# Gravity’s Real Rainbow

Some people are born to scones, some have scones thrust upon them.  As I stepped into his coffee shop this morning, Al was loading a fresh batch onto the rack.  “Hey, Sy, try one of these.”

“Uhh … not really my taste.  You got any cinnamon ones ready?”

“Not much for cheddar-habañero, huh?  I’m doing them for the hipster trade,” waving towards all the fedoras on the room.  “Here ya go.  Oh, Vinnie’s waiting for you.”

I navigated to the table bearing a pile of crumpled yellow paper, pulled up a chair.  “Morning, Vinnie, how’s the yellow writing tablet working out for you?”

“Better’n the paper napkins, but it’s nearly used up.”

“What problem are you working on now?”

“OK, I’m still on LIGO and still on that energy question I posed way back — how do I figure the energy of a photon when a gravitational wave hits it in a LIGO?  You had me flying that space shuttle to explain frames and such, but kept putting off photons.”

“Can’t argue with that, Vinnie, but there’s a reason.  Photons are different from atoms and such because they’ve got zero mass.  Not just nearly massless like neutrinos, but exactly zero.  So — do you remember Newton’s formula for momentum?”

“Yeah, momentum is mass times the velocity.”

“Right, so what’s the momentum of a photon?”

“Uhh, zero times speed-of-light.  But that’s still zero.”

“Yup.  But there’s lots of experimental data to show that photons do carry non-zero momentum.  Among other things, light shining on an an electrode in a vacuum tube knocks electrons out of it and lets an electric current flow through the tube.  Compton got his Nobel prize for that 1923 demonstration of the photoelectric effect, and Einstein got his for explaining it.”

“So then where’s the momentum come from and how do you figure it?”

“Where it comes from is a long heavy-math story, but calculating it is simple.  Remember those Greek letters for calculating waves?”

(starts a fresh sheet of note paper) “Uhh… this (writes λ) is lambda is wavelength and this (writes ν) is nu is cycles per second.”

“Vinnie, you never cease to impress.  OK, a photon’s momentum is proportional to its frequency.  Here’s the formula: p=h·ν/c.  If we plug in the E=h·ν equation we played with last week we get another equation for momentum, this one with no Greek in it:  p=E/c.  Would you suppose that E represents total energy, kinetic energy or potential energy?”

“Momentum’s all about movement, right, so I vote for kinetic energy.”

“Bingo.  How about gravity?”

“That’s potential energy ’cause it depends on where you’re comparing it to.”

“OK, back when we started this whole conversation you began by telling me how you trade off gravitational potential energy for increased kinetic energy when you dive your airplane.  Walk us through how that’d work for a photon, OK?  Start with the photon’s inertial frame.”

“That’s easy.  The photon’s feeling no forces, not even gravitational, ’cause it’s just following the curves in space, right, so there’s no change in momentum so its kinetic energy is constant.  Your equation there says that it won’t see a change in frequency.  Wavelength, either, from the λ=c/ν equation ’cause in its frame there’s no space compression so the speed of light’s always the same.”

“Bravo!  Now, for our Earth-bound inertial frame…?”

“Lessee… OK, we see the photon dropping into a gravity well so it’s got to be losing gravitational potential energy.  That means its kinetic energy has to increase ’cause it’s not giving up energy to anything else.  Only way it can do that is to increase its momentum.  Your equation there says that means its frequency will increase.  Umm, or the local speed of light gets squinched which means the wavelength gets shorter.  Or both.  Anyway, that means we see the light get bluer?”

“Vinnie, we’ll make a physicist of you yet.  You’re absolutely right — looking from the outside at that beam of photons encountering a more intense gravity field we’d see a gravitational blue-shift.  When they leave the field, it’s a red-shift.”

“Keeping track of frames does make a difference.”

Al yelled over, “Like using tablet paper instead of paper napkins.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# LIGO and lambda and photons, oh my!

I was walking my daily constitutional when Al waved me into his coffee shop.  “Sy, he’s at it again with the paper napkins.  Do something!”

I looked over.  There was Vinnie at his table, barricaded behind a pile of crumpled-up paper.  I grabbed a chair.

“Morning, Vinnie.  Having fun?”

“Greek letters.  Why’d they have to use Greek letters?”

The question was both rhetorical and derivative so I ignored it.  There were opened books under the barricade — upper-level physics texts.  “How come you’re chasing through those books?”

“I wanted to follow up on how LIGO operates with photons after we talked about all that space shuttle stuff.  But geez, Sy!”

“You’re a brave man, Vinnie.  So,  which letters are giving you trouble?”

“These two, that look kinda like each other upside down.” He pointed to one equation, λ=c.

“Ah, wavelength equals the speed of light divided by the frequency.”

“How do you do that?”

“Some of those symbols go way back.  You just get used to them.  Most of them make sense when you learn the names for the letters — lambda (λ) is the peak-to-peak length of a lightwave, and nu (ν) is the number of peaks per second.  If it makes you feel any better, I’ve yet to meet a physicist who can write a zeta (ζ) — they generally just draw a squiggle and move on.”

“And there’s this other equation,” pointing to E=h·ν.  “What’s that about?”

“Good eye.  You just picked two equations that are fundamental to LIGO’s operation.  If a lightwave has frequency ν, the equations tell us two things about it — its energy is h·ν (h is Planck’s constant, 6.6×10-34 Joule-seconds), and its wavelength is c (c is the speed of light).  For instance, yellow light has a frequency near 520×1012/sec.  One photon carries 3.8×10-40 Joules of energy.  Not much, but it adds up when a light beam contains lots of photons.  The same photon has a wavelength near 580×10-9 meters traveling through free space.”

“So what happens when one of those photons is in a LIGO beam?  Won’t a gravitational wave’s stretch-and-squeeze action mess up its wave?”

I smoothed out one of Vinnie’s crumpled napkins. As I folded it into pleats and scooted it along the table I said, “Doesn’t mess up the wave so much as change the way we think about it.  We’re used to graphing out a spatial wave as an up-and-down pattern like this that moves through time, right?”

“That’s a lousy-looking wave.”

“It’s a paper napkin, f’pitysake, and I’m making a point here. Watch close.  If you monitor a particular point along the wave’s path in space and track how that point moves in time, you get the same profile except we draw it along the t-axis instead of along a space-axis.  See?”

“Hey, the time profile is the space profile going backwards.  Oh, right, it’s goin’ into the past ’cause it’s a memory.”

“That’s one of those things that people miss.  If you only draw sine waves, they’re the same in either direction.  The important point is that although timewaves and spacewaves have the same shape, they’ve got different meanings.  The timewave is directly connected to the wave’s energy by that E equation.  The spacewave is indirectly connected, because your other equation there scales it by the local speed of light.”

“Come again?  Local speed of light?  I thought it was 186,000 miles per second everywhere.”

“It is, but some of those miles are shorter than others.  Near a heavy mass, for instance, or in the compression phase of a gravitational wave, or inside a transparent material.  If you’re traveling in the lightwave’s inertial frame, you see no variation.  But if you’re watching from an independent inertial frame, you see the lightwave hit a slow patch.  Distance per cycle gets shorter.  Like that lambda-nu equation says, when c gets smaller the wavelength decreases.”

Al walked over.  “Gotcha a present, Vinnie.  Here’s a pad of yellow writing paper.  No more napkins, OK?”

“Uhh, thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Scone but not forgotten

Al grabbed me as I stepped into his coffee shop.  “Sy, you gotta help me!”

“What’s the trouble, Al?”

“It’s Vinnie.  He’s over there, been scribbling on paper napkins all morning.  I’m running out of napkins, Sy!”

I grabbed a cinnamon scone from the rack and a chair at Vinnie’s table.  “What’s keeping you so busy, Vinnie?”  As if I didn’t know.

LIGO, of course.  Every time I think I understand how the machine works something else occurs to me and it slips outa my hands.”

“How about you explain it to me.  Sometimes the best way to find an answer is to describe the problem to someone else.”

