Carefully Considered Indirection

“C’mon, Vinnie, you’re definitely doing Sy stuff. I ask you a question about how come rockets can get to the Moon easier than partway and you go round the barn with ballistics and cruisers. Stop dodging.”

“Now, Al, Vinnie’s just giving you background, right. Vinnie?”

“Right, Sy, though I gotta admit a lot of our talks have gone that way. So what’s your answer?”

“Nice try, Vinnie. You’re doing fine, so keep at it.”

“Okay. <deep breath> It has to do with vectors, Al, combination of amount and direction, like if you’re going 3 miles north that’s a vector. You good with that?”

“If you say so.”

“I do. Then you can combine vectors, like if you’re going 3 miles north and at the same time 4 miles east you’ve gone 5 miles northeast.”

“That’s a 3-4-5 right triangle, even I know that one. But that 5 miles northeast is a vector, too, right?”

“You got the idea. Now think about fueling a rocket going up to meet the ISS.”

“Sy said it’s 250 miles up, so we need enough fuel to punch that far against Earth’s gravity.”

“Not even close. If the rocket just went straight up, it’d come straight down again. You need some sideways momentum, enough so when you fall you miss the Earth.”

“Miss the Earth? Get outta here!”

“No, really. Hey, Sy, you tell him.”

“Vinnie’s right, Al. That insight goes back to Newton. He proposed a thought experiment about building a powerful cannon to fire horizontally from a very tall mountain. <sketching on paper napkin> A ball shot with a normal load of powder might hit the adjacent valley. Shoot with more and more powder, balls would fly farther and farther before hitting the Earth. Eventually you fire with a charge so powerful the ball flies far enough that its fall continues all around the planet. Unless the cannon blows up or the ball shatters.”

“That’s my point, Al. See, Newton’s cannon balls started out going flat, not up. To get up and into orbit you need up and sideways velocity, like on the diagonal. You gotta calculate fuel to do both at the same time.”

“So what’s that got to do with easier to get to the Moon than into orbit?”

“‘S got everything to do with that. Not easier, though, just if you aim right the vectors make it simpler and cheaper to carry cargo to the Moon than into Earth orbit.”

“So you just head straight for the Moon without going into orbit!”

“Not quite that simple, but you got the general idea. Remember when I brought that kid’s top in here and me and Sy talked about centrifugal force?”

“Do I? And I made you clean up all those spit-wads.”

“Yeah, well, suppose that cannon’s at the Equator <adding dotted lines to Sy’s diagram> and aimed with the Earth’s spin and suppose we load in enough powder for the ball to go straight horizontal, which is what it’d do with just centrifugal force.”

“If I’m standing by the cannon it’d look like the ball’s going sideways.”

“Yup. Basically, you get the up‑ness for free. We’re not talking about escape velocity here, that’s different. We’re talking about the start of a Hohmann orbit.”

“Who’s Hohmann?”

“German engineer. When he was a kid he read sci‑fi like the rest of us and that got him into the amateur rocketry scene. Got to be a leader in the German amateur rocket club, published a couple of leading‑edge rocket science books in the 1920s but dropped out of the field when the Nazis started rolling and he figured they’d build rocket weapons. Anyhow, he invented this orbit that starts off tangent to a circle around one planet or something, follows an ellipse to end tangent to a circle around something else. Smooth transitions at both ends, cheapest way you can get from here to there. Kinks in the routing cost you fuel and cargo capacity to turn. Guy shoulda patented it.”

“Wait, an orbit’s a mathematical abstraction, not a thing.”

“Patent Office says it’s a business method, Sy. Check out PAS-22, for example.”

“Incredible.”

~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Ken, who asked another question.

The Cold Equation

Afternoon break time. I’m enjoying one of Al’s strawberry scones when he plops one of his astronomy magazines on Vinnie’s table. “Vinnie, you bein’ a pilot and all, could you ‘splain some numbers which I don’t understand? It’s this statistics table for super‑heavy lifter rockets. I think it says that some of them can carry more cargo to the Moon than if they only go partway there. That’s nuts, right?”

Vehicle Payload to LEO GSO Payload TLI Payload
Energia 100 20 32
Falcon Heavy 64 27 28
NASA’s SLS 1b 105 42
SpaceX Starship 100
Yenisei 103 26 28
Yenisei Don 140 30 33
LEO=Low Earth Orbit, GSO = Geosynchronous Orbit, TLI=Trans Lunar Injection
Payloads in metric tons (megagrams)

“Lemme think … LEO is anywhere up to about 2000 kilometers. GSO is about 36000 kilometers out, so it makes sense that with the same amount of fuel and stuff you can’t lift as much out there. TLI … that’s not to the Moon, that’s to a point where you can switch from orbiting the Earth to orbiting the Moon so, yeah, that’s gonna be way farther out, like a couple hundred thousand kilometers or more depending.”

