Relatively Confused: Is It True That Nothing Can Exceed Light Speed?

A post for general readers:

Einstein’s relativity. Everybody’s heard of it, many have read about it, a few have learned some of it.  Journalists love to write about it.  It’s part of our culture; it’s always in the air, and has been for over a century.

Most of what’s in the air, though, is in the form of sound bites, partly true but often misleading.  Since Einstein’s view of relativity (even more than Galileo’s earlier one) is inherently confusing, the sound bites turn a maze into a muddled morass.

For example, take the famous quip: “Nothing can go faster than the speed of light.”  (The speed of light is denoted “c“, and is better described as the “cosmic speed limit”.) This quip is true, and it is false, because the word “nothing” is ambiguous, and so is the phrase “go faster”. 

What essential truth lies behind this sound bite?

Faster Than Light? An Example.

Let’s first see how it can lead us astray.

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Continued Controversy on the Ring of Light

For general readers: A week or so ago, I wrote about my skepticism concerning the claim of a “detection” of the photon ring that’s widely expected to lie hidden within the image of a black hole. A nice article in Science News appeared today outlining the current controversy, with some quotes from scientists with differing … Read more

Has the Light From Behind a Black Hole Been Seen? Does the Claim Ring True?

Back in 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) made history as its scientists used it to create an image of a huge black hole — or rather, of the “accretion disk” of material surrounding a black hole — at the center of the galaxy M87. The dark central gap reveals where the disk’s material vanishes from view, as it presumably flows toward and disappears into the black hole.  

EHT’s image of the M87 galaxy’s black hole’s accretion disk, created from radio-wave measurements. [How do we know there’s a black hole there? I left an answer in the comments.]

What the image actually shows is a bit complicated, because there is not only “light” (actually, radio waves, an invisible form of light, which is what EHT measures) from the disk that travels directly to us but also (see the Figure below) light that travels around the back of the black hole.  That light ends up focused into a sharp ring, an indirect image of the accretion disk.  (This is an oversimplication, as there are additional rings, dimmer and close together, from light that goes round the black hole multiple times. But it will be a decade before we can hope to image anything other than the first ring.)

BHDisk2.png
Left: A glowing accretion disk (note it does not touch the black hole). Light from the right side of the disk forms a direct, broad image (orange) heading toward us, and also a focused, narrow, indirect image (green) heading toward us from the left side, having gone round the back of the black hole. (Right) From the entire accretion disk, the direct image forms a broad disk, while the indirect image would be seen, with a perfect telescope, as a narrow circle of bright light: the photon ring. Unfortunately, the EHT blurs this picture to the point that the photon ring and the disk’s direct image cannot be distinguished from one another. [Long and careful explanation given here.]

Regrettably, that striking bright and narrow “photon ring” can’t be seen in the EHT image, because EHT, despite its extraordinary capabilities, doesn’t yet have good enough focus for that purpose.  Instead, the narrow ring is completely blurred out, and drowned in the direct image of the light from the wider but overall brighter accretion disk. (I should note that EHT originally seemed to claim the image did show the photon ring, but backed off after a controversy.) All that can be observed in the EHT image at the top of this post is a broad, uneven disk with a hole in it.

The news this week is that a group within EHT is claiming that they can actually detect the photon ring, using new and fancy statistical techniques developed over a year ago.  This has gotten a lot of press, and if it’s true, it’s quite remarkable. 

However, having looked at the paper, I’m skeptical of this claim, at least so far.  Here’s why.

  1. Normally, if you claim to have detected something for the first time, you make it clear to what extent you’ve ruled out the possibility it actually isn’t there… i.e., if there’s only a 0.01% chance that it’s absent, that’s a strong argument that it’s present. I don’t see this level of clarity in the paper.
  2. Almost everyone is pretty darn sure that in reality the photon ring is actually present. That introduces a potential bias when you search for it; at least unconsciously, you’re not weighing the present vs. absent options equally. For this reason, it’s important to demonstrate that you’ve eliminated that bias. I don’t see that the authors have done this.
  3. Simulations of black hole surroundings and theoretical estimates both suggest that the photon ring should have significantly less overall brightness than the broad accretion disk. However, the ring measured in this paper has the majority of the total light (60%). The authors explain this by saying this is typical of their method: it combines some of the disk light near the photon ring (i.e., background) with the actual photon ring (i.e. signal). But normally one doesn’t claim to have detected a signal until one has measured and effectively subtracted the background. Without doing so, how can we be sure that the ring that the authors claim to have measured isn’t entirely background, or estimate how statistically significant is their claim of detection?

I’ve included more details on the following section, but the bottom line is that I’d like a lot more information before I’d believe the photon ring’s really been detected.

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Could CERN open a portal to… somewhere? (anywhere?)

For general readers:

Is it possible that the particle physicists hard at work near Geneva, Switzerland, at the laboratory known as CERN that hosts the Large Hadron Collider, have opened a doorway or a tunnel, to, say, another dimension? Could they be accessing a far-off planet orbiting two stars in a distant galaxy populated by Jedi knights?  Perhaps they have opened the doors of Europe to a fiery domain full of demons, or worse still, to central Texas in summer?

Mortals and Portals

Well, now.  If we’re talking about a kind of tunnel that human beings and the like could move through, then there’s a big obstacle in the way.  That obstacle is the rigidity of space itself.

