Why Stuff Can Orbit, Part 3: It Turns Out Spinning Matters


Way previously:

Before the big distractions of Theorem Thursdays and competitive pinball events and all that I was writing up the mathematics of orbits. Last time I’d got to establishing that there can’t be such a thing as an orbit. This seems to disagree with what a lot of people say we can observe. So I want to resolve that problem. Yes, I’m aware I’m posting this on a Thursday, which I said I wasn’t going to do because it’s too hard on me to write. I don’t know how it worked out like that.

Let me get folks who didn’t read the previous stuff up to speed. I’m using as model two things orbiting each other. I’m going to call it a sun and a planet because it’s way too confusing not to give things names. But they don’t have to be a sun and a planet. They can be a planet and moon. They can be a proton and an electron if you want to pretend quantum mechanics isn’t a thing. They can be a wood joist and a block of rubber connected to it by a spring. That’s a legitimate central force. They can even be stuff with completely made-up names representing made-up forces. So far I’m supposing the things are attracted or repelled by a force with a strength that depends on how far they are from each other but on nothing else.

Also I’m supposing there are only two things in the universe. This is because the mathematics of two things with this kind of force is easy to do. An undergraduate mathematics or physics major can do it. The mathematics of three things is too complicated to do. I suppose somewhere around two-and-a-third things the mathematics hard enough you need an expert but the expert can do it.

Mathematicians and physicists will call this sort of problem a “central force” problem. We can make it easier by supposing the sun is at the center of the universe, or at least our coordinate system. So we don’t have to worry about it moving. It’s just there at the center, the “origin”, and it’s only the planet that moves.

Forces are tedious things to deal with. They’re vectors. In this context that makes them bundles of three quantities each related to the other two. We can avoid a lot of hassle by looking at potential energy instead. Potential energy is a scalar, a single number. Numbers are nice and easy. Calculus tells us how to go from potential energy to forces, in case we need the forces. It also tells us how to go from forces to potential energy, so we can do the easier problem instead. So we do.

To write about potential energy mathematical physicists use exactly the letter you would guess they’d use if every other letter were unavailable for some reason: V. Or U, if they prefer. I’ll stick with V. Right now I don’t want to say anything about what rule determines the values of V. I just want to allow that its value changes as the planet’s distance from the star — the radius ‘r’ of its orbit — changes. So we make that clear by writing the potential energy is V = V(r). (The potential energy might change with the mass of the planet or sun, or the strength of gravity in the universe, or whatever. But we’re going to pretend those don’t change, not for the problem we’re doing, so we don’t have to write them out.)

If you draw V(r) versus r you can discover right away circular orbits. They’re ones that are local maximums or local minimums of V(r). Physical intuition will help us here. Imagine the graph of the potential energy as if it were a smooth bowl. Drop a marble into it. Where would the marble come to rest? That’s a local minimum. The radius of that minimum is a circular orbit. (Oh, a local maximum, where the marble is at the top of a hill and doesn’t fall to either side, could be a circular orbit. But it isn’t going to be stable. The marble will roll one way or another given the slightest chance.)

The potential energy for a force like gravity or electric attraction looks like the distance, r, raised to a power. And then multiplied by some number, which is where we hide gravitational constants and masses and all that stuff. Generally, it looks like V(r) = C rn where C is some number and n is some other number. For gravity and electricity that number is -1. For two particles connected by a spring that number n is +2. Could be anything.

The trouble is if you draw these curves you realize that a marble dropped in would never come to a stop. It would roll down to the center, the planet falling into the sun. Or it would roll away forever, the planet racing into deep space. Either way it doesn’t orbit or do anything near orbiting. This seems wrong.

It’s not, though. Suppose the force is repelling, that is, the potential energy gets to be smaller and smaller numbers as the distance increases. Then the two things do race away from each other. Physics students are asked to imagine two positive charges let loose next to each other. Physics students understand they’ll go racing away from each other, even though we don’t see stuff in the real world that does that very often. We suppose the students understand, though. These days I guess you can make an animation of it and people will accept that as if it’s proof of anything.

