Question Time

Cathleen unmutes her mic. “Before we wrap up this online Crazy Theories contest with voting for the virtual Ceremonial Broom, I’ve got a few questions here in the chat box. The first question is for Kareem. ‘How about negative evidence for a pre-mammal civilization? Played-out mines, things like that.‘ Kareem, over to you.”

“Thanks. Good question but you’re thinking way too short a time period. Sixty‑six million years is plenty of time to erode the mountain a mine was burrowing into and take the mining apparatus with it.

“Here’s a different kind of negative evidence I did consider. We’re extracting coal now that had been laid down in the Carboniferous Era 300 million years ago. At first, I thought I’d proved no dinosaurs were smart enough to dig up coal because it’s still around where we can mine it. But on second thought I realized that sixty-six million years is enough time for geological upthrust and folding to expose coal seams that would have been too deeply buried for mining dinosaurs to get at. So like the Silurian Hypothesis authors said, no conclusions can be drawn.”

“Nice response, Kareem. Jim, this one’s for you. ‘You said our observable universe is 93 billion lightyears across, but I’ve heard over and over that the Universe is 14 billion years old. Did our observable universe expand faster than the speed of light?‘”

“That’s a deep space question, pun intended. The answer goes to what we mean when we say that the Hubble Flow expands the Universe. Like good Newtonian physicists, we’re used to thinking of space as an enormous sheet of graph paper. We visualize statements like, ‘distant galaxies are fleeing away from us‘ as us sitting at one spot on the graph paper and those other galaxies moving like fireworks across an unchanging grid.

“But that’s not the proper post-Einstein way to look at the situation. What’s going on is that we’re at our spot on the graph paper and each distant galaxy is at its spot, but the Hubble Flow stretches the graph paper. Suppose some star at the edge of our observable universe sent out a photon 13.7 billion years ago. That photon has been headed towards us at a steady 300000 kilometers per second ever since and it finally reached an Earth telescope last night. But in the meantime, the graph paper stretched underneath the photon until space between us and its home galaxy widened by a factor of 3.4.

“By the way, it’s a factor of 3.4 instead of 6.8 because the 93 billion lightyear distance is the diameter of our observable universe sphere, and the photon’s 13.7 billion lightyear trip is that sphere’s radius.

“Mmm, one more point — The Hubble Flow rate depends on distance and it’s really slow on the human‑life timescale. The current value of the Hubble Constant says that a point that’s 3×1019 kilometers away from us is receding at about 70 kilometers per second. To put that in perspective, Hubble Flow is stretching the Moon away from us by 3000 atom‑widths per year, or about 1/1300 the rate at which the Moon is receding because of tidal friction.”

“Nice calculation, Jim. Our final question is for Amanda. ‘Could I get to one of the other quantum tracks if I dove into a black hole and went through the singularity?‘”

“I wouldn’t want to try that but let’s think about it. Near the structure’s center gravitational intensity compresses mass-energy beyond the point that the words ‘particle’ and ‘quantum’ have meaning. All you’ve got is fields fluctuating wildly in every direction of spacetime. No sign posts, no way to navigate, you wouldn’t be able to choose an exit quantum track. But you wouldn’t be able to exit anyway because in that region the arrow of time points inward. Not a sci‑fi story with a happy ending.”

“<whew> Alright, folks, time to vote. Who presented the craziest theory? All those in favor of Kareem, click on your ‘hand’ icon. … OK. Now those voting for Jim? … OK. Now those voting for Amanda? … How ’bout that, it’s a tie. I guess for each of you there’s a parallel universe where you won the virtual Ceremonial Broom. Congratulations to all and thanks for such an interesting evening. Good night, everyone.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Too Many Schrödingers

Cathleen takes back control of the conference software. “Thanks, Jim. OK, the final contestant in our online Crazy Theories contest is the winner of our last face-to-face event where she told us why Spock and horseshoe crabs both have green blood. You’re up, Amanda.”

“Thanks, and hello out there. I can’t believe Jim and I are both talking about parallel universes. It’s almost like we’re thinking in parallel, right?”