“Depending on what?”

“Oh, lots of things — fuel, orbit, design philosophy—”

“Now wait, you been taking Sy lessons. Philosophy?”

“No, really. There’s two basic ways to do space travel, either you’re ballistic or you’re cruising. All the spacecraft blast‑offs you’ve seen are ballistic. Use up most of your fuel to get a good running start and then basically coast the rest of the way to your target. Ballistic means you gotta aim careful from the get‑go. That’s the difference between ballistic and cruise missiles. Cruisers keep burning fuel and accelerating. That lets ’em change directions whenever.”

“Cruisers are better, right, so you can point at different asteroids? I read about that weird orbit they had to send the Lucy mission on.”

“Actually, Lucy used the ballistic‑and‑coast model. NASA spent a bucketful of computer time calculating exactly where to point and when to lift off so Lucy could visit all those asteroids.”

“Why not just use a cruise strategy and skip around?”

“Cruisers are just fine once you’re up between planets. NASA’s Dawn mission to the Vesta and Ceres asteroids used a cruise drive — but only after the craft rode a boostered Delta‑II ballistic up to low Earth orbit. Nine boosters worth of ballistic. The problem is you’re caught in a double bind. You need to burn fuel to get the payload off the planet, but you need to burn fuel to get the fuel off, too. ‘S called diminishing returns. Hey, Sy, what’s that guy’s name?”

“Which guy?”

“The rocket equation guy, the Russian.”

“Ah. Tsiolkovsky. Lived in a log cabin but wrote a lot about space travel. Everything from rocket theory to airlocks and space stations. What about him?”

“I’m tellin’ Al about rockets. Tsiol… That guy’s equation says if you know how much you need to change velocity and you know your payload mass, you can figure how much fuel you need to burn to do that.”

“With some conditions, Vinnie. There’s a multiplier in there you have to calibrate for fuel, engine design. even whether you’re traveling through water or vacuum or different atmospheres. Then, the equation doesn’t figure in gravity. Oh, and it only works with straight‑line velocity change. If you want to change direction you need to use calculus to figure the—”

“Hey, I just realized why they use boosters!”

“Why’s that, Al?”

“The gravity thing. Gravity’s strongest near the Earth, right? Once the beast gets high enough, you’re not fighting as much gravity. You don’t need the extra power.”

“True, but that’s not the whole picture. The ISS orbit’s about 250 miles up, which puts it about 4250 miles from the planet’s center. Newton’s Law of Gravity says the field all the way up there is still about 88% of what’s at the surface. The real reason is that a booster’s basically a fuel tank. Once you’ve burned the fuel you don’t need the tank and that’s a lot of weight to carry for nothing.”

“Right, tank and engine don’t count as payload so dump ’em.”

“Seems cold‑hearted, though.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Science or Not-science?

Vinnie trundles up to Jeremy’s gelato stand. “I’ll take a Neapolitan, one each chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.”

“Umm… Eddie forgot to order more three-dip cones and I’m all out. I can give you three separate cones or a dish.”

“The dish’ll be fine, way less messy. Hey, Sy, I got a new theory.”

“Mm… Unless you’ve got a lot of firm evidence it can’t be a theory. Could be a conjecture or if it’s really good maybe a hypothesis. What’s your idea?”

“Thing is, Sy, there can’t be any evidence. Ever. That’s the fun of it.”

“Conjecture, then. C’mon, out with it.”

“Well, you remember all that stuff about how time bends toward a black hole’s mass and that’s how gravity works?”

“Sure, except it’s not just black holes. Time bends the same way toward every mass, it’s just more intense with black holes.”

“Understood. Anyway, we talked once about how stars collapse to form black holes but that’s only up to a certain size, I forget what—”

“Ten to fifteen solar masses. Beyond that the collapse goes supernova and doesn’t leave much behind but dust.”

“Right. So you said we don’t know how to make size‑30 black holes like the first pair that LIGO found.”

“We’ve got a slew of hypotheses but the jury’s still out.”

“That’s what I hear. Well, if we don’t even know that much then we for‑sure don’t know how to make the supermassive black hole the science magazines say we’ve got in the middle of the Milky Way.”

“We’ve found that nearly every galaxy has one, some a lot bigger than ours. Why that’s true is one of the biggest mysteries in astrophysics.”

“And I know the answer! What if those supermassive guys started out as just big lumps of dark matter and then they wrapped themselves in more dark matter and everything else?”