Suppose the force is attracting. Imagine just dropping a planet out somewhere by a sun. Set it carefully just in place and let it go and get out of the way before happens. This is what we do in physics and mathematics classes, so that’s the kind of fun stuff you skipped if you majored in something else. But then we go on to make calculations about it. But that’ll orbit, right? It won’t just drop down into the sun and get melted or something?

Not so, the way I worded it. If we set the planet into space so it was holding still, not moving at all, then it will fall. Plummet, really. The planet’s attracted to the sun, and it moves in that direction, and it’s just going to keep moving that way. If it were as far from the center as the Earth is from the Sun it’ll take its time, yes, but it’ll fall into the sun and not do anything remotely like orbiting. And yet there’s still orbits. What’s wrong?

What’s wrong is a planet isn’t just sitting still there waiting to fall into the sun. Duh, you say. But why isn’t it just sitting still? That’s because it’s moving. Might be moving in any direction. We can divide that movement up into two pieces. One is the radial movement, how fast it’s moving towards or away from the center, that is, along the radius between sun and planet. If it’s a circular orbit this speed is zero; the planet isn’t moving any closer or farther away. If this speed isn’t zero it might affect how fast the planet falls into the sun, but it won’t affect the fact of whether it does or not. No more than how fast you toss a ball up inside a room changes whether it’ll eventually hit the floor. </p.

It’s the other part, the transverse velocity, that matters. This is the speed the thing is moving perpendicular to the radius. It’s possible that this is exactly zero and then the planet does drop into the sun. It’s probably not. And what that means is that the planet-and-sun system has an angular momentum. Angular momentum is like regular old momentum, only for spinning. And as with regular momentum, the total is conserved. It won’t change over time. When I was growing up this was always illustrated by thinking of ice skaters doing a spin. They pull their arms in, they spin faster. They put their arms out, they spin slower.

(Ice skaters eventually slow down, yes. That’s for the same reasons they slow down if they skate in a straight line even though regular old momentum, called “linear momentum” if you want to be perfectly clear, is also conserved. It’s because they have to get on to the rest of their routine.)

The same thing has to happen with planets orbiting a sun. If the planet moves closer to the sun, it speeds up; if it moves farther away, it slows down. To fall into the exact center while conserving angular momentum demands the planet get infinitely fast. This they don’t typically do.

There was a tipoff to this. It’s from knowing the potential energy V(r) only depends on the distance between sun and planet. If you imagine taking the system and rotating it all by any angle, you wouldn’t get any change in the forces or the way things move. It would just change the values of the coordinates you used to describe this. Mathematical physicists describe this as being “invariant”, which means what you’d imagine, under a “continuous symmetry”, which means a change that isn’t … you know, discontinuous. Rotating thing as if they were on a pivot, that is, instead of (like) reflecting them through a mirror.

And invariance under a continuous symmetry like this leads to a conservation law. This is known from Noether’s Theorem. You can find explained quite well on every pop-mathematics and pop-physics blog ever. It’s a great subject for pop-mathematics/physics writing. The idea, that the geometry of a problem tells us something about its physics and vice-versa, is important. It’s a heady thought without being so exotic as to seem counter-intuitive. And its discoverer was Dr Amalie Emmy Noether. She’s an early-20th-century demonstration of the first-class work that one can expect women to do when they’re not driven out of mathematics. You see why the topic is so near irresistible.

So we have to respect the conservation of angular momentum. This might sound like we have to give up on treating circular orbits as one-variable problems. We don’t have to just yet. We will, eventually, want to look at not just how far the planet is from the origin but also in what direction it is. We don’t need to do that yet. We have a brilliant hack.

We can represent the conservation of angular momentum as a slight repulsive force. It’s not very big if the angular momentum is small. It’s not going to be a very big force unless the planet gets close to the origin, that is, until r gets close to zero. But it does grow large and acts as if the planet is being pushed away. We consider that a pseudoforce. It appears because our choice of coordinates would otherwise miss some important physics. And that’s fine. It’s not wrong any more than, say, a hacksaw is the wrong tool to cut through PVC pipe just because you also need a vise.

