Now And Then

“Alright, I suppose there’s no going down below the Universe’s Year Zero, but what about the other direction? Do you physics guys have a handle on Time’s Top?”

“That’d be Cosmology, Mr Feder. We physicists avoid theorizing about stuff we can’t check against data. Well, except for string theory. The far past leaves clues that astronomers like Cathleen can gather. Sad to say, though, we barely have a handle on Now.”

Cathleen grins. Al and Mr Feder go, “Whaaat?”

“No, really. One of Einstein’s insights was that two observers randomly and independently flying through space won’t be able to agree on whether two external events occurred simultaneously. They can’t even agree on what time it is now.”

“Oh, yeah, I know about that. I’ve read about how the GPS system needs to make corrections to account for what relativity does to the satellite timings.”

“You’re right, Al, but that’s a different issue. Some of that relativistic correction has to do with space compression because of Earth’s mass. The simultaneity problem is strictly about rapid motion and geometry.”

“Wait — geometry?”

“Relativistic geometry, which is a bit different from the kind that Descartes built.”

“Whoa, Sy, slow down there. Descartes was the ‘I think therefore I am‘ guy, right? What’s that got to do with geometry?”

“I guess I got a little ahead of myself there, didn’t I? OK. Yeah, Al, same Descartes. Grew up Catholic in France, was a professional mercenary soldier in the Thirty Years War, wound up fighting first on the Catholic French side and later on fought on the Protestant Dutch side but cross‑over was common, both directions. He realized he was in an ostensibly religious war that was really about who ruled over whom. That may have had something to do with him becoming a professional philosopher who rejected all religious dogmas in favor of what he could learn solely from logic and his own senses. That’s where his famous mantra came from — he started by proving to himself that he existed.”

“Logic led to geometry, I suppose.”

“Indeed, but a new kind, one that required a few innovations that Descartes developed. On the one hand, mathematicians traditionally expressed algebraic problems in words and some of them were doozies, like saying ‘the zenzizenzizenzic‘ where we’d just say x8. We got that simple but <ahem> powerful notation from Descartes. On the geometry side, he’d ditch all the confusing line-ending markers in a diagram like this one. Instead, he’d label the whole line representing a known quantity with a front-of-the-alphabet letter like a or b or c. A line representing an unknown quantity would get its label from the alphabet-trailers like x, y and z. Then he used the same character conventions and his new power notation to write and manipulate algebraic expressions. Those notational inventions were foundational for his bridge between algebraic and geometrical problems. Draw your problem with lines and curves, transform it to algebraic equations, solve that problem exactly, transform it back to geometry and you’re done. Or vice-versa.”

The mesolabe instrument (in red).

“That goes back to Descartes, huh?”

“Mm-hm. His big innovation, though, arose from a borrow from an early Greek gadget called a mesolabe. He proposed an idealized version that would let someone break a line into exact fractions or compare a length against a unit length. That broke the rules of classical Geometry but setting his mesolabe’s Y‑angle to 90° prompted him to name points by their distance along the x– and y‑axes. That’s the nub of the Cartesian coordinate system — a rectangular grid of numbered straight lines that go on forever. Graph paper, right? Wrap the grid around the Earth and you’ve got latitudes and longitudes. Add more numbered grid lines perpendicular to either grid and you’ve got z‑axis coordinates. Three coordinates let you name any point in space. Newton and all the physicists who came after him until the dawn of the 20th Century assumed Descartes’ nice, stable coordinate system.”

“20th Century — that’s when Einstein came on the scene. He broke that system?”

“Sure did. You’ve heard about bent space?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Well, fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a fun ride.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Calvin And Hobbes And i

Hobbes 2I so miss Calvin and Hobbes, the wondrous, joyful comic strip that cartoonist Bill Watterson gave us between 1985 and 1995.  Hobbes was a stuffed toy tiger — except that 6-year-old Calvin saw him as a walking, talking man-sized tiger with a sarcastic sense of humor.

So many things in life and physics are like Hobbes — they depend on how you look at them.  As we saw earlier, a fictitious force disappears when viewed from the right frame of reference.  There’s that particle/wave duality thing that Duc de Broglie “blessed” us with.  And polarized light.

In an earlier post I mentioned that light is polar, in the sense that a single photon’s electric field acts to vibrate an electron (pole-to-pole) within a single plane.
wavesIn this video, orange, green and blue electromagnetic fields shine in from one side of the box onto its floor.  Each color’s field is polar because it “lives” in only one plane.  However, the beam as a whole is unpolarized because different components of the total field direct recipient electrons into different planes giving zero net polarization.  The Sun and most other familiar light sources emit unpolarized light.

When sunlight bounces at a low angle off a surface, say paint on a car body or water at the beach, energy in a field that is directed perpendicular to the surface is absorbed and turned into heat energy.  (Yeah, I’m skipping over a semester’s-worth of Optics class, but bear with me.)  In the video, that’s the orange wave.

At the same time, fields parallel to the surface are reflected.  That’s what happens to the blue wave.

Suppose a wave is somewhere in between parallel and perpendicular, like the green wave.  No surprise, the vertical part of its energy is absorbed and the horizontal part adds to the reflection intensity.  That’s why the video shows the outgoing blue wave with a wider swing than its incoming precursor had.

The net effect of all this is that low-angle reflected light is polarized and generally more intense than the incident light that induced it.  We call that “glare.”  Polarizing sunglasses can help by selectively blocking horizontally-polarized electric fields reflected from water, streets, and that *@%*# car in front of me.

David Jessop’s brilliant depiction of plane and circularly polarized light

Things can get more complicated. The waves in the first video are all in synch — their peaks and valleys match up (mostly). But suppose an x-directed field and a y-directed field are headed along the same course.  Depending on how they match up, the two can combine to produce a field driving electrons along the x-direction, the y-direction, or in clockwise or counterclockwise circles.  Check the red line in this video — RHC and LHC depict the circularly polarized light that sci-fi writers sometimes invoke when they need a gimmick.

Physicists have several ways to describe such a situation mathematically.  I’ve already used the first, which goes back 380 years to René Descartes and the Cartesian x, y,… coordinate system he planted the seed for.  We’ve become so familiar with it that reading a graph is like reading words.  Sometimes easier.

In Cartesian coordinates we write x– and y-coordinates as separate functions of time t:
x = f1(t)
y = f2(t)
where each f could be something like 0.7·t2-1.3·t+π/4 or whatever.  Then for each t-value we graph a point where the vertical line at the calculated x intersects the horizontal line at the calculated y.

But we can simplify that with a couple of conventions.  Write √(-1) as i, and say that i-numbers run along the y-axis.  With those conventions we can write our two functions in a single line:
x + i y = f1(t) + i f2(t)
One line is better than two when you’re trying to keep track of a big calculation.

But people have a long-running hang-up that’s part theory and part psychology.  When Bombelli introduced these complex numbers back in the 16th century, mathematicians complained that you can’t pile up i thingies.  Descartes and others simply couldn’t accept the notion, called the numbers “imaginary,” and the term stuck.

Which is why Hobbes the way Calvin sees him is on the imaginary axis.

~~ Rich Olcott