# Maybe It’s Just A Coincidence

Raucous laughter from the back room at Al’s coffee shop, which, remember, is situated on campus between the Physics and Astronomy buildings. It’s Open Mic night and the usual crowd is there. I take a vacant chair which just happens to be next to the one Susan Kim is in. “Oh, hi, Sy. You just missed a good pitch. Amanda told a long, hilarious story about— Oh, here comes Cap’n Mike.”

Mike’s always good for an offbeat theory. “Hey, folks, I got a zinger for you. It’s the weirdest coincidence in Physics. Are you ready?” <cheers from the physicists in the crowd> “Suppose all alone in the Universe there’s a rock and a planet and the rock is falling straight in towards the planet.” <turns to Al’s conveniently‑placed whiteboard> “We got two kinds of energy, right?”

Potential Energy    Kinetic Energy

Nods across the room except for Maybe-an-Art-major and a couple of Jeremy’s groupies. “Right. Potential energy is what you get from just being where you are with things pulling on you like the planet’s gravity pulls on the rock. Kinetic energy is what potential turns into when the pulls start you moving. For you Physics smarties, I’m gonna ignore temperature and magnetism and maybe the rock’s radioactive and like that, awright? So anyway, we know how to calculate each one of these here.”

PE = GMm/R    KE = ½mv²

“Big‑G is Newton’s gravitational constant, big‑M is the planet’s mass, little‑m is the rock’s mass, big‑R is how far apart the things are, and little‑v is how fast the rock’s going. They’re all just numbers and we’re not doing any complicated calculus or relativity stuff, OK? OK, to start with the rock is way far away so big‑R is huge. Big number on the bottom makes PE’s fraction tiny and we can call it zero. At the same time, the rock’s barely moving so little‑v and KE are both zero, close enough. Everybody with me?”

More nods, though a few of the physics students are looking impatient.

“Right, so time passes and the rock dives faster toward the planet Little‑v and kinetic energy get bigger. Where’s the energy coming from? Gotta be potential energy. But big‑R on the bottom gets smaller so the potential energy number gets, wait, bigger. That’s OK because that’s how much potential energy has been converted. What I’m gonna do is write the conversion as an equation.

GMm/R=½mv²

“So if I tell you how far the rock is from the planet, you can work the equation to tell me how fast it’s going and vice-versa. Lemme show those straight out…”

v=(2GM/R)    R=2GM/v²

Some physicist hollers out. “The first one’s escape velocity.”

“Good eye. The energetics are the same going up or coming down, just in the opposite direction. One thing, there’s no little‑m in there, right? The rock could be Jupiter or a photon, same equations apply. Suppose you’re standing on the planet and fire the rock upward. If you give it enough little‑v speed energy to get past potential energy equals zero, then the rock escapes the planet and big‑R can be whatever it feels like. Big‑R and little‑v trade off. Is there a limit?”

A couple of physicists and an astronomy student see where this is going and start to grin.

“Newton physics doesn’t have a speed limit, right? They knew about the speed of light back then but it was just a number, you could go as fast as you wanted to. How about we ask how far the rock is from the planet when it’s going at the speed of light?”

R=2GM/

Suddenly Jeremy pipes up. “Hey that’s the Event Horizon radius. I had that in my black hole term paper.” His groupies go “Oooo.”

“There you go, Jeremy. The same equation for two different objects, from two different theories of gravity, by two different derivations.”

“But it’s not valid for lightspeed.”

“How so?”

“You divided both sides of your conversion equation by little‑m. Photons have zero mass. You can’t divide by zero.”

Everyone in the room goes “Oooo.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Chutes And Landers

From: Robin Feder <rjfeder@fortleenj.com>
To: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
Subj: Questions

Hello again, Mr Moire. Kalif and I have a question. We were talking about falling out of stuff and we wondered how high you have to fall out of to break every bone in your body. We asked our science teacher Mr Higgs and he said it was something that you or Randall Munroe could answer and besides he (Mr Higgs) had to get ready for his next online. Can you tell us? Sincerely, Robin Feder

From: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
To: Robin Feder <rjfeder@fortleenj.com>
Subj: Re: Questions

Hello again, Robin. You do take after your Dad, don’t you? Please give my best to him and to Mr Higgs, who has a massive job. Mr Munroe may already have answered your question somewhere, but I’ll give it a shot.

