Questions for physicists

Dark Matter

If dark matter is a type of particle that is subject to gravitation but not to electricity and magnetism, as some physicists have speculated, then such particles should accumulate in the cores of stars. That would mean that a star can achieve the density necessary to kick off nuclear fusion with only about 1/6 the amount of normal matter previously assumed to be necessary, the remaining 5/6 of the star’s total mass being non-interacting dark matter. That would further mean that a star should live no more than about 1/6 as long as would a star of the same total mass comprised of normal matter only. If dark matter does indeed congregate in the cores of stars and if it is truly incapable of participating in nuclear interactions, then it shouldn’t impede the nuclear interactions of normal matter. Additionally, dark matter of this type should not take up much volume. In a neutron star, the neutrons are packed very closely together since the volume of a collection of matter particles is based on electricity & magnetism, particle spin, and the Pauli Exclusion Principle– and neutrons are unaffected by electricity and magnetism. And yet the neutrons still can’t collapse into one another because neutrons have a spin of 1/2 and they are therefore subject to the Pauli Exclusion Principle. In any case stars that consist predominantly of dark matter particles should be much smaller in volume than stars comprised solely of normal matter of the same mass.

The only possible escape I can think of for the above reasoning is the possibility that dark matter particles have no mass. But my assumption has always been that a particle can only exert a gravitational force on other particles if it has mass. If that is not true, then everything that I thought I knew about gravitation goes out the window.

The presence of dark matter in the ratio of 5:1 would have an enormous impact on the composition of the universe. The theory of stellar evolution says that high mass stars burn progressively hotter as they age, and they burn successively higher atomic number atoms, in the following order:

  • Hydrogen (atomic number 1)
  • Helium (atomic number 2)
  • Carbon (atomic number 6)
  • Oxygen (atomic number 8)
  • Neon (atomic number 10)
  • Silicon (atomic number 14)

The burning of silicon results in iron (atomic number 26), and the burning of iron results in a net energy loss to the star– thereby allowing the force of gravitation to overwhelm the outward pressure of radiation, inevitably resulting in the collapse of the star.

If the core of a high mass star is comprised of 83% inert matter, then the result will be a far lower percentage of high atomic number atoms throughout the universe. And that would produce a universe with fewer rocky planets.

Billions of dollars and euros have been spent trying to find dark matter particles. So far all such attempts have failed. Maybe they have failed because dark matter isn’t a type of particle.

We should test the hypothesis that dark matter accumulates in the cores of stars. That wouldn’t necessarily tell us whether dark matter is a type of particle, but it would impose a severe constraint on the type of particle it might be. Unfortunately I don’t know that there’s a way to test for the presence of a lower-than-expected percentage of atoms with an atomic number greater than 2. It seems that would require a survey of the total mass of rocky planets throughout the universe as compared to the mass of the atoms which were present immediately after the period of recombination. That distribution is approximately as follows:

ElementPercent
Hydrogen (H)~ 75%
4Helium (He)~ 25%
Deuterium (2H)~ 0.01%
3Helium (He)Trace
7Lithium (Li)Trace
Relative percentages of atoms immediately after the epoch of recombination

(A Universe From Nothing, Lawrence M. Krauss, pg. 111)

Such a survey, so far as I am aware, is beyond our present technology.

Raisin Bread

An analogy often invoked by physicists to explain the expansion of the universe is that of a loaf of raisin bread baking in the oven. As the bread bakes, it rises– and the raisins in the bread move farther apart from each other. Similarly, the matter of the universe, clumped as it is into galaxies, moves apart as the universe expands not because there was a massive explosion that blew matter out in all directions, but because space itself is expanding and the matter of the universe is simply being dragged apart with it as it expands. The raisins represent galaxies, or clusters of galaxies, and all of them are moving away from each other. So from the perspective of an observer in any one galaxy, all other galaxies are moving away.

This analogy raises several questions. First question: What it is that space is expanding into? The space/time of General Relativity has 3 physical and 1 temporal dimensions. If this space/time is expanding into a dimensionless void– a void that has no intrinsic structure of any kind– how is it that our familiar world of space/time gets imposed on that unstructured void? It would seem that there must be some mechanism that enables the creation of the structure of space/time itself.

Exactly what types of structure are able to be imposed on an unstructured void? Would it be possible to have a universe of 47 physical and 17 temporal dimensions? What about fractional dimensions? Or negative dimensions? Could a universe have physical dimensions only and no temporal dimensions?

If instead there are only a very few options for the numbers and types of dimensions in the resulting universe, that would seem to impose a significant constraint on the concept of an unstructured void. And one would have to ask: If an unstructured void has such significant constraints, is it really unstructured?

Second question: Alternatively, if the structure of space/time is expanding into a void that already has the same space/time structure as General Relativity, then what exactly is expanding? Clearly it is not the 3 physical / 1 temporal structure of space/time. Is it simply the outer boundary of our universe? If so, why would the expansion of an outer boundary pull all of the matter of the universe along with it?
Einstein famously added the Cosmological Constant to the equations of General Relativity because he wanted a steady state universe– one that was neither expanding nor contracting. Now that we know that the rate of expansion is increasing, some cosmologists have taken to considering the Cosmological Constant as the source of what is termed “Dark Energy.” But Einstein’s original concept of the Cosmological Constant wasn’t about expanding or contracting the boundary of the universe itself. Rather his thought was that the Cosmological Constant acts as a kind of anti-gravity that pushes the physical masses of the universe apart– within the boundaries of the universe.

Perhaps the solution is to re-imagine the Cosmological Constant as a force that propagates the structure of space/time into an undifferentiated void. But wouldn’t that be something different from a force that propels galaxies away from each other? Besides, there is nothing in General Relativity that specifically ties the Cosmological Constant to the propagation of space/time alone.

Third question: If we are explaining the expansion of the universe by an expansion of space/time itself, then wouldn’t that expansion extend all the way down to the atomic and subatomic levels? If so, then the expansion of the universe would be ripping apart every atom– and indeed every composite particle. That type of expansion would have enormous consequences for the evolution of the universe. A star born in the early stages of the universe would live for a much shorter time than a star of the same composition and size created today. That’s because the particles in the core of the star would be much closer together and therefore chemical and nuclear reactions would happen at a much faster rate.

The simplest answer to questions 1 and 2 above is that the 3 physical / 1 temporal structure of the space/time of General Relativity was already imprinted on the void into which the universe expanded at the time of the Big Bang. Of course we have no guarantee that the simplest explanation is the one that is correct, but if true that would mean that the raisin bread metaphor is very misleading. In the raisin bread metaphor, the bread itself (without the raisins) represents the structure of space/time. As the bread expands, space/time expands. But if the void into which the bread is expanding already has the same space/time structure, then it is only the material substance contained within space/time that is expanding, not space/time itself. And if the void already contained the space/time structure of our universe at the time of the Big Bang, then the void should have no boundary at all.

The only test I can think of that would give us a definitive answer to questions 1 and 2 is to actually find a universe with something other than a 3 physical / 1 temporal structure– or to somehow show that no other such structure is possible. But I’m pretty sure that no one has come up with a way to produce either such result.

As for question 3, it seems to me at least possible that it could be submitted to a test. The higher rate expected for nuclear and chemical reactions should show up as higher temperatures for first generation stars. Higher temperature means higher luminosity, and higher luminosity means shorter wavelength. Therefore the spectra of stars from the first generation should be much bluer if indeed space/time itself is what is expanding. Of course these bluer spectra would be red-shifted. So we should be looking for a population of stars with very high red shifts– meaning much older– that have spectra which are unexpectedly bluer than expected. Is such a survey possible? I’m not qualified to answer that question, but my guess is that if it is possible, it would be very hard to do.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Anonymity and social discord

Hyperbole has long been the political agitator’s weapon of choice. It costs nothing, and for those of the audience who are susceptible to fear it can be very effective. Now technology has given such antagonists an even greater reason to employ exaggeration. The tools of email, text messaging, and social media allow users to adopt aliases by which to disguise their true identities. This possibility means that the cost for employing hyperbole as a weapon is even lower. Whatever is said anonymously cannot be traced back to a person, so the author suffers no penalty for vile and deceitful rhetoric. The result to society has been a ratcheting up of exaggeration and lies. The shield of an alias makes it easier to use coarse language, to insult and demean those with whom one disagrees, and to cast even relatively small issues as evidence of our inexorable slide into the abyss.

There are certainly good reasons for social media platforms to support anonymity. Whistle blowers, for example, should be protected from retaliation, and the best way to allow them to present their evidence without fear is to give them a way to submit their testimonials anonymously. Witnesses to criminal behavior may need the shield of anonymity while those being charged are tried.

But anonymity is not necessary for most discourse. Anonymity is not likely to improve discussion of, say, public transportation policy. In fact, knowing the true identities of all parties to such a discussion is far more likely to result in respectful dialogue and an exchange of gainful ideas.

Spammers and scammers use fake identities to conceal their true purposes– fake names, fake email addresses, fake phone numbers from your own area code. Why do we allow this? What is the value to society to allowing people to use a fake phone number whose only purpose is to trick the person receiving the call into believing that the caller is someone nearby, someone he may know? I can think of no reason why a caller from Mumbai should be allowed to use a phone number that appears to have originated from your own neighborhood. But telecom companies no doubt make a lot of money by offering such “services.”

As for IP addresses, we could demand that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) disallow anonymous connections, that they ensure that every IP address points back to a real person at a real physical address, and that their directories of IP addresses and person names are available to the general public. That would enable any user of the ISP’s services to convert a user’s IP address to a real name, face, and physical address.

The problem with this option is that there are perfectly valid uses for anonymous connections. Users who work from home may need anonymous connections to defend against man-in-the-middle attacks. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides anonymous connections, and it ensures that the entire exchange of information between user and host is fully encrypted, end-to-end. VPN appliances are in common use by private citizens, corporations, and government for all of the reasons cited. So even though a VPN can enable the user to connect to servers in other countries to further disguise the true origin of the connection, it’s far too late to claw back those devices now.

Most ISPs provide some variation of a spam blocker, and a way to report spammers. That is certainly a good start, but each ISP has a different method for reporting spammers, and a different URL. Google, for example, has a special form for reporting spam. The Google form is available here: https://support.google.com/mail/contact/abuse. This form forces the user to parse the offending email into separate components: Source email address, Subject, Body, and Headers. But Comcast simply asks the user to forward suspect messages to abuse@comcast.net. These different methods are confusing to the user, and there is little evidence that they are coordinated. If you receive an email at your personal AOL email account that originated from a Hotmail user account, should you report it to AOL, or to Hotmail? In the present state of the market you should report it to Hotmail, since only Hotmail can remove that user from their subscriber database. But if the user forwards the message to AOL rather than Hotmail, will AOL in turn forward it to Hotmail? Answer: probably not.

It would be far easier for users of email clients if they could simply report all spam to one URL, and leave it up to the ISPs to monitor that URL, parse the suspect messages, and assign them to the correct responsible parties. Email clients should make it easy for users to block and report suspect messages, to flag specific email addresses as suspicious, and to whitelist addresses that the user knows are trustworthy. The email clients that are on the market today are by no means uniform in their handling of these use cases.

What about the problem of anonymity? As mentioned above there will always be a need for anonymous connections. But I would suggest that there is also a need for a system that allows users to consciously accept or block anonymous and fake users. When you log into such a system the default would be to block all anonymous and fake users, but you would have the ability to accept such users on a case by case basis. Such a system would put the user in control of the type of information he or she receives. And that is something that is sorely missing in the present market.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Is fiction superior to history?

Should the education of the young rely on the lessons of history, or should it instead employ fiction to convey the core observations we wish future generations to understand about human behavior?

One could argue that the lessons of history are more real and more true than anything that could be represented in fiction, and that therefore history is clearly superior as a tool for educating the young. On the other hand, a well written novel can convey a story in a manner that is far more immediate and personal, and therefore fiction can appear more directly relevant. Histories, by contrast, are generally long, nuanced, and encumbered by innumerable details that can readily distract the reader. Fiction, therefore, is better than history in the respect that it can tell a story in a clear and direct manner that is readily appreciated by both young and old.

Before we attempt to resolve this dispute we should ask if there are indeed lessons of history, and if so, how does one discover them?

Absolutely history has important lessons to teach us. The moment when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River was the point from which the Roman Republic would inevitably slide into autocracy. World War I should inform us all about the horrors of modern weapons. The Iraq War of 2003 should serve as a warning not to go to war on the basis of falsified evidence.

How does one discover such lessons? By hard, detailed research. Much of history has been buried in dust and deceit. The job of the historian is essentially that of a journalist– to discover the truths that some people are doing everything they can to hide. The difficulty for the historian is that there are generally no living witnesses to interview. So much of the historian’s task is to piece together a picture of the past from those bits of data that still survive.

Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar tells the story of the assassination of one of the most influential individuals in human history. The speeches by Brutus and Mark Antony of Act III Scene 2 are absolute masterpieces of elocution, regardless of how historically accurate they may be, though they do sound rather stilted to modern ears. Regardless, the play certainly conveys the revulsion that the Roman public must have felt toward Caesar’s murderers, and it realistically portrays the anger that erupted from the aftermath of his death into civil war.

