A Wheel in A Wheel

The conversation’s gotten a little dry so I carry our mugs over to Al’s coffee tap for refills. Vinnie’s closest so he gets the first one. “Thanks, Sy. So you say that a black hole has all these other things on the outside — the photon sphere and that weird belt if it’s rotating and the accretion disk and the jets which is what I asked about in the first place.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes gets the second mug. “My point, Vinnie, is they all act together. You can’t look at just one thing. Thanks, Sy. You know, you should’ve paid more attention to the ergosphere.”


“Yeah, Vinnie, that pumpkin-shaped layer Sy described — actually, more a pumpkin shell. The event horizon and photon sphere take up space inside of it and the accretion disk’s inner edge grazes its equator. The pumpkin is fatter for a more rapidly rotating black hole, but its boundary still dips down to meet the event horizon at the rotational poles. Diagrams usually show it just sitting there but that’s not quite true.”

“It wobbles?”

“No, the shape stays in place, locked to the event horizon just like the diagrams show. What’s inside it, though, is moving like mad. That’s what we’d see from a far-away frame, anyhow.”

Frames again, I knew it. The pumpkin’s got frames?”

“With extreme-gravity situations it’s always frames, Vinnie. The core’s gravity pulls in particles from the accumulation disk. They think they’re going straight. From an outsider’s perspective everything swerves spinwise at the ergosphere’s boundary. Even if a high-speed particle had been aimed in the other direction, it’s going spinwise once it’s inside the ergosphere.”

“Who’s making it do that?”

“Frame-dragging on steroids. We’ve known for a century that gravity from any massive body compresses the local space. ‘Kilometers are shorter near a black hole,’ as the saying goes. If the body is rotating, that counts too, at least locally — space itself joins the spin. NASA’s Gravity B probe detected micromicrodegree-level frame rotation around Earth. The ergosphere, though, has space is twisted so far that the direction of time points spinwise in the same way that it points inwards within the event horizon. Everything has to travel along time’s arrow, no argument.”

“You said ‘local‘ twice there. How far does this spread?”

“Ah, that’s an important question. The answer’s ‘Not as far as you think.’ Everything scales with the event horizon’s diameter and that scales with the mass. If the Sun were a non-rotating black hole, for instance, its event horizon would be only about 6 kilometers across, less than 4 miles. Its photon sphere would be 4.5 kilometers out from the center and the inner edge of its accretion disk would be a bit beyond that. Space compression dies out pretty quick on the astronomical scale — only a millionth of the way out to the orbit of Mercury the effect’s down to just 3% of its strength at the photosphere.”

“How about if it’s rotating?”

“The frame-dragging effect dies out even faster, with the cube of the distance. At the same one-millionth of Mercury’s orbit, the twist-in-space factor is 0.03% of what it is at the photosphere. At planet-orbit distances spin’s a non-player. However, in the theory I’m researching, spin’s influence may go much further.”

“Why’s that?”

“Seen from an outside frame, what’s inside the ergosphere rotates really fast. Remember that stuff coming in from the accretion disk’s particle grinder? It ought to be pretty thoroughly ionized, just a plasma of negative electrons and positive particles like protons and atomic nuclei. The electrons are thousands of times lighter than the positive stuff. Maybe the electrons settle into a different orbit from the positive particles.”

“Further in or further out?”

“Dunno, I’m still calculating. Either way, from the outside it’d look like two oppositely-charged disks, spinning in the same direction. We’ve known since Ørsted that magnetism comes from a rotating charge. Seems to me the ergosphere’s contents would generate two layers of magnetism with opposite polarities. I think what keeps the jets confined so tightly is a pair of concentric cylindrical magnetic fields extruded from the ergosphere. But it’s going to take a lot of math to see if the idea holds water.”

“Or jets.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Questions, Meta-questions and Answers

<We rejoin Sy and Vinnie in the library stacks…> “Are you boys discussing me?”

<unison> “Oh, hi, Ramona.”

“Actually no, Ramona, we were discussing relativistic time dilation.”

“I know that, Sy, I’ve been reading your posts. Now I’ve got a question.”

“But how…?  Never mind.  Guess I’d better watch my writing.  What can I do for you?”

“You and Vinnie have been going on about kinetic time dilation and gravitational time dilation like they’re two separate things, right?”

“That’s how we’ve treated them, right, but the textbooks do the same.  The velocity-dependent time-stretch equation, tslow/tfast = √[1-(v²/c²)], comes out of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. The gravity-dependent equation, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)], came from his General Theory of Relativity.”

“But there’s no rule that says an object can’t be moving rapidly while it’s in a gravitational field, is there?  That Endurance spacecraft orbiting the black hole in the Interstellar movie certainly seemed to be in that situation.”

“No question, Ramona.  General Relativity’s just more, er, general.”

“Fine, but shouldn’t they work together?”

That got Vinnie started.  “Yeah, Sy, I started this with LIGO and gravity but you and those space shuttles got me into this speed thing.  How do you bridge ’em?”

“Not easily.  Einstein set the rules of the game when he wrote down his fundamental equations.  Physicists and mathematicians have been trying to solve them ever since.  Schwarzchild found the first solution within a year after the equations hit the streets, but he did the simplest possible system — a non-rotating spherical object with no electrical charge and alone in the Universe.  It took another half-century before Kerr and friends figured out how to handle rotating spheres with an electric charge, but even those objects are assumed to be isolated from all other masses.  Mm … how do you figure velocity, Vinnie?”

“Distance divided by time, easy.”

“Not quite that easy.  The equations say that if you’re close to a massive object, space gets compressed, time gets stretched, and the time and space dimensions get scrambled.  Literally.  Time near a Schwarzchild object points inward as you approach the sphere’s center, and don’t ask me how to visualize that.  A Kerr object has a belt around its equator where time runs backwards.  Craziness.”

“Well, how about if I’m not that close?”

“That’s easier to answer, Ramona.  Suppose the three of us are each flying at safe distances from some heavy object with mass M.  I’m farthest away so I’m holding the fastest clock.  We’ll compare Vinnie’s and your clocks to mine.  OK?”3-clocks

“Sure, why not?”

“Fine.  Now, Vinnie, you’re closer in, resting on the direct line between me and the object.  You’re at distance r from it.  How fast does your clock run?”

“Uhhh…  We’re both on that same radial line so we’re in the same inertial frame, no kinetic effect.  I suppose you see it ticking slower because of the gravitational effect.”

“M-hm, and my clock ticks how often between ticks of yours?”

“You want the equation, huh?  All right, it’s tvinnie/tsy = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)].”

“You’re reading my mind with those subscripts.  Now, Ramona, you’re at that same distance from the object but you’re in orbit around it.  Measured against Vinnie’s position you’ve got velocity v.  How fast is his clock ticking compared to yours?”

“Mmm…  We’re at the same level in the gravity field, so the gravitational thing makes no difference.  So … tramona/tvinnie = √[1-(v²/c²)].  Aaand, he’d see my clock running slow by the same amount. That’s weird.”

“Weird but true.  Last step — Ramona, you’re deeper in the gravitational field and you’re speeding away from me, so tramona/tsy=(tramona/tvinnie)*(tvinnie/tsy)=√[1-(2G·M/r·c²)]*√[1-(v²/c²)] covers both.”

“OK, that’s settled.  Back to Vinnie’s original question.  LIGOs are set in concrete, their velocities are zero so LIGO signals are all about gravity, right?”


Ramona links arms with him.  “Let’s go dancing.”  Then she gives me the eye.  “Sugarlumps, Sy?  Really?”

On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, high above the city, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott