Three Body Problems

The local science museum had a showing of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar so of course I went to see it again.  Awesome visuals and (mostly) good science because Nolan had tapped the expertise of Dr Kip Thorne, one of the primary creators of LIGO.  On the way out, Vinnie collared me.

“Hey, Sy, ‘splain something to me.”

“I can try, but first let’s get out of the weather.  Al’s coffee OK with you?”

“Yeah, sure, if his scones are fresh-baked.”

Al saw me walking in.  “Hey, Sy, you’re in luck, I just pulled a tray of cinnamon scones out of the oven.”  Then he saw Vinnie.  “Aw, geez, there go my paper napkins again.”

Vinnie was ready.  “Nah, we’ll use the backs of some ad flyers I grabbed at the museum.  And gimme, uh, two of the cinnamons and a large coffee, black.”

“Here you go.”

At our table I said, “So what’s the problem with the movie?”

“Nobody shrank.  All this time we been talking about how things get smaller in a strong gravity field.  That black hole, Gargantua, was huge.  The museum lecture guy said it was like 100 million times as heavy as the Sun.  When the people landed on its planet they should have been teeny but everything was just regular-size.  And what’s up with that ‘one hour on the planet is seven years back home’ stuff?”

“OK, one thing at a time.  When the people were on the planet, where was the movie camera?”

“On the planet, I suppose.”

“Was the camera influenced by the same gravitational effects that the people were?”

“Ah, it’s the frames thing again, ain’t it?  I guess in the on-planet inertial frame everything stays the relative size they’re used to, even though when we look at the planet from our far-away frame we see things squeezed together.”

(I’ve told you that Vinnie’s smart.)  “You got it.  OK, now for the time thing.  By the way, it’s formally known as ‘time dilation.’  Remember the potential energy/kinetic energy distinction?”

“Yeah.  Potential energy depends on where you are, kinetic energy depends on how you’re moving.”

“Got it in one.  It turns out that energy and time are deeply intertwined all through physics.  Would you be surprised if I told you that there are two kinds of time dilation, one related to gravitational potential and the other to velocity?”

“Nothing would surprise me these days.  Go on.”

“The gravity one dropped out of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.  The velocity one arose from his General Relativity work.”  I grabbed one of those flyers.  “Ready for a little algebra?”

“Geez.  OK, I asked for it.”gargantua-3
“You certainly did.  I’ll just give you the results, and mind you these apply only near a non-rotating sphere with no electric charge.  Things get complicated otherwise.  Suppose the sphere has mass M and you’re circling around it at a distance r from its geometric center.  You’ve got a metronome ticking away at n beats per your second and you’re perfectly happy with that.  We good?”

“So far.”

“I’m watching you from way far away.  I see your metronome running slow, at only n√[1-(2 G·M/r·c²)] beats per my second.  G is Newton’s gravity constant, c is the speed of light.  See how the square root has to be less than 1?”

“Your speed of light or my speed of light?”

“Good question, considering we’re talking about time and space getting all contorted, but Einstein guarantees that both of us measure exactly the same speed.  So anyway, in the movie both the Miller’s Planet landing team and that poor guy left on good ship  Endurance are circling Gargantua.  Earth observers would see both their clocks running slow.  But Endurance is much further out (larger r, smaller fraction) from Gargantua than Miller’s Planet is.  Endurance’s distance gave its clock more beats per Earth second than the planet gets, which is why the poor guy aged so much waiting for the team to return.”

“I wondered about that.”

Then we heard Ramona’s husky contralto.  “Hi, guys.  Al said you were back here talking physics.  Who wants to take me dancing?”

We both stood up, quickly.

“Whee, this’ll be fun.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Shift in The Flight

I heard a familiar squeak from the floorboard outside my office.

“C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.  What can I do for you?”

“I still got problems with LIGO.  I get that dark energy and cosmic expansion got nothin’ to do with it.  But you mentioned inertial frame and what’s that about?”

earth-moon“Does the Moon go around the Earth or does the Earth go around the Moon?”

“Huh?  Depends on where you are, I guess.”

“Well, there you are.”

“Waitaminnit!  That can’t be all there is to it!”

“You’re right, there’s more.  It all goes back to Newton’s First Law.”  (showing him my laptop screen)  “Here’s how Wikipedia puts it in modern terms…”

In an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a net force.

“That’s really a definition rather than a Law.  If you’re looking at an object and it doesn’t move relative to you or else it’s moving at constant speed in a straight line, then you and the object share the same inertial frame.  If it changes speed or direction relative to you, then it’s in a different inertial frame from yours and Newton’s Laws say that there must be some force that accounts for the difference.”

“So another guy’s plane flying straight and level with me has a piece of my inertial frame?”

“Yep, even if you’re on different vectors.  You only lose that linkage if either airplane accelerates or curves off.”

“So how’s that apply to LIGO’s laser beams?  I thought light always traveled in straight lines.”

“It does, but what’s a straight line?”

“Shortest distance between two points — I been to flight school, Sy.”

“Fine.  So if you fly from London to Mexico City on this globe here you’d drill through the Earth?”mex-atl-jfk-lgw

“Of course not, I’d take the Great Circle route that goes through those two cities.  It’s the shortest flight path.  Hey, how ’bout that, the circle goes through NYC and Atlanta, too.”

“Cool observation, but that line looks like a curve from where I sit.”

“Yeah, but you’re not sittin’ close to the globe’s surface.  I gotta fly in the flight space I got.”

“So does light.  Photons always take the shortest available path, though sometimes that path looks like a curve unless you’re on it, too.  Einstein predicted that starlight passing through the Sun’s gravitational field would be bent into a curve.  Three years later, Eddington confirmed that prediction.”

“Light doesn’t travel in a straight line?”

“It certainly does — light’s path defines what is a straight line in the space the light is traveling through.  Same as your plane’s flight path defines that Great Circle route.  A gravitational field distorts the space surrounding it and light obeys the distortion.”

“You’re getting to that ‘inertial frames’ stuff, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I think we’re ready for it.  You and that other pilot are flying steady-speed paths along two navigation beams, OK?”

“Navigation beams are radio-frequency.”

“Sure they are, but radio’s just low-frequency light.  Stay with me.  So the two of you are zinging along in the same inertial frame but suddenly a strong gravitational field cuts across just your beam and bends it.  You keep on your beam, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“And now you’re on a different course than the other plane.  What happened to your inertial frame?”

“It also broke away from the other guy’s.”

“Because you suddenly got selfish?”

“No, ’cause my beam curved ’cause the gravity field bent it.”

“Do the radio photons think they’re traveling a bent path?”

“Uh, no, they’re traveling in a straight line in a bent space.”

“Does that space look bent to you?”

“Well, I certainly changed course away from the other pilot’s.”

“Ah, but that’s referring to his inertial frame or the Earth’s, not yours.  Your inertial frame is determined by how those photons fly, right?  In terms of your frame, did you peel away or stay on-beam?”

“OK, so I’m on-beam, following a straight path in a space that looks bent to someone using a different inertial frame.  Is that it?”

“You got it.”

(sounds of departing footsteps and closing door)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott