Before the big distractions of Theorem Thursdays and competitive pinball events and all that I was writing up the mathematics of orbits. Last time I’d got to establishing that there can’t be such a thing as an orbit. This seems to disagree with what a lot of people say we can observe. So I want to resolve that problem. Yes, I’m aware I’m posting this on a Thursday, which I said I wasn’t going to do because it’s too hard on me to write. I don’t know how it worked out like that.
Let me get folks who didn’t read the previous stuff up to speed. I’m using as model two things orbiting each other. I’m going to call it a sun and a planet because it’s way too confusing not to give things names. But they don’t have to be a sun and a planet. They can be a planet and moon. They can be a proton and an electron if you want to pretend quantum mechanics isn’t a thing. They can be a wood joist and a block of rubber connected to it by a spring. That’s a legitimate central force. They can even be stuff with completely made-up names representing made-up forces. So far I’m supposing the things are attracted or repelled by a force with a strength that depends on how far they are from each other but on nothing else.
Also I’m supposing there are only two things in the universe. This is because the mathematics of two things with this kind of force is easy to do. An undergraduate mathematics or physics major can do it. The mathematics of three things is too complicated to do. I suppose somewhere around two-and-a-third things the mathematics hard enough you need an expert but the expert can do it.
Mathematicians and physicists will call this sort of problem a “central force” problem. We can make it easier by supposing the sun is at the center of the universe, or at least our coordinate system. So we don’t have to worry about it moving. It’s just there at the center, the “origin”, and it’s only the planet that moves.
Forces are tedious things to deal with. They’re vectors. In this context that makes them bundles of three quantities each related to the other two. We can avoid a lot of hassle by looking at potential energy instead. Potential energy is a scalar, a single number. Numbers are nice and easy. Calculus tells us how to go from potential energy to forces, in case we need the forces. It also tells us how to go from forces to potential energy, so we can do the easier problem instead. So we do.
To write about potential energy mathematical physicists use exactly the letter you would guess they’d use if every other letter were unavailable for some reason: V. Or U, if they prefer. I’ll stick with V. Right now I don’t want to say anything about what rule determines the values of V. I just want to allow that its value changes as the planet’s distance from the star — the radius ‘r’ of its orbit — changes. So we make that clear by writing the potential energy is V = V(r). (The potential energy might change with the mass of the planet or sun, or the strength of gravity in the universe, or whatever. But we’re going to pretend those don’t change, not for the problem we’re doing, so we don’t have to write them out.)
If you draw V(r) versus r you can discover right away circular orbits. They’re ones that are local maximums or local minimums of V(r). Physical intuition will help us here. Imagine the graph of the potential energy as if it were a smooth bowl. Drop a marble into it. Where would the marble come to rest? That’s a local minimum. The radius of that minimum is a circular orbit. (Oh, a local maximum, where the marble is at the top of a hill and doesn’t fall to either side, could be a circular orbit. But it isn’t going to be stable. The marble will roll one way or another given the slightest chance.)
The potential energy for a force like gravity or electric attraction looks like the distance, r, raised to a power. And then multiplied by some number, which is where we hide gravitational constants and masses and all that stuff. Generally, it looks like V(r) = C rn where C is some number and n is some other number. For gravity and electricity that number is -1. For two particles connected by a spring that number n is +2. Could be anything.
The trouble is if you draw these curves you realize that a marble dropped in would never come to a stop. It would roll down to the center, the planet falling into the sun. Or it would roll away forever, the planet racing into deep space. Either way it doesn’t orbit or do anything near orbiting. This seems wrong.
It’s not, though. Suppose the force is repelling, that is, the potential energy gets to be smaller and smaller numbers as the distance increases. Then the two things do race away from each other. Physics students are asked to imagine two positive charges let loose next to each other. Physics students understand they’ll go racing away from each other, even though we don’t see stuff in the real world that does that very often. We suppose the students understand, though. These days I guess you can make an animation of it and people will accept that as if it’s proof of anything.
Suppose the force is attracting. Imagine just dropping a planet out somewhere by a sun. Set it carefully just in place and let it go and get out of the way before happens. This is what we do in physics and mathematics classes, so that’s the kind of fun stuff you skipped if you majored in something else. But then we go on to make calculations about it. But that’ll orbit, right? It won’t just drop down into the sun and get melted or something?
Not so, the way I worded it. If we set the planet into space so it was holding still, not moving at all, then it will fall. Plummet, really. The planet’s attracted to the sun, and it moves in that direction, and it’s just going to keep moving that way. If it were as far from the center as the Earth is from the Sun it’ll take its time, yes, but it’ll fall into the sun and not do anything remotely like orbiting. And yet there’s still orbits. What’s wrong?
