In vacuo veritas?

“Let’s see if my notes are complete, Mr Moire. We’re crossed off two possible Universe finales — falling into a Big Crunch or expanding forever while making new matter between the galaxies to keep itself in a steady state. Or the Universe might expand to some critical density and then stay there but we mostly ruled that out because a twitch would push it to either crunching or expanding forever. Einstein’s Cosmological Constant might or might not be dark energy but either way, Friedmann’s equation predicts that the Universe will expand exponentially. Is that all the ways we could end?”

“Of course not, Jeremy. The far distant future’s like anything we humans don’t know much about, we make lots of guesses. Vacuum energy, for instance.”

“Anything to do with getting my roommate off the couch when it’s their turn to do the floors?”

“Very funny, but no. The notion of ‘vacuum‘ has a history. Aristotle said it’s empty space and that’s nothing and you can’t talk about nothing, but of course that’s exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t until Newton’s day that we developed dependable technologies for producing and investigating ‘nothing.’ Turns out that a good vacuum’s hard to find and even outer space is a lot busier than you might think.”

“Yeah, Jim in the Physics lab says he’s working with Ultra‑High Vacuum, a millionth of a millionth of an atmosphere, and the molecules left in the apparatus still cause problems.”

“Wonder how many molecules that is. Time for Old Reliable. <muttering> Avagadro’s Number, 22.4 liters, 10-12 atmospheres … Wow, there’s nearly 30 billion molecules per liter in his rig, a couple hundred times more if he chills it. <scrolling> This Wikipedia article says the solar wind runs only ten thousand protons per liter; interstellar medium’s about a tenth of that. But all those are physical vacuums. Theoretical vacuums are completely empty except they’re sort‑of not.”

“How could they be empty but not? Is that a Schrödinger joke?”

“No, but it does point up how the word has acquired multiple technical meanings. Newton’s concept of a vacuum was basically equivalent to Aristotle’s — simply a space with no matter in it. Two centuries later, Maxwell pointed the way to electric and magnetic fields which meant we needed to define a new vacuum with no such fields. Einstein added his proviso about the speed of light in a vacuum but that was okay. Then along came quantum and strings and several new kinds of vacuum.”

“Why would we need new definitions? Nothing’s nothing, isn’t it?”

“Not necessarily in theory, and that’s the point. For instance, you might use a Maxwell‑inspired theory to think about how a certain charged object behaves in a certain electromagnetic field. You can’t isolate the field’s effects unless you can add it to a theoretical space containing no objects or electromagnetic fields. Make sense?”

“And that’s a Maxwell vacuum? Seems reasonable. Then what?”

“Quantum theories go in the other direction. They start by assuming that Maxwellian vacuums can’t exist, that space itself continually produces virtual particles from their associated fields.”

“Um, conservation of mass?”

“Valid question. This may feel like dodging, but there’s math and experiment to back it up. What’s really conserved, we think, is mass‑energy. Particles, anti‑particles and energy fluctuations averaging to zero over finite time intervals. A dab of energy concentrated to create a particle’s mass? No problem, because that particle will be annihilated and release its energy equivalent almost immediately. To replace the Maxwellian vacuum, quantum theorists co‑opted the word to refer to a system’s lowest possible quantum state or maybe the lowest possible set of states, depending on which kind of calculation is underway. The cosmology people picked up that notion and that’s when the doom‑saying started.”

“Awright, now we’re getting somewhere. What’s their vacuum like?”

“From what I’ve seen, a tall stack of ‘if‘s and hand‑waving. The idea is that our Universe may not be in the lowest possible quantum state and if so, sometime in the next 188 billion years we could suddenly drop from false to true vacuum, in which case everything goes haywire. I’m not convinced that the Universe even has a quantum state. Don’t panic.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Traffic Control

Jeremy Yazzie @jeremyaz
hi @symoire, this is jeremy. ive been reading about the osiris‑rex mission to astrroid bennu and how they’re bringing back a sample – so complicated – fancy robot arm, n2 squirter, air‑cleaner thingy – y not just vacuum the dust or pick up a rock?


Sy Moire @symoire
@jeremyaz – quick answer is that Bennu and OSIRIS-REx are already surrounded by the vacuum of space. Sample collectors can’t suck any harder that that. I’ll email you a more complete answer later


Hi, Sy, can you believe this weather? Temps last week were twice today’s high.

Not to a physicist, Sis.
Those 90s and today’s 45 are just Fahrenheit
scale numbers.
Can’t do ratios between them, “twice” does not compute.
I don’t suppose it would help if we went centigrade and said last week’s highs were around 35 and today it’s 5?

No, that’s worse, today’s down by 85% from last week.

Centigrade’s another scale you can’t do ratio arithmetic in. Kelvins is the way to go.
Temp in K tracks the average molecular kinetic energy.
Starts at zero where nothing’s moving and rises in proportion.
Last week’s highs ran around 308 K, today is 278 K.
Today we’re only 10% cooler than last week.

Physicists! Grrrr. However you measure the weather, it still feels cold. No picnic this weekend ;^(


From: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
To: Jeremy Yazzie <jeremyaz@college.edu>
Subj: OSIRIS-REx

Jeremy –

OK, now I’m back at the office I’ve got better tech for writing long answers.

First, the “grab a rock” idea has several issues

  • If you pick up a rock, you only have that rock, says nothing about any of its neighbors or the subsurface material it might have smacked into. Dust should be a much better representation of the whole asteroid.
  • The rock might not be willing to be picked up. When the scientists and engineers were planning the OSIRIS‑REx mission, they didn’t know Bennu’s texture — could be one solid rock or a bunch of middle‑size rocks firmly cemented together or a loose “rubble pile” of all‑size rocks and dust held together by gravity alone, or anything in between.
  • Have you ever played one of those arcade games where you try to pick up a toy with a suspended claw gadget and all you’ve got is a couple of control knobs and a button? Picking up a specific rock, even a willing one, is hard when you’re a robot operating 15 light‑minutes away from the home office.

So dust it is, but how to plan dust collection in low gravity when you know nothing about the texture? Something like a whisk broom and dust pan would work unless the surface is too uneven. Something like a drill or disk sander would be good, except to use either one you need a solid footing to work from or else you go spinning one way when the tool spins the other. (That was a problem on the International Space Station.) The Hayabusa2 mission to asteroid Ryugu used a high‑velocity impactor to create dust, but a bad ricochet or shrapnel could kill the OSIRIS‑REx mission. The planners decided that best alternative was puff‑and‑grab.

So why not an astronautical Roomba that just sucks in the dust? The thing about vacuum is that it’s a place where gas molecules aren’t. Suppose you’re a gas molecule. You’re surrounded by your buddies, all in motion and bouncing off of each other like on a crowded 3‑D dance floor. You stay more‑or‑less in place because you’re being hit more‑or‑less equally from every direction. Suddenly there’s a vacuum to one side. You’re not hit as much over there so that’s the direction you and a bunch of your buddies move. If you encounter a dust particle, it picks up your momentum and moves toward the emptiness where it could be trapped in somebody’s filter.

The planners decided to capture dust particles by entraining them in a flow of gas molecules through a filter. To make gas flow you need more gas on one side then the other. Gas molecules being few and far between in space, the obvious place to put your pusher gas is inside the filter. Hence the nitrogen squirt technique and the “air‑cleaner thingy.”

— Sy

Diagram of TAGSAM in operation
Adapted from asteroidmission.org/?attachment_id=1699
Credit: University of Arizona

~~ Rich Olcott