On Gravity, Charge And Geese

A beautiful April day, far too nice to be inside working.  I’m on a brisk walk toward the lake when I hear puffing behind me.  “Hey, Moire, I got questions!”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.  Ask away while we hike over to watch the geese.”

“Sure, but slow down , will ya?  I been reading this guy’s blog and he says some things I wanna check on.”

I know better but I ask anyhow.  “Like what?”

“Like maybe the planets have different electrical charges  so if we sent an astronaut they’d get killed by a ginormous lightning flash.”

“That’s unlikely for so many reasons, Mr Feder.  First, it’d be almost impossible for the Solar System to get built that way.  Next, it couldn’t stay that way if it had been.  Third, we know it’s not that way now.”

“One at a time.”

“OK.  We’re pretty sure that the Solar System started as a kink in a whirling cloud of galactic dust.  Gravity spanning the kink pulled that cloud into a swirling disk, then the swirls condensed to form planets.  Suppose dust particles in one of those swirls, for whatever reason, all had the same unbalanced electrical charge.”

“Right, and they came together because of gravity like you say.”

I pull Old Reliable from its holster.  “Think about just two particles, attracted to each other by gravity but repelled by their static charge.  Let’s see which force would win.  Typical interstellar dust particles run about 100 nanometers across.  We’re thinking planets so our particles are silicate.  Old Reliable says they’d weigh about 2×1018 kg each, so the force of gravity pulling them together would be …  oh, wait, that’d depend on how far apart they are.  But so would the electrostatic force, so let’s keep going.  How much charge do you want to put on each particle?”

“The minimum, one electron’s worth.”

“Loading the dice for gravity, aren’t you?  Only one extra electron per, umm, 22 million silicon atoms.    OK, one electron it is …  Take a look at Old Reliable’s calculation.gravity vs electrostatic calculation Those two electrons push their dust grains apart almost a quintillion times more strongly than gravity pulls them together.  And the distance makes no difference — close together or far apart, push wins.  You can’t use gravity to build a planet from charged particles.”

“Wait, Moire, couldn’t something else push those guys together — magnetic fields, say, or a shock wave?”

“Sure, which is why I said almost impossible.  Now for the second reason the astronaut won’t get lightning-shocked — the solar wind.  It’s been with us since the Sun lit up and it’s loaded with both positive- and negative-charged particles.  Suppose Venus, for instance, had been dealt more than its share of electrons back in the day.  Its net-negative charge would attract the wind’s protons and alpha particles to neutralize the charge imbalance.  By the same physics, a net-positive planet would attract electrons.  After a billion years of that, no problem.”

“All right, what’s the third reason?”

“Simple.  We’ve already sent out orbiters to all the planets.  Descent vehicles have made physical contact with many of them.  No lightning flashes, no fried electronics.  Blows my mind that our Cassini mission to Saturn did seven years of science there after a six-year flight, and everything worked perfectly with no side-trips to the shop.  Our astronauts can skip worrying about high-voltage landings.”

“Hey, I just noticed something.  Those F formulas look the same.”  He picks up a stick and starts scribbling on the dirt in front of us.  “You could add them up like F=(Gm1m2+k0q1q2)/r2.  See how the two pieces can trade off if you take away some mass but add back some charge?  How do we know we’ve got the mass-mass pull right and not mixed in with some charge-charge push?”

Geese and ducks“Good question.  If protons were more positive than electrons, electrostatic repulsion would always be proportional to mass.  We couldn’t separate that force from gravity.  Physicists have separately measured electron and proton charge.  They’re equal (except for sign) to 10 decimal places.  Unfortunately, we’d need another 25 digits of accuracy before we could test your hypothesis.”

“Aw, look, the geese got babies.”

“The small ones are ducks, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Would the CIA want a LIGO?

So I was telling a friend about the LIGO announcement, going on about how this new “device” will lead to a whole new kind of astronomy.  He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and said, “I wonder how many of these the CIA has.”

The CIA has a forest of antennas, but none of them can do what LIGO does.  That’s because of the physics of how it works, and what it can and cannot detect.  (If you’re new to this topic, please read last week’s post so you’ll be up to speed on what follows.  Oh, and then come back here.)

There are remarkable parallels between electromagnetism and gravity.  The ancients knew about electrostatics — amber rubbed by a piece of cat fur will attract shreds of dry grass.  They certainly knew about gravity, too.  But it wasn’t until 100 years after Newton wrote his Principia that Priestly and then Coulomb found that the electrostatic force law, F = ke·q1·q2 / r2, has the same form as Newton’s Law of Gravity, F = G·m1·m2 / r2. (F is the force between two bodies whose centers are distance r apart, the q‘s are their charges and the m‘s are their masses.)

Jim and AlAlmost a century later, James Clerk Maxwell (the bearded fellow at left) wrote down his electromagnetism equations that explain how light works.  Half a century later, Einstein did the same for gravity.

But interesting as the parallels may be, there are some fundamental differences between the two forces — fundamental enough that not even Einstein was able to tie the two together.

One difference is in their magnitudes.  Consider, for instance, two protons.  Running the numbers, I found that the gravitational force pulling them together is a factor of 1036 smaller than the electrostatic force pushing them apart.  If a physicist wanted to add up all the forces affecting a particular proton, he’d have to get everything else (nuclear strong force, nuclear weak force, electromagnetic, etc.) nailed down to better than one part in 1036 before he could even detect gravity.

But it’s worse — electromagnetism and gravity don’t even have the same shape.


Electric (red) and magnetic (blue) fields in a linearly polarized light wave
(graphic from WikiMedia Commons, posted by Lookang and Fu-Kwun Hwang)

A word first about words.  Electrostatics is about pure straight-line-between-centers (longitudinal) attraction and repulsion — that’s Coulomb’s Law.  Electrodynamics is about the cross-wise (transverse) forces exerted by one moving charged particle on the motion of another one.  Those forces are summarized by combining Maxwell’s Equations with the Lorenz Force Law.  A moving charge gives rise to two distinct forces, electric and magnetic, that operate at right angles to each other.  The combined effect is called electromagnetism.

The effect of the electric force is to vibrate a charge along one direction transverse to the wave.  The magnetic force only affects moving charges; it acts to twist their transverse motion to be perpendicular to the wave.  An EM antenna system works by sensing charge flow as electrons move back and forth under the influence of the electric field.

Gravitostatics uses Newton’s Law to calculate longitudinal gravitational interaction between masses.  That works despite gravity’s relative weakness because all the astronomical bodies we know of appear to be electrically neutral — no electrostatic forces get in the way.  A gravimeter senses the strength of the local gravitostatic field.

Maxwell and EinsteinGravitodynamics is completely unlike electrodynamics.  Gravity’s transverse “force” doesn’t act to move a whole mass up and down like Maxwell’s picture at left.  Instead, as shown by Einstein’s picture, gravitational waves stretch and compress while leaving the center of mass in place. I put “force” in quotes because what’s being stretched and compressed is space itself.  See this video for a helpful visualization of a gravitational wave.

LIGO is neither a telescope nor an electromagnetic antenna.  It operates by detecting sudden drastic changes in the disposition of matter within a “small” region.  In LIGO’s Sept 14 observation, 1031 kilograms of black hole suddenly ceased to exist, converted to gravitational waves that spread throughout the Universe.  By comparison, the Hiroshima explosion released the energy of 10-6 kilograms.

Seismometers do a fine job of detecting nuclear explosions.  Hey, CIA, they’re a lot cheaper than LIGO.

~~ Rich Olcott