You’ve assumed that the higher the fall, the harder the hit and the more bones broken. It’s not that simple. Suppose, for instance, that your fall is onto the Moon, whose gravity is 1/6 that of Earth. For any amount of impact, however high the fall would have been on Earth, it’d be six times higher on the Moon. So the answer depends where you’re falling.

But the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere worth paying attention to. That’s important because atmospheres impose a speed limit, technically known as terminal velocity, that depends on a whole collection of things

• the Mass of the falling object
• the local strength of Gravity
• the Density of the atmosphere
• the object’s cross‑sectional Area in the direction of fall

The first two produce the downward pull of gravity, the others produce the upward push of air resistance. Fun fact — in Galileo’s “All things fall alike” experiments, he always used spheres in order to cancel the effects of air resistance in his comparisons.

Let’s put some numbers to it. Suppose someone’s at Earth’s “edge of space” 100 kilometers up. From the PE=m·g·h formula for gravitational potential energy and dividing out their mass which I don’t know, they have 9.8×105 joules/kilogram of potential energy relative to Earth’s surface. Now suppose they convert that potential to kinetic energy by falling to the surface with no air resistance. Using KE=m·v² I calculate they’d hit at about 1000 meters/second. But in real life, the terminal velocity of a falling human body is about 55 meters/second.

That Area item is why parachutes work. Make a falling object’s area larger and it’ll have to push aside more air molecules on its way down. Anyone wanting to survive a fall wants as much area as they can get. A parachute’s fabric canopy gives them a huge area and a big help. Parachute drops normally hit at about 5 meters/second. Trained people walk away from that all the time. Mostly.

Which gets to the matter of how you land. Parachute training schools and martial arts dojos give you the same advice — don’t try to stop your fall, just tuck in your chin and twist to convert vertical kinetic energy to rolling motion. Rigid limbs lead to bones breaking, ligaments tearing and joints going out of joint.

So let’s talk bones. Adults have about 210 of them, about 90 fewer than when they were a kid. Bones start out as separate bony patches embedded in cartilage. The patches eventually join together as boney tissue and the cartilage proportion decreases with age. Bottom line — kid bones are bendy, old bones snap more easily. For your question, breaking “every bone in your body” is a bigger challenge if you’re young.

But all bones aren’t equal — some are more vulnerable than others. Sesamoid bones, like the ones at the base of your thumb, are millimeter‑sized and embedded in soft tissue that protects them. The tiny “hammer, anvil and stirrup” ear bones are buried deep in hard bony tissue that protects them, too. Thanks to bones and soft tissues that would absorb nearly all the energy of impact, these small bones are almost invulnerable.

To summarize, no matter how high up from Earth you fall from, you can’t fall fast enough to hit hard enough to break every bone in your body. Be careful anyhow.

Regards,
Sy Moire.

~~ Rich Olcott

• Thanks to Xander and Lucas for their input.

# Swinging into Physics

A gorgeous Spring day, perfect for taking my 7-year-old niece to the park. We politely say “Hello” to the geese and then head to the playground. Of course she runs straight to the swing set. “Help me onto the high one, Uncle Sy!”

“Why that one, Teena? Your feet won’t reach the ground and you won’t be able to kick the ground to get going.”

“The high one goes faster,”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some kids have races and the kid on the high swing always did more back-and-forths. Sometimes it was a big kid, sometimes a little kid but they always went faster.”

“Good observing, Sweetie. OK, upsy-daisy — there you are.”

“Now give me pushes.”

“I’m not doing all the work. Tell you what, I’ll give you a start-up shove and then you pump to keep swinging.”

“But I don’t know how!”

“When you’re going forward, lean way back and put your feet up as high as you can. Then when you’re going backward, do the opposite — lean forward and bend your knees way back. Now <hnnnhh!> try it.

<creak … creak> “Hey, I’m doing it! Wheee!”