<Jim’s mic is muted so he makes gagging motions>

“We need some prep work before I can talk about the Multiverse. I’m gonna start with this heat map of North America at a particular time. Hot in the Texas panhandle, cool in British Columbia, no surprise. You can do a lot with a heat map — pick a latitude and longitude, it tells you the relative temperature. Do some arithmetic on the all numbers and you can get average temperature, highs and lows, front strength in degrees per mile, lots of stuff like that.

“You build this kind of map by doing a lot of individual measurements. If you’re lucky you can summarize those measurements with a function, a compact mathematical expression that does the same job — pick a latitude and longitude, it tells you the value. Three nice things about functions — they take up a lot less space than a map, you can use straightforward mathematical operations on them so getting statistics is less work than with a map, and you can form superpositions by adding functions together.”

Cathleen interrupts. “Amanda, there’s a question in the chat box. ‘Can you give an example of superposition?’

“Sure. You can superpose simple sine‑wave functions to describe chords for sound waves or blended colors for light waves, for instance.

“Now when we get to really small‑scale thingies, we need quantum calculations. The question is, what do quantum calculations tell us? That’s been argued about for a hundred years because the values they generate are iffy superpositions. Twenty percent of this, eighty percent of that. Everybody’s heard of that poor cat in Schrödinger’s box.

“Many researchers say the quantum values are relative probabilities for observing different results in an experiment — but most of them carefully avoid worrying about why the answers aren’t always the same. Einstein wanted to know what Bohr was averaging over to get his averages. Bohr said it doesn’t matter, the percentages are the only things we can know about the system and it’s useless to speculate further.

“Hugh Everett thought bigger. He suggested that the correct quantum function for an observation should include experiment and experimenter. He took that a step further by showing that a proper quantum function would need to include anyone watching the experimenter and so on. In fact, he proposed, maybe there’s just one quantum function for the entire Universe. That would have some interesting implications.

“Remember Schrödinger’s catbox with two possible experimental results? Everett would say that his universal quantum function contains a superposition of two component sub-functions — happy Schrödinger with a live kitty and sad Schrödinger with a disposal problem. Each Schrödinger would be quite certain that he’d seen the definite result of a purely random operation. Two Schrödingers in parallel universes going forward.

“But in fact there’d be way more than two. When Schrödinger’s eye absorbs a photon, or maybe doesn’t, that generates another pair of universes. So do the quantum events that occur as his nerve cells fire, or don’t. Each Schrödinger moves into the future embedded in a dense bundle of parallel universes.”

Cathleen interrupts. “Another question. ‘What about conservation of mass?‘”

“Good question, whoever asked that. Everett doesn’t address that explicitly in his thesis, but I think he assumed the usual superposition math. That always includes a fix‑up step so that the sum of all the pieces adds up to unity. Half a Schrödinger mass on one track and half on the other. Even as each of them splits again and again and again the total is still only one Schrödinger‑mass. There’s other interpretation — each Schrödinger’s universe would be independent of the others so there’s no summing‑up to generate a conservation‑of‑mass problem. Your choice.

“Everett traded quantum weirdness for a weird Universe. Not much of a trade-off, I think.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Worlds Enough And Time Reversed

Cathleen unmutes her mic. “Thanks, Kareem. Our next Crazy Theory presentation is from one of my Cosmology students, Jim.”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Y’all have probably heard about how Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics don’t play well together. Unfortunately, people have mixed the two of them together with Cosmology to spawn lots of Crazy Theories about parallel universes. I’m going to give you a quick look at a couple of them. Fasten your seat belt, you’ll need it.

“The first theory depends on the idea that the Universe is infinitely large and we can only see part of it. Everything we can see — stars, galaxies, the Cosmic Microwave Background — they all live in this sphere that’s 93 billion lightyears across. We call it our Observable Universe. Are there stars and galaxies beyond the sphere? Almost certainly, but their light hasn’t been in flight long enough to reach us. By the same token, light from the Milky Way hasn’t traveled far enough to reach anyone outside our sphere.

“Now suppose there’s an alien astronomer circling a star that’s 93 billion lightyears away from us. It’s in the middle of its observable universe just like we’re in the middle of ours. And maybe there’s another observable universe 93 billion lightyears beyond that, and so on to infinity. Oh, by the way, it’s the same in every direction so there could be an infinite number of locally-observable universes. They’re all in the same space, the same laws of physics rule everywhere, it’s just that they’re too far apart to see each other.

“The next step is a leap. With an infinite number of observable universes all following the same physical laws, probability says that each observable universe has to have twins virtually identical to it except for location. There could be many other people exactly like you, out there billions of lightyears away in various directions, sitting in front of their screens or jogging or whatever. Anything you might do, somewhere out there there’s at least one of you doing that. Or maybe a mirror image of you. Lots of yous in lots of parallel observable universes.”

“I don’t like that theory, on two grounds. First, there’s no way to test it so it’s not science. Second, I think it plays fast and loose with the notion of infinity. There’s a big difference between ‘the Universe is large beyond anything we can measure‘ and ‘the Universe is infinite‘. If you’ve been reading Sy Moire’s stuff you’ve probably seen his axiom that if your theory contains an infinity, you’ve left out physics that would stop that. Right, Cathleen?”

Cathleen unmutes her mic. “That quote’s good, Jim.”

“Thanks, so’s the axiom. So that’s one parallel universe theory. OK, here’s another one and it doesn’t depend on infinities. The pop‑science press blared excitement about time‑reversal evidence from the ANITA experiment in Antarctica. Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t anywhere as exciting as the reporting has been.

“The story starts with neutrinos, those nearly massless particles that are emitted during many sub‑atomic reactions. ANITA is one kind of neutrino detector. It’s an array of radio receivers dangling from a helium‑filled balloon 23 miles up. The receivers are designed to pick up the radio waves created when a high‑energy neutrino interacts with glacier ice, which doesn’t happen often. Most of the neutrinos come in from outer space and tell us about solar and stellar activity. However, ANITA detected two events, so‑called ‘anomalies,’ that the scientists can’t yet explain and that’s where things went nuts.

“Almost as soon as the ANITA team sent out word of the anomalies, over three dozen papers were published with hypotheses to account for them. One paper said maybe the anomalies could be interpreted as a clue to one of Cosmology’s long‑standing questions — why aren’t there as many antiprotons as protons? A whole gang of hypotheses suggest ways that maybe something in the Big Bang directed protons into our Universe and antiprotons into a mirror universe just like ours except charges and spacetime are inverted with time running backwards. There’s a tall stack of maybes in there but the New York Post and its pop‑sci allies went straight for the Bizarro parallel universe conclusion. Me, I’m waiting for more data.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Smart Dinosaurs?

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here, what can I do for you while staying six feet away?”

“Hi, Sy, this is Cathleen. you’re invited to to an experiment.”

“What sort of experiment?”

“You’ve been to a few of our ‘Crazy Theory’ events. We can’t do those now, of course, but we’re trying it online. Interested?”

“Sounds like fun. Email me the details and I’ll dial in.”


“Hi, everyone, welcome to our first-ever online ‘Crazy Theories’ seminar. I’m afraid it’ll be a bit different from our traditional affairs. Everyone but the presenter’s on mute so don’t bother shouting encouragement or booing. Any spitballs or wadded-up paper napkins you throw you get to clean up. As always at the end we’ll take a vote to award the Ceremonial Broom for the craziest theory. Type your questions and comments in the chat box; we’ll get to them after the presenter finishes. Everybody got all that? OK, our first presenter is from my Planetology class. Go ahead, Kareem.”

“Hey, everybody. I’m Kareem and my Crazy Theory isn’t mine, personally, but it’s the one that got me into Planetology class. Its was in this science fiction novel I read a couple of years ago. The story’s complicated and has a lot of science that I didn’t understand, but the part that caught my imagination was his idea that what killed off the dinosaurs was smart dinosaurs.”