(grabbing a napkin near the bottom of one stack) “All right, Sy, I sketched the layout here.  You got these two big L-shaped machines out in the middle of two nowheres 2500 miles apart.  Each L is a pair of steel pipes 2½ miles long.  At the far end of each arm there’s a high-tech stabilized mirror.  Where the two arms meet there’s a laser rigged up to shoot beams down both arms.  There’s also a detector located where the reflected beams join up and cancel each other out unless there’s a gravity wave going past.  Am I good so far?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the diagram you see in the books, except it’s gravitational waveGravity waves are something else.”

“Whatever.  So, here’s a sketch of where I was at when I asked you that first question.  See, I copied my original sketch onto another napkin and stretched it a little where the black circle is to show what a gravitational wave would do in stretch phase.  Ignore the little rips.”

“What rips?”

“Uh, thanks.  Anyway, I was thinking the gravitational wave that stretches the x-beam would also stretch the x-pipe so they couldn’t use the light wave to measure the pipe it’s in.  But LIGO works so that’s wrong thinkin’.

“OK, next is for after we talked about inertial frames.  Took me a few tries to get it like I want it and I wound up having to do two sketches, one for each frame.”  He grabbed a couple more napkins from different stacks.

“I didn’t do the yellow wiggles ’cause that got confusing and besides I don’t do wiggly lines so good.  Point is, the space-stretch only shows up in the laboratory inertial frame.  The light waves move with space so they don’t notice the difference, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to put it that way in court, Vinnie, but it’s a pretty good description.”

“So the light waves bop along at 186,000 miles per second in their frame, but from the machine’s perspective those are stretched miles so the guy running the machine thinks those photons are faster than the ones in the other pipe.  And that difference in speed gets the yellow lines out of phase with the blue ones and the detector rings a bell or something, right?”

“It’s even better than that.” I reached for another napkin, caught Al’s eye on me and grabbed an envelope from my coat pocket instead. “Remember how a gravitational wave works in two directions perpendicular to the wave’s line of travel?”

“Yeah, so?”

“So at the same moment that the wave is stretching space in the x-direction, it’s squeezing space in the y-direction.  LIGO’s detection scheme monitors the difference between the two returning beams.  As I’ve drawn it here using the detector’s inertial frame, the x-beam is going fast AND the y-beam is going slow so the detector sees twice the phase difference. A few milliseconds later they’ll switch because the x-direction will get squeezed while the y-direction gets stretched.  And yeah, a bell does ring but only after some computers munch on the data and subtract out environmental stuff like temperature swings and earthquakes and the janitor’s footsteps.”

“Uh-huh, I think I got it.” Turning in his chair, “Hey, Al, bring Sy here another scone, on me.  And put the one he’s got on my tab, too.”

“Thanks, Vinnie.”

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# A Matter of Perspective

As I stepped off the escalator by the luggage carousel a hand came down heavy on my shoulder.

“Keep movin’, I gotchur bag.”

That’s Vinnie, always the surprises.  I didn’t bother to ask how he knew which flight I came in on.  What came next was also no surprise.

“You owe me for the pizza.  Now about that kinetic energy –”

“Hold that thought ’til we get to my office where I can draw diagrams.”

We got my car out of the lot, drove to the Acme Building and took the elevator to 12.

As my computer booted up I asked, “When we talked about potential energy, did we ever mention inertial frames?”

“Come to think of it, no, we didn’t.  How come?”

“Because they’ve got nothing to do with potential energy.  Gravitational and electrical potentials are all about intensity at one location in space relative to other locations in space.  The potentials are static so long as the configuration is static.  If something in the region changes, like maybe a mass moves or the charge on one object increases, then the potential field adjusts to suit.”

“Right, kinetic energy’s got to do with things that move, like its name says.  I get that.  But how does it play into LIGO?”

“Let’s stick with our spacecraft example for a bit.  I’ve been out of town for a while, so a quick review’s in order.  Objects that travel in straight lines and constant speed with respect to each other share the same inertial frame.  Masses wrinkle the shape of space.  The paths light rays take are always the shortest possible paths, so we say a light ray shows us what a straight line is.

“In our story, we’re flying a pair of space shuttles using identical speed settings along different light-ray navigation beams.  Suddenly you encounter a region of space that’s compressed, maybe by a nearby mass or maybe by a passing gravitational wave.

