‘Twixt A Rock And A Vortex

A chilly late December walk in the park and there’s Vinnie on a lakeside bench, staring at the geese and looking morose. “Hi, Vinnie, why so down on such a bright day?”

“Hi, Sy. I guess you ain’t heard. Frankie’s got the ‘rona.”

Frankie??!? The guys got the constitution of an ox. I don’t think he’s ever been sick in his life.”

“Probably not. Remember when that bug going around last January had everyone coughing for a week? Passed him right by. This time’s different. Three days after he showed a fever, bang, he’s in the hospital.”

“Wow. How’s Emma?”

“She had it first — a week of headaches and coughing. She’s OK now but worried sick. Hospital won’t let her in to see him, of course, which is a good thing I suppose so she can stay home with the kids and their schoolwork.”

“Bummer. We knew it was coming but…”

“Yeah. Makes a difference when it’s someone you know. Hey, do me a favor — throw some science at me, get my mind off this for a while.”

“That’s a big assignment, considering. Let’s see … patient, pandemic … Ah! E pluribus unum and back again.”

“Come again?”

“One of the gaps that stand between Physics and being an exact science.”

“I thought Physics was exact.”

“Good to fifteen decimal places in a few special experiments, but hardly exact. There’s many a slip ‘twixt theory and practice. One of the slips is the gap between kinematic physics, about how separate objects interact, and continuum physics, where you’re looking at one big thing.”

“This is sounding like that Loschmidt guy again.”

“It’s related but bigger. Newton worked on both sides of this one. On the kinematics side there’s billiard balls and planets and such. Assuming no frictional energy loss, Newton’s Three Laws and his Law of Gravity let us calculate exact predictions for their future trajectories … unless you’ve got more than three objects in play. It’s mathematically impossible to write exact predictions for four or more objects unless they start in one of a few special configurations. Newton didn’t do atoms, no surprise, but his work led to Schrödinger’s equation for an exact description of single electron, single nucleus systems. Anything more complicated, all we can do is approximate.”

“Computers. They do a lot with computers.”

“True, but that’s still approximating. Time‑step by time‑step and you never know what might sneak in or out between steps.”

“What’s ‘continuum‘ about then? Q on Star trek?”

“Hardly, we’re talking predictability here. Q’s thing is unpredictability. A physics continuum is a solid or fluid with no relevant internal structure, just an unbroken mass from one edge to the other. Newton showed how to analyze a continuum’s smooth churning by considering the forces that act on an imaginary isolated packet of stuff at various points in there. He basically invented the idea of viscosity as a way to account for friction between a fluid and the walls of the pipe it’s flowing through.”

“Smooth churning, eh? I see a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“The eddies and whirlpools I see when I row — not smooth.”

“Good point. In fact, that’s the point I was getting to. We can use extensions of Newton’s technique to handle a single well‑behaved whirlpool, but in real life big whirlpools throw off smaller ones and they spawn eddies and mini‑vortices and so on, all the way down to atom level. That turns out to be another intractable calculation, just as impossible as the many‑body particle mechanics problem.”

“Ah‑hah! That’s the gap! Newton just did the simple stuff at both ends, stayed away from the middle where things get complicated.”

“Exactly. To his credit, though, he pointed the way for the rest of us.”

“So how can you handle the middle?”

“The same thing that quantum mechanics does — use statistics. That’s if the math expressions are average‑able which sometimes they’re not, and if statistical numbers are good enough for why you’re doing the calculation. Not good enough for weather prediction, for instance — climate is about averages but weather needs specifics.”

“Yeah, like it’s just started to snow which I wasn’t expecting. I’m heading home. See ya, Sy.”

“See ya, Vinnie. … Frankie. … Geez.

~~ Rich Olcott