“Cute idea, but the astronomy data says we can account for galaxy shapes and behavior if they’re embedded at the center of a spherical halo of dark matter.”

“Not a problem, Sy. Look at the numbers. Our superguy is a size‑4‑million, right? The whole Milky Way’s a billion times heavier than that. Tuck an extra billionth into the middle of the swirl and the stars wouldn’t see the difference.”

“Okay, but there’s more data that says dark matter spreads itself pretty evenly, doesn’t seem to clump up like you need it to.”

“Yeah, but maybe there’s two kinds, one kind clumpy and the other kind not. Only way to find out is to look inside a superguy but time blocks information flow out of there. So no‑one can say I’m wrong!”

“But sir, that’s not science!”

“Why not, kid?”

“The unit my philosophy class did on Popper.”

“The stuff you sniff or the penguins guy?”

“Neither, Karl Popper the philosopher. Dr Crom really likes Popper’s work so we spent a lot of time reading him. Popper was one of the Austrian intellectuals the Nazis chased out when they took power in the 1930s. Popper traveled around, wound up in New Zealand where he wrote his Open Society book that shredded Hegel and Marx. Those sections were fun reading even if they were wordy. Anyway, one of Popper’s big things was the demarcation problem, how to tell the difference between what’s a scientific assertion and what’s not. He decided the best criterion was if there’s a way to prove the assertion false. Not whether it was false but whether it could at least be tested. I was surprised by how many goofy things the Greeks said that would qualify as Popper‑scientific even though they were just made up and have been proven wrong.”

“Well there you go, Vinnie. Physics and the Universe don’t let us see into a supermassive black hole, therefore your idea isn’t testable even in principle. Jeremy’s right, it’s not scientific even though it’s all dressed up in a Science suit.”

“I can still call it a conjecture, though, right, Sy?”

“Conjecture it is. Might even be true, but we’ll never know unless we somehow find out something about dark matter that surprises us. We’ve been surprised a lot, though, so don’t give up hope.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Chocolate, Mint And Notation

“But calculus, Mr Moire. Why do they insist we learn calculus? You said that Newton and Leibniz started it but why did they do it?”

“Scoop me a double-dip chocolate-mint gelato, Jeremy, and I’ll tell you about an infamous quarrel. You named Newton first. I expect most Europeans would name Leibniz first.”

“Here’s your gelato. What does geography have to do with it?”

“Thanks. Mmm, love this combination. Part of the geography thing is international history, part of it is personality and part of it is convenience. England and continental Europe have a history of rivalry in everything from the arts to trade to outright warfare. Each naturally tends to favor its own residents and institutions. Some people say that the British Royal Society was founded to compete with the French philosophical clubs. Maybe England’s king appointed Newton as the society’s President to upgrade the rivalry. Dicey choice. From what I’ve read, Newton’s didn’t hate everybody, he just didn’t like anybody. But somehow he ran that group effectively despite his tendency to go full‑tilt against anyone who disagreed with his views.”

“Leibniz did the same thing on the European side?”

“No, quite the opposite. There was no pre‑existing group for him to head up and he didn’t start one. Instead, he served as a sort of Information Central while working as diplomat and counselor for a series of rulers of various countries. He carried on a lively correspondence with pretty much everyone doing science or philosophy. He kept the world up to date and in the process inserted his own ideas and proposals into the conversation. Unlike Newton, Leibniz was a friendly soul, constantly looking for compromise. Their separate calculus notations are a great example.”

“Huh? Didn’t everyone use the same letters and stuff?”

“The letters, yeah mostly, but the stuff part was a long time coming. What’s calculus about?”

“All I’ve seen so far is proofs and recipes for integrating different function types. Nothing about what it’s about.”

Newton approximates arc ABCDEF.

<sigh> “That’s because you’re being taught by a mathematician. Calculus is about change and how to handle it mathematically. That was a hot topic back in the 1600s and it’s still central to Physics. Newton’s momentum‑acceleration‑force perspective led him to visualize things flowing with time. His Laws of Motion made it easy to calculate straight‑line flows but what to do about curves? His solution was to break the curve into tiny segments he called fluxions. He considered each fluxion to be a microscopic straight line that existed for an infinitesimal time interval. A fluxion’s length was its time interval multiplied by the velocity along it. His algebraic shorthand for ‘per time‘ was to put a dot over whatever letter he was using for distance. Velocity along x was . Acceleration is velocity change per time so he wrote that with a double dot like . His version of calculus amounted to summing fluxion lengths across the total travel time.”

“But that only does time stuff. What about how, say, potential energy adds up across a distance?”