This pseudoforce can be paired with a pseduo-potential energy. One of the great things about the potential-energy view of physics is that adding two forces together is as easy as adding their potential energies together. We call the sum of the original potential energy and the angular-momentum-created pseudopotential the “effective potential energy”. Far from the origin, for large radiuses r, this will be almost identical to the original potential energy. Close to the origin, this will be a function that rises up steeply. And as a result there can suddenly be a local minimum. There can be a circular orbit.

Spring potential, which is a parabola growing with the distance r from the origin. And the effective potential, which grows to a vertical asymptote where the radius is zero.
Figure 1. The potential energy of a spring — the red line — and the effective potential energy — the blue line — when the angular momentum is added as a pseudoforce. Without angular momentum in consideration the only equilibrium is at the origin. With angular momentum there’s some circular orbit, somewhere. Don’t pay attention to the numbers on the axes. They don’t mean anything.

Gravitational potential, with a vertical asymptote at the radius equalling zero going down to negative infinitely great numbers and a horizontal asymptote at the radius going off to infinity. And the effective potential, with the vertical asymptote at radius of zero going to positive infinitely great numbers, forcing there to be some minimum: a circular orbit.
Figure 2. The potential energy of a gravitational attraction — the red line — and the effective potential energy — the blue line — when the angular momentum is added as a pseudoforce. Without angular momentum in consideration there’s no equilibrium. The thing, a planet, falls into the center, the sun. With angular momentum there’s some circular orbit. As before the values of the numbers don’t matter and you should just ignore them.

The location of the minimum — the radius of the circular orbit — will depend on the original potential, of course. It’ll also depend on the angular momentum. The smaller the angular momentum the closer to the origin will be the circular orbit. If the angular momentum is zero we have the original potential and the planet dropping into the center again. If the angular momentum is large enough there might not even be a minimum anymore. That matches systems where the planet has escape velocity and can go plunging off into deep space. And we can see this by looking at the plot of the effective velocity even before we calculate things.

Gravitational potential, with a vertical asymptote at the radius equalling zero going down to negative infinitely great numbers and a horizontal asymptote at the radius going off to infinity. And then the effective potential for a very large angular momentum. There's a vertical asymptote at radius of zero going to positive infinitely great numbers, and so large that there isn't any local minimum except at an infinitely large radius.
Figure 3. Gravitational potential energy — the red line — and the effective potential energy — the blue line — when angular momentum is considered. In this case the angular momentum is so large, that is, the planet is moving so fast, that there are no orbits. The planet’s reached escape velocity and can go infinitely far away from the sun.

This only goes so far as demonstrating a circular orbit should exist. Or giving some conditions for which a circular orbit wouldn’t. We might want to know something more, like where that circular orbit is. Or if it’s possible for there to be an elliptic orbit. Or other shapes. I imagine it’s possible to work this out with careful enough drawings. But at some point it gets easier to just calculate things. We’ll get to that point soon.

Reading the Comics, July 24, 2014: Math Is Just Hard Stuff, Right? Edition


Maybe there is no pattern to how Comic Strip Master Command directs the making of mathematics-themed comic strips. It hasn’t quite been a week since I had enough to gather up again. But it’s clearly the summertime anyway; the most common theme this time seems to be just that mathematics is some hard stuff, without digging much into particular subjects. I can work with that.

Pab Sungenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria (July 19) brings in Erwin Schrödinger and his in-strip cat Barfly for a knock-knock joke about proof, with Andrew Wiles’s name dropped probably because he’s the only person who’s gotten to be famous for a mathematical proof. Wiles certainly deserves fame for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem and opening up what I understand to be a useful new field for mathematical research (Fermat’s Last Theorem by itself is nice but unimportant; the tools developed to prove it, though, that’s worthwhile), but remembering only Wiles does slight Richard Taylor, whose help Wiles needed to close a flaw in his proof.

