# The Frame Game

A familiar footstep outside my office, “C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Sy, how ya doin’?”

“Can’t complain. Yourself?”

“Fine, fine. Hey, I been thinking about something you said while Al and us were talking about rockets and orbits and such. You remember that?”

“We’ve done that in quantity. What statement in particular?”

“It was about when you’re in the ISS, you still see like 88% of Earth’s gravity. But I seen video of those astronauts just floating around in the station. Seems to me those two don’t add up.”

“Hah! We’re talking physics of motion here. What’s the magic word?”

“You’re saying it’s frames? I thought black holes did that.”

“Black holes are an extreme example, but frame‑thinking is an essential tool in analyzing any kind of relative motion. Einstein’s famous ‘happy thought‘ about a man in a free‑falling elevator—”

“Whoa, why is that a happy thought? I been nervous about elevators ever since that time we got stuck in one.”

“At least it wasn’t falling, right? Point is, the elevator and whoever’s in it agree that Newton’s First Law of Motion is valid for everything they see in there.”

“Wait, which Law is that?”

“‘Things either don’t move or else they move at a steady pace along a straight line.’ Suppose you’re that guy—”

“I’d rather not.”

“… and the elevator is in a zero‑gravity field. You take something out of your pocket, put it the air in front of you and it stays there. You give it a tap and it floats away in a straight line. Any different behavior means that your entire frame — you, the elevator and anything else in there — is being accelerated by some force. Let’s take two possibilities. Case one, you and the elevator are resting on terra firma, tightly held by the force of gravity.”

“I like that one.”

“Case two, you and the elevator are way out in space, zero‑gravity again, but you’re in a rocket under 1-g acceleration. Einstein got happy because he realized that you’d feel the same either way. You’d have no mechanical way to distinguish between the two cases.”

“What’s that mean, mechanical?”

“It excludes sneaky ways of outside influence by magnetic fields and such. Anyhow, Einstein’s insight was key to extending Newton’s First Law to figuring acceleration for an entire frame. Like, for instance, an orbiting ISS.”

“Ah, you’re saying that floating astronauts in an 88% Earth-gravity field is fine because the ISS and the guys share the frame feeling that 88% but the guys are floating relative to that frame. But down here if we could look in there we’d see how both kinds of motion literally add up.”

“Exactly. It’s just much easier to think about only one kind at a time.”

“Wait. You said the ISS is being accelerated. I thought it’s going a steady 17500 miles an hour which it’s got to do to stay 250 miles up.”

“Is it going in a straight line?”

“Well, no, it’s going in a circle, mostly, except when it has to dodge some space junk.”

“So the First Law doesn’t apply. Acceleration is change in momentum, and the ISS momentum is constantly changing.”

“But not in a straight line. Momentum is a vector that points in a specific direction. Change the direction, you change the momentum. Newton’s Second Law links momentum change with force and acceleration. Any orbiting object undergoes angular acceleration.”

“Angular acceleration, that’s a new one. It’s degrees per second per second?”

“Yup, or radians. There’s two kinds, though — orbiting and spinning. The ISS doesn’t spin because it has to keep its solar panels facing the Sun.”

“But I’ve seen sci-fi movies set in something that spins to create artificial gravity. Like that 2001 Space Odyssey where the guy does his running exercise inside the ship.”

“Sure, and people have designed space stations that spin for the same reason. You’d have a cascade of frames — the station orbiting some planet, the station spinning, maybe even a ballerina inside doing pirouettes.”

“How do you calculate all that?”

“You don’t. You work with whichever frame is useful for what you’re trying to accomplish.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# The Relativity Factor

“Sy, it’s nice that Einstein agreed with Rayleigh’s wave theory stuff but why’d you even drag him in? I thought the faster‑than‑light thing was settled.”

“Vinnie, faster‑than‑light wasn’t even an issue until Einstein came along. Science had known lightspeed was fast but not infinite since Rømer measured it in Newton’s day. ‘Pretty fast,’ they said, but Newtonian mechanics is perfectly happy with any speed you like. Then along came Einstein.”

“Speed cop, was he?”

“Funny, Vinnie. No, Einstein showed that the Universe enforces the lightspeed limit. It’s central to how the Universe works. Come to think of it, the crucial equation had been around for two decades, but it took Einstein to recognize its significance.”

“Ah, geez, equations again.”

“Just this one and it’s simple. It’s all about comparing v for velocity which is how fast something’s going, to c the speed of light. Nothing mystical about the arithmetic — if you’re going half the speed of light, the factor works out to 1.16. Ninety‑nine percent of c gives you 7.09. Tack on another 9 and you’re up to 22.37 and so on.”

“You got those numbers memorized?”

“Mm-hm, they come in handy sometimes.”

“Handy how? What earthly use is it? Nothing around here goes near that fast.”

“Do you like your GPS? It’d be useless if the Lorentz factor weren’t included in the calculations. The satellites that send us their sync signals have an orbit about 84 000 kilometers wide. They run that circle once a sidereal day, just shy of 86 400 seconds. That works out to 3 kilometers per second and a Lorentz factor of 1.000 005.”

“Yeah, so? That’s pretty close to 1.0.”

“It’s off by 5 parts per million. Five parts per million of Earth’s 25 000-mile circumference is an eighth of a mile. Would you be happy if your GPS directed you to somewhere a block away from your address?”

“Depends on why I’m going there, but I get your point. So where else does this factor come into play?”

