Forces of nature

If you want to truly be amazed by the wonders of the universe, the quickest way to do so is to learn about the science behind it.

And pardon the split infinitive in that paragraph, but it’s really not wrong in English, since it became a “rule” only after a very pedantic 19th century grammarian, John Comly, declared that it was wrong to do so — although neither he nor his contemporaries ever called it that. Unfortunately, he based this on the grammar and structure of Latin, to which that of English bears little resemblance.

That may seem like a digression, but it brings us back to one of the most famous modern split infinitives that still resonates throughout pop culture today: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” and this brings us gracefully back to science and space.

That’s where we find the answer to the question “Where did we come from?” But what would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?

One quick and easy answer is the Big Bang. This is the idea, derived from the observation that everything in the universe seems to be moving away from everything else, so that at one time everything must have been in the same place. That is, what became the entire universe was concentrated into a single point that then somehow exploded outward into, well, everything.

But the Big Bang itself did not instantly create stars and planets and galaxies. It was way too energetic for that. So energetic, in fact, that matter couldn’t even form in the immediate aftermath. Instead, everything that existed was an incredibly hot quantum foam of unbound quarks. Don’t let the words daunt you. The simple version is that elements are made up of atoms, and an atom is the smallest unit of any particular element — an atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, etc. Once you move to the subatomic particles that make up the atom, you lose any of the properties that make the element unique, most of which have to do with its atomic weight and the number of free electrons wrapped around it.

Those atoms in turn are made up of electrons that are sort of smeared out in a statistical cloud around a nucleus made up of at least one proton (hydrogen), and then working their way up through larger collections of protons (positively charged), an often but not always equal number of neutrons (no charge), and a number of electrons (negatively charged) that may or may not equal the number of protons.

Note that despite what you might have learned in school, an atom does not resemble a mini solar system in any particular way at all, with the electron “planets” neatly orbiting the “star” that is the nucleus. Instead, the electrons live in what are called orbitals and shells, but they have a lot more to do with energy levels and probable locations than they do with literal placement of discrete dots of energy.

Things get weird on this level, but they get weirder if you go one step down and look inside of the protons and neutrons. These particles themselves are made up of smaller particles that were named quarks by Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Man as a direct homage to James Joyce. The word comes from a line from Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake, which itself is about as weird and wonderful as the world of subatomic science. “Three quarks for muster mark…”

The only difference between a proton and a neutron is the configuration of quarks inside. I won’t get into it here except to say that if we call the quarks arbitrarily U and D, a proton has two U’s and one D, while a neutron has two D’s and one U.

And for the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang, the universe was an incredibly hot soup of all these U’s and D’s flying around, unable to connect to each other because the other theoretical particles that could have tied them together, gluons, couldn’t get a grip. The universe was also incredibly dark because photons couldn’t move through it.

Eventually, as things started to cool down, the quarks and gluons started to come together, creating protons and neutrons. The protons, in turn, started to hook up with free electrons to create hydrogen. (The neutrons, not so much at first, since when unbound they tend to not last a long time.) Eventually, the protons and neutrons did start to hook up and lure in electrons, creating helium. This is also when the universe became transparent, because now the photons could move through it freely.

But we still haven’t quite gotten to the force that created all of us just yet. It’s not the attractive force that pulled quarks and gluons together, nor is it the forces that bound electrons and protons. That’s because, given just those forces, the subatomic particles and atoms really wouldn’t have done much else. But once they reached the stage of matter — once there were elements with some appreciable (though tiny) mass to toss around, things changed.

Vast clouds of gas slowly started to fall into an inexorable dance as atoms of hydrogen found themselves pulled together, closer and closer, and tighter and tighter. The bigger the cloud became, the stronger the attraction until, eventually, a big enough cloud of hydrogen would suddenly collapse into itself so rapidly that the hydrogen atoms in the middle would slam together with such force that it would overcome the natural repulsion of the like-charged electron shells and push hard enough to force the nuclei together. And then you’d get… more helium, along with a gigantic release of energy.

And so, a star is born. A bunch of stars. A ton of stars, everywhere, and in great abundance, and with great energy. This is the first generation of stars in the universe and, to quote Bladerunner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” These early stars were so energetic that they didn’t make it long, anf they managed to really squish things together. You see, after you turn hydrogen into helium, the same process turns helium into heavier elements, like lithium, carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon. And then, once it starts to fuse atoms into iron, a funny thing happens. Suddenly, the process stops producing energy, the star collapses into itself, and then it goes boom, scattering those elements aback out into the universe.

