The Solid Gold Bath Towel

“C’mon, Sy, I heard weaseling there — ‘velocity‑based thinking‘ ain’t the same as velocity numbers.”

“Guilty as charged, Vinnie. The centuries-old ‘velocity of money‘ notion has been superceded for a half-century, but the theory’s still useful in the right circumstances. It’s like Newton’s Law of Gravity that way, except we’ve been drifting away from Newton for a full century.”

“What, gravity doesn’t work any more?”

“Sure it does, and most places the force is exactly what Newton said it should be — proportional to the mass divided by the distance. But it goes wrong when the mass‑to‑distance ratio gets huge, say close to a star or a black hole. That’s when we move up to Einstein’s theory. It includes Newton’s Law as a special case but it covers the high-ratio cases more exactly and accounts for more phenomena.”

“Just for grins, how about when the ratio is tiny?”

“We don’t know. Some cosmologists have suggested that’s what dark energy is about. Maybe when galaxies get really far apart, they’re not attracted to each other quite as much as Newton’s Law says.”

“I suppose the money theories have problems at high and low velocities?”

“That’s one pair of problems. Money velocity is proportional to nominal traffic divided by money supply. Suppose an average currency unit changes hands thousands of times a day. That says people don’t have confidence that money will buy as much tomorrow as it could today. They’ve got hyperinflation.”

“Ah, and at the low end it’d be like me putting Eddie’s autographed $20 in a frame on my wall. No spend, no traffic, zero velocity.”

“Right, but for the economy it’d be everyone putting all their money under their mattresses. Money that’s frozen in place doesn’t do anything except maybe make someone feel good. It’s like water in a stream, it has to be flowing to be useful in generating power.”

“Wait, you used a word back there, ‘nominal.’ What’s that about?”

“Good ears. It points up another important distinction between Physics and Economics. Suppose you’re engineering a mill at that stream and you measure water flow in cubic meters per second. Kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared and power is energy per unit time. If you know water’s density in kilograms per cubic meter you can calculate the stream’s available water power. Density is key to finding mass from volume when volume’s easy to measure, or volume from easily‑measured mass.”

“OK, so what’s that got to do with ‘nominal‘?”

“In economic situations, money is easy to measure — it’s just the price paid — but value is a puzzle. In fact, people say that understanding the linkage between price and value is the central problem of Economics. There’s a huge number of theories out there, with good counter-examples for every one of them. For example, consider the solid gold bath towel.”

“What a stupid idea. Thing like that couldn’t dry you off in the desert.”

“True, but it’s made out of a rare material and some people think rarity makes value. In the right setting it’d be beautiful and there are certainly people who think beauty makes value. A lot of person‑time would be required to create it and some people think labor input is what makes value. The people who think utility makes value would give that towel very low marks. Of course, if you’ve already got plenty of bath towels you’re not about to buy another one so you don’t care.”

“So how do they decide what its price should be?”

“Depends on where you are. Many countries use a supply‑demand auction system that measures value by what people are willing to pay. Planned‑economy countries set prices by government edict. Other countries use a mixed system where the government sets prices for certain commodities like bread and fuel but everything else is subject to haggling. Whatever system’s in use, ‘nominal‘ traffic is the total of all transaction prices and that’s supposed to measure value.”

“Velocity’s supposed to be money supply divided into value flow but we can’t use value so we fake it with money flow?”

“You got it. Then the government tries to manage the money supply so velocity’s in a sweet spot.”

“Sounds rickety.”

“Yup.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Shades of Dark

The guy’s got class, I’ll give him that. Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt met his challenges so Change-me Charlie amiably updates his sign.

But he’s not done. “If dark matter’s a thing, how’s it different from dark energy? Mass and energy are the same thing, right, so dark energy’s gotta be just another kind of dark matter. Maybe dark energy’s what happens when real matter that fell into a black hole gets squeezed so hard its energy turns inside out.”

Jim and Newt just look at each other. Even Cap’n Mike’s boggled. Someone has to start somewhere so I speak up. “You’re comparing apples, cabbages and fruitcake. Yeah, all three are food except maybe for fruitcake, but they’re grossly different. Same thing for black holes, dark matter and dark energy — we can’t see any of them directly but they’re grossly different.”