<consults notes>

“A little history first. In the late 1970s two scientists named Alvarez discovered that all around the Earth there’s a thin layer of soil with more than ten times the normal amount of an element called iridium. They found that the layer was 66 million years old, which just matched the end of the Cretaceous Era when the last of the dinosaurs died off. They knew that some meteorites have a lot of iridium so in 1980 they suggested that a meteor strike must have done the deed.

“That idea was so controversial that John McLoughlin came up with his own explanation and based his book on it. He supposed that about 66 million years ago evolution produced intelligent dinosaurs that took over the planet the way that we humans have in our time. They weren’t huge like T‑rex but they were big enough to use Triceratops as draft and meat animals and smart enough to develop lots of iridium‑based technology like we use copper. Anyway, they got into a world war and that was what wiped everything out and left behind the traces of iridium.”

<gulps down soda>

“McLaughlin’s book came out in 1988. Since than we’ve learned that the Alvarez guys were basically right although there was some other stuff going on, too. But the book got me thinking that maybe there could have been a world‑wide civilization and the only things left after 66 million years were bones and this trace of a metal they used. Humans have only been around for like a hundred thousand years and we’ve only been doing metals big‑time for a few hundred which is teeny compared to a million years. A paleontologist wouldn’t even be able to detect a time period that small. So my Crazy Theory is, maybe there were smart dinosaurs or something and we just haven’t found evidence for them.”

<burp>

“Ever since then I’ve kept an eye out for publications about what a vanished civilization might leave behind for us to discover. In this book Weisman lays out survival times for our civilization’s stuff — plastic, houses, roads and so on. Pretty much everything but Mount Rushmore and the Chunnel will have dissolved or eroded away much sooner than a million years. Really readable if you want more details.”

<more soda>

“I also found a paper, ‘The Silurian Hypothesis,’ that took a more technical approach. Their big library research project pulled results from scores of geologic isotope analysis and fossil survey reports looking for ancient times that resemble Earth’s sudden change since the start of the Industrial Age — climate, species declines, whatever. They found about a dozen, but as they said, ‘the known unique markers might not be indicative, while the (perhaps) more expected markers are not sufficient.’ In other words, my Crazy Theory might be crazy. Or maybe not.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Sound of Money

<chirp, chirp> “Moire, here, there’ll be a late-night surcharge for this call.”

“Hiya, Sy, it’s me, Vinnie. Got a minute? I wanna run something past you.”

“Sure, if it’s interesting enough to keep me awake.”

“It’s that Physics-money hobby horse you’ve been riding. I think I’ve got another angle on it for you.”

“Really? Shoot.”

“OK, a while ago you and me and Richard Feder talked about waves and how light waves and sound waves are different because light waves make things go up-and-down while the waves go forward but sound waves go back-and-forth.”

“Transverse waves versus compression waves, uh-huh.”

“Yeah and when you look close at a sound wave what you see is individual molecules don’t travel. What happens is like in a pool game where one ball bumps another ball and it stops but the bumped ball moves forward and the first ball maybe even moves back a little.”

“The compression momentum carries forward even though the particles don’t, right.”

“And that means that sound waves only travel as fast as the air molecules can move back and forth which is a lot slower than light waves which move by shaking the electric field. I got that, but why doesn’t sound move a lot faster in something like iron where the atoms don’t have to move?”

“Oh, it does, something like 200 times faster than in air. There’s a couple of factors in play. It all goes back to Newton —”

“Geez, he had a hand in everything Physics, didn’t he?”

“Except for electromagnetism and nuclear stuff. The available technology was just too primitive to let him experiment in those areas. Anyway, Newton discovered a formula connecting the speed of sound in a medium to its density. Like his Law of Gravity, it worked but he didn’t know why it worked. Also like gravity, we’ve got a better idea now.”

“What’s the better idea?”

“The key notions weren’t even invented until decades after Newton’s Principia was published. The magic words are the particulate nature of matter and intermolecular stiffness.”

“Hah?”