“That compressed space separates our inertial frames.  In your inertial frame there’s no effect — you’re still following your nav beam and the miles per second you measure hasn’t changed.  However, from my inertial frame you’ve slowed down because the space you’re traveling through is compressed relative to mine.  Does all that ring a bell?”

“Pretty much the way I remember it. Now what?”

“Do you remember the formula for kinetic energy?”

“Give me a sec… mass times the square of the velocity.”

“Uh-huh.  Mind you, ‘velocity’ is the combination of speed and direction but velocity-squared is just a number.  So, your kinetic energy depends in a nice, simple way on speed.  What happened to your kinetic energy when you encountered that gravity well?”

“Ah, now I see where you’re going.  In my frame my speed doesn’t change so I don’t gain or lose kinetic energy.  In your frame you see me slow down so you figure me as losing kinetic energy.”

“But the Conservation of Energy rule holds across the Universe.  Where’d your kinetic energy go?”

“Does your frame see me gaining potential energy somehow that I don’t see in mine?”

“Nice try, but that’s not it.  We’ve already seen that potential energy doesn’t depend on frames.  What made our frames diverge in the first place?”

“That gravity field curving the space I’d flown into.  Hey, action-reaction!  If the curved space slowed me down, did I speed it up?”

“Now we’re getting there.  No, you didn’t speed up space, ’cause space doesn’t work that way — the miles don’t go anywhere.  But your kinetic energy (that I can see and you can’t) did act to change the spatial curvature (that I can see and you can’t).  I suspect the curvature flattened out, but the math to check that is beyond me.”

“Lemme think…  Right, so back to my original question — what I wasn’t getting was how I could lose both kinetic energy AND potential energy flying into that compressed space.  Lessee if I got this right.  We both see I lost potential energy ’cause I’ve got less than back in flat space.  But only you see that my kinetic energy changed the curvature that only you see.  Good?”

“Good.”

(sound of footsteps)

(sound of door)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# 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.”

“Yeah?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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.”

“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

# A Defective Story

It was an interesting knock at my office door — aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation.

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

She wore a business suit that must have cost a month’s rent.  It fit her like it had been sewn on, and she had all the right sizes.  There was a button missing from the left sleeve.  On the other hand her left lapel bore a Star Trek badge, Security Section.

“What can I do for you, Miss…?”

“My name’s Victoria Baird, Mr Moire.  I’m CEO of ADastra, ‘media relations for the stars.’  I’ve been reading your posts, put two and two together, and thought I’d better drop in.”

“Well, it’s nice to know I’ve got readers.  Which posts caught your attention?”

“Several of them, but mostly this one,” pointing to a Web page on her smartphone.  It was my Breathing Space video.  “You show how gravitational waves fluctuate as they polarize local space.  They induce varying curvatures in different directions.  Curved space is mass, Mr Moire, but this curvature moves at lightspeed.  Hadn’t you noticed that?”

“It crossed my mind, yes, but when I thought about surfing a gravitational wave like ocean surfers do, I realized you’d have to get up to the wave’s speed to ride it.”

“There’s more.  Are you familiar with that one-man starcraft that Ambassador Spock used in the 2009 Star Trek film?  The ship with the rotating after-section?”

“I did see ‘Baby Star Trek,’ yes.”

“Did you know that the starcraft’s official design designation is Jellyfish?”

“No, I hadn’t heard that.”

“Well, it is.  And you’ve written about Earth jellyfish, haven’t you, Mr Moire, and how their propulsion system is so efficient?”

I was getting a little tired of her aggressive questions, so I challenged her with one of my own.  “And you see a connection?”

“I do, and that’s why you have to help me, Mr Moire.  Can I trust you?”

“Secrets are my business, Miss Baird.  Uncovering them or covering them up, it’s all the same to me.”

“Maybe I need to let my hair down.”  She removed her cloche cap and her pointed ears sprang free.  “I need you to get me back to my crew.”

“Can’t you just call them on that communicator badge?”

“This is costume jewelry.  The spectrum here on Earth is so crowded that my real badge is useless at long range.  I’ve been looking for subtle signals in the media.  I thought your posts were just such a signal … but I can see you’re a local.”

“Guilty as charged.  I take it the connection you saw resembled the signal you sought?”

