Why Stuff Can Orbit, Part 8: Introducing Stability


Previously:

And the supplemental reading:


I bet you imagined I’d forgot this series, or that I’d quietly dropped it. Not so. I’ve just been finding the energy for this again. 2017 has been an exhausting year.

With the last essay I finished the basic goal of “Why Stuff Can Orbit”. I’d described some of the basic stuff for central forces. These involve something — a planet, a mass on a spring, whatever — being pulled by the … center. Well, you can call anything the origin, the center of your coordinate system. Why put that anywhere but the place everything’s pulled towards? The key thing about a central force is it’s always in the direction of the center. It can be towards the center or away from the center, but it’s always going to be towards the center because the “away from” case is boring. (The thing gets pushed away from the center and goes far off, never to be seen again.) How strongly it’s pulled toward the center changes only with the distance from the center.

Since the force only changes with the distance between the thing and the center it’s easy to think this is a one-dimensional sort of problem. You only need the coordinate describing this distance. We call that ‘r’, because we end up finding orbits that are circles. Since the distance between the center of a circle and its edge is the radius, it would be a shame to use any other letter.

Forces are hard to work with. At least for a lot of stuff. We can represent central forces instead as potential energy. This is easier because potential energy doesn’t have any direction. It’s a lone number. When we can shift something complicated into one number chances are we’re doing well.

But we are describing something in space. Something in three-dimensional space, although it turns out we’ll only need two. We don’t care about stuff that plunges right into the center; that’s boring. We like stuff that loops around and around the center. Circular orbits. We’ve seen that second dimension in the angular momentum, which we represent as ‘L’ for reasons I dunno. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who did. Maybe it was the first letter that came to mind when someone influential wrote a good textbook. Angular momentum is a vector, but for these problems we don’t need to care about that. We can use an ordinary number to carry all the information we need about it.

We get that information from the potential energy plus a term that’s based on the square of the angular momentum divided by the square of the radius. This “effective potential energy” lets us find whether there can be a circular orbit at all, and where it’ll be. And it lets us get some other nice stuff like how the size of the orbit and the time it takes to complete an orbit relate to each other. See the earlier stuff for details. In short, though, we get an equilibrium, a circular orbit, whenever the effective potential energy is flat, neither rising nor falling. That happens when the effective potential energy changes from rising to falling, or changes from falling to rising. Well, if it isn’t rising and if it isn’t falling, what else can it be doing? It only does this for an infinitesimal moment, but that’s all we need. It also happens when the effective potential energy is flat for a while, but that like never happens.

Where I want to go next is into closed orbits. That is, as the planet orbits a sun (or whatever it is goes around whatever it’s going around), does it come back around to exactly where it started? Moving with the same speed in the same direction? That is, does the thing orbit like a planet does?

(Planets don’t orbit like this. When you have three, or more, things in the universe the mathematics of orbits gets way too complicated to do exactly. But this is the thing they’re approximating, we hope, well.)

To get there I’ll have to put back a second dimension. Sorry. Won’t need a third, though. That’ll get named θ because that’s our first choice for an angle. And it makes too much sense to describe a planet’s position as its distance from the center and the angle it makes with respect to some reference line. Which reference line? Whatever works for you. It’s like measuring longitude. We could measure degrees east and west of some point other than Greenwich as well, and as correctly, as we do. We use the one we use because it was convenient.

Along the way to closed orbits I have to talk about stability. There are many kinds of mathematical stability. My favorite is called Lyapunov Stability, because it’s such a mellifluous sound. They all circle around the same concept. It’s what you’d imagine from how we use the word in English. Start with an equilibrium, a system that isn’t changing. Give it a nudge. This disrupts it in some way. Does the disruption stay bounded? That is, does the thing still look somewhat like it did before? Or does the disruption grow so crazy big we have no idea what it’ll ever look like again? (A small nudge, by the way. You can break anything with a big enough nudge; that’s not interesting. It’s whether you can break it with a small nudge that we’d like to know.)

One of the ways we can study this is by looking at the effective potential energy. By its shape we can say whether a central-force equilibrium is stable or not. It’s easy, too, as we’ve got this set up. (Warning before you go passing yourself off as a mathematical physicist: it is not always easy!) Look at the effective potential energy versus the radius. If it has a part that looks like a bowl, cupped upward, it’s got a stable equilibrium. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t have a stable equilibrium. If you aren’t sure, imagine the potential energy was a track, like for a toy car. And imagine you dropped a marble on it. If you give the marble a nudge, does it roll to a stop? If it does, stable. If it doesn’t, unstable.

The sort of wiggly shape that serves as every mathematical physicist's generic potential energy curve to show off the different kinds of equilibrium.
A phony effective potential energy. Most are a lot less exciting than this; see some of the earlier pieces in this series. But some weird-shaped functions like this were toyed with by physicists in the 19th century who were hoping to understand chemistry. Why should gases behave differently at different temperatures? Why should some combinations of elements make new compounds while others don’t? We needed statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics to explain those, but we couldn’t get there without a lot of attempts and failures at explaining it with potential energies and classical mechanics.

Stable is more interesting. We look at cases where there is this little bowl cupped upward. If we have a tiny nudge we only have to look at a small part of that cup. And that cup is going to look an awful lot like a parabola. If you don’t remember what a parabola is, think back to algebra class. Remember that curvey shape that was the only thing drawn on the board when you were dealing with the quadratic formula? That shape is a parabola.

Who cares about parabolas? We care because we know something good about them. In this context, anyway. The potential energy for a mass on a spring is also a parabola. And we know everything there is to know about masses on springs. Seriously. You’d think it was all physics was about from like 1678 through 1859. That’s because it’s something calculus lets us solve exactly. We don’t need books of complicated integrals or computers to do the work for us.

So here’s what we do. It’s something I did not get clearly when I was first introduced to these concepts. This left me badly confused and feeling lost in my first physics and differential equations courses. We are taking our original physics problem and building a new problem based on it. This new problem looks at how big our nudge away from the equilibrium is. How big the nudge is, how fast it grows, how it changes in time will follow rules. Those rules will look a lot like those for a mass on a spring. We started out with a radius that gives us a perfectly circular orbit. Now we get a secondary problem about how the difference between the nudged and the circular orbit changes in time.

That secondary problem has the same shape, the same equations, as a mass on a spring does. A mass on a spring is a central force problem. All the tools we had for studying central-force problems are still available. There is a new central-force problem, hidden within our original one. Here the “center” is the equilibrium we’re nudged around. It will let us answer a new set of questions.

Advertisements

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

7 thoughts on “Why Stuff Can Orbit, Part 8: Introducing Stability”

Please Write Something Good

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s