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

The Gelato Model

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

“Glad you like it, Anne.”

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

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

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

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

“S’what I said.”

“Measured in dollars or trayfuls?”

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

“Batches all the same size?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know we want to know, Sy.”

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

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

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

“So what about my gelato?”

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

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Ways To Get Dizzy

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

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

“A little cool water might help, thanks.”

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

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

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

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

“Creative. And what happened?”

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

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

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

“How’d you do that?”

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

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

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

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

“Whatever you say.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Three angles?”

“You don’t know where you are.”

<shudder>
 <shudder>

~~ Rich Olcott