EHT's image of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy
Black hole and accretion disk, image by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Vinnie’s been listening off to one side but black holes are one of his hobbies. “A black hole’s dark ’cause its singularity’s buried inside its event horizon. Whatever’s outside and somehow gets past the horizon is doomed to fall towards the singularity inside. The singularity itself might be burn-your-eyes bright but who knows, ’cause the photons’re trapped. The accretion disk is really the only lit-up thing showing in that new EHT picture. The black in the middle is the shadow of the horizon, not the hole.”

Jim picks up the tale. “Dark matter’s dark because it doesn’t care about electromagnetism and vice-versa. Light’s an electromagnetic wave — it starts when a charged particle wobbles and it finishes by wobbling another charged particle. Normal matter’s all charged particles — negative electrons and positive nuclei — so normal matter and light have a lot to say to each other. Dark matter, whatever it is, doesn’t have electrical charges so it doesn’t do light at all.”

“Couldn’t a black hole have dark matter in it?”

“From what little we know about dark matter or the inside of a black hole, I see no reason it couldn’t.”

“How about normal matter falls in and the squeezing cooks it, mashes the pluses and minuses together and that’s what makes dark matter?”

“Great idea with a few things wrong with it. The dark matter we’ve found mostly exists in enormous spherical shells surrounding normal-matter galaxies. Your compressed dark matter is in the wrong place. It can’t escape from the black hole’s gravity field, much less get all the way out to those shells. Even if it did escape, decompression would let it revert to normal matter. Besides, we know from element abundance data that there can’t ever have been enough normal matter in the Universe to account for all the dark matter.”

Newt’s been waiting for a chance to cut in. “Dark energy’s dark, too, but it works in the opposite direction from the other two. Gravity from normal matter, black holes or otherwise, pulls things together. So does gravity from dark matter which is how we even learned that it exists. Dark energy’s negative pressure pulls things apart.”

“Could dark energy pull apart a black hole or dark matter?”

Big Cap’n Mike barges in. “Depends on if dark matter’s particles. Particles are localized and if they’re small enough they do quantum stuff. If that’s what dark matter is, dark energy can move the particles apart. My theory is dark matter’s just ripples across large volumes of space so dark energy can change how dark matter’s spread around but it can’t break it into pieces.”

Vinnie stands up for his hobby. “Dark energy can move black holes around, heck it moves galaxies, but like Sy showed us with Old Reliable it’s way too weak to break up black holes. They’re here for the duration.”

Newt pops him one. “The duration of what?”

“Like, forever.”

“Sorry, Hawking showed that black holes evaporate. Really slowly and the big ones slower than the little ones and the temperature of the Universe has to cool down a bit more before that starts to get significant, but not even the black holes are forever.”

“How long we got?”

“Something like 10106 years.”

“That won’t be dark energy’s fault, though.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Dark Shadows

Change-me Charlie’s still badgering Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt about “Dark Stuff,” though he’s switched his target from dark matter to dark energy. “OK, the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. How does dark energy do that?”

Jim steps up to bat. “At this point dark energy’s just a name. We frankly have no idea what the name represents, although it seems appropriate.”

“Why’s that?”

“Gravity pulls things together, right, and we have evidence that galaxies are flying away from each other. When you pick something up your muscles give it gravitational potential energy that becomes kinetic energy when you let go and it drops. In space, a galaxy moving away from its neighbors gains gravitational potential energy relative to them. If the Energy Conservation Law holds, that energy has to come from somewhere. ‘Dark energy’ is what we call the somewhere, but naming something and understanding it are two different things.”

Newt chips in. “Einstein came at it from a different direction. His General Relativity field equations contained two numbers for observation to fill in — G, Newton’s gravitational constant, and lambda (Λ), which we now call the Cosmological Constant. Lambda measures the energy density of empty space. The equations say the balance between lambda and gravity controls whether the Universe expands, contracts or stays static. Lambda‘s just a little bit positive so the universe is expanding.”

“Same conclusion, different name. Neither one says where the energy comes from.”

That’s my cue. “True, but Einstein’s work goes deeper. Newtonian physics maps the Universe onto a stable grid of straight lines. In General Relativity those lines are deformed and twisted under the influence of massive objects. Vinnie and I talked about how gravity’s a fictitious force arising from that deformation. Like John Wheeler said, ‘Mass tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells mass how to move.’ Anyway, when you throw dark energy’s lambda into the mix, the grid lines themselves go into motion. Dark energy torques the spacetime fabric that pulls galaxies together.”

“So dark energy pulls things apart by spreading out the grid they’re built on? If that’s so how come I’m still in one piece?”

“Nothing personal, but you’re too small and dense to notice. So am I, so is the Earth.”

