Three-speed Transmission

“Have I got this straight, Sy? You’re saying that prisms throw rainbows because light goes slower through glass than in air and that bends the beam, but every frequency lightwave bends a different amount. Also you’re saying all the bending happens when speeds switch at the glass face, not inside the glass. Am I right so far?”

“Perfect, Vinnie, but you skipped an important detail.”

“Which one?”

“Snell’s ‘index of refraction‘, the ratio of wave speed in vacuum to wave speed in the medium. The higher the frequency, the higher the speed in the medium so the index decreases towards 1.0. The definition lets us calculate wave speed in the medium from that frequency’s refraction index. For most materials the index is usually greater than 1.0, meaning that the speed inside the material is usually slower than in space.”

“Still using those ‘most‘ and ‘usually‘ weasel‑words.”

“Guilty as charged, because we’ve finally gotten to the ‘multiple speeds of light‘ thing. Which means I need more precise wording. The wave speed we’ve been talking about so far applies to a specific part of the wave, say the peak or trough. Those are wave phases, so I’m going to call that speed the ‘phase speed‘, OK?”

“Fine with me.”

“Good, because the second speed is different. Among his many important contributions, Lord Rayleigh pointed out that you can’t have a pulse that’s one pure frequency. A single‑frequency wave never starts and never ends. Do you remember the time I combined waves to draw a camel?”

“You did, mostly, but there was funny stuff at his nose and butt.”

“Because I only included about a hundred component waves. It’d take many more to kill those boundary zig‑zags. Any finite wave has the same issue. Rayleigh said that an individual wave has a phase speed, but any ‘peculiarity,’ like a pulse rise or fall, could only be created by a group of waves. The peculiarity could travel at a different speed from the component waves, like a pair of scissors where the cutting point moves faster than either blade.”

“Sounds like carrier wave and sidebands on my ham radio. But if different frequencies have different speeds they’d get all out of sync with each other. How does a photon stay in one piece?”

“The vacuum is non-dispersive — the photon’s component waves all travel at the same speed and stay together. If a medium absorbs some frequency, that makes it dispersive and that changes things.”

“Ah, that’s why you hedged about transparency.”

“Exactly. Throw in a few absorbing atoms, like cobalt that absorbs red or gold that absorbs blue, and you get interesting effects from your sideband components interacting. Skipping some math, the bottom line is simple and cute. The group speed’s equation is just like the phase speed’s except there’s a positive or negative correction term in the denominator.”

“Sy, I don’t like equations, remember? I suppose f is frequency in your correction term but what’s slope?”

“That’s a measure of how rapidly the index changes as the frequency changes. For most frequencies and most media, the slope is very slightly negative because the index slowly descends towards 1.0 at high energies. The vg fraction’s denominator stays just less than nf so the group goes slightly faster than the phase. Near an absorption line, though, things get sloppy. Waves that are just a little off the absorber’s favorite frequency can still interact with it. That changes their speed and the ‘corrected’ refraction index.”

“Gimme a sec … guess I’m OK with the positive slopes but there’s that yellow part where the slope is negative. Wouldn’t that make the fraction’s bottom smaller and the group speed higher?”

“Certainly. In fact, under the right conditions the denominator can be less than 1.0. That pushes the group speed above c — faster than light in vacuum, even though the component waves all run slower than vacuum lightspeed. It’s only the between‑component out‑of‑syncness relationship that scissors along beyond c.”

“You said there’s a third speed?”

“Signals. In a dispersive medium those sideband waves get chaotic and can’t carry information. Wave theory and Einstein agree — chaos may be able to travel faster than light, but information can’t.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Chasing Rainbows

“C’mon, Sy, Newton gets three cheers for tying numbers to the rainbow’s colors and all that, but what’s it got to do with that three speeds of light thing which is where we started this discussion?”

“Vinnie, they weren’t just numbers, they were angles. The puzzle was why each color was bent to a different degree when entering or leaving the prism. That was an inconvenient truth for Newton.”

“Inconvenient? There’s a loaded word.”

“Indeed. A little context — Newton was in a big brouhaha about whether light was particles or waves. Newton was a particle guy all the way, battling wave theory proponents like Euler and Descartes and their followers on the Continent. Even Hooke in London had a wave theory. Newton’s problem was that his beam deflections happened right at the prism’s air‑glass interfaces.”

“What difference does that … wait, you mean that there’s no bending inside the prism? Light inside still goes straight but in a different direction?”

“That’s it, exactly. The deflection angles are the same, whether the beam hits the prism near the short‑path tip or the long‑path base. No evidence of further deviation inside the prism unless it has bubbles — Newton had to discard or mask off some bad prisms. Explaining the no‑curvature behavior is difficult in a particle framework, easy in a wave framework.”

