The Buck Rolls On, We Hope

<knock, knock> “Door’s open. Come in but maintain social distance.”

“Hiya, Sy. Here’s your pizza, still hot and everything but no pineapple.”

“Thanks, Eddie. Just put it on the credenza. There’s a twenty there waiting for you. Put the balance on my tab.”

“Whoa, I recognize this bill. It’s the one that Vinnie won off me at the after‑hours dice game last month before all this started. See, I initialed it down here on the corner ’cause Vinnie usually don’t do that well. How’d you get it from him?”

“I didn’t get it from Vinnie, I got it from Al when I sold him a batch of old astronomy magazines. Vinnie must have finally paid off his tab at Al’s coffee shop.”

“Funny how that one bill just went in a circle. Financed some risky business, paid off a loan, bought stuff, and here I get it again so I can buy stuff to make more pizza. That’s a lotta work for one piece of paper.”

“Mm-hm. Everyone’s $20 better off now, all because the bill kept moving. Chalk it off to ‘the velocity of money.‘ If Vinnie didn’t spend that money the velocity’d be zero and none of the rest would have happened.”

“That sounds suspiciously like Physics, Sy.”

“Guilty as charged, Eddie. Just following along with what Isaac Newton started back when he was staying at his mother’s place, hiding out from the bubonic plague.”

Newton, after a day at the beach
while wearing an anti-viral mask

“What’s that got to do with money? Was Newton a banker?”

“Not quite, although the last 30 years of his life he headed up England’s Royal Mint. The core of his work during his Science years was all about change and rate of change. His Laws of Motion quantified what it takes to cause change. He developed his version of calculus to bridge between how fast change happens and how much change has happened.”

“Hey, that’s those graphs you showed me, with the wave on the top line and the slope underneath.”

“Bingo. Pandemics are a long way from the simple systems that Newton studied, but the important point is that to study his planets and pendulums he developed general strategies for tackling complex situations. He started with just a few basic concepts, like position and speed, and expanded on them.”

“Speed’s speed, what’s to expand?”

“Newton expanded the notion of speed to velocity, which also includes direction. From Newton’s point of view, the velocity of a planet in orbit is continuously changing even if its miles per hour is as steady as … a planet.”

“Who cares?”

“Newton did, because he wanted to know what makes the change happen. His starting point was if there’s any motion, it’s got to be at constant speed and in a straight line unless some force causes a velocity change. That’s where his notion of gravity came from — he invented the idea of ‘the force of gravity‘ to account for us not flying off the rotating Earth and the Earth not zooming away from the Sun. His methods set the model that physicists have followed ever since — if we see motion, we measure how fast it’s happening and then we look for the force or forces that can explain that.”

“Now I see where you’re going. That ‘velocity of money‘ thing is about how fast the paper changes hands, isn’t it? Wait, if Vinnie had put that twenty up on his wall as a trophy, then the chain would’ve been broken.”

“Right, or if Al had diverted it to buy, say, coffee beans. That’s why we say velocity of money and not speed, because the direction of flow counts.”

“Smelling more and more like Physics, Sy. Like, there’s astrophysics and biophysics and you’re coming up with econophysics.”

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t invent the term. It’s already out there, with textbooks and academic study groups and everything. It’s just interesting to use economics as a metaphor for physics and vice-versa. The fun is in seeing where the metaphors break down.”

“I see one already, Sy. Those forces — we all had different reasons to kick the bill along.”

“Good point. Now we figure out those forces.”

~~ Rich Olcott

And now for some completely different dimensions

Terry Pratchett wrote that Knowledge = Power = Energy = Matter = Mass.  Physicists don’t agree because the units don’t match up.

Physicists check equations with a powerful technique called “Dimensional Analysis,” but it’s only theoretically related to the “travel in space and time” kinds of dimension we discussed earlier.

Place setting LMTIt all started with Newton’s mechanics, his study of how objects affect the motion of other objects.  His vocabulary list included words like force, momentum, velocity, acceleration, mass, …, all concepts that seem familiar to us but which Newton either originated or fundamentally re-defined. As time went on, other thinkers added more terms like power, energy and action.

They’re all linked mathematically by various equations, but also by three fundamental dimensions: length (L), time (T) and mass (M). (There are a few others, like electric charge and temperature, that apply to problems outside of mechanics proper.)

Velocity, for example.  (Strictly speaking, velocity is speed in a particular direction but here we’re just concerned with its magnitude.)   You can measure it in miles per hour or millimeters per second or parsecs per millennium — in each case it’s length per time.  Velocity’s dimension expression is L/T no matter what units you use.

Momentum is the product of mass and velocity.  A 6,000-lb Escalade SUV doing 60 miles an hour has twice the momentum of a 3,000-lb compact car traveling at the same speed.  (Insurance companies are well aware of that fact and charge accordingly.)  In terms of dimensions, momentum is M*(L/T) = ML/T.

Acceleration is how rapidly velocity changes — a car clocked at “zero to 60 in 6 seconds” accelerated an average of 10 miles per hour per second.  Time’s in the denominator twice (who cares what the units are?), so the dimensional expression for acceleration is L/T2.

Physicists and chemists and engineers pay attention to these dimensional expressions because they have to match up across an equal sign.  Everyone knows Einstein’s equation, E = mc2. The c is the velocity of light.  As a velocity its dimension expression is L/T.  Therefore, the expression for energy must be M*(L/T)2 = ML2/T2.  See how easy?

Now things get more interesting.  Newton’s original Second Law calculated force on an object by how rapidly its momentum changed: (ML/T)/T.  Later on (possibly influenced by his feud with Liebniz about who invented calculus), he changed that to mass times acceleration M*(L/T2).  Conceptually they’re different but dimensionally they’re identical — both expressions for force work out to ML/T2.

Something seductively similar seems to apply to Heisenberg’s Area.  As we’ve seen, it’s the product of uncertainties in position (L) and momentum (ML/T) so the Area’s dimension expression works out to L*(ML/T) = ML2/T.

SeductiveThere is another way to get the same dimension expression but things aren’t not as nice there as they look at first glance.  Action is given by the amount of energy expended in a given time interval, times the length of that interval.  If you take the product of energy and time the dimensions work out as (ML2/T2)*T = ML2/T, just like Heisenberg’s Area.

It’s so tempting to think that energy and time negotiate precision like position and momentum do.  But they don’t.  In quantum mechanics, time is a driver, not a result.  If you tell me when an event happens (the t-coordinate), I can maybe calculate its energy and such.  But if you tell me the energy, I can’t give you a time when it’ll happen.  The situation reminds me of geologists trying to predict an earthquake.  They’ve got lots of statistics on tremor size distribution and can even give you average time between tremors of a certain size, but when will the next one hit?  Lord only knows.

File the detailed reasoning under “Arcane” — in technicalese, there are operators for position, momentum and energy but there’s no operator for time.  If you’re curious, John Baez’s paper has all the details.  Be warned, it contains equations!

Trust me — if you’ve spent a couple of days going through a long derivation, totting up the dimensions on either side of equations along the way is a great technique for reassuring yourself that you probably didn’t do something stupid back at hour 14.  Or maybe to detect that you did.

~~ Rich Olcott