Why Stuff Can Orbit, Part 11: In Search Of Closure


Previously:

And the supplemental reading:


I’m not ready to finish the series off yet. But I am getting closer to wrapping up perturbed orbits. So I want to say something about what I’m looking for.

In some ways I’m done already. I showed how to set up a central force problem, where some mass gets pulled towards the center of the universe. It can be pulled by a force that follows any rule you like. The rule has to follow some rules. The strength of the pull changes with how far the mass is from the center. It can’t depend on what angle the mass makes with respect to some reference meridian. Once we know how much angular momentum the mass has we can find whether it can have a circular orbit. And we can work out whether that orbit is stable. If the orbit is stable, then for a small nudge, the mass wobbles around that equilibrium circle. It spends some time closer to the center of the universe and some time farther away from it.

I want something a little more, else I can’t carry on this series. I mean, we can make central force problems with more things in them. What we have now is a two-body problem. A three-body problem is more interesting. It’s pretty near impossible to give exact, generally true answers about. We can save things by only looking at very specific cases. Fortunately one is a sun, planet, and moon, where each object is much more massive than the next one. We see a lot of things like that. Four bodies is even more impossible. Things start to clear up if we look at, like, a million bodies, because our idea of what “clear” is changes. I don’t want to do that right now.

Instead I’m going to look for closed orbits. Closed orbits are what normal people would call “orbits”. We’re used to thinking of orbits as, like, satellites going around and around the Earth. We know those go in circles, or ellipses, over and over again. They don’t, but the difference between a closed orbit and what they do is small enough we don’t need to care.

Here, “orbit” means something very close to but not exactly what normal people mean by orbits. Maybe I should have said something about that before. But the difference hasn’t counted for much before.

Start off by thinking of what we need to completely describe what a particular mass is doing. You need to know the central force law that the mass obeys. You need to know, for some reference time, where it is. You also need to know, for that same reference time, what its momentum is. Once you have that, you can predict where it should go for all time to come. You can also work out where it must have been before that reference time. (This we call “retrodicting”. Or “predicting the past”. With this kind of physics problem time has an unnerving symmetry. The tools which forecast what the mass will do in the future are exactly the same as those which tell us what the mass has done in the past.)

Now imagine knowing all the sets of positions and momentums that the mass has had. Don’t look just at the reference time. Look at all the time before the reference time, and look at all the time after the reference time. Imagine highlighting all the sets of positions and momentums the mass ever took on or ever takes on. We highlight them against the universe of all the positions and momentums that the mass could have had if this were a different problem.

What we get is this ribbon-y thread that passes through the universe of every possible setup. This universe of every possible setup we call a “phase space”. It’s easy to explain the “space” part of that name. The phase space obeys the rules we’d expect from a vector space. It also acts in a lot of ways like the regular old space that we live in. The “phase” part I’m less sure how to justify. I suspect we get it because this way of looking at physics problems comes from statistical mechanics. And in that field we’re looking, often, at the different ways a system can behave. This mathematics looks a lot like that of different phases of matter. The changes between solids and liquids and gases are some of what we developed this kind of mathematics to understand, in fact. But this is speculation on my part. I’m not sure why “phase” has attached to this name. I can think of other, harder-to-popularize reasons why the name would make sense too. Maybe it’s the convergence of several reasons. I’d love to hear if someone has a good etymology. If one exists; remember that we still haven’t got the story straight about why ‘m’ stands for the slope of a line.

Anyway, this ribbon of all the arrangements of position and momentum that the mass does ever at any point have we call a “trajectory”. We call it a trajectory because it looks like a trajectory. Sometimes mathematics terms aren’t so complicated. We also call it an “orbit” since very often the problems we like involve trajectories that loop around some interesting area. It looks like a planet orbiting a sun.

A “closed orbit” is an orbit that gets back to where it started. This means you can take some reference time, and wait. Eventually the mass comes back to the same position and the same momentum that you saw at that reference time. This might seem unavoidable. Wouldn’t it have to get back there? And it turns out, no, it doesn’t. A trajectory might wander all over phase space. This doesn’t take much imagination. But even if it doesn’t, if it stays within a bounded region, it could still wander forever without repeating itself. If you’re not sure about that, please consider an old sequence I wrote inspired by the Aardman Animation film Arthur Christmas. Also please consider seeing the Aardman Animation film Arthur Christmas. It is one of the best things this decade has offered us. The short version is, though, that there is a lot of room even in the smallest bit of space. A trajectory is, in a way, a one-dimensional thing that might get all coiled up. But phase space has got plenty of room for that.

And sometimes we will get a closed orbit. The mass can wander around the center of the universe and come back to wherever we first noticed it with the same momentum it first had. A that point it’s locked into doing that same thing again, forever. If it could ever break out of the closed orbit it would have had to the first time around, after all.

Closed orbits, I admit, don’t exist in the real world. Well, the real world is complicated. It has more than a single mass and a single force at work. Energy and momentum are conserved. But we effectively lose both to friction. We call the shortage “entropy”. Never mind. No person has ever seen a circle, and no person ever will. They are still useful things to study. So it is with closed orbits.

An equilibrium orbit, the circular orbit of a mass that’s at exactly the right radius for its angular momentum, is closed. A perturbed orbit, wobbling around the equilibrium, might be closed. It might not. I mean next time to discuss what has to be true to close an orbit.

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