Incidentally I don’t know why the cat is named Barfly. It has the feel to me of a name that was a punchline for one strip and then Sungenis felt stuck with it. As Thomas Dye of the web comic Newshounds said, “Joke names’ll kill you”. (I’m inclined to think that funny names can work, as the Marx Brotehrs, Fred Allen, and Vic and Sade did well with them, but they have to be a less demanding kind of funny.)

John Deering’s Strange Brew (July 19) uses a panel full of mathematical symbols scrawled out as the representation of “this is something really hard being worked out”. I suppose this one could also be filed under “rocket science themed comics”, but it comes from almost the first problem of mathematical physics: if you shoot something straight up, how long will it take to fall back down? The faster the thing starts up, the longer it takes to fall back, until at some speed — the escape velocity — it never comes back. This is because the size of the gravitational attraction between two things decreases as they get farther apart. At or above the escape velocity, the thing has enough speed that all the pulling of gravity, from the planet or moon or whatever you’re escaping from, will not suffice to slow the thing down to a stop and make it fall back down.

The escape velocity depends on the size of the planet or moon or sun or galaxy or whatever you’re escaping from, of course, and how close to the surface (or center) you start from. It also assumes you’re talking about the speed when the thing starts flying away, that is, that the thing doesn’t fire rockets or get a speed boost by flying past another planet or anything like that. And things don’t have to reach the escape velocity to be useful. Nothing that’s in earth orbit has reached the earth’s escape velocity, for example. I suppose that last case is akin to how you can still get some stuff done without getting out of the recliner.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures (July 21) uses mathematics as the standard for proving intelligence exists. I’ve got a vested interest in supporting that proposition, but I can’t bring myself to say more than that it shows a particular kind of intelligence exists. I appreciate the equation of the final panel, though, as it can be pretty well generalized.

To disguise a sports venue it's labelled ``Math Arena'', with ``lectures on the actual odds of beating the casino''.
Bill Holbrook’s _Safe Havens_ for the 22nd of July, 2014.

Bill Holbrook’s Safe Havens (July 22) plays on mathematics’ reputation of being not very much a crowd-pleasing activity. That’s all right, although I think Holbrook makes a mistake by having the arena claim to offer a “lecture on the actual odds of beating the casino”, since the mathematics of gambling is just the sort of mathematics I think would draw a crowd. Probability enjoys a particular sweet spot for popular treatment: many problems don’t require great amounts of background to understand, and have results that are surprising, but which have reasons that are easy to follow and don’t require sophisticated arguments, and are about problems that are easy to imagine or easy to find interesting: cards being drawn, dice being rolled, coincidences being found, or secrets being revealed. I understand Holbrook’s editorial cartoon-type point behind the lecture notice he put up, but the venue would have better scared off audiences if it offered a lecture on, say, “Chromatic polynomials for rigidly achiral graphs: new work on Yamada’s invariant”. I’m not sure I could even explain that title in 1200 words.

Missy Meyer’s Holiday Doodles (July 22) revelas to me that apparently the 22nd of July was “Casual Pi Day”. Yeah, I suppose that passes. I didn’t see much about it in my Twitter feed, but maybe I need some more acquaintances who don’t write dates American-fashion.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (July 24) again uses mathematics — particularly, Calculus — as not just the marker for intelligence but also as The Thing which will decide whether a kid goes on to success in life. I think the dolphin (I guess it’s a dolphin?) parent is being particularly horrible here, as it’s not as if a “B+” is in any way a grade to be ashamed of, and telling kids it is either drives them to give up on caring about grades, or makes them send whiny e-mails to their instructors about how they need this grade and don’t understand why they can’t just do some make-up work for it. Anyway, it makes the kid miserable, it makes the kid’s teachers or professors miserable, and for crying out loud, it’s a B+.

(I’m also not sure whether a dolphin would consider a career at Sea World success in life, but that’s a separate and very sad issue.)