The Shapes of Fuzziness

Egg murmuration 1“That was a most excellent meat loaf, Sis.  Flavor balance was perfect.”

“Glad you liked it, Sy.  Mom’s recipe, of course, with the onion soup mix.”

“Yeah, but there was an extra tang in there.”

“Hah, you caught that!  I threw in some sweet pickle relish to brighten it some.”

“Mommy, Uncle Sy told me about quantum thingies and how they hide behind barriers and shoot rainbows at us.”

Sis gives me that What now? look so I must defend myself.  “Whoa, Teena, that’s not even close to what I said.”

“I know, Uncle Sy, but it’s more fun this way.  Little thingies going, ‘Pew! Pew! Pew!’

“Hey, get me out of trouble with your Mom, here.  What did I say really?”

<sigh> “Everything’s made of these teeny-weeny quantum thingies, smaller even than a water-bear egg — so small — and they have to obey quantum rules.  One of the rules is, um, if a lot of them get together to make a big thing, the big thing has to follow big-thing rules even though the little things follow quantum rules.”

“Nicely put, Sweetie.”

“And sometimes the quantum thingies act like waves and sometimes they act like real things and no-one knows how they do that.  And, uh, something about barriers making forbidden places that colors come out of and I’m mixed up about that.”

“Excellent summary, young lady.  That deserves an extra —” <sharp look from Sis who has a firm ‘No rewarding with food!‘ policy> “— chase around the block the next time we go scootering.”

“Yay!  But can you unconfuse me about the forbidden areas and colors?”

“Well, I can try.  Tell you what, bring your toy box over by the stairway, OK?  We’ll pick it all up when we’re done, Sis, I promise.  Ready, Teena?”


“OK, put your biggest marble on the bottom step. Yes, it is pretty.  Now put a tennis ball and that dumbbell-shaped thing on the second step.  Oh, it’s a yo-yo?  Cool.  And that ring-toss ring, put it on the second step, too.  Now for the third step.  Put the softball there and … umm … take some of those Legos and make a little ring inside a big ring.  Thanks, Sis, just half a cup.  Ready, Teena?”

“Just a sec… ready!”

“Perfect.  Oh, Teena, you forgot to tell Mommy about the murmuration.”

“Oh, she’s seen them.  You know, Mommie, thousands of birds flying in a big flock and they have rules so they keep together but not too close and they make big pictures in the sky.”

“Yes, I have, sweetheart, but what does that have to do with quantum, Sy?”

“How would you describe their shapes?”

“Oh, they make spirals, and swirls… I’ve seen balls and cones and doughnuts and wide flowing sheets, and other shapes we simply don’t have names for.”

“These shapes on the stairs are the first few letters in science’s alphabet for describing complex shapes like atoms.  It’s like spelling a word.  That ball on the first step is solid.  The tennis ball is a hollow shell.  Pretend the softball is hollow, too, with a hollow ping-pong ball at its center.  If you pretend that each of these is a murmuration, Teena, does that make you think of anything?”

“Mmm..  There aren’t any birds flying outside of the marble, or outside or inside of the tennis ball.  And I guess there aren’t any flying between the layers in the ping-softball.  Are those forbidden areas?”

“C’mere for a high-five!  That’s exactly where I’m going with this.  The marble has one forbidden region infinitely far away.  The tennis ball has that one plus a second one at its middle.  The softball-ping-pong combo has three and so on.  We can describe any spherical fuzziness by mixing together shapes like that.”Combining shapes

“So what about the rings and that dumbbell yo-yo?”

“That’s the start of our alphabet for fuzziness that isn’t perfectly round.  Math has given us a toolkit of spheres, dumbbells, rings and fancier figures that can describe any atom.  Plain and fancy dumbbells stretch the shape out, rings bulge its equator, and so on.  Quantum scientists use the shapes to describe atoms and molecules.”

“Why the stairsteps?”

“What about my colors?”

~ Rich Olcott

Shells A-poppin’

We step into Eddie’s.  Vinnie spots Jeremy behind the gelato stand.  “Hey, kid, you studying something Science-y?”

“Yessir, my geology text.”

“Lemme see it a sec, OK?”

“Sure.  Want a gelato?”

“Yeah, gimme a pistachio, double-dip.  I’ll hold your book while you’re doing that.  Ah-hah, Sy, lookie here, page 37 — new textbook but this atom diagram coulda come right out of that 1912 Bohr paper you don’t like.  See, eight dots in a ring around the nucleus.  Can’t be wrong or it wouldn’t have survived this long, right?”

<sigh>  “What it is isn’t what it was.  Bohr proposed his model as a way to explain atomic spectra.  We’ve got a much better model now — but the two agree on three points.  Atoms organize their electronic charge in concentric shells, innermost shells deepest in the nuclear energy well.  Second, each shell has a limited capacity.  Third, when charge moves from one shell to another, light energy is absorbed or emitted to match the energy difference between shells.  Beyond those, not much.  Here, this diagram hints at the differences.”Better Bohr

“The scrambled-looking half is the new picture?”

“Pure chaos, where the only thing you can be sure of is the averages.  These days the Bohr model survives as just an accounting device to keep track of how much charge is in each shell.  That diagram — what kind of atom is it describing?”

“I dunno, two electrons inside, eight outside, ten total.”

“Could be neon, or a fluoride, oxide, sodium or magnesium ion.  From a quantum perspective they all look the same.”

“Here’s your gelato, sir.”

“Thanks, kid, here’s your book back.  But those are different elements, Sy.”

“The important thing, Vinnie, is they all have an outer shell with eight units of charge.  That’s the most stable configuration.”

“What’s so special about eight, Mr Moire?  If it’s pure chaos shouldn’t any number be OK?”

“Like I said, Jeremy, it’s the averages that count.  Actually, this is one of my favorite examples of what Wigner called ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.’  Back in 1782, a century and a quarter before anyone took atoms seriously, Laplace did some interesting math.  Have you ever waited for a pot of water to boil and spent the time tapping the pot to see the ripples?”

“Who hasn’t?  Doesn’t boil any faster, though.”

“True.  Looking at those waves, you saw patterns you don’t see with flat reflectors, right?”

“Oh, yeah — some like dumbbells, a lot of circles.”

“Mm-hm.  In a completely random situation all possible patterns could appear, but the pot’s circular boundary suppresses everything except wave patterns that match its symmetry.  You don’t see hexagons, for instance.”

“That’s right, I didn’t.”

“So there’s Laplace in the 1790s, thinking about Newton’s Law of Gravity, and he realizes that even in the boundaryless Solar System there’s still a boundary condition — any well-behaved standing wave has to have the same value at the central point no matter what direction you come from.  He worked out all the possible stable patterns that could exist in a central field like that.  Some of them look like what you saw in the water.  We now classify them by symmetry and node count.”

“Node?”Disk orbitals

“A region where the pattern hits zero, Vinnie.  Density waves range from zero to some positive value; other kinds range from positive to negative values.  A spherical wave could peak at the center and then go to zero infinitely far away.  One node.  Or it could be zero at the center, peak in a spherical shell some distance out and then fade away.  That’d be two nodes.  Or it could be zero at the center, zero far away, and have two peaks at different distances with a spherical third node in between.  Here’s another two-node pattern — that dumbbell shape with nodes at the center and infinity.  You can add radial nodes partway out.”

“I’m getting the picture.”

“Sure.  You might think Laplace’s patterns are just pretty pictures, but electron charge in atoms and ions just happens to collect in exactly those patterns.  Combine Laplace’s one-node and two-node patterns, you get the two lowest-energy stable shells.  They hold exactly ten charge units.  The energies are right, too.  Effective?”


~~ Rich Olcott

The Solar System is in gear

Pythagoras was onto far more than he knew.  He discovered that a stretched string made a musical tone, but only when it was plucked at certain points.  The special points are those where the string lengths above and below the point are in the ratio of small whole numbers — 1:1, 1:2, 2:3, ….  Away from those points you just get a brief buzz.  All of Western musical theory grew out of that discovery.

sinesThe underlying physics is straightforward.  The string produces a stable tone only if its motion has nodes at both ends, which means the vibration has to have a whole number of nodes, which means you have to pluck halfway between two of the nodes you want.  If you pluck it someplace like 39¼:264.77 then you excite a whole lot of frequencies that fight each other and die out quickly.

That notion underlies auditorium acoustics and aircraft design and quantum mechanics.  In a way, it also determines where objects reside in the Solar System.

If you’ve got a Sun with only one planet, that planet can pick any orbit it wants — circular or grossly elliptical, close approach or far, constrained only by the planet’s kinetic energy.

If you toss in a second planet it probably won’t last long — the two will smash together or one will fall into the Sun or leave the system.  There are half-a-dozen Lagrange points, special configurations like “all in a straight line” where things are stable.  Other than those, a three-body system lives in chaos — not even a really good computer program can predict where things will be after a few orbits.

geared-saturnAdd a few more planets in a random configuration and stability goes out the window — but then something interesting happens.  It’s the Chladni effect all over again.  Planets and dust and everything go rampaging around the system.  After a while (OK, a billion years or so) sweet-spot orbits start to appear, special niches where a planet can collect small stuff but where nothing big comes close enough to break it apart.  It’s not like each planet seeks shelter, but if it finds one it survives.

It’s a matter of simple arithmetic and synchrony.  Suppose you’re in a 600-day orbit.  Neighbor Fred looking for a good spot to occupy could choose your same 600-day orbit but on the other side of the Sun from you.  But that’s a hard synchrony to maintain — be off by a few percent and in just a few years, SMASH!

The next safest place would be in a different orbit but still somehow in synchrony with yours.  Inside your orbit Fred has to go faster and therefore has a shorter orbital period than yours.  Suppose Fred’s year is exactly 300 days (a 2:1 period ratio, like a 2:1 gear ratio).  Every six months he’s sort-of close to you but the rest of the time he’s far away.

Our Solar System does seem to have developed using gear-year logic.  Adjacent orbital years are very close to being in whole-number ratios.  Mercury, for instance, circles the Sun in about 88 days.  That’s just 2% away from 2/5 of Venus’s 225¾ days.

This table shows year-lengths for the Sun’s most prominent hangers-on, along with ratios for adjacent objects.  For the “ideal” ratios I arbitrarily picked nearby whole-number multiples of 2.  I calculated how long each object’s year “should” be compared to its lower neighbor — the average inaccuracy across all ten objects is only 0.18%.

Period, years
2 × shorter / longer period
“Ideal” ratio
“Ideal” period, years
5 : 2
3 : 2
4 : 2
5 : 2
5 : 2
5 : 2
6 : 2
4 : 2
3 : 2

gears-2The usual rings-around-the-Sun diagram doesn’t show the specialness of the orbits we’ve got.  This chart shows the four innermost planets in their “ideal” orbits, properly scaled and with approximately the right phases.  I used artistic license to emphasize the gear-like action by reversing Earth’s and Mercury’s direction.   Earth and Mars are never near each other, nor are Earth and Venus.

It doesn’t show up in this video’s time resolution, but Venus and Mercury demonstrate another way the gears can work.  Mercury nears Venus twice in each full 5-year cycle, once leading and once trailing.  The leading pass slows Mercury down (raising it towards Venus), but the trailing pass speeds it up again.  Net result — safe!

~~ Rich Olcott

Hoppin’ water molecules

chladny-2Before you get any further in this post, follow this link to Steve Mould’s demonstration of  Chladni figures.  (I’ll wait here.)  It’s a neat demo and the effect plays into some recent discoveries in planetary science.

Steve’s couscous grains dance to the vibrations of the iron plate they’re sitting on.  The patterns happen because he controls where those vibrations happen.  Or more importantly, don’t happen (see his fingers pinching the plate?).

The study of vibration goes back to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek geek who determined that a plucked stretched string invariably exhibits a whole number of peaks and nodes.  (A node is a point on the string that doesn’t move, like those dots on the chart).  I’m so tempted to yammer about the relationship between nodes and quantum mechanics, but I’ve already posted on that topic.sines

The important point for this post is that Steve’s demonstration shows individual particles, each moving under the influence of random impacts, nonetheless winding up at a common destination.  They’re repeatedly kicked away from points where the iron plate is fluctuating strongly.  If a particle suddenly finds itself on a non-fluctuating nodal point (or nodal line, which is just a collection of nodal points), it stays there because why not?

The basic principle applies to numerous phenomena in Physics, Chemistry and other Sciences.  The particles in Chladni’s experiment were grains of sand.  Steve used coucous grains, which work better in video.  But they could also be molecules.  On the Moon.

Back in the 2000s there was intense debate in the lunar astronomy community.  One argument went, “The Solar Wind teems with hydrogen ions (H+).  The Moon’s surface rocks are mostly silicon oxides.  Those H+ ions will yank oxygen O2- ions off exposed rocks to make H2O molecules.  There has to be water on the Moon!”

The other side of the argument (in real Science there’s always at least one other side) went, “Maybe so, but Solar radiation also contains high-energy electrons and photons that’ll rip those molecules apart.  Water can’t survive up there!”

If/when we plant a Moon colony, the colonists will need water.  Either it gets shipped up from Earth — EXPENSIVE — or we find and mine water up there.  NASA did the only thing that could be done — they sent up a spacecraft for a close look.   When the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (the LRO) launched in 2009 it carried half-a-dozen instruments.  One of them was the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) camera.

LAMP was the embodiment of a sly trick.  Buried in starlight’s ultraviolet spectrum are photons (a.k.a. Lyman-α  light) with a wavelength of 121.6 nanometers.  They’re generated by excited hydrogen atoms and they’re (mostly) absorbed by hydrogen atoms but reflected by rock that doesn’t contain hydrogen.

LAMP’s camera was designed to be sensitive to just those Lyman-α photons.  As LRO circled the Moon, the LAMP camera recorded what fraction of those special photons was bouncing off the Moon.  By subtraction, it told us  what fraction was being absorbed by surface hydrogen.

LAMP did find water.  The fun facts are its form and location — it was frost, buried in “fluffy soils” in the walls of craters.
water-moonThis photo, part of the LAMP exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, shows why.  It’s a model of a cratered Moon lit by sunlight.

An H2O molecule may develop anywhere on the Moon’s surface.  Then it experiences life’s usual slings and arrows (well, electrons and photons) that might blast it apart or might merely give it a kinetic kick to somewhere else.  That process continues until the molecule or a descendant drops into a nice shady crater.

The best craters would be the ones in the polar regions, where sunlight arrives at a low angle and the crater walls are permanently shadowed like the one at the top in the model.  That’s exactly were LAMP found the most dark spots.  HAH —  Chladni in space!

But there’s more.  In 2012, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft produced evidence for water on Mercury, the hottest planet in the Solar System.  Once again, those molecules were hiding in polar craters along with a few other surprising molecular species.  That knocked my socks off when I read the scientific report.

~~ Rich Olcott