Spare Change And Silly Putty

“Ok, Sy, you said Pascal explained the ‘water seeks its level‘ thing before Newton got a chance to. Newton was so smart, though — how’d Pascal beat him to it?”

“Pass me a strawberry scone, Al, and I’ll tell you why.”

“Anything for free food, eh, Sy? Alright, here.”

“Oferpitysake, Al, add it to my tab like always. Too much hassle putting on this face mask just to walk from my car to the scones. Pascal had a 20‑year head start — did his hydrostatics work when Newton wasn’t even in his teens. Unfortunately, Pascal died when Newton was only half-way through college. Whoa, if only Pascal had been alive and productive in France while Newton was in his science years in England and Liebniz was churning at everything in northern Germany. What advances might they have made arguing with each other? Where would our Math and Physics be today?”

“They didn’t like each other?”

“Newton didn’t like anybody. He and Liebniz feuded for decades over who invented calculus. Pascal and Liebniz probably would have gotten along fine — Liebniz could make nice with everyone except Newton. Come to think of it, Newton and Pascal had a lot in common. Newton was a preemie and Pascal was seriously ill for the first year of his life, never got much better. Newton wrote his first formal paper at 22; Pascal publicly proved that vacuums exist by creating some when he was 24. On the flip side, Pascal was 33 when he presented his studies of what we now call the Pascal Triangle but Newton waited until he was 44 to publish his Principia. And each of them spent much of the final quarter of his life on religious, even mystical matters.”

“So did Newton and Pascal both do much about money and water?”

“Not about the combination, though both had a lot to do about each one. Newton was Master of England’s Royal Mint and spent much of his time in office chasing down counterfeiters. Pascal wasn’t a gambler but Fermat was and the two of them teamed up to invent the probability theories that power today’s gaming, finance and insurance industries. So there’s that. Pascal and Newton both pioneered the science of fluids but from different perspectives. Pascal looked at static situations — comparing atmospheric pressure at two different altitudes, that sort of thing. Newton, as usual, studied change — in this case how fluids flow.”

“Pour water into a pipe and it pours out the other end. What’s to study?”

“Measuring how fast it pours and how that’s affected by the pressure and the pipe and what’s being poured. Newton explored the motion of fluids in exhausting detail in Book II of his Principia. As you’d expect, he found that the flow rate of water or any of the other fluids he investigated rises with the pressure and with the cross-sectional area of the pipe. Being Newton, though, he also also considered forces that resist flow. Think about it — the pipe itself doesn’t move and neither does the layer of fluid right next to the pipe’s walls. The flow rate ramps up from zero at the walls to full-on at the center of the pipe. The ramp-up rate depends on the fluid’s viscosity, another concept that Newton discovered or invented depending on how you look at it. Viscosity measures the drag force the slower layers exert on their faster neighbors. Fluids like molasses are viscous because their molecules are really good at grabbing onto molecules in the layers next door.”

“Where’s money fit into this picture?”

“I’m getting to that. Newton thought that each kind of fluid had its own viscosity, always the same. Not quite — temperature makes a difference and there’s non‑Newtonian materials like Silly Putty whose viscosity depends on how fast you yank on them. But the weirdest non‑Newtonian fluid is ultra‑low‑temperature liquid helium. It’s a superfluid and has zero viscosity. The helium atoms experience absolutely no drag from their neighbors and can sneak through the tiniest cracks. Money does the same, right? Each dime and dollar flows with no drag from its cousins.”

“Money’s a superfluid?”

“Yup. Think how it leaks out of your pocket.”

“Uh-huh. … Hey, Sy, about that tab…”

~~ Rich Olcott

Something of Interest

“OK, Sy, I get how money is sorta like Physics ‘energy‘ except you can’t create energy but you can create money. And I get how Economics ‘velocity of money‘ and Physics ‘velocity don’t have much to do with each other. Your ‘Money Physics‘ phrase doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve got something with more overlap than that.”

“You’re a tough man, Vinnie. How about the word ‘exponential‘?”

“Means something goes up really fast. What about it?”

“Well, first off that’s not really what it means and that’s one of my personal peeves, thank you very much. Yes, quantities can increase exponentially, but not necessarily rapidly, and they can also decrease exponentially, either fast or slow. It’s a math thing.”

“Alright, I got myself into this. You’re gonna tell me how that works and it probably involves equations.”

“You made the phone call, I’m just sitting here, but you’re good, no equations just arithmetic. Ten times ten’s a hundred, right, and you can write that either 10×10 or 10², OK? The little two is the exponent, tells you how many factors to multiply together.”

“And 10 with a little three makes a thousand and ten with a little … six makes a million. See, it goes up really fast.”

“Depends on what the base number is. I’ve sent a tabulation to your phone…”

Exp’t 10 2 99% 100% 101%
2 100 4 98.01% 100% 102.01%
3 1 000 8 97.03% 100% 103.03%
4 10 000 16 96.06% 100% 104.06%
5 100 000 32 95.10% 100% 105.10%
6 1 000 000 64 94.15% 100% 106.15%
7 10 000 000 128 93.21% 100% 107.21%

“What’s all that?”