“Excellent question. Newton’s notation wasn’t up to that challenge, but Leibniz developed something better.”

“He copied what Newton was doing and generalized it somehow.”

“Uh, no. Newton claimed Leibniz had done that but Leibniz swore he’d been working entirely independently. Two lines of evidence. First, Newton was notoriously secretive about his work. He held onto his planetary orbit calculations for years before Halley convinced him to publish. Second, Leibniz and other European thinkers came to the problem with a different strategy. Descartes invented Cartesian coordinates a half‑century before. That invention naturally led the Europeans to plot anything against anything. Newton’s fluxions combined tiny amounts of distance and time; Leibniz and company split the two dimensions, one increment along each component. Leibniz tried out a dozen different notations for the increment. After much discussion he finally settled on a simple d. The increment along x is dx, but x could be anything quantitative. dy/dx quantifies y‘s change with x.”

“Ah, the increments are the differentials we see in class. But those all come from limit processes.”

“Leibniz’ d symbol and its powerful multi‑dimensional extensions carry that implication. More poetry.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Wait For It

“So, Jeremy, have I convinced you that there’s poetry in Physics?”

“Not quite, Mr Moire. Symbols can carry implications and equation syntax is like a rhyme scheme, okay, but what about the larger elements we’ve studied like forms and metaphors?”

“Forms? Hoo boy, do we have forms! Books, theses, peer-reviewed papers, conference presentations, poster sessions, seminars, the list goes on and that’s just to show results. Research has forms — theoretical, experimental, and computer simulation which is sort of halfway between. Even within the theory division we have separate forms for solving equations to get mathematically exact solutions, versus perturbation techniques that get there by successive approximations. On the experimental side—”

“I get the picture, Mr Moire. Metaphorically there’s lots of poetry in Physics.”

“Sorry, you’re only partway there. My real point is that Physics is metaphor, a whole cascade of metaphors.”

“Ha, that’s a metaphor!”

“Caught me. But seriously, Science in general and Physics in particular underwent a paradigm shift in Galileo’s era. Before his century, a thousand years of European thought was rooted in Aristotle’s paradigm that centered on analysis and deduction. Thinkers didn’t much care about experiment or observing the physical world. No‑one messed with quantitative observations except for the engineers who had to build things that wouldn’t fall down. Things changed when Tycho Brahe and Galileo launched the use of numbers as metaphors for phenomena.”

“Oh, yeah, Galileo and the Leaning Tower experiment.”

“Which may or may not have happened. Reports differ. Either way, his ‘all things fall at the same speed‘ conclusion was based on many experimental trials where he rolled balls of different material, sizes and weights down a smooth trough and timed each roll.”

“That’d have to be a long trough. I read how he used to count his pulse beats to measure time. One or two seconds would be only one or two beats, not much precision.”

“True, except that he used water as a metaphor for time. His experiments started with a full jug of water piped to flow into an empty basin which he’d weighed beforehand. His laboratory arrangement opened a valve in the water pipe when he released the ball. It shut the valve when the ball crossed a finish line. After calibration, the weight of released water represented the elapsed time, down to a small fraction of a second. Distance divided by time gave him speed and he had his experimental data.”

“Pretty smart.”

“His genius was in devising quantitative challenges to metaphor‑based suppositions. His paradigm of observation, calculation and experimental testing far outlasted the traditionalist factions who tried to suppress his works. Of course that was after a century when Renaissance navigators and cartographers produced maps as metaphors for oceans and continents.”

“Wait, Mr Moire. In English class we learned that a metaphor says something is something else but an analogy is when you treat something like something else. Water standing for time, measurements on a map standing for distances — aren’t those analogies rather than metaphors?”

“Good point. But the distinction gets hazy when things get abstract. Take energy, for example. It’s not an object or even a specific kind of motion like a missile trajectory or an ocean wave. Energy’s a quantity that we measure somewhere somehow and then claim that the same quantity is conserved when it’s converted or transferred somewhere else. That’s not an analogy, it’s a metaphor for a whole parade of ways that energy can be stored or manifested. Thermodynamics and quantum mechanics depend on that metaphor. You can’t do much anywhere in Physics without paying some attention to it. People worry about that, though.”

“Why’s that?”

“We don’t really understand why energy and our other fundamental metaphors work as well as they do. No metaphor is perfect, there are always discrepancies, but Physics turns out to be amazingly exact. Chemistry equations balance to within the accuracy of their measuring equipment. Biology’s too complex to mathematize but they’re making progress. Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner once wrote a paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in The Natural Sciences.’ It’s a concern.”

“Well, after all that, there’s only one thing to say. If you’re in Physics, metaphors be with you.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Making Things Simpler

“How about a pumpkin spice gelato, Mr Moire?”

