energy

The Jeans Mass, or: How are stars born?

No, this has nothing to do with pants. The Jeans mass is a concept used in astrophysics and its unlikely name comes from the British physicist Sir James Jeans, who researched the conditions of star formation. The question at the core is: under what circumstances will a dark and lonely gas cloud floating somewhere in the depth of space turn into a shining star? To answer this, we have to understand what forces are at work.

One obvious factor is gravitation. It will always work towards contracting the gas cloud. If no other forces were present, it would lead the cloud to collapse into a single point. The temperature of the cloud however provides an opposite push. It “equips” the molecules of the cloud with kinetic energy (energy of motion) and given a high enough temperature, the kinetic energy would be sufficient for the molecules to simply fly off into space, never to be seen again.

It is clear that no star will form if the cloud expands and falls apart. Only when gravity wins this battle of inward and outward push can a stable star result. Sir James Jeans did the math and found that it all boils down to one parameter, the Jeans mass. If the actual mass of the interstellar cloud is larger than this critical mass, it will contract and stellar formation occurs. If on the other hand the actual mass is smaller, the cloud will simply dissipate.

The Jeans mass depends mainly on the temperature T (in K) and density D (in kg/m³) of the cloud. The higher the temperature, the larger the Jeans mass will be. This is in line with our previous discussion. When the temperature is high, a larger amount of mass is necessary to overcome the thermal outward push. The value of the Jeans mass M (in kg) can be estimated from this equation:

M ≈ 1020 · sqrt(T³ / D)

Typical values for the temperature and density of interstellar clouds are T = 10 K and D = 10-22 kg/m³. This leads to a Jeans mass of M = 1.4 · 1032 kg. Note that the critical mass turns out to be much greater than the mass of a typical star, indicating that stars generally form in clusters. Rather than the cloud contracting into a single star, which is the picture you probably had in your mind during this discussion, it will fragment at some point during the contraction and form multiple stars. So stars always have brothers and sisters.

(This was an excerpt from the Kindle book Physics! In Quantities and Examples)

Intensity: How Much Power Will Burst Your Eardrums?

Under ideal circumstances, sound or light waves emitted from a point source propagate in a spherical fashion from the source. As the distance to the source grows, the energy of the waves is spread over a larger area and thus the perceived intensity decreases. We’ll take a look at the formula that allows us to compute the intensity at any distance from a source.

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First of all, what do we mean by intensity? The intensity I tells us how much energy we receive from the source per second and per square meter. Accordingly, it is measured in the unit J per s and m² or simply W/m². To calculate it properly we need the power of the source P (in W) and the distance r (in m) to it.

I = P / (4 · π · r²)

This is one of these formulas that can quickly get you hooked on physics. It’s simple and extremely useful. In a later section you will meet the denominator again. It is the expression for the surface area of a sphere with radius r.

Before we go to the examples, let’s take a look at a special intensity scale that is often used in acoustics. Instead of expressing the sound intensity in the common physical unit W/m², we convert it to its decibel value dB using this formula:

dB ≈ 120 + 4.34 · ln(I)

with ln being the natural logarithm. For example, a sound intensity of I = 0.00001 W/m² (busy traffic) translates into 70 dB. This conversion is done to avoid dealing with very small or large numbers. Here are some typical values to keep in mind:

0 dB → Threshold of Hearing
20 dB → Whispering
60 dB → Normal Conversation
80 dB → Vacuum Cleaner
110 dB → Front Row at Rock Concert
130 dB → Threshold of Pain
160 dB → Bursting Eardrums

No onto the examples.

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We just bought a P = 300 W speaker and want to try it out at maximal power. To get the full dose, we sit at a distance of only r = 1 m. Is that a bad idea? To find out, let’s calculate the intensity at this distance and the matching decibel value.

I = 300 W / (4 · π · (1 m)²) ≈ 23.9 W/m²

dB ≈ 120 + 4.34 · ln(23.9) ≈ 134 dB

This is already past the threshold of pain, so yes, it is a bad idea. But on the bright side, there’s no danger of the eardrums bursting. So it shouldn’t be dangerous to your health as long as you’re not exposed to this intensity for a longer period of time.

