A three coffee puzzle

Second shot coffee and cake
How would you describe the gravitational attraction between a Long black, a hot chocolate and a piece of cake?

Not a question of how many coffees are acceptable before lunch, but an astronomical conundrum with consequences for your cup.

It starts with gravity. Perhaps you remember that Newton came up with a set of equations describing the laws of gravity. You may even remember the essence of those equations, that the force between two masses is proportional to their product and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. If we wanted to phrase it mathematically, the force, F, is given by:

F = GMm/(r x r)

Where G is a constant and r the distance between the masses M and m.

Which is all very well, but suppose we have three masses, or four? M, m and M’, m” for example. If we happened to drop an apple (mass = m) between the moon (mass = M*) and the Earth (mass = M), how exactly, and where exactly, would it fall? How do we add an extra mass into the equation?

It is one of those problems that can seem far removed from your coffee cup, but in fact, the connection is quite close.

The Orion Nebula, M42, can just be seen with the naked eye in the sword of Orion, it is known as a birth place for stars. This image was obtained using the Hubble Space telescope. A separate dust cloud also in Orion was observed for 11 years as a possible host for planetary formation. Credit:
NASA
ESA, M. Robberto ( Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

But although you may not often drop an apple somewhere between the Earth and the Moon, the question became relevant recently when astronomers observed a dusty disc, the sort of environment that is capable of planet formation, surrounding a three star system. The stars are found in the constellation Orion, which is visible in the evening at this time of year (autumn/winter) from the Northern Hemisphere.

Although these dusty discs are thought to be a host to planetary formation, astronomers have yet to observe any planets actually forming out of the dust. It is thought that in some cases, the gravitational perturbations caused by multiple stars at the heart of the dust clouds could lead to the formation of planets. And so the system in Orion, with three stars in the centre of the dust cloud was perfect to observe the effect of the three stars on the integrity of the disc. Over 11 years, the astronomers recorded the system and then included modelling into understanding how the planetary disc was breaking up. But of course, to do this, they would have needed to understand how the gravitational force is affected by having 3 or more interacting masses.

To solve the problem requires mathematical functions known as a “Bessel functions”. These functions were first described by the astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1817 who used them for exactly this sort of problem. But they don’t just apply to describing the gravity between three or more objects. They can be used amongst other things to understand heat transfer, to model the microwave fields in a microwave oven and to understand vibrations on your coffee.

The beat of a drum or the resonance on our coffee – the mathematical description of the resonance patterns on coffee is shared with the mathematical description of the gravitational force between three or more objects.

Because when you see a series of concentric circles on the surface of your coffee where the table underneath the cup is vibrating, or when you see more complex patterns as you drive a take away cup over a rough table surface, these patterns can be described using exactly the same Bessel functions as would have been used to model the star system in Orion.

And so there is a direct link between the maths describing the planetary formation in a star system visible in our night sky and the patterns of your coffee cup. But if you want to drink your coffee while gazing at Orion, you may want to stick to decaff, or wake before dawn.

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