“One at a time. Newton was a particle guy to an extent. He believed that light is made of particles, but he didn’t take the next step to thinking of all matter as being made of particles. But it is, and the particles interact with each other. Think of it as stickiness. How effective the stickiness is depends on the temperature and which molecules you’re talking about. Gas molecules have so much kinetic energy relative to their sticky that they mostly just bounce off each other. In liquids and solids the molecules stay close enough together that the stickiness acts like springs. The springs may be more or less stiff depending on which molecules or ions or atoms are involved.”

“I see where you’re going. Stuff with stiffer springs doesn’t move as much as looser stuff at the same temperature; sound goes faster through a solid than through a liquid or gas. That’s what Newton figured out, huh?”

“No, he just measured and said, basically, ‘here’s the formula.‘ Just like with gravity, he didn’t suggest why the numbers were what they were. <yawn> So, you called with an idea about sound and money physics.”

“Right. Got off the track there, but this was helpful. What got me started was some newscaster saying how the Paycheck Protection Program is dumping money into the economy during the pandemic. My first thought was, ‘Haw, that’s gotta be a splash!‘ Then I imagined this pulse of money sloshing back and forth like a wave and that led me to sound waves and then I kept going. No dollar bill moves around that much, but when people spend them that’s like the compression wave moving out.”

“Interesting idea, Vinnie. From a Physics perspective, the question is, ‘How fast does the wave move?’ It’s another temperature‑versus‑stickiness thing.”

“Yeah, I figure money velocity measures the economy like temperature measures molecule motion. Money velocity goes up with inflation. If the velocity’s high people spend their money because why not.”

“Yup. From the government’s perspective the whole purpose of economic stimulation is getting the cash flowing again. Their problem is locating the money velocity kickover point.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Spare Change And Silly Putty

“Ok, Sy, you said Pascal explained the ‘water seeks its level‘ thing before Newton got a chance to. Newton was so smart, though — how’d Pascal beat him to it?”

“Pass me a strawberry scone, Al, and I’ll tell you why.”

“Anything for free food, eh, Sy? Alright, here.”

“Oferpitysake, Al, add it to my tab like always. Too much hassle putting on this face mask just to walk from my car to the scones. Pascal had a 20‑year head start — did his hydrostatics work when Newton wasn’t even in his teens. Unfortunately, Pascal died when Newton was only half-way through college. Whoa, if only Pascal had been alive and productive in France while Newton was in his science years in England and Liebniz was churning at everything in northern Germany. What advances might they have made arguing with each other? Where would our Math and Physics be today?”

“They didn’t like each other?”

“Newton didn’t like anybody. He and Liebniz feuded for decades over who invented calculus. Pascal and Liebniz probably would have gotten along fine — Liebniz could make nice with everyone except Newton. Come to think of it, Newton and Pascal had a lot in common. Newton was a preemie and Pascal was seriously ill for the first year of his life, never got much better. Newton wrote his first formal paper at 22; Pascal publicly proved that vacuums exist by creating some when he was 24. On the flip side, Pascal was 33 when he presented his studies of what we now call the Pascal Triangle but Newton waited until he was 44 to publish his Principia. And each of them spent much of the final quarter of his life on religious, even mystical matters.”

“So did Newton and Pascal both do much about money and water?”

“Not about the combination, though both had a lot to do about each one. Newton was Master of England’s Royal Mint and spent much of his time in office chasing down counterfeiters. Pascal wasn’t a gambler but Fermat was and the two of them teamed up to invent the probability theories that power today’s gaming, finance and insurance industries. So there’s that. Pascal and Newton both pioneered the science of fluids but from different perspectives. Pascal looked at static situations — comparing atmospheric pressure at two different altitudes, that sort of thing. Newton, as usual, studied change — in this case how fluids flow.”

“Pour water into a pipe and it pours out the other end. What’s to study?”