“Practically anywhere that involves a precision measurement of length or duration. It’s at the core of Einstein’s Special Relativity work. He thought about observing a distant moving object. It’s carrying a clock and a ruler pointed along the direction of motion. The observer would see ticks of the clock get further apart by the Lorentz factor, that’s time dilation. Meanwhile, they’d see the ruler shrink by the factor’s inverse, that’s space compression.”

“It’s less to do with distance than with inertial frames. If you’re riding one inertial frame with a GPS satellite, you and your clock stay nicely synchronized with the satellite’s signals. You’d measure its 1×1‑meter solar array as a perfect square. Suppose I’m riding a spaceship that’s coasting to Mars. I measure everything relative to my own inertial frame which is different from yours. With my telescope I’d measure your satellite’s solar array as a rectangle, not a square. The side perpendicular to the satellite’s orbit would register the expected 1 meter high, but the side pointing along the orbit would be shorter, 1 meter divided by the Lorentz factor for our velocity difference. Also, our clocks would drift apart by that Lorentz factor.”

“Wait, Sy, there’s something funny about that equation.”

“Oh? What’s funny?”

“What if somebody’s speed gets to c? That’d make the bottom part zero. They didn’t let us do that in school.”

“And they shouldn’t — the answer is infinity. Einstein spotted the same issue but to him it was a feature, not a bug. Take mass, for instance. When they meet Einstein’s famous E=mc² equation most people think of the nuclear energy coming from a stationary lump of uranium. Newton’s F=ma defined mass in terms of a body’s inertia — the greater the mass, the more force needed to achieve a certain amount of acceleration. Einstein recognized that his equation’s ‘E‘ should include energy of motion, the ½mv² kind. He had to adjust ‘m‘ to keep F=ma working properly. The adjustment was to replace inertial mass with ‘relativistic mass,’ calculated as inertial mass times the Lorentz factor. It’d take infinite force to accelerate any relativistic mass up to c. That’s why lightspeed’s the speed limit.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Weight And Wait, Two Aspects of Time

I was deep in the library stacks, hunting down a journal article so old it hadn’t been digitized yet.  As I rounded the corner of Aisle 5 Section 2, there he was, leaning against a post and holding a clipboard.

“Vinnie?  What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you.  You weren’t in your office.”

“But how…?  Never mind.  What can I do for you?”

“It’s the time-dilation thing.  You said that there’s two kinds, a potential energy kind and a kinetic energy kind, but you only told me about the first one.”

“Hey, Ramona broke up that conversation, don’t blame me.  You got blank paper on that clipboard?”

“Sure.  Here.”

“Quick review — we said that potential energy only depends on where you are.  Suppose you and a clock are at some distance r away from a massive object like that Gargantua black hole, and my clock is way far away.  I see your clock ticking slower than mine.  The ratio of their ticking rates, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)], only depends on the slow clock’s position.  Suppose you move even closer to the massive object.  That r-value gets smaller, the fraction inside the parentheses gets closer to 1, the square root gets smaller and I see your clock slow down even more.  Sound familiar?”

“Yeah, but what about the kinetic thing?”

“I’m getting there.  You know Einstein’s famous EEinstein=m·c² equation.  See?  The formula contains neither a velocity nor a position.  That means EEinstein is the energy content of a particle that’s not moving and not under the influence of any gravitational or other force fields.  Under those conditions the object is isolated from the Universe and we call m its rest mass.  We good?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“OK, remember the equation for gravitational potential energy?”

E=G·M·m/r.

“Let’s call that Egravity.  Now what’s the ratio between gravitational potential energy and the rest-mass energy?”

“Uh … Egravity/EEinstein = G·M·m/r·m·c² = G·M/r·c². Hey, that’s exactly half the fraction inside the square root up there. tslow/tfast = √[1-(2 Egravity/EEinstein)].  Cool.”

“Glad you like it.  Now, with that under our belts we’re ready for the kinetic thing.  What’s Newton’s equation for the kinetic energy of an object that has velocity v?”

E=½·m·v².

“I thought you’d know that.  Let’s call it Ekinetic.  Care to take a stab at the equation for kinetic time dilation?”

“As a guess, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2 Ekinetic/EEinstein)]. Hey, if I plug in the formulas for each of the energies, the halves and the mass cancel out and I get tslow/tfast = √[1-2(½m·v²/m·c²)] = √[1-(v²/c²)].  Is that it?”

“Close.  In Einstein’s math the kinetic energy expression is more complicated, but it leads to the same formula as yours.  If the velocity’s zero, the square root is 1.0 and there’s no time-slowing.  If the object’s moving at light-speed (v=c), the square root is zero and the slow clock is infinitely slow.  What’s interesting is that an object’s rest energy acts like a universal energy yardstick — both flavors of time-slowing are governed by how the current energy quantity compares to EEinstein.”

“Wait — kinetic energy depends on velocity, right, which means that it’ll look different from different inertial frames.  Does that mean that the kinetic time-slowing depends on the frames, too?”

“Sure it does.  Best case is if we’re both in the same frame, which means I see you in straight-line motion.  Each of us would get the same number if we measure the other’s velocity.  Plug that into the equation and each of us would see the same tslow for the other’s clock.  If we’re not doing uniform straight lines then we’re in different frames and our two dilation measurements won’t agree.”

“… Ramona doesn’t dance in straight lines, does she, Sy?”

“That reminds me of Einstein’s quote — ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.‘  You’re thinking curves now, eh?”

“Are you boys discussing me?”

<unison> “Oh, hi, Ramona.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# 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.”
“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.”

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

# 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.”

“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.”