The notion of a “wormhole”, a sort of tunnel in space and time that might allow you to travel from one part of the universe to another without taking the most obvious route to get there, or perhaps to places for which there is no other route at all, isn’t itself entirely crazy. It’s allowed by the math of Einstein’s theory of space and time and gravity.  However, the concept comes with immensely daunting conceptual and practical challenges.  At the heart of all of them, there’s a basic and fundamental problem: bending and manipulating space isn’t easy.  

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Black Holes, Mercury, and Einstein: The Role of Dimensional Analysis

In last week’s posts we looked at basic astronomy and Einstein’s famous E=mc2 through the lens of the secret weapon of theoretical physicists, “dimensional analysis”, which imposes a simple consistency check on any known or proposed physics equation.  For instance, E=mc2 (with E being some kind of energy, m some kind of mass, and c the cosmic speed limit [also the speed of light]) passes this consistency condition.

But what about E=mc or E=mc4 or E=m2c3 ? These equations are obviously impossible! Energy has dimensions of mass * length2 / time2. If an equation sets energy equal to something, that something has to have the same dimensions as energy. That rules out m2c3, which has dimensions of mass2 * length3 / time3. In fact it rules out anything other than E = # mc2 (where # represents an ordinary number, which is not necessarily 1). All other relations fail to be consistent.

That’s why physicists were thinking about equations like E = # mc2 even before Einstein was born. 

The same kind of reasoning can teach us (as it did Einstein) about his theory of gravity, “general relativity”, and one of its children, black holes.  But again, Einstein’s era wasn’t first to ask the question.   It goes back to the late 18th century. And why not? It’s just a matter of dimensional analysis.

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General Relativity, Tides, and Who Orbits Whom

Why have I been debunking Professor Muller’s claim that “the Sun orbits the Earth just as much as the Earth orbits the Sun”? Understanding why he’s wrong makes it easier to appreciate some central but subtle concepts in general relativity, Einstein’s conception of gravity.

What I want to do today is look at the notion of tides. Tides take on more importance in general relativity than in Newton’s theory of gravity. They can tell you which objects are gravitationally dominant in a coordinate-independent way.

A few posts ago, some of the commenters attempting to refute Professor Muller focused on showing the Sun is gravitationally dominant over the Earth. They were on a correct path! But nobody quite completed the argument, so I’ll do it here.

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Coordinate Independence, Kepler, and Planetary Orbits

Could you, merely by changing coordinates, argue that the Sun gravitationally orbits the Earth?  And could Einstein’s theory of gravity, which works equally well in all coordinate systems, allow you to do that?  

Despite some claims to the contrary — that all Copernicus really did was choose better coordinates than the ancient Greek astronomers — the answer is: No Way. 

How badly does the Sun’s path, nearly circular in Earth-centered (geocentric) coordinates, violate the Earth’s version of Kepler’s law?  (Kepler’s third law is the relation T=R3/2 between the period T of a gravitational orbit and the distance R, which is half the long axis of the ellipse that the orbit forms.)   Since the Moon takes about a month to orbit the Earth, and the Sun is about 400 = 202 times further from Earth than the Moon, the period of the Sun would be 4003/2 = 8000 times longer than the Moon’s, i.e. about 600 years, not 1 year. 

But is this statement coordinate-independent? Can it serve to prove, even in Einstein’s theory, that the Earth orbits the Sun and the Sun does not orbit the Earth? Yes, it is, and yes, it does. That’s what I claimed last time, and will argue more carefully today.

Of course the question of “Does X orbit Y?” is already complicated in Newtonian gravity.  There are many situations in which the question could be ambiguous (as when X and Y have almost equal mass), or when they form part of a cluster of large mass made from many objects of small mass (as with stars within a galaxy.)  But this kind of ambiguity is not what’s in question here.  Professor Muller of the University of California Berkeley claimed that what is uncomplicated in Newtonian gravity is ambiguous in Einsteinian gravity.  And we’ll see now that this is false.

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Even in Einstein’s General Relativity, the Earth Orbits the Sun (& the Sun Does Not Orbit the Earth)

Back before we encountered Professor Richard Muller’s claim that “According to [Einstein’s] general theory of relativity, the Sun does orbit the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun,” I was creating a series of do-it-yourself astronomy posts. (A list of the links is here.) Along the way, we rediscovered for ourselves one of the key laws of the planets: Kepler’s third law, which relates the time T it takes for a planet to orbit the Sun to its distance R from the Sun. Because we’ll be referring to this law and its variants so often, let me call it the “T|R law”. [For elliptical orbits, the correct choice of R is half the longest distance across the ellipse.] From this law we figured out how much acceleration is created by the Sun’s gravity, and concluded that it varies as 1/R2.

That wasn’t all. We also saw that objects that orbit the Earth — the Moon and the vast array of human-built satellites — satisfy their own T|R law, with the same general relationship. The only difference is that the acceleration created by the Earth’s gravity is less at the same distance than is the Sun’s. (We all secretly know that this is because the Earth has a smaller mass, though as avid do-it-yourselfers we admit we didn’t actually prove this yet.)

T|R laws are indeed found among any objects that (in the Newtonian sense) orbit a common planet. For example, this is true of the moons of Jupiter, as well as the rocks that make up Jupiter’s thin ring.

Along the way, we made a very important observation. We hadn’t (and still haven’t) succeeded in figuring out if the Earth goes round the Sun or the Sun goes round the Earth. But we did notice this:

This was all in a pre-Einsteinian context. But now Professor Muller comes along, and tells us Einstein’s conception of gravity implies that the Sun goes round the Earth just as much (or just as little) as the Earth goes round the Sun. And we have to decide whether to believe him.

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