What’s wrong is a planet isn’t just sitting still there waiting to fall into the sun. Duh, you say. But why isn’t it just sitting still? That’s because it’s moving. Might be moving in any direction. We can divide that movement up into two pieces. One is the radial movement, how fast it’s moving towards or away from the center, that is, along the radius between sun and planet. If it’s a circular orbit this speed is zero; the planet isn’t moving any closer or farther away. If this speed isn’t zero it might affect how fast the planet falls into the sun, but it won’t affect the fact of whether it does or not. No more than how fast you toss a ball up inside a room changes whether it’ll eventually hit the floor. </p.
It’s the other part, the transverse velocity, that matters. This is the speed the thing is moving perpendicular to the radius. It’s possible that this is exactly zero and then the planet does drop into the sun. It’s probably not. And what that means is that the planet-and-sun system has an angular momentum. Angular momentum is like regular old momentum, only for spinning. And as with regular momentum, the total is conserved. It won’t change over time. When I was growing up this was always illustrated by thinking of ice skaters doing a spin. They pull their arms in, they spin faster. They put their arms out, they spin slower.
(Ice skaters eventually slow down, yes. That’s for the same reasons they slow down if they skate in a straight line even though regular old momentum, called “linear momentum” if you want to be perfectly clear, is also conserved. It’s because they have to get on to the rest of their routine.)
The same thing has to happen with planets orbiting a sun. If the planet moves closer to the sun, it speeds up; if it moves farther away, it slows down. To fall into the exact center while conserving angular momentum demands the planet get infinitely fast. This they don’t typically do.
There was a tipoff to this. It’s from knowing the potential energy V(r) only depends on the distance between sun and planet. If you imagine taking the system and rotating it all by any angle, you wouldn’t get any change in the forces or the way things move. It would just change the values of the coordinates you used to describe this. Mathematical physicists describe this as being “invariant”, which means what you’d imagine, under a “continuous symmetry”, which means a change that isn’t … you know, discontinuous. Rotating thing as if they were on a pivot, that is, instead of (like) reflecting them through a mirror.
And invariance under a continuous symmetry like this leads to a conservation law. This is known from Noether’s Theorem. You can find explained quite well on every pop-mathematics and pop-physics blog ever. It’s a great subject for pop-mathematics/physics writing. The idea, that the geometry of a problem tells us something about its physics and vice-versa, is important. It’s a heady thought without being so exotic as to seem counter-intuitive. And its discoverer was Dr Amalie Emmy Noether. She’s an early-20th-century demonstration of the first-class work that one can expect women to do when they’re not driven out of mathematics. You see why the topic is so near irresistible.
So we have to respect the conservation of angular momentum. This might sound like we have to give up on treating circular orbits as one-variable problems. We don’t have to just yet. We will, eventually, want to look at not just how far the planet is from the origin but also in what direction it is. We don’t need to do that yet. We have a brilliant hack.
We can represent the conservation of angular momentum as a slight repulsive force. It’s not very big if the angular momentum is small. It’s not going to be a very big force unless the planet gets close to the origin, that is, until r gets close to zero. But it does grow large and acts as if the planet is being pushed away. We consider that a pseudoforce. It appears because our choice of coordinates would otherwise miss some important physics. And that’s fine. It’s not wrong any more than, say, a hacksaw is the wrong tool to cut through PVC pipe just because you also need a vise.
This pseudoforce can be paired with a pseduo-potential energy. One of the great things about the potential-energy view of physics is that adding two forces together is as easy as adding their potential energies together. We call the sum of the original potential energy and the angular-momentum-created pseudopotential the “effective potential energy”. Far from the origin, for large radiuses r, this will be almost identical to the original potential energy. Close to the origin, this will be a function that rises up steeply. And as a result there can suddenly be a local minimum. There can be a circular orbit.
The location of the minimum — the radius of the circular orbit — will depend on the original potential, of course. It’ll also depend on the angular momentum. The smaller the angular momentum the closer to the origin will be the circular orbit. If the angular momentum is zero we have the original potential and the planet dropping into the center again. If the angular momentum is large enough there might not even be a minimum anymore. That matches systems where the planet has escape velocity and can go plunging off into deep space. And we can see this by looking at the plot of the effective velocity even before we calculate things.
This only goes so far as demonstrating a circular orbit should exist. Or giving some conditions for which a circular orbit wouldn’t. We might want to know something more, like where that circular orbit is. Or if it’s possible for there to be an elliptic orbit. Or other shapes. I imagine it’s possible to work this out with careful enough drawings. But at some point it gets easier to just calculate things. We’ll get to that point soon.