Several Big Sloshes

“I call distraction, Sy. You were going to explain how come the Moon’s drifting away from us but you got us into radians and stuff. What’s that got to do with the Moon flying away by dragging a big wave around the Earth?”

“It’s not dragging a localized bulge of water like you’re thinking, Vinnie, nothing like that wave on Miller’s Planet. For that matter, the Miller’s Planet wave had a sharply‑rising front which also doesn’t look like the textbook tidal bulge.”

“There’s a textbook on this stuff?”

“Many, Al. Heavy-duty people have spent a lot of time on tides. Think about all the military and commercial navies that depend on boats being able to leave port and dock on schedule.”

“And not run aground <heh heh>”

“Well, yes, Vinnie. Anyhow, like a lot of pre‑computer Physics, that work was based on a simplified ideal system — a moon orbiting a smooth planet with a world‑covering ocean. Water’s drawn horizontally towards the sub‑lunar points making an egg‑shaped surface and everything’s neat.”

“Probably nothing like real life.”

“Of course. Here’s a video I built from satellite altimetry data. The grey dot is roughly the point underneath the Moon as that day progressed. The red‑to‑blue height scale’s in meters.. Not as neat as theory, is it?”

“Wow, that’s a mess. Looks like the Moon’s pulling water along the Canada‑Alaska coast okay, and the western Pacific starts to get a dome going. But the water never catches up before the Moon’s gone.”

“Hey, Vinnie, look how the tides just go round and round New Zealand. And what’s that, Hudson Bay, it’s a pinwheel.”

“Yeah, and in between Africa and Madagascar it’s completely out of phase from what it oughta be.”

“What you’re looking at is slosh. Once again, reality overwhelms a pretty theory. Each basin has its own preferred set of oscillations. None of them match up with the Moon. But the other thing — “

“Tiny numbers. Everything’s like less than a couple meters, not not a big bulge at all.”

“Bingo, Vinnie. Against Earth’s 6.4‑million‑meter radius, those small chaotic sloshes don’t make for effective energy transfer driving the Moon away from us. That theory’s toast.”

“So what’s doing it?”

“There’s two theories that I know of, and they’re probably both right. The first one is Earth tides — that bump you think of as traveling around the planet, but the bump is rock instead of water.”

“That can’t be a big effect. Rocks don’t bend.”

“On a planetary scale they’re not as solid as you think, Vinnie. The rock crust is brittle and really thin, less than half a percent of Earth’s radius. It floats on molten outer mantle which has the fluidity of tapioca pudding. When that structure gives under stress the crust layer cracks. The seismologists and GPS techs have measured surface motion all over the world. When they analyze the maps, the lunar component accounts for up to a meter of coordinated vertical daily movement. Figure the whole Earth is continually being squeezed and pulled to that extent and you’ve got a lot of energy being expended every 24 hours.”

“How about the other theory?”

“There’s no direct evidence, so far as I know, but it seems reasonable on physical grounds. We’ve got two gyrations going on here, right? The Moon is on a 29½‑day orbit while the Earth rotates about thirty times faster. But the two motions use different frames. The Earth’s spin axis runs through the geometric center of the planet and tilts 23° from its orbit axis. Meanwhile the whole Earth‑Moon system rotates about its barycenter, their common center of gravity, which stays inside the Earth about ¾ of the way moonward from the Earth’s middle. That rotation is about 5° away from Earth’s orbit’s axis. Imagine a molten blob near the barycenter, happily following the Moon in the Earth-Moon frame, but the rest of the planet is saying, ‘No, no, you’re supposed to be moving hundreds of miles an hour in a different direction!‘ If the blob’s the least bit lighter or heavier than its neighbor blobs, inertial forces expend energy to kick it out of there.”

“So we got two ways to transfer energy steady-like.”

“I think so.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Two Against One, And It’s Not Even Close


On a brisk walk across campus when I hear Vinnie yell from Al’s coffee shop. “Hey! Sy! Me and Al got this argument going you gotta settle.”

