Why Stuff Can Orbit, Part 5: Why Physics Doesn’t Work And What To Do About It


Less way previously:


My title’s hyperbole, to the extent it isn’t clickbait. Of course physics works. By “work” I mean “model the physical world in useful ways”. If it didn’t work then we would call it “pure” mathematics instead. Mathematicians would study it for its beauty. Physicists would be left to fend for themselves. “Useful” I’ll say means “gives us something interesting to know”. “Interesting” I’ll say if you want to ask what that means then I think you’re stalling.

But what I mean is that Newtonian physics, the physics learned in high school, doesn’t work. Well, it works, in that if you set up a problem right and calculate right you get answers that are right. It’s just not efficient, for a lot of interesting problems. Don’t ask me about interesting again. I’ll just say the central-force problems from this series are interesting.

Newtonian, high school type, physics works fine. It shines when you have only a few things to keep track of. In this central force problem we have one object, a planet-or-something, that moves. And only one force, one that attracts the planet to or repels the planet from the center, the Origin. This is where we’d put the sun, in a planet-and-sun system. So that seems all right as far as things go.

It’s less good, though, if there’s constraints. If it’s not possible for the particle to move in any old direction, say. That doesn’t turn up here; we can imagine a planet heading in any direction relative to the sun. But it’s also less good if there’s a symmetry in what we’re studying. And in this case there is. The strength of the central force only changes based on how far the planet is from the origin. The direction only changes based on what direction the planet is relative to the origin. It’s a bit daft to bother with x’s and y’s and maybe even z’s when all we care about is the distance from the origin. That’s a number we’ve called ‘r’.

So this brings us to Lagrangian mechanics. This was developed in the 18th century by Joseph-Louis Lagrange. He’s another of those 18th century mathematicians-and-physicists with his name all over everything. Lagrangian mechanics are really, really good when there’s a couple variables that describe both what we’d like to observe about the system and its energy. That’s exactly what we have with central forces. Give me a central force, one that’s pointing directly toward or away from the origin, and that grows or shrinks as the radius changes. I can give you a potential energy function, V(r), that matches that force. Give me an angular momentum L for the planet to have, and I can give you an effective potential energy function, Veff(r). And that effective potential energy lets us describe how the coordinates change in time.

The method looks roundabout. It depends on two things. One is the coordinate you’re interested in, in this case, r. The other is how fast that coordinate changes in time. This we have a couple of ways of denoting. When working stuff out on paper that’s often done by putting a little dot above the letter. If you’re typing, dots-above-the-symbol are hard. So we mark it as a prime instead: r’. This works well until the web browser or the word processor assumes we want smart quotes and we already had the r’ in quote marks. At that point all hope of meaning is lost and we return to communicating by beating rocks with sticks. We live in an imperfect world.

What we get out of this is a setup that tells us how fast r’, how fast the coordinate we’re interested in changes in time, itself changes in time. If the coordinate we’re interested in is the ordinary old position of something, then this describes the rate of change of the velocity. In ordinary English we call that the acceleration. What makes this worthwhile is that the coordinate doesn’t have to be the position. It also doesn’t have to be all the information we need to describe the position. For the central force problem r here is just how far the planet is from the center. That tells us something about its position, but not everything. We don’t care about anything except how far the planet is from the center, not yet. So it’s fine we have a setup that doesn’t tell us about the stuff we don’t care about.

How fast r’ changes in time will be proportional to how fast the effective potential energy, Veff(r), changes with its coordinate. I so want to write “changes with position”, since these coordinates are usually the position. But they can be proxies for the position, or things only loosely related to the position. For an example that isn’t a central force, think about a spinning top. It spins, it wobbles, it might even dance across the table because don’t they all do that? The coordinates that most sensibly describe how it moves are about its rotation, though. What axes is it rotating around? How do those change in time? Those don’t have anything particular to do with where the top is. That’s all right. The mathematics works just fine.

A circular orbit is one where the radius doesn’t change in time. (I’ll look at non-circular orbits later on.) That is, the radius is not increasing and is not decreasing. If it isn’t getting bigger and it isn’t getting smaller, then it’s got to be staying the same. Not all higher mathematics is tricky. The radius of the orbit is the thing I’ve been calling r all this time. So this means that r’, how fast r is changing with time, has to be zero. Now a slightly tricky part.

How fast is r’, the rate at which r changes, changing? Well, r’ never changes. It’s always the same value. Anytime something is always the same value the rate of its change is zero. This sounds tricky. The tricky part is that it isn’t tricky. It’s coincidental that r’ is zero and the rate of change of r’ is zero, though. If r’ were any fixed, never-changing number, then the rate of change of r’ would be zero. It happens that we’re interested in times when r’ is zero.

So we’ll find circular orbits where the change in the effective potential energy, as r changes, is zero. There’s an easy-to-understand intuitive idea of where to find these points. Look at a plot of Veff and imagine this is a smooth track or the cross-section of a bowl or the landscaping of a hill. Imagine dropping a ball or a marble or a bearing or something small enough to roll in it. Where does it roll to a stop? That’s where the change is zero.

It’s too much bother to make a bowl or landscape a hill or whatnot for every problem we’re interested in. We might do it anyway. Mathematicians used to, to study problems that were too complicated to do by useful estimates. These were “analog computers”. They were big in the days before digital computers made it no big deal to simulate even complicated systems. We still need “analog computers” or models sometimes. That’s usually for problems that involve chaotic stuff like turbulent fluids. We call this stuff “wind tunnels” and the like. It’s all a matter of solving equations by building stuff.

We’re not working with problems that complicated. There isn’t the sort of chaos lurking in this problem that drives us to real-world stuff. We can find these equilibriums by working just with symbols instead.

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