“Measuring how fast it pours and how that’s affected by the pressure and the pipe and what’s being poured. Newton explored the motion of fluids in exhausting detail in Book II of his Principia. As you’d expect, he found that the flow rate of water or any of the other fluids he investigated rises with the pressure and with the cross-sectional area of the pipe. Being Newton, though, he also also considered forces that resist flow. Think about it — the pipe itself doesn’t move and neither does the layer of fluid right next to the pipe’s walls. The flow rate ramps up from zero at the walls to full-on at the center of the pipe. The ramp-up rate depends on the fluid’s viscosity, another concept that Newton discovered or invented depending on how you look at it. Viscosity measures the drag force the slower layers exert on their faster neighbors. Fluids like molasses are viscous because their molecules are really good at grabbing onto molecules in the layers next door.”

“Where’s money fit into this picture?”

“I’m getting to that. Newton thought that each kind of fluid had its own viscosity, always the same. Not quite — temperature makes a difference and there’s non‑Newtonian materials like Silly Putty whose viscosity depends on how fast you yank on them. But the weirdest non‑Newtonian fluid is ultra‑low‑temperature liquid helium. It’s a superfluid and has zero viscosity. The helium atoms experience absolutely no drag from their neighbors and can sneak through the tiniest cracks. Money does the same, right? Each dime and dollar flows with no drag from its cousins.”

“Money’s a superfluid?”

“Yup. Think how it leaks out of your pocket.”

“Uh-huh. … Hey, Sy, about that tab…”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Turn to The Urn

Working under social distancing rules, Al’s selling coffee from a drive-up cart in front of his shop — urns, paper cups, everything at arms length. No cash register, credit or debit transactions only. “Give me my usual, Al. I miss the mugs; your brews just don’t taste the same in paper.”

“I know, Sy, but what can you do? Say, I’ve been reading your stuff with the sort‑of overlaps between Physics and Economics. Beyond your usual orbital? <heh, heh>”

“Very funny, Al. Yeah, a little, but it’s giving me some new perspectives on old ground.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s next?”

“Fluid mechanics, for instance. Ever notice how many money terms relate to water? ‘Cash flow,’ of course, but there’s also ‘liquidity,’ ‘frozen assets,’ ‘drowning in debt,’ a long list, so I decided to chase that metaphor, see how well it holds up. There’s a lot of Physics on your coffee cart, for instance.”

“Well, it’s heavy, I’ll tell you that.”

“Sure, but how about that glass tube that tells you how full the urn is? The Egyptians were using the principle thousands of years ago but Pascal put it on a firm theoretical basis before Newton got a chance to.”

“There’s thery in that thing?”

“Sure. There’s a pipe from the urn to the little tube, right, so all the liquid is connected. Pascal proved that the pressure on every little packet of fluid anywhere in a connected system has to be the same, otherwise fluid would flow to wherever the pressure is least and even things out. Pressure at the bottom of any skinny vertical column comes from atmospheric pressure plus the pull of gravity on the liquid in that column. It takes 33 feet of water to balance normal atmospheric pressure. For columns the size of your urn gravity’s contribution is less than 3% of atmospheric so the atmosphere rules. Pressure on the tube is the same as pressure on the urn so the two have to be at the same height. When the urn’s low, the tube’s low because Physics.”

“Cool, though when you look at it that way it seems obvious.”

“The good explanations often are. It takes a Pascal or a Newton to make it obvious.”

“So what’s this got to do with Economics?”

“Pascal’s principle supplied a fundamental assumption about how market‑based systems are supposed to work. Not with water, but with money — and instead of pressure there’s profit potential. The idea is that just like water will flow everywhere in a connected system until the pressure is equalized, money will flow everywhere in an economy until no‑one thinks they can make more profit in one place than in another. It’s more complicated than your coffee urn, though.”

“I expect so — lots more opportunities.”

“Well, yes, but the force‑equivalent is more complicated, too. Gravity and atmospheric pressure both exert force in the same direction. When you’re considering an investment, what do you think about?”

“The net profit, of course — how much I could make against what it’ll cost me to get in.”

“How about risk?”

“Three guesses why I’m doing this no-cash. I know what you mean though — like what if this electric cord overheats and burns the place down. Not likely, I checked the wire gauge and the circuit box.”