But there is so much more that the play does not relate about the background of Caesar’s rise to power, and about the impact of his assassination on the broader sweep of Roman history. The play begins with Caesar being offered a crown by Mark Antony, which Caesar refuses three times. But Brutus and the other assassins had already made up their minds to kill Caesar. Here is Brutus considering his options in Act II Scene 1:

But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 1, William Shakespeare

There is little mention in Brutus’s ruminations of the long sequence of events that preceded his decision. When Caesar crossed the River Rubicon with his one legion of troops, he didn’t simply violate a time honored tradition– he started a civil war. That war created such bitterness that there was from that moment forward little chance of reconciliation. He pursued his primary adversary, Pompey, to Greece where, in 48 BCE, Pompey’s forces were defeated at Pharsalus. In 46 BCE Caesar defeated Pompey’s supporters, under the leadership of Scipio, at Thapsus in what is now Tunisia. And finally Caesar defeated Pompey’s eldest son Gnaeus Pompeius in 45 BCE at the Battle of Munda in what is now southern Spain. In honor of his victory at Munda he was appointed dictator for 10 years.

On return to Rome he worked tirelessly to diminish the power of the other institutions of Roman authority. He packed the Senate with his own supporters, effectively making that body a submissive advocate for his own objectives. He increased his own powers. When tribunes attempted to obstruct his agenda, they were brought before the Senate and were stripped of their offices. And he pushed through legislation that imposed term limits on governors, to insure that none of them would be able to ascend through the ranks as he had done.

And yet the other elements of Roman society and government were willing participants in Caesar’s ascent. In 49 BCE, Caesar was appointed dictator. (He resigned after 11 days.) In 48 BCE he was reappointed dictator for an unspecified period. After his victory at Munda he was again appointed dictator for a term of 10 years. Also in 48 BCE he was given the powers of a tribune permanently. And in February 44 BCE he was named dictator for life.

Caesar’s assassins intended to put an end to Caesar’s ambitions and thereby to preserve the Roman Republic. But in fact the longer term outcome of their plot was literally the opposite of what they had intended. After yet another lengthy civil war Gaius Octavius emerged as the sole victor and authority, and Rome was transformed into an empire that bore little resemblance to the Republic it replaced.

None of this nuance is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. So is the play something that the young should be encouraged to read? Well, first we should acknowledge that fiction is entertainment first and foremost. It may in addition provide some life lessons, but that is not a requirement. Readers are perfectly entitled to read works of fiction with little thought about what, if anything, might be learned from their reading.

In this specific case, Shakespeare’s play is clearly intended to inform the viewer about the events of March 15, 44 BCE, one of the most momentous days in history. And as it does an excellent job of portraying the emotions that raged through the Roman people it is certainly a worthy study for anyone hoping to understand those tumultuous times. But I don’t see how it is possible to fully appreciate the motivations of the conspirators or of Mark Antony without having a broader understanding of the events that led up to Caesar’s assassination. Those events are complex, nuanced, and not fully understood, even today.

The longer term consequences of his assassination encapsulate the most important lesson of Caesar’s life and times– that whenever the transfer of power is anything other than peaceful and ordered, society will likely veer toward authoritarianism in its attempt to avoid chaos. That is a lesson that people in any society, in any time, and under any system of government can benefit from learning.

So I would recommend that this play be included in the syllabus of a high school literature class only if it is accompanied by an extensive history of the broader context of the times in which Caesar rose to power. And it should be followed with a discussion of the longer term consequences to the Republic. The evolution from Republic to empire gave rise to the imbalance of Tiberius, Nero, Caligula, and Commodus. And that imbalance led inexorably to the death of the Empire and the centuries of chaos that ensued.

In this broader context the lines between fiction and history blur. History provides the hard evidence, the factual basis for our visions of the past; and fiction can turn those hard facts into raw emotion that makes history come alive. These are dual elements that can work together to provide a broader understanding of the past, and which together can convey the lessons of human behavior that we wish future generations to learn.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

The Madness of Time Travel

Time travel is a staple in science fiction stories. Marty McFly traveled into the future and back into the past by means of a flux capacitor designed by the eminent Dr. Emmett Brown. Until he surrendered it to Thanos, Dr. Strange used the power of the time stone to control time. And Dr. Who cavorts merrily through time and space in his TARDIS with the simple flip of a lever. It all seems so easy. Humans have invented all manner of dazzling wonders, from pottery to ships to steel to microchips to orbiting telescopes. Surely it is just a matter of time before some genius working in a garage builds a variant of Dr. Brown’s flux capacitor and is thereby able to zap himself into the future, whether with the flip of a lever or by racing through a mall parking lot at 88 miles per hour.

But is time travel actually possible? Well, certainly it is. With no energy expenditure at all everything and everyone in the universe moves inexorably forward into the future. And it is certainly possible to move into the future at a faster rate than other observers. Special relativity says that two observers moving relative to one another experience the flow of time at different rates, and that difference depends on their relative velocity. This prediction of relativity has been confirmed in experiment many times. For relative velocities that are a small fraction of the speed of light, the difference is quite small. But even so, the Global Positioning Satellite System is so time dependent and so accurate that it had to be designed to account for this and other relativistic phenomena.

Just how extreme can the difference between the clocks of two observers get? Well, the most extreme case concerns one observer at rest and another moving at the speed of light (in their mutual reference frame). In this case the moving observer’s clock actually stops while the clock of the at rest observer continues at its usual pace. If the moving observer travels at the speed of light for a million years, then returns to the physical position of the at rest observer, the at rest observer would be long since dead though the traveling observer would not have aged a single second.

Okay, so travel into the future is certainly possible. What about travel into the past? For an answer to this question we must turn to an astounding result due to Kurt Godel. In 1949 he constructed a solution to the field equations of Einstein’s General Theory of General Relativity that allows an observer to travel to any point in space and time– present, future, or past! This particular solution of Einstein’s theory is a fascinating and instructive study in its own right, but it is decidedly not a solution that corresponds to our own universe. The universe of the Godel solution has an intrinsic rotation about an axis. Our universe has no such rotation. The following video demonstrates how the closed time-like paths of Godel’s solution would enable one to travel into one’s own past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=078jOiaevAQ

Let us assume for the moment that such minor difficulties can be overcome in the grand cathedral of future human knowledge. Time travel still presents many practical difficulties that must be considered. Imagine that you are sitting in the driver’s seat of Dr. Brown’s DeLorean, and that you set the time control device for six months in the future. Now you stomp on the accelerator, get the car up to 88 miles per hour, and fzap! You reappear six months in the future, in precisely the same physical location where you disappeared.