<creak> “Good job, you’re an expert now.”

“How’s it work, Uncle Sy?”

“It’s a dance between kinetic energy, potential energy and momentum.”

“I’m just a little kid, Uncle Sy, I don’t know what any of those things are.”

“Mmm… Energy is what makes things move or change. You know your toy robot? What happens when its batteries run down?”

“It stops working, silly, until Mommie puts its battery in the charger overnight and then it works again.”

“Right. Your robot needs energy to move. The charger stores energy in the battery. Stored energy is called potential which is like ‘maybe,’ because it’s not actually making something happen. When the robot gets its full-up battery back and you press its GO button, the robot can move around and that’s kinetic energy. ‘Kinetic’ is another word for ‘moving.'”

“So when I’m running around that’s kinetic energy and when I get tired and fall asleep I’m recharging my potential energy?”

“Exactly. You’re almost as smart as your Mommie.”

“An’ when I’m on the swing and it’s moving, that’s kinetic.”

“You’ve got part of it. Watch what’s happening while you swing. Are you always moving?”

<creak … creak> “Ye-e—no! Between when I swing up and when I come down, I stop for just a teeny moment at the top. And I stop again between backing up and going forward. Is that when I’m potential?”

“Sort of, except it’s not you, it’s your swinging-energy that’s all potential at the top. Away from the top you turn potential energy into kinetic energy, going faster and faster until you’re at the bottom. That’s when you go fastest because all your potential energy has become kinetic energy. As you move up from the bottom you slow down because you’re turning your kinetic energy back into potential energy.”

<creak> “Back and forth, potential to kinetic to potential, <creak> over and over. Wheee! Mommie would say I’m recycling!”

“Yes, she would.”

<creak> “Hey, Uncle Sy, how come I don’t stop at the bottom when I’m all out of potential?”

“Ah. What’s your favorite kind of word?”

M-words! I love M-words! Like ‘murmuration‘ and ‘marbles.'”

“Well, I’ve got another one for you — momentum.”

“Oh, that’s yummy — mmmo-MMMENN-tummmm. What’s it mean?”

“It’s about how things that are moving in a straight line keep moving along that line unless something else interferes. Or something that’s standing still will just stay there until something gives it momentum. When we first sat you in the swing you didn’t go anywhere, did you?”

“No, ’cause my toes don’t reach down to the ground and I can’t kick to get myself started.”

“That would have been one way to get some momentum going. When I gave you that push, that’s another way.”

“Or I could wear a jet-pack like Tony Stark. Boy, that’d give me a LOT of momentum!”

“Way too much. You’d wrap the swing ropes round the bar and you’d be stuck up there. Anyway, when you swing past the bottom, momentum is what keeps you going upward.”

“Yay, momentum!” <creak>

~~ Rich Olcott

# The Music of The Spherical Harmonics

Eddie’s diner serves tasty pizza, but his music playlist’s tasty, too — heavy with small-group vocals.  We’re talking atomic structure but suddenly Vinnie surprises me.  “Whoa, she’s got a hot voice!”

“Who?”

“That girl who’s singing.”

“Which one?  That’s a quartet.”

“The alto.”

“How can you pick one voice out of that close-harmony performance?”

“By listening!  She’s the only one singing those notes.”

“You’re hearing a chaotic sound wave yet you can pick out just one sound.”

“Yeah, just her special notes.”

“Interesting thing is, atoms do that, too.  Think about, say, a uranium atom, 92 electrons attracted by the nucleus, repelled by every other electron, all dashing about in the nuclear field and getting in each other’s way.  Think that’d be a nice, orderly picture?”

“Sure not.  It’d be, like you say, chaotic.”

“But just like we can describe a messy sound wave as a combination of frequencies, we can describe that atom’s electron structure as a combination of basic patterns.”  I pull Old Reliable from its holster and bring up an image.  “Here’s something I built for a presentation.  It’s a little busy so I’ll walk you through it.”

“Busy, uh-huh.”

“Right, they’re Laplace’s spherical patterns.  You got them sorted by how many blue spaces they got.”