“Really? I don’t see why.”

Left: faster medium, right: slower medium
Credit: Ulflund, under Creative Commons 1.0

“Suppose light is particles, which by definition are local things affected only by local forces. The medium’s effects on a particle would happen in the bulk material rather than at the interface. The effect would accumulate as the particles travel further through the medium. The bend should be a curve. Unfortunately for Newton, that’s not what his observations showed.”

“OK, scratch particles. Why not scratch waves, too?”

“Waves have no problem with abrupt variation at an interface, They flip immediately to a new stable mode. For example. here’s an animation showing an abrupt speed change at the interface between a fast‑travel medium like air and a slow‑travel medium like glass or water. See how one end of each bar gets slowed down while the other end is still moving at speed? By the time the whole bar is inside, its path has slewed to the refraction angle.”

“Like a car sliding on ice when a rear wheel sticks for an moment, eh Sy?”

“That was not a fun ride, Vinnie.”

“I enjoyed it. Whatever, I get how going air‑to‑glass or vice‑versa can change a beam’s direction. But if everything’s going through the same angle, how do rainbows happen?”

“Everything doesn’t go through the same angle. Frequencies make a difference. Go back to the video and keep your eye on one bar as it sweeps up the interface. See how the sweep’s speed controls the deflection angle?”

“Yeah, if the sweep went slower the beam would get a chance to bend further. Faster sweeps would bend it less. But what could change the sweep speed?

“Two things. One, change the medium to one with a different transmission speed. Two, change the wave itself so it has a different speed. According to Snell’s Law, the important parameter for a pair of media is their ratio of fast‑speed divided by slow‑speed. If the fast medium is a vacuum that ratio is the slow medium’s index of refraction. The greater the index, the greater the bend.”

“Changing the medium doesn’t apply. I got one prism, it’s got one index, but I still get a whole rainbow.”

“Right, rainbows are about how one prism treats a bunch of waves with different time and space frequencies.”

“Space frequency?”

“If you measure a wave in meters it’s cycles per meter.”

“Wavelength upside down. Got it.”

“Whether you figure in frequencies or intervals, the wave speed works out the same.”

“Speed of light, finally.”

“Point is, when a wave goes through any medium, its time frequency doesn’t change but its space frequency does. Interaction with local charge shortens the wavelength. Short‑wavelength blue waves are held back more than long‑wavelength red ones. The different angles make your rainbow. The hold‑back is why refraction indices are usually greater than one.”


~~ Rich Olcott

Through A Prism Brightly

Familiar footsteps outside my office. “C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Sy, gotta minute?”

“Sure, Vinnie, business is slow. What’s up?”

“Business is slow for me, too. I was looking over some of your old posts—”

“That slow, eh?”

“You know it. Anyway, I’m hung up on that video where light’s got two different speeds.”

“Three, really.”

“That’s even worse. What’s the story?”

“Well, first thing, it depends on where the light is. If you’re out in the vacuum, far away from atoms, they’re all the same, c. Simple.”

“Matter messes things up, then.”

“Of course. Our familiar kind of matter, anyway, made of charges like quarks and electrons. Light’s whole job is to interact with charges. When it does, things happen.”

“Sure — photon bangs into a rock, it stops.”

“It’s not that simple. Remember the wave-particle craziness? Light’s a particle at either end of its trip but in between it’s a wave. The wave could reflect off the rock or diffract around it. Interstellar infra-red astronomy depends upon IR scooting around dust particles so we can see the stars behind the dust clouds. What gets interesting is when the light encounters a mostly transparent medium.”

“I get suspicious when you emphasize ‘mostly.’ Mostly how?”

“Transparent means no absorption. The only thing that’s completely transparent is empty space. Anything made of normal matter can’t be completely transparent, because every kind of atom absorbs certain frequencies.”

“Glass is transparent.”

“To visible light, but even that depends on the glass. Ever notice how cheap drinking glasses have a greenish tint when you look down at the rim? Some light absorption, just not very much. Even pure silica glass is opaque beyond the near ultraviolet. … Okay, bear with me on this. Why do you suppose Newton made such a fuss about prisms?”

“Because he saw it made a rainbow in sunlight and thought that was pretty?”

“Nothing so mild. We’re talking Newton here. No, it had to do with one of his famous ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong‘ battles. Aristotle said that sunlight is pure white‑color, and that objects emit various kinds of darkness to overcome the white and produce colors for us. That was academic gospel for 2000 years until Newton decided it was wrong. He went to war with Aristotle using prisms as his primary weapons.”

