Science fiction fans are familiar with the term “warp speed” which is the designation for the speed of light, much as “Mach speed” is that for sound. Of course, because it supposedly has no basis in reality, the term’s usefulness is limited to that of hyperbolic metaphor. Or is it?
Scientists at CERN have announced an experiment which they claim shows it is possible to achieve a speed faster than light. CERN is an acronym for the European Organization for Nuclear Research based in Geneva Switzerland. Those of you who saw the film Angels and Demons (or perhaps read the book) might recognize the name. Although that film made CERN appear to be a sort of Dr. Strangelove place, it is a real organization, and is for the most partrespected for its scientific discipline and capable research. That’s why this announcement is somewhat surprising.
Ever since Albert Einstein set forth his theory of relativity in 1905, the scientific community has believed that the speed of light, which is approximately 186,000 miles/second, is the speed limit of the universe. That is, nothing can travel faster. This assertion is theoretically based on Einstein’s well-known formula e=mc2 which in plain English means that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. This seems rather mystifying until one realizes that in the less ethereal world, kinetic energy is equal to the mass of an object times it’s velocity squared. A simple example is that the kinetic energy of a speeding bullet depends on its weight and its speed. The heavier the bullet given the same speed produces more energy and vice versa. A quick glance informs us that the speed is the most important factor; adding speed to the bullet increases its kinetic energy by greater factor than its weight. When approaching the realm of the speed of light, Einstein’s mathematics works out that an object of mass cannot go faster than the speed of light because when it achieves the speed of light it is transformed into pure energy and adding energy to increase the speed only produces more energy and no mass is left. This is why nuclear reactions are so powerful. All of the mathematical manipulations and physical properties that go into discovering the equation and verifying it are beyond my comprehension, having only studied physics at the high school and undergraduate level. But it does seem to make sense, and is understandable even at my limited level.
All this is very interesting and nice to know, but what is the significance for our daily lives? What difference does it make? Who cares? Well, discoveries made by applying science, or what was termed natural philosophy prior to the 19th Century, have certainly changed the human situation. Mostly for the better, but not without some cost. Obvious examples are Newton’s law of gravity and motion, which ultimately provided the theoretical basis for flight. Boyle’s law of temperature and pressure that was practically applied by James Watt and others to make a steam engine which allowed human beings to, for the first time travel faster than their muscles, the muscles of horses, would allow them. Darwin’s theory of evolution has enabled medical research to learn about the mysteries of living organisms and produce pharmaceuticals that can cure diseases and generally extend human life. Now so far, Einstein’s theories are the basis for nuclear energy and space travel as well as numerous other explanations of how the universe works at various levels. One thing that Einstein’s universal speed limit seems to preclude is time travel, another science fiction favorite. Perhaps, if the scientists at CERN are correct, and it is possible to exceed the speed of light, maybe time travel will be possible. The mind boggles at such ideas.
Meanwhile, let’s have another beer. After all, all our friends are here.