Trombones And Echoes

Vinnie’s fiddling with his Pizza Eddie’s pizza crumbs. “Hey, Sy, so we got the time standard switched over from that faked 1900 Sun to counting lightwave peaks in a laser beam. I understand why that’s more precise ’cause it’s a counting measure, and it’s repeatable and portable ’cause they can set up a time laser on Mars or wherever that uses the same identical kinds of atoms to do the frequency stuff. All this talk I hear about spacetime, I’m thinkin’ space is linked to time, right? So are they doing smart stuff like that for measuring space?”

“They did in 1960, Vinnie. Before that the meter was defined to be the distance between two carefully positioned scratches on a platinum-iridium bar that was lovingly preserved in a Paris basement vault. In 1960 they went to a new standard. Here, I’ll bring it up on Old Reliable. By the way, it’s spelled m-e-t-e-r stateside, but it’s the same thing.”

“Mmm… Something goofy there. Look at the number. You’ve been going on about how a counted standard is more precise than one that depends on ratios. How can you count 0.73 of a cycle?”

“You can’t, of course, but suppose you look at 100 meters. Then you’d be looking at an even 165,076,373 of them, OK?”

“Sorta, but now you’re counting 165 million peaks. That’s a lot to ask even a grad student to do, if you can trust him.”

“He won’t have to. Twenty-three years later they went to this better definition.”

“Wait, that depends on how accurate we can measure the speed of light. We get more accurate, the number changes. Doesn’t that get us into the ‘different king, different foot-size’ hassle?”

“Quite the contrary. It locks down the size of the unit. Suppose we develop technology that’s good to another half-dozen digits of precision. Then we just tack half-a-dozen zeroes onto that fraction’s denominator after its decimal point. Einstein said that the speed of light is the same everywhere in the Universe. Defining the meter in terms of lightspeed gives us the same kind of good-everywhere metric for space that the atomic clocks give us for time.”

“I suppose, but that doesn’t really get us past that crazy-high count problem.”

“Actually, we’ve got three different strategies for different length scales. For long distances we just use time-of-flight. Pick someplace far away and bounce a laser pulse off of it. Use an atomic clock to measure the round-trip time. Take half that, divide by the defined speed of light and you’ve got the distance in meters. Accuracy is limited only by the clock’s resolution and the pulse’s duration. The Moon’s about a quarter-million miles away which would be about 2½ seconds round-trip. We’ve put reflectors up there that astronomers can track to within a few millimeters.”

“Fine, but when distances get smaller you don’t have as many clock-ticks to work with. Then what do you do?”

“You go to something that doesn’t depend on clock-ticks but is still connected to that constant speed of light. Here, this video on Old Reliable ought to give you a clue.”

“OK, the speed which is a constant is the number of peaks that’s the frequency times the distance between them that’s the wavelength. If I know a wavelength then arithmetic gets me the frequency and vice-versa. Fine, but how do I get either one of them?”

“How do you tune a trombone?”

“Huh? I suppose you just move the slide until you get the note you want.”

“Yup, if a musician has good ear training and good muscle memory they can set the trombone’s resonant tube length to play the right frequency. Table-top laser distance measurements use the same principle. A laser has a resonant cavity between two mirrors. Setting the mirror-to-mirror distance determines the laser’s output. When you match the cavity length to something you want to measure, the laser beam frequency tells you the distance. At smaller scales you use interference techniques to compare wavelengths.”

Vinnie gets a gleam in his eye. “Time-of-flight measurement, eh?” He flicks a pizza crumb across the room.

In a flash Eddie’s standing over our table. “Hey, hotshot, do that again and you’re outta here!”

“Speed of light, Sy?”

“Pretty close, Vinnie.”

~~ 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