The Speeds of Light

(Look up top, just under the banner.  There’s a new item on the menu bar — Table of Contents.  Many of these multi-post stories have grown in the telling, so I’ve tried to impose some after-the-fact order to them for you.  Check it out.)

“I don’t give up easy, Sy.”

“I know that, Vinnie.  Still musing about lightwaves and how they’re all an electron’s fault?”

“Yeah.  Hey, can your OVR app on Old Reliable grab a shot from this movie running on my smartphone?”

“We can try … got it.  Now what?”

“I wanna try mixing that with your magnetic field picture.”

“I’ll bring that up … Here, have at it.”

“Umm … Nice app, works very intuitive-like …  OK, see this?”Electrons and lightwave

“Ah.  It’s a bit busy, walk me through what’s in there.”

“OK. First we got the movie’s lightwave.  The ray’s running along that black arrow, see?  Some electron back behind the picture is going up and down to energize the ray and that makes the electric field that’s in red that makes other electrons go up and down, right?”

“That’s the red arrow, hmm?”

“Yeah, that electron got goosed ’cause it was standing in the way.  It follows the electric field’s direction.  Now help me out with the magnetic stuff.”

“Alright.  The blue lines represent the lightwave’s magnetic component.  A lightwave’s magnetic field lines are always perpendicular to its electric field.  Magnetism has no effect on uncharged particles or motionless charged particles.  If you’re a moving charged particle, say an electron, then the field deflects your trajectory.”

“This is what I’m still trying to wrap my head around.  You say that the field’s gonna push the particle perpendicular to the field and to the particle’s own vector.”

“That’s exactly what happens.  The green line, for instance, could represent an electron that crossed the magnetic field.  The field deflected the electron’s path upwards, crossways to the field and the electron’s path.  Then I suppose the electron encountered the reversed field from the lightwave’s following cycle and corrected course again.”

“And the grey line?”

“That’d be an electron crossing more-or-less along the field.  According to the Right Hand Rule it was deflected downward.”

“Wait.  We’ve got two electrons on the same side of the field and they’re deflected in opposite directions then correct back.  Doesn’t that average out to no change?”

“Not quite.  The key word is mostly.  Like gravity fields, electromagnetic fields get weaker with distance.  Each up or down deflection to an electron on an outbound path will be smaller than the previous one so the ‘course corrections’ get less correct.  Inbound electrons get deflected ever more strongly on the way in, of course, but eventually they become outbound electrons and get messed up even more.  All those deflections produce an expanding cone of disturbed electrons along the path of the ray.”

“Hey, but when any electron moves that changes the fields, right?  Wouldn’t there be a cone of disturbed field, too?”

“Absolutely.  The whole process leads to several kinds of dispersion.”

“Like what?”

“The obvious one is simple geometry.  What had been a simple straight-line ray is now an expanding cone of secondary emission.  Suppose you’re an astronomer looking at a planet that’s along that ray, for instance.  Light’s getting to you from throughout the cone, not just from the straight line.  You’re going to get a blurred picture.”

“What’s another kind?”

“Moving those electrons around extracts energy from the wave.  Some fraction of the ray’s original photons get converted to lower-energy ones with lower frequencies.  The net result is that the ray’s spectrum is spread and dispersed towards the red.”

“You said several kinds.”

“The last one’s a doozy — it affects the speeds of light.”

“‘Speeds,’ plural?”ripples in a wave

“There’s the speed of field’s ripples, and there’s the speed of the whole signal, say when a star goes nova.  Here’s a picture I built on Old Reliable.  The gold line is the electric field — see how the ripples make the red electron wobble?  The green dots on the axis give you comparison points that don’t move.  Watch how the ripples move left to right just like the signal does, but at their own speed.”

“Which one’s Einstein’s?”

“The signal.  Its speed is called the group velocity and in space always runs 186,000 mph.  The ripple speed, technically it’s the phase velocity, is slower because of that extracted-and-redistributed-energy process.  Different frequencies get different slowdowns, which gives astronomers clues about the interstellar medium.”

“Clues are good.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Gravity’s Real Rainbow

Some people are born to scones, some have scones thrust upon them.  As I stepped into his coffee shop this morning, Al was loading a fresh batch onto the rack.  “Hey, Sy, try one of these.”

“Uhh … not really my taste.  You got any cinnamon ones ready?”

“Not much for cheddar-habañero, huh?  I’m doing them for the hipster trade,” waving towards all the fedoras on the room.  “Here ya go.  Oh, Vinnie’s waiting for you.”

I navigated to the table bearing a pile of crumpled yellow paper, pulled up a chair.  “Morning, Vinnie, how’s the yellow writing tablet working out for you?”

“Better’n the paper napkins, but it’s nearly used up.”

“What problem are you working on now?”

“OK, I’m still on LIGO and still on that energy question I posed way back — how do I figure the energy of a photon when a gravitational wave hits it in a LIGO?  You had me flying that space shuttle to explain frames and such, but kept putting off photons.”

“Can’t argue with that, Vinnie, but there’s a reason.  Photons are different from atoms and such because they’ve got zero mass.  Not just nearly massless like neutrinos, but exactly zero.  So — do you remember Newton’s formula for momentum?”

