Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Curse You, Albert Einstein! By A.E. Williams

Curse You, Albert Einstein!
By A.E. Williams

Imagine you are on a road, in a convertible car that is REALLY fast. There you are, zooming along at over a hundred miles an hour, the wind in your hair, and the bugs in your teeth. (Well, hopefully no bugs…) Now, you see a speed limit sign up ahead. It says MAXIMUM SPEED is 500kph. Your car is capable, you think, of going faster than that. So, you push down the accelerator, and the engine whines and suddenly you run out of fuel. You coast into a gas station; fill her up, and take off again, determined to hit 500kph. Leaning hard on that pedal, you approach that limit and suddenly, the engine winds down. 
You are out of fuel. Again! Luckily, there is ANOTHER gas station, so this time you gas it up with Premium. You get an oil change while you are there. In fact, you put on new tires and even pump them up to maximum pressure. As a final consideration, you PUT UP THE TOP!
Now, grimly gripping the wheel, you embark on toward your destination, pushing the limits of man and machine, as the engine screams in protest, and the revolutions climb – and, you’re out of gas again.
Such it is with Faster-Than-Light travel in the world of Einsteinian and Newtonian physics. Just as soon as you get going, you end up running out of something. The faster you go, the heavier you get. The more fuel you need. The fuel adds more mass.
It’s a vicious cycle of fail.
There’s no easy way to say this, but in real space, faster than light is, so far, not an observed phenomena. This makes it a bit difficult to travel around the place. But, is there any hope at all for we science fiction nerds? Can there be a loophole? A worm-loophole, maybe?
Let’s take a look …

FIGURE 1: It’s all HIS fault![1]

We’ve all seen the famous equation. It’s been pounded into our heads since the 1940’s, with all the movies and books and stories and everything. Einstein’s problematic equation.
Energy equals Mass times Speed of Light Squared

That C is CONSTANT, at 186 282.397 miles per second.[2]
If you algebraically[3] re-arrange the equation a bit, then you can get:
E / M = C2
This means that as Mass Increases, you need more Energy so that the numbers on both sides of the equation are the same.
So, let’s do a simple[4] math problem to show how this works:
I am going to use two numbers to get a result. They are X and Y.  These are called VARIABLES, because, as you will see in a moment, they can vary in value.
I am also going to have a number C, for CONSTANT. I want C = 4 for this problem, okay? It will ALWAYS be 4. Because that’s what a CONSTANT does, it stays the same; constant.
Now, there are many ways to have the LEFT side equal the RIGHT side.
If we set the RIGHT side to 4:
16 / 4 = 4
This is true. It will always be true. [5]
4 = 4
If I say let X = 16 and Y = 4, then this will mean the EQUATION is true. [6]
Here are ALL the steps:
Y = 4
C = 4

The equation is going to be: [7]
X / Y = C
Substitute the values for the variables:
16 / 4 = 4
4 = 4
Now, let’s change the 16 to 480.
Why? Because I want to show what happens if X gets bigger.
480 / 4 = 120
This is NOT true.
Why? Because 480 / 4 does NOT equal 4, correct? It’s 120.
Well, A.E., you may be asking, why can’t we just use 120 instead of 4, QED?
Because the 4 on the RIGHT hand side will ALWAYS be 4.That is why it is known as a CONSTANT. The VARIABLE values are the two on the LEFT side. They can vary, in order to make the equation TRUE.
So, the illustration shows the relationship between X and Y, which in good old Albert’s fine equation, equate to E and M.
(We won’t go into the ‘squared’ bit, because it simply makes the relationship exponential, meaning it happens a LOT faster as things get bigger.)
This matter / energy thing gets compounded by two other interesting aspects of space-time. As a body approaches the speed of light, it gets HEAVIER. This requires MORE energy, (fuel) to make it accelerate more. Remember the automobile in the beginning?
Every time you approach the speed of light, you end up running out of fuel because you are not only carrying the mass of the car and passenger, but also need enough energy to carry the mass of the fuel itself ( and pumps, engines, tanks, wiring, all of that).
In real-world rocketry, there is an equation known, oddly enough, as The Rocket Equation.[8]
Basically, it states that a rocket, because it needs to carry fuel and machinery to create that all-important thrust to send it off into space[9], has a mathematical point of balance. Exceed this point, and the rocket won’t go anywhere. It’s too heavy to lift itself off of the launch pad.
Science fiction authors usually just ignore all of this.

