Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Time and tide

I don't know if you've had the experience of running into a relatively straightforward concept that your brain just doesn't seem to be able to wrap itself around.

One such idea for me is the explanation for tides.  I've gone through it over and over, starting in high school physics, and I keep having to go back and revisit it because I think I've got it and then my brain goes, "...wait, what?" and I have to look it up again.

The sticking point has always been why there are two high tides on opposite sides of the Earth.  I get that the water on the side of the Earth facing the Moon experiences the Moon's extra gravitational attraction and is pulled away from the Earth's surface, creating a bulge.  But why is there a bulge on the side facing away from the Moon?

Now that I'm 62 and have gone over it approximately 482 times, I think I've finally got it.  Which is more than I can say for Bill O'Reilly:

So, let's see if I can prove Mr. O'Reilly wrong.

Consider three points on the Earth: A (on the surface, facing the Moon), B (at the center of the Earth), and C (on the surface, opposite the Moon).  Then ask yourself what the difference is in the pull of the Moon on those three points.

Isaac Newton showed that the force of gravity is proportional to two things -- the masses of the objects involved, and the inverse square of the distance between them.  The second part is what's important here.  Because A, B, and C are all different distances from the Moon, they experience a difference in the gravitational attraction they experience.  A is pulled hardest and C the least, with B in the middle.

This means that the Earth is stretched.  Everything experiences these tidal forces, but water, which is freer to move, responds far more than land does.  At point A, the water is pulled toward the Moon, and experiences a high tide.  (That's the obvious part.)  The less obvious part is that because points B and C are subject to a difference in the gravitational attraction, the net effect is to pull them apart -- so from our perspective on the Earth's surface, the water at C pulls away and upward, so there's a high tide there, as well.

There's practically no limit to how big these forces can get.  On the Earth, they're fairly small, although sometimes phenomena like a seiche (a standing wave in a partially-enclosed body of water) can amplify the effect and create situations like what happens in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, where the difference in the water level between high and low tide can be as much as sixteen meters. 

But out in space, you can find systems where the masses and distances combine to create tidal forces that are, to put it in scientific terms, abso-freakin-lutely enormous.  This, in fact, is why the whole subject comes up today; the discovery of a binary system in the Large Magellanic Cloud made up of a supergiant with a mass thirty-five times that of the Sun, and a smaller (but still giant) companion ten times the mass of the Sun.  They're close enough that they orbit their common center of gravity about once a month.  And the combination of the huge masses and close proximity creates tidal bulges about three million kilometers tall.

That's over three times the diameter of the Sun.

You think the people living along the Bay of Fundy have it bad.

Artist's conception of the system in the Large Magellanic Cloud [Illustration by Melissa Weiss of NASA/Chandra X-Ray Observatory/Center for Astrophysics]

And that's not even as extreme as tidal forces can get.  If you were unfortunate enough to fall feet-first into a black hole, you would undergo what physicists call -- I'm not making this up -- spaghettification.  The tidal forces are so huge that they're even significant across a small distance like that between your head and your feet, so you'd be stretched along your vertical axis and compressed along your horizontal one.  Put more bluntly, you'd be squished like a tube of toothpaste, ultimately comprising the same volume as before but a much greater length.

It would not be pleasant.

Be that as it may, I think I've finally got the explanation for tides locked down.  We'll see how long it lasts. 

At least I'm pretty sure I'm still ahead of Bill O'Reilly.


No comments:

Post a Comment