“Yeah, momentum is mass times the velocity.”

“Right, so what’s the momentum of a photon?”

“Uhh, zero times speed-of-light.  But that’s still zero.”

“Yup.  But there’s lots of experimental data to show that photons do carry non-zero momentum.  Among other things, light shining on an an electrode in a vacuum tube knocks electrons out of it and lets an electric current flow through the tube.  Compton got his Nobel prize for that 1923 demonstration of the photoelectric effect, and Einstein got his for explaining it.”

“So then where’s the momentum come from and how do you figure it?”

“Where it comes from is a long heavy-math story, but calculating it is simple.  Remember those Greek letters for calculating waves?”

(starts a fresh sheet of note paper) “Uhh… this (writes λ) is lambda is wavelength and this (writes ν) is nu is cycles per second.”

“Vinnie, you never cease to impress.  OK, a photon’s momentum is proportional to its frequency.  Here’s the formula: p=h·ν/c.  If we plug in the E=h·ν equation we played with last week we get another equation for momentum, this one with no Greek in it:  p=E/c.  Would you suppose that E represents total energy, kinetic energy or potential energy?”

“Momentum’s all about movement, right, so I vote for kinetic energy.”

“Bingo.  How about gravity?”

“That’s potential energy ’cause it depends on where you’re comparing it to.”

light-in-a-gravity-well“OK, back when we started this whole conversation you began by telling me how you trade off gravitational potential energy for increased kinetic energy when you dive your airplane.  Walk us through how that’d work for a photon, OK?  Start with the photon’s inertial frame.”

“That’s easy.  The photon’s feeling no forces, not even gravitational, ’cause it’s just following the curves in space, right, so there’s no change in momentum so its kinetic energy is constant.  Your equation there says that it won’t see a change in frequency.  Wavelength, either, from the λ=c/ν equation ’cause in its frame there’s no space compression so the speed of light’s always the same.”

“Bravo!  Now, for our Earth-bound inertial frame…?”

“Lessee… OK, we see the photon dropping into a gravity well so it’s got to be losing gravitational potential energy.  That means its kinetic energy has to increase ’cause it’s not giving up energy to anything else.  Only way it can do that is to increase its momentum.  Your equation there says that means its frequency will increase.  Umm, or the local speed of light gets squinched which means the wavelength gets shorter.  Or both.  Anyway, that means we see the light get bluer?”

“Vinnie, we’ll make a physicist of you yet.  You’re absolutely right — looking from the outside at that beam of photons encountering a more intense gravity field we’d see a gravitational blue-shift.  When they leave the field, it’s a red-shift.”

“Keeping track of frames does make a difference.”

Al yelled over, “Like using tablet paper instead of paper napkins.”

~~ Rich Olcott

LIGO and lambda and photons, oh my!

I was walking my daily constitutional when Al waved me into his coffee shop.  “Sy, he’s at it again with the paper napkins.  Do something!”

I looked over.  There was Vinnie at his table, barricaded behind a pile of crumpled-up paper.  I grabbed a chair.

“Morning, Vinnie.  Having fun?”

“Greek letters.  Why’d they have to use Greek letters?”

The question was both rhetorical and derivative so I ignored it.  There were opened books under the barricade — upper-level physics texts.  “How come you’re chasing through those books?”

“I wanted to follow up on how LIGO operates with photons after we talked about all that space shuttle stuff.  But geez, Sy!”

“You’re a brave man, Vinnie.  So,  which letters are giving you trouble?”

“These two, that look kinda like each other upside down.” He pointed to one equation, λ=c.

“Ah, wavelength equals the speed of light divided by the frequency.”

“How do you do that?”

“Some of those symbols go way back.  You just get used to them.  Most of them make sense when you learn the names for the letters — lambda (λ) is the peak-to-peak length of a lightwave, and nu (ν) is the number of peaks per second.  If it makes you feel any better, I’ve yet to meet a physicist who can write a zeta (ζ) — they generally just draw a squiggle and move on.”

“And there’s this other equation,” pointing to E=h·ν.  “What’s that about?”

“Good eye.  You just picked two equations that are fundamental to LIGO’s operation.  If a lightwave has frequency ν, the equations tell us two things about it — its energy is h·ν (h is Planck’s constant, 6.6×10-34 Joule-seconds), and its wavelength is c (c is the speed of light).  For instance, yellow light has a frequency near 520×1012/sec.  One photon carries 3.8×10-40 Joules of energy.  Not much, but it adds up when a light beam contains lots of photons.  The same photon has a wavelength near 580×10-9 meters traveling through free space.”

“So what happens when one of those photons is in a LIGO beam?  Won’t a gravitational wave’s stretch-and-squeeze action mess up its wave?”

paper-napkin-waveI smoothed out one of Vinnie’s crumpled napkins. As I folded it into pleats and scooted it along the table I said, “Doesn’t mess up the wave so much as change the way we think about it.  We’re used to graphing out a spatial wave as an up-and-down pattern like this that moves through time, right?”

“That’s a lousy-looking wave.”