“Yes.  You’ve published two of the essential principles of the LaForge Drive.  The first was your displays of spatial curvature in motion.  The second was your description of how jellyfish move by stepping along a ladder of seawater vortices.

“That’s what the LaForge Drive does, Mr Moire.  The counter-rotating blades are an osmium-hassium alloy, the densest substance known, and under tremendous compression.  Together their mass creates a complex pilot wave in the gravity field.  The spacecraft surfs on that waveform the way a jellyfish surfs on the eddies it creates.

“The wave’s phase velocity exceeds lightspeed by some enormous factor we’ve never been able to measure.  In fact, I’m here on Earth because I was on a research cruise to find if there’s a limit.  We … ran into a problem and I’m part of an away team sent to procure … something we need.”

“That trope’s been done to death, Miss Baird.  And besides, that design wouldn’t be practical.  What’s your real story?”

“What do you mean it’s not practical?”

“You can’t steer.  Pilot waves follow the most intense local spatial curvature, which means the craft will always home like a torpedo on the nearest large mass.”

Suddenly that badge chirped.  “We’ve recovered the detonator, Lieutenant.  Have you kept him from looking out the window?”

“Yes, his eyes have been on me the whole time.  Ready for beam-up.  Goodbye, Mr Moire, that was fun.”

Her form began to shimmer, twinkle … and disappeared.

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Michelson, Morley and LIGO

Two teams of scientists, 128 years apart.  The first team, two men, got a negative result that shattered a long-standing theory.  The second team, a thousand strong, got a positive result that provided final confirmation of another long-standing theory.  Both teams used instruments based on the same physical phenomenon.  Each team’s innovations created whole new fields of science and technology.

Their common experimental strategy sounds simple enough — compare two beams of light that had traveled along different paths

Light (preferably nice pure laser light, but Albert Michelson didn’t have a laser when he invented interferometry in 1887) comes in from the source at left and strikes the “beam splitter” — typically, a partially-silvered mirror that reflects half the light and lets the rest through.  One beam goes up the y-arm to a mirror that reflects it back down through the half-silvered mirror to the detector.  The other beam goes on its own round-trip journey in the x-direction.  The detector (Michelson’s eye or a photocell or a fancy-dancy research-quality CCD) registers activity if the waves in the two beams are in step when they hit it.  On the other hand, if the waves cancel then there’s only darkness.

Getting the two waves in step requires careful adjustment of the x- and y-mirrors, because the waves are small.  The yellow sodium light Michelson used has a peak-to-peak wavelength of 589 nanometers.  If he twitched one mirror 0.0003 millimeter away from optimal position the valleys of one wave would cancel the peaks of the other.

So much for principles.  The specifics of each team’s device relate to the theory being tested.  Michelson was confronting the æther theory, the proposition that if light is a wave then there must be some substance, the æther, that vibrates to carry the wave.  We see sunlight and starlight, so  the æther must pervade the transparent Universe.  The Earth must be plowing through the æther as it circles the Sun.  Furthermore, we must move either with or across or against the æther as we and the Earth rotate about its axis.  If we’re moving against the æther then lightwave peaks must appear closer together (shorter wavelengths) than if we’re moving with it.

Michelson designed his device to test that chain of logic. His optical apparatus was all firmly bolted to a 4′-square block of stone resting on a wooden ring floating on a pool of mercury.  The whole thing could be put into slow rotation to enable comparison of the x– and y-arms at each point of the compass.

According to the æther theory, Michelson and his co-worker Edward Morley should have seen alternating light and dark as he rotated his device.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, he saw no significant variation in the optical behavior around the full 360o rotation, whether at noon or at 6:00 PM.

Cross off the æther theory.

Michelson’s strategy depended on light waves getting out of step if something happened to the beams as they traveled through the apparatus.  Alternatively, the beams could charge along just fine but something could happen to the apparatus itself.  That’s how the LIGO team rolled.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicts that space itself is squeezed and stretched by mass.  Miles get shorter near a black hole.  Furthermore, if the mass configuration changes, waves of compressive and expansive forces will travel outward at the speed of light.  If such a wave were to encounter a suitable interferometer in the right orientation (near-parallel to one arm, near-perpendicular to the other), that would alter the phase relationship between the two beams.

