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.”

Spock’s Jellyfish starcraft,
as seen in the 2009 Star Trek film
(image from the video by Rob Morey)

“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.

jellyfish-2“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

Smoke and a mirror

Etna jellyfish pairGrammie always grimaced when Grampie lit up one of his cigars inside the house.  We kids grinned though because he’d soon be blowing smoke rings for us.  Great fun to try poking a finger into the center, but we quickly learned that the ring itself vanished if we touched it.

My grandfather can’t take credit for the smoke ring on the left — it was “blown” by Mt Etna.  Looks very like the jellyfish on the right, doesn’t it?  When I see two such similar structures, I always wonder if the resemblance comes from the same physics phenomenon.

This one does — the physics area is Fluid Dynamics, and the phenomenon is a vortex ring. We need to get a little technical and abstract here: to a physicist a fluid is anything that’s composed of particles that don’t have a fixed spatial relationship to each other. Liquid water is a fluid, of course (its molecules can slide past each other) and so is air.  The sun’s ionized protons and electrons comprise a fluid, and so can a mob of people and so can vehicle traffic (if it’s moving at all).  You can use Fluid Dynamics to analyze motion when the individual particles are numerous and small relative to the volume in question.

Ring x-section
Adapted from a NOAA page

You get a vortex whenever you have two distinct fluids in contact but moving at sufficiently different velocities.  (Remember that “velocity” includes both speed and direction.)  When Grampie let out that little puff of air (with some smoke in it), his fast-moving breath collided with the still air around him.  When the still air didn’t get out of the way, his breath curled back toward him.  The smoke collected in the dark gray areas in this diagram.

That curl is the essence of vorticity and turbulence.  The general underlying rule is “faster curls toward slower,” just like that skater video in my previous post.  Suppose fluid is flowing through a pipe.  Layers next to the outside surface move slowly whereas the bulk material near the center moves quickly.  If the bulk is going fast enough, the speed difference will generate many little whorls against the circumference, converting pump energy to turbulence and heat.  The plant operator might complain about “back pressure” because the fluid isn’t flowing as rapidly as expected from the applied pressure.

But Grampie didn’t puff into a pipe (he’s a cigar man, right?), he puffed into the open air.  Those curls weren’t just at the top and bottom of his breath, they formed a complete circle all around his mouth.  If his puff didn’t come out perfectly straight, the smoke had a twist to it and circulated along that circle, the way Etna’s ring seems to be doing (note the words In and Out buried in the diagram’s gray blobs).  When a vortex closes its loop like that, you’ve got a vortex ring.

A vortex ring is a peculiar beast because it seems to have a life of its own, independent of the surrounding medium.  Grampie’s little puff of vortical air usually retained its integrity and carried its smoke particles for several feet before energy loss or little fingers broke up the circulation.

To show just how special vortex rings are, consider the jellyfish.  Until I ran across this article, I’d thought that jellyfish used jet propulsion like octopuses and squids do — squirt water out one way to move the other way.  Not the case.  Jellyfish do something much more sophisticated, something that makes them possibly “the most energy-efficient animals in the world.”

jellyfish vortices

Thanks to a very nice piece of biophysics detective work (read the paper, it’s cool, no equations), we now know that a jellyfish doesn’t just squirt.  Rather, it relaxes its single ring of muscle tissue to open wide.  That motion pulls in a pre-existing vortex ring that pushes against the bell.  On the power stroke, the jellyfish contracts its bell to push water out (OK, that’s a squirt) and create another vortex ring rolling in the opposite direction.  In effect, the jellyfish continually builds and climbs a ladder of vortex rings.

Vortex rings are encapsulated angular momentum, potentially in play at any size in any medium.

~~ Rich Olcott