Today’s is technically a request from Elke Stangl, author of the Elkemental Force blog. I think it’s also me setting out my own petard for self-hoisting, as my recollection is that I tossed off a mention of “defining the Ricci Tensor” as the sort of thing that’s got a deep beauty that’s hard to share with people. And that set off the search for where I had written about the Ricci Tensor. I hadn’t, and now look what trouble I’m in. Well, here goes.
Imagine if nothing existed.
You’re not doing that right, by the way. I expect what you’re thinking of is a universe that’s a big block of space that doesn’t happen to have any things clogging it up. Maybe you have a natural sense of volume in it, so that you know something is there. Maybe you even imagine something with grid lines or reticules or some reference points. What I imagine after a command like that is a sort of great rectangular expanse, dark and faintly purple-tinged, with small dots to mark its expanse. That’s fine. This is what I really want. But it’s not really imagining nothing existing. There’s space. There’s some sense of where things would be, if they happened to be in there. We’d have to get rid of the space to have “nothing” exist. And even then we have logical problems that sound like word games. (How can nothing have a property like “existing”? Or a property like “not existing”?) This is dangerous territory. Let’s not step there.
So take the empty space that’s what mathematics and physics people mean by “nothing”. What do we know about it? Unless we’re being difficult, it’s got some extent. There are points in it. There’s some idea of distance between these points. There’s probably more than one dimension of space. There’s probably some sense of time, too. At least we’re used to the expectation that things would change if we watched. It’s a tricky sense to have, though. It’s hard to say exactly what time is. We usually fall back on the idea that we know time has passed if we see something change. But if there isn’t anything to see change? How do we know there’s still time passing?
You maybe already answered. We know time is passing because we can see space changing. One of the legs of Modern Physics is geometry, how space is shaped and how its shape changes. This tells us how gravity works, and how electricity and magnetism propagate. If there were no matter, no energy, no things in the universe there would still be some kind of physics. And interesting physics, since the mathematics describing this stuff is even subtler and more challenging to the intuition than even normal Euclidean space. If you’re going to read a pop mathematics blog like this, you’re very used to this idea.
Probably haven’t looked very hard at the idea, though. How do you tell whether space is changing if there’s nothing in it? It’s all right to imagine a coordinate system put on empty space. Coordinates are our concept. They don’t affect the space any more than the names we give the squirrels in the yard affect their behavior. But how to make the coordinates move with the space? It seems question-begging at least.
We have a mathematical gimmick to resolve this. Of course we do. We call it a name like a “test mass” or a “test charge” or maybe just “test particle”. Imagine that we drop into space a thing. But it’s only barely a thing. It’s tiny in extent. It’s tiny in mass. It’s tiny in charge. It’s tiny in energy. It’s so slight in every possible trait that it can’t sully our nothingness. All it does is let us detect it. It’s a good question how. We have good eyes. But now, we could see the particle moving as the space it’s in moves.
But again we can ask how. Just one point doesn’t seem to tell us much. We need a bunch of test particles, a whole cloud of them. They don’t interact. They don’t carry energy or mass or anything. They just carry the sense of place. This is how we would perceive space changing in time. We can ask questions meaningfully.
Here’s an obvious question: how much volume does our cloud take up? If we’re going to be difficult about this, none at all, since it’s a finite number of particles that all have no extent. But you know what we mean. Draw a ball, or at least an ellipsoid, around the test particles. How big is that? Wait a while. Draw another ball around the now-moved test particles. How big is that now?
Here’s another question: has the cloud rotated any? The test particles, by definition, don’t have mass or anything. So they don’t have angular momentum. They aren’t pulling one another to the side any. If they rotate it’s because space has rotated, and that’s interesting to consider. And another question: might they swap positions? Could a pair of particles that go left-to-right swap so they go right-to-left? That I ask admits that I want to allow the possibility.
These are questions about coordinates. They’re about how one direction shifts to other directions. How it stretches or shrinks. That is to say, these are questions of tensors. Tensors are tools for many things, most of them about how things transmit through different directions. In this context, time is another direction.
All our questions about how space moves we can describe as curvature. How do directions fall away from being perpendicular to one another? From being parallel to themselves? How do their directions change in time? If we have three dimensions in space and one in time — a four-dimensional “manifold” — then there’s 20 different “directions” each with maybe their own curvature to consider. This may seem a lot. Every point on this manifold has this set of twenty numbers describing the curvature of space around it. There’s not much to do but accept that, though. If we could do with fewer numbers we would, but trying cheats us out of physics.
Ten of the numbers in that set are themselves a tensor. It’s known as the Weyl Tensor. It describes gravity’s equivalent to light waves. It’s about how the shape of our cloud will change as it moves. The other ten numbers form another tensor. That is, a thousand words into the essay, the Ricci Tensor. The Ricci Tensor describes how the volume of our cloud will change as the test particles move along. It may seem odd to need ten numbers for this, but that’s what we need. For three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time, anyway. We need fewer for two-dimensional space; more, for more dimensions of space.
The Ricci Tensor is a geometric construct. Most of us come to it, if we do, by way of physics. It’s a useful piece of general relativity. It has uses outside this, though. It appears in the study of Ricci Flows. Here space moves in ways akin to how heat flows. And the Ricci Tensor appears in projective geometry, in the study of what properties of shapes don’t depend on how we present them.
It’s still tricky stuff to get a feeling for. I’m not sure I have a good feel for it myself. There’s a long trail of mathematical symbols leading up to these tensors. The geometry of them becomes more compelling in four or more dimensions, which taxes the imagination. Yann Ollivier here has a paper that attempts to provide visual explanations for many of the curvatures and tensors that are part of the field. It might help.