Hyperbolas But Not Hyperbole

Minus? Where did that come from?”

<Gentle reader — If that question looks unfamiliar, please read the preceding post before this one.>

Jim’s still at the Open Mic. “A clever application of hyperbolic geometry.” Now several of Jeremy’s groupies are looking upset. “OK, I’ll step back a bit. Jeremy, suppose your telescope captures a side view of a 1000‑meter spaceship but it’s moving at 99% of lightspeed relative to you. The Lorentz factor for that velocity is 7.09. What will its length look like to you?”

“Lorentz contracts lengths so the ship’s kilometer appears to be shorter by that 7.09 factor so from here it’d look about … 140 meters long.”

“Nice, How about the clocks on that spaceship?”

“I’d see their seconds appear to lengthen by that same 7.09 factor.”

“So if I multiplied the space contraction by the time dilation to get a spacetime hypervolume—”

“You’d get what you would have gotten with the spaceship standing still. The contraction and dilation factors cancel out.”

“How about if the spaceship went even faster, say 99.999% of lightspeed?”

“The Lorentz factor gets bigger but the arithmetic for contraction and dilation still cancels. The hypervolume you defined is always gonna be just the product of the ship’s rest length and rest clock rate.”

His groupies go “Oooo.”

One of the groupies pipes up. “Wait, the product of x and y is a constant — that’s a hyperbola!”

“Bingo. Do you remember any other equations associated with hyperbolas?”

“Umm… Yes, x2–y2 equals a constant. That’s the same shape as the other one, of course, just rotated down so it cuts the x-axis vertically.”

Jeremy goes “Oooo.”

Jim draws hyperbolas and a circle on the whiteboard. That sets thoughts popping out all through the crowd. Maybe‑an‑Art‑major blurts into the general rumble. “Oh, ‘plus‘ locks x and y inside the constant so you get a circle boundary, but ‘minus‘ lets x get as big as it wants so long as y lags behind!”

Another conversation – “Wait, can xy=constant and x2–y2=constant both be right?”
  ”Sure, they’re different constants. Both equations are true where the red and blue lines cross.”

A physics student gets quizzical. “Jim, was this Minkowski’s idea, or Einstein’s?”

“That’s a darned good question, Paul. Minkowski was sole author of the paper that introduced spacetime and defined the interval, but he published it a year after Einstein’s 1905 Special Relativity paper highlighted the Lorentz transformations. I haven’t researched the history, but my money would be on Einstein intuitively connecting constant hypervolumes to hyperbolic geometry. He’d probably check his ideas with his mentor Minkowski, who was on the same trail but graciously framed his detailed write‑up to be in support of Einstein’s work.”

One of the astronomy students sniffs. “Wait, different observers see the same s2=(ct)2d2 interval between two events? I suppose there’s algebra to prove that.”

“There is.”

“That’s all very nice in a geometric sort of way, but what does s2 mean and why should we care whether or not it’s constant?”

“Fair questions, Vera. Mmm … you probably care that intervals set limits on what astronomers see. Here’s a Minkowski map of the Universe. We’re in the center because naturally. Time runs upwards, space runs outwards and if you can imagine that as a hypersphere, go for it. Light can’t get to us from the gray areas. The red lines, they’re really a hypercone, mark where s2=0.”

From the back of the room — “A zero interval?”

“Sure. A zero interval means that the distance between two events exactly equals lightspeed times light’s travel time between those events. Which means if you’re surfing a lightwave between two events, you’re on an interval with zero measure. Let’s label Vera’s telescope session tonight as event A and her target event is B. If the A–B interval’s ct difference is greater then its d difference then she can see Bif the event is in our past but not beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background. But if a Dominion fleet battle is approaching us through subspace from that black dot, we’ll have no possible warning before they’re on us.”

Everyone goes “Oooo.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Thinking in Spacetime

The Open Mic session in Al’s coffee shop is still going string. The crowd’s still muttering after Jeremy stuck a pin in Big Mike’s “coincidence” balloon when Jim steps up. Jim’s an Astrophysics post‑doc now so we quiet down expectantly. “Nice try, Mike. Here’s another mind expander to play with. <stepping over to the whiteboard> Folks, I give you … a hypotenuse. ‘That’s just a line,’ you say. Ah, yes, but it’s part of some right triangles like … these. Say three different observers are surveying the line from different locations. Alice finds her distance to point A is 300 meters and her distance to point B is 400. Applying Pythagoras’ Theorem, she figures the A–B distance as 500 meters. We good so far?”