“I don’t think so, Jeremy. I’m a traditionalist. A double‑dip of pistachio, please.”

“Coming right up, sir. By the way, I’ve been thinking about the Math poetry you find in the circular and hyperbolic functions. How about what you’d call Physics poetry?”

“Sure. Starting small, Physics has symmetries for rhymes. If you can pivot an experiment or system through some angle and get the same result, that’s rotational symmetry. If you can flip it right‑to‑left that’s parity symmetry. I think of a symmetry as like putting the same sound at the end of each line in rhymed verse. Physicists have identified dozens of symmetries, some extremely abstract and some fundamental to how we understand the Universe. Our quantum theory for electrons in atoms is based on the symmetries of a sphere. Without those symmetries we wouldn’t be able to use Schrodinger’s equation to understand how atoms work.”

“Symmetries as rhymes … okaaayy. What else?”

“You mentioned the importance of word choice in poetry. For the Physics equivalent I’d point to notation. You’ve heard about the battle between Newton and Leibniz about who invented calculus. In the long run the algebraic techniques that Leibniz developed prevailed over Newton’s geometric ones because Leibniz’ way of writing math was far simpler to read, write and manipulate — better word choice. Trying to read Newton’s Principia is painful, in large part because Euler hadn’t yet invented the streamlined algebraic syntax we use today. Newton’s work could have gone faster and deeper if he’d been able to communicate with Euler‑style equations instead of full sentences.”

“Oiler‑style?”

“Leonhard Euler, though it’s pronounced like ‘oiler‘. Europe’s foremost mathematician of the 18th Century. Much better at math than he was at engineering or court politics — both the Russian and Austrian royal courts supported him but they decided the best place for him was the classroom and his study. But while he was in there he worked like a fiend. There was a period when he produced more mathematics literature than all the rest of Europe. Descartes outright rejected numbers involving ‑1, labeled them ‘imaginary.’ Euler considered ‑1 a constant like any other, gave it the letter i and proceeded to build entire branches of math based upon it. Poor guy’s vision started failing in his early 30s — I’ve often wondered whether he developed efficient notational conventions as a defense so he could see more meaning at a glance.”

“He invented all those weird squiggles in Math and Physics books that aren’t even Roman or Greek letters?”

“Nowhere near all of them, but some important ones he did and he pointed the way for other innovators to follow. A good symbol has a well‑defined meaning, but it carries a load of associations just like words do. They lurk in the back of your mind when you see it. π makes you think of circles and repetitive function like sine waves, right? There’s a fancy capital‑R for ‘the set of all real numbers‘ and a fancy capital‑Z for ‘the set of all integers.’ The first set is infinitely larger than the second one. Each symbol carries implications abut what kind of logic is valid nearby and what to be suspicious of. Depends on context, of course. Little‑c could be either speed‑of‑light or a triangle’s hypotenuse so defining and using notation properly is important. Once you know a symbol’s precise meaning, reading an equation is much like reading a poem whose author used exactly the right words.”

“Those implications help squeeze a lot of meaning into not much space. That’s the compactness I like in a good poem.”

“It’s been said that a good notation can drive as much progress in Physics as a good experiment. I’m not sure that’s true but it certainly helps. Much of my Physics thinking is symbol manipulation. Give me precise and powerful symbols and I can reach precise and powerful conclusions. Einstein turned Physics upside down when he wrote the thirteen symbols his General Relativity Field Equation use. In his incredibly compact notation that string of symbols summarizes sixteen interconnected equations relating mass‑energy’s distribution to distorted spacetime and vice‑versa. Beautiful.”

“Beautiful, maybe, but cryptic.”

~~ Rich Olcott

DARTing to A Conclusion

The park’s trees are in brilliant Fall colors, the geese in the lake dabble about as I walk past but then, “Hey Moire, I gotta question!”

“Good morning, Mr Feder. What can I do for you?”

“NASA’s DART mission to crash into Diddy’s mos’ asteroid—”

“The asteroid’s name is Didymos, Mr Feder, and DART was programmed to crash into its moon Dimorphos, not into the asteroid itself.”

“Whatever. How’d they know it was gonna hit the sunny side so we could see it? If it hits in the dark, nobody knows what happened. They sent that rocket up nearly a year ago, right? How’d they time that launch just right? Besides, I thought we had Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravity to figure orbits and forces. Why this big‑dollar experiment to see if a rocket shot would move the thing? Will it hit us?”