“Yup.  Blue represents a node, a 2-D region where the value touches or crosses zero.  There are patterns with three or more nodes, but I ran out of space and patience to draw them.  Laplace showed there’s an infinite number of candidate patterns as you add more and more nodes.  You can describe any physically reasonable distribution around the central point as some combination of his patterns.”

“Why’d you draw them on stair-steps?”

“Because each step (we call it a shell) is at a different potential energy level.  Suppose, for instance, that there’s charge in that one-node pattern.  Moving it away from the nucleus puts a node there.  That’ll cost some energy and shift charge to the two-node shell.  To exclude it from there and also from another node, say a larger spherical surface, would take even more energy, and so on.”

“How is that potential energy?”

“We’re comparing shell energy to the energy of an electron that’s far away.  It’s like gravitational potential energy, maybe the energy a space rock converts to kinetic energy as it falls to Earth.  Call the far-away energy zero.  The numbers get more and more negative as the rock or the charge get closer to the center of attraction.”

“Ah, so that’s why you’ve got minus signs in the picture.”

“Exactly.  See zero at the top of the stairs?  With a hydrogen atom, for instance, an electron would give up 13.6 electron-volts of energy to get close to the nucleus in that 1-node pattern.  Conversely, it’d take 13.6 eV to rip that charge completely away.”

“If the 13.6 is what you’re calling ‘Minimum’, why not just write ‘–13.6’ in there?”

“It’s a different number for different atoms and even ions.  Astronomers see all kinds of ions with every amount of charge so they have to keep things general in their calculations.”

“What are those fractions about?  Wait, don’t tell me, I can figure this.  Each divisor is the square of its node count.  Are those the 1/n² numbers from whosit’s formula?”

Rydberg’s.  You’re on the right track, keep going.”

“If the minimum is 13.6 eV, the diagram says that the two-node shell is … 3.4 eV down from the top and … 10.2 eV up from the bottom.  And from what we said about the hydrogen spectrum, I’ll bet that 10.2 eV jump is the first line in that, was it the Ly series, the one in the ultra-violet?”

“Bravo, Vinnie!  The Lyman series it is.  Excellent memory for detail there.”

“I noticed something else.  You carefully didn’t say we moved an electron between shells.”

“That’s an important point.  At the atomic size scale we can’t treat the electron as a particle moving around.  Lightwaves act to turn off one shell and excite another one, like your singer exciting a different note.”

“Yes, she does.”

~~ Rich Olcott

• Thanks to the Molnars for a delightful meal, and to their dinner party guests the Jumps for instigating this post.

# Weight And Wait, Two Aspects of Time

I was deep in the library stacks, hunting down a journal article so old it hadn’t been digitized yet.  As I rounded the corner of Aisle 5 Section 2, there he was, leaning against a post and holding a clipboard.

“Vinnie?  What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you.  You weren’t in your office.”

“But how…?  Never mind.  What can I do for you?”

“It’s the time-dilation thing.  You said that there’s two kinds, a potential energy kind and a kinetic energy kind, but you only told me about the first one.”

“Hey, Ramona broke up that conversation, don’t blame me.  You got blank paper on that clipboard?”

“Sure.  Here.”

“Quick review — we said that potential energy only depends on where you are.  Suppose you and a clock are at some distance r away from a massive object like that Gargantua black hole, and my clock is way far away.  I see your clock ticking slower than mine.  The ratio of their ticking rates, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)], only depends on the slow clock’s position.  Suppose you move even closer to the massive object.  That r-value gets smaller, the fraction inside the parentheses gets closer to 1, the square root gets smaller and I see your clock slow down even more.  Sound familiar?”

“Yeah, but what about the kinetic thing?”

“I’m getting there.  You know Einstein’s famous EEinstein=m·c² equation.  See?  The formula contains neither a velocity nor a position.  That means EEinstein is the energy content of a particle that’s not moving and not under the influence of any gravitational or other force fields.  Under those conditions the object is isolated from the Universe and we call m its rest mass.  We good?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“OK, remember the equation for gravitational potential energy?”

E=G·M·m/r.