A couple of Jeremy’s groupies look doubtful. Maybe‑an‑Art‑Major shyly raises a hand. “The formula they taught us is a2+b2=c2. And aren’t the x and y supposed to go horizontal and vertical?”

“Whoa, nice questions and important points. In a minute I’m going to use c for the speed of light. It’s confusing to use the same letter for two different purposes. Also, we have to pay them extra for double duty. Anyhow, I’m using d for distance here instead of c, OK? To your next point — Alice, Bob and Carl each have their own horizontal and vertical orientations, but the A–B line doesn’t care who’s looking at it. One of our fundamental principles is that the laws of Physics don’t depend on the observer’s frame of reference. In this situation that means that all three observers should measure the same length. The Pythagorean formula works for all of them, so long as we’re working on a flat plane and no-one’s doing relativistic stuff, OK?”

Tentative nods from the audience.

“Right, so much for flat pictures. Let’s up our game by a dimension. Here’s that same A–B line but it’s in a 3D box. <Maybe‑an‑Art‑Major snorts at Jim’s amateur attempt at perspective.> Fortunately, the Pythagoras formula extends quite nicely to three dimensions. It was fun figuring out why.”

Jeremy yells out. “What about time? Time’s a dimension.”

“For sure, but time’s not a length. You can’t add measurements unless they all have the same units.”

“You could fix that by multiplying time by c. Kilometers per second, times seconds, is a length.” His groupies go “Oooo.”

“Thanks for the bridge to spacetime where we have four coordinates — x, y, z and ct. That makes a big difference because now A and B each have both a where and a when — traveling between them is traveling in space and time. Computationally there’s two paths to follow from here. One is to stick with Pythagoras. Think of a 4D hypercube with our A–B line running between opposite vertices. We’re used to calculating area as x×y and volume as x×y×z so no surprise, the hypercube’s hypervolume is x×y×z×(ct). The square of the A–B line’s length would be b2=(ct)2+d2. Pythagoras would be happy with all of that but Einstein wasn’t. That’s where Alice and Bob and Carl come in again.”

“What do they have to do with it?”

“Carl’s sitting steady here on good green Earth, red‑shifted Alice is flying away at high speed and blue‑shifted Bob is flashing toward us. Because of Lorentz contractions and dilations, they all measure different A–B lengths and durations. Each observer would report a different value for b2. That violates the invariance principle. We need a ruggedized metric able to stand up to that sort of punishment. Einstein’s math professor Hermann Minkowski came up with a good one. First, a little nomenclature. Minkowski was OK with using the word ‘point‘ for a location in xyz space but he used ‘event‘ when time was one of the coordinates.”

“Makes sense, I put events on my calendar.”

“Good strategy. Minkowski’s next step quantified the separation between two events by defining a new metric he called the ‘interval.’ Its formula is very similar to Pythagoras’ formula, with one small change: s2=(ct)2–d2. Alice, Bob and Carl see different distances but they all see the same interval.”

Minus? Where did that come from?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Maybe It’s Just A Coincidence

Raucous laughter from the back room at Al’s coffee shop, which, remember, is situated on campus between the Physics and Astronomy buildings. It’s Open Mic night and the usual crowd is there. I take a vacant chair which just happens to be next to the one Susan Kim is in. “Oh, hi, Sy. You just missed a good pitch. Amanda told a long, hilarious story about— Oh, here comes Cap’n Mike.”

Mike’s always good for an offbeat theory. “Hey, folks, I got a zinger for you. It’s the weirdest coincidence in Physics. Are you ready?” <cheers from the physicists in the crowd> “Suppose all alone in the Universe there’s a rock and a planet and the rock is falling straight in towards the planet.” <turns to Al’s conveniently‑placed whiteboard> “We got two kinds of energy, right?”

Potential Energy    Kinetic Energy

Nods across the room except for Maybe-an-Art-major and a couple of Jeremy’s groupies. “Right. Potential energy is what you get from just being where you are with things pulling on you like the planet’s gravity pulls on the rock. Kinetic energy is what potential turns into when the pulls start you moving. For you Physics smarties, I’m gonna ignore temperature and magnetism and maybe the rock’s radioactive and like that, awright? So anyway, we know how to calculate each one of these here.”

PE = GMm/R    KE = ½mv²

“Big‑G is Newton’s gravitational constant, big‑M is the planet’s mass, little‑m is the rock’s mass, big‑R is how far apart the things are, and little‑v is how fast the rock’s going. They’re all just numbers and we’re not doing any complicated calculus or relativity stuff, OK? OK, to start with the rock is way far away so big‑R is huge. Big number on the bottom makes PE’s fraction tiny and we can call it zero. At the same time, the rock’s barely moving so little‑v and KE are both zero, close enough. Everybody with me?”

More nods, though a few of the physics students are looking impatient.

“Right, so time passes and the rock dives faster toward the planet Little‑v and kinetic energy get bigger. Where’s the energy coming from? Gotta be potential energy. But big‑R on the bottom gets smaller so the potential energy number gets, wait, bigger. That’s OK because that’s how much potential energy has been converted. What I’m gonna do is write the conversion as an equation.


“So if I tell you how far the rock is from the planet, you can work the equation to tell me how fast it’s going and vice-versa. Lemme show those straight out…”

v=(2GM/R)    R=2GM/v²

Some physicist hollers out. “The first one’s escape velocity.”

“Good eye. The energetics are the same going up or coming down, just in the opposite direction. One thing, there’s no little‑m in there, right? The rock could be Jupiter or a photon, same equations apply. Suppose you’re standing on the planet and fire the rock upward. If you give it enough little‑v speed energy to get past potential energy equals zero, then the rock escapes the planet and big‑R can be whatever it feels like. Big‑R and little‑v trade off. Is there a limit?”

A couple of physicists and an astronomy student see where this is going and start to grin.

“Newton physics doesn’t have a speed limit, right? They knew about the speed of light back then but it was just a number, you could go as fast as you wanted to. How about we ask how far the rock is from the planet when it’s going at the speed of light?”


Suddenly Jeremy pipes up. “Hey that’s the Event Horizon radius. I had that in my black hole term paper.” His groupies go “Oooo.”

“There you go, Jeremy. The same equation for two different objects, from two different theories of gravity, by two different derivations.”

“But it’s not valid for lightspeed.”

“How so?”

“You divided both sides of your conversion equation by little‑m. Photons have zero mass. You can’t divide by zero.”

Everyone in the room goes “Oooo.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Diamond in The Sky with Lucy

Mid-afternoon coffee-and-scone time. As I step into his coffee shop Al’s quizzing Cathleen about something in one of his Astronomy magazines. “This Lucy space mission they just sent up, how come it looks like they’re shooting at either side of Jupiter instead of hitting it straight-on? And it’s got this crazy butterfly orbit that crosses the whole Solar System a couple of times. What sense does that make?”

Planned path of Lucy‘s mission to study Trojan asteroids (black dots).
After diagrams by NASA and Southwest Research Institute

“It shoots to either side because there’s interesting stuff out there. We think the Solar System started as a whirling disk of dust that gradually clumped together. The gravity from Jupiter’s clump scarfed up the lion’s share of the leftovers after the Sun coalesced. The good news is, not all of Jupiter’s hoard wound up in the planet. Some pieces made it to Jupiter’s orbit but then collected in the Trojan regions ahead and behind it. Looking at that material may teach us about the early Solar System.”

“Way out there? Why not just fall into Jupiter like everything else did?”

I do Physics, I can’t help but cut in. “It’s the many‑body problem in its simplest case, just the Sun, Jupiter and an asteroid in a three‑body interaction—”

Cathleen gives me a look. “Inappropriate physicsplaining, Sy, we’re talking Astronomy here. Al’s magazine is about locating and identifying objects in space. These asteroids happen to cluster in special locations roughly sixty degrees away from Jupiter.”

“But Al’s question was, ‘Why?‘ You told him why we’re sending Lucy to the Trojans, but Physics is why they exist and why that mission map looks so weird.”