“Well, the top-row headers are just numbers I multiplied by themselves according to some exponents, and the first column is the series of exponents I used. Like we said, 10² is a hundred and so on down the second column. Number 2 multiplied by itself according to the same exponents gave me the third column and you see the products don’t grow anywhere near as fast. Do you see how the growth rate depends on the number that’s being multiplied and re‑multiplied?”

“No problem. What about the other columns?”

“Start with the fifth column. What’s 100% of 100%?”

“All of it.”

“And 100% of 100% of 100%?”

“I get it — no change no matter the exponent.”

“Absolutely. Now compare that to the 99% and 101% columns that give you the effect of a 1% growth factor. As you’d expect, very little change in either one, but there’s a lesson in the 99% column. It’s exponential by definition, but the results go down, not up. By the way, both of those are such small factors that the results are practically linear. You need to get beyond 15% factors for visible curvature in the usual graphs.”

“OK, so exponential says some arithmetic factor gets applied again and again. What’s that got to do with Physics or Economics?”

“Ever since Newton, Physics has been the study of change, all different kinds. Gradually we’ve built up a catalog of change patterns. Newton pointed out the simplest one in his first Law of Motion — constant velocity, say in meters per second. Plot cumulative distance moved against time and you get a rising straight line. His Second Law implies another simple pattern, constant acceleration. That’s one where velocity’s line rises linearly but distance goes up as the square of the time traveled. But Newton never tackled another very simple, very common pattern.”

“I thought Newton did everything.”

“Not the case. He was an amazing geometer, but to handle this pattern you need algebraic tools like the ones Liebniz was developing. Newton would rather have dunked his arm in boiling rancid skunk oil than do that. It took another century or so until the Bernoulis and Euler beat that problem into the ground.”

“So what’s the simple pattern?”

“Suppose instead of a quantity increasing by some absolute number of thingies per second, it increases by some constant percentage. That’s uncommon in the kinds of mechanical phenomena that Newton studied but it does happen. Say you’re a baby planet in the middle of a dust cloud. Get 15% bigger, you’re 15% better at attracting even more dust. Biological things do that a lot — the more bugs or bacteria you’ve got, the faster they multiply and that’s usually at a constant percentage-per-time rate. Exponential growth in a nutshell.”

“Planets, bugs, what’s that got to do with Economics?”

“Ever hear of ‘compound interest‘?”

“Low rates on bank accounts, high rates on credit cards, compounded. Gotcha.”

“Inflation does compounding, too.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Disentangling 3-D Plaid

Our lake-side jog has slowed to a walk and suddenly Mr Feder swerves off the path to thud onto a park bench. “I’m beat.”

Meanwhile, heavy footsteps from behind on the gravel path and a familiar voice. “Hey, Sy, you guys talking physics?”

“Well, we were, Vinnie. Waves, to be exact, but Feder’s faded and anyway his walk wasn’t fast enough to warm me up.”

“I’ll pace you. What’d I miss?”

“Not a whole lot. So many different kinds of waves but physicists have abstracted them down to a common theme — a pattern that moves through space.”

“Haw — flying plaid.”

“That image would work if each fiber color carried specific values of energy and momentum and the cross-fibers somehow add together and there’s lots of waves coming from all different directions so it’s 3-D.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“As complicated as the sound from a symphony.”

“I prefer dixieland.”

“Same principle. Trumpet, trombone, clarinet, banjo — many layers of harmony but you can choose to tune in on just one line. That’s a clue to how physicists un-complicate waves.”

“How so?”

“Back in the early 19th century, Fourier showed that you can think about any continuous variation stream, no matter how complicated, in terms of a sum of very simple variations called sine waves. You’ve seen pictures of a sine wave — just a series of Ss laid on their sides and linked together head-to-tail.”

“Your basic wiggly line.”

“Mm-hm, except these wiggles are perfectly regular — evenly spaced peaks, all with the same height. The regularity is why sine waves are so popular. Show a physicist something that looks even vaguely periodic and they’ll immediately start thinking sine wave frequencies. Pythagoras did that for sound waves 2500 years ago.”

“Nah, he couldn’t have — he died long before Fourier.”

“Good point. Pythagoras didn’t know about sine waves, but he did figure out how sounds relate to spatial frequencies. Pluck a longer bowstring, get a lower note. Pinch the middle of a vibrating string. The strongest remaining vibration in the string sounds like the note from a string that’s half as long. Pythagoras worked out length relationships for the whole musical scale.”

“You said ‘spacial frequency’ like there’s some other kind.”

“There is, though they’re closely related. Your ear doesn’t sense the space frequency, the distance between peaks. You sense the time between peaks, the time frequency, which is the space frequency, peaks per meter, times how fast the wave travels, meters per second. See how the units work out?”

“Cute. Does that space frequency/time frequency pair-up work for all kinds of waves?”

