A Recourse to Pastry

There’s something wrong about the displays laid out on Al’s pastry counter — no symmetry.  One covered platter holds eight pinwheels in a ring about a central one, but the other platter’s central pinwheel has only a five-pinwheel ring around it.  I yell over to him.  “What’s with the pastries, Al?  You usually balance things up.”

“Ya noticed, hey, Sy?  It’s a tribute to the Juno spacecraft.  She went into orbit around Jupiter on the 5th of July 2016 so I’m celebrating her anniversary.”

“Well, that’s nice, but what do pinwheels have to do with the spacecraft?”

“Haven’t you seen the polar pictures she sent back?  Got a new poster behind the cash register.  Ain’t they gorgeous?”Jupiter both poles“They’re certainly eye-catching, but I thought Jupiter’s all baby-blue and salmon-colored.”

Astronomer Cathleen’s behind me in line.  “It is, Sy, but only in photographs using visible sunlight.  These are infrared images, right, Al?”

“Yeah, from … lemme look at the caption … Juno‘s JIRAM instrument.”

“Right, the infrared mapper.  It sees heat-generated light that comes from inside Jupiter.  It’s the same principle as using blackbody radiation to take a star’s temperature, but here we’re looking at a planet.  Jupiter’s way colder than a star so the wavelengths are longer, but on the other hand it’s close-up so we don’t have to reckon with relativistic wavelength stretching.  At any rate, infrared wavelengths are too long for our eyes to see but they penetrate clouds of particulate matter like interstellar dust or the frigid clouds of Jupiter.”

Jupiter south pole 1

NASA mosaic view of Jupiter’s south pole by visible light

“So this red hell isn’t what the poles actually look like?”

“No, Al,  the visible light colors are in the tops of clouds and they’re all blues and white.  These infrared images show us temperature variation within the clouds.  Come to think of it, that Hell’s frozen over — if I recall correctly, the temperature range in those clouds runs from about –10°C to –80°C.  In Fahrenheit that’d be from near zero to crazy cold.”

“Those aren’t just photographs in Al’s poster?”

“Oh, no, Sy, there’s a lot of computer processing in between Juno‘s wavelength numbers and what the public sees.  The first step is to recode all the infrared wavelengths to visible colors.  In that north pole image I’d say that they coded red-to-black as warm down to white as cool.  The south pole image looks like warmest is yellow-to-white, coolest is red.”

“How’d you figure that?”

“The programs fake the apparent heights.  The warmest areas are where we can see most deeply into the atmosphere, which would be at the center or edge of a vortex.  The cooler areas would be upper-level material.  The techs use that logic to generate the perspective projection that we interpret as a 3-D view.”

Vinnie’s behind us in line and getting impatient.  “I suppose there’s Science in those pretty pictures?”

“Tons of it, and a few mysteries.  JIRAM by itself is telling the researchers a lot about where and how much water and other small molecules reside in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  But Juno has eight other sensors.  Scientists expect to harvest important information from each of them.  Correlations between the data streams will give us exponentially more.”

He’s still antsy.  “Such as?”

“Like how Jupiter’s off-axis magnetic field is related to its lumpy gravitational field.  When we figure that out we’ll know a lot more about how Jupiter works, and that’ll help us understand Saturn and gas-giant exoplanets.”GRS core

Al breaks in.  “What about the mysteries, Cathleen?”

“Those storms, for instance.  They look like Earth-style hurricanes, driven by upwelling warm air.  They even go in the right direction.  But why are they crammed together so and how can they stay stable like that?  Adjacent gears have to rotate in opposite directions, but these guys all go in the same direction.  I can’t imagine what the winds between them must be like.”

“And how come there’s eight in the north pole ring but only five at the other pole?”

“Who knows, Vinnie?  The only guess I have is that Jupiter’s so big that one end doesn’t know what the other end’s doing.”

“Someone’s gonna have to do better than that.”