“Good strategy — look at all the things that can go wrong and address what you can control. But there’s uncontrolables, right? From an Economics perspective, you need to put each risk in money terms. Take the likelihood that something bad will happen, multiply by the monetary loss if it does happen and you get monetary risk you’ve got to figure against that expected net profit. My point is that the Economics version of Pascal’s principle has to take account of forces that pull money towards an investment option AND forces that push money away.”

“Two-way stretch, huh?”

“Absolutely. Take a look at a stock or bond prospectus some day. You’ll see risk categories you’ve never even heard of. Bond analysts have a field day with that kind of stuff. Their job is to calculate likely growth and cash yield against likely risk and come up with a price.”

“Risky business.”

“Always the joker, Al.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Something of Interest

“OK, Sy, I get how money is sorta like Physics ‘energy‘ except you can’t create energy but you can create money. And I get how Economics ‘velocity of money‘ and Physics ‘velocity don’t have much to do with each other. Your ‘Money Physics‘ phrase doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve got something with more overlap than that.”

“You’re a tough man, Vinnie. How about the word ‘exponential‘?”

“Means something goes up really fast. What about it?”

“Well, first off that’s not really what it means and that’s one of my personal peeves, thank you very much. Yes, quantities can increase exponentially, but not necessarily rapidly, and they can also decrease exponentially, either fast or slow. It’s a math thing.”

“Alright, I got myself into this. You’re gonna tell me how that works and it probably involves equations.”

“You made the phone call, I’m just sitting here, but you’re good, no equations just arithmetic. Ten times ten’s a hundred, right, and you can write that either 10×10 or 10², OK? The little two is the exponent, tells you how many factors to multiply together.”

“And 10 with a little three makes a thousand and ten with a little … six makes a million. See, it goes up really fast.”

“Depends on what the base number is. I’ve sent a tabulation to your phone…”

Exp’t 10 2 99% 100% 101%
2 100 4 98.01% 100% 102.01%
3 1 000 8 97.03% 100% 103.03%
4 10 000 16 96.06% 100% 104.06%
5 100 000 32 95.10% 100% 105.10%
6 1 000 000 64 94.15% 100% 106.15%
7 10 000 000 128 93.21% 100% 107.21%

“What’s all that?”

“Well, the top-row headers are just numbers I multiplied by themselves according to some exponents, and the first column is the series of exponents I used. Like we said, 10² is a hundred and so on down the second column. Number 2 multiplied by itself according to the same exponents gave me the third column and you see the products don’t grow anywhere near as fast. Do you see how the growth rate depends on the number that’s being multiplied and re‑multiplied?”

“No problem. What about the other columns?”

“Start with the fifth column. What’s 100% of 100%?”

“All of it.”

“And 100% of 100% of 100%?”

“I get it — no change no matter the exponent.”

“Absolutely. Now compare that to the 99% and 101% columns that give you the effect of a 1% growth factor. As you’d expect, very little change in either one, but there’s a lesson in the 99% column. It’s exponential by definition, but the results go down, not up. By the way, both of those are such small factors that the results are practically linear. You need to get beyond 15% factors for visible curvature in the usual graphs.”

“OK, so exponential says some arithmetic factor gets applied again and again. What’s that got to do with Physics or Economics?”

“Ever since Newton, Physics has been the study of change, all different kinds. Gradually we’ve built up a catalog of change patterns. Newton pointed out the simplest one in his first Law of Motion — constant velocity, say in meters per second. Plot cumulative distance moved against time and you get a rising straight line. His Second Law implies another simple pattern, constant acceleration. That’s one where velocity’s line rises linearly but distance goes up as the square of the time traveled. But Newton never tackled another very simple, very common pattern.”

“I thought Newton did everything.”

“Not the case. He was an amazing geometer, but to handle this pattern you need algebraic tools like the ones Liebniz was developing. Newton would rather have dunked his arm in boiling rancid skunk oil than do that. It took another century or so until the Bernoulis and Euler beat that problem into the ground.”

“So what’s the simple pattern?”

“Suppose instead of a quantity increasing by some absolute number of thingies per second, it increases by some constant percentage. That’s uncommon in the kinds of mechanical phenomena that Newton studied but it does happen. Say you’re a baby planet in the middle of a dust cloud. Get 15% bigger, you’re 15% better at attracting even more dust. Biological things do that a lot — the more bugs or bacteria you’ve got, the faster they multiply and that’s usually at a constant percentage-per-time rate. Exponential growth in a nutshell.”

“Planets, bugs, what’s that got to do with Economics?”

“Ever hear of ‘compound interest‘?”

“Low rates on bank accounts, high rates on credit cards, compounded. Gotcha.”

“Inflation does compounding, too.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Solid Gold Bath Towel

“C’mon, Sy, I heard weaseling there — ‘velocity‑based thinking‘ ain’t the same as velocity numbers.”

“Guilty as charged, Vinnie. The centuries-old ‘velocity of money‘ notion has been superceded for a half-century, but the theory’s still useful in the right circumstances. It’s like Newton’s Law of Gravity that way, except we’ve been drifting away from Newton for a full century.”

“What, gravity doesn’t work any more?”

“Sure it does, and most places the force is exactly what Newton said it should be — proportional to the mass divided by the distance. But it goes wrong when the mass‑to‑distance ratio gets huge, say close to a star or a black hole. That’s when we move up to Einstein’s theory. It includes Newton’s Law as a special case but it covers the high-ratio cases more exactly and accounts for more phenomena.”

“Just for grins, how about when the ratio is tiny?”

“We don’t know. Some cosmologists have suggested that’s what dark energy is about. Maybe when galaxies get really far apart, they’re not attracted to each other quite as much as Newton’s Law says.”

“I suppose the money theories have problems at high and low velocities?”

“That’s one pair of problems. Money velocity is proportional to nominal traffic divided by money supply. Suppose an average currency unit changes hands thousands of times a day. That says people don’t have confidence that money will buy as much tomorrow as it could today. They’ve got hyperinflation.”

“Ah, and at the low end it’d be like me putting Eddie’s autographed $20 in a frame on my wall. No spend, no traffic, zero velocity.”

“Right, but for the economy it’d be everyone putting all their money under their mattresses. Money that’s frozen in place doesn’t do anything except maybe make someone feel good. It’s like water in a stream, it has to be flowing to be useful in generating power.”

“Wait, you used a word back there, ‘nominal.’ What’s that about?”

“Good ears. It points up another important distinction between Physics and Economics. Suppose you’re engineering a mill at that stream and you measure water flow in cubic meters per second. Kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared and power is energy per unit time. If you know water’s density in kilograms per cubic meter you can calculate the stream’s available water power. Density is key to finding mass from volume when volume’s easy to measure, or volume from easily‑measured mass.”

“OK, so what’s that got to do with ‘nominal‘?”

“In economic situations, money is easy to measure — it’s just the price paid — but value is a puzzle. In fact, people say that understanding the linkage between price and value is the central problem of Economics. There’s a huge number of theories out there, with good counter-examples for every one of them. For example, consider the solid gold bath towel.”

“What a stupid idea. Thing like that couldn’t dry you off in the desert.”

“True, but it’s made out of a rare material and some people think rarity makes value. In the right setting it’d be beautiful and there are certainly people who think beauty makes value. A lot of person‑time would be required to create it and some people think labor input is what makes value. The people who think utility makes value would give that towel very low marks. Of course, if you’ve already got plenty of bath towels you’re not about to buy another one so you don’t care.”

“So how do they decide what its price should be?”

“Depends on where you are. Many countries use a supply‑demand auction system that measures value by what people are willing to pay. Planned‑economy countries set prices by government edict. Other countries use a mixed system where the government sets prices for certain commodities like bread and fuel but everything else is subject to haggling. Whatever system’s in use, ‘nominal‘ traffic is the total of all transaction prices and that’s supposed to measure value.”

“Velocity’s supposed to be money supply divided into value flow but we can’t use value so we fake it with money flow?”

“You got it. Then the government tries to manage the money supply so velocity’s in a sweet spot.”

“Sounds rickety.”

“Yup.”

~~ Rich Olcott