“Mostly. It doesn’t work for standing waves. Their energy’s trapped between reflectors or some other way and they just march in place. Their time frequency is zero peaks per second whatever their peaks per meter space frequency may be. Interesting effects can happen if the wave velocity changes, say if the wave path crosses from air to water or if there’s drastic temperature changes along the path.”

“Hah! Mirages! Wait, that’s light getting deflected after bouncing off a hot surface into cool air. Does sound do mirages, too?”

“Sure. Our hearing’s not sharp enough to notice sonic deflection by thermal layering in air, but it’s a well-known issue for sonar specialists. Echoes from oceanic cold/warm interfaces play hob with sonar echolocation. I’ll bet dolphins play games with it when the cold layer’s close enough to the surface.”

“Those guys will find fun in anything. <pause> So Pythagoras figured sound frequencies playing with a bow. Who did it for light?”

“Who else? Newton, though he didn’t realize it. In his day people thought that light was colorless, that color was a property of objects. Newton used the rainbow images from prisms to show that color belonged to light. But he was a particle guy. He maintained that every color was a different kind of particle. His ideas held sway for over 150 years until Fresnel convinced the science community that lightwaves are a thing and their frequencies determine their color. Among other things Fresnel came up with the math that explained some phenomena that Newton had just handwaved past.”

“Fresnel was more colorful than Newton?”

“Uh-uh. Compared to Newton, Fresnel was pastel.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Momentous Occasion

<creak> Teena’s enjoying her new-found power in the swings. “Hey, Uncle Sy? <creak> Why doesn’t the Earth fall into the Sun?”

“What in the world got you thinking about that on such a lovely day?”

“The Sun gets in my eyes when I swing forward <creak> and that reminded me of the time we saw the eclipse <creak> and that reminded of how the planets and moons are all floating in space <creak> and the Sun’s gravity’s holding them together but if <creak> the Sun’s pulling on us why don’t we just fall in?” <creak>

“An excellent question, young lady. Isaac Newton thought about it long and hard back when he was inventing Physics.”

“Isaac Newton? Is he the one with all the hair and a long, skinny nose and William Tell shot an arrow off his head?”

“Well, you’ve described his picture, but you’ve mixed up two different stories. William Tell’s apple story was hundreds of years before Newton. Isaac’s apple story had the fruit falling onto his head, not being shot off of it. That apple got him thinking about gravity and how Earth’s gravity pulling on the apple was like the Sun’s gravity pulling on the planets. When he was done explaining planet orbits, he’d also explained how your swing works.”

“My swing works like a planet? No, my swing goes back and forth, but planets go round and round.”

“Jump down and we can draw pictures over there in the sandbox.”

<thump!! scamper!> “I beat you here!”

“Of course you did. OK, what’s your new M-word?”


“Right. Mr Newton’s Law of Inertia is about momentum. It says that things go in a straight line unless something interferes. It’s momentum that keeps your swing going.”

“B-u-u-t, I wasn’t going in a straight line, I was going in part of a circle.”

“Good observing, Teena, that’s exactly right. Mr Newton’s trick was that a really small piece of a circle looks like a straight line. Look here. I’ll draw a circle … and inside it I’ll put a triangle… and between them I’ll put a hexagon — see how it has an extra point halfway between each of the triangle’s points? — and up top I’ll put the top part of whatever has 12 sides. See how the 12-thing’s sides are almost on the circle?”

“Ooo, that’s pretty! Can we do that with a square, too?”

“Sure. Here’s the circle … and the square … and an octagon … and a 16-thing. See, that’s even closer to being a circle.”

“Ha-ha — ‘octagon’ — that’s like ‘octopus’.”

“For good reason. An octopus has eight arms and an octagon has eight sides. ‘Octo-‘ means ‘eight.’ So anyway, Mr Newton realized that his momentum law would apply to something moving along that tiny straight line on a circle. But then he had another idea — you can move in two directions at once so you can have momentum in two directions at once.”

“That’s silly, Uncle Sy. There’s only one of me so I can’t move in two directions at once.”

“Can you move North?”


“Can you move East?”


“Can you move Northeast?”

“Oh … does that count as two?”

“It can for some situations, like planets in orbit or you swinging on a swing. You move side-to-side and up-and-down at the same time, right?”


“When you’re at either end of the trip and as far up as you can get, you stop for that little moment and you have no momentum. When you’re at the bottom, you’ve got a lot of side-to-side momentum across the ground. Anywhere in between, you’ve got up-down momentum and side-to-side momentum. One kind turns into the other and back again.”

“So complicated.”

“Well, it is. Newton simplified things with revised directions — one’s in-or-out from the center, the other’s the going-around angle. Each has its own momentum. The swing’s ropes don’t change length so your in-out momentum is always zero. Your angle-momentum is what keeps you going past your swing’s bottom point. Planets don’t have much in-out momentum, either — they stay about their favorite distance from the Sun.”

“Earth’s angle-momentum is why we don’t fall in?”

“Yep, we’ve got so much that we’re always falling past the Sun.”

~~ Rich Olcott