“So that’s why he invented them?”

“No, no, they’d been around for millennia, ever since humans discovered that prismatic quartz crystals in a beam of sunlight throw rainbows. Newton’s innovation was to use multiple prisms arrayed with lenses and mirrors. His most direct attack on Aristotle used two prisms. He aimed the beam coming out of the first prism onto a reversed second prism. Except for some red and violet fringes at the edges, the light coming out of the second prism matched the original sunlight beam. That proved colors are in the light, not in Aristotle’s darknesses.”

“Newton won. End of story.”

“Not by a long shot. Aristotle had the strength of tradition behind him. A lot of Continental academics and churchmen had built their careers around his works. Newton’s earlier battles had won him many enemies and some grudging respect but few effective allies. Worse, Newton published his experiments and observations in a treatise which he wrote in English instead of the conventional scholarly Latin. Typical Newtonian belligerence, probably. The French academicians reacted by simply rejecting his claims out of hand. It took a generational turnover before his thinking was widely accepted.”

“Where do speeds come into this?”

“Through another experiment in Newton’s Optics treatise. If he used a card with a hole in it to isolate, say, green light in the space between the two prisms, the light beam coming from the second prism was the matching green. No evidence of any other colors. That was an important observation on its own, but Newton’s real genius move was to measure the diffraction angles. Every color had its own angle. No matter the conditions, any particular light color was always bent by the same number of degrees. Newton had put numbers to colors. That laid the groundwork for all of spectroscopic science.”

“And that ties to speed how?”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Neutral Party

“Hi, folks, sorry I’m late to the party. What are we arguing about and which side am I on?”

“Hi, Vinnie. We started out talking about neutrality and Jim proved that we’re electrically neutral otherwise we’d spray ourselves apart because of like‑charge repulsons.”

“Yeah, an’ then we got into the Standard Module picture here and how it’s weird that the electron charge exactly cancels out the quark mixture in a proton even though electrons don’t have quarks and quarks don’t have exact charges.”

Jim’s on it. “Almost, Eddie. Quarks have exact charges, but they’re exact fractions. They just add up when you mix three of them to make a particle. Two of them, sometimes. Up‑quark, up‑quark and down‑quark is two‑thirds plus two‑thirds minus one‑third equals one. That’s one proton, exactly opposing one electron’s charge.”

Vinnie’s good at mental math. “What happens when you mix one‑third plus one‑third minus two‑thirds which is zero?”

“Two downs and an up. That’s a neutron.”

“Ups, downs, electrons, protons, neutrons — except for the neutrino the first column’s pretty much atoms, right? What’s with those other boxes?”

“We only see evidence for the other purple‑box quarks in collider records or nuclear reactions. Same for the muon and tau. They’re all way too unstable to contribute much to anything that hangs around. The guys in the red and gold boxes aren’t building blocks, they’re more like glue that holds everything else together. The green‑box neutrinos at the bottom are just weird and we’ll probably be a long time figuring them out.”

“Says here that neutrinos have zero charge, and so do most of the force thingies. Is that really zero or is it just too small to measure?”

“A true Chemistry‑style question, Susan. Charges we can count but you’re right, energy exchanges in a process have to be measured. The zero charges are really zero. For example, Pauli dreamed up the neutrino as an energy‑accounting trick for a nuclear process where all the charges went to known products but there was energy left over. If they existed at all, neutrinos could carry away that energy but they had to have zero charge. A quarter‑century later we detected some and they fit all the requirements.”

Vinnie perks up. “Zero charge so they doesn’t interact with light, teeny mass per each but there’s a hyper‑gazillion of them out there which oughtta add up to a lot of mass. Could neutrinos be what dark matter is?”

“Some researchers thought that for a while but the idea hasn’t held up to inspection. The neutrinos we know about come to about 1% of dark matter’s mass. Some people think there may be a really heavy fourth kind of neutrino that would make up the difference, but it’s a long shot and there’s no firm evidence for it so far. Dark matter doesn’t interact with photons, photons interact with electric charge, quarks have electric charge. If you’ve got quarks you’re not dark matter.”

“How about neutrons floating around?”
 ”Those molecular clouds I’ve read about Aren’t they neutral? Are there neutral stars?”
  ”How about neutron stars and black holes?”
   ”What’s a neutron star?”

“All good questions. Free neutrons are a bad bet, Vinnie — unless they’re bound with protons they usually emit an electron and become a proton within an hour. Susan, electrostatic forces would overwhelm gravity so we believe stars and molecular clouds must be electrically neutral or close to it. Anyway, stars and clouds can’t be dark matter because they’ve got quarks. Eddie, what do you suppose happens when a star uses up the fuel that keeps it big?”