“You’re in good form today, Mr Feder.” <unholstering Old Reliable> “Let me pull some facts for you. Ah, Didymos’ distance from the Sun ranges between 1.01 and 2.27 astronomical units. Earth’s at 1.00 AU or 93 million miles, which means that the asteroid’s orbit is 930 000 miles farther out than ours, four times our distance to the Moon. That’s just orbits; Earth is practically always somewhere else than directly under Didymos’ point of closest approach. Mm… also, DART flew outward from Earth’s orbit so if the impact has any effect on the Didymos‑Dimorphos system it’ll be to push things even farther away from the Sun and us. No, I’m not scared, are you?”

“Who me? I’m from Jersey; scare is normal so we just shrug it off. So why the experiment? Newton’s not good enough?”

“Newton’s just fine, but collisions are more complicated than people think. Well, people who’ve never played pool.”

“That’s our national sport in Jersey.”

“Oh, right, so you already know about one variable we can’t be sure of. When the incoming vector doesn’t go through the target’s center of mass it exerts torque on the target.”

“We call that ‘puttin’ English on it.'”

“Same thing. If the collision is off‑center some of the incoming projectile’s linear momentum becomes angular momentum in the target object. On a pool table a simple Newtonian model can’t account for frictional torque between spinning balls and the table. The balls don’t go where the model predicts. There’s negligible friction in space, you know, but spin from an off‑center impact would still waste linear momentum and reduce the effect of DART’s impact. But there’s another, bigger variable that we didn’t think much about before we actually touched down on a couple of asteroids.”

“And that is…?”

“Texture. We’re used to thinking of an asteroid as just a solid lump of rock. It was a surprise when Ryugu and Bennu turned out to be loose collections of rocks, pebbles and dust all held together by stickiness and not much gravity. You hit that and surface things just scatter. There’s little effect on the rest of the mass. Until we do the experiment on a particular object we just don’t know whether we’d be able to steer it away from an Earth‑bound orbit.”

“Okay, but what about the sunny‑side thing?”

“Time for more facts.” <tapping on Old Reliable> “Basically, you’re asking what are the odds the moonlet is in eclipse when DART arrives on the scene. Suppose its orbit is in the plane of the ecliptic. Says here Dimorphos’ orbital radius is 1190 meters, which means its orbit is basically a circle 3740 meters long. The thing is approximately a cylinder 200 meters long and 150 meters in diameter. Say the cylinder is pointed along the direction of travel. It occupies (200m/3740m)=5% of its orbit, so there’s a 5% chance it’s dark, 95% chance it’s sunlit.”

“Not a bad bet.”

“The real odds are even better. The asteroid casts a shadow about 800 meters across. Says here the orbital plane is inclined 169° to the ecliptic so the moonlet cycles up and down. At that tilt and 1190 meters from Didymos, 200‑meter Dimorphos dodges the shadow almost completely. No eclipses. DART’s mission ends in sunlight.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to my brother Ken, who asked the question but more nicely.

Math Poetry

Eddie serves a good pizza. I amble over to the gelato stand for a chaser. “Evening, Jeremy. You’re looking a little distraught.”

“I am, Mr Moire. Just don’t ask me to quantify it! Math is getting me down. Why do they shove so much of it at us? You don’t put much math into your posts and they make sense mostly.”

“Thanks for the mostly. … Do you enjoy poetry?”

“Once I read some poems I liked. Except in English class. They spend too much time classifying genre and rhyme scheme instead of just looking at what the poet wrote. All that gets in the way.”

“Interesting. What is it that you like about poetry?”

“Mmm, part of it is how it can imply things without really saying them, part of it is how compact a really good one is. I like when they cram the maximum impact into the fewest possible words — take out one word and the whole thing falls apart. That’s awesome when it works.”

“Well, how does it work?”

“Oh, there’s lots of techniques. Metaphor’s a biggie — making one thing stand for something else. Word choice, too — an unexpected word or one with several meanings. Sometimes it’s a challenge finding the word that has just the right rhythm and message.”

“Ah, you write, too. When you compose something, do you use English or Navajo?”

“Whichever fits my thought better. Each language is better at some things, worse at others. A couple of times I’ve used both together even though only rez kids would understand the mix.”

“Makes sense. You realize, of course, that we’ve got a metaphor going here.”

“We do? What standing for what?”

“Science and Poetry. I’ve often said that Physics is poetry with numbers. Math is as much a language as English and Navajo. It has its own written and spoken forms just like they do and people do poetry with it. Like them, it’s precise in some domains and completely unable to handle others. Leaning math is like learning a very old language that’s had time to acquire new words and concepts. No wonder learning it is a struggle.”

“Poetry in math? That’s a stretch, Mr Moire.”

