Squeezing past Newton’s infinity

One of the most powerful moments in musical theater — Philip Quast Quastin his Les Miz role of Inspector Javert, praising the stars for the steadfastness and reverence for law that they signify for him.  The performance is well worth a listen.

Javert’s certitude came from Newton’s sublimely reliable mechanics — the notion that every star’s and planet’s motion is controlled by a single law, F~(1/r2).  The law says that the attractive force between any pair of bodies is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.  But as Javert’s steel-clad resolve hid a fatal spark of mercy towards Jean Valjean, so Newton’s clockworks hold catastrophe at their axles.

Newton’s gravity law has a problem.  As the distance approaches zero, the predicted force approaches infinity.  The law demands that nearby objects accelerate relentlessly at each other to collide with infinite force, after which their combined mass attracts other objects.  In time, everything must collapse in a reverse of The Big Bang.

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables about 180 years after Newton published his Principia.  A decade before Hugo’s book, Professeur Édouard Roche (pronounced rōsh) solved at least part of Newton’s problem.

Roche realized that Newton had made an important but crucial simplification.  Early in the Principia, he’d proven that for many purposes you can treat an entire object as though all of its mass were concentrated at a single point (the “center of mass”).  But in real gravity problems every particle of one object exerts an attraction for every particle of the other.

That distinction makes no difference when the two objects are far apart.  However, when they’re close together there are actually two opposing forces in play:

  • gravity, which preferentially affects the closest particles, and
  • tension, which maintains the integrity of each structure.
Binary star pair demonstrating Roche lobes, image courtesy of Cronodon.com

Roche noted that the gravity fields of any pair of objects must overlap.  There will always be a point on the line between them where a particle will be tugged equally in either direction.  If two bodies are close and one or both are fluid (gases and plasmas are fluid in this sense), the tension force is a weak competitor.  The partner with the less intense gravity field will lose material across that bridge to the other partner. Binary star systems often evolve by draining rather than collision.

Now suppose both bodies are solid.  Tension’s game is much stronger.  Nonetheless, as they approach each other gravity will eventually start ripping chunks off of one or both objects.  The only question is the size of the chunks — friable materials like ices will probably yield small flakes, as opposed to larger lumps made from silicates and other rocky materials.  Roche described the final stage of the process, where the less-massive body shatters completely.  The famous rings of Saturn and the less famous rings of Neptune, Uranus and Jupiter all appear to have been formed by this mechanism.

Roche was even able to calculate how close the bodies need to be for that final stage to occur. The threshold, now called the Roche Limit, depends on the size and mass of each body. You can get more detail here.

Klingon3And then there’s spaghettification.  That’s a non-relativistic tidal phenomenon that occurs near an extremely dense body like a neutron star or a black hole.  Because these objects pack an enormous amount of mass into a very small volume, the force of gravity at a close-in point is significantly greater than the force just a little bit further out. Any object, say a Klingon Warbird that ignored peril markings on a space map (Klingons view warnings as personal challenges), would find itself stretched like a noodle between high gravity on the side near the black hole and lower gravity on the opposite side.  (In this cartoon, notice how the stretching doesn’t care which way the pin-wheeling ship is pointed.)

Nature abhors singularities.  Where a mathematical model like Newton’s gravity law predicts an infinity, Nature generally says, “You forgot something.”  Newton assumed that objects collide as coherent units.  Real bodies drain, crumble, or deform to slide together.  Look to the apparent singularities to find new physics.

~~ Rich Olcott

The direction Newton avoided facing

Reading Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is less challenging than listening to Vogon poetry.  You just have to get your head working like a 17th Century genius who had just invented Calculus and who would have deep-fried his right arm in rancid skunk oil before he’d admit to using any of his rival Liebniz’ math notations or techniques.

Newton II-II ellipseNewton was essentially a geometer. These illustrations (from Book 1 of the Principia) will give you an idea of his style.  He’d set himself a problem then solve it by constructing sometimes elaborate diagrams by which he could prove that certain components were equal or in strict proportion.

Newton XII-VII hyperbolaFor instance, in the first diagram (Proposition II, Theorem II), we see an initial glimpse of his technique of successive approximation.  He defines a sequence of triangles which as they proliferate get closer and closer to the curve he wants to characterize.

The lines and trig functions escalate in the second diagram (Prop XII, Problem VII), where he calculates the force  on a body traveling along a hyperbola.

Newton XLIV-XIV precessionThe third diagram is particularly relevant to the point I’ll finally get to when I get around to it.  In Prop XLIV, Theorem XIV he demonstrates something weird.  Suppose two objects A and B are orbiting around attractive center C, but B is moving twice as fast as A.  If C exerts an additional force on B that is inversely dependent on the cube of the B-C distance, then A‘s orbit will be a perfect circle (yawn) but B‘s will be an ellipse that rotates around C, even though no external force pushes it laterally.

In modern-day math we’d write the additional force as F∼(1/rBC3), but Newton verbalized it as “in a triplicate ratio of their common altitudes inversely.”  See what I mean about Vogon poetry?

Now, about that point I was going to get to.  It’s C, in the center of that circle.  If the force is proportional to 1/r3, what happens when r approaches zero?  BLOOIE, the force becomes infinite.

In the previous post we used geometry to understand the optical singularity at the center of the Christmas ball.  I said there that my modeling project showed me a deeper reason for a BLOOIE.  That reason showed up partway through the calculation for the angle between the axis and the ring of reflected  light.  A certain ratio came out to be (1-x)/2x, where x is proportional to the distance between the LED and the ball’s center.  Same problem: as the LED approaches the center, x approaches zero and BLOOIE.  (No problem when x is one, because the ratio is 0/2 which is zero which is OK.)

Singularities happen when the formula for something goes to infinity.

Now, Newton recognized that his central-force (1/rn)-type equations covered gravity and magnetism and even the inward force on the rim of a rotating wheel.  It’s surprising that he didn’t seem too worried about BLOOIE.

I think he had two excuses.  First, he was limited by his graphical methodology.  In most of his constructions, when a certain distance goes to zero there’s a general catastrophe — rectangles and triangles collapse to lines or even points, radii whirl aimlessly without a vertex to aim at…  His lovely derivations devolve into meaninglessness.  Further advances would depend on the  algebraic approach to Calculus taken by the detested Liebniz.

Second (here’s the hook for this post’s title), Newton was looking outward, not inward.  He was considering the orbits of planets and other sizable objects.  r is always the distance between object centers.  For sizable objects you don’t have to worry about r=0 because “center-to-center equals zero” never occurs.  If the Moon (radius 1080 miles) were to drop down to touch the Earth (radius 3960 miles), their centers would still be 5000 miles apart.  No BLOOIE.

Actually, there would be CRUMBLE instead of BLOOIE because a different physical model would apply — but that’s a tale for another post.

The moral of the story is this.  Mathematical models don’t care about infinities, but Nature does.  Any conditions where the math predicts an infinite value (for instance, where a denominator can become zero) are prime territory for new models that make better predictions.

~~ Rich Olcott