This process will happen to stars that don’t burn as brightly, either. It will just take longer. The first stars lasted a few hundred million years. A star like our sun is probably good for about ten billion, and we’re only half way along.

But… have you figured out yet which force made these stars create elements and then explode and then create us, because that was the question: “What would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?”

It’s the same force that pulled those hydrogen atoms together in order to create heavier elements and then make stars explode in order to blast those elements back out into the universe to create new stars and planets and us. It’s the same reason that we have not yet mastered doing nuclear fusion because we cannot control this force and don’t really know yet what creates it. It’s the same force that is keeping your butt in your chair this very moment.

It’s called gravity. Once the universe cooled down enough for matter to form — and hence mass — this most basic of laws took over, and anything that did have mass started to attract everything else with mass. That’s just how it works. And once enough mass got pulled together, it came together tightly enough to overcome any other forces in the universe.  Remember: atoms fused because the repulsive force of the negative charge of electrons was nowhere near strong enough to resist gravity, and neither was the nuclear force between protons and neutrons.

Let gravity grow strong enough, in fact, and it can mash matter so hard that it turns every proton in a star into a neutron which is surrounded by a surface cloud of every electron sort of in the same place, and this is called a neutron star. Squash it even harder, and you get a black hole, a very misunderstood (by lay people) object that nonetheless seems to actually be the anchor (or one of many) that holds most galaxies together.

Fun fact, though. If our sun suddenly turned into a black hole (unlikely because it’s not massive enough) the only effect on the Earth would be… nothing for about eight minutes, and then it would get very dark and cold, although we might also be fried to death by a burst of gamma radiation. But the one thing that would not happen is any of the planets suddenly getting sucked into it.

Funny thing about black holes. When they collapse like that and become one, their radius may change drastically, like from sun-sized to New York-sized, but their gravity doesn’t change at all.

But I do digress. Or maybe not. Circle back to the point of this story: The universal force that we still understand the least also happens to be the same damn force that created every single atom in every one of our bodies. Whether it has its own particle or vector, or whether it’s just an emergent property of space and time, is still anybody’s guess. But whichever turns out to be true, if you know some science, then the power of gravity is actually quite impressive.

Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Just over 140 years ago, an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth was born.

You probably have heard of Gerard Kuiper, though, or at least the belt named after him. Since Kuiper was of Dutch descent, that first syllable is pronounced with a long I, so it’s not “Kooper.” The first syllable rhymes with kite. (If you’re an L.A. local, it’s exactly the same as Van Nuys, and for the same reasons that I won’t get into here, because they’re complicated.)

Anyway… Kuiper was about 25 years younger than Edgeworth, died just over a year after him in 1973, and wound up with his name on something that Edgeworth originally predicted and described.

Okay, sometimes it’s referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, attributing the discoverers slash theorists in the right order, but that’s generally mostly not the case, so that Kuiper really is kind of the Edison to Edgeworth’s Tesla.

But Edgeworth was ahead of his time in other ways. Only eight years after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared the eighth planet, Edgeworth was expressing his doubts, saying that it was too small to be a planet, and was probably a remnant of the bits and pieces that came together to create the solar system.

He was certainly vindicated on that one, and it was part of the same ideas which gave birth to what should be called the Edgeworth Belt, but which didn’t catch on until Kuiper got in on the act in the 1950s.

Maybe a big part of the problem was that Edgeworth was more of an armchair astronomer. While he published papers, he was a theorists and not an experimenter. Then again, Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a practical one, and his theories changed the way we view the universe.

Edgeworth’s could have changed the way we view our solar system, and he also hypothesized what later became known as the Oort Cloud — named for another damn Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who once again came to the party long after Edgeworth proposed the idea.

When Edgeworth was a child, his family moved to the estate of his maternal uncle, who was an astronomer, and had an influence on young Kenneth. Later, the family would move to the estate of Edgeworth’s paternal grandfather, where he would develop engineering skills in his father’s workshop.

He went into the military, joining the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was posted to South Africa, where he served in the Second Boer War. His military career continued through World War I and beyond, and he retired in 1926.

However, between the Boer War and WW I, his uncle submitted his name for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and he was accepted for in 1903. By this point, he had already written papers on astronomy, since one of them was read at the meeting during which he was elected. He studied international economics during the Great Depression and wrote five books on the subject in the 1930s and 40s. He also published various papers on astronomy, covering subjects like the solar system, red dwarves, star formation, and redshift.

It was also at this time that he published his thoughts on Pluto, as well as the existence of both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

After he “retired,” he published a series of letters and papers, leading to his book The Earth, the Planets and the Stars: Their Birth and Evolution, which was published in 1961. He published his autobiography, Jack of all Trades: The Story of My Life, when he was 85, in 1965, and died in Dublin in 1972, at the age of 92.

His contributions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud weren’t acknowledged until 1995, although he did have an asteroid named after him in 1978, 3487 Edgeworth. Yes, a comet would have been more appropriate, but those are only named after their discoverers, and after October 10, 1972, Kenneth Edgeworth wasn’t in a position to discover anything new.

But while he was around, damn what a life. And what an unsung hero. Proof yet again that, sometimes, the ideas that sound utterly crazy at the time turn out to be the truth.

I wonder which unsung geniuses we aren’t listening to now, but whose visions will be obvious in a generation or two.

Image: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, year unknown. Public domain.

Wednesday Wonders: Now, Voyager

+Wednesday’s theme will be science, a subject that excites me as much as history on Monday and language on Tuesday. Here’s the first installment of Wednesday Wonders — all about science.

Now, Voyager

Last week, NASA managed something pretty incredible. They managed to bring the Voyager 2 probe back online after a system glitch forced it to shut down. Basically, the craft was supposed to do a 360° roll in order to test its magnetometer.

When the maneuver didn’t happen (or right before it was going to), two separate, energy-intensive systems wound up running at the same time and the probe went into emergency shut-down to conserve energy, turning off all of its scientific instruments, in effect causing data transmission back to home to go silent.

The twin Voyager probes are already amazing enough. They were launched in 1977, with Voyager 2 actually lifting off sixteen days earlier. The reason for the backwards order at the start of the mission is that Voyager 1 was actually going to “get there first” as it were.

It was an ambitious project, taking advantage of planetary placement to use various gravitational slingshot maneuvers to allow the probes to visit all of the outer planets — Jupiter and Saturn for both probes, and Uranus and Neptune as well for Voyager 2.

Not included: Pluto, which was still considered a planet at the time. It was in a totally different part of the solar system. Also, by the time the probes got there in 1989, Pluto’s eccentric orbit had actually brought it closer to the Sun than Neptune a decade earlier, a place where it would remain until February 11, 1999. While NASA could have maneuvered Voyager 2 to visit Pluto, there was one small hitch. The necessary trajectory would have slammed it right into Neptune.

Space and force

Navigating space is a tricky thing, as it’s a very big place, and things don’t work like they do down on a solid planet. On Earth, we’re able to maneuver, whether on foot, in a wheeled vehicle, or an aircraft, because of friction and gravity. Friction and gravity conspire to hold you or your car down to the Earth. In the air, they conspire to create a sort of tug of war with the force of lift to keep a plane up there.

When you take a step forward, friction keeps your back foot in place, and the friction allows you to use your newly planted front foot to move ahead. Note that this is why it’s so hard to walk on ice. It’s a low-friction surface.

The same principle works with cars (which also don’t do well on ice) with the treads on the tires gripping the road to pull you forward or stop you when you hit the brakes — which also work with friction.

Turning a car works the same way, but with one important trick that was discovered early on. If both wheels on opposite sides are on the same axle, turning the wheels does not result in a smooth turn of the vehicle. The axles need to be independent for one simple reason. The outside wheel has to travel farther to make the same turn, meaning that it has to spin faster.

Faster spin, lower friction, vehicle turns. While the idea of a differential gear doing the same thing in other mechanisms dates back to the 1st century BCE, the idea of doing it in wheeled vehicles wasn’t patented until 1827. I won’t explain it in full here because others have done a better job, but suffice it to say that a differential is designed to transfer power from the engine to the wheels at a relative rate dependent upon which way they’re aimed in a very simple and elegant way.

Above the Earth, think of the air as the surface of the road and an airplane’s wings as the wheels. The differential action is provided by flaps which block airflow and slow the wing. So… if you want to turn right, you slow down the right wing by lifting the flaps, essentially accelerating the left wing around the plane, and vice versa for a left turn.

