make more.”

“But Sy, even I know heat spreads out. You’ve just described something that acts like a searchlight. How could it work like that?”

“Here’s one hypothesis. You’ve got your sound system here rigged up so the back of the shop is quiet, right? How’d you do that?”

“Oh, I bought a couple of directional speakers. They’re deeper than the regular kind and they’ve got this parabolic shape. I aimed them up here to the front where the traffic is. Work pretty good, don’t they?”

“Yes, indeed, and I’m grateful for that. See, they focus sound energy just like you can focus light. Now, to us the Spot just looks like an oval. But it’s probably the big end of a deep cone, spinning like mad and turning turbulent wind energy into white noise that’s focused out like one of your speakers. Wouldn’t that do the trick?”

“Like a huge trombone. Yeah, I suppose, but what keeps the cone cone-shaped?”

“The same thing that keeps it spinning — it’s trapped between two currents that are zipping along in opposite directions. The Spot’s northern boundary is the fastest westbound windstream on the planet. Its southern boundary is an eastbound windstream. The Spot’s trapped between two bands screaming past each other at the speed of sound.”

“Wow. Sounds violent.”

“Incredibly violent, much more than Earth hurricanes. At a hurricane’s eye-wall the wind speeds generally peak below 200 miles per hour. The Great Red Spot’s outermost winds that we can see are 50 miles per hour faster but those triangular regions just east and west must be far worse. When I think about adding in the updrafts and downdrafts I just shudder.”

“Does that have anything to do with the shrinking you told me about?”

“Almost certainly — we simply don’t have enough data to tell. But the new news is that your buddy’s uncorked a fresh shrinkage mode. Since the mid-1800s it’s been contracting along the east-west line, getting more circular. Now it seems to be flaking, too. Big, continent-size regions break away and mix into the dark belt above it. Meanwhile, the white equatorial zone is getting darker, sort of a yellow-green-orange mix.”

GRS image courtesy of Sharin Ahmad

“Yucky-colored. Does that mean the Spot’s draining into it?”

“Who knows? We certainly don’t. Only time will tell.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Icing on The Brownie

“So what you’re saying, Sy, is that Jupiter’s white stripes are ammonia snow clouds that go way up above a lower layer of brown clouds like the white icing stripes I put on my brownies.”

“That’s what I’m saying, Al.”

“But why stripes? We got white clouds here on Earth and sometimes they’re in layers but they don’t make stripes.”

“Well, actually they do, but you need the long-term picture to see it. Ever notice that Earth’s forests and deserts make stripes?”

“How ’bout that? I guess they do, sorta. How’s that work?”

“It took us five hundred years to figure out the details. Quick summary. Sunlight does its best year-round heating job at the Equator, where the oceans humidify the air. Warm air rises. Rising warm air cools, releases its moisture as rain, and you get a rainforest belt. The cooled, dried air spreads out until it sinks at about the 30th parallels north and south. Dry air sucks moisture out of the land as it returns to the Equator and you get desert belts. Repeat the cycle. More loops like that center around both 60th parallels. The pattern’s not completely uniform because of things like mountain ranges that block some of the flows. Basically, though, as the years accumulate you get stripes.”

“Jupiter does that, too, huh?”

“On steroids. In one way it’s simpler — no underlying continents mess things up. On the other hand, Jupiter’s got more than a hundred times Earth’s surface area so there’s room for more loops. Also, Jupiter’s interior is still shedding a lot of heat, almost as much as the planet gets from the Sun. Here’s a diagram on Old Reliable.”

“So you’re saying that the upward loops push Jupiter’s atmosphere to where it’s colder and those white ammonia snow clouds form. Then the downward loops move the clouds to where it’s warmer and the ammonia evaporates to show us the brown stuff. Makes sense. But what’re those side-to-side arrows about? We got anything like those on Earth?”

“Sort of, a little bit. Remember the Coriolis force?”

“Uhh, that’s what makes hurricanes go round and round, right? Something to do with the Equator running faster than places further north or south?”

