Three ways to look at things

A familiar shadow loomed in from the hallway.

“C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“I brought some sandwiches, Sy.”

“Oh, thanks, Vinnie.”

“Don’t mention it.    An’ I got another LIGO issue.”


“Ohh, yeah.  Now we got that frame thing settled, how does it apply to what you wrote back when?  I got a copy here…”

The local speed of light (miles per second) in a vacuum is constant.  Where space is compressed, the miles per second don’t change but the miles get smaller.  The light wave slows down relative to the uncompressed laboratory reference frame.

“Ah, I admit I was a bit sloppy there.  Tell you what, let’s pretend we’re piloting a pair of space shuttles following separate navigation beams that are straight because that’s what light rays do.  So long as we each fly a straight line at constant speed we’re both using the same inertial frame, right?”


“And if a gravity field suddenly bent your beam to one side, you’d think you’re still flying straight but I’d think you’re headed on a new course, right?”

“Yeah, because now we’d have different inertial frames.  I’d think your heading has changed, too.”two-shuttles

“So what does the guy running the beams see?”

“Oh, ground-pounders got their own inertial frame, don’t they?  Uhh… He sees me veer off and you stay steady ’cause the gravity field bent only my beam.”

“Right — my shuttle and the earth-bound observer share the same inertial frame, for a while.”

“A while?”

“Forever if the Earth were flat because I’d be flying straight and level, no threat to the shared frame.  But the Earth’s not flat.  If I want to stay at constant altitude then I’ve got to follow the curve of the surface rather than follow the light beam straight out into space.  As soon as I vector downwards I have a different frame than the guy on the ground because he sees I’m not in straight-line motion.”

“It’s starting to get complicated.”

“No worries, this is as bad as it gets.  Now, let’s get back to square one and we’re flying along and this time the gravity field compresses your space instead of bending it.  What happens?  What do you experience?”

“Uhh… I don’t think I’d feel any difference.  I’m compressed, the air molecules I breath are compressed, everything gets smaller to scale.”

“Yup.  Now what do I see?  Do we still have the same inertial frame?”

“Wow.  Lessee… I’m still on the beam so no change in direction.  Ah!  But if my space is compressed, from your frame my miles look shorter.  If I keep going the same miles per second by my measure, then you’ll see my speed drop off.”

“Good thinking but there’s even more to it.  Einstein showed that space compression and time dilation are two sides of the same phenomenon.  When I look at you from my inertial frame, your miles appear to get shorter AND your seconds appear to get longer.”

“My miles per second slow way down from the double whammy, then?”

“Yup, but only in my frame and that other guy’s down on the ground, not in yours.”

“Wait!  If my space is compressed, what happens to the space around what got compressed?  Doesn’t the compression immediately suck in the rest of the Universe?”

“Einstein’s got that covered, too.  He showed that gravity doesn’t act instantaneously.  Whenever your space gets compressed, the nearby space stretches to compensate (as seen from an independent frame, of course).  The edge of the stretching spreads out at the speed of light.  But the stretch deformation gets less intense as it spreads out because it’s only offsetting a limited local compression.”

“OK, let’s get back to LIGO.  We got a laser beam going back and forth along each of two perpendicular arms, and that famous gravitational wave hits one arm broadside and the other arm cross-wise.  You gonna tell me that’s the same set-up as me and you in the two shuttles?”

“That’s what I’m going to tell you.”

“And the guy on the ground is…”

“The laboratory inertial reference.”

“Eat your sandwich, I gotta think about this.”

(sounds of departing footsteps and closing door)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott


The Force(s) of Geometry

There’s a lot more to Geometry than congruent triangles.  Geometry can generate hurricanes and slam you to the floor.

It all starts (of course) with Newton.  His three laws boil down to

Effect is to Cause as Change of Motion is to Force.

They successfully account for the physical movement of pretty much everything bigger than an atom.  But sometimes the forces are a bit weird and it takes Geometry to understand them.

Side forceFor instance, suppose Fred and Ethel collaborate on a narwhale research project.  Fred is based in San Diego CA and Ethel works out of Norfolk VA. They fly to meet their research vessel at the North Pole. Fred’s plane follows the green track, Ethel’s plane follows the yellow one.  At the start of the trip, they’re on parallel paths going straight north (the dotted lines).  After a few hours, though, Ethel notices the two planes pulling closer together.

Ethel calls on her Newton knowledge to explain the phenomenon.  “It can’t be Earth’s gravity moving us together, because that force points down to Earth’s center and this is a sideways motion.  Our planes each weigh about 2000 kilograms and we’re still 2,000 kilometers apart.  By Newton’s F = G m1m2/r2 equation, the gravitational force between us should be (6.7×10-11 N m2/kg2) x (2000 kg) x (2000 kg) / (2,000 m)2 = 6.7×10-11 newtons, way too small to account for our speed of approach.  Both planes were electrically grounded when we fueled up, so we’re both carrying a neutral electric charge and it can’t be an electrostatic force.  If it were magnetic my compass would be going nuts and it’s not.  Woo-hoo, I’ve discovered a new kind of force!”

See what I did there?  Fred and Ethel would have stayed a constant distance apart if Earth were a cylinder.  Parallel lines running up a cylinder never meet.  But Earth is a sphere, not a cylinder.  Any pair of lines on a sphere must meet, sooner or later.  Ethel’s “sideways force” is a product of Geometry.

Images extracted from NOAA’s SOS Explorer app, available from

Hurricanes, too.  This video shows a day in the life of Hurricane Sandy.  Weather geeks will find several interesting details there, but for now just notice the centers of  counter-clockwise rotation (the one off the Florida coast is Sandy).  Storm centers in the Northern Hemisphere virtually always spin counterclockwise.  Funny thing is, in the Southern Hemisphere those centers go clockwise instead.

The difference has to do with angular momentum.  We could get all formal vector math here, but the easy way is to consider how fast the air is moving in different parts of the world.

We’ve all seen at least one ice show act where skaters form a spinning line. The last skater to join up (usually it’s a short girl) has to push like mad to catch the end of that moving line and everyone applauds her success. Meanwhile the tall girl at the center of the line is barely moving except to fend off dizziness.

YellowknifeThe line rotates as a unit — every skater completes a 360o rotation in the same time. Similarly, everywhere on Earth a day lasts for exactly 24 hours.

Skaters at the end of the line must skate faster than those further in because they have to cover a greater distance in the same amount of time.  The same geometry applies to Earth’s atmosphere.  The Earth is 25,000 miles around at the equator but only 12,500 miles around near the latitude of Whitehorse, Canada.  By and large, a blob of air at the equator must move twice as fast as a blob at 60o north.

chain 2Now suppose our speedy skater hits a slushy patch of ice.  Her end of the line is slowed down, so what happens to the rest of the line?  It deforms — there’s a new center of rotation that forces the entire line to curl around towards the slow spot.  Similarly, that blob near the Equator in the split-Earth diagram curls in the direction of the slower-moving air to its north, which is counter-clockwise.

In the Southern hemisphere, “slower” is southward and clockwise.

If not for Geometry (those differing circle sizes), we wouldn’t have hurricanes.  Or gravity — but that’s another story.

~~ Rich Olcott