“Why should that make a difference?”

“Time for a thought experiment. Think of the Sun. The atoms inside its surface are trying to get out, right? What’s holding them in?”

“The Sun’s gravity.”

“Just like pressure on the skin of a balloon. In either case, as long as things are stable the pressure on an enclosing real or mathematical surface rises and falls with the amount of enclosed energy density and it doesn’t matter which we talk about. Energy density’s easier to think about. With me so far?”

“I guess.”

“Let’s run a few horseback numbers on Old Reliable here. Start with protons and neutrons trying to leave an atomic nucleus. Here’s the total binding energy of an iron-56 nucleus divided by its volume…”

“… so the nuclear particles would fly apart except for the inward pressure exerted by the nuclear forces. Now we’ll go up a level and consider electrons trying to leave a helium atom. They’re held in by the electromagnetic force…”

“Still a lot of inward pressure but less than nuclear by fifty-five powers of ten. Gravity next. That’s what keeps us from flying off into space. I’ll use Earth’s escape velocity to cheat-quantify it…”

“Ten billion times weaker than the electromagnetism that holds our atoms and molecules together. Dark energy’s mass density is estimated to be about 10-27 kilograms per cubic meter. I’ll use that and Einstein’s E=mc2to calculate its pull-us-apart pressure.”

“A quintillion times weaker still.”

“So what you’re saying is, dark energy tries to pull everything apart by stretching out that spacetime grid, but it’s too weak to actually do anything to stuff that’s held together by gravity, electromagnetism or the two nuclear forces.”

“Mostly. Nuclear forces are short-range so distance doesn’t matter. Gravity and electromagnetism get weaker with the square of the distance. Dark energy only gets competitive working on objects that are separated much further than even neighboring galaxies. You’re not gonna get pulled apart.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Dark Horizon

Charlie's table sign says "Dark Energy is bogus"

Change-me Charlie attacks his sign with a rag and a marker, rubbing out “Matter” and writing in “Energy.” Turns out his sign is a roll-up dry-erase display and he can update it on site. Cool. I guess with his rotating-topic strategy he needs that. “OK, maybe dark matter’s a thing, but dark energy ain’t. No evidence, someone just made that one up to get famous!”

And of course Physicist-in-training Newt comes back at him. “Lots of evidence. You know about the Universe expanding?”

“Prove it.” At least he’s consistent.

<sigh> “You know how no two snowflakes are exactly alike but they can come close? It applies to stars, too. Stars are fairly simple in a complicated way. If you tell me a star’s mass, age and how much iron it has, I can do a pretty good job of computing how bright it is, how hot it is, its past and future life history, all sort of things. As many stars as there are, we’re pretty much guaranteed that there’s a bunch of them with very similar fundamentals.”

“So?”

“So when a star undergoes a major change like becoming a white dwarf or a neutron star or switching from hydrogen fusion to burning something else, any other star that has the same fundamentals will behave pretty much the same way. They’d all flare with about the same luminosity, pulsate with about the same frequency —”

“Wait. Pulsate?”

“Yeah. You’ve seen campfires where one bit of flame coming out of a hotspot flares up and dies back and flares up and dies back and you get this pulsation —”

“Yeah. I figured that happens with a sappy log where the heat gasifies a little sap then the spot cools off when outside air gets pulled in then the cycle goes again.”

“That could be how it works, depending. Anyhow, a star in the verge of mode change can go through the same kind of process — burn one kind of atom in the core until heat expansion pushes fuel up out of the fusion zone; that cools things down until fuel floods back in and off we go again. The point is, that kind of behavior isn’t unique to a single star. We’ve known about variable stars for two centuries, but it wasn’t until 1908 that Henrietta Swan Leavitt told us how to determine a particular kind of variable star’s luminosity from its pulsation frequency.”

“Who cares?”

“Edwin Hubble cared. Brightness dies off with the distance squared. If you compare the star’s intrinsic luminosity with how bright the star appears here on Earth, it’s simple to calculate how far away the star is. Hubble did that for a couple dozen galaxies and showed they had to be far outside the Milky Way. He plotted red-shift velocity data against those distances and found that the farther away a galaxy is from us, the faster it’s flying away even further.”

“A couple dozen galaxies ain’t much.”

“That was for starters. Since the 1930s we’ve built a whole series of ‘standard candles,’ different kinds of objects whose luminosities we can convert to distances out to 400 million lightyears. They all agree that the Universe is expanding.”