But the Earth moves. The Earth is currently revolving around the Sun. In six months the Earth will be on the other side of the Sun. So the DeLorean cannot simply move in a straight line through time and space to reach the point where the future Earth will be in six months. It must move along an arc that exactly follows the path that the Earth will take.

And more than that, the Sun itself is moving. The entire solar system is revolving around the center of our galaxy at the rate of one complete revolution about every 225 million years. So six months in the future, the solar system would have moved a considerable distance around the galactic center from its present location. Dr. Brown had better make corrections for that, or the DeLorean will reappear in interstellar space.

There are other motions to consider as well. The Earth rotates on its axis, and the axis itself has a precession– that is, a wobble. Earth’s axis makes one complete revolution about every 26,000 years. So the position from which the DeLorean departed will have moved, irrespective of the other motions we have discussed.

There are other influences as well. Johannes Kepler showed that the paths of the planets are ellipses, not circles. But that is only to a first approximation. The moon and the other planets exert gravitational forces on the Earth. Those forces distort Earth’s orbit from that of a perfect ellipse. So to ensure that the DeLorean returns to the exact point from which it departed, every detail of Earth’s orbit will have to be considered– including all of the influences due to other gravitational objects in the solar system.

And there are more mundane considerations as well. What if someone builds a cement wall just a few feet beyond the point from which the DeLorean disappeared. When it reappears, the DeLorean will travel just a few feet before smashing into a cement wall. Not good. 😦

An earthquake might thrust up a chunk of the Earth’s crust right into the DeLorean’s path on return. A river might change course, causing the DeLorean to plunge into a torrent of water. Someone could park a car right in the DeLorean’s future path. Ouch.

Time travel as a literary device is pretty ridiculous. If its purpose is to get the reader to think about the possible future course of events, it may have some value. But I have never encountered any science fiction story that makes a full accounting of all of the many considerations we have discussed. There is in fact little or no “science” involved in the way time travel is generally portrayed. And therefore time travel will have to remain fully in the province of fantasy, rather than science fiction. Wave a wand, utter magical incantations, discover an ancient artifact that will open a doorway to a time portal. But please don’t pretend that time travel has any basis in science. It’s just not possible.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character

Fiction writing spans a vast range of styles and structures. Some fiction concentrates on the plot. Just tell the story. Don’t distract me with useless details about scudding clouds, or a woman’s updo, or the sonorous music playing in an elevator. Just tell me what happened. That’s all I want to know.

Certainly there is an audience for such writing. The purpose of such a narrative style is to relate a sequence of events– that is, action. BANG– the story opens with a heist. WHAM– one of the robbers shoots and kills a guard. POW– police arrive at the scene and get in a gunfight with the thieves, who manage to escape by… Why should we care about the color of a thief’s hair, or his thoughts about cosmology unless it somehow leads to his arrest?

But we should ask– is a plot absolutely essential to the telling of a story? Must a story be a rapid fire sequence of BANG / WHAM / POW? Or is it possible to write a novel in which plot is subordinate to something else?

An important counterexample would be James Joyce’s Ulysses. The plot of the book is supremely ordinary. It focuses on the events in the day of a life of one man (Leopold Bloom), a resident of Dublin, on June 16, 1904. And why should we care about the life of this one man on one inconsequential day? Well, there are certainly lots of readers who have no interest whatsoever in Mr. Leopold Bloom, or in his reading material (“Sweets Of Sin”), or his dietary habits. (He ate the inner organs of beasts and small fowls. With relish. Or was it enthusiasm?) We learn everything about Leopold Bloom– where he lives, what foods he likes, what he understands about metempsychosis, what he thinks about the Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell. No detail is too small, no thought too fleeting.

Ulysses is as much about heroic literature as it is about the life of one rather ordinary man on an ordinary day. As Leopold Bloom travels through the city of 20th century Dublin, his experiences mimic those of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s as if Homer’s narrative is a shadow following in the background throughout Mr. Bloom’s mundane day. This is not so much a plot element as it is an aspect of the story’s milieu. This is the author stretching the boundaries of storytelling and using the narrative itself to tell a story about storytelling. If you read Ulysses with that understanding I think you have to agree that Joyce achieved his objective, and that he did so in a very imaginative way. But if you’re looking for a story that could serve as the basis for the next Die Hard movie– forget it.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov takes the elements of fiction in a different direction– that of poetry. The book has two halves. The first half is an extended poem, itself titled “Pale Fire.” The second half consists of commentary on the poem by someone who, we eventually realize, is a murderer. The plot is subtle and subdued. The victim’s corpse isn’t hauled off to the morgue for a coroner’s investigation. Detectives don’t examine the crime scene searching for clues. The clues are to be found in the commentator’s writings, and then only by inference.

This is a book, more than most, that centers on character. The poem– written by a man named John Shade– is about the struggles of the author to understand and sort through his own sense of failure, his notions of art, his mortality. That is, John Shade is a man of moral character. The commentator is a man of shallow character. Yes, there is a plot. But the elements of poetry and character are in the foreground, and the plot is in the background. I regard Pale Fire as a wonderfully imaginative piece of fiction writing, though there’s little chance Marvel Studios will pick it up for a new installment of the adventures of Dr. Strange.

Picture a four dimensional space, the axes being Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character. Any novel can be positioned somewhere in this space. Is there an ideal location in this space that is most true to the notion of what a novel is? No. I would argue that a novel could be successful regardless of its location in this space. The task of the author is to make the choices of plot, milieu, poetry, and character work for the intended audience. And we should acknowledge that not all audiences will appreciate these elements of narrative in equal measure. Some are more drawn to plot, others to character. There is no true and correct answer to the question of how best to write a novel.

I therefore caution against the idea that by following certain rules an author can learn the method that is most likely to result in a successful novel. Ulysses and Pale Fire both succeeded, in my view, because they broke all the rules. Rules are for drudges. Imagination is for artists.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Writing as a tool

Writing is certainly one of the greatest tools humans have ever invented. Prior to the invention of writing, knowledge could only be passed from one generation to the next via word of mouth. Once writing became a part of everyday life, knowledge could be preserved across time.

There is an ongoing debate between the Egyptologists and the scholars of ancient Mesopotamia as to where and when the first writing system was devised. But the evidence shows that by no later than 2600 BCE the Sumerian writing system was capable of expressing the full range of the Sumerian language, including such nuances as meter and alliteration.

The Sumerians made writing a foundational part of their culture. Transactions such as the purchase of real estate, marriage, and divorce were recorded on cuneiform tablets. These tablets could actually be used by citizens in the Sumerian equivalent of a court of law. One tablet of a type known as a “ditilla” from ancient Sumer records a trial involving a woman whose uncle assumed ownership of her house and kicked her out. She took her case to a local magistrate, and a scribe recorded the proceedings. The woman and her uncle both appeared before the magistrate. Both were required to swear before a statue of the village god that they would tell the truth. Then both sides were allowed to present their cases. The woman presented a cuneiform tablet that recorded her purchase of the house, and it also recorded that the transaction was witnessed by two of her friends. The two friends accompanied her and testified that indeed they witnessed the sale. If the uncle had a defense, it isn’t recorded on the ditilla. So the magistrate awarded the house to the woman, and the uncle was forced to move out. This vignette played out hundreds of years before Hammurabi built the first Babylonian empire in the 18th century BCE.

None of that would have been possible without a writing system. The simple act of recording a real estate transaction– one that we now take for granted every day– transformed society by making it possible for ordinary people to seek and obtain a form of justice in a society that didn’t have lawyers, or laws, or a police force.

Writing enabled people of the ancient world to record their thoughts, their beliefs, and their achievements. The world of ancient Egypt would look far more mysterious to us if we didn’t have the pyramid texts and the coffin texts to tell us what the ancient Egyptians believed about life after death.

Today we have the marvelous treasures of ancient writings to help us understand how ancient people lived and thought. A man named Sin-leqi-unninni wrote an epic poem known as the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian, in roughly 1200 BCE while he lived in Babylon. That epic includes a story of a great flood that would have wiped out all life on Earth had it not been for the defiance of a god, Ea, who warned a man named Ut-napishtim and advised him to build a boat. But long before the time of Sin-leqi-unninni, the story of the Flood was told in at least two previous versions, in Sumerian. This history shows that the story of the Flood in the Bible has antecedents in Mesopotamia that go back to a time probably 2000 years prior to that of the very earliest writings of the Bible.

Mathematics has also proven to be a powerful tool. We can frame the laws of physics as mathematical equations and then use those equations to deduce properties and behaviors of the world around us. For example, Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation was used to deduce the location of the planet Neptune from an observed wobble in the orbit of the planet Uranus.

I would argue that mathematics is a type of language. It has a grammar and a syntax. An equation such as the following is one that follows the rules of the language of mathematics:

5X + Y = 0

whereas the following equation makes no sense:

= 5X / 2 – $

Mathematical equations can all be translated into natural language. The following equation:

5X + Y = 0

can be expressed in natural language as follows:

five times (the value of the variable X) plus (the value of the variable Y) equals zero

So is mathematics a language? Well, it clearly has linguistic elements. As I said above, it has both grammar and syntax. But though its symbols may bear a superficial resemblance to the letters of an alphabet, they don’t combine the way that letters combine into words. The rules for the use of mathematical symbols are much more strict than for the use of the letters of an alphabet, or for the words of a sentence.

And furthermore an equation can be transformed by the rules of mathematics to arrive at deductions. Here’s an example:

5X + 7 = 0

5X = -7

X = -(7/5)

The method for arriving at the above result can be described in natural language, as can be the underlying assumptions of the types of mathematical objects employed (i.e. the elements of a mathematical field). But the natural language formulation of such equations obscures the solution, whereas the mathematical form makes it easier to follow.

Yes, mathematics is a type of language– but it’s one with rules that are far more structured and strict than those of any natural language. So for that reason I think it’s best to think of mathematics as a symbolic system based purely on logic in which every component has a valid natural language transliteration.

Is language the greatest innovation in history? I don’t think that’s a question that requires an answer. The innovations of using fire for light, for defense against predators, and for cooking were certainly immensely transformational. As discussed above, mathematics has been immensely transformational. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the space program would not have been possible without the innovation of mathematics.

But regardless of whether it’s the greatest innovation ever, writing is without question indispensable to modern society. Without writing we would have little insight into the past, and the task of passing on what we have learned to future generations would be vastly more difficult.

Copyright (c) David S. Moore, 2022

All rights reserved


The Science Fiction Genre

Is the genre of science fiction simply a form of titillating entertainment, unworthy of serious consideration? Or does it convey something of lasting value that can engage our interest and give us insight into ourselves and the world around us?

Before attempting to answer this question we should ask whether there is any such thing as a story of any kind that is of lasting value and which gives us insight into ourselves and the world around us. I would say that the answer to that question is unequivocally ‘Yes.’ As positive examples I would offer Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello. Though these plays are more than four centuries old, they still captivate audiences today with their realistic portrayals of lives destroyed by greed, faithlessness, carelessness, and deceit.

And yet several of Shakespeare’s plays have anachronistic elements which do not align with present day understandings. The spirit of Hamlet’s father is one such example. Many of Shakespeare’s central characters represent a bygone era of kingship. Macbeth, Lear, and Hamlet are all royalty.

Shakespeare’s is a very different sort of tragedy than that of the ancient Greeks. In Sophocles’s King Oedipus, the protagonist (Oedipus) kills his own father and has sex with his own mother, exactly as an oracle had foretold. Characters in Greek dramas often went through their lives suffering at the whims of gods and goddesses who predetermined their fates. Shakespeare’s tragic characters are the victims of human designs rather than of preordained fate, and for that reason are far more believable than Greek tragic figures.

Science fiction writing has multiple purposes, often operating in conflict. One such purpose is to dazzle the audience with visions of wondrous technologies that have vanquished all social ills; another is to terrify the audience with visions of a technology run amok. Whether the goal is to instill wonder or fear, the result is often the sublimation of character and human motivation to a narrative that is focused on technology. When technology itself is either the protagonist or the antagonist, the result is certain to be a loss of human character, and consequently a loss of emotional impact.

On the other hand, any setting– however fantastic or imaginary– can serve as the backdrop for a compelling human drama, so long as the characters so positioned have realistic human emotions and reactions. But realistic characters must also be subject to credible risks. A race of immortal beings who meditate in a state of eternal bliss are subject to no risks and are therefore not a suitable source of relatable characters.

One of my favorite Star Trek movies is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The frequent allusions to Shakespeare are annoying, but the characters are well developed and believable. The subject of the movie is fear of the future, and futuristic technology is merely the backdrop against which a cold war morality tale is told.

A common trait of science fiction writing and movies is that science fiction stories are almost never developed as tragedies. They may have tragic figures– such as Darth Vader of the Star Wars series of movies– but the overall arc of a science fiction story is generally expected to result in the defeat of the forces of evil by those of the good. Is it possible for a science fiction writer to produce a true tragedy in the sense of one of Shakespeare’s great works? Perhaps, but such stories might never find an audience in today’s market.

And this poses what I consider to be the most interesting question about science fiction. Science fiction is inevitably about the future. The ‘science’ part of the term refers to technologies not presently available– but which might become available at some time in the future. People generally expect the future to be an improvement on the past. For that reason people tend to prefer stories about the future that are hopeful, not tragic. So is it even possible to write a truly tragic science fiction story?

