Are You Stronger Than Jupiter?


A comment on my earlier piece comparing the acceleration due to gravity that we feel from the Moon compared to what we feel from someone else in the room challenged me: how strong is the gravitational pull from Jupiter, compared to that of someone else in the room? Jupiter has a great edge in mass: someone else in the room weighs in at somewhere around 75 kilograms, while the planet comes to around 1,898,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms. On the other hand, your neighbor is somewhere around one meter away, while Jupiter will be something like 816,520,800,000 meters away. Maybe farther: that’s the farthest Jupiter gets from the Sun, and the Earth can be on the opposite side of the Sun from Jupiter, so add up to another 152,098,232,000 meters on top of that.

That distance is going to be a little bit of a nuisance. The acceleration we feel towards any planet will be stronger the nearer it gets, and while, say, Neptune is always about the same distance from the Earth, there are times that Venus and Mars are surprisingly close. Usually these are announced by clouds of forwarded e-mails announcing that Mars will be closer to the Earth than it’s been in 33,000 years, and will appear to be as large as the Empire State Building. Before you have even had the chance to delete these e-mails unread the spoilsport in your group of e-mail friends will pass along the snopes.com report that none of this is true and the e-mail has been going around unaltered since 1997 anyway. But there is still a smallest distance and a greatest distance any planet gets from the Earth.

If we want to give planets the best shot, let’s look at the smallest distance any planet gets from the Earth. For Mercury and Venus, this happens when the planet is at aphelion, the farthest it gets from the Sun, and the Earth at perihelion, the nearest it gets. For the outer planets, it happens with the Earth at aphelion and the other planet at perihelion. (Some might say ‘apogee’ and ‘perigee’, although these are properly speaking only the words to use when something orbits the Earth. Some might say ‘apoapsis’ and ‘periapsis’, which talk about the nearest and farthest points of an orbit without being particular about what is being orbited, but no one actually does.) Here I’m making the assumption that there’s no weird orbital locks where, say, the Earth can’t be at perihelion while Venus is at aphelion, which might even be true. It’s probably close enough.

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In Case Of Sudden Failure Of Planet Earth


Have you ever figured out just exactly what you would do if the Earth were to suddenly disappear from the universe, leaving just you and whatever’s around to fall towards whatever the nearest heavenly bodies are? No, me neither. Asked to improvise one, I suppose I’d suffocate within minutes and then everything else becomes not so interesting to me, although possibly my heirs might be interested, if they’re somewhere.

My mother accidentally got me thinking about this fate. She’s taking a course about the science and world view of the Ancient Egyptians. (In talking about it she asked if I knew anything about the science of the Ancient Egyptians, and I tried to say I didn’t really know more than the average lay reader might, although when I got to mentioning that I knew of their awareness of the Sothic Cycle and where we get the name “Sothic Cycle” I realized that I can’t really call myself ignorant about the science of the Ancient Egyptians.) But the class had reached the point where astrological beliefs of the ancients were under discussion, and apparently some of the students insisted that astrology really and truly works, and my mother wanted me to figure out how strong the force of gravity of the Moon is, compared to the force of gravity of another person in the same room. This would allow her to go into class armed with numbers which have never dissuaded anyone from believing in astrology, but, it’s fun for someone.

I did double-check, though, that she meant the gravitational pull of the Moon, rather than its tidal pull. The shorthand reason for this is that arguments for astrology having some physical basis tend to run along the lines of, the Moon creates the tides (the Sun does too, but smaller ones), tides are made of water (rock moves, too, although much less), human bodies are mostly water (I don’t know what the fluid properties of cytoplasm are, but I’m almost curious enough to look them up), so there must be something tide-like in human bodies too (so there). The gravitational pull of the Moon, meanwhile, doesn’t really mean much: the Moon is going to accelerate the Earth and the people standing on it by just about the same amount. The force of gravity between two objects grows with the two objects’ masses, and the Earth is more massive than any person on it. But this means the Earth feels a greater force pulling it towards the Moon, and the acceleration works out tobe just the same. The force of gravity between two objects falls off as the square of the distance between them, and the people on the surface of the Earth are a little bit closer or a little bit farther away from the Moon than the center of the Earth is, but that’s not very different considering just how far away the Moon is. We spend all our lives falling into the Moon, as fast as we possibly can, and we are falling into the Moon as fast as the Earth is.

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How Many Numbers Have We Named?


I want to talk about some numbers which have names, and to argue that surprisingly few of numbers do. To make that argument it would be useful to say what numbers I think have names, and which ones haven’t; perhaps if I say enough I will find out.

For example, “one” is certainly a name of a number. So are “two” and “three” and so on, and going up to “twenty”, and going down to “zero”. But is “twenty-one” the name of a number, or just a label for the number described by the formula “take the number called twenty and add to it the number called one”?

It feels to me more like a label. I note for support the former London-dialect preference for writing such numbers as one-and-twenty, two-and-twenty, and so on, a construction still remembered in Charles Dickens, in nursery rhymes about blackbirds baked in pies, in poetry about the ways of constructing tribal lays correctly. It tells you how to calculate the number based on a few named numbers and some operations.

None of these are negative numbers. I can’t think of a properly named negative number, just ones we specify by prepending “minus” or “negative” to the label given a positive number. But negative numbers are fairly new things, a concept we have found comfortable for only a few centuries. Perhaps we will find something that simply must be named.

That tips my attitude (for today) about these names, that I admit “thirty” and “forty” and so up to a “hundred” as names. After that we return to what feel like formulas: a hundred and one, a hundred and ten, two hundred and fifty. We name a number, to say how many hundreds there are, and then whatever is left over. In ruling “thirty” in as a name and “three hundred” out I am being inconsistent; fortunately, I am speaking of peculiarities of the English language, so no one will notice. My dictionary notes the “-ty” suffix, going back to old English, means “groups of ten”. This makes “thirty” just “three tens”, stuffed down a little, yet somehow I think of “thirty” as different from “three hundred”, possibly because the latter does not appear in my dictionary. Somehow the impression formed in my mind before I thought to look.
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