As the napkin moves through space,
the upper graph shows the height of its edge
above the observation point.

“It’s a paper napkin, f’pitysake, and I’m making a point here. Watch close.  If you monitor a particular point along the wave’s path in space and track how that point moves in time, you get the same profile except we draw it along the t-axis instead of along a space-axis.  See?”

“Hey, the time profile is the space profile going backwards.  Oh, right, it’s goin’ into the past ’cause it’s a memory.”

“That’s one of those things that people miss.  If you only draw sine waves, they’re the same in either direction.  The important point is that although timewaves and spacewaves have the same shape, they’ve got different meanings.  The timewave is directly connected to the wave’s energy by that E equation.  The spacewave is indirectly connected, because your other equation there scales it by the local speed of light.”

“Come again?  Local speed of light?  I thought it was 186,000 miles per second everywhere.”

“It is, but some of those miles are shorter than others.  Near a heavy mass, for instance, or in the compression phase of a gravitational wave, or inside a transparent material.  If you’re traveling in the lightwave’s inertial frame, you see no variation.  But if you’re watching from an independent inertial frame, you see the lightwave hit a slow patch.  Distance per cycle gets shorter.  Like that lambda-nu equation says, when c gets smaller the wavelength decreases.”

Al walked over.  “Gotcha a present, Vinnie.  Here’s a pad of yellow writing paper.  No more napkins, OK?”

“Uhh, thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Superluminal Superman

Comic book and movie plotlines often make Superman accelerate up to lightspeed and travel backward in time.  Unfortunately, well-known fundamental Physics principles forbid that.  But suppose Green Lantern or Dr Strange could somehow magic him past the Lightspeed Barrier.  Would that let him do his downtimey thing?

Light_s hourglass

Light’s Hourglass

A quick review of Light’s Hourglass.  According to Einstein we live in 4D spacetime.  At any moment you’re at a specific time t relative to some origin time t=0 and a specific 3D location (x,y,z) relative to a spatial origin (0,0,0).  Your spacetime address is (ct,x,y,z) where c is the speed of light.  This diagram shows time running vertically into the future, plus two spatial coordinates x and y.  Sorry, I can’t get z into the diagram so pretend it’s zero.

The two cones depict all the addresses which can communicate with the origin using a flash of light.  Any point on either cone is at just the right distance d=√(++) to match the distance that light can travel in time t.  The bottom cone is in the past, which is why we can see the light from old stars.  The top cone is in the future, which is why we can’t see light from stars that aren’t born yet.

If he obeys the Laws of Physics as we know them, Superman can travel anywhere he wants to inside the top cone.  He goes upward into the future at the rate of one second per second, just like anybody.  On the way, he can travel in space as far from (ct,0,0,0) as he likes so long as it’s not farther than the distance that light can travel the same route at his current t.

From our perspective, the Hourglass is a stack of circles (spheres in 3D space) centered on (ct,0,0,0).  From Supey’s perspective at time t he’s surrounded by a figure with radius ct that Physics won’t let him break through.  That’s his Lightspeed Barrier, like the Sonic Barrier but 900,000 times faster.

Suppose Green Lantern has magicked Supey up to twice lightspeed along the x-axis.  At moment t, he’s at (ct,2ct,0,0), twice as far as light can get.  In the diagram he’s outside the top cone but above the central disk.

Now GL pours on the power to accelerate Superman.  Each increment gets the Man of Steel closer to that disk.  He’s always “above” it, though, because he’s still moving into the future.  Only if he were to get to infinite speed could he reach the disk.

However, at infinite speed he’d go anywhere/everywhere instantaneously which would be confusing to even his Kryptonian intellect.  On the way he might run into things (stars, black holes,…) with literally zero time to react.

But the plotlines have Tall-Dark-and-Muscular flying into the past, breaching that disk and traveling downwards into the bottom cone.  Can GL make that happen?

Enter the Lorentz correction.  If you have rest mass m0 and you’re traveling at speed v, your effective mass is m=m0/√[1-(v/c)²]. That raises a couple of issues when you exceed lightspeed.

Suppose GL decelerates Superluminal Supey down towards lightspeed.  The closer he approaches c from higher speeds, the smaller that square root gets and the greater the effective mass.  It’s the same problem Superman faced when accelerating up to lightspeed.  That last mile per second down to c requires an infinite amount of braking energy — the Lightspeed Barrier is impermeable in both directions.

The other problem is that if v>c there’s a negative number inside that square root.    Above lightspeed, your effective mass becomes Bombelli-imaginary.  Remember Newton’s famous F=m·a?  Re-arrange it to a=F/m.  A real force applied to an object with imaginary mass produces an imaginary acceleration.  “Imaginary” in Physics generally means “perpendicular in some sense” and remember we’re in 4D here with time perpendicular to space.

GL might be able to shove Superman downtime, but he’d have to

  1. squeeze inward at hiper-lightspeed with exactly the same force along all three spatial dimensions, to make sure that “perpendicular” is only along the time axis
  2. start Operation Squish at some time in his own future to push towards the past.

Nice trick.  Would Superman buy in?

~~ Rich Olcott