“Well, you gotta expect that, everything going ballistic from the Big Bang.”

“They don’t go the steady speed you’re thinking. As we got better at making really long-distance measurements, we learned that the expansion is accelerating.”

“Wait. I remember my high-school physics. If there’s an acceleration, there’s gotta be a force pushing it. Especially if it’s fighting the force of gravity.”

“Well there you go. Energy is force times distance and you’ve just identified dark energy. But standard candles aren’t the only kind of evidence.”

“There’s more?”

“Sure — ‘standard sirens‘ and ‘standard rulers.’ The sirens are events that generate gravitational waves we pick up with LIGO facilities. The shape and amplitude of the LIGO signals tell us how far away the source was — and that information is completely immune to electromagnetic distortions.”

“And the rulers?”

“They’re objects, like spiral galaxies and intergalactic voids, that we have independent methods for connecting apparent size to distance.”

“And the candles and rulers and sirens all agree that acceleration and dark energy are real?”

“Yessir.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Meanwhile, back at the office

Closing time.  Anne and I stroll from Al’s coffee shop back to the Acme Building.  It’s a clear night with at least 4,500 stars, but Anne’s looking at the velvet black between them.

“What you said, Sy, about the Universe not obeying Conservation of Energy — tell me more about that.”

“Aaa-hmmm … OK.  You’ve heard about the Universe expanding, right?”

“Ye-es, but I don’t know why that happens.”

“Neither do the scientists, but there’s pretty firm evidence that it’s happening, if only at the longest scales.  Stars within galaxies get closer together as they radiate away their gravitational energy.  But the galaxies themselves are getting further apart, as far out as we can measure.”

“What’s that got to do with Conservation of Energy?”

“Well, galaxies have mass so they should be drawn together by gravity the way that gravity pulls stars together inside galaxies.  But that’s not what’s happening.  Something’s actively pushing galaxies or galaxy clusters away from each other.  Giving the something a name like ‘dark energy‘ is just an accounting gimmick to pretend the First Law is still in effect at very large distances — we don’t know the energy source for the pushing, or even if there is one.  There’s a separate set of observations we attribute to a ‘dark energy‘ that may or may not have the same underlying cause.  That’s what I was talking about.”Fading white satin

We’re at the Acme Building.  I flash my badge to get us past Security and into the elevator.  As I reach out to press the ’12’ button she puts her hand on my arm.  “Sy, I want to see if I understand this entropy-elephant thing.  You said entropy started as an accounting gimmick, to help engineers keep track of fuel energy escaping into the surroundings.  Energy absorbed at one temperature they called the environment’s heat capacity.  Total energy absorbed over a range of temperatures, divided by the difference in temperature, they called change in entropy.”

The elevator lets us out on my floor and we walk to door 1217.  “You’ve got it right so far, Anne.  Then what?”

“Then the chemists realized that you can predict how lots of systems will work from only knowing a certain set of properties for the beginning and end states.  Pressure, volume, chemical composition, whatever, but also entropy.  But except for simple gases they couldn’t predict heat capacity or entropy, only measure it.”

My key lets us in.  She leans back against the door frame.  “That’s where your physicists come in, Sy.  They learned that heat in a substance is actually the kinetic energy of its molecules.  Gas molecules can move around, but that motion’s constrained in liquids and even more constrained in solids.  Going from solid to liquid and from liquid to gas absorbs heat energy in breaking those constraints.  That absorbed heat appears as increased entropy.”

She’s lounging against my filing cabinet.  “The other way that substances absorb heat is for parts of molecules to rotate and vibrate relative to other parts.  But there are levels.  Some vibrations excite easier than others, and many rotations are even easier.  In a cold material only some motions are active.  Rising temperature puts more kinds of motion into play.  Heat energy spreads across more and more sub-molecular absorbers.”

She’s perched on the edge of my desk.  “Here’s where entropy as possibility-counting shows up.  More heat, more possibilities, more entropy.  Now we can do arithmetic and prediction instead of measuring.  Anything you can count possibilities for you can think about defining an entropy for, like information bits or black holes or socks.  But it’ll be a different entropy, with its own rules and its own range of validity.  … And…”Riding the Elephant

She’s looming directly over me.  Her dark eyes are huge.

“And…?”

When we first met, Sy, you asked what you could do for me.  You’ve helped me see that when I travel across time and probability I’m riding the Entropy Elephant.  I’d like to show my appreciation.  Can you think of a possibility?”

