Calvin And Hobbes And i

Hobbes 2I so miss Calvin and Hobbes, the wondrous, joyful comic strip that cartoonist Bill Watterson gave us between 1985 and 1995.  Hobbes was a stuffed toy tiger — except that 6-year-old Calvin saw him as a walking, talking man-sized tiger with a sarcastic sense of humor.

So many things in life and physics are like Hobbes — they depend on how you look at them.  As we saw earlier, a fictitious force disappears when viewed from the right frame of reference.  There’s that particle/wave duality thing that Duc de Broglie “blessed” us with.  And polarized light.

In an earlier post I mentioned that light is polar, in the sense that a single photon’s electric field acts to vibrate an electron (pole-to-pole) within a single plane.
wavesIn this video, orange, green and blue electromagnetic fields shine in from one side of the box onto its floor.  Each color’s field is polar because it “lives” in only one plane.  However, the beam as a whole is unpolarized because different components of the total field direct recipient electrons into different planes giving zero net polarization.  The Sun and most other familiar light sources emit unpolarized light.

When sunlight bounces at a low angle off a surface, say paint on a car body or water at the beach, energy in a field that is directed perpendicular to the surface is absorbed and turned into heat energy.  (Yeah, I’m skipping over a semester’s-worth of Optics class, but bear with me.)  In the video, that’s the orange wave.

At the same time, fields parallel to the surface are reflected.  That’s what happens to the blue wave.

Suppose a wave is somewhere in between parallel and perpendicular, like the green wave.  No surprise, the vertical part of its energy is absorbed and the horizontal part adds to the reflection intensity.  That’s why the video shows the outgoing blue wave with a wider swing than its incoming precursor had.

The net effect of all this is that low-angle reflected light is polarized and generally more intense than the incident light that induced it.  We call that “glare.”  Polarizing sunglasses can help by selectively blocking horizontally-polarized electric fields reflected from water, streets, and that *@%*# car in front of me.

David Jessop’s brilliant depiction of plane and circularly polarized light

Things can get more complicated. The waves in the first video are all in synch — their peaks and valleys match up (mostly). But suppose an x-directed field and a y-directed field are headed along the same course.  Depending on how they match up, the two can combine to produce a field driving electrons along the x-direction, the y-direction, or in clockwise or counterclockwise circles.  Check the red line in this video — RHC and LHC depict the circularly polarized light that sci-fi writers sometimes invoke when they need a gimmick.

Physicists have several ways to describe such a situation mathematically.  I’ve already used the first, which goes back 380 years to René Descartes and the Cartesian x, y,… coordinate system he planted the seed for.  We’ve become so familiar with it that reading a graph is like reading words.  Sometimes easier.

In Cartesian coordinates we write x– and y-coordinates as separate functions of time t:
x = f1(t)
y = f2(t)
where each f could be something like 0.7·t2-1.3·t+π/4 or whatever.  Then for each t-value we graph a point where the vertical line at the calculated x intersects the horizontal line at the calculated y.

But we can simplify that with a couple of conventions.  Write √(-1) as i, and say that i-numbers run along the y-axis.  With those conventions we can write our two functions in a single line:
x + i y = f1(t) + i f2(t)
One line is better than two when you’re trying to keep track of a big calculation.

But people have a long-running hang-up that’s part theory and part psychology.  When Bombelli introduced these complex numbers back in the 16th century, mathematicians complained that you can’t pile up i thingies.  Descartes and others simply couldn’t accept the notion, called the numbers “imaginary,” and the term stuck.

Which is why Hobbes the way Calvin sees him is on the imaginary axis.

~~ Rich Olcott

Is cyber warfare imaginary?

Rule One in hooking the reader with a query headline is: Don’t answer the question immediately.  Let’s break that one.  Yes, cyber warfare is imaginary, but only for a certain kind of “imaginary.”  What kind is that, you ask.  AaaHAH!

Antonio Prohías’ Mad Magazine spies
didn’t normally use cyber weaponry

It all has to do with number lines.  If the early Greek theoreticians had been in charge, the only numbers in the Universe would have been the integers: 1, 2, 3,….  Life is simple when your only calculating tool is an abacus without a decimal point.  Zero hadn’t been invented in their day, nor had negative numbers.

Then Pythagoras did his experiments with harmony and harp strings, and the Greeks had to admit that ratios of integers are rational.

More trouble from Pythagoras: his a2+b2=c2 equation naturally led to c=√(a2+b2).  Unfortunately, for most integer values of a and b, c can’t be expressed as either an integer or a ratio of integers.  The Greeks labeled such numbers (including π) as irrational and tried to ignore them.

Move ahead to the Middle Ages, after Europe had imported zero and the decimal point from Brahmagupta’s work in India, and after the post-Medieval rise of trade spawned bookkeepers who had to cope with debt.  At that point we had a continuous number line running from “minus a whole lot” to “plus you couldn’t believe” (infinity wasn’t seriously considered in Western math until the 17th century).

By then European mathematicians had started playing around with algebraic equations and had stumbled into a problem.  They had Brahmagupta’s quadratic formula (you know, that [-b±√(b2-4a·c)]/2a thing we all sang-memorized in high school).  What do you do when b2 is less than 4a·c and you’re looking at the square root of a negative number?

Back in high school they told us, “Well, that means there’s no solution,” but that wasn’t good enough for Renaissance Italy.  Rafael Bombelli realized there’s simply no room for weird quadratic solutions on the conventional number line.  He made room by building a new number line perpendicular to it.  The new line is just like the old one, except everything on it is multiplied by i=√(-1).

(Bombelli used words rather than symbols, calling his creation “plus of minus.”  Eighty years later, René Descartes derisively called Bombelli’s numbers “imaginary,” as opposed to “real” numbers, and pasted them with that letter i.  Those labels have stuck for 380 years.  Except for electricity theoreticians who use j instead because i is for current.)

AxesSuppose you had a graph with one axis for counting animal things and another for counting vegetable things.  Animals added to animals makes more animals; vegetables added to vegetables makes more vegetables.  If you’ve got a chicken, two potatoes and an onion, and you share with your buddy who has a couple of carrots, some green beans and another onion, you’re on your way to a nice chicken stew.

Needs salt, but that’s on yet another axis.

Bombelli’s rules for doing arithmetic on two perpendicular number lines work pretty much the same.  Real numbers added to reals make reals, imaginaries added to imaginaries make more imaginaries.  If you’ve got numbers like x+i·y that are part real and part imaginary, the separate parts each follow their own rule.  Multiplication and division work, too, but I’ll let you figure those out.

The important point is that what happens on each number line can be specified independently of what happens on the other, just like the x and y axes in Descartes’ charts.  Together, Bombelli’s and Descartes’ concepts constitute a nutritious dish for physicists and mathematicians.

Scientists love to plot different experimental results against each other to see if there’s an interesting relationship in play.  For certain problems, for example, it’s useful to plot real-number energy of motion (kinetic energy) against some other variable on the i-axis.

Two-time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to speak of “kinetic warfare,” where people get killed, as opposed to the “non-kinetic” kind.  Apparently, he would have visualized cyber somewhere up near the i-axis.  In that scheme, cyber warriors with their ones and zeros are Bombelli-imaginary even if they’re real.

 ~~ Rich Olcott