Sorry Jean Luc, We’re Stuck At Warp One!

John Carter on Mars

I have had a lifelong interest in science and reading in general. As a youth, thanks to Andrew Carnegie and public libraries, I devoured all the science-related material I could find. It may have begun with Tom Swift, I can’t recall for sure. That would have been some 66 or 67 years ago, but read them I did. I found Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novels about Tarzan and John Carter, and I read Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz before I realized the allegorical meanings of those marvelous works. When I discovered science fiction, I could hardly get enough of it. I didn’t then realize that I was coming of age in a golden era of science. Many of those science fiction authors were themselves, in their day jobs, scientists and engineers, so it is little wonder that their writing was suffused with verisimilitude. The jargon was current, the topics imaginative but usually within the bounds of what was theoretically possible, at least back then.

While the meaning of life still eludes me, I have come to enjoy science as a marvelous gift derived from the learned, competitive process that has evolved in the community of rational people and delivered in ever so neat information packages. It is all of a piece, a common acceptance of rationality among people of scientific leanings, that human understanding should proceed incrementally, building on hypotheses and theories that approach certitude asymptotically.

Thus it was with satisfaction that I read an online report this morning confirming that Albert Einstein was correct after all about the speed of light being an absolute limit. The world is still predictable, time travel, as delightful, frightening and amusing as it might be, is still not in the cards, and the physical limits of space travel still stand as daunting as ever. Reality is not at all what it often seems to be – one must build understanding incrementally and verify it with repeatable testing.

It is especially satisfying to hear the scientists accept the new results, content with the process. Speaking of the Opera team that first reported the measurement discrepancy, CERN’s director expressed it well when he said,

“Whatever the result, the Opera experiment has behaved with perfect scientific integrity in opening their measurement to broad scrutiny.”

With apologies to Dickens, one might imagine the finger of the Spectre of Science Future pointing at man: “Look, you are confined by the laws of Nature to this Blue Marble. You must act rationally in planning for your future. This is your home and it will be what you make of it.”

Rest in peace, Albert. You were right again.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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11 Responses to Sorry Jean Luc, We’re Stuck At Warp One!

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    Einstein created a “new universe”, one with the laws of relativity prevailing. Newton was found to be wrong in such a “new universe” where his long standing laws did not “work”. It took new laws to describe a new universe envisioned by Einstein.

    Someday someone will create a “new set of universes” where more than likely Einstein’s laws of relativity will not function properly. Maybe, just maybe, Einstein is correct that the speed of light is the “speed limit for mass or energy” in THIS universe. Interstellar travel would thus be limited by such a speed limit and man as we know him would never be able to explore the boundaries of such.

    But imagine interuniverse travel, one universe to the next as string therory is suggesting with only complex math as a basis for now. Who knows what speed of mechanisms of movement might prevail in such “travel”.

    I do know this however, in terms of the mind of the human spirit. There is NO speed limit for such “travel”. I can look at my computer screen and see images taken by the Hubble telescope of the far reaches of space, “clouds” of whatever. I can shut my eyes and “be there” with human imagination as my means of transport. nsten And I am “there” in an instant, with no imposed speed limits.

    Who knows how far the human mind might “travel” in the millenia ahead. Thinking that it is good that Einstein was again proven “right” is like a cleric long ago praising someone who yet again showed that the earth was indeed flat.

    I don’t “pull for Einstein to be proven right” again and again. I call for more men like Einstein to show us “brave new worlds (or universes)” never before imagined by anyone. That is the progress of science, IMHO.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Newton was not “wrong” at all, merely incomplete, and his reputation as a giant of science remains unblemished. Newton’s laws work just fine for a great many physics calculations. To reason as you do Anson is to discard valuable truths that are essential to progress. I do not dispute that someday some mechanism might be found to explore contiguous universes or any number of other discoveries, but when those are found I predict that present fundamental theories like those of Einstein and Newton will not be overturned or found “wrong” but rather elucidated.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    F=MA was considered a “universal” truth until Einstein came along. In many cases now, particularly in quantum mechanics, F=MA does NOT apply. Today the quantum “world” is a real world, We are now making “quantum computers” I hear. And even Einstein refused to accept quantum theory up until his death.

    That is NOT a disparagement of either Newton or Einstein, both GREAT men, pillars of science, etc and they will stand in fame throughout human history. But they did not reveal “universal truths, always to be accepted hereafter, any time, or in any place. They both were “incomplete” to use your phrase.

    ALL science is incomplete. There will always be new frontiers in science as long as the human mind exists, somewhere.

    You seem to be “cheering” that Einstein was yet again proven to be “right” in terms of a universal speed limit. I instead choose to cheer the efforts of science to push the limits of today’s “unversal truths” in order to open doors to other “worlds” currently beyond our imagination.

    In this instance, those “pushing” limits as well pursued their goals using the “scientific method”. The constructed an experiment, tested their theory, wrote their results and then opened the challenges to their results to EVERYONE to prove or disprove that which they “thought” they had found.

    Such investigations should not be a matter of ego or quest for fame. It should be a matter of unleashing the human mind in areas never before “explored” just like Einstein did, and Newton as well.



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    After the above discussion I found

    A short video from an astrophysicist that includes much of what we alluded to above. I recommend anyone interested is “space” watch the linked and short clip.



  4. It’s a little troubling that the new movie John Carter doesn’t bother to update the story to reflect what we now know about Mars. Why didn’t they make the story with these huge surface dwelling creatures take place on one of the increasing number of planets around other starts, that may have life of that sort, not Mars that almost certainly is either dead or inhabited by little life larger than microbes? When War of the Worlds was remade, Spielberg moved the home of the aliens out of our solar system to update H G Well’s fascinating story.

    The failure to update the story shows I think a general lack of interest, or at least that Hollywood perceives a lack of interest in current science on Mars, our solar system and the growing number of plantes we know of beyond our solar system (which was zero when Burrough’s book was penned).


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Interesting point, Bruce. I can see it both ways. I like verisimilitude and the Star Trek series (plural) had good doses of that, the Warp Drive probably being the most obvious exception. I can suspend my disbelief for books or shows if the writers generally show respect for most facts. I think one’s inclination to do that, suspend disbelief, is kind of an artistic thing. I certainly don’t see an over-imaginative plot as threatening my belief framework but there is a point past which things are too outrageous to even be interesting. Maybe that’s why the best SF writers leave more to the imagination.

      We recently saw the latest movie re-make of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and despite its modern computer graphics thought it very much inferior to the original with James Arness, seen only fuzzily, in a giant carrot suit. What is unseen can be much scarier and more fun than the best slimy monster, IMO.

      As for John Carter, the reviews are so poor that we are unlikely to see it. It’s not that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about the habitability of Mars so much as than the thing apparently lacks a good story and three dimensional characters.


  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    For any who might still be interested in the faster-than-light neutrinos false alarm, I came across a good NY Times online article (dateline 3/26/12) that not only summarizes it but contains a good layman’s discussion about how science works. At least I thought it was good.


  6. ansonburlingame says:


    The intriguing issue to me is how did life actually come into being on earth. Was it self generated, internal only to earth or did it come to “us” from elsewhere. If microbes in fact existed on Mars, maybe they got there via extraterssitial means and simple failed to flourish because of conditions on Mars, at least for life as we understand it today, human life.

    Maybe, just maybe, some “life carrying” asteroids struck every planet in our solar system some 2 billion or so years ago and because only of our temperature and evolving climate were only able to survice and flourish on Earth alone.

    Now multiply such asterorid delivery systems to who know today how many planets like Earth might exist in our universe, and the mind beings to comprehend that we are not so unique after all.

    But then we can always argue over what were the origins of such life, before “it” ever took a trip on an asteroid, right!!! the human mind can always outpace real science, but eventually science can catch up, for a while at least.



  7. I like my science fiction to have some science, not just fiction. It should pose an interesting what if on the edge of but not beyond the bound of plausible given what we know now. That boudary moves over times and fiction should reflect that.


  8. I’ll suggest the 2005: War of the Worlds. It got panned a lot but I think it’s actually an excellent movie: pivots from the ordinary to the amazing in an interesting way; feels very real; and has great performances.


  9. ansonburlingame says:


    I go back to sometime in the early 50’s with “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. A robot with great power was about to overwhelm Earth’s defenses. Only way to stop him/it was with a code word. I remember it up to today. Spelling is wrong but the phrase essentially was/is “Klato Morado Nickto”.

    Earth was saved and I remember how to do it!!



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