“Since you ask it that way, I suppose it caves in.”

“Got it in one. If the star’s too big to collapse to be a white dwarf but too small to collapse to be a black hole, it collapses to be a neutron star. Really weird objects — a star‑and‑a‑half of of mass packed into a 10‑kilometer sphere, probably spinning super‑fast and possessing a huge magnetic field. From a ‘what is dark matter?‘ perspective, though, collapsed stars of any sort are still made of quarks and can’t qualify.”

“So what is dark matter then?”

“Good question.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Alex, who asked a question.


Susan, aghast. “But I thought the Standard Model was supposed to be the Theory of Everything.”

Jim, abashed. “A lot of us wish that phrase had never been invented. Against the mass of the Universe it’s barely the theory of anything.”

Me, typecast. “That’s a heavy claim, Jim. Big Physics has put many dollars and fifty years of head time into filling out that elegant table of elementary particles. I remember the celebration when the LHC finally found the Higgs boson in 2012. I’ve read that the Higgs field is responsible for the mass of the Universe.”

“A little bit true, Sy, sort of. We think it’s responsible for about 1% of the mass of all the matter we understand. There’s another mechanism that accounts for the other 99%.”

Eddie, downcast. “I’m lost, guys. What Standard Module are you talking about?”

“Do you remember the Periodic Table of the chemical elements?”

“A little. Science class had big poster up on the wall. Had all kinds of atoms in it, right?”

“Yup. Scientists spent centuries breaking down minerals and compounds to find substances that chemical methods couldn’t break down any further. Those were the chemical elements, things like iron and carbon and oxygen. The Periodic Table arranges elements so as to highlight similarities in how they’ll interact. The Standard Model carries that idea down to the sub‑subatomic level.”

“Wait, sub‑subatomic level?”

“Mm-hm. Chemists would say that ‘subatomic‘ is about electrons, protons and neutrons. Count an atom’s electrons. That and some fairly simple rules can tell you what structure types it prefers to participate in and what it reacts with. Count the protons and neutrons in its nucleus. That gives you its atomic weight and starts you on the road to figuring reaction quantities. That’s all that the chemists need to know about atoms. All due respect, Susan, but physicists want to dig deeper. That’s what the Standard Model is all about.”

“So you’re saying that the protons and neutrons are made of these … quarks and things? Is that what comes out of those collider experiments?”

“No on both, Eddie. You ever whack a light pole with a baseball bat?”

“Sure, who hasn’t?”

“The sounds that came out, do you think the pole was made of them?”

“Course not, and I never bought the Brooklyn Bridge, neither.”

“Calm down, Eddie, just making a point. Suppose before you whacked that pole you’d attached a whole string of sensitive microphones all up and down it, and then when you whacked it you recorded all the vibrations your whack set off. Do you think with the recorded frequencies and a lot of math a good audio engineer could tell you what the pole is made of and how thick the casing is?”


“That’s what’s going on with the colliders. They whack particles with other particles, record everything that comes out and use math to work out what must have happened to make that event happen. Theory together with data from a huge number of whacks let people like Heisenberg, Gell‑Mann, Ne’eman and Nishijima to the seventeen boxes in that table.”

“‘Splain those particles to me.”

“Don’t think particles, think collections of properties. The Periodic Table’s ‘iron‘ box is about having 26 electrons and combining with 24 grams of oxygen to form 80 grams of Fe2O3. In the Standard Model table, the boxes are about energy, charge, lifetime, some technical properties, and rules for which can interact with what. We’ve never seen a free‑standing quark particle and there’s good reason to think we never will. We mostly see only two‑ or three‑quark mixtures. Some of the properties, like charge, simply add together. It takes a mixture to make a particle.”

“Then how did they figure what goes into a box?”

“Theoreticians worked to find the minimum set of independent properties that could still describe observations. Different mixtures of up and down quarks, for instance, account for protons, neutrons and many mesons.”

Vinnie, at last. “Hi, folks, sorry I’m late to the party. What are we arguing about and which side am I on?”

Higgs candidate LHC event trace
Electrons (green) and muons (red) exiting the event

~~ Rich Olcott


It’s that kind of an afternoon. Finished up one project, don’t feel much like starting another. Spring rain outside so instead of walking to Al’s for coffee I take the elevator down to Pizza Eddie’s on 2. Looks like other folks have the same feeling. “Afternoon, all. What’s the current topic of conversation?”

