Tag Archives: general relativity

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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Earth Orbits the Sun, or Not? Why Coordinates Can’t Be Relevant to the Question.

We’ve been having some fun recently with Sun-centered and Earth-centered coordinate systems, as related to a provocative claim by certain serious scientists, most recently Berkeley professor Richard Muller. They claim that in general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity, the same fantastic mathematical invention which predicted black holes and gravitational waves and gravitational lensing) the statement that “The Sun Orbits the Earth” is just as true as the statement that “The Earth Orbits the Sun”… or that perhaps both statements are equally meaningless.

But, uh… sorry. All this fun with coordinates was beside the point. The truth, falsehood, or meaninglessness of “the Earth orbits the Sun” will not be answered with a choice of coordinates. Coordinates are labels. In this context, they are simply ways of labeling points in space and time. Changing how you label a system changes only how you describe that system; it does not change anything physically meaningful about that system. So rather than focusing on coordinates and how they can make things appear, we should spend some time thinking about which things do not depend on our choice of coordinates.

And so our question really needs to be this: does the statement “The Earth Orbits the Sun (and not the other way round)” have coordinate-independent meaning, and if so, is it true?

Because we are dealing with the coordinate-independence of a four-dimensional spacetime, which is not the easiest thing to think about, it’s best to build some intuition by looking at a two-dimensional spatial shape first. Let’s look at what’s coordinate-independent and coordinate-dependent about the surface of the Earth.

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Earth Around the Sun, or Not? The Earth-Centered Coordinates You Should Worry About

We’re more than a week into a discussion of Professor Richard Muller’s claim that “According to the general theory of relativity, the Sun does orbit the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun. And they both orbit together around a place in between. And both the Sun and the Earth are orbiting the Moon.” Though many readers have made interesting and compelling attempts to prove the Earth orbits the Sun, none have yet been able to say why Muller is wrong.

A number of readers suggested, in one way or another, that we go far from the Sun and Earth and use the fact that out there, far from any complications, Newtonian physics should be good. From there, we can look back at the Sun and Earth, and see what’s going on in an unbiased way. Although Muller would say that you could still claim the Sun orbits the Earth by using “geocentric” coordinates centered on the Earth, these readers argued that such coordinates would not make sense in this distant, Newtonian region.

Are they correct about this?

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In Our Galaxy’s Center, a Tiny Monster

It’s far from a perfect image. [Note added: if you need an introduction to what images like this actually represent (they aren’t photographs of black holes, which are, after all, black…), start with this.]

EHT’s blurry time-averaged image of the ring of material surrounding the black hole at the center of our galaxy

It’s blurred out in space by imperfections in the telescopic array that is the “Event Horizon Telescope” (EHT) and by dust between us and our galaxy’s center. It’s blurred out in time by the fact that the glowing material around the black hole changes appreciably by the hour, while the EHT’s effective exposure time is a day. There are bright spots in the image that may just be artifacts of exactly where the telescopes are located that are combined together to make up the EHT. The details of the reconstructed image depend on exactly what assumptions are made.

At best, it shows us just a thick ring of radio waves emitted over a day by an ever-changing thick disk of matter around a black hole.

But it’s our galaxy’s black hole. And it’s just the first image. There will be many more to come, sharper and more detailed. Movies will follow. A decade or two from now, what we have been shown today will look quaint.

We already knew the mass of this black hole from other measurements, so there was a prediction for the size of the ring to within twenty percent or so. The prediction was verified today, a basic test of Einstein’s gravity equations. Moreover, EHT’s results now provide some indications that the black hole spins (as expected). And (by pure luck) its spin axis points, very roughly, toward Earth (much like M87’s black hole, whose image was provided by EHT in 2019.)

We can explore these and other details in coming days, and there’s much more to learn in the coming years. But for now, let’s appreciate the picture for what it is. It is an achievement that history will always remember.

Black Hole Announcement Expected Thursday

In 2019, the first image of the surroundings of a black hole was produced, to great fanfare, by the astronomers at the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The black hole in question was the enormous one at the center of the galaxy M87.

The “image” of the surroundings of a black hole in galaxy M87. What does it actually show? It is most likely an image (in radio waves) of an “accretion disk” of material around the black hole, its radio emissions somewhat distorted by the warped geometry around the black hole.

At the time, there was also hope that the EHT would produce an image of the region around the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. That black hole is thousands of times smaller, but also thousands of times closer, than the one in M87, and so appears about the same size on the sky (just as the Moon and Sun appear the same size, despite the Sun being much further away.)

However, the measurements of the Milky Way’s black hole proved somewhat more challenging, precisely because it is smaller. EHT takes about a day to gather the information needed for an image. M87’s black hole is so large that it takes days and weeks for it to change substantially — even light takes many days to cross from one side of the accretion disk to the other — so EHT’s image is like a short-exposure photo and the image of M87 is relatively clear. But the Milky Way’s galaxy’s black hole can change on the times scale of minutes and hours, so EHT is making a long-exposure image, somewhat like taking a 1-second exposure of a tree on a windy day. Things get blurred out, and it can be difficult to determine the true shape of what was captured in the image.

Apparently, the EHT scientists have now met these challenges, at least in part. We will learn new things about our own galaxy’s black hole on Thursday morning; links to the press conferences are here.

In preparation for Thursday, you might find my non-expert’s guide to a black hole “silhouette” useful. This was written just before the 2019 announcement, when we didn’t yet know what EHT’s first image would show. The title is a double-entendre, because I myself wasn’t entirely expert yet when I wrote it. The vast majority of it, however, is correct, so I still recommend it if you want to be prepared for Thursday’s presentation.

The only thing that’s not correct in the guide (and the offending sections are clearly marked as such) are the statements about the “photon ring”. It took me until my third follow-up post, two months later, to get it straight; that post is accurate, but it is long and very detailed. Most readers probably won’t want to go into that much detail, so what I’ll do here is summarize the correct parts of what I wrote in the weeks following the announcement, repeating a few of the figures that I made at the time, and then tell you about a couple of new things that have been learned since then about M87’s black hole. Hopefully you’ll find this both interesting on its own and useful for Thursday.

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