As a side note: the speaker is of course no point source, so all these values are just estimates founded on the idea that as long as you’re not too close to a source, it can be regarded as a point source in good approximation. The more the source resembles a point source and the farther you’re from it, the better the estimates computed using the formula will be.

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Let’s reverse the situation from the previous example. Again we assume a distance of r = 1 m from the speaker. At what power P would our eardrums burst? Have a guess before reading on.

As we can see from the table, this happens at 160 dB. To be able to use the intensity formula, we need to know the corresponding intensity in the common physical quantity W/m². We can find that out using this equation:

160 ≈ 120 + 4.34 · ln(I)

We’ll subtract 120 from both sides and divide by 4.34:

40 ≈ 4.34 · ln(I)   

9.22 ≈ ln(I)

The inverse of the natural logarithm ln is Euler’s number e. In other words: e to the power of ln(I) is just I. So in order to get rid of the natural logarithm in this equation, we’ll just use Euler’s number as the basis on both sides:

e^9.22 ≈ e^ln(I)

10,100 ≈ I

Thus, 160 dB correspond to I = 10,100 W/m². At this intensity eardrums will burst. Now we can answer the question of which amount of power P will do that, given that we are only r = 1 m from the sound source. We insert the values into the intensity formula and solve for P:

10,100 = P / (4 · π · 1²)

10,100 = 0.08 · P

P ≈ 126,000 W

So don’t worry about ever bursting your eardrums with a speaker or a set of speakers. Not even the powerful sound systems at rock concerts could accomplish this.

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This was an excerpt from the ebook “Great Formulas Explained – Physics, Mathematics, Economics”, released yesterday and available here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G807Y00.

Mathematics of Explosions

When a strong explosion takes place, a shock wave forms that propagates in a spherical manner away from the source of the explosion. The shock front separates the air mass that is heated and compressed due to the explosion from the undisturbed air. In the picture below you can see the shock sphere that resulted from the explosion of Trinity, the first atomic bomb ever detonated.

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Using the concept of similarity solutions, the physicists Taylor and Sedov derived a simple formula that describes how the radius r (in m) of such a shock sphere grows with time t (in s). To apply it, we need to know two additional quantities: the energy of the explosion E (in J) and the density of the surrounding air D (in kg/m3). Here’s the formula:

r = 0.93 · (E / D)0.2 · t0.4

Let’s apply this formula for the Trinity blast.

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In the explosion of the Trinity the amount of energy that was released was about 20 kilotons of TNT or:

E = 84 TJ = 84,000,000,000,000 J

Just to put that into perspective: in 2007 all of the households in Canada combined used about 1.4 TJ in energy. If you were able to convert the energy released in the Trinity explosion one-to-one into useable energy, you could power Canada for 60 years.

But back to the formula. The density of air at sea-level and lower heights is about D = 1.25 kg/m3. So the radius of the sphere approximately followed this law:

r = 542 · t0.4

After one second (t = 1), the shock front traveled 542 m. So the initial velocity was 542 m/s ≈ 1950 km/h ≈ 1210 mph. After ten seconds (t = 10), the shock front already covered a distance of about 1360 m ≈ 0.85 miles.

How long did it take the shock front to reach people two miles from the detonation? Two miles are approximately 3200 m. So we can set up this equation:

3200 = 542 · t0.4

We divide by 542:

5.90 t0.4

Then take both sides to the power of 2.5:

t 85 s ≈ 1 and 1/2 minutes

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Let’s look at how the different parameters in the formula impact the radius of the shock sphere:

  • If you increase the time sixfold, the radius of the sphere doubles. So if it reached 0.85 miles after ten seconds, it will have reached 1.7 miles after 60 seconds. Note that this means that the speed of the shock front continuously decreases.

For the other two parameters, it will be more informative to look at the initial speed v (in m/s) rather the radius of the sphere at a certain time. As you noticed in the example, we get the initial speed by setting t = 1, leading to this formula:

v = 0.93 · (E / D)0.2

  • If you increase the energy of the detonation 35-fold, the initial speed of the shock front doubles. So for an atomic blast of 20 kt · 35 = 700 kt, the initial speed would be approximately 542 m /s · 2 = 1084 m/s.

  • The density behaves in the exact opposite way. If you increase it 35-fold, the initial speed halves. So if the test were conducted at an altitude of about 20 miles (where the density is only one thirty-fifth of its value on the ground), the shock wave would propagate at 1084 m/s

Another field in which the Taylor-Sedov formula is commonly applied is astrophysics, where it is used to model Supernova explosions. Since the energy released in such explosions dwarfs all atomic blasts and the surrounding density in space is very low, the initial expansion rate is extremely high.

This was an excerpt from the ebook “Great Formulas Explained – Physics, Mathematics, Economics”, released yesterday and available here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G807Y00. You can take another quick look at the physics of shock waves here: Mach Cone.

Physics (And The Formula That Got Me Hooked)

A long time ago, in my teen years, this was the formula that got me hooked on physics. Why? I can’t say for sure. I guess I was very surprised that you could calculate something like this so easily. So with some nostalgia, I present another great formula from the field of physics. It will be a continuation of and a last section on energy.

To heat something, you need a certain amount of energy E (in J). How much exactly? To compute this we require three inputs: the mass m (in kg) of the object we want to heat, the temperature difference T (in °C) between initial and final state and the so called specific heat c (in J per kg °C) of the material that is heated. The relationship is quite simple:

E = c · m · T

If you double any of the input quantities, the energy required for heating will double as well. A very helpful addition to problems involving heating is this formula:

E = P · t

with P (in watt = W = J/s) being the power of the device that delivers heat and t (in s) the duration of the heat delivery.

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The specific heat of water is c = 4200 J per kg °C. How much energy do you need to heat m = 1 kg of water from room temperature (20 °C) to its boiling point (100 °C)? Note that the temperature difference between initial and final state is T = 80 °C. So we have all the quantities we need.

E = 4200 · 1 · 80 = 336,000 J

Additional question: How long will it take a water heater with an output of 2000 W to accomplish this? Let’s set up an equation for this using the second formula:

336,000 = 2000 · t

t ≈ 168 s ≈ 3 minutes

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We put m = 1 kg of water (c = 4200 J per kg °C) in one container and m = 1 kg of sand (c = 290 J per kg °C) in another next to it. This will serve as an artificial beach. Using a heater we add 10,000 J of heat to each container. By what temperature will the water and the sand be raised?

Let’s turn to the water. From the given data and the great formula we can set up this equation:

10,000 = 4200 · 1 · T

T ≈ 2.4 °C

So the water temperature will be raised by 2.4 °C. What about the sand? It also receives 10,000 J.

10,000 = 290 · 1 · T

T ≈ 34.5 °C

So sand (or any ground in general) will heat up much stronger than water. In other words: the temperature of ground reacts quite strongly to changes in energy input while water is rather sluggish. This explains why the climate near oceans is milder than inland, that is, why the summers are less hot and the winters less cold. The water efficiently dampens the changes in temperature.

It also explains the land-sea-breeze phenomenon (seen in the image below). During the day, the sun’s energy will cause the ground to be hotter than the water. The air above the ground rises, leading to cooler air flowing from the ocean to the land. At night, due to the lack of the sun’s power, the situation reverses. The ground cools off quickly and now it’s the air above the water that rises.

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I hope this formula got you hooked as well. It’s simple, useful and can explain quite a lot of physics at the same time. It doesn’t get any better than this. Now it’s time to leave the concept of energy and turn to other topics.

This was an excerpt from my Kindle ebook: Great Formulas Explained – Physics, Mathematics, Economics. For another interesting physics quicky, check out: Intensity (or: How Much Power Will Burst Your Eardrums?).