“Well, Sy, it started out as Star Wars versus Star Trek but then Jim said he could care less and Susan said that meant he did care and he said no, he’s ambivalent and she said that still meant he cared, and—”

“I get it, Eddie. Susan, why does ‘ambivalent‘ mean Jim cares?”

“Chemistry, Sy. ‘Valence‘ means ‘bonding‘ and ‘ambi-‘ means ‘both‘ so ‘ambi‑valent‘ means ‘bonded to both‘.”

“But Susan, ambidextrous means able to use both hands, not unable to use either hand. I want to say I don’t particularly like or dislike either one.”

“It’s like trying to decide between fire ants or hornets. You could say ‘No‑win,’ right?”

“No, that’s not it, either, Eddie. That’s ‘everybody loses.’ I’m smack in the middle.”

“Sounds like absolute neutrality. Hard to get there.”

“Don’t look at Chemistry. If I take an acid solution and add just enough base to get to neutral pH, there’s still tenth‑micromolar concentrations of acid and base in there. I guess we could call that ambivalent.”

“Neutrality’s hard for humans and chemicals, yeah, but that’s where the Universe is.”

“Why do you say that, Jim?”

“Because we’ve got proof right in front of us. Look, planets and stars and people exist as distinct objects, right? They’re not a finely-divided mist.”


“So if the Universe were not exactly electrically neutral, then opposite charges repelling would split everything apart.”
 ”Wait, nothing would have a chance to form in the first place.”
   ”Wait, couldn’t you have lumps of like 99 positives and 100 negatives or whatever that just cancel out?”

“Eddie, when you say ‘cancel out’ you’re still talking about being absolutely neutral at the lump level. It’s like this table salt that has positive sodium ions and negative chlorides but the crystals are neutral or we’d get sparks when I pour some out like this.”
 ”Hey, don’t waste the salt. Costs money.”

“I still think it’s weird how all electrons have the same charge and it’s exactly the same as the proton charge. Protons are made of quarks, right, and electrons aren’t. So how can you take three of something and have that add up to exactly one of something different?”

“I can give you Feynman and Wheeler’s answer to part of that, Susan. The electron has an anti‑partner, the positron, which is exactly like the electron in every way except it has the opposite charge. When electron and positron meet they annihilate to produce a burst of high‑energy photons. But there’s a flip side — high‑energy photons sometimes interact to make an electron‑positron pair. Feynman and Wheeler were both jokers. They suggested that a positron could be an electron traveling backward in time. Wheeler said, ‘Maybe they’re all the same electron,’ zig‑zagging across eternity. But that doesn’t account for the quarks. A proton has two up‑quarks, each with a charge of negative 2/3 electron, and one down‑quark with a charge of positive 1/3 electron. Add ’em up — you exactly neutralize one electron. Fun, huh?”

“Fun, Jim, but I’m a chemist. On a two-pan balance I can weigh out equal quantities of molasses and rock dust but I don’t expect them to interact with any simple mathematical relationship. Why should the quark’s charge be any exact multiple or divisor of the electron’s? And why is the electron charge the size it is instead of some other number?”

“Well, there you’ve got me. The quantum chromodynamics Standard Model has been amazingly successful for quantitative predictions, but not so good for explaining things outside of its own terms. The math lays out the relationship between quark and electron charge, but doesn’t give us a physical ‘why.’ The theory has 19 ‘adjustable constants’ but no particular reason why they should have the specific values that fit the observations. Also, the theory doesn’t include gravity. It’s a little embarrassing.”

“Sounds like you’re ambivalent about the theory.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Galaxies Fluffy And Faint

Cathleen’s at the coffee shop’s baked goods counter. “A lemon scone, please, Al.”

I’m next in line. “Lemon sounds good to me, too. It’s a warm day.”

The Pinwheel Galaxy, NGC 5457
Credit: ESA/Hubble

“Sure thing, Sy. Hey, got a question for you, Cathleen, you bein’ an Astronomer and all. I just saw an Astronomy news item about a fluffy galaxy and they mentioned a faint galaxy. Are they the same and why the excitement?”

“Not the same, Al. It’ll be easier to show you in pictures. Sy, may I borrow Old Reliable?”

“Sure, here.”

“Thanks. OK, Al, here’s a classic ‘grand design‘ spiral galaxy, NGC 5457, also known as The Pinwheel. Gorgeous, isn’t it?”

“Sure is. Hey, I’ve wondered — what does ‘NGC‘ stand for, National Galaxy Collection or something?”

“Nope. The ‘G‘ doesn’t even stand for ‘Galaxy‘. It’s ‘New General Catalog‘. Anyway, here’s NGC 2775, one of our prettiest fluffies. Doesn’t look much like the Pinwheel or Andromeda, does it?”

