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Six Short Scientific Entertainments

©Martin Lesser 2005
Theoretical and Applied Mechanics
Royal Institute of Technology
Stockholm, Sweden

The following contains several short pieces about some surprising aspects of science and
the people who do science. They are meant to entertain more than to edify. The pieces
follow a short description of the contents.

Counting the Stars: Describes a wonderful but strange and contentious
method for finding the number of visible stars in the sky.
The Trouble With Ringworlds: In “hard core” science fiction one tries
to keep the science accurate. Sometimes this can get an author into trouble,
but it is always a challenge to find mistakes.
Beyond the Second Millennium: An interesting tale about failing to
predict something in “hard core” sf. In this case the famous author Robert A.
Heinlein got it very wrong!
Faster than Sound and Backwards in Time: A Science
Surprise: Tachyons are imaginary particles that go faster than light. This
seeks to explain in simple terms why this implies going backwards in time.
Explaining the Obvious: Itʼs obvious that water will fall out of a glass
turned upside down. It turns out that this is not quite as simple a fact as one
might think.
Six Degrees and the Erdös Number: A tale of how mathematicians
make a claim to fame by their degree of separation from one of the 20th
centuries mathematical greats.

Counting the Stars
One of the hurdles I had to face in the 1960's, as a graduate student at Cornell, was the
PhD qualifier exam. After a year or two of study you had to prove that you were worthy of
continuing by facing an oral exam by the members of your graduate committee made up of
three or four professors from your areas of major and minor study. An interesting aid to this
ordeal was a book where students that had undergone this rite of passage recorded their
experiences. Naturally the entries of most interest were those in which the inquisitors
matched the members of your own committee. Thus I was particularly concerned with one
case where one of the professors was Phillip Morrison , a man known for his keen mind
and interesting history. Morrison had the reputation of asking questions that called for
imagination and that even reflected his views of how one should think about science. In
this case the question asked was; What is the number of visible stars? The student was
supposed to arrive at an answer to this question using whatever data he had at hand, and
it had to be reasoned out, he couldn't just give a number he recalled from reading a book
on astronomy. As I recall the student didn't answer the question to Morrison's satisfaction
and Morrison's own answer met with an argument from another member of the committee,
the mathematician Mark Kac (Kac is pronounced kahts). Kac was as much a "character"
as Morrison and according to the student, they became so involved in the argument that
they forgot all about him.

The argument involved Morrison's use of probability. The hint he gave the student was that
there is a North Pole Star but no South Pole Star. Now consider how close two objects can
get and still be distinguished as individuals by the human eye. In optics the
distinguishability of objects is calculated by taking account of diffraction, a property due to
the wave nature of light. The English physicist Raleigh suggested a measure of this, now
called the Raleigh Criterion. The angular separation in radians that is separable by a lens
of diameter D is, according to this, given approximately by L/D, where L is the wavelength
of the light. This corresponds to a discernible area on a unit sphere of π(L/D)² . Now the
area of a unit sphere is 4π , so dividing the total area by the discernible area gives the
number of objects that can be distinguished in the entire sky by a particular lens for a
specific light wavelength. The wavelength of visible light is roughly 400 to 500 nanometers
and the size of the eyes lens is about one centimeter. But the human visual system is not
quite up to the Rayleigh Criteria and we can adjust for this by decreasing the effective size
of the lens to account for this (same as increasing the distance for an object to be
observable. Doing this by something like 400 gives about 20,000 visible stars that could be
seen. But the "experimental result" that there is only a North Pole star says that we only
observe half of them (in one out of the two experiments a star is observed). If light pollution
is minimized this is about what is obtained by other methods. The other method most often
suggested for counting visible stars is very similar to Morrison's procedure. Take a
cardboard tube (say from a paper towel roll) and point it at a number of places in the sky
as randomly as possible. Count the stars seen in each case and average the result. Divide
the area of a sphere with the radius of the tube by the area of the opening and multiply by
the average to get your result. There are a number of web sites that discuss this method.

Given all this you can see why an argument developed. The small number of two
observations makes the statistics questionable, and this is what drew Kac's attention. On
the other hand getting the right result also depended on making an estimate of the eye's
acuity. Maybe the experiment is more of a way of measuring this than the number of
visible stars? Still I think the problem does show a way of thinking when one has limited
data. The acuity of the eye could presumably be determined by another experiment.
Frankly I have not looked into this.

By the way, Morrison gave me another problem at my exam. It was easier in a way. He
asked me to guess an answer to the three body problem of computing the positions of the
Earth, Moon and Sun system. But I'll leave that for another day.

The Trouble With Ringworlds
Hard science fiction writers play by the rule that for the most part their stories should not
violate the known laws of physics. This still gives plenty of latitude. Thus cosmic scale
engineering, though not feasible at our level of technology, is allowed. One of the more
gigantic cosmic constructs was proposed by the physicist Freeman Dyson. In the search
for extraterrestrial intelligence, Dyson suggests we should look for large infra red sources.
The rational is that an advanced civilization would make use of the entire energy output of
its star. Hence it would surround the star with a shell that would intercept all the emitted
radiation. Dyson's idea has been misinterpreted by most science fiction writers, including
the writers of the Star Trek scripts. They literally interpret the Dyson sphere as a solid
shell, with the inhabitants living on its inside. Dyson's idea is impressive enough, his
thinking being that the star would eventually be surround by so many space habitats that
essentially none of its radiation would be able to escape. In either case the only indication
of the star's presence would be the infra red re-radiation of its energy output.

The SF writer, Larry Niven, proposed an impressive variant of the Dyson sphere,
suggesting that a rotating ring be constructed around the star. In his book, "Ring World",
the ring spins about the star fast enough to provide enough centrifugal force to simulate
the gravity of an earth like planet. Thousand mile high walls on the edges of the ring are
used to retain the atmosphere. The resulting living area is vast and provides a nice
background for his characters to roam around.
But hard core SF writers have to live with their fans, and Niven's quickly pointed out that
his ring world was unstable, if slightly perturbed it would move off center and the edge
would collide with the central star. It takes a fair amount of mechanics and math to show
this, but this was no obstacle to many of his readers.

Of course being a creative author, Niven turned his error into a plot element for the next
book, "The Ringworld Engineers".

What I would like to show here is that an elementary knowledge of Newtonian principles
can show why the Ringworld is unstable. All we need know is that gravitational force falls
off as the inverse square of distance and that the velocity of body such as a planet in orbit
about its star becomes smaller as the distance from the star increases. Thus the orbital
velocity of the Earth is much higher than the orbital velocity of Mars.

The first figure shows the basic configuration of the Ringworld rotating about its star. The
spin of the Ringworld also maintains the orientation by the principal of conservation of
angular momentum.

In the next figure the Ringworld is displaced with the star no longer in the center. The
figure actually shows both the original position and the displaced position. The arrows
indicate the orbital velocity of a body at the given distance from the star. The "a" arrows
show the velocity needed to maintain orbit. This is the classic situation that the
acceleration of gravity is countered by the tangential velocity of the orbiting object, which is
the Newtonian explanation of why the moon doesn't fall down! The upper "b" arrow is the
orbital velocity needed at the displaced position, which is closer to the star. Similarly the
lower "c" arrow is the orbital velocity needed at the greater distance from the star. In the
upper case this means that the tangential spin velocity will be too small for maintaining
orbit, that the gravitational force will move this part of the Ringworld toward the star. In the
case of the lower position, now further from the star, the velocity will be too great to
maintain orbit, hence this part of the Ringworld will move further away from the star. The
net result is that what starts out as a small displacement will tend to increase, which is the
essence of instability.
The last two figures show what happens if there is no rotation and we just consider the
force of gravity. The arrows just indicate the force of gravity on the various portions of the
Ringworld, taking into account the inverse square law. Clearly this is an unstable situation.
Off course this arguments are only approximate as the Ringworld is postulated to be a
continuous object. If we go back to Dyson's original idea, the Ringworld would be a
discontinuous cloud of space habitats and there would be no stability problem. The Dyson
Spheres of Science Fiction are another matter.