“Happy to be a peacemaker, but it’ll cost you a mug of Al’s coffee and a strawberry scone.”

“Coffee’s no charge, Sy, but the scone goes on Vinnie’s tab. What’s your pleasure?”

“It’s morning, Al, time for black mud. What’s the argument, Vinnie?”

“Al read in one of his astronomy magazines that the Moon’s drifting away from us. Is that true, and if it is, how’s it happen? Al thinks Jupiter’s gravity’s lifting it but I think it’s because of Solar winds pushing it. So which is it?”

“Here you go, Sy, straight from the bottom of the pot.”

“Perfect, Al, thanks. Yes, it’s true. The drift rate is about 1¼ nanometers per second, 1½ inches per year. As to your argument, you’re both wrong.”

“Huh?”
 ”Aw, c’mon!”

“Al, let’s put some numbers to your hypothesis. <pulling out Old Reliable and screen‑tapping> I’m going to compare Jupiter’s pull on the Moon to Earth’s when the two planets are closest together. OK?”

“I suppose.”

“Alright. Newton’s Law tells us the pull is proportional to the mass. Jupiter’s mass is about 320 times Earth, which is pretty impressive, right? But the attraction drops with the square of the distance. The Moon is 1¼ lightseconds from Earth. At closest approach, Jupiter is almost 2100 lightseconds away, 1680 times further than the Moon. We need to divide the 320 mass factor by a 1680‑squared distance factor and that makes <key taps> Jupiter’s pull on the Moon is only 0.011 percent of Earth’s. It’ll be <taps> half that when Jupiter’s on the other side of the Sun. Not much competition, eh?”

“Yeah, but a little bit at a time, it adds up.”

“We’re not done yet. The Moon feels the big guy’s pull on both sides of its orbit around Earth. On the side where the Moon’s moving away from Jupiter, you’re right, Jupiter’s gravity slows the Moon down, a little. But on the moving-toward-Jupiter side, the motion’s sped up. Put it all together, Jupiter’s teeny pull cancels itself out over every month’s orbiting.”

“Gotcha, Al. So what about my theory, Sy?”

“Basically the same logic, Vinnie. The Solar wind varies, thanks to the Sun’s variable activity, but satellite measurements put its pressure somewhere around a nanopascal, a nanonewton per square meter. Multiply that by the Moon’s cross‑sectional area and we get <tap, tap> a bit less than ten thousand newtons of force on the Moon. Meanwhile, Newton’s Law says the Earth’s pull on the Moon comes to <tapping>
  G×(Earth’s mass)×(Moon’s mass)/(Earth-Moon distance)²
and that comes to 2×1011 newtons. Earth wins by a 107‑fold landslide. Anyway, the pressure slows the Moon for only half of each month and speeds it up the other half so we’ve got another cancellation going on.”

“So what is it then?”
 ”So what is it then?”

“Tides. Not just ocean tides, rock tides in Earth’s fluid outer mantle. Earth bulges, just a bit, toward the Moon. But Earth also rotates, so the bulge circles the planet every day.”

“Reminds me of the wave in the Interstellar movie, but why don’t we see it?”

“The movie’s wave was hundreds of times higher than ours, Al. It was water, not rock, and the wave‑raiser was a huge black hole close by the planet. The Moon’s tidal pull on Earth produces only a one‑meter variation on a 6,400,000‑meter radius. Not a big deal to us. Of course, it makes a lot of difference to the material that’s being kneaded up and down. There’s a lot of friction in those layers.”

“Friction makes heat, Sy. Rock tides oughta heat up the planet, right?”

“Sure, Vinnie, the process does generate heat. Force times distance equals energy. Raising the Moon by 1¼ nanometers per second against a force of 2×1021 newtons gives us <taping furiously> an energy transfer rate of 4×10‑23 joules per second per kilogram of Earth’s 6×1024‑kilogram mass. It takes about a thousand joules to heat a kilogram of rock by one kelvin so we’re looking at a temperature rise near 10‑27 kelvins per second. Not significant.”