NGC 2775
Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble / J. Lee / PHANGS-HST Team / Judy Schmidt

“Nah, those guys got nice spiral arms that sort of grow out of the center. This one looks like there’s an inside edge to all the complicated stuff. And it’s got what, a hundred baby arms.”

“The blue dots in those ‘baby arms’ are young blue stars. They’re separated by dark lanes of dust just like the dark lanes in classic spirals. The difference is that these lanes are much closer together. The grand design spirals are popular photography subjects in your astronomy magazines, Al, but they’re only about 10% of all spirals. I’ll bet your news item was about 2775 because we’re just coming to see how mysterious this one is.”

“What’s mysterious about it?”

“That central region. It’s huge and smooth, barely any visible dust lanes and no blue dots. It’s bright in the infra‑red, which is what you’d expect from a population of old red stars. In the ultra‑violet, though, it’s practically empty — just a small dot at the center. UV is high‑energy light. It generally comes from a young star or a recent nova or a black hole’s accretion disk. The dot is probably a super-massive back hole. but its image is just a tiny fraction of the smooth region’s width. With a billion red stars in the way it’s hard to see how the black hole’s gravity field could have cleaned up all the dust that should be in there. Li’l Fluffy here is just begging for some Astrophysics PhD candidates to burn computer time trying to explain it.”

NGC 1052-DF2
Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. van Dokkum (Yale University)

“What about Li’l Faint?”

“That’s probably this one, NGC 1052-DF2. Looks a bit different, doesn’t it?

“I’ll say. It’s practically transparent. Is it a thing at all or just a smudge on the lens?”

“Not a smudge. We’ve got multiple images in different wavelength ranges from multiple observatories, and there’s another similar object, NGC 1052-DF4, in the same galaxy group. We even have measurements from individual stars and clusters in there. The discovery paper claimed that DF2 is so spread out because it lacks the dark matter whose gravity compacts most galaxies. That led to controversy, of course.”

“Is there anything in Science that doesn’t? What’s this argument?”

“It hinges on distance, Sy. The object is about as wide as the Milky Way but we see only 1% as many stars. Does their mass exert enough gravitational force to hold the structure together? There’s a fairly good relationship between a galaxy’s mass and its intrinsic brightness — more stars means more emitting surface and more mass. We know how quickly apparent brightness drops with distance. From other data the authors estimated DF2 is 65 lightyears away and from its apparent brightness they back‑calculated its mass to be just about what you’d expect from its stars alone. No dark matter required to prevent fly‑aways. Another group using a different technique estimated 42 lightyears. That suggested a correspondingly smaller luminous mass and therefore a significant amount of dark matter in the picture. Sort of. They’re still arguing.”

“But why does it exist at all?”

“That’s another question.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Oriole for suggesting this topic.

Space Potatoes

“Uncle Sy, what’s the name of the Moon face that’s just a sliver?”

“It’s called a crescent, Teena, and it’s ‘phase,’ not ‘face’. Hear the z-sound?”

“Ah-hah, one of those spelling things, huh?”

“I’m afraid so. What brought that question up?”

“I was telling Bratty Brian about the Moon shadows and he said he saw a cartoon about something that punched a hole in the Moon and left just the sliver.”

“Not going to happen, Sweetie. Anything as big as the Moon, Mr Newton’s Law of Gravity says that it’ll be round, mostly, except for mountains and things.”

“Cause there’s something really heavy in the center?”

“No, and that’s probably what shocked people the most back in those days. They had Kings and Emperors, remember, and a Pope who led all the Christians in Europe. People expected everything to have some central figure in charge. That’s why they argued about whether the center of the Universe was the Earth or the Sun. Mr Newton showed that you don’t need anything at all at the center of things.”

“But then what pulls the things together?”

“The things themselves and the rules they follow. Remember the bird murmuration rules?”

“That was a long time ago, Uncle Sy. Umm… wasn’t one rule that each bird in the flock tries to stay about the same distance from all its neighbors?”

“Good memory. That was one of the rules. The others were to fly in the same general direction as everybody else and to try stay near the middle of the flock. Those three rules pretty much kept the whole flock together and protected most of the birds from predators. Mr Newton had simpler rules for rocks and things floating in space. His first rule was. ‘Keep going in the direction you’ve been going unless something pulls you in another direction.’ We call that inertia. The second rule explained why rocks fly differently than birds do.”

“Rocks don’t fly, Uncle Sy, they fall down.”

“Better to think of it as flying towards other things. Instead of the safe‑distance rule, Mr Newton said, ‘The closer two things are, the harder they pull together.’ Simple, huh?”