“That’s the start of it. The Earth as a whole rotates 360° eastward in 24 hours, but how many miles per hour that is depends on where you are. The Equator’s about 25000 miles long so Quito, Ecuador on the Equator does a bit more than 1000 miles per hour. Forty-five degrees away, the 45th parallels are only 70% as long as that, so Salem, Oregon and Queenstown, New Zealand circle 70% slower in miles per hour. Suppose a balloon from Salem travels south as seen from space. As seen from the Equator, the balloon appears in the northeast rather than straight north. Winds work the way that balloon would. All around the world, winds between 10° and 30° north and south come from an east-ish direction most of the time.”

“What about the winds right at the Equator? You’d think the northerly part and the southerly part would cancel each other out.”

“That’s exactly what happens, Al. We’ve got a more-or-less equatorial belt of thunderstorms from humid air cooling off as it goes straight up, but not much of a prevailing wind in any direction — that’s why the old sea captains called the region ‘the doldrums’.”

“An equator belt like Jupiter’s, eh?”

“Not quite. Jupiter has a lovely white equatorial zone all right, but that one doesn’t stand still. It roars eastward, 300 miles per hour faster than the equator’s own 28000 miles per hour. All Jupiter’s white zones move east at a pretty good clip. Its dark belts sprint westward at their own hundred-mile pace. Then there’s the jet streams that run between neighboring bands, and lots of big and little vortices carried along for the ride. The planet’s way too segmented and violent for Coriolis forces to build up enough to play a part. The scientists have a couple of heavily-simplified models, but nowhere near enough data or computer time to fill them in.”

“Earth’s atmosphere is messy enough, thanks. My brain’s hurting.”

Voyager I video of Jupiter, processed by JPL,
from Wikimedia Commons

~~ Rich Olcott

Lemon, Vanilla, Cinnamon

Al claims that lemon’s a Summertime flavor, which is why his coffee shop’s Scone Flavor of the Month in July is lemon even though it doesn’t go well with his coffee. “Give me one of those lemon scones, Al, and an iced tea. It’s a little warm out there this morning.”

“Sure thing, Sy. Say, what’s the latest science-y thing up in the sky?”

“Oh, there’s a bunch, Al. The Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft collected another sample from asteroid Ryugu. NASA’s gravity-sniffer GRAIL lunar orbiter found evidence for a huge hunk of metallic material five times larger than the Big Island of Hawai’i buried deep under the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin. The Insight Mars lander’s seismometer heard its first Marsquake —“

“Quit yanking my chain, Sy. Anything about Jupiter?”

“Gotcha, Al. I know Jupiter’s your favorite planet. As it happens I do have some Jupiter news for you.”

“The Juno orbiter’s still working, I hope.”

“Sure, sure, far as I know. It’s about to make its 13th close flyby of Jupiter, and NASA administrators have green-lighted the mission to continue until July 2021. Lots of data for the researchers to work on for years. Here’s a clue — what’re the top three things that everyone knows about Jupiter?”

“It’s the biggest planet, of course, and it’s got those stripes and the Great Red Spot. Has the planet gotten smaller somehow?”

“No, but the stripes and the Red Spot are acting weird. Had you heard about that?”

“No, just that the Spot’s huge and red and been there for 400 years.”

“Mmm, we’re not sure about the 400 years. But yes, it’s huge.”

“Four times wider than Earth, right?”

“Hasn’t been that big for a long time. Back in the 1870s telescope technology gave the astronomers that ‘four Earths wide‘ estimate. But the Spot’s shrunk in the last 150 years.”

“A whole lot?”

“Last measurement I saw, it’s just barely over one Earth wide. Seems to have gotten a bit taller, though, and maybe deeper.”

“Taller and deeper? Huh, that’s a new one. I always thought of the Spot as just this big oval ring on Jupiter’s surface.”

“Everyone has that bogus idea of Jupiter as a big smooth sphere with stripes and ovals and swirls painted on it. Don’t forget, we’re looking down at cloud tops, like those satellite pictures we get looking down at a storm system on Earth. From space, one of our hurricanes looks like a spirally disk centered on a dark spot. That dark spot isn’t in the clouds, it’s actually the top of the ocean, miles below the clouds. If you were a Martian working with photos from a telescope on Phobos, you’d be hard-put to figure that out. You need 3-D perspective to get planets right.”

Jupiter image courtesy ESA/Hubble

“Those stripes and stuff aren’t Jupiter’s surface?”

