How To Wave A Camel

“You’re sayin’, Sy, no matter what kind of wave we got, we can break it down by amplitude, frequency and phase?”

“Right, Vinnie. Your ears do that automatically. They grab your attention for the high-amplitude loud sounds and the high-frequency screechy ones. Goes back to when we had to worry about predators, I suppose.”

“I know about music instruments and that, but does it work for other kinds of waves?”

“It works for waves in general. You can match nearly any shape with the right combination of sine waves. There’s a few limitations. The shape has to be single-valued — no zig-zags — and it has to be continuous — no stopping over here and starting over there..”

“Ha! Challenge for you then. Use waves to draw a camel. Better yet– make it a two-humped camel.”

“A Bactrian camel, eh? OK, there’s pizza riding on this, you understand. <keys clicking> All right, image search for Bactrian camel … there’s a good one … scan for its upper profile … got that … tack on some zeroes fore and aft … dump that into my Fourier analysis engine … pull the coefficients … plot out the transform — wait, just for grins, plot it out in stages on top of the original … here you are, Vinnie, you owe me pizza.”

“OK, what it it?”

“Your Bactrian camel.”

“Yeah, I can see that, but what’s with the red line and the numbers?”

“OK, the red line is the sum of a certain number of sine waves with different frequencies but they all start and end at the same places. The number says how many waves were used in the sum. See how the ‘1‘ line is just a single peak, ‘3‘ is more complicated and so on? But I can’t just add sine waves together — that’d give the same curve no matter what data I use. Like in a church choir. The director doesn’t want everyone to sing at top volume all the time. Some passages he wants to bring out the alto voices so he hushes the men and sopranos, darker passages he may want the bases and baritones to dominate. Each section has to come in with its own amplitude.”

“So you give each sine wave an amplitude before you add ’em together. Makes sense, but how do you know what amplitudes to give out?”

“That gets into equations, which I know you don’t like. In practice these days you get all the amplitudes in one run of the Fast Fourier Transform algorithm, but it’s easier to think of it as the stepwise process that they used before the late 1960s. You start with the lowest-frequency sine wave that fits between the start- and end-points of your data.”

“Longest wavelength to match the data length, gotcha.”

“Mm-hm. So you put in that wave with an amplitude near the average value of your data in the middle art of the range. That’s picture number 1.”

“Step 2 is to throw in the next shorter wavelength that fits, right? Half the wavelength, with an amplitude to match the differences between your data and wave 1. And then you keep going.”

“You got the idea. Early physicists and their grad students used up an awful lot of pencils, paper and calculator time following exactly that strategy. Painful. The FFT programs freed them up to do real thinking.”

“So you get a better and better approximation from adding more and more waves. What stopped you from getting it perfect?”

“Two things — first, you can’t use more waves than about half the number of data points. Second, you see the funny business at his nose? Those come from edges and sudden sharp changes, which Fourier doesn’t handle well. That’s why edges look flakey in JPEG images that were saved in high-compression mode.”

“Wait, what does JPEG have to do with this?”

“JPEG and most other kinds of compressed digital image, you can bet that Fourier-type transforms were in play. Transforms are crucial in spectroscopy, astronomy, weather prediction, MP3 music recordings –“

Suddenly Vinnie’s wearing a big grin. “I got a great idea! While that Klingon ship’s clamped in our tractor beam, we can add frequencies that’d make them vibrate to Brahms’ Lullaby.”

“Bad idea. They’d send back Klingon Opera.”

~~ Rich Olcott

LIGO: Gravity Waves Ain’t Gravitational Waves

Sometimes the media get sloppy.  OK, a lot of times, especially when the reporters don’t know what they’re writing about.  Despite many headlines that “LIGO detected gravity waves,” that’s just not so.  In fact, the LIGO team went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that gravity waves didn’t muck up their search for gravitational waves.

Spring2A wave happens in a system when a driving force and a restoring force take turns overshooting an equilibrium point AND the away-from-equilibrium-ness gets communicated around the system.  The system could be a bunch of springs tied together in a squeaky old bedframe, or labor and capital in an economic system, or the network of water molecules forming the ocean surface, or the fibers in the fabric of space (whatever those turn out to be).

If you  were to build a mathematical model of some wavery system you’d have to include those two forces plus quantitative descriptions of the thingies that do the moving and communicating.  If you don’t add anything else, the model will predict motion that cycles forever.  In reality, of course, there’s always something else that lets the system relax into equilibrium.

The something else could be a third force, maybe someone sitting on the bed, or government regulation in an economy, or reactant depletion for a chemical process.  But usually it’s friction of one sort or another — friction drains away energy of motion and converts it to heat.  Inside a spring, for instance, adjacent crystallites of metal rub against each other.  There appears to be very little friction in space — we can see starlight waves that have traveled for billions of years.

Physicists pay attention to waves because there are some general properties that apply to all of them.  For instance, in 1743 Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert proved there’s a strict relationship between a wave’s peakiness and its time behavior.  Furthermore, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier (pre-Revolutionary France must have been hip-deep in physicist-mathematicians) showed that a wide variety of more-or-less periodic phenomena could be modeled as the sum of waves of differing frequency and amplitude.

Monsieur Fourier’s insight has had an immeasurable impact on our daily lives.  You can thank him any time you hear the word “frequency.”  From broadcast radio and digitally recorded music to time-series-based business forecasting to the mode-locked lasers in a LIGO device — none would exist without Fourier’s reasoning.

Gravity waves happen when a fluid is disturbed and the restoring force is gravity.  We’re talking physicist fluid here, which could be sea water or the atmosphere or solar plasma, anything where the constituent particles aren’t locked in place. Winds or mountain slopes or nuclear explosions push the fluid upwards, gravity pulls it back, and things wobble until friction dissipates that energy.

Gravitational waves are wobbles in gravity itself, or rather, wobbles in the shape of space.  According to General Relativity, mass exerts a tension-like force that squeezes together the spacetime immediately around it.  The more mass, the greater the tension.

Binary BH with AENAn isolated black hole is surrounded by an intense gravitational field and a corresponding compression of spacetime.  A pair of black holes orbiting each other sends out an alternating series of tensions, first high, then extremely high, then high…

Along any given direction from the pair you’d feel a pulsing gravitational field that varied above and below the average force attracting you to the pair.  From a distance and looking down at the orbital plane, if you could see the shape of space you’d see it was distorted by four interlocking spirals of high and low compression, all steadily expanding at the speed of light.

The LIGO team was very aware that the signal of a gravitational wave could be covered up by interfering signals from gravity waves — ocean tides, Earth tides, atmospheric disturbances, janitorial footsteps, you name it.  The design team arrayed each LIGO site with hundreds of “seismometers, accelerometers, microphones, magnetometers, radio receivers, power monitors and a cosmic ray detector.”  As the team processed the LIGO trace they accounted for artifacts that could have come from those sources.

So no, the LIGO team didn’t discover gravity waves, we’ve known about them for a century.  But they did detect the really interesting other kind.

~~ Rich Olcott