Even so, as a setting for a science fiction story, Niven's Ringworld is a lot more interesting.
If you want to find out how he deals with the stability problem you'll have to read the book!

Beyond the Second Millenium
Itʼs the early part of the 21st century and a group of refugees have stolen Earthʼs second
interstellar vessel in order to escape from persecution at the hands of the government. The
ship is designed to carry a large crew on a lifetime long voyage to a nearby star, but
happily one of the refugees is the famous “slip-stick Libby”, a natural genius in physics and
mathematics. Libby has cobbled together a faster-than-light drive from some spare parts
and the ship is now diving into the sun. The reason for this is that the drive needs energy
from the sunʼs gravitational field. Naturally the calculations are delicate, but Libby is a
genius with mental arithmetic. the name “slipstick” refers to Libbyʼs trusty slide rule, which
he artfully uses to make the last minute calculations!

Now jump ahead 10,000 years to the planet Dune. The Atreides Family has just taken over
the planet from which the mysterious “spice” is harvested. The spice provides a drug that
permits interstellar voyaging by means of some sort of mental effect. The logistics of the
takeover are under the control of a so-called “Mentat”, a human being who uses specially
trained mental abilities to carry out complex calculations. Computers have long since been
banned as being too threatening to the supremacy of humanity.
Both these scenarios are taken from still popular science-fiction novels written in the
middle of the 20th century. The first describes a scene from Robert A. Heinleinʼs
“Methuselahʼs Children”, the second is from the writer Frank Herbertʼs series that started
with the book “Dune.” They are both books that I read as a student and that helped shape
my expectations for the future. My slide rule, purchased in my first year of engineering
school, still sits in my desk drawer, but I only dimly recall how to use all of its features.
Somewhat in the style of todayʼs computer software the manufacturers of these
instruments competed on the bases of added features, most of which were seldom if ever
used! An important design point was the matching of materials in order to prevent stick-slip
friction as one moved the inner rule. Hence I could imagine the special features of Libbyʼs
slide rule, which were achieved with the advanced star ship building technology of the 21st
century. The story actually appeared in the magazine “Astounding Science Fiction” as part
of Heinleinʼs future history series. Today the magazine has morphed into the publication
known as “Analog.” The book version, published in the 1950ʼs was fleshed out a bit, but
the slide rules were left in. Both Heinlein and Herbert were professional writers of what is
called hard core science fiction, or science fiction that promotes conceivable if not
currently possible science and technology. Despite this they really didnʼt come close to any
conception of how we would be using computers fifty years later. Software like Matlab or
Maple or the current Internet had no place in their fictional futures. The science fiction
author Vernor Vinge, in a story called “True Names”, written in the late seventies did have
something with the flavor of the modern internet, but as he is a professor of computer
science in San Diego this is no big surprise.

What does this lack of insight into the future tell us about our present conceptions of how
engineers and scientists will be using computers and carrying out their professional
activities in the years ahead? In 2040 will Matlab Version 27 be anything like Matlab
version 8? The view of Herbert in the Dune stories is that at some point the computers
become dangerous and are outlawed. His future society requires computing power, but
this is obtained by genetic manipulation and training of human beings. Since we are only
at the beginning of developments such as cloning and genetic manipulation we may be
surprised. The physicist Roger Penrose believes that human consciousness is a product of
unknown physics at the level of quantum gravity. IN one of his books on this subject, “the
Emperorʼs New Mind”, he “proves” this by showing how our brains can in a sense arrive at
results that cannot be calculated. While I find Penroseʼs ideas unlikely, if they do turn out
to be true we may find that genetically produced human computers, like Herbert talks
about are quite able to outperform silicon-based machines. Just think how we are able to
“know” things like how to catch a ball or even walk around without any apparent
computation, and the difficulties of computing such dynamic problems in real time.