“No blaming climate change on the Moon, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Moon Shot

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Mr Moire, it’s Jeremy. Hey, I’ve been reading through some old science fiction stories and I ran across some numbers that just don’t look right.”

“Science fiction can be pretty clunky. Some Editors let their authors play fast and loose on purpose, just to generate Letters to The Editor. Which author and what story?”

“This is Heinlein, Mr Moire. I know his ideas about conditions on Mars and Venus were way off but that was before we had robot missions that could go there and look. When he writes about space navigation, though, he’s always so specific it looks like he’d actually done the calculations.”

“OK, which story and what numbers?”

“This one’s called, let me check, Gentlemen, Be Seated. It’s about these guys who get trapped in a tunnel on the Moon and there’s a leak letting air out of the tunnel so they seal the leak when one of the guys —”

“I know the story, Jeremy. I’ve always wondered if it was Heinlein or his Editor who got cute with the title. Anyway, which numbers bothered you?”

“I kinda thought the title came first. Anyway, everybody knows that the Earth’s gravity is six times the Moon’s, but he says that the Earth’s mass is eighty times the Moon’s and that’s why the Earth raises tides on the Moon except they’re rock tides, not water tides, and the movement makes moonquakes and one of them might have caused the leak. So why isn’t the Earth’s gravity eighty times the Moon’s, not six?”

“Read me the sentence about eighty.”

“Umm … here it is, ‘Remember, the Earth is eighty times the mass of the Moon, so the tidal stresses here are eighty times as great as the Moon’s effect on Earth tides.‘ I checked the masses in Wikipedia and eighty is about right.”

“I hadn’t realized the ratio was that large, I mean that the Moon is that small. One point for Heinlein. Anyway, you’re comparing north and east. The eighty and the six both have to do with gravity but they’re pointing in different directions.”

“Huh? I thought gravity’s pull was always toward the center.”

“It is, but it makes a difference where you are and which center you’re thinking about. You’re standing on the Earth so the closest center to you is Earth’s and most of the gravity you feel is the one-gravity pull from there. Suppose you’re standing on the Moon —”

“One-sixth, I know, Mr Moire, but why isn’t it one‑eightieth?”

“Because on the Moon you’re a lot closer to the center of the Moon than you were to the center of the Earth back on Earth. Let’s put some numbers to it. Got a calculator handy?”

“Got my cellphone.”

“Duh. OK, Newton showed us that an object’s gravitational force is proportional to the object’s mass divided by the square of the distance to the center. Earth’s radius is about 4000 miles and the Moon’s is about a quarter of that, so take the mass as 1/80 and divide by 1/4 squared. What do you get?”

“Uhh … 0.2 gravities.”

“One-fifth g. Close enough to one-sixth. If we used accurate numbers we’d be even closer. See how distance makes a difference?”

“Mm-hm. What about Heinlein’s tidal stuff?”

“Ah, now that’s looking in the other direction, where the distance is a lot bigger. Earth-to-Moon is about 250,000 miles. Standing on the Moon, you’d feel Earth’s one‑g gravity diminished by a factor of 4000/250000 squared. What’s that come to?”

“Umm… the distance factor is (4000/250000)² … I get 250 microgravities. Not much. Heinlein made a good bet with his characters deciding that the leak was caused by a nearby rocket crash instead of a moonquake.”

“How about Heinlein’s remark about the Moon’s effect on Earth?”

“Same distance but one eightieth the mass so I divide by 80 — three microgravities. Wow! That can’t possibly be strong enough to raise tides here.”

“It isn’t, though that’s the popular idea. What really happens is that the Moon’s field pulls water sideways from all directions towards the sub‑Lunar point. Sideways motion doesn’t fight Earth’s gravity, it just makes the water pile up in the center.”

“Hah, piled-up water. Weird. Well, I feel better about Heinlein now.”

~~ Rich Olcott