“As far as we can tell, Jupiter doesn’t have a surface. The hydrogen-helium atmosphere just gets denser and denser until it acts like a liquid. There’s a lot of pressure down there. Juno recently gave us evidence for a core that’s a fuzzy mix of stony material and maybe-metallic maybe-solid hydrogen but if that mush is real it’s only 3% of the planet’s mass. Whatever, it’s thousands of miles below what we see. Jupiter’s anything but smooth.”

“Lumps and bumps like this bubbly scone, huh?”

“More organized than that, more like corduroy or a coiled garden hose. The white stripes are hundreds of miles higher-up than the brown stripes so north-to-south it’s like a series of extreme mountain ranges and valleys. The Great Red Spot reaches up maybe 500 miles further.”

“Does that have to do with what they’re made of?”

“It has everything to do with that, we think. You know Earth’s atmosphere has layers, right?”

“Yeah, the stratosphere’s on top, then you got the weather layer where the clouds are.”

“Close enough. Jupiter has all that and more. Thanks to the Galileo probe we know that Jupiter’s ‘weather layer’ has a topmost blue-white cloud layer of ammonia ice particles, a middle red-to-brown layer containing compounds of ammonia and sulfur, and a bottommost white-ish layer of water clouds. The colors we see depend on which layer is exposed where.”

“But why’re they stripey?”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Big Chill

Jeremy gets as far as my office door, then turns back. “Wait, Mr Moire, that was only half my question. OK, I get that when you squeeze on a gas, the outermost molecules pick up kinetic energy from the wall moving in and that heats up the gas because temperature measures average kinetic energy. But what about expansion cooling? Those mist sprayers they set up at the park, they don’t have a moving outer wall but the air around them sure is nice and cool on a hot day.”

“Another classic Jeremy question, so many things packed together — Gas Law, molecular energetics, phase change. One at a time. Gas Law’s not much help, is it?”

“Mmm, guess not. Temperature measures average kinetic energy and the Gas Law equation P·V = n·R·T gives the total kinetic energy for the n amount of gas. Cooling the gas decreases T which should reduce P·V. You can lower the pressure but if the volume expands to compensate you don’t get anywhere. You’ve got to suck energy out of there somehow.”

Illustrations adapted from drawings by Trianna

“The Laws of Thermodynamics say you can’t ‘suck’ heat energy out of anything unless you’ve got a good place to put the heat. The rule is, heat energy travels voluntarily only from warm to cold.”

“But, but, refrigerators and air conditioners do their job! Are they cheating?”

“No, they’re the products of phase change and ingenuity. We need to get down to the molecular level for that. Think back to our helium-filled Mylar balloon, but this time we lower the outside pressure and the plastic moves outward at speed w. Helium atoms hit the membrane at speed v but they’re traveling at only (v-w) when they bounce back into the bulk gas. Each collision reduces the atom’s kinetic energy from ½m·v² down to ½m·(v-w)². Temperature goes down, right?”

“That’s just the backwards of compression heating. The compression energy came from outside, so I suppose the expansion energy goes to the outside?”

“Well done. So there has to be something outside that can accept that heat energy. By the rules of Thermodynamics, that something has to be colder than the balloon.”

“Seriously? Then how do they get those microdegree above absolute zero temperatures in the labs? Do they already have an absolute-zero thingy they can dump the heat to?”

“Nope, they get tricky. Suppose a gas in a researcher’s container has a certain temperature. You can work that back to average molecular speed. Would you expect all the molecules to travel at exactly that speed?”

“No, some of them will go faster and some will go slower.”

“Sure. Now suppose the researcher uses laser technology to remove all the fast-moving molecules but leave the slower ones behind. What happens to the average?”

“Goes down, of course. Oh, I see what they did there. Instead of the membrane transmitting the heat away, ejected molecules carry it away.”

“Yup, and that’s the key to many cooling techniques. Those cooling sprays, for instance, but a question first — which has more kinetic energy, a water droplet or the droplet’s molecules when they’re floating around separately as water vapor?”

“Lessee… the droplet has more mass, wait, the molecules total up to the same mass so that’s not the difference, so it’s droplet velocity squared versus lots of little velocity-squareds … I’ll bet on the droplet.”

“Sorry, trick question. I left out something important — the heat of vaporization. Water molecules hold pretty tight to each other, more tightly in fact than most other molecular substances. You have to give each molecule a kick to get it away from its buddies. That kick comes from other molecules’ kinetic energy, right? Oh, and one more thing — the smaller the droplet, the easier for a molecule to escape.”