“Let’s call that Egravity.  Now what’s the ratio between gravitational potential energy and the rest-mass energy?”

“Uh … Egravity/EEinstein = G·M·m/r·m·c² = G·M/r·c². Hey, that’s exactly half the fraction inside the square root up there. tslow/tfast = √[1-(2 Egravity/EEinstein)].  Cool.”

“Glad you like it.  Now, with that under our belts we’re ready for the kinetic thing.  What’s Newton’s equation for the kinetic energy of an object that has velocity v?”

E=½·m·v².

“I thought you’d know that.  Let’s call it Ekinetic.  Care to take a stab at the equation for kinetic time dilation?”

“As a guess, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2 Ekinetic/EEinstein)]. Hey, if I plug in the formulas for each of the energies, the halves and the mass cancel out and I get tslow/tfast = √[1-2(½m·v²/m·c²)] = √[1-(v²/c²)].  Is that it?”

“Close.  In Einstein’s math the kinetic energy expression is more complicated, but it leads to the same formula as yours.  If the velocity’s zero, the square root is 1.0 and there’s no time-slowing.  If the object’s moving at light-speed (v=c), the square root is zero and the slow clock is infinitely slow.  What’s interesting is that an object’s rest energy acts like a universal energy yardstick — both flavors of time-slowing are governed by how the current energy quantity compares to EEinstein.”

“Wait — kinetic energy depends on velocity, right, which means that it’ll look different from different inertial frames.  Does that mean that the kinetic time-slowing depends on the frames, too?”

“Sure it does.  Best case is if we’re both in the same frame, which means I see you in straight-line motion.  Each of us would get the same number if we measure the other’s velocity.  Plug that into the equation and each of us would see the same tslow for the other’s clock.  If we’re not doing uniform straight lines then we’re in different frames and our two dilation measurements won’t agree.”

“… Ramona doesn’t dance in straight lines, does she, Sy?”

“That reminds me of Einstein’s quote — ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.‘  You’re thinking curves now, eh?”

“Are you boys discussing me?”

<unison> “Oh, hi, Ramona.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Three Body Problems

The local science museum had a showing of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar so of course I went to see it again.  Awesome visuals and (mostly) good science because Nolan had tapped the expertise of Dr Kip Thorne, one of the primary creators of LIGO.  On the way out, Vinnie collared me.

“Hey, Sy, ‘splain something to me.”

“I can try, but first let’s get out of the weather.  Al’s coffee OK with you?”

“Yeah, sure, if his scones are fresh-baked.”

Al saw me walking in.  “Hey, Sy, you’re in luck, I just pulled a tray of cinnamon scones out of the oven.”  Then he saw Vinnie.  “Aw, geez, there go my paper napkins again.”

Vinnie was ready.  “Nah, we’ll use the backs of some ad flyers I grabbed at the museum.  And gimme, uh, two of the cinnamons and a large coffee, black.”

“Here you go.”

At our table I said, “So what’s the problem with the movie?”

“Nobody shrank.  All this time we been talking about how things get smaller in a strong gravity field.  That black hole, Gargantua, was huge.  The museum lecture guy said it was like 100 million times as heavy as the Sun.  When the people landed on its planet they should have been teeny but everything was just regular-size.  And what’s up with that ‘one hour on the planet is seven years back home’ stuff?”

“OK, one thing at a time.  When the people were on the planet, where was the movie camera?”

“On the planet, I suppose.”

“Was the camera influenced by the same gravitational effects that the people were?”

“Ah, it’s the frames thing again, ain’t it?  I guess in the on-planet inertial frame everything stays the relative size they’re used to, even though when we look at the planet from our far-away frame we see things squeezed together.”

(I’ve told you that Vinnie’s smart.)  “You got it.  OK, now for the time thing.  By the way, it’s formally known as ‘time dilation.’  Remember the potential energy/kinetic energy distinction?”

“Yeah.  Potential energy depends on where you are, kinetic energy depends on how you’re moving.”

“Got it in one.  It turns out that energy and time are deeply intertwined all through physics.  Would you be surprised if I told you that there are two kinds of time dilation, one related to gravitational potential and the other to velocity?”