The ‘science’ part of science fiction can too easily supplant the development of character. But it is equally possible to focus so exclusively on character development that all elements of science are so muted as to be irrelevant. At that point one may as well write about European kings.

In my view the great strength of science fiction is what it can tell us about our relationship to technology. Do we allow technology to rule our lives, to dictate our fates as did the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece? Or do we use technology for our own purposes, to our own ends, to the advantage of all? Shakespeare’s characters struggle with greed and guilt, confusion and uncertainty, indecision and indolence. Technology itself can elicit such struggles, and as an element of the story arc can serve to develop characters.

Science and technology have produced massive changes in human society. Technology will inevitably continue to shape our future. Science fiction can serve to give audiences a way to envision the impact that future technologies may have on the human psyche. When paired with strong character development in realistic human settings, such narratives can be very compelling. The challenge for the author is to balance character development against the narrative of technological influence. Too much in the direction of character development can dilute the technological aspects of the story arc; too much attention to technology can make the story sterile.

So is science fiction merely titillating entertainment of no serious value? Certainly it can be. Examples of shallow science fiction abound. But it can also challenge us to think about the directions our technologies are leading. If we want to be masters of our own fate, then we had best listen.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Big oil missed a huge business opportunity

Climate change is forcing businesses to change. In the automotive industry there is now a massive effort underway to develop complete product lines of battery powered all-electric vehicles, apparently with the goal of one day eliminating all gas powered cars. That would certainly help to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But I’m not so sure that it’s what consumers actually want.

It takes 8 to 10 hours to charge a Tesla at 220 volts. The Tesla Supercharger can recharge a Tesla battery up to a 220 mile range in about 15 minutes. Imagine trying to travel cross-country with an all-electric car. A trip from Seattle Washington to Miami Florida is about 3300 miles by car. That would require 15 stops at a Tesla Supercharging station, with a 15 minute wait at each. If the only charging stations you can find along the way are wired for 220 volts, then you will have to spend 8 to 10 hours at each stop. That just doesn’t seem like something most road travelers would want to do.

What if there were another option– one that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide and that therefore doesn’t contribute to global warming, but one doesn’t require ridiculously long times to refuel? In fact such an option is available, right now, in the current marketplace. It’s hydrogen. The Toyota Mirai uses fuel cell technology that is powered by hydrogen and which produces nothing but water as its waste product. And it only takes five minutes to refuel.

The nation’s oil companies have one major advantage over any automotive manufacturer that dreams of replacing gas powered cars with all-electric cars. Oil companies have thousands of gas stations all across the country. Many, of course, are franchises, but all could quickly add hydrogen refueling stations. Consumers are already adapted to the pattern of refueling at a gas station. A five minute stop to refuel, with maybe a quick trip into the company-owned convenience store for a few snacks– and you’re back on the road again. That’s not a pattern that a battery powered all-electric car is ever likely to support.

The nation’s oil companies have known for a couple of decades that climate change was going to destroy their businesses. If they had been smart, they could have sided with the early developers of fuel cell technology (NASA has been using it for 50 years) to build a nationwide infrastructure that would support hydrogen powered cars with their existing gas station infrastructure. Doing so would have ensured the survival of their industry far into the future.

But instead the oil companies did everything they could to trick the American people into believing that climate change isn’t real, or that it isn’t caused by humans, or that it isn’t nearly as bad as tree-huggers claim. The cost was that they completely missed out on what was certainly one of the greatest business opportunities of all time.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Galactic Colonization

Galactic empires are common plot elements in science fiction writing. But as I showed in another post titled “Faster Than Light Travel,” the likelihood is that it will never be possible to maintain an empire stretching across the galaxy. The laws of physics, as we presently understand them, simply won’t support it.

But would it be at all feasible to colonize the galaxy? Yes, and in fact it’s almost inevitable– assuming our species and our culture can survive long enough. Let’s assume for the moment that it is possible to build a spacecraft that can accelerate to 1,000,000 miles per hour. That may sound extremely fast, but it’s only about 0.15% of the speed of light. Even so, it’s roughly three times faster than the fastest man made spacecraft ever built– the Parker Solar Probe. One light year is about 5.87×1012 miles. At 1,000,000 miles per hour it would take about 6700 years to travel ten light years. That may seem like an extremely long time– and it certainly is as compared to the history of human civilization. But as compared to the 225 million years that it takes the Earth to make one complete orbit around the center of the galaxy, it’s hardly anything at all.

The Earth’s orbit around the galactic center is roughly 170,000 light years in circumference. At the rate of 1,000,000 miles per hour it would take roughly 114 million years to traverse the Earth’s orbit. That’s only about half the time it would take the Earth itself to travel the same distance.

But there are plenty of complications in this broad overview. Spacecraft carrying humans to distant planets for the purposes of colonization must accelerate and decelerate. And it may be necessary to refuel, which might require slowing down to orbit a planet. All of that will take additional travel time.

We would also need to consider how to design a spacecraft to support human life for an extended period. There are only three major possibilities. First, the spacecraft could be designed to contain all the comforts of home. There would be gardens for growing food, recycling plants to reprocess waste, living quarters for each person on board, and air and water sufficient to support every living thing aboard the spacecraft.

This option is the most difficult and most costly to implement, and it is the one most prone to catastrophic failure. Any leak in the air system, however minute, could result in a complete loss of atmosphere by the end of a 6700 year voyage. Any failure of the agricultural systems would mean starvation for the entire crew. And normal wear on the complex systems involved could mean that crucial equipment fails long before the spacecraft arrives at its required destination. One can provide spare parts, or the raw materials necessary to fabricate any part on the spacecraft– but all of that would add weight, and additional weight adds a requirement for additional fuel, and additional cost.

An important fact to bear in mind about this option is that a 6700 year voyage means that there will be hundreds of generations of people who live and die aboard the spacecraft. There will be no room aboard for cemeteries, so the bodies of those who die will have to be recycled back into the agricultural systems.

The second option is to put the members of the crew into some form of suspended animation. Ideally we should like the crew to be maintained in a state that requires no air, no water, and no nourishment to maintain their bodies for a 6700 year period of time. And of course we would want to revive each passenger after the voyage with no significant loss of physical or mental capabilities. No one has ever found a way to do that. Assuming that it becomes possible in some as-of-yet unforeseen future, this option would require far fewer supplies and complex systems than the first.

