Perturbed? You’re not the only one

Dolls
Successive approximations
to a real girl, but still not there

It started with the Babylonians.  The Greeks abhorred the notion.  The Egyptians and Romans couldn’t have gotten along without it. Only 1600 years later did Newton gave final polishing to … The Method of Successive Approximations.

Stay with me, we’ll get to The Chicken soon.

Suppose for some weird reason you wanted to know the square root of 2701.  Any Babylonian could see immediately that 2701 is a bit less than 3600 = 602, so as a first approximation they’d guess ½(60 + (2701/60)) = 52.5.  They’d do the multiplication to check: 52.5×52.5 = 2756.25.

Well, 52.5 is closer than 60 but not close enough.  So they’d plug that number into the same formula to get the next successive approximation: ½(52.5 + 2701/52.5) = 51.97.  Check it: 51.97×51.97 = 2700.88.  That was probably good enough for government work in Babylonia, but if the boss wanted an even better estimate they could go around the loop again.

Scientists and engineers tackle a complex problem piecewise.  Start by looking for a simple problem you know how to solve. Adjust that solution little by little to account for the ways in which the real system differs from the simple case.  Successive Approximation is only one of many adjustment strategies invented over the centuries.

The most widely-used technique is called Perturbation Theory (which has nothing to do with the ways kids find to get on their parents’ nerves).  The strategy is to find some single parameter, maybe a ratio of two masses or the relative strength of a particle-particle interaction.  For a realistic solution, it’s important that the parameter’s value be small compared to other quantities in the problem.

Simplify the original problem by keeping that parameter in the equations but assume that it’s zero.  When you’ve found a solution to that problem, you “perturb” the solution — you see what happens to the model when you allow the parameter to be non-zero.

There’s an old story, famous among physicists and engineers, about an association of farmers who wanted to design an optimum chicken-raising operation.  Maybe with an optimal chicken house they could heat the place with the birds’ own body heat, things like that.  They called in an engineering consultant.  He looked around some running farms, took lots of measurements, and went away to compute.  A couple of weeks later he came back, with slides.  (I told you it’s an old story.)  He started to walk the group though his logic, but he lost them when he opened his pitch with, “Assume a spherical chicken…”

Fat chick bank
Henrietta
Fat Chicken Bank by Becky Zee

Now, he may actually have been on the right track.  It’s a known fact that many biological processes (digestion, metabolism, drug dosage, etc.) depend on an organism’s surface area.  A chicken’s surface area could be key to calculating her heat production.  But chickens (for example, our charming Henrietta) have a complicated shape with a poorly-defined surface area.  The engineer’s approximation strategy must have been to estimate each bird as a sphere with a tweakable perturbation parameter reflecting how spherical they aren’t.

Then, of course, he’d have to apply a second adjustment for feathers, but I digress.

Now here’s the thing.  In quantum mechanics there’s only a half-dozen generic systems with exact solutions qualifying them to be “simple” Perturbation Theory starters.  Johnny’s beloved Particle In A Box (coming next week) is one of them.  The others all depend in similar logic — the particle (there’s always only one of them) is confined to a region which contains places where the particle’s not allowed to be. (There’s one exception: the Free Particle has no boundaries and therefore is evenly smeared across the Universe.)

Virtually all other quantum-based results — multi-electron atoms, molecular structures, Feynman diagrams for sub-atomic physics, string theories, whatever — depend on Perturbation Theory.  (The exceptions are topology and group-theory techniques that generally attempt to produce qualitative rather quantitative predictions.)  They need those tweakable parameters.

In quantum-chemical calculations the perturbation parameters are generally reasonably small or at least controllable.  That’s not true for many of the other areas.  This issue is especially problematic for string theory.  In many of its proposed problem solutions no-one knows whether a first-, second- or higher-level approximation even exists, much less whether it would produce reasonable predictions.

I find that perturbing.

~~ Rich Olcott

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Dimensional Venturing, Part 6 – Tiny Dimensions

“The Universe is much larger than is generally supposed.”  

What a great opening line, eh?  Decades later I still recall reading that in a technical paper about then-recent adjustments in the way astronomical distances were measured.

The authors didn’t know the half of it.  They were thinking in only three dimensions.  That’s so last-century.

If you read science articles in the popular press you’ve probably run into statements like this one from Brian Green’s article “Hanging by a String” in the January 2015 Smithsonian:

String theory’s equations require that the universe has extra dimensions beyond the three of everyday experience – left/right, back/forth and up/down…. [T]heorists realized that there might be two kinds of spatial dimensions: those that are large and extended, which we directly experience, and others that are tiny and tightly wound, too small for even our most refined equipment to reveal.

Tightly wound dimensions?  What’s that about?  And what’s it got to do with strings?

The “large extended” dimensions are the kind we discussed in Part 1 of this series.  The essential point is that (in principle) once you or a light ray start moving in a particular direction you can keep going in that direction forever.

Seems obvious, how else could it be?

tiny dimension 1Well, suppose that we bend one of those three familiar “large” dimensions around in a circle, as in the drawing to the right. Our little guy could walk straight out of the page “forever” in the X direction. He could walk straight up the page “forever” in the Z direction. However, if he tries to walk along the Y track perpendicular to both of those two, in a while he’ll wind up right back where he started.

That’s an example of a “tightly wound” dimension.

Because it makes the math easier, physicists usually don’t calculate the absolute distance traveled around the circle.  Instead they write equations that depend on the angle from zero as the starting point. Notice that 360 degrees is exactly the same as zero — that’ll be important in a later post here.  Anyhow, there’s reason to believe that the effective circumference of a “tightly wound” dimension is really, really small.

OK, having a closed-off dimension is a little strange but it’s just not real-world, is it?

tiny dimension 2Actually, our real world is like that but moreso. Look at this drawing where we’ve got a pair of perpendicular wound-up dimensions. The little guy on the Y track can go from Denver down to Mazatlan in Mexico and proceed all the way around the world back up to Denver. On the X track he’s going from Denver westward to Chico CA and could continue across the Pacific and onward until he gets back to Denver The only way he can travel in one direction “forever” is to go along the Z track, straight upward, and that’s why NASA builds rocket ships.

Back to the strings. Depending on which variety of string theory you choose, the strings wriggle in a space of three Z-style “extended” dimensions, plus time, plus half-a-dozen or more wound-up or “compactified” (look it up) dimensions.  If string-theory strings can wriggle in all those directions, then how much room does each one have to move around in?  We’ve all learned the formulas for area of a rectangle and volume of a cube — [length times height] and [length times height times depth].  To extend the notion of “volume” to more dimensions you just keep multiplying.

Back to the size of the Universe. You may think that just with straight-line space it’s pretty good-sized.  With those stringy dimensions in play, for every single cube-shaped region you pick in straight-line space you need to multiply that volume by [half-a-dozen or more dimensions] times [many possible angles] to account for all the “space” in all the enhanced regions you could choose from when you include those wound-up dimensions. The total multi-dimensional volume is very, very huge.

The universe is indeed much larger than is generally supposed.

Next week — buttered cats.

~~ Rich Olcott