“Prettiest example I can think of quickly is rhyming between the circular and hyperbolic trigonometric systems. The circular system’s based on the sine and cosine. The tangent and such are all built from them.”

“We had those in class — I’ll remember ‘opposite over hypotenuse‘ forever and I got confused by all the formulas — but why do you call them circular and what’s ‘hyperbolic‘ about?”

“Here, let me use Ole Reliable to show you some pictures. I’m sure you recognize the wavy sine and cosine graphs in the circular system. The hyperbolic system is also based on two functions, ‘hyperbolic sine‘ and ‘hyperbolic cosine,’ known in the trade as ‘sinh‘ and ‘cosh.’ They don’t look very similar to the other set, do they?”

“Sure don’t.”

“But for every circular function and formula there’s a hyperbolic partner. Now watch what happens when we combine a sine and cosine. I’ll do it two ways, a simple sum and the Pythagorean sum.”

“Pythagorean?”

“Remember his a2+b2=c2? The orange curve comes from that, see in the legend underneath?”

“Oh, like a right triangle’s hypotenuse. But the orange curve is just a flat straight line.”

“True, as we’ve known since Euler’s day. Are you familiar with polar coordinates?”

“A little. There’s a center, one coordinate is distance from the center, and the other coordinate is the angle you’ve rotated something, right?”

“Good enough. Here’s what the same two combinations look like in polar coordinates..”

“Wow. Two circles. I never would have guessed that.”

“Mm-hm. Check the orange circle, the one that was just a level straight line on the simple graph. It’s centered on the origin. That tells us the sum of the squares is invariant, doesn’t change with the angle.”

“Do the hyperbolic thingies make hyperbolas when you add them that way?”

“Not really, just up-curving lines. The plots for their differences are interesting though. For these guys the Pythagorean difference is invariant. Einstein’s relativity is based on that property.”

“Pretty, like you say.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Imagine A Skyrocket Inside A Black Hole

Vinnie’s never been a patient man. “We’re still waiting, Sy. What’s the time-cause-effect thing got to do with black holes and information?”

“You’ve got most of the pieces, Vinnie. Put ’em together yourself.”

“Geez, I gotta think? Lessee, what do I know about black holes? Way down inside there’s a huge mass in a teeny singularity space. Gravity’s so intense that relativity theory and quantum mechanics both give up. That can’t be it. Maybe the disk and jets? No, ’cause some holes don’t have them, I think. Gotta be the Event Horizon which is where stuff can’t get out from. How’m I doing, Sy?”

“You’re on the right track. Keep going.”

“Okay, so we just talked about how mass scrambles spacetime, tilts the time axis down to point towards where mass is so axes stop being perpendicular and if you’re near a mass then time moves you even closer to it unless you push away and that’s how gravity works. That’s part of it, right?”

“As rain. So mass and gravity affect time, then what?”

“Ah, Einstein said that cause‑and‑effect runs parallel with time ’cause you can’t have an effect before what caused it. You’re saying that if gravity tilts time, it’ll tilt cause‑and‑effect?”

“So far as we know.”

“That’s a little weasel-ish.”

“Can’t help it. The time‑directed flow of causality is a basic assumption looking for counter‑examples. No‑one’s come up with a good one, though there’s a huge literature of dubious testimonials. Something called a ‘closed timelike curve‘ shows up in some solutions to Einstein’s equations for extreme conditions like near or inside a black hole. Not a practical concern at our present stage of technology — black holes are out of reach and the solutions depend on weird things like matter with negative mass. So anyhow, what happens to causality where gravity tilts time?”

“I see where you’re going. If time’s tilted toward the singularity inside a black hole, than so is cause‑and‑effect. Nothing in there can cause something to happen outside. Hey, bring up that OVR graphics app on Old Reliable, I’ll draw you a picture.”

“Sure.”

“See, way out in space here this circle’s a frame where time, that’s the red line, is perpendicular to the space dimensions, that’s the black line, but it’s way out in space so there’s no gravity and the black line ain’t pointing anywhere in particular. Red line goes from cause in the middle to effect out beyond somewhere. Then inside the black hole here’s a second frame. Its black line is pointing to where the mass is and time is tilted that way too and nothing’s getting away from there.”

“Great. Now add one more frame right on the border of your black hole. Make the black line still point toward the singularity but make the red line tangent to the circle.”

“Like this?”

“Perfect. Now why’d we put it there?”

“You’re saying that somewhere between cause-effect going wherever and cause-effect only going deeper into the black hole there’s a sweet spot where it doesn’t do either?”