In space, no one can feel you turn

When it comes to space, throw out everything in the last six paragraphs, because you don’t get any kind of friction to use, and gravity only comes into play in certain situations. Bookmark for later, though, that gravity did play a really big part in navigating the Voyager probes.

So, because no friction, sorry, but dog-fights in space are not possible. Hell, spacecraft don’t even need wings at all. The only reason that the Space Shuttle had them was because it had to land in an atmosphere, and even then they were stubby and weird, and even NASA engineers dubbed the thing a flying brick.

Without friction, constant acceleration is not necessary. One push starts you moving, and you’ll just keep going until you get a push in the opposite direction or you slam into something — which is just a really big push in the opposite direction with more disastrous results.

Hell, this is Newton’s first law of motion in action. “Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion — in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.” Push an object out in the vacuum of space, and it will keep on going straight until such point that another force is impressed upon it.

Want to turn right or left? Then you need to fire some sort of thruster in the direction opposite to the one you want to turn — booster on the right to turn left, or on the left to turn right. Want to slow down? Then you need to fire that thruster forward.

Fun fact: there’s no such thing as deceleration. There’s only acceleration in the other direction.

Also, if you keep that rear thruster going, your craft is going to keep on accelerating, and over time, this can really add up. For example, Voyager 2 is currently traveling at 15.4 kilometers (9.57 miles) per second — meaning that for it to take a trip from L.A. to New York would take five minutes.

Far and away

At the moment, though, this probe is 11.5 billion miles away, which is as long as four million trips between L.A. and New York. It’s also just over 17 light hours away, meaning that a message to and response from takes one day and ten hours.

And you thought your S.O. was blowing you off when it took them twenty minutes to reply to your text. Please!

But consider that challenge. Not only is the target so far away, but NASA is aiming at an antenna only 3.66 meters (12 feet) in diameter, and one that’s moving away so fast. Now, granted, we’re not talking “dead on target” here because radio waves can spread out and be much bigger than the target. Still… it is an impressive feat.

The more impressive part, though? We’re talking about technology that is over forty years old and still functioning and, in fact, providing valuable data and going beyond its design specs. Can you point to one piece of tech that you own and still use that’s anywhere near that old? Hell, you’re probably not anywhere near that old, but did your parents or grandparents leave you any tech from the late 70s that you still use? Probably not unless you’re one of those people still inexplicably into vinyl (why?)

But NASA has a track record of making its stuff last well beyond its shelf-life. None of the Mars rovers were supposed to keep on going like they have, for example, but Opportunity, intended to only last 90 days, kept on going for fifteen years, and the NASA Mars probes that actually made it all seem to last longer than intended.

In the case of Voyager, the big limit is its power supply, provided by plutonium-238 in the form of plutonium oxide. The natural decay of this highly radioactive element generates heat, which is then used to drive a bi-metallic thermoelectric generator. At the beginning, it provided 470 Watts of 30 volt DC power, but as of 1997 this had fallen to 335 Watts.

It’s interesting to note NASA’s estimates from over 20 years ago: “As power continues to decrease, power loads on the spacecraft must also decrease. Current estimates (1998) are that increasingly limited instrument operations can be carried out at least until 2020. [Emphasis added].”

Nerds get it done.

Never underestimate the ability of highly motivated engineers to find workarounds, though, and we’ve probably got at least another five years in Voyager 2, if not more. How do they do it? The same way that you conserve your phone’s battery when you forgot your charger and you hit 15%: power save mode. By selectively turning stuff off — exactly the same way your phone’s power-saver mode does it by shutting down apps, going into dark mode, turning off fingerprint and face-scan recognition, and so on. All of the essential features are still there. Only the bells and whistles are gone.

And still, the durability of NASA stuff astounds. Even when they’ve turned off the heaters for various detectors, plunging them into very sub-zero temperatures, they have often continued to function way beyond the conditions they were designed and tested for.

NASA keeps getting better. Nineteen years after the Voyagers, New Horizons was launched, and it managed to reach Pluto’s orbit and famously photograph that not-a-planet object only 9½ years after lift-off — and with Pluto farther out — as opposed to Voyager’s 12 years.

Upward and onward, and that isn’t even touching upon the utter value of every bit of information that every one of these probes sends us. We may leave this planet in such bad shape that space will be the only way to save the human race, and NASA is paving the way in figuring out how to do that.

Pretty cool, huh?