There’s a lot of not much in Space

A while ago I drove from Denver to Fort Worth, and I was impressed. See, there’s a lot of not much in eastern Colorado. It’s pretty much the same in western Oklahoma except there’s less not much because there’s less of Oklahoma – but Texas has way more not much than anybody.

That gives Texas not much to brag about, but they do the best they can, bless their hearts.

What got me started on this rant was a a pair of astronomical factoids Katherine Kornei wrote in the Nov 2014 Discover magazine.

“If galaxies were shrunk to the size of apples, neighboring galaxies would be only a few meters apart….”
“If the stars within galaxies were shrunk to the size of oranges, they would be separated by 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles).”

Apple orangeSo there’s a lot of not much between galaxies, but a whole lot more not much, relatively speaking, within them. I just measured an apple and an orange in my kitchen. They’re both about the same size, 3 inches in diameter, so I have no idea why she chose different fruits – perhaps she wanted to avoid comparing apples and oranges.

Anyway, if you felt like doing the galaxy visualization you could put two apple galaxies on the floor about 12 feet apart and then line up about 50 apples between them. A fair amount of space for more galaxies.

To see inside a galaxy you could put one orange star in Miami FL, and its on-the-average nearest orange neighbor in Seattle WA. Then you could set out a long skinny row of just about 63 million oranges in between. Oh, and on this scale the nearest galaxy would be about 2 billion miles (or 43 quadrillion oranges) away. Way more not much inside a galaxy than between two neighboring ones.

So if we squeeze all those apples and oranges together we’d get rid of all the empty space, right?

Not by a long shot. Nearly all those stars are balls of very hot gas, which means they’re made up of atoms crossing empty space inside the star to collide with other atoms. Relative to the size of the atoms, how much empty space is there inside the star?

Matryoshkii 1For example, every chemistry student learns that 6×1023 molecules of any gas take up a volume of 22.4 liters at normal Earth temperature and pressure. For a single-atom gas like helium that works out to about 22 atom-widths between atoms.

Now think about emptiness inside the Sun. If it’s a typical star (which it is) and if all of its atoms are hydrogen (which they mostly are) and if the average density of the Sun (1408 kg/m3) applied all the way down to the center of the Sun (which it doesn’t), and if we believe NASA’s numbers for the Sun (hey, why not?), then the average density works out to about 0.7 atom-widths between neighbors.

So no empty space to squeeze out of the Sun, eh? Well, actually there is quite a lot, because those atoms are mostly empty space, too.

OK, I cheated up there about the Sun, because virtually all of the Sun’s atoms have been dissociated into separated electrons and nuclei. The nucleus is much smaller than than its atom – by a factor of 60,000 or so. Think of a grape seed in the middle of a football field.

To sum it upward, we’ve got a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, one inside the next. At the center is a collection of grape seeds, billions and billions of them, each in their own football field. The football fields are all balled into a stellar orange (or maybe an apple), but there are billions of those crammed into a galactic apple (or maybe an orange) that’s about ten feet away from the nearest other piece of fruit.

As Douglas Adams wrote in Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy,

“Space … is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…”

The thing to realize is that the function of all that space is to keep everything from being in the same place. That’s important.

~~ Rich Olcott

Heisenberg’s Area

Unlike politicians, scientists want to know what they’re talking about when they use a technical word like  “Uncertainty.”  When Heisenberg laid out his Uncertainty Principle, he wasn’t talking about doubt.  He was talking about how closely experimental results can cluster together, and he was putting that in numbers.

ArrowsThink of Robin Hood competing for the Golden Arrow.  For the showmanship of the thing, Robin wasn’t just trying to hit the target, he wanted his arrow to split the Sheriff’s.  If the Sheriff’s shot was in the second ring (moderate accuracy, from the target’s point of view), then Robin’s had to hit exactly the same off-center location (still moderate accuracy but great precision).  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) is all about precision (a.k.a, range of variation).

We’ve all encountered exams that were graded “on the curve.”  But what curve is that?  I can say from personal experience that it’s extraordinarily difficult to create an exam where  the average grade is 75.  I want to give everyone the chance to show what they’ve learned.  Each student probably learned only part of what’s in the unit, but I won’t know which part until after the exam is graded.  The only way to be fair is to ask about everything in the unit.  Students complained that my tests were really hard because to get 100 they had to know it all.

Translating test scores to grades for a small class was straightforward.  I would plot how many papers got between 95 and 100, how many got 90-95, etc, and look at the graph.  Nearly always it looked like the top example.  TestsThere’s a few people who clearly have the material down pat; they clearly earned an “A.”  Then there’s a second group who didn’t do as well as the A’s but did significantly better than the rest of the class — they earned a “B.”  As the other end there’s a (hopefully small) group of students who are floundering.  Long-term I tried to give them extra help but short-term I had no choice but to give them an “F.”

With a large class those distinctions get blurred and all I saw (usually) was a single broad range of scores, the well-known “bell-shaped curve.”  If the test was easy the bell was centered around a high score.  If the test was hard that center was much lower.  What’s interesting, though, is that the width of that bell for a given class stayed pretty much the same.  The curve’s width is described by a number called the standard deviation (SD), proportional to the width at half-height.  If a student asked, “What’s my score?” I could look at the curve for that exam and say there’s a 66% chance that the score was within one SD of the average, and a 95% chance that it was within two SD’s.

The same bell-shape also shows up in research situations where a scientist wants to measure some real-world number, be it an asteroid’s weight or elephant gestation time.  He can’t know the true value, so instead he makes many replicate measurements or pays close attention to many pregnant elephants.  He summarizes his results by reporting the average of all the measurements and also the SD calculated from those measurements.  Just as for the exams, there’s a 95% chance that the true value is within two SD’s of the average.  The scientist would say that the SD represents the uncertainty of the measured average.

Which is what Heisenberg’s inequality is about.  Heisenberg area 1He wrote that the product of two paired uncertainties (like position and momentum) must be larger than that teeny “quantum of action,” h.  There’s a trade-off.  We can refine our measurement of one variable but we’ll lose precision on the other.  If we plot results for one member of the pair against results for the other, there’s no linkage between their average values.  However, there will be a rectangle in the middle representing the combined uncertainty.

Heisenberg tells us that the minimum area of that rectangle is a constant.

It’s a very small rectangle, area = h/4π = 0.5×10-34 Joule-sec, but it’s significant on the scale of atoms — and maybe on the scale of the Universe (see next week).

~~ Rich Olcott