As an educator my job was to train students so they could both create the technology of
the future and adapt to change. The conventional response to this problem is to
emphasize basic science. This has a lot of merit, but it isnʼt the whole story. I spent a
number of years integrating the tool of computer algebra into my mechanics course.
Eventually this led to a text book. I included with the text a number of software tools for
using computer algebra to solve typical mechanics problems. It was a difficult choice as it
implied that as computer algebra systems evolved my text would become obsolete. Also it
would not be of much use to students who didnʼt have the particular computer algebra
system I used. In the end I really had no choice, even though I knew that my system would
be eventually be as silly as Libbyʼs slide rule on an interstellar space craft. Todays
engineering and science students will be living in an unpredictable future and our only
choice is to provide the mindset of an ever changing world. Part of this is to show them
how bad the predictions of fifty years ago have proven to be.

Note. This piece is a slightly altered version of a short article I wrote for the February 1998
issue of the in house magazine of the Stockholm based software firm Comsol,
ComsolNews. Maple and Matlab are trademarks of Maple Software and The Math Works

Faster than Sound and Backwards in Time: A Science
If you're a sci-fi fan you probably have heard about Tachyons, particles that move faster
than light. No experiment has demonstrated the things exist, but the possibility isn't denied
by the theory of Relativity. Not only doesn't the theory deny their existence, you can even
use it to examine their properties. That's led to a number of sci-fi plots; because the theory
says you can use Tachyons to send signals into the past. Maybe some of those super rich
guys have used Tachyons to tell their younger selves to make the right investments. One
of the best stories using Tachyons is by Greg Benford. In his novel "Timescape", written in
the 1970's, physicists from the 1990's send warnings back about environmental disasters.
Since we're still around I guess it worked.

But why should particles moving faster than light travel back in time? Well, we can get
some idea of how this might occur by looking at what happens when an airplane is
traveling supersonically, that is, faster than the speed of sound. To see how events in time
can be seen to be reversed, we need to forget about communicating with radio and other
electromagnetic waves. Instead for our situation only sound waves may be used for

Following physicist Brian Greene's use of the Simpsons in his brilliant book, "The Fabric of
the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality", I'll borrow Bart and Lisa Simpson
for this demonstration. Bart is racing faster than the speed of sound, say twice as fast or at
Mach 2, toward Lisa on his jet skate board. Looking at his digital watch he counts the
number of seconds it will take him to reach Lisa. In his loudest and highest pitched voice
he says, one, two, three ... ten. But he's traveling faster than sound! This means that as
soon as he shouts "one", he leaves the sound behind. Now he shouts two, but again he
speeds past his own shout. Finally he reaches Lisa and stops, quickly asking her if she
has heard him. As soon as he says this they both hear the word ten (almost, I'll get to that
in a moment) followed by nine, eight ... one, that is they hear the message in reverse
order. So Lisa perceives Bart's message in reverse time order. It's worse than that, just
give it a little thought to see why.

Not only will the order of numbers be backwards, the sound of each number will also be
reversed. Lisa will have to do a bit of work to decode the message as it will not sound
much like English. So if you're expecting to get news from your older self on how to beat
the stock market, you had better get to work building a Tachyon decoder!

Explaining the Obvious
Question: If you fill a drinking glass with water and then turn the glass upside down, what
happens? What a dumb question that is! The water falls out of the glass, what else would
you expect? Yet this is not as obvious as it seems. Here is an experiment that puts the
obvious into question.

As before fill the glass of water, but now make sure you fill it to the brim, absolutely full.
Now take a thin piece of cardboard and place it over the top of the glass. Holding the
cardboard in place, turn the glass upside down. Now remove your hand from the
cardboard. What do you think will happen?

If your too timid to try this you'll just have to take my word for the result, which is that the
cardboard stays in place, and the water does not fall out of the glass. Note that the
cardboard is not holding the water back as it isn't glued or fixed to the glass rim! So why
does the water and the cardboard both stay put?

The answer is air pressure, which exerts enough force to hold the cardboard and the water
in place. Lots of kids know this trick, after turning the glass + cardboard upside down they
place it on a table and slide the cardboard out. When mom or dad pick up the glass they
get a surprise.

But why does air pressure suffice to hold the water in this case but not the first? The
answer to this is quite subtle and involves the notion of stability. You can in principle
balance a pencil on its point, but if the center of gravity of the pencil deviates in the
slightest from being directly above the pivot point, the pencil will fall. The same is true of
the water surface. If the surface is flat it has minimum area, however if it even slightly
deviates from the flat position the surface area increases. As the water is denser then the
air, this sets the forces acting on the water to further increase the area, and the whole
surface falls apart. The cardboard serves to keep the area in a stable or flat form. Another
way to look at this, if you remember some basic physics, is that the total potential energy
of the water-air interface is at a maximum when the surface is flat. Just think of a little bit of
water getting lower while a equal volume of air gets higher. Again, as the air is less dense,
the total potential energy will decrease. It's just like a ball rolling off the top of a hill.

I'll end this with a question? Why does the cardboard fall off if you place it on the top of an
empty glass and turn the glass upside down?

If all this gives you a headache try the experiment with whiskey, then when you are
finished you can at least have a good drink.

Six Degrees and the Erdös Number
Recently there has been a lot of talk about small networks and how people are connected
to one another. One of the more popular manifestations of this in the world of movies is the
Kevin Bacon number. An actor's Kevin Bacon number is 1 if he or she was in a movie with
Kevin Bacon. The number is 2 if the actor was in a film with someone who has a KB
number of 1, and 3 if in a film with a KB number 2 and so on. There are a number of web
sites devoted to the Kevin Bacon Game, click here to see one of them. For a popular
discussion of Small World Networks you can take a look at Duncan J. Watt's book, "Six

The equivalent of the KB game for scientists, or at least mathematicians, is the Erdös
number. Paul Erdös, who recently died, was a prolific mathematician with many
collaborators, and any association with him is a statement of ones connectedness with the
top echelons of the community. The interesting discovery about small world networks, as
discussed in Watt's book, is that groups contain both specialists and generalists. While the
specialists may be considered the most important members of the group, it is the
generalists that connect the group to the wider world. Without such people the group's
activities remain isolated. With them some surprising connections can follow. Therefore
even non-mathematicians may have a relatively low Erdös number. So I wasn't too
surprised when a friend of mine, Joe Marasco, sent me an email reference to his web site
where he discusses how he found his Erdös number to be 5. Joe, the recent author of a
book on software development (referenced on this site) was also an experimental high
energy physicist. His work is far removed from the type of "pure" math that Erdös was
involved in, so he seemed quite pleased to find he had such a low Erdös number. Being a
native New Yorker, (Joe is also one) I couldn't help taking up the challenge. So after using
the Google Scholar web site and the Erdös number project data page I found the following
set of references:

The acoustic cavity containing small scatterers as a singular perturbation problem

Journal of Sound and Vibration. Vol. 33, pp. 13-27. 8 Mar. 1974

Charge Singularity at the Corner of a Flat Plate, J. A. Morrison and J. A. Lewis, SIAM J.
Appl. Math., 31:2 (September 1976), pp. 233-250.

Asymptotic Analysis of a Random Walk on a Hypercube with Many Dimensions, P.
Diaconis, R. L. Graham and J. A. Morrison, Random Structures and Algorithms, 1:1
(1990), pp. 51-72.

On a Linear Diophantine Problem of Frobenius, R.L. Graham (with P. Erdös), Acta
Arithmetica, 21, (1972), pp. 399–408.

To my delight my Erdös number of 4 is lower than Joe's 5. The key to this was that
R.L.Graham, with Erdös number 1, also worked at Bell Labs (I worked there from 1966 to
1971). This of course was the connection from the world of pure to the world of applied

If you want to compute your own Erdös number you should take a look at the Erdös
number project web site (linked to above). I would be interested to hear from any friends
as to what their Erdös number might be. At least one person in my academic department
has an Erdös number of 3 so all of his collaborators are also at least E4s.