“Nothing would surprise me these days.  Go on.”

“The gravity one dropped out of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.  The velocity one arose from his General Relativity work.”  I grabbed one of those flyers.  “Ready for a little algebra?”

“Geez.  OK, I asked for it.”
“You certainly did.  I’ll just give you the results, and mind you these apply only near a non-rotating sphere with no electric charge.  Things get complicated otherwise.  Suppose the sphere has mass M and you’re circling around it at a distance r from its geometric center.  You’ve got a metronome ticking away at n beats per your second and you’re perfectly happy with that.  We good?”

“So far.”

“I’m watching you from way far away.  I see your metronome running slow, at only n√[1-(2 G·M/r·c²)] beats per my second.  G is Newton’s gravity constant, c is the speed of light.  See how the square root has to be less than 1?”

“Your speed of light or my speed of light?”

“Good question, considering we’re talking about time and space getting all contorted, but Einstein guarantees that both of us measure exactly the same speed.  So anyway, in the movie both the Miller’s Planet landing team and that poor guy left on good ship  Endurance are circling Gargantua.  Earth observers would see both their clocks running slow.  But Endurance is much further out (larger r, smaller fraction) from Gargantua than Miller’s Planet is.  Endurance’s distance gave its clock more beats per Earth second than the planet gets, which is why the poor guy aged so much waiting for the team to return.”

Then we heard Ramona’s husky contralto.  “Hi, guys.  Al said you were back here talking physics.  Who wants to take me dancing?”

We both stood up, quickly.

“Whee, this’ll be fun.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# A Matter of Perspective

As I stepped off the escalator by the luggage carousel a hand came down heavy on my shoulder.

“Keep movin’, I gotchur bag.”

That’s Vinnie, always the surprises.  I didn’t bother to ask how he knew which flight I came in on.  What came next was also no surprise.

“You owe me for the pizza.  Now about that kinetic energy –”

“Hold that thought ’til we get to my office where I can draw diagrams.”

We got my car out of the lot, drove to the Acme Building and took the elevator to 12.

As my computer booted up I asked, “When we talked about potential energy, did we ever mention inertial frames?”

“Come to think of it, no, we didn’t.  How come?”

“Because they’ve got nothing to do with potential energy.  Gravitational and electrical potentials are all about intensity at one location in space relative to other locations in space.  The potentials are static so long as the configuration is static.  If something in the region changes, like maybe a mass moves or the charge on one object increases, then the potential field adjusts to suit.”

“Right, kinetic energy’s got to do with things that move, like its name says.  I get that.  But how does it play into LIGO?”

“Let’s stick with our spacecraft example for a bit.  I’ve been out of town for a while, so a quick review’s in order.  Objects that travel in straight lines and constant speed with respect to each other share the same inertial frame.  Masses wrinkle the shape of space.  The paths light rays take are always the shortest possible paths, so we say a light ray shows us what a straight line is.

“In our story, we’re flying a pair of space shuttles using identical speed settings along different light-ray navigation beams.  Suddenly you encounter a region of space that’s compressed, maybe by a nearby mass or maybe by a passing gravitational wave.

“That compressed space separates our inertial frames.  In your inertial frame there’s no effect — you’re still following your nav beam and the miles per second you measure hasn’t changed.  However, from my inertial frame you’ve slowed down because the space you’re traveling through is compressed relative to mine.  Does all that ring a bell?”

“Pretty much the way I remember it. Now what?”

“Do you remember the formula for kinetic energy?”

“Give me a sec… mass times the square of the velocity.”

“Uh-huh.  Mind you, ‘velocity’ is the combination of speed and direction but velocity-squared is just a number.  So, your kinetic energy depends in a nice, simple way on speed.  What happened to your kinetic energy when you encountered that gravity well?”

“Ah, now I see where you’re going.  In my frame my speed doesn’t change so I don’t gain or lose kinetic energy.  In your frame you see me slow down so you figure me as losing kinetic energy.”

“But the Conservation of Energy rule holds across the Universe.  Where’d your kinetic energy go?”

“Does your frame see me gaining potential energy somehow that I don’t see in mine?”

“Nice try, but that’s not it.  We’ve already seen that potential energy doesn’t depend on frames.  What made our frames diverge in the first place?”

“That gravity field curving the space I’d flown into.  Hey, action-reaction!  If the curved space slowed me down, did I speed it up?”

“Now we’re getting there.  No, you didn’t speed up space, ’cause space doesn’t work that way — the miles don’t go anywhere.  But your kinetic energy (that I can see and you can’t) did act to change the spatial curvature (that I can see and you can’t).  I suspect the curvature flattened out, but the math to check that is beyond me.”

“Lemme think…  Right, so back to my original question — what I wasn’t getting was how I could lose both kinetic energy AND potential energy flying into that compressed space.  Lessee if I got this right.  We both see I lost potential energy ’cause I’ve got less than back in flat space.  But only you see that my kinetic energy changed the curvature that only you see.  Good?”

“Good.”

(sound of footsteps)

(sound of door)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Ya got potential, kid, but how much?

Dusk at the end of January, not my favorite time of day or year.  I was just closing up the office when I heard a familiar footstep behind me.  “Hi, Vinnie.  What’s up?”

“Energy, Sy.”

“Energy?”

“Energy and LIGO.  Back in flight school we learned all about trading off kinetic energy and potential energy.  When I climb I use up the fuel’s chemical energy to gain gravitational potential energy.  When I dive I convert gravitational potential energy into  kinetic energy ’cause I speed up.  Simple.”

“So how do you think that ties in with LIGO?”

“OK, back when we pretended we was in those two space shuttles (which you sneaky-like used to represent photons in a LIGO) and I got caught in that high-gravity area where space is compressed, we said that in my inertial frame I’m still flying at the same speed but in your inertial frame I’ve slowed down.”

“Yeah, that’s what we worked out.”

“Well, if I’m flying into higher gravity, that’s like diving, right, ’cause I’m going where gravity is stronger like closer to the Earth, so I’m losing gravitational potential energy.  But if I’m slowing down I’ve gotta be losing kinetic energy, too, right?  So how can they both happen?  And how’s it work with photons?”

“Interesting questions, Vinnie, but I’m hungry.  How about some dinner?”

We took the elevator down to Eddie’s pizza joint on the second floor.  I felt heavier already.  We ordered, ate and got down to business.

“OK, Vinnie.  Energy with photons is different than with objects that have mass, so let’s start with the flying-objects case.  How do you calculate gravitational potential energy?”

“Like they taught us in high school, Sy, ‘little g’ times mass times the height, and ‘little g’ is some number I forget.”

“Not a problem, we’ll just suppose that ‘little g’ times your plane’s mass is some convenient number, like 1,000.  So your gravitational potential energy is 1000×height, where the height’s in feet and the unit of energy is … call it a fidget.  OK?”

“Saves having to look up that number.”

“Uhh… twenty million fidgets.”

“Great.  You maintain level flight to Denver.  As you pass over the Rockies you notice your altimeter now reads 6,000 feet because of that 14,000-foot mountain you’re flying over.  What’s your gravitational potential energy?”

“Six million fidgets.  Or is it still twenty?”

“Well, if God forbid you were to drop out of the sky, would you hit the ground harder in California or Colorado?”

“California, of course.  I’d fall more than three times as far.”

“So what you really care about isn’t some absolute amount of potential energy, it’s the relative amount of smash you experience if you fall down this far or that far.  ‘Height’ in the formula isn’t some absolute height, it’s height above wherever your floor is.  Make sense?”

“Mm-hm.”

“That’s an essential characteristic of potential energy — electric, gravitational, chemical, you name it.   It’s only potential.  You can’t assign a value without stating the specific transition you’re interested in.  You don’t know voltages in a circuit until you put a resistance between two specific points and meter the current through it.  You don’t know gravitational potential energy until you decide what location you want to compare it with.”

“And I suppose a uranium atom’s nuclear energy is only potential until a nuke or something sets it off.”