“Good point, go ahead. OK with you, Al?”


I unholster Old Reliable, my tricked‑out tablet, and start sketching on its screen. “OK, orange dot’s Jupiter, yellow dot’s the Sun. Calculating their motion is a two-body problem. Gravity pulls them together but centrifugal force pulls them apart. The forces balance when the two bodies orbit in ellipses around their common center of gravity. Jupiter’s ellipse is nearly a circle but it wobbles because the Sun orbits their center of gravity. Naturally, once Newton solved that problem people turned to the next harder one.”

“That’s where Lucy comes in?”

“Not yet, Al, we’ve still got those Trojan asteroids to account for. Suppose the Jupiter‑Sun system’s gravity captures an asteroid flying in from somewhere. Where will it settle down? Most places, one body dominates the gravitational field so the asteroid orbits that one. But suppose the asteroid finds a point where the two fields are equal.”

“Oh, like halfway between, right?”

“Between, Al, but not halfway.”

“Right, Cathleen. The Sun/Jupiter mass ratio and Newton’s inverse‑square law put the equal‑pull point a lot closer to Jupiter than to the Sun. If the asteroid found that point it would hang around forever or until it got nudged away. That’s Lagrange’s L1 point. There are two other balance points along the Sun‑Jupiter line. L2 is beyond Jupiter where the Sun’s gravity is even weaker. L3 is way on the other side of the Sun, a bit inside Jupiter’s orbit.”

“Hey, so those 60° points on the orbit, those are two more balances because they’re each the same distance from Jupiter and the Sun, right?”

“There you go, Al. L4 leads Jupiter and L5 runs behind. Lagrange published his 5‑point solution to the three‑body problem in 1762, just 250 years ago. The asteroids found Jupiter’s Trojan regions billions of years earlier.”

“We astronomers call the L4 cluster the Trojan camp and the L5 cluster the Greek camp, but that’s always bothered me. It’d be OK if we called the planet Zeus, but Jupiter’s a Roman god. Roman times were a millennium after classical Greece’s Trojan War so the names are just wrong.”

“I hadn’t thought about that, Cathleen, but you’re right. Anyway, back to Al’s diagram of Lucy’s journey. <activating Old Reliable’s ‘Animate’ function> Sorry, Al, but you’ve been misled. The magazine’s butterfly chart has Jupiter standing still. Here’s a stars-eye view. It’s more like the Trojans will come to Lucy than the reverse.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Gelato Model

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

“Glad you like it, Anne.”

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

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

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

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

“S’what I said.”

“Measured in dollars or trayfuls?”

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

“Batches all the same size?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know we want to know, Sy.”

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

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

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

“So what about my gelato?”

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

~~ Rich Olcott

Symmetrical Eavesdropping

“Wait, Sy, you’ve made this explanation way more complicated than it has to be. All I asked about was the horrible whirling I’d gotten myself into. The three angular coordinates part would have done for that, but you dragged in degrees of freedom and deep symmetry and even dropped in that bit about ‘if measurable motion is defined.’ Why bother with all that and how can you have unmeasurable motion?”

“Curiosity caught the cat, didn’t it? Let’s head down to Eddie’s and I’ll treat you to a gelato. Your usual scoop of mint, of course, but I recommend combining it with a scoop of ginger to ease your queasy.”

“You’re a hard man to turn down, Sy. Lead on.”

<walking the hall to the elevators> “Have you ever baked a cake, Anne?”

“Hasn’t everyone? My specialty is Crazy Cake — flour, sugar, oil, vinegar, baking soda and a few other things but no eggs.”

“Sounds interesting. Well, consider the path from fixings to cake. You’ve collected the ingredients. Is it a cake yet?”

“Of course not.”

“Ok, you’ve stirred everything together and poured the batter into the pan. Is it a cake yet?”

“Actually, you sift the dry ingredients into the pan, then add the others separately, but I get your point. No, it’s not cake and it won’t be until it’s baked and I’ve topped it with my secret frosting. Some day, Sy, I’ll bake you one.”

<riding the elevator down to 2> “You’re a hard woman to turn down, Anne. I look forward to it. Anyhow, you see the essential difference between flour’s journey to cakehood and our elevator ride down to Eddie’s.”