The trick was in the word “suitable.”  The expected percentage-wise length change was so small that eLIGO needed 4-kilometer arms to see movement a tiny fraction of a proton’s width.  Furthermore, the LIGO designers flipped the classical detection logic.  Instead of looking for a darkened beam, they set the beams to cancel at the detector and looked for even a trace of light.

eLIGO saw the light, and confirmed Einstein’s theory.

~~ 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.

A 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.

An 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

# Would the CIA want a LIGO?

So I was telling a friend about the LIGO announcement, going on about how this new “device” will lead to a whole new kind of astronomy.  He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and said, “I wonder how many of these the CIA has.”

The CIA has a forest of antennas, but none of them can do what LIGO does.  That’s because of the physics of how it works, and what it can and cannot detect.  (If you’re new to this topic, please read last week’s post so you’ll be up to speed on what follows.  Oh, and then come back here.)

There are remarkable parallels between electromagnetism and gravity.  The ancients knew about electrostatics — amber rubbed by a piece of cat fur will attract shreds of dry grass.  They certainly knew about gravity, too.  But it wasn’t until 100 years after Newton wrote his Principia that Priestly and then Coulomb found that the electrostatic force law, F = ke·q1·q2 / r2, has the same form as Newton’s Law of Gravity, F = G·m1·m2 / r2. (F is the force between two bodies whose centers are distance r apart, the q‘s are their charges and the m‘s are their masses.)

Almost a century later, James Clerk Maxwell (the bearded fellow at left) wrote down his electromagnetism equations that explain how light works.  Half a century later, Einstein did the same for gravity.

But interesting as the parallels may be, there are some fundamental differences between the two forces — fundamental enough that not even Einstein was able to tie the two together.

One difference is in their magnitudes.  Consider, for instance, two protons.  Running the numbers, I found that the gravitational force pulling them together is a factor of 1036 smaller than the electrostatic force pushing them apart.  If a physicist wanted to add up all the forces affecting a particular proton, he’d have to get everything else (nuclear strong force, nuclear weak force, electromagnetic, etc.) nailed down to better than one part in 1036 before he could even detect gravity.

But it’s worse — electromagnetism and gravity don’t even have the same shape.

A word first about words.  Electrostatics is about pure straight-line-between-centers (longitudinal) attraction and repulsion — that’s Coulomb’s Law.  Electrodynamics is about the cross-wise (transverse) forces exerted by one moving charged particle on the motion of another one.  Those forces are summarized by combining Maxwell’s Equations with the Lorenz Force Law.  A moving charge gives rise to two distinct forces, electric and magnetic, that operate at right angles to each other.  The combined effect is called electromagnetism.

The effect of the electric force is to vibrate a charge along one direction transverse to the wave.  The magnetic force only affects moving charges; it acts to twist their transverse motion to be perpendicular to the wave.  An EM antenna system works by sensing charge flow as electrons move back and forth under the influence of the electric field.

Gravitostatics uses Newton’s Law to calculate longitudinal gravitational interaction between masses.  That works despite gravity’s relative weakness because all the astronomical bodies we know of appear to be electrically neutral — no electrostatic forces get in the way.  A gravimeter senses the strength of the local gravitostatic field.

Gravitodynamics is completely unlike electrodynamics.  Gravity’s transverse “force” doesn’t act to move a whole mass up and down like Maxwell’s picture at left.  Instead, as shown by Einstein’s picture, gravitational waves stretch and compress while leaving the center of mass in place. I put “force” in quotes because what’s being stretched and compressed is space itself.  See this video for a helpful visualization of a gravitational wave.

LIGO is neither a telescope nor an electromagnetic antenna.  It operates by detecting sudden drastic changes in the disposition of matter within a “small” region.  In LIGO’s Sept 14 observation, 1031 kilograms of black hole suddenly ceased to exist, converted to gravitational waves that spread throughout the Universe.  By comparison, the Hiroshima explosion released the energy of 10-6 kilograms.

Seismometers do a fine job of detecting nuclear explosions.  Hey, CIA, they’re a lot cheaper than LIGO.

~~ Rich Olcott