“Exactly, and that somewhere is the Event Horizon. Suppose we’re in a mothership and you’re in our shuttlecraft in normal space. You fire off a skyrocket. Both spacecraft see sparks going in every direction. If you dive below an Event Horizon and fire another skyrocket, in your frame you’d see a normal starburst display. If we could check that from the mothership frame, we’d see all the sparks headed inward but we can’t because they’re all headed inward. All the sparkly effects take place closer in.”

“How about lighting a firework on the Horizon?”

“Good luck with that. Mathematically at least, the boundary is infinitely thin.”

“So bottom line, light’s trapped inside the black hole because time doesn’t let the photons have an effect further outward than they started. Do I have that right?”

“For sure. In fact, you can even think of the hole as an infinite number of concentric shells, each carrying a causality sign reading ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here‘. So what’s that say about information?”

“Hah, we’re finally there. Got it. Information can generate effects. If time can trap cause‑effect, then it can trap information, too.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Tilting at Black Holes

“What’s the cause-effect-time thing got to do with black holes and information?”

“We’re getting there, Al. What happens to spacetime near a black hole?”

“Everybody knows that, Sy, spacetime gets stretched and squeezed until there’s infinite time dilation at the Event Horizon.”

“As usual, Vinnie, what everybody knows isn’t quite what is. Yes, Schwarzschild’s famous solution includes that Event Horizon infinity but it’s an artifact of his coordinate system. Al, you know about coordinate systems?”

“I’m a star-watcher, Sy. Sure, I know about latitude and longitude, declination and right ascension, all that stuff no problem.”

“Good. Well, Einstein wrote his General Relativity equations using generalized coordinates, like x,y,z but with no requirement that they be straight lines or at right angles. Schwarzschild solved the equations for a non‑rotating sphere so naturally he used spherical coordinates — radius, latitude and longitude. Since then other people have solved the equations for more complicated cases using more complicated coordinate systems. Their solutions don’t have that infinity.”

“No infinity?”

“Not that one, anyhow. The singularity at the hole’s geometric center is a real thing, not an artifact. So’s a general Event Horizon, but it’s not quite where Schwarzschild said it should be and it doesn’t have quite the properties that everybody thinks they know it has. It’s still weird, though.”

“How so?”

“First thing you have to understand is that when you get close to a black hole, you don’t feel any different. Except for the spaghettification, of course.”

“It’s frames again, ain’t it?”

“With black holes it’s always frames, Vinnie. If you’re living in a distorted space you won’t notice it. Whirl a meter‑long sword around, you’d always see it as a meter long. A distant observer would see you and everything around you as being distorted right along with your space. They’ll see that sword shrink and grow as it passes through different parts of the distortion.”

“Weird.”

“We’re just getting started, Al. Time’s involved, too. <grabbing a paper napkin and sketching> Here’s three axes, just like x,y,z except one’s time, the G one points along a gravity field, and the third one is perpendicular to the other two. By the way, Al, great idea, getting paper napkins printed like graph paper.”

“My location’s between the Physics and Astronomy buildings, Sy. Gotta consider my clientele. Besides, I got a deal on the shipment. What’s the twirly around that third axis?”

“It’s a reminder that there’s a couple of space dimensions that aren’t in the picture. Now suppose the red ball is a shuttlecraft on an exploration mission. The blue lines are its frame. The thick vertical red line shows it’s not moving because there’s no spatial extent along G. <another paper napkin, more sketching> This second drawing is the mothership’s view from a comfortable distance of the shuttlecraft near a black hole.”

“You’ve got the time axis tilted. What’s that about?”

“Spacetime being distorted by the black hole. You’ve heard Vinnie and me talk about time dilation and space compression like they’re two different phenomena. Thing is, they’re two sides of the same coin. On this graph that shows up as time tilted to mix in with the BH direction.”

“How about those twirly directions?”

“Vinnie, you had to ask. In the simple case where everything’s holding still and you’re not too close to the black hole, those two aren’t much affected. If the big guy’s spinning or if the Event Horizon spans a significant amount of your sky, all four dimensions get stressed. Let’s keep things simple, okay?”

“Fine. So the time axis is tilted, so what?”

“We in the distant mothership see the shuttlecraft moving along pure tilted time. The shuttlecraft doesn’t. The dotted red lines mark its measurements in its blue‑line personal frame. Shuttlecraft clocks run slower than the mothership’s. Worse, it’s falling toward the black hole.”

“Can’t it get away?”

“Al, it’s a shuttlecraft. It can just accelerate to the left.”

“If it’s not too close, Vinnie. The accelerative force it needs is the product of both masses, divided by the distance squared. Sound familiar?”

“That’s Newton’s Law of Gravity. This is how gravity works?”

“General Relativity cut its teeth on describing that tilt.”

~~ Rich Olcott