“Mmm… OK, it’s the discrete versus continuous thing, isn’t it?”

“You’ve got it. Measuring progress along a discrete degree of freedom can be an iffy proposition.”

“How about just going with the recipe’s step number?”

“I’ll bet you use a spoon instead of a cup to get the right amount of baking soda. Is that a separate step from cup‑measuring the other dry ingredients? Sifting one batch or two? Those’d change the step‑number metric and the step-by-step equivalent of momentum. It’s not a trivial question, because Emmy Noether’s symmetry theorem applies only to continuous coordinates.”

“We’re back to her again? I thought—”

The elevator doors open at the second floor. We walk across to Eddie’s, where the tail‑end of the lunch crowd is dawdling over their pizzas. “Hiya folks. You’re a little late, I already shut my oven down.”

“Hi, Eddie, we’re just here for gelato. What’s your pleasure, Anne?”

“On Sy’s recommendation, Eddie, I’ll try a scoop of ginger along with my scoop of mint. Sy, about that symmetry theorem—”

“The same for me, Eddie.”

“Comin’ up. Just find a table, I’ll bring ’em over.”

We do that and he does that. “Here you go, folks, two gelati both the same, all symmetrical.”

“Eddie, you’ve been eavesdropping again!”

“Who, me? Never! Unless it’s somethin’ interesting. So symmetry ain’t just pretty like snowflakes? It’s got theorems?”

“Absolutely, Eddie. In many ways symmetry appears to be fundamental to how the Universe works. Or we think so, anyway. Here, Anne, have an extra bite of my ginger gelato. For one thing, Eddie, symmetry makes calculations a lot easier. If you know a particular system has the symmetry of a square, for instance, then you can get away with calculating only an eighth of it.”

“You mean a quarter, right, you turn a square four ways.”

“No, eight. It’s done with mirrors. Sy showed me.”

“I’m sure he did, Anne. But Sy, what if it’s not a perfect square? How about if one corner’s pulled out to a kite shape?”

“That’s called a broken symmetry, no surprise. Physicists and engineers handle systems like that with a toolkit of approximations that the mathematicians don’t like. Basically, the idea is to start with some nice neat symmetrical solution then add adjustments, called perturbations, to tweak the solution to something closer to reality. If the kite shape’s not too far away from squareness the adjusted solution can give you some insight onto how the actual thing works.”

“How about if it’s too far?”

“You go looking for a kite‑shaped solution.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Deep Symmetry

“Sy, I can understand mathematicians getting seriously into symmetry. They love patterns and I suppose they’ve even found patterns in the patterns.”

“They have, Anne. There’s a whole field called ‘Group Theory‘ devoted to classifying symmetries and then classifying the classifications. The split between discrete and continuous varieties is just the first step.”

“You say ‘symmetry‘ like it’s a thing rather than a quality.”

“Nice observation. In this context, it is. Something may be symmetrical, that’s a quality. Or it may be subject to a symmetry operation, say a reflection across its midline. Or it may be subject to a whole collection of operations that match the operations of some other object, say a square. In that case we say our object has the symmetry of a square. It turns out that there’s a limited number of discrete symmetries, few enough that they’ve been given names. Squares, for instance, have D4 symmetry. So do four-leaf clovers and the Washington Monument.”

“OK, the ‘4’ must be in there because you can turn it four times and each time it looks the same. What’s the ‘D‘ about?”

Dihedral, two‑sided, like two appearances on either side of a reflection. That’s opposed to ‘C‘ which comes from ‘Cyclic’ like 1‑2‑3‑4‑1‑2‑3‑4. My lawn sprinkler has C4 symmetry, no mirrors, but add one mirror and bang! you’ve got eight mirrors and D4 symmetry.”

“Eight, not just four?”

“Eight. Two mirrors at 90° generate another one 45° between them. That’s the thing with symmetry operations, they combine and multiply. That’s also why there’s a limited number of symmetries. You think you’ve got a new one but when you work out all the relationships it turns out to be an old one looked at from a different angle. Cubes, for instance — who knew they have a three‑fold rotation axis along each body diagonal, but they do.”

“I guess symmetry can make physics calculations simpler because you only have to do one symmetric piece and then spread the results around. But other than that, why do the physicists care?”

