Space Potatoes

“Uncle Sy, what’s the name of the Moon face that’s just a sliver?”

“It’s called a crescent, Teena, and it’s ‘phase,’ not ‘face’. Hear the z-sound?”

“Ah-hah, one of those spelling things, huh?”

“I’m afraid so. What brought that question up?”

“I was telling Bratty Brian about the Moon shadows and he said he saw a cartoon about something that punched a hole in the Moon and left just the sliver.”

“Not going to happen, Sweetie. Anything as big as the Moon, Mr Newton’s Law of Gravity says that it’ll be round, mostly, except for mountains and things.”

“Cause there’s something really heavy in the center?”

“No, and that’s probably what shocked people the most back in those days. They had Kings and Emperors, remember, and a Pope who led all the Christians in Europe. People expected everything to have some central figure in charge. That’s why they argued about whether the center of the Universe was the Earth or the Sun. Mr Newton showed that you don’t need anything at all at the center of things.”

“But then what pulls the things together?”

“The things themselves and the rules they follow. Remember the bird murmuration rules?”

“That was a long time ago, Uncle Sy. Umm… wasn’t one rule that each bird in the flock tries to stay about the same distance from all its neighbors?”

“Good memory. That was one of the rules. The others were to fly in the same general direction as everybody else and to try stay near the middle of the flock. Those three rules pretty much kept the whole flock together and protected most of the birds from predators. Mr Newton had simpler rules for rocks and things floating in space. His first rule was. ‘Keep going in the direction you’ve been going unless something pulls you in another direction.’ We call that inertia. The second rule explained why rocks fly differently than birds do.”

“Rocks don’t fly, Uncle Sy, they fall down.”

“Better to think of it as flying towards other things. Instead of the safe‑distance rule, Mr Newton said, ‘The closer two things are, the harder they pull together.’ Simple, huh?”

“Oh, like my magnet doggies.”

“Yes, exactly like that, except gravity always attracts. There’s no pushing away like magnets do when you turn one around. Suppose that back when the Solar System was being formed, two big rocks got close. What would happen?”

“They’d bang together.”

“And then?”

“They’d attract other rocks and more and more. Bangbangbangbang!”

“Right. What do you suppose happens to the energy from those bangs? Remember, we’re out in space so there’s no air to carry the sound waves away.”

“It’d break the rocks into smaller rocks. But the energy’s still there, just in smaller pieces, right?”

“The most broken-up energy is heat. What does that tell you?”

“The rock jumble must get … does it get hot enough to melt?”

“It can So now suppose there’s a blob of melted rock floating in space, and every atom in the melted rock is attracted to every other atom. Pretend you’re an atom out at one end of the blob.”

“I see as many atoms to one side as to the other so I’m gonna pull in towards the middle.”

“And so will all the other atoms. What shape is that going to make the blob?”

“Ooooh. Round like a planet. Or the Sun. Or the Moon!”

“So now tell me what would happen if someone punched a hole in the Moon?”

“All the crumbles at the crescent points would get pulled in towards the middle. It wouldn’t be a crescent any more!”

“Exactly. Mind you, if it doesn’t melt it may not be spherical. Melted stuff can only get round because molten atoms are free to move.”

“Are there not-round things in space?”

“Lots and lots. Small blobs couldn’t pull themselves spherical before freezing solid. They could be potato‑shaped, like the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Some rocks came together so gently that they didn’t melt. They just stuck together, like Asteroid Bennu where our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft sampled.”

“Space has surprising shapes, huh?”

“Space always surprises.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Xander and Alex who asked the question.

Gargh, His Heirs, and the AAAD Problem

Gargh the thinkerGargh, proto-humanity’s foremost physicist 2.5 million years ago, opened a practical investigation into how motion works.  “I throw rock, hit food beast, beast fall down yes.  Beast stay down no.  Need better rock.”  For the next couple million years, we put quite a lot of effort into making better rocks and better ways to throw them.  Less effort went into understanding throwing.

There seemed to be two kinds of motion.  The easier kind to understand was direct contact — “I push rock, rock move yes.  Rock stop move when rock hit thing that move no.”  The harder kind was when there wasn’t direct contact — “I throw rock up, rock hit thing no but come back down.  Why that?

Gargh was the first but hardly the last physicist to puzzle over the Action-At-A-Distance problem (a.k.a. “AAAD”).  Intuition tells us that between pusher and pushee there must be a concrete linkage to convey the push-force.  To some extent, the history of physics can be read as a succession of solutions to the question, “What linkage induces this apparent case of AAAD?”

Most of humanity was perfectly content with AAAD in the form of magic of various sorts.  To make something happen you had to wish really hard and/or depend on the good will of some (generally capricious) elemental being.

aristotle 1Aristotle wasn’t satisfied with anything so unsystematic.  He was just full of theories, many of which got in each other’s way.  One theory was that things want to go where they’re comfortable  because of what they’re made of — stones, for instance, are made of earth so naturally they try to get back home and that’s why we see them fall downwards (no concrete linkage, so it’s still AAAD).

Unfortunately, that theory didn’t account for why a thrown rock doesn’t just fall straight down but instead goes mostly in the direction it’s thrown.  Aristotle (or one of his followers) tied that back to one of his other theories, “Nature hates a vacuum.”  As the rock flies along, it pushes the air aside (direct contact) and leaves a vacuum behind it. More air rushes in to fill the vacuum and pushes the rock ahead (more direct contact).

We got a better (though still AAAD) explanation in the 17th Century when physicists invented the notions of gravity and inertia.Newton 204

Newton made a ground-breaking claim in his Principia.  He proposed that the Solar System is held together by a mysterious AAAD force he called gravity.  When critics asked how gravity worked he shrugged, “I do not form hypotheses” (though he did form hypotheses for light and other phenomena).

Inertia is also AAAD.  Those 17th Century savants showed that inertial forces push mass towards the Equator of a rotating object.  An object that’s completely independent of the rest of the Universe has no way to “know” that it’s rotating so it ought to be a perfect sphere.  In fact, the Sun and each of its planets are wider at the equator than you’d expect from their polar diameters.  That non-sphere-ness says they must have some AAAD interaction with the rest of the Universe.  A similar argument applies to linear motion; the general case is called Mach’s Principle.
JCMaxwell

The ancients knew of the mysterious AAAD agents electricity and its fraternal twin, magnetism.  However, in the 19th Century James Clerk Maxwell devised a work-around.  Just as Newton “invented” gravity, Maxwell “invented” the electromagnetic field.  This invisible field isn’t a material object.  However, waves in the field transmit electromagnetic forces everywhere in the Universe.  Not AAAD, sort of.

It wasn’t long before someone said, “Hey, we can calculate gravity that way, too.”  That’s why we now speak of a planet’s gravitational field and gravitational waves.

But the fields still felt like AAAD because they’re not concrete.  Some modern physicists stand that objection on its head.  Concrete objects, they say, are made of atoms which themselves are nothing more than persistent fluctuations in the electromagnetic and gravitational fields.  By that logic, the fields are what’s fundamental — all motion is by direct contact.einstein-tongue edged

Einstein moved resolutely in both directions.  He negated gravity’s AAAD-ness by identifying mass-contorted space as the missing linkage.  On the other hand, he “invented” quantum entanglement, the ultimate spooky AAAD.

 ~~ Rich Olcott