Figure 2: Eat Me, Physics!

They invent novel ideas that circumvent nasty old Einstein and his mean old math.
And, in doing so, create something wonderful:


Figure 3: Jedi Mind Trick[10]

The greatest contribution of science fiction to real science is that we all hope, one day, to have some of the neato-keeno things that can be glimpsed emitting from the fertile minds and frenetically typing fingers of the best of us.
Think of your cell phone. Now, what is this, then?

Figure 4: Can you hear me NOW?[11]

That little beauty was on the telly in 1965! Only a mere twenty years later, the telephone industry figured out how to get almost every living human to buy one of these things, and gouge them for the privilege. Is science fiction great, or what?
And how about flying cars? Or jet packs? Or…
But, I digress.[12]
Returning to our discussion of FTL, let’s also take note of the enormous amount of resources needing to be carried as provisions. Sustaining life as we gallivant across the Galaxy is going to be a bit problematic. (More of that mass stuff, don’t you know…)
I think it’s telling that most of the good, fun science fiction we all know and love just throws all this tedious fact stuff out the airlock, and gets on with the story. Why bother being accurate, when you can just make something up?
The problem is that people are getting more skeptical, because we ARE able to ask some pithy questions, thanks to the Internet. Our global hive mind is opening all of us up to potentials, and possibilities. We can fact check our own stuff, now. And, in doing so, our ability to be taken in by some hand-waving magical legerdemain is diminishing.
About damn time!
Oh yeah, about that damned time – time slows down. Well, relatively speaking that is. Speed of light travel slows time down dramatically, to the effect that a crew that departs on a sixty year mission may only age a few months, with respect to their perspective.
To everyone else, sixty years is going to pass by, and when the crew returns, everyone they know will probably be dead or just about. [13]
As a science fiction author, I am able to create all manner of cool stories about how my heroes’ space ship can just do something magic and get to the next part of the story. But, in real life, there are genuine obstacles to interstellar and intergalactic, because it just don’t work that way, folks.
Here’s an example for comparison:
The Voyager spacecraft, after travelling in space for thirty-eight years, is 19.5 billion kilometers away from Earth. It’s the closest we’ve come to interstellar travel. Note the very long time spent traversing the Solar System. This is peanuts compared to interstellar travel. The nearest star is 4.24 light years from us; current technology will get a probe there in about ten-thousand years.
Of course we yearn for a shortcut. FTL is it. But, we haven’t managed to create black holes, wormholes, folded space or even antimatter warp drives yet. [14]
A lot of this hinges on whether or not Einstein was 100% correct.
 IF ( and it’s a big if) we are able to locally affect our space time fabric, or find a sub-ethereal layer, or manage to master some manner of gravitational waves, we may be able to bend these physical laws to our advantage.
The big problem is that since everything can only travel at light speed, including light, radio waves, microwaves and similar radiations it is impossible to actually see anything ahead of you.
As the ship accelerates, it is catching up to light that already impinges on the ships viewing sensors (ie photodetectors or camera lenses). The shift in the speed will tinge any images blue.
 This is because of the Doppler Effect, the well-known phenomenon that can be easily observed as a vehicle passes you. It sounds distant, then close, then distant. But, the vehicle’s engine is not going any faster. The noise is a constant buzz, but it sounds the way it does because of the position of the emitting source relative to you as it passes by. The same is true of light, and it is used by astronomers to gauge acceleration between objects in space. There is a red shift as thing are receding away from Earth, and  blue shift as they move towards us. This is because the waves of light are further apart as the object is moving away from us, and they get compressed as they move towards us.
At near-light speeds, this causes a problem as the ship overtakes the visible light from objects. The light waves are stacked upon each other as they are emitted or reflected from objects, and the frequency shifts to the blue end of the spectrum. The practical effect of this is to make any pilots blind to what is outside the ship. Even specialized sensors are subject to this law of physics. It will require some very clever engineering to overcome this obstacle.
Another problem will be that of communicating to other vessels, and even with Earth. The current standard is the radio wave. These travel at the speed of light, so traveling from say, Mars to Earth takes about thirteen minutes. If you are sending large packets of data, then a round-trip conversation would take hours.
It also is asymmetric, like using a walkie-talkie or CB radio. The first speaker would transmit, then wait for the receiver to get the message, decode it, think about it, then respond with an answer. The process repeats itself for EVERY communication between those two points. NASA and ESA use military protocols to assure that communications are efficiently transmitted, (there is even talk of a Cosmic Internet being developed!).
But the harsh reality is still the same…when NASA gets information from Voyager, it is already 18 hours old!
Imagine if a satellite were sending data from the Crab Nebula 6500 light years away! A transmission from there would be over six and a half millennia old, and that would be only one-way!
In conclusion, there may someday be ways to shortcut these physical laws. The Universe in which we live constricts our ability to roam freely. Perhaps that is for the best. But, that will have to wait to be the subject of another of our upcoming discussions.

Up Next:
June - Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligences, Trans-Humans, the Singularity and the Merging of Humans and Machine.
July - The Physics of Science Fiction Weapons.
August - The Reality of Living in an Undersea City.

A.E. Williams,  May 10, 2015

[1] "Albert Einstein (Nobel)" by Unknown - Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons  

[2] In 1972, using the laser interferometer method and the new definitions, a group at NBS in Boulder, Colorado determined the speed of light in vacuum to be c = 299792456.2±1.1 m/s. This was 100 times less uncertain than the previously accepted value. The remaining uncertainty was mainly related to the definition of the meter.
SOURCE: Wikipedia

[3] Hey! Come back! There won’t be a lot more math, I promise!
[4] Feel free to skip this part, if you like.

[5] In our Universe, at least!

[6] Bear in mind that this only is for THIS particular problem, with the rules we are using. Normally, you can have constants and variables trading places on each side, as long as you are consistent. But, that’s too much algebra for this short example.
[7] This looks like E/M = C2, right?
[8] This equation was independently derived by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but more often simply referred to as 'the rocket equation' (or sometimes the 'ideal rocket equation'). However, a recently discovered pamphlet "A Treatise on the Motion of Rockets" by William Moore[2] shows that the earliest known derivation of this kind of equation was in fact at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in England in 1813,  for weapons research.

Source: Wikipedia, again. Hey – don’t judge me! I like the convenience and it’s probably 85% accurate in general. Political and geopolitical or biography stuff is subject to alteration, but they get the science and math parts right pretty much always! And, let’s face it, when you Google this later, which entry are YOU going to read???

[9] Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton and your Second Law of Motion! (Not to be confused with the Second Law of Thermodynamics!)
[10] I mean, hang on just a second here. I was going to go for the very obvious “A NEW HOPE” gag, but, is it really ‘NEW’?  Remember, we are supposedly watching things that happened “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away”. If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you know that we are observing stuff that ALREADY HAPPENED. Not exactly ‘New’, now is it? Although, to be fair, if you have only JUST NOW seen this, I suppose it counts for ‘new’. Did you pop out a wormhole, then? Maybe you’d care to share just how that works, hmmm? Yeah. Didn’t think so…
Source: THIS GUY
[11] SOURCE: "20090704-1971 Star Trek TOS Communicator Replica" by David B Spalding - Own work.

[12] Sorry, I was looking on Google for cool things, and then got sad because we still don’t have all the cool things.

[13] Which is kind of depressing when you realize that all those Star Trek crews are flying off into space, at relativistic speeds. Except as regards Voyager…that’s just depressing all on its own.

[14] NASA is currently announcing that they are working on this technology, but it will be quite some time before the means to safely navigate a ship with such engines is also developed.

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