“Oh, like my magnet doggies.”

“Yes, exactly like that, except gravity always attracts. There’s no pushing away like magnets do when you turn one around. Suppose that back when the Solar System was being formed, two big rocks got close. What would happen?”

“They’d bang together.”

“And then?”

“They’d attract other rocks and more and more. Bangbangbangbang!”

“Right. What do you suppose happens to the energy from those bangs? Remember, we’re out in space so there’s no air to carry the sound waves away.”

“It’d break the rocks into smaller rocks. But the energy’s still there, just in smaller pieces, right?”

“The most broken-up energy is heat. What does that tell you?”

“The rock jumble must get … does it get hot enough to melt?”

“It can So now suppose there’s a blob of melted rock floating in space, and every atom in the melted rock is attracted to every other atom. Pretend you’re an atom out at one end of the blob.”

“I see as many atoms to one side as to the other so I’m gonna pull in towards the middle.”

“And so will all the other atoms. What shape is that going to make the blob?”

“Ooooh. Round like a planet. Or the Sun. Or the Moon!”

“So now tell me what would happen if someone punched a hole in the Moon?”

“All the crumbles at the crescent points would get pulled in towards the middle. It wouldn’t be a crescent any more!”

“Exactly. Mind you, if it doesn’t melt it may not be spherical. Melted stuff can only get round because molten atoms are free to move.”

“Are there not-round things in space?”

“Lots and lots. Small blobs couldn’t pull themselves spherical before freezing solid. They could be potato‑shaped, like the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Some rocks came together so gently that they didn’t melt. They just stuck together, like Asteroid Bennu where our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft sampled.”

“Space has surprising shapes, huh?”

“Space always surprises.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Xander and Alex who asked the question.

Shadow Play

“Uncle Sy! Uncle Sy! You’re back! Didja see the red moon?”

“Hi, Teena. Good to be home. No, I didn’t get to see the red moon. Where I was it didn’t even get red.”

“I saw it! I saw it! Mommie put me to bed early so I could wake up to see it earrrly in the morning. I saw the red part but the Moon looked smaller than it does coming up from behind the houses and they said it was going to be sooo big but it wasn’t. Anyway, I didn’t stay awake. Why was it red?”

“Was it really red red like your favorite crayon?”

“Mm-no, more like orange-y red.”

“Sunset color, right?”

“Uh-huh. Was it sunset on the Moon?”

“Sort of. The sunsets we see on Earth are red mostly because our air absorbs the Sun’s blue light when we’re looking across the atmosphere. Only the red light gets through to our eyes. Remember the solar eclipse we saw, when the Moon came exactly between us and the Sun? Moon eclipses are inside out from that. We come between the Moon and the Sun. The only light getting past us has gone across our atmosphere just like sunset light does so it’s orange‑y red like a sunset.”

“Oooh … does the Sun ever get between us and the Moon?”

“Don’t worry, Sweetie. We’re far, far from the Sun. Mr Newton’s Laws of Motion say that we and the Moon will be waltzing out here for a long, long time.”

“Whee, we’re dancing around the Sun! MOMmie, Uncle Sy’s here!”

“Hi, Sis. You saw the eclipse, then.”

“Mm-hm. I realized while I was watching it that lunar phase shadows work differently from eclipses.”

“Oh? How so?”

“The shadow shapes are different, for one. The edge of the lunar phase shadow always passes through both poles. In a solar eclipse the shadow only reaches the poles at totality, and in a lunar eclipse there’s this almost straight shadow arc that marches across the whole face.”

“Interesting. You said ‘for one,’ so what else?”

“Eclipse shadows move in the wrong direction. Starting from a full moon, the shadow comes in from the right until you get to new moon, then it falls away to the left until you get back to full moon. Agreed?”

“I always get confused. I’ll take your word for it.”

“I looked it up. In two places. Anyhow, in both kinds of eclipse the shadow creeps from left to right. Just backwards from the lunar phases. I wonder if that has anything to do with ancient societies thinking that an eclipse is somehow evil.”

“Mommie, you know you’re not supposed to use words I don’t know unless you’re keeping secrets. What’s lunar faces?”

“Sorry, Teena, not secret. Lunar means Moon. Sy, can you show her phases on Old Reliable?”

“Sure. Here’s a quick sketch, Teena. Pretend that the little ball is the Moon going around the Earth. The Sun is off to the right. You know the Moon goes around the Earth and it always keeps the same side towards us, right?”

“That’s the Man In The Moon except it’s really mountains and stuff pointing at us.”