A dark night, in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.  On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott

Gentle pressure in the dark

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

Vinnie clomps in and he opens the conversation with, “I don’t believe that stuff you wrote about LIGO.  It can’t possibly work the way they say.”

“Well, sir, would you mind telling me why you have a problem with those posts?”  I’m being real polite, because Vinnie’s a smart guy and reads books.  Besides, he’s Vinnie.

“I’m good with your story about how Michelson’s interferometer worked and why there’s no æther.  Makes sense, how the waves mess up when they’re outta step.  Like my platoon had to walk funny when we crossed a bridge.  But the gravity wave thing makes no sense.  When a wave goes by maybe it fiddles space but it can’t change where the LIGO mirrors are.”

“Gravitational wave,” I murmur, but speak up with, “What makes you think that space can move but not the mirrors?”

“I seen how dark energy spreads galaxies apart but they don’t get any bigger.  Same thing must happen in the LIGO machine.”

“Not the same, Vinnie.  I’ll show you the numbers.”

“Ah, geez, don’t do calculus at me.”de-vs-gravity

“No, just arithmetic we can do on a spreadsheet.” I fire up the laptop and start poking in  astronomical (both senses) numbers.  “Suppose we compare what happens when two galaxies face each other in intergalactic space, with what happens when two stars face each other inside a galaxy.  The Milky Way’s my favorite galaxy and the Sun’s my favorite star.  Can we work with those?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“OK, we’ll need a couple of mass numbers.  The Sun’s mass is… (sound of keys clicking as I query Wikipedia) … 2×1030 kilograms, and the Milky Way has (more key clicks) about 1012 stars.  Let’s pretend they’re all the Sun’s size so the galaxy’s mass is (2×1030)×1012 = 2×1042 kg. Cute how that works, multiplying numbers by adding exponents, eh?”

“Cute, yeah, cute.”  He’s getting a little impatient.

“Next step is the sizes.  The Milky Way’s radius is 10×104 lightyears, give or take..  At 1016 meters per lightyear, we can say it’s got a radius of 5×1020 meters.  You remember the formula for the area of a circle?”

“Sure, it’s πr2.” I told you Vinnie’s smart.

“Right, so the Milky Way’s area is 25π×1040 m2.  Meanwhile, the Sun’s radius is 1.4×109 m and its cross-sectional area must be 2π×1018 m2.  Are you with me?”

“Yeah, but what’re we doing playing with areas?  Newton’s gravity equations just talk about distances between centers.”  I told you Vinnie’s smart.

“OK, we’ll do gravity first.  Suppose we’ve got our Milky Way facing another Milky Way an average inter-galactic distance away.  That’s about 60 galaxy radii,  about 300×1020 meters.  The average distance between stars in the Milky Way is about 4 lightyears or 4×1016 meters.  (I can see he’s hooked so I take a risk)  You’re so smart, what’s that Newton equation?”

Force or potential energy?”

“Alright, I’m impressed.  Let’s go for force.”

“Force equals Newton’s G times the product of the masses divided by the square of the distance.”

“Full credit, Vinnie.  G is about 7×10-11 newton-meter²/kilogram², so we’ve got a gravity force of (typing rapidly) (7×10-11)×(2×1042)×(2×1042)/(300×1020)² = 3.1×1029 N for the galaxies, and (7×10-11)×(2×1030)×(2×1030)/(4×1016)² = 1.75×1017 N for the stars.  Capeesh?”

“Yeah, yeah.  Get on with it.”

“Now for dark energy.  We don’t know what it is, but theory says it somehow exerts a steady pressure that pushes everything away from everything.  That outward pressure’s exerted here in the office, out in space, everywhere.  Pressure is force per unit area, which is why we calculated areas.

“But the pressure’s really, really weak.  Last I saw, the estimate’s on the order of 10-9 N/m².  So our Milky Way is pushed away from that other one by a force of (10-9)×(25π×1040) ≈ 1031 N, and our Sun is pushed away from that other star by a force of (10-9)×(2π×1018) ≈ 1010 N with rounding.  Here, look at the spreadsheet summary…”

 Force, newtons Between Galaxies Between stars
Gravity 3.1×1029 1.75×1017
Dark energy 1031 1010
Ratio 3.1×10-2 17.5×106

“So gravity’s force pulling stars together is 18 million times stronger than dark energy’s pressure pushing them apart.  That’s why the galaxies aren’t expanding.”

“Gotta go.”

(sound of door-slam )

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott