Tilting at Black Holes

“What’s the cause-effect-time thing got to do with black holes and information?”

“We’re getting there, Al. What happens to spacetime near a black hole?”

“Everybody knows that, Sy, spacetime gets stretched and squeezed until there’s infinite time dilation at the Event Horizon.”

“As usual, Vinnie, what everybody knows isn’t quite what is. Yes, Schwarzschild’s famous solution includes that Event Horizon infinity but it’s an artifact of his coordinate system. Al, you know about coordinate systems?”

“I’m a star-watcher, Sy. Sure, I know about latitude and longitude, declination and right ascension, all that stuff no problem.”

“Good. Well, Einstein wrote his General Relativity equations using generalized coordinates, like x,y,z but with no requirement that they be straight lines or at right angles. Schwarzschild solved the equations for a non‑rotating sphere so naturally he used spherical coordinates — radius, latitude and longitude. Since then other people have solved the equations for more complicated cases using more complicated coordinate systems. Their solutions don’t have that infinity.”

“No infinity?”

“Not that one, anyhow. The singularity at the hole’s geometric center is a real thing, not an artifact. So’s a general Event Horizon, but it’s not quite where Schwarzschild said it should be and it doesn’t have quite the properties that everybody thinks they know it has. It’s still weird, though.”

“How so?”

“First thing you have to understand is that when you get close to a black hole, you don’t feel any different. Except for the spaghettification, of course.”

“It’s frames again, ain’t it?”

“With black holes it’s always frames, Vinnie. If you’re living in a distorted space you won’t notice it. Whirl a meter‑long sword around, you’d always see it as a meter long. A distant observer would see you and everything around you as being distorted right along with your space. They’ll see that sword shrink and grow as it passes through different parts of the distortion.”


“We’re just getting started, Al. Time’s involved, too. <grabbing a paper napkin and sketching> Here’s three axes, just like x,y,z except one’s time, the G one points along a gravity field, and the third one is perpendicular to the other two. By the way, Al, great idea, getting paper napkins printed like graph paper.”

“My location’s between the Physics and Astronomy buildings, Sy. Gotta consider my clientele. Besides, I got a deal on the shipment. What’s the twirly around that third axis?”

“It’s a reminder that there’s a couple of space dimensions that aren’t in the picture. Now suppose the red ball is a shuttlecraft on an exploration mission. The blue lines are its frame. The thick vertical red line shows it’s not moving because there’s no spatial extent along G. <another paper napkin, more sketching> This second drawing is the mothership’s view from a comfortable distance of the shuttlecraft near a black hole.”

“You’ve got the time axis tilted. What’s that about?”

“Spacetime being distorted by the black hole. You’ve heard Vinnie and me talk about time dilation and space compression like they’re two different phenomena. Thing is, they’re two sides of the same coin. On this graph that shows up as time tilted to mix in with the BH direction.”

“How about those twirly directions?”

“Vinnie, you had to ask. In the simple case where everything’s holding still and you’re not too close to the black hole, those two aren’t much affected. If the big guy’s spinning or if the Event Horizon spans a significant amount of your sky, all four dimensions get stressed. Let’s keep things simple, okay?”

“Fine. So the time axis is tilted, so what?”

“We in the distant mothership see the shuttlecraft moving along pure tilted time. The shuttlecraft doesn’t. The dotted red lines mark its measurements in its blue‑line personal frame. Shuttlecraft clocks run slower than the mothership’s. Worse, it’s falling toward the black hole.”

“Can’t it get away?”

“Al, it’s a shuttlecraft. It can just accelerate to the left.”

“If it’s not too close, Vinnie. The accelerative force it needs is the product of both masses, divided by the distance squared. Sound familiar?”

“That’s Newton’s Law of Gravity. This is how gravity works?”

“General Relativity cut its teeth on describing that tilt.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Deep Symmetry

“Sy, I can understand mathematicians getting seriously into symmetry. They love patterns and I suppose they’ve even found patterns in the patterns.”

“They have, Anne. There’s a whole field called ‘Group Theory‘ devoted to classifying symmetries and then classifying the classifications. The split between discrete and continuous varieties is just the first step.”

“You say ‘symmetry‘ like it’s a thing rather than a quality.”

“Nice observation. In this context, it is. Something may be symmetrical, that’s a quality. Or it may be subject to a symmetry operation, say a reflection across its midline. Or it may be subject to a whole collection of operations that match the operations of some other object, say a square. In that case we say our object has the symmetry of a square. It turns out that there’s a limited number of discrete symmetries, few enough that they’ve been given names. Squares, for instance, have D4 symmetry. So do four-leaf clovers and the Washington Monument.”

“OK, the ‘4’ must be in there because you can turn it four times and each time it looks the same. What’s the ‘D‘ about?”

Dihedral, two‑sided, like two appearances on either side of a reflection. That’s opposed to ‘C‘ which comes from ‘Cyclic’ like 1‑2‑3‑4‑1‑2‑3‑4. My lawn sprinkler has C4 symmetry, no mirrors, but add one mirror and bang! you’ve got eight mirrors and D4 symmetry.”

“Eight, not just four?”

“Eight. Two mirrors at 90° generate another one 45° between them. That’s the thing with symmetry operations, they combine and multiply. That’s also why there’s a limited number of symmetries. You think you’ve got a new one but when you work out all the relationships it turns out to be an old one looked at from a different angle. Cubes, for instance — who knew they have a three‑fold rotation axis along each body diagonal, but they do.”

“I guess symmetry can make physics calculations simpler because you only have to do one symmetric piece and then spread the results around. But other than that, why do the physicists care?”

“Actually they don’t care much about most of the discrete symmetries but they care a whole lot about the continuous kind. A century ago, a young German mathematician named Emmy Noether proved that within certain restrictions, every continuous symmetry comes along with a conserved quantity. That proof suddenly tied together a bunch of Physics specialties that had grown up separately — cosmology, relativity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, optics, classical Newtonian mechanics, fluid mechanics, nuclear physics, even string theory—”

“Very large to very small, I get that, but how can one theory have that range? And what’s a conserved quantity?”

“It’s theorem, not theory, and it capped two centuries of theoretical development. Conserved quantities are properties that don’t change while a system evolves from one state to another. Newton’s First Law of Motion was about linear momentum as a conserved quantity. His Second Law, F=ma, connected force with momentum change, letting us understand how a straight‑line system evolves with time. F=ma was our first Equation of Motion. It was a short step from there to rotational motion where we found a second conserved quantity, angular momentum, and an Equation of Motion that had exactly the same form as Newton’s first one, once you converted from linear to angular coordinates.”

“Converting from x-y to radius-angle, I take it.”

“Exactly, Anne, with torque serving as F. That generalization was the first of many as physicists learned how to choose the right generalized coordinates for a given system and an appropriate property to serve as the momentum. The amazing thing was that so many phenomena follow very similar Equations of Motion — at a fundamental level, photons and galaxies obey the same mathematics. Different details but the same form, like a snowflake rotated by 60 degrees.”

“Ooo, lovely, a really deep symmetry!”

“Mm-hm, and that’s where Noether came in. She showed that for a large class of important systems, smooth continuous symmetry along some coordinate necessarily entails a conserved quantity. Space‑shift symmetry implies conservation of momentum, time‑shift symmetry implies conservation of energy, other symmetries lock in a collection of subatomic quantities.”

“Symmetry explains a lot, mm-hm.”

~~ Rich Olcott