“That’s what the little triangle shows, like it’s his nose. See how sometimes it’s in the light and sometimes it’s in shadow? The big ball is what we see when the Moon is in each position. When the Man is facing straight towards the Sun we call that the Full Moon phase. When he’s completely in shadow that’s the New Moon phase. There’s names for other special positions, and all of the special positions are phases, OK?”

“I suppose you have a logical explanation for the shadows?”

“Sure, Sis. It’s all about where the shadow’s being cast and how the shadow caster is moving at the time. This diagram tells the story. Nearly everything in the Solar System runs counterclockwise—”


“… Right. Every orbit runs left‑to‑right half the time, right‑to‑left the other half. The two kinds of eclipse happen in opposite halves. The geometry works out that we see both eclipse shadows move left‑to‑right. See?”


~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Alex for the question, and to Lori for the shadow observation, which I hadn’t seen discussed before.

Listen to The Rock Music

“Kareem, how did we learn this stuff about the Earth’s insides? I mean, clouds and winds hundreds of miles down?”

“Fair question, Eddie. Jules Verne’s Voyage to The Center of The Earth couldn’t happen, because hollow volcanic tubes don’t go near far enough down. Drilling’s not useful for exploring the mantle — we’ve only gotten about six miles through the seafloor crust and that’s still probably a dozen miles up from where the mantle starts. Forget what you’ve seen in the comics or a movie, we won’t in our lifetimes have a sub‑like vehicle that can melt through rock, withstand million‑atmosphere pressures and swim through superheated lava. So what we do is oscillate, triangulate and calulate.”

“I’ll bite. Oscillate? Triangulate?”

“How we do earthquake chasing, Sy. For thousands of years, humanity experienced a quake as a local jolt. It wasn’t until the 1850s that we realized each quake incident has multiple components: a sudden rupture somewhere, the resulting shock that travels through the Earth to other locations, and maybe aftershocks from follow‑on ruptures. The shock is a whole train of waves. We used to record them on those big cylindrical seismograph drums with oscillating pens, but most stations have gone digital since the early 90s. More accurate data, easier to handle but less picturesque.”

“True. The TV weather guys love pics of the big cylinder with all the wiggly lines. How about the triangulations?”

“Suppose you feel an earthquake shock. How do you find out where the rupture occurred and how big it was?”

“Hard to do from one location. A really big one far away would give you the same blip as a small one close by. And you probably wouldn’t know how deep it was or what direction it came from. I guess you’d need to compare notes with some far‑away observers. The one closest to the rupture would have received the strongest signal.”

“Yeah, Sy, and if everybody kept track of when they felt the jolt then you could draw a map with the different times and that’d zero in on it. Uhh … three places and you’ve got it.”

The IRIS Global Seismic Network as of 2021.

“Three points makes a triangle, Eddie, you’ve just described triangulation. It’s a general principle — the more points of view you have to work with, the better the image. Seismic tomography is all about merging well‑characterized data from lots of stations. That’s why we built an international Global Seismic Network, 152 identically‑equipped stations. Here’s a map.”

“How ’bout that, Sy? Lotsa triangles, all over the world.”

“Reminds me of Feynman’s insight that an electron doesn’t take just one path from A to B, it takes all possible paths. Earthquake shocks must go around the Earth and through the Earth, so each of those stations could hear multiple wave trains from a strong‑enough earthquake. These days it’s all digital, I suppose, and tied together with high‑precision time‑ticks. Kareem, they must be able to localize within a millimeter.”

“Not really, Sy. There’s a complication the early seismologists discovered even with primitive timing and recording equipment. The waves don’t all travel at the same speed. Depending on what’s in the way some of them even stop.”

“Wait, these shocks are basically sound waves. Does sound go fast or slow or stop depending on where it is in the Earth?”

“Sonic physics, Sy. The stiffer the material the faster sound travels. About 1½ kilometer/second in water, 3 in stone and 6 in metals but those numbers vary with composition, temperature and pressure. Especially pressure, like millions of atmospheres near the center. In the early 1900s Mohorovičić saw two signals from the same quake. One P‑wave/S‑wave pair came direct through the crust, the second followed a bent path through some different material. That was our first clue that crust and mantle are distinct but they’re both solid.”

P‑wave? S‑wave?”

“Like Push‑wave and Shake‑wave, Eddie. S‑waves shake side‑to‑side but fluids don’t shake so they block S‑waves. P‑waves pass right through. S‑waves traversing the LLSVP ‘clouds’ mean the regions are probably solid, but the waves don’t go as fast as a solid should carry them. It’s a strange world down there.”

~~ Rich Olcott