But it is not without its own risks. When the spacecraft finally reaches its destination, a site must be chosen for landing and disembarkation. The personnel could be awoken as the spacecraft approaches the selected target planet, thereby permitting the decision to be made by humans. But there remains the possibility that the chosen destination planet is not a good option for colonization, and the spacecraft must travel on to another planet or perhaps another star system. That would require putting those crew members who have been awoken back into suspended animation, and that may involve its own unpleasant side effects. Alternatively, the spacecraft could be designed to survey the planet, check for required living conditions, and select an optimal spot for landing– without human intervention. That would clearly require a highly sophisticated system of software– one which can run for thousands of years without a hitch.

The third option is less of a realistic option than it is a dream. The spacecraft would not be transporting humans, but rather only human gametes. Once the ship arrives at its destination the male and female gametes would be allowed to fertilize and grow.

This last method would appear to require the least resources of the three. It would afford fewer opportunities for catastrophic failure, and it would require less fuel. But it would also require a method for raising and educating the infants that would result. And who will do that?

There is only one possible answer to that question– robots. An army of robots would have to attend to the infants as they are born. That would require feeding, bathing, playing, teaching– not the sorts of activities one ordinarily associates with robots. The robots would have to behave very much like humans– though it isn’t necessarily the case that they would have to look like humans. And of course the robots would have to provide all of the background information necessary to help the children adapt to their new environment.

Once a spacecraft designed for this third option arrives at its destination, the children will have to grow up in an environment that supports all aspects of human life. There will need to be systems for agriculture, waste processing, air filtration, water reclamation– everything that is required to support human society. But that environment would have to be developed and maintained without human intervention, until such time as the children have matured to the point at which they can take over all aspects of operation. That interim environment would therefore have to be built and maintained by the robots.

In some respects this last option is the most complex. It would require a level of robotic sophistication far beyond anything that has thus far been developed. But over the course of the next several centuries, it just might be possible.

This highlights another important aspect of galactic colonization– the search for viable planets. Before embarking on a 6700 year mission it would be best to get a fair idea of which destination planets are likely to be most habitable. We would want to know that the planet has an atmosphere with plenty of oxygen, that it’s surface temperature falls within an acceptable range, that it has liquid water on its surface, that it gets plenty of light from its star, that it isn’t already occupied by a hostile species… All of these conditions are very difficult to assess from a distance of several light years. That means it is highly possible to travel for thousands of years only to find that the chosen planet is unsuitable.

It will therefore be necessary to send advance unmanned probes first. These probes should be small, but would be outfitted with a full array of sensors. They should be set off on their travel to the stars at a significant percentage of the speed of light. At 50% of the speed of light a probe could reach a star 10 light years distant in 20 years and could return its findings to Earth in 30 years. A 50% speed of light velocity might attainable via a slingshot route around a nearby star. Such a route would undoubtedly result in g forces too extreme for human passengers, but should do no harm to unmanned probe.

Ideally we would want each probe to land on a planet, take physical samples, and assess the planet’s suitability to human habitation. In a system with multiple potential planets we would want these probes to visit as many planets as possible. That means each probe will need to be independently maneuverable, which means more fuel, and therefore more weight, and therefore more complexity, and greater cost.

Another major problem with colonization concerns the problem of adapting the environment of the chosen planet to human life. We can carry with us a storehouse of knowledge as to how to smelt ores, build power plants, pump water, grow food, build houses. But what if the planet’s atmosphere has too little (or too much!) oxygen? Or too little carbon dioxide? What if the surface is too cold for growing crops? What if water is only available deep underground? What if there is a bacterium that is airborne and fatal to human life? What if there is an intelligent life form that is hostile to our intervention? The potential problems of living on a completely alien world are innumerable.

This suggests that the best option is a multi-phase process. First, exploratory probes evaluate each potentially habitable planet. To those which qualify, a team of robots is sent to establish a human habitation, with all the systems necessary for the operation of a human colony. Once habitations have been built, then humans can be placed on transports to carry them to the colonies.

There will be plenty of time to assess and address these problems. It may be that we will have to be extremely choosy in evaluating planets for habitation. We shouldn’t expect that suitable planets will always be available along our preferred routes through the galaxy.

Interstellar travel is certain to be much harder than science fiction writers have thus far described it to be. It will take time– quite a long time, I suspect– to develop a process for galactic colonization. The opportunity is undoubtedly immense. Billions of stars and planets, each with its own geology, biology, wonder, and possibility. But there is really no guarantee that any planet within a reasonable distance would be suitable to our habitation. There will undoubtedly be a great deal to learn.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore. All rights reserved.

Faster Than Light Travel

Humans have explored the globe, traveled faster than the speed of sound, and gone to the Moon. Humans have learned secrets of the universe that no other species of our planet could possibly comprehend. Surely it will be only a matter of years, or perhaps decades, before humanity will begin traveling to the stars.

How hard can it be? We were told in the early decades of the twentieth century that no aircraft would ever be able to exceed the speed of sound. Yet on October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first person to do exactly that. And now aircraft repeat that astounding feat with routine aplomb. Surely breaking the speed of light barrier will be no different. Once we learn how to do it, we’ll build spacecraft that will flip into faster-than-light mode (FTL) as readily as a car switches into overdrive.

Before we attempt to understand the notion of FTL, we should first try to understand just how vast our galaxy truly is. The Milky Way galaxy is somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 light years in diameter, and the Earth is about 27,000 light years from its center. Hence the Earth traverses an orbit roughly 170,000 light years in circumference for each of its 225 million year revolutions about the galaxy’s center. A spacecraft traveling at the speed of light would therefore require 170,000 years to make one complete circumnavigation of the Earth’s orbit. And that allows no time at all for either acceleration or deceleration. There would therefore be no time in that 170,000 years to stop and smell the flowers on any of the millions of planets one might encounter along the way.

The speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second. That’s about 669,600,000 miles per hour. The fastest human created spacecraft as of this writing is the Parker Solar Probe, which has used the tremendous gravitational field of the Sun to accelerate to 330,000 miles per hour. That is less than 0.05% of the speed of light! At that rate it would take the Parker Solar Probe more than 340 million years to traverse Earth’s orbit. That’s actually longer than it takes the Earth to make the same circuit!

Those who dream of galactic empire must confront the hard realities of the sheer size of our galaxy. The first galactic explorers will certainly want to chart the star systems they encounter– taking note of the habitable planets they discover, as well as those which are already inhabited. And they will undoubtedly need to refuel along the way. To stop long enough to survey a planet will require deceleration and acceleration– all of which will cost fuel, and time. To conduct such a reconnaissance mission at the measly rate of the Parker Solar Probe would ensure that by the time the explorers return to Earth, human civilization would have evolved into something vastly different than what it was at the time of departure.