“Actually they don’t care much about most of the discrete symmetries but they care a whole lot about the continuous kind. A century ago, a young German mathematician named Emmy Noether proved that within certain restrictions, every continuous symmetry comes along with a conserved quantity. That proof suddenly tied together a bunch of Physics specialties that had grown up separately — cosmology, relativity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, optics, classical Newtonian mechanics, fluid mechanics, nuclear physics, even string theory—”

“Very large to very small, I get that, but how can one theory have that range? And what’s a conserved quantity?”

“It’s theorem, not theory, and it capped two centuries of theoretical development. Conserved quantities are properties that don’t change while a system evolves from one state to another. Newton’s First Law of Motion was about linear momentum as a conserved quantity. His Second Law, F=ma, connected force with momentum change, letting us understand how a straight‑line system evolves with time. F=ma was our first Equation of Motion. It was a short step from there to rotational motion where we found a second conserved quantity, angular momentum, and an Equation of Motion that had exactly the same form as Newton’s first one, once you converted from linear to angular coordinates.”

“Converting from x-y to radius-angle, I take it.”

“Exactly, Anne, with torque serving as F. That generalization was the first of many as physicists learned how to choose the right generalized coordinates for a given system and an appropriate property to serve as the momentum. The amazing thing was that so many phenomena follow very similar Equations of Motion — at a fundamental level, photons and galaxies obey the same mathematics. Different details but the same form, like a snowflake rotated by 60 degrees.”

“Ooo, lovely, a really deep symmetry!”

“Mm-hm, and that’s where Noether came in. She showed that for a large class of important systems, smooth continuous symmetry along some coordinate necessarily entails a conserved quantity. Space‑shift symmetry implies conservation of momentum, time‑shift symmetry implies conservation of energy, other symmetries lock in a collection of subatomic quantities.”

“Symmetry explains a lot, mm-hm.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Edged Things and Smooth Things

Yeughh, Sy, that whirling, the entire Universe spinning around me in every direction at once.”

“Well, you were at a point of spherical symmetry, Anne.”

“There’s that word ‘symmetryagain. Right side matches left side, what else is there to say?”

“A whole lot, especially after the mathematicians and physicists started playing with the basic notion.”

“Which is?”

“Being able to execute a transformation without making a relevant difference.”


“To the context. Swapping the king of spades for the king of hearts would be relevant in some card games but not others, right? If it doesn’t affect the play or the scoring, swapping those two when no‑one’s looking would be a legitimate symmetry operation. Spin a snowflake 60° and it looks the same unless you care exactly where each molecule is. That’s rotational symmetry, but there’s lots of geometric symmetry operations — reflections, inversions, glides, translations—”

“Translation is a symmetry operation?”

“In this connection, ‘translation‘ means movement or swapping between two different places in space. The idea came from crystals. Think of a 3D checkerboard, except the borderlines aren’t necessarily perpendicular. Perfect crystals are like that. Every cube‑ish cell contains essentially the same arrangement of atoms. In principle you could swap the contents of any two cells without making a difference in any of the crystal’s measurable properties. That’d be a translation symmetry operation.”

“Glides make me think of ice skating.”

“The glide operation makes me think of a chess knight’s move — a translation plus a reflection across the translation path. Think of wet footprints crossing a dry floor. That’s one example of combining operations to create additional symmetries. You can execute 48 unique symmetry operations on a cube even without the translation‑related ones. In my grad school’s crystallography class they taught us about point group and wallpaper and space group symmetries. It blew me away — beautiful in both mathematical and artistic senses. You’ve seen M C Escher’s art?”

“Of course, I love it. I pushed into his studio once to watch him work but he spotted me and shouted something Dutch at me. I’ve wondered what he thought when I pushed out of there.”

“His pieces drew heavily on geometric symmetries. So did Baroque art, music and architecture.”

“Music? Oh, yes — they had motifs and whole sections you could swap, and rhythm patterns and tunes you could read forwards and backwards like in a mirror… We’ve come a long way from snowflake symmetry, haven’t we?”

“We’re just getting started. Here’s where the Physics folks generalized the idea. Your unfortunate experience in space is right on the edge of what most people consider as symmetry. Were you impressed with the cube’s 48 operations?”

“I suppose. I haven’t had time to think about it.”

“A sphere has an infinite number. You could pick any of an infinite number of lines through its center. Each is an axis for an infinite number of rotational symmetries. Times two because there’s an inversion point at the center so the rotation could go in either direction. Then each line is embedded in an infinite number of reflection planes.”

“Goodness, no wonder I was dizzy. But it’s still geometry. What was the edge that the physicists went past?”

“The border between step‑at‑a‑time discrete symmetries and continuous ones. Rotate that snowflake 60° and you’ve got a match; anything not a multiple of 60° won’t pair things up. Across the border, some of the most important results in modern Physics depend on continuous symmetries.”

“How can you even have a continuous symmetry?”

“Here, I’ll draw a circle on this square of paper. I can rotate the square by 90, 180 or 270 degrees and everything’s just the way it was. But if the square’s not relevant because we’re only interested in the circle, then I can rotate the paper by any amount I like and it’s a no‑difference transformation, right?”

“Continuous like on an infinite line but it’s wrapped around.”

“Exactly, and your infinite line is another example — any translation along that line, by a mile or a millimeter, is a perfectly good symmetry operation.”

“Ooo, and time, too. I experience time as an infinite line.”

“So does everyone. but most only travel in one direction.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Ways To Get Dizzy

<FZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzttt!> “Urk … ulp … I need to sit down, quick.”

“Anne? Welcome back, the couch is over there. Goodness, you do look a little green. Can I get you something to drink?”

“A little cool water might help, thanks.”

“Here. Just sit and breathe. That wasn’t your usual fizzing sound when you visit my office. When you’re ready tell me what happened. Must have been an experience, considering some of your other superpower adventures. Where did you ‘push‘ to this time?”

“Well, you know when I push forward I go into the future and when I push backward I go into the past. When I push up or down I get bigger or smaller. You figured out how pushing sideways kicks me to alternate probabilities. And then <shudder> there was that time I found a new direction to push and almost blew up the Earth.”

“Yes, that was a bad one. I’d think you’ve pretty well used up all the directions, though.”

“Not quite. This time I pushed outwards, the same in every direction.”

“Creative. And what happened?”

“Suddenly I was out in deep space, just tumbling in the blackness. There wasn’t an up or down or anything. I couldn’t even tell how big I was. I could see stars way off in the distance or maybe they were galaxies, but they were spinning all crazy. It took me a minute to realize it was me that was spinning, gyrating in several ways at once. It was scary and nauseating but I finally stopped part of it.”

“Floating in space with nothing to kill your angular momentum … how’d you manage to stabilize yourself at all?”

“Using my push superpower, of course. The biggest push resistance is against the past. I pulled pastward from just my shoulders and that stopped my nose‑diving but I was still whirling and cart‑wheeling. I tried to stop that with my feet but that only slowed me down and I was getting dizzy. My white satin had transformed into a spacesuit and I definitely didn’t want to get sick in there so I came home.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Oh, that was simple, I pulled inward. I had to um, zig‑zag? until I got just the right amount.”

“That explains the odd fizzing. I’m glad you got back. Looks like you’re feeling better now.”

“Mostly. Whew! So, Mr Physicist Sy, help me understand it all. <her voice that sounds like molten silver> Please?”

“Well. Um. There’s a couple of ways to go here. I’ll start with degrees of freedom, okay?”

“Whatever you say.”

“Right. You’re used to thinking in straight‑line terms of front/back, left/right and up/down, which makes sense if you’re on a large mostly‑flat surface like on Earth. In mathspeak each of those lines marks an independent degree of freedom because you can move along it without moving along either of the other two.”

“Like in space where I had those three ways to get dizzy.”

“Yup, three rotations at right angles to each other. Boatmen and pilots call them pitch, roll and yaw. Three angular degrees of freedom. Normal space adds three x-y-z straight‑line degrees, but you wouldn’t have been able to move along those unless you brought along a rocket or something. I guess you didn’t, otherwise you could have controlled that spinning.”