“Give ’em time.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Planetary Pastry, Third Course

The Al’s Coffee Shop Astronomy gang is still discussing Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.  Cathleen‘s holding court, which is natural because she’s the only for-real Astronomer in the group…  “So here’s what we’ve got.  The rim of the Great Red Spot goes hundreds of miles an hour in the wrong direction compared to hurricanes on Earth.  An Earth hurricane’s eye is calm but the Jupiter Spot’s rim encloses a complex pattern of high winds.  Heat transport and cloud formation on Earth are dominated by water, but Jupiter’s atmospheric dynamic has two active players — water and ammonia.”

“Here’s your pastries, Cathleen.  I brought you a whole selection.  Don’t nobody sneeze on ’em, OK?”

“Oh, they’re perfect, Al.  Thanks.  Let’s start with this bear claw.  We’ll pretend it’s the base of the weather column.  On Earth that’d be mostly ocean, some land surface and some ice.  They’re all rough-ish and steer air currents, which is why there’s a rain shadow inland of coastal mountain ranges.”pastries 2

“Jupiter doesn’t have mountains?”

“We’re virtually certain it doesn’t, Sy.  The planet’s density is so low that it can’t have much heavy material.  It’s essentially an 88,000-mile-wide ball of helium-diluted liquid hydrogen topped by a 30-mile-high weather column.  Anything rocky sank to the core long ago.  The liquid doesn’t even have a real surface.”

<Al and Sy> “Huh?”

“Jovian temps are so low that even at moderate pressures there’s no boundary between gaseous and liquid phases.  Going downward you dive through clear ‘air,’ then progress through an increasingly opalescent haze until you realize you’re swimming.  Physicists just define the ‘surface’ to be the height where the pressure is one atmosphere.  That level’s far enough down that water and ammonia freeze to form overlying cloud layers but hydrogen and helium are still gases.  It could conceivably look like home there except the sky would be weird colors and you don’t see a floor.”

“If the boundary is that blurry, it’s probably pretty much frictionless — weather passes over it without slowing down or losing energy, right?”


“So there’s way too much slivered almonds and stuff on that bear claw. On this scale it ought to have a mirror finish.”

“Good point.  But now we can start stacking weather onto it.  Here’s my doughnut, to represent the Great Red Spot or any of the other long-lived anticyclones.”

“Auntie who?”

“A-n-t-i-cyclone, Al.  Technical term for a storm that disobeys the Coriolis theory.”

“Uh-HUH. So why’s it do that?”

“Well, at this point we can only go up one level in the cause-and-effect chain.  <pulling out smartphone>  NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft sent back data for this this wonderful video


Jupiter seen by Voyager 1 probe with blue filter in 1979. One image was taken every Jupiter day (approximately 10 hours).  Credit: NASA

“Basically, the Spot is trapped between two jet streams, one going westward at 135 mph and the other going eastward at 110 mph.  I’ll use these biscotti to represent them.pastries with arrows

“Hey, that’s like a rack-and-pinion gear setup, with two racks and an idler, except the idler gear’s four times as wide as the Earth.”

“A bit less than that these days, Sy.  The Spot’s been shrinking and getting rounder.  Every year since 1980 it’s lost about 300 miles east-west and about 60 miles north-south.  As of 2014 it was about 2.8 Earth-widths across.  And no, we don’t know why.  Theories abound, though.”

“What’s one of them?”

“Believe it or not, climate change.  On Jupiter, not Earth.  One group of scientists at Berkeley tackled a couple of observations

  • Unlike Earth, which is much hotter near the Equator than near the poles, Jupiter’s Equator is only a few degrees warmer than its poles.
  • Three persistent White Ovals near the Great Red Spot merged to form a single White Oval that recently turned red but only around the edges.

Their argument is long, technical and still controversial.  However, their proposal is that merging the three ovals disrupted the primary heat transport mechanism that had been evening out Jupiter’s temperature.  IF that’s true, and if it’s the case that Jupiter’s jet streams are powered by heat transport, then maybe disrupted heat patterns are interfering with  the Great Red Spot’s rack-and-pinion machine.  And maybe more.”

“Big changes ahead for the Big Planet.”


~~ Rich Olcott

Planetary Pastry, Second Course

We’re still sitting in Al’s coffee shop.  “OK, Cathleen, so Jupiter’s Great Red Spot acts like a hurricane turned inside-out.  Where’s the problem?”

“Just that it goes completely against all the computer models we’ve built to understand and predict hurricane activity.  It’ll take a whole new generation of even more complicated models for Jupiter-like planets.”

“Here’s the doughnuts you asked for, Cathleen.”

“Thanks, Al.  Perfect timing. <drawing on a paper napkin>  Let’s look at hurricanes first, OK, Sy?”


“We’ll start with this doughnut that I’ve just taken a bite out of.  First thing that happens is that warm ocean water heats up the overlying air.  Warmed air rises, so we’ve got an updraft.”

“And then?”

“The rising air is humid (ocean air, remember?).  As it rises it cools and forces moisture to condense out.  Upward flow stops when the warmed air hits the top of the troposphere.  But there’s still more warm air pushing up the plume.  The cooled air has to go somewhere so it spreads out.  That’s where these red arrows on my paper napkin go horizontal.  The cooled air, loaded with water droplets, is heavy so it starts sinking which is why the red arrows turn downward.  They move back across that ocean water again ’cause they’re caught in the inflow.  Full cycle and that’s number 1 here, got it?”


“Hey, Cathleen,  are you gonna need more paper napkins?”Donuts 1
“A couple should be enough, Al, thanks.  Now we get to number 2, the Coriolis thing. That’s always tough to talk students through but let’s try.  The Earth rotates once every 24 hours, right, and its circumference at the Equator is 25,000 miles, so relative to the Sun anything at the Equator is flying eastward at about 1,000 miles per hour.  Any place north of the Equator has to be going slower than that, and further north, even slower.  With me, Sy?”

“Gimme a minute … OK, I suppose.”

“Good.  Now suppose a balloon is floating in the breeze somewhere south of that rising plume.  Relative to the plume, it’ll have eastward momentum.  Now the balloon’s caught in the plume’s inflow but it doesn’t go straight in because of that eastward momentum.  Instead it’s going to arc around the plume.  See how I’ve got it coming in off-center?  Al, would that be clockwise or counterclockwise if you’re looking down from a satellite or something?”

“Umm … counterclockwise, yeah?”

“Mm-hm.  What about a balloon that starts out north of the plume?”

“Uhh … It’ll be going slower than the plume, so the plume gets ahead of it and it’ll arc … hey, counterclockwise again!”

“How ’bout that?  Anywhere in the northern hemisphere, air flowing into a low-pressure region will turn it counterclockwise.  As the inflow draws from greater distances, there’s a greater speed difference to drive the counterclockwise spin.  So that’s number 2 here.  Add those two cycles together and you’ve got number 3, which spirals all around the doughnut.  And there’s your hurricane.”

“Cool.  So how does that model not account for the Great Red Spot?”

“To begin with, the Spot’s in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere so it ought to be going clockwise which it definitely is not.  And there’s no broad band of surrounding clouds — just a lot of structure inside the ring, not outside.  There’s something else going on that swamps Coriolis.”

“So how’s Jupiter different from Earth?  Besides being bigger, of course.”

“Lots of ways, Sy.  You know how labels on healthcare products divide the contents into active ingredients and inert ingredients?  The inert ones just carry or modify the effects of the active ones.  Atmospheres work the same way.  On Earth the inert ingredients are nitrogen and oxygen…”

“Hey, oxygen’s important!”

“Sure, Al, but not when you’re modeling air movement.  The important active ingredient is water — it transports a lot of heat when it evaporates from one place and condenses somewhere else.  The biggest outstanding problem in Earth meteorology is accounting for clouds.”

“You’re gonna tell us that Jupiter’s inactive ingredients are hydrogen and helium, I suppose.”

“Precisely, Sy.  Jupiter has two active ingredients, water and ammonia, plus smaller amounts of sulfur and phosphorus compounds.  Makes for a crazy complicated modeling problem.  I’m going to need more pastries.”