“Ah, I see where this is going. The mist sprayer’s teeny droplets evaporate easy. The droplets are at air temperature, so when a molecule breaks free some neighbor’s kinetic energy becomes what you’d expect from air temperature, minus break-free energy. That lowers the average for the nearby air molecules. They slow their neighbors. Everything cools down. So that’s how sprays and refrigerators and such work?”

“That’s the basic principle.”


~ Rich Olcott

Thanks to Mitch Slevc for the question that led to this post.

The Hot Squeeze

A young man’s knock, eager yet a bit hesitant.

“C’mon in, Jeremy, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Mr Moire. How’s your Summer so far? I got an ‘A’ on that black hole paper, thanks to your help. Do you have time to answer a question now that Spring term’s over?”

“Hi, Jeremy. Pretty good, congratulations, and a little. What’s your question?”

“I don’t understand about the gas laws. You squeeze a gas, you raise its temperature, but temperature’s the average kinetic energy of the molecules which is mass times velocity squared but mass doesn’t change so how does the velocity know how big the volume is? And if you let a gas expand it cools and how does that happen?”

“A classic Jeremy question. Let’s take it a step at a time, big-picture view first. The Gas Law says pressure times volume is proportional to the amount of gas times the temperature, or P·V = n·R·T where n measures the amount of gas and R takes care of proportionality and unit conversions. Suppose a kid gets on an airplane with a balloon. The plane starts at sea level pressure but at cruising altitude they maintain cabins at 3/4 of that. Everything stays at room temperature, so the balloon expands by a third –“

Kid drawing of an airplane with a red balloon
Adapted from a drawing by Xander

“Wait … oh, pressure down by 3/4, volume up by 4/3 because temperature and n and R don’t change. OK, I’m with you. Now what?”

“Now the plane lands at some warm beach resort. We’re back at sea level but the temp has gone from 68°F back home to a basky 95°F. How big is the balloon? I’ll make it easy for you — 68°F is 20°C is 293K and 95°F is 35°C is 308K.”

“Volume goes up by 308/293. That’s a change of 15 in about 300, 5% bigger than back home.”

“Nice estimating. One more stop on the way to the molecular level. Were you in the crowd at Change-me Charlie’s dark matter debate?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t get close to the table.”

“Always a good tactic. So you heard the part about pressure being a measure of energy per unit of enclosed volume. What does that make each side of the Gas Law equation?”

“Umm, P·V is energy per volume, times volume, so it’s the energy inside the balloon. Oh! That’s equal to n·R·T but R‘s a constant and n measures the number of molecules so T = P·V/n·R makes T proportional to average kinetic energy. But I still don’t see why the molecules speed up when you squeeze on them. That just packs the same molecules into a smaller volume.”

“You’re muddling cause and effect. Let’s try to tease them apart. What forces determine the size of the balloon?”

“I guess the balance between the outside pressure pushing in, versus the inside molecules pushing out by banging against the skin. Increasing their temperature means they have more energy so they must bang harder.”

“And that increases the outward pressure and the balloon expands until things get back into balance. Fine, but think about individual molecules, and let’s pretend that we’ve got a perfect gas and a perfect balloon membrane — no leaks and no sticky collisions. A helium-filled Mylar balloon is pretty close to that. When things are in balance, molecules headed outward approach the membrane with some velocity v and bounce back inward with the same velocity v though in a different direction. Their kinetic energy before hitting the membrane is ½m·v²; after the collision the energy’s also ½m·v² so the temperature is stable.”

“But that’s at equilibrium.”

“Right, so let’s increase the outside pressure to squeeze the balloon. The membrane closes in at some speed w. Out-bound molecules approach the membrane with velocity v just as before but the membrane’s speed boosts the bounce. The ‘before’ kinetic energy is still ½m·v² but the ‘after’ value is bigger: ½m·(v+w)². The total and average kinetic energy go up with each collision. The temperature boost comes from the energy we put into the squeezing.”

“So the heating actually happens out at the edges.”

“Yup, the molecules in the middle don’t know about it until hotter molecules collide with them.”

“The last to learn, eh?.”

“Always the case.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Thanks to Mitch Slevc for the question that led to this post.