“Why would I have carried a rocket when I didn’t know where I was going? Anyhow, my push‑power can drive my straight‑line motion except I didn’t know where I was and that awful spinning had me discombobulated”

“Frankly, I’m glad I don’t know how you feel. Anyhow, if measurable motion is defined along a degree of freedom the measurement is called a coordinate. Simple graphs have an x-coordinate and a y-coordinate. An origin plus almost any three coordinates makes a coordinate system able to locate any point in space. The Cartesian x-y-z system uses three distances or you can have two distances and an angle, that’s cylindrical coordinates, or two angles and one distance and that’s polar coordinates.”

“Three angles?”

“You don’t know where you are.”


~~ Rich Olcott

There’s Always An Angle

“No, Moire, when I said the glasses get dark or light depending I was talking about those glasses that just block out shiny, like from windows across the street when the Sun hits ’em just wrong.”

“I got this, Sy. That’s about polarized light, Feder, and polarized sunglasses. Sy and me, we talked about that when we were thinkin’ Star Trek weapons.”

“You guys talk about everything, Vinnie.”

“Pretty much. Anyhow, it goes back to how electrons make light. Electrons got charge and that makes an electric field around them, right? When you jiggle an electron up and down the field jiggles and sooner or later that’ll make some other electron jiggle like maybe in your eye and you see that as light. How’m I doing, Sy?”

“You’re on a roll. Keep it going.”

“Okay, so the electron doesn’t have to jiggle only up and down, it can do side‑to‑side if it feels like it or anything in between and the field goes along with all of that. When you got a lot of electrons doing that together, different‑angle waves go out and that poor second electron gets shoved all around the compass, right?”

“Hey, don’t all those jiggles just cancel each other out?”

“Nah, ’cause their timing’s off. They’re not in sync or nothing so the jiggles push in every direction random‑like.”

“How about lasers? I thought their waves all marched in sync.”

“They’re in sync strong‑and‑weak, but I guess whether they’re up‑and‑down in sync depends on the technology, right, Sy?”

“Right, Vinnie. Simple diode laser beams usually aren’t polarized, but special-purpose lasers may be designed with polarization in the package. Of course, any beam can be polarized if it’s bounced off something at just the right angle.”

“What’s the angle got to do with it, Moire?”

“I bet I know. Sy. Is that bounce angle connected to the prism stuff?”

“Nice shot, Vinnie. Carry on.”

“Ok, Feder, follow me ’cause this is a little complicated. Sy, can I borrow your whiteboard?”


“Thanks. All right, this thick green wiggle is a regular light ray’s electric field, coming in at a low angle and jiggling in all directions. It hits a window or something, that’s the black line, and some of it gets reflected, that’s the red wiggle, and some gets through but not as much which is why the second green line is skinny. The fast‑slow marks are about wave speeds but it’s why the skinny wiggle runs at that weird angle. We good?”

“Mostly, I guess, but where does the polarization come in?”

“I’m gettin’ there. That’s what the dots are about. I’m gonna pretend that all those different polarization directions boil down to either up‑and‑down, that’s the wiggles, and side to side, that’s the dots. Think of the dots as wiggle coming out and going back in cross‑ways to the up‑and‑down. It’s OK to do that, right, Sy?”

“Done in the best families, Vinnie. Charge on.”

“So anyway, the up‑and‑down field can sink into the window glass and mess around with the atoms in there. They pass some of the energy down through the glass but the rest of it gets gets thrown back out like I show it.”

“But there’s no dots going down.”

“Ah-HAH! The side‑to‑side field doesn’t sink into the glass at all ’cause the atoms ain’t set up right for that. That side‑to‑side energy bounces back out and hits you in the eyes which is why you use those polarizing sunglasses.”

“But how do those glasses work is what I asked to begin with.”

“That’s all I got, Sy, your turn.”

“Nice job, Vinnie. How they cut the glare, Mr Feder, is by blocking only Vinnie’s side‑to‑side waves. Glare is mostly polarized light reflected off of horizontal surfaces like water and roadway. Block that and you’re happy. How they work is by selective absorption. The lenses are made of long, skinny molecules stretched out in parallel and doped with iodine molecules. Iodine’s a big, mushy atom with lots of loosely-held electrons, able to absorb many frequencies but only some polarizations. If a light wave passes by jiggling in the wrong direction, its energy gets slurped. No more glare.”

~~ Rich Olcott