Sir Isaac, The Atom And The Whirlpool

Newton and atomNewton definitely didn’t see that one coming.  He has an excuse, though.  No-one in in the 17th Century even realized that electricity is a thing, much less that the electrostatic force follows the same inverse-square law that gravity does. So there’s no way poor Isaac would have come up with quantum mechanics.

Lemme ‘splain.  Suppose you have a mathematical model that’s good at predicting some things, like exactly where Jupiter will be next week.  But if the model predicts an infinite value under some circumstances, that tells you it’s time to look for a new model for those particular circumstances.

For example, Newton’s Law of Gravity says that the force between two objects is proportional to 1/r2, where r is the distance between their centers of mass.  The Law does a marvelous job with stars and satellites but does the infinity thing when r approaches zero.  In prior posts I’ve described some physics models that supercede Newton’s gravity law at close distances.

Electrical forces are same song second verse with a coda.  They follow the 1/r2 law, so they also have those infinity singularities.  According to the force law, an electron (the ultimate “particle” of negative charge) that approaches another electron would feel a repulsion that rises to infinity.  The coda is that as an electron approaches a positive atomic nucleus it would feel an attraction that rises to infinity.  Nature abhors infinities, so something else, some new physics, must come into play.

I put that word “particle” in quotes because common as the electron-is-a-particle notion is, it leads us astray.  We tend to think of the electron as this teeny little billiard-ballish thing, but it’s not like that at all.  It’s also not a wave, although it sometimes acts like one.  “Wavicle” is just  a weasel-word.  It’s far better to think of the electron as just a little traveling parcel of energy.  Photons, too, and all those other denizens of the sub-atomic zoo.

An electron can’t crumble or leak mass or deform to merge the way that sizable objects can.  What it does is smear. Quantum mechanics is all about the smear.  Much more about that in later posts.


 

Newton in whirlpoolIf Newton loved anything (and that question has been discussed at length), he loved an argument.  His battle with Liebniz is legendary.  He even fought with Descartes, who was a decade dead when Newton entered Cambridge.

Descartes had grabbed “Nature abhors a vacuum” from Aristotle and never let it go.  He insisted that the Universe must be filled with some sort of water-like fluid.  He know the planets went round the Sun despite the fluid getting in the way, so he reasoned they moved as they did because of the fluid.

Surely you once played with toy boats in the bathtub.  You may have noticed that when you pulled your arm quickly through the water little whirlpools followed your arm.  If a whirlpool encountered a very small boat, the boat might get caught in it and move in the same direction.  Descartes held that the Solar System worked like that, with the Sun as your arm and the planets caught in Sun-stirred vortices within that watery fluid.

Newton knew that couldn’t be right.  The planets don’t run behind the Sun, they share the same plane.  Furthermore, comets orbit in from all directions.  Crucially, Descartes’ theory conflicted with his own and that settled the matter for Newton.  Much of Principia‘s “Book II” is about motions of and through fluid media.  He laid out there what a trajectory would look like under a variety of conditions.  As you’d expect, none of the paths do what planets, moons and comets do.

From Newton’s point of view, the only use for Book II was to demolish Descartes.  For us in later generations, though, he’d invented the science of hydrodynamics.

Which was a good thing so long as you don’t go too far upstream towards the center of the whirlpool.  As you might expect (or I wouldn’t even be writing this section), Book II is littered with 1/rn formulas that go BLOOIE when the distances get short.  What happens near the center?  That’s where the new physics of turbulence kicks in.

~~ Rich Olcott

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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

Circular Logic

We often read “singularity” and “black hole” in the same pop-science article.  But singularities are a lot more common and closer to us than you might think. That shiny ball hanging on the Christmas tree over there, for instance.  I wondered what it might look like from the inside.  I got a surprise when I built a mathematical model of it.

To get something I could model, I chose a simple case.  (Physicists love to do that.  Einstein said, “You should make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”)

I imagined that somehow I was inside the ball and that I had suspended a tiny LED somewhere along the axis opposite me.  Here’s a sketch of a vertical slice through the ball, and let’s begin on the left half of the diagram…Mirror ball sketch

I’m up there near the top, taking a picture with my phone.

To start with, we’ll put the LED (that yellow disk) at position A on the line running from top to bottom through the ball.  The blue lines trace the light path from the LED to me within this slice.

The inside of the ball is a mirror.  Whether flat or curved, the rule for every mirror is “The angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence.”  That’s how fun-house mirrors work.  You can see that the two solid blue lines form equal angles with the line tangent to the ball.  There’s no other point on this half-circle where the A-to-me route meets that equal-angle condition.  That’s why the blue line is the only path the light can take.  I’d see only one point of yellow light in that slice.

But the ball has a circular cross-section, like the Earth.  There’s a slice and a blue path for every longitude, all 360o of them and lots more in between.  Every slice shows me one point of yellow light, all at the same height.  The points all join together as a complete ring of light partway down the ball.  I’ve labeled it the “A-ring.”

Now imagine the ball moving upward to position B.  The equal-angles rule still holds, which puts the image of B in the mirror further down in the ball.  That’s shown by the red-lined light path and the labeled B-ring.

So far, so good — as the LED moves upward, I see a ring of decreasing size.  The surprise comes when the LED reaches C, the center of the ball.  On the basis of past behavior, I’d expect just a point of light at the very bottom of the ball (where it’d be on the other side of the LED and therefore hidden from me).

Nup, doesn’t happen.  Here’s the simulation.  The small yellow disk is the LED, the ring is the LED’s reflected image, the inset green circle shows the position of the LED (yellow) and the camera (black), and that’s me in the background, taking the picture…g6z

The entire surface suddenly fills with light — BLOOIE! — when the LED is exactly at the ball’s center.  Why does that happen?  Scroll back up and look at the right-hand half of the diagram.  When the ball is exactly at C, every outgoing ray of light in any direction bounces directly back where it came from.  And keeps on going, and going and going.  That weird display can only happen exactly at the center, the ball’s optical singularity, that special point where behavior is drastically different from what you’d expect as you approach it.

So that’s using geometry to identify a singularity.  When I built the model* that generated the video I had to do some fun algebra and trig.  In the process I encountered a deeper and more general way to identify singularities.

<Hint> Which direction did Newton avoid facing?

* – By the way, here’s a shout-out to Mathematica®, the Wolfram Research company’s software package that I used to build the model and create the video.  The product is huge and loaded with mysterious special-purpose tools, pretty much like one of those monster pocket knives you can’t really fit into a pocket.  But like that contraption, this software lets you do amazing things once you figure out how.

~~ Rich Olcott