“You got the idea.  So, when you flew into that high-gravity compressed-space sector, what happened to your gravitational potential energy?”

“Like I said, it’s like I’m in a dive so I got less, right?”

“Depends on what you’re going to fall onto, doesn’t it?”

“No, wait, it’s definitely less ’cause I gotta use energy to fly back out to flat space.”

“OK, you’re comparing here to far away.  That’s legit.  But where’s that energy go?”

“Ahh, you’re finally getting to the kinetic energy side of my question –”

“Whoa, look at the time!  Got a plane to catch.  We’ll pick this up next week.  Bye.”

“Hey, Sy, your tab! …  Phooey, stuck for it again.”

~~ Rich Olcott

# What’s that funnel about, really?

If you’ve ever watched or read a space opera (oh yes, you have), you know about the gravity well that a spacecraft has to climb out of when leaving a planet.  Every time I see the Museum’s gravity well model (photo below), I’m reminded of all the answers the guy gave to, “Johnny, what can you make of this?

The model’s a great visitor-attracter with those “planets” whizzing around the “Sun,” but this one exhibit really represents several distinct concepts.   For some of them it’s not quite the right shape.

The simplest concept is geometrical.  “Down” is the direction you move when gravity’s pulling on you.

A gravity well model for that concept would be just a straight line between you and the neighborhood’s most intense gravity source.

You learned the second concept in high school physics class.  Any object has gravitational potential energy that measures the amount of energy it would give up on falling.  Your teacher probably showed you the equation GPE = m·g·h, where m is the mass of the object, h is its height above ground level, and g is a constant you may have determined in a lab experiment.

If the width of the gravity well model at a given height represents GPE at that level, the model is a simple straight-sided cone.

But of course it’s not that simple.  Newton’s Law of Gravity says that the potential energy at any height r away from the planet’s center is proportional to 1/r.

Hmm… that looks different from the “proportional to h” equation.  Which is right?

Both equations are valid, but over different distance scales.  The HS teachers didn’t quite lie to you, but they didn’t give you the complete picture either.  Your classroom was about 4000 miles (21,120,000 feet) from Earth’s center, whereas the usual experiments involve height differences of at most a dozen feet.  Even the 20-foot drop from a second-story window is less than a millionth of the way down to Earth’s center.

Check my numbers:

Height h 1/(r+h)
× 108
Difference in 1/(r+h)
× 1014
0 4.734,848,484 0
20 4.734,844,001 4.48
40 4.734,839,517 8.97
60 4.734,835,033 13.45
80 4.734,830,549 17.93
100 4.734,826,066 22.42

Sure enough, that’s a straight line (see the chart).  Reminds me of how Newton’s Law of Gravity is valid except at very short distances.  The HS Law of Gravity works fine for small spans but when the distances get big we have to use Newton’s equation.

We’re not done yet. That curvy funnel-shaped gravity well model could represent the force of gravity rather than its potential energy.  Newton told us that the force goes as 1/r2 so it decreases much more rapidly than the potential energy does as you get further away.  The gravity force well has a correspondingly sharper curve to it than the gravity energy well.

The funnel model could also represent the total energy required to get a real spacecraft off the surface and up into space.  Depending on which sci-fi gimmickry is in play, the energy may come from a chemical or ion rocket, an electromagnetic railgun, or even a tractor beam from some mothership way up there.

No matter the technology, the theoretical energy requirement to get to a given height is the same.  In practice, however, each technology is optimal for some situations but forbiddingly inefficient in others.  Thus, each technology’s funnel  has its own shape and that shape will change depending on the setting.

In modern physics, the funnel model could also represent Einstein’s theory of how a mass “bends” the space around it.  (Take a look at this post, which is about how mass curves space by changing the local distance scale.)  Cosmologists describe the resulting “shapes” with embedding diagrams that are essentially 2D pictures of 3D (or 4D) contour plots.  The contours are closest together where space is most compressed, just as lines showing a steep hillside on a landscape contour map are close together.

The ED around a non-spinning object looks just like the force model picture above.  No surprise — gravitational force is how we we perceive spatial curvature.

~~ Rich Olcott