Three Perils for a Quest(ion), Part 1

Eddie makes great pizzas but Jeremy thinks they stay in the oven just a little too long.  As he crunched an extra-crispy wedge-edge he mused, “Gravity aside, I wonder what it’d be like to land on a black hole.  I bet it’d be real slippery if it’s as smooth as Mr Moire says.”

Jennie cut in.  “Don’t be daft, lad.  Everyone’s read about the spaceman sliding through the event horizon unaware until it’s too late.  Someone far away sees the bloke’s spacetime getting all distorted but in his local frame of reference everything’s right as rain.  Right, Sy?”

“As rain, Jennie, if all you’re concerned about is relativity.  But Spaceman Jeremy has lots of other things to be concerned about on his way to the event horizon.  Which he couldn’t stand on anyway.”

“Why not, Mr Moire?  I mean, I said ‘gravity aside’ so I ought to be able to stand up.”

“Nothing to stand on, Jeremy.  It’d be like trying to stand on Earth’s orbit.”

“Pull the other one, Sy.  How can they be alike?”

“Both of them are mathematical constructs rather than physical objects.  An orbit is an imaginary line that depicts planet or satellite locations.  An event horizon is an imaginary figure enclosing a region with such intense spacetime curvature that time points inward.  They’re abstract objects, not  concrete ones.  But let’s get back to Jeremy’s black hole evaporation quest.  He’ll have to pass three perils.”

“Ooo, a Quest with Perils —  loverly.  What are the Perils then?”

“The Roche Radius, the Photon Sphere and the Firewall.  Got your armor on, Jeremy?”Astronaut and 3xBlack hole

“Ready, Mr Moire.”

“Stand up.  The Roche effect is all about gravitational discrepancy between two points.  The two meter distance between your head and feet isn’t enough for a perceptible difference in downward pull.  However, when we deal with astronomical distances the differences can get significant.  For instance, ocean water on the day side of Earth is closer to the Sun and experiences a stronger sunward pull than water on the night side.”

“Ah, so that’s why we get tides.”

“Right.  Sit, sit, sit.  So in 1849 Édouard Roche wondered how close two objects could get until tidal forces pulled one of them apart.  He supposed the two objects were both just balls of rocks or fluid held together by gravity.  Applying Newton’s Laws and some approximations he got a formula for threshold distance in terms of the big guy’s mass and the little guy’s density.  Suppose you’re held together only by gravity and you’re nearing the Sun feet-first.  Its mass is 2×1030 kg/m³.  Even including your space armor, your average density is about 1.5 kg/m³.  According to Roche’s formula, if you got closer than 8.6×106 kilometers your feet would break away and fall into the Sun before the rest of you would.  Oh, that distance is about 1/7 the radius of Mercury’s orbit so it’s pretty close in.”

“But we’re talking black holes here.  What if the Sun collapses to a black hole?”

“Surprisingly, it’s exactly the same distance.  The primary’s operative property is its mass, not its diameter.  Good thing Jeremy’s really held together by atomic and molecular electromagnetism, which is much stronger than gravity.  Which brings us to his second Peril, the dreaded Photon Sphere.”

“Should I shudder, Sy?”

“Go ahead, Jennie.  The Sphere is another mathematical object, not something physical you’d collide with, Jeremy.  It’s a zero-thickness shell representing where electromagnetic waves can orbit a massive object like a black hole or a neutron star.  Waves can penetrate the shell easily in either direction, but if one happens to fly in exactly along a tangent, it’s trapped on the Sphere.”

“That’s photons.  Why is it a peril to me?”

“Remember that electromagnetism that holds you together?  Photons carry that force.  Granted, in a molecule they’re standing waves rather than the free waves we see with.  The math is impossible, but here’s the Peril.  Suppose one of your particularly important molecules happens to lie tangent to the Sphere while you’re traversing it.  Suddenly, the forces holding that molecule together fly away from you at the speed of light.  And that disruption inexorably travels along your body as you proceed on your Quest.”

[both shudder]

~~ Rich Olcott

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

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