“Comin’ up.”


~~ Rich Olcott

Planetary Pastry, First Course

“Morning, Al.  What’s the scone of the day?”

“No scones today, Sy.  Cathleen and one of her Astronomy students used my oven to do a whole batch of these orange-and-apricot Danishes.  Something to do with Jupiter.  Try one.”Great Apricot Spot 1
Cathleen was standing behind me.  “They’re in honor of NASA’s Juno spacecraft.  She just completed a close-up survey of Jupiter’s famous cloud formation, the Great Red Spot.  Whaddaya think?”

“Not bad.  Nice bright color and a good balance of sweetness from the apricot against tartness from the orange.”

“You noticed that, hey?  We had to do a lot of balancing — flavors, colors, the right amount of liquid.  Too juicy and the pastry part comes out gummy, too dry and you break a tooth.  Notice something else?”

“The structure, right?  Like the Spot’s collar around a mushed-up center.”

“Close, but Juno showed us that center’s anything but mushed-up.  <pulls out her smartphone>  Here’s what she sent back.”

GRS 1 @400

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

“See, it’s swirls within swirls. We tried stirring the filling to look like that but it mostly smoothed out in the baking.”

“Hey, is it true what I heard that the Great Red Spot has been there for 400 years?”

“We think so, Al, but nobody knows for sure.  When Galileo published his telescopic observations of Jupiter in 1610 he didn’t mention a spot.  But that could be because he’d already caught flak from the Church by describing mountains and craters on the supposedly perfect face of the Moon.   Besides, the Jovian moons he saw were much more exciting for the science of the time.  A planet with satellites was a direct contradiction to Aristotle’s Earth-centered Solar System.”

“OK, but what about after Galileo?”

“There are records of a spot between 1665 and 1713 but then no reports of a spot for more than a century.  Maybe it was there and nobody was looking for it, maybe it had disappeared.  But Jupiter’s got one now and it’s been growing and shrinking for the past 185 years.”

“So what is it, what’s it made of and why’s it been there so long?”

“Three questions, one of them easy.”

“Which is easy, Sy?”

“The middle one.  The answer is, no-one knows what it’s made of.  That’s part of Juno‘s mission, to do close-up spectroscopy and help us wheedle what kinds of molecules are in there.  We know that Jupiter’s mostly hydrogen and helium, just like the Sun, but both of those are colorless.  Why some of the planet’s clouds are blue and some are pink — that’s a puzzle, right, Cathleen?”

“Well, we know a little more than that, especially since the Galileo probe dove 100 miles into the clouds in 1995.  The white clouds are colder and made of ammonia ice particles.  The pink clouds are warmer and … ok, we’re still working on that.”

“What about my other two questions, Cathleen?”

“People often call it a hurricane, but that’s a misnomer.  On Earth, a typical hurricane is a broad, complex ring of rainstorms with wind speeds from 75 to 200 mph.  Inside the ring wall people say it’s eerily calm.  The whole thing goes counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern one.”

“So how’s the Great Red Spot different?”

“Size, speed, complexity, even direction.  East-to-west, the Spot is eight times wider than the biggest hurricanes.  Its collar winds run about 350 mph and it rotates counterclockwise even though it’s in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere.  It’s like a hurricane inside-out.”

“It’s not calm inside?”

“Nope, take another look at that Juno image.  There’s at least three very busy bands wrapped around a central structure that looks like it holds three distinct swirls.  That’s the part that’s easiest to understand.” GRS core

“Why so?”

“Geometry.  Adjacent segments of separate swirls have to be moving in the same direction or they’ll cancel each other out.  <scribbles diagram on a paper napkin>  Suppose I’ve got just one inside another one.  If they go in the same direction the faster one speeds up the slower one and they merge.  If they go in opposite directions, one of them disappears.  If there’s more than one inner swirl, there has to be an odd number, see?”

“So if it’s not a hurricane, what is it?”

“Got any donuts, Al?”

~~ Rich Olcott