A Summertime Slice of π

So you think you’re standing still?  Let’s run some circles, all variations on the theme of 2πR…

Circles in circles
The Earth rotates on its axis,
as it and the moon revolve around their barycenter,
as the barycenter revolves around the Sun.
Not to scale, of course.

The Earth’s radius is 4,000 miles and it completes one rotation every 24 hours.  Its circumference at the Equator (2πR) is 25,000 miles, so if you’re reading this in Ecuador you’re doing 25000/24 = 1041 miles per hour.

I’m writing this in Denver, at 39.75oN, where the circumference perpendicular to the axis of rotation is only 19,200 miles.  Sitting here I’m circling the Earth at 800 miles per hour.  But that’s not all.

The Earth and the Moon both revolve around their common center of gravity (their barycenter).  The barycenter is inside the Earth, offset from its center by 2881 miles.  The center of the Earth runs a circle around the barycenter once every month (27.3 days), at a relatively piddly 27.6 miles per hour.  But that’s not all.

Circles in circles
One year of Denver’s distance from Sag A*,
the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
The green curve is our orbit around the Sun.
The blue curve adds in the monthly wobble
as we revolve around the barycenter.
The red curve includes our daily rotation. (Should be 365 cycles but I used artistic license to cut that down to 36. Besides, the vertical scale’s all wrong. Sue me.)

Earth’s orbit is (nearly) a circle.  The orbit’s radius is 93 million miles so its circumference is 584 million miles.  If you ran that many miles in a year you’d have to hit a pace of 66,600 miles per hour (no rest stops).  But that’s not all.

The Sun’s not just standing still all alone in space.  It’s part of the Milky Way Galaxy, which rotates once per 230 million years.  The Sun is about 26,000 light-years (152.8 quadrillion miles) from the center of the galaxy, so in one cycle it travels some 960 quadrillion miles.  That’s a rate of 476,000 miles per hour.  But that’s not all.

The Milky Way is one of about 50 galaxies in the Local Group.  The galaxies move with respect to each other and the whole assembly undoubtedly rotates.  Unfortunately, the astronomers are just now devising technology that can measure all that motion.  Expect large numbers for the net speeds when they figure them out.  But that’s not all.

The entire Local Group is flying towards a point in the constellation Centaurus.  Our flight speed has been measured at about 1,430,000 miles per hour.  The astronomers think the flight is linear, but on a larger scale it may be part of yet another rotation.

Feeling a bit dizzy?  Have a frosty glass of iced tea with your delicious π and just let the Earth spin along.

~~ Rich Olcott


Gargh, His Heirs, and the AAAD Problem

Gargh the thinkerGargh, proto-humanity’s foremost physicist 2.5 million years ago, opened a practical investigation into how motion works.  “I throw rock, hit food beast, beast fall down yes.  Beast stay down no.  Need better rock.”  For the next couple million years, we put quite a lot of effort into making better rocks and better ways to throw them.  Less effort went into understanding throwing.

There seemed to be two kinds of motion.  The easier kind to understand was direct contact — “I push rock, rock move yes.  Rock stop move when rock hit thing that move no.”  The harder kind was when there wasn’t direct contact — “I throw rock up, rock hit thing no but come back down.  Why that?

Gargh was the first but hardly the last physicist to puzzle over the Action-At-A-Distance problem (a.k.a. “AAAD”).  Intuition tells us that between pusher and pushee there must be a concrete linkage to convey the push-force.  To some extent, the history of physics can be read as a succession of solutions to the question, “What linkage induces this apparent case of AAAD?”

Most of humanity was perfectly content with AAAD in the form of magic of various sorts.  To make something happen you had to wish really hard and/or depend on the good will of some (generally capricious) elemental being.

aristotle 1Aristotle wasn’t satisfied with anything so unsystematic.  He was just full of theories, many of which got in each other’s way.  One theory was that things want to go where they’re comfortable  because of what they’re made of — stones, for instance, are made of earth so naturally they try to get back home and that’s why we see them fall downwards (no concrete linkage, so it’s still AAAD).

Unfortunately, that theory didn’t account for why a thrown rock doesn’t just fall straight down but instead goes mostly in the direction it’s thrown.  Aristotle (or one of his followers) tied that back to one of his other theories, “Nature hates a vacuum.”  As the rock flies along, it pushes the air aside (direct contact) and leaves a vacuum behind it. More air rushes in to fill the vacuum and pushes the rock ahead (more direct contact).

We got a better (though still AAAD) explanation in the 17th Century when physicists invented the notions of gravity and inertia.Newton 204

Newton made a ground-breaking claim in his Principia.  He proposed that the Solar System is held together by a mysterious AAAD force he called gravity.  When critics asked how gravity worked he shrugged, “I do not form hypotheses” (though he did form hypotheses for light and other phenomena).

Inertia is also AAAD.  Those 17th Century savants showed that inertial forces push mass towards the Equator of a rotating object.  An object that’s completely independent of the rest of the Universe has no way to “know” that it’s rotating so it ought to be a perfect sphere.  In fact, the Sun and each of its planets are wider at the equator than you’d expect from their polar diameters.  That non-sphere-ness says they must have some AAAD interaction with the rest of the Universe.  A similar argument applies to linear motion; the general case is called Mach’s Principle.

The ancients knew of the mysterious AAAD agents electricity and its fraternal twin, magnetism.  However, in the 19th Century James Clerk Maxwell devised a work-around.  Just as Newton “invented” gravity, Maxwell “invented” the electromagnetic field.  This invisible field isn’t a material object.  However, waves in the field transmit electromagnetic forces everywhere in the Universe.  Not AAAD, sort of.

It wasn’t long before someone said, “Hey, we can calculate gravity that way, too.”  That’s why we now speak of a planet’s gravitational field and gravitational waves.

But the fields still felt like AAAD because they’re not concrete.  Some modern physicists stand that objection on its head.  Concrete objects, they say, are made of atoms which themselves are nothing more than persistent fluctuations in the electromagnetic and gravitational fields.  By that logic, the fields are what’s fundamental — all motion is by direct contact.einstein-tongue edged

Einstein moved resolutely in both directions.  He negated gravity’s AAAD-ness by identifying mass-contorted space as the missing linkage.  On the other hand, he “invented” quantum entanglement, the ultimate spooky AAAD.

 ~~ Rich Olcott