Information is key to maintaining an empire. Desperate events in distant quarters may require a speedy reallocation of resources. To simply know that there is a problem requiring attention at the far end of a galactic empire would require a messaging system that can traverse the intervening distance in a reasonable time. On a galactic scale, that means the signal must travel faster than light. If the message implies that resources must be reallocated to address the issue, then those resources must themselves be transported in a reasonable time. “Reasonable” in the context of a galactic scope means within minutes or hours, not millenia.

Let’s imagine that the Earth is the seat of a galactic government, and that on the opposite side of the galaxy, about 54,000 light years distant, the local governor of a planet calls for aid in putting down a rebellion. At the speed of light it would take 54,000 years for the governor’s call to reach Earth. That’s not an actionable time.

But even at 54,000 times the speed of light it would still take one full year for the governor’s call for aid to reach the seat of power. In most cases news that arrives a year after the fact is too late to be useful. To reduce the travel time to one hour, the message would have to travel 8,766 times faster still– or 473,364,000 times faster than light!

Science fiction stories of galactic empire routinely mention traveling at two, three, four, or even ten times the speed of light, as if that were so astonishingly fast that it should be possible to travel anywhere in the galaxy in just a matter of hours. But in fact it’s not even remotely fast enough to hold an empire of galactic dimensions together.

If the sound barrier could be broken, why can’t we break the speed-of-light barrier? The reason is that the two barriers are of two completely different categories. The sound “barrier” was a concern raised by materials engineers of the times that no airplane fuselage could be designed to withstand the terrible shock wave that would be created by exceeding the speed of sound. It was chiefly a problem of materials.

But the speed-of-light barrier is altogether different. The two foundational principles of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity are that (a) all signals exchanged throughout the universe propagate via electromagnetic radiation (including visible light); and that (b) the speed of light is constant for all observers, regardless of their relative velocities. These two seemingly innocuous assertions have tremendous ramifications– one of which is that no physical object can travel faster than the speed of light. More than that, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a physical object to the speed of light!

But the weirdness of Einstein’s Relativity doesn’t stop there. As an object accelerates, its internal clock slows down. And in fact the clock of an object traveling at the speed of light actually stops completely. A beam of light experiences no time! So even if you could accelerate to the speed of light, your clock would stop. You would never age– but you would also never have any more thoughts. And consequently you could never observe the stars or planets you pass by, never plan where to go next, never decide to slow down or stop.

These strange consequences of Einstein’s simple claims have been repeatedly tested. Relativistic principles even had to be considered in the design of the Global Positioning Satellite System. So even a cell phone provides daily proof of the fact that Einstein was right when it simply accesses the GPS system.

Is there any loophole anywhere in Einstein’s reasoning? Doesn’t Quantum Entanglement mean that messages can be transmitted at essentially an infinite speed? The inflationary period of the Big Bang theory is a time when the universe expanded at more than 1021 times the speed of light. Doesn’t that say that Einstein was wrong?

Quantum entanglement isn’t likely to provide a useful solution as it is only capable of propagating quantum states. Two particles are said to be entangled if their quantum states are strongly correlated. In this case knowledge of one particle’s state instantaneously conveys knowledge of the other’s. But if one particle is disturbed, information about that disturbance can only be conveyed from one particle to the other at the speed of light. So although entanglement seems to offer the promise of instantaneous transmission of information, it does not support the notion of instantaneous transport of a physical force at a speed faster than light. And therefore it doesn’t really provide a way to transport a physical object from one location to another at a faster-than-light velocity. At least, not as presently understood.

As for the theory of inflation, the mechanism that would have triggered inflation isn’t known. It has been hypothesized by the advocates of the inflationary theory that gravitational attraction could have been flipped to repulsion in the very first instant’s of the universe’s existence by the presence of an extremely small amount of “exotic matter.”

So all we have to do is just create some of this “exotic matter” and we should be able to go as fast as we want, right? Uh, well… The current model of inflation only requires an extremely minute amount of exotic matter (relative to the total amount of matter in the universe) to cause the entire universe to expand exponentially. It doesn’t seem like it would be a good idea to create such a volatile material without knowing exactly how to handle it– unless you don’t mind blowing up the entire universe as part of your FTL experiment.

The only way out of the dilemma posed by the Theory of Relativity, as I see it, is to reconsider the first of Einstein’s two pronouncements– that all signals throughout the universe are conveyed by forms of electromagnetic radiation. Consider the human body. Our bodies are comprised of materials that consist of molecules, which are built up from atoms held together by atomic bonds. Atomic bonds are based on electromagnetic attraction. The present day theory of electromagnetic interaction, Quantum Electrodynamics, holds that electromagnetism is the result of the exchange of photons between charged particles. That exchange of photons happens at the speed of light, c.

But what if there is some other type of physical signal that can travel at a speed much faster than that of light? Let us suppose, for example, that there is another type of matter, call it FTL Matter, that is able to travel at speeds much greater than that of light. Suppose further that interactions between particles of such matter are propagated by some type of radiation that also travels at a speed much faster than the speed of light– call it c’. Now let’s go back to the primary assertions of Special Relativity and reframe them in terms of FTL Matter:

(a) All signals exchanged between particles of FTL Matter travel at the velocity c’.

(b) The speed c’ is constant for all observers comprised of FTL Matter in the universe.

From these two fundamental assumptions a new set of Lorentz transformations can be derived that involve c’ rather than c, and in all other respects the physics of FTL Matter would parallel those of ordinary matter. And this would establish a new cosmic speed limit c’, rather than c, for all FTL Matter.

So can we use some of this FTL Matter for FTL travel to distant parts of the galaxy? Perhaps the method would be to build an engine that consumes FTL Matter fuel, using the laws of FTL Matter physics, to propel a spacecraft made of ordinary matter to velocities close to c’. Sounds enticing, but at present nobody knows if there is any such thing as FTL Matter, or if the idea of constructing an FTL Matter engine is even remotely feasible.

Breaking the speed-of-light barrier is a completely different category of problem from that of breaking the sound barrier. This isn’t simply a problem of materials engineering, though there may very well be a serious question as to what happens to ordinary matter when it is accelerated to a velocity greater than c. The real problem is at the most fundamental level of the physics of our universe. Thus far, the Special and General Theories of Relativity have survived every test to which they have been subjected– and so they represent the very best knowledge we presently have of how our universe works.

I realize that this isn’t what fans of science fiction want to hear. They want to believe that we will soon be exploring the length and breadth of the galaxy, and will soon be trying to figure out how to travel to other galaxies beyond our own. Given what we presently know about the way matter behaves in our universe, it seems extremely unlikely that FTL travel will ever be possible. And that means that exploration and colonization of the Milky Way galaxy will proceed at a slower-than-light speed and will therefore take millions of years.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.