34
Faster Than Light

In 1905, Albert Einstein worked out his Special Theory of Relativity.One of the basic consequences of the theory is that the speed of light in a vacuum (186,282.4 miles per second) is the absolute limiting velocity we can measure for anything possessing mass—which means any material object we know. That includes ourselves and our spaceships.

Can Einstein's theory be wrong? Not very likely.In the past three‐ quarters of a century, any number of measurements and any number of investigations have backed it up. The universe acts in the way that Einstein's theory says it acts, and the limiting nature of the speed of light would seem to be as factually solid as the earth we stand on.

But the speed of light is very slow. It seems fast to us on an earthly scale. Anything moving at the speed of 186,282.4 miles per second can move from San Francisco to New York in one-sixtieth of a second and can circumnavigate the globe in one-seventh of a second.At the speed of light an object can go from the earth to the moon in one and one-fourth seconds, and from the earth to the sun in 8 minutes.

But let's get away from the earth and its neighbors. The slowness of light then becomes apparent at once. At the speed of light, any object would take 4.3 years to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star; 540 years to reach the bright star Rigel; 30,000 years to reach the center of our galaxy; 80,000 years to reach its far edge; 2.3 million years to reach the Andromeda galaxy; and more than 10 billion years to reach the farthest known quasar.

Where does that put science-fiction writers who want to talk of a Galactic Empire, with millions of stars all forming a great community of intelligent beings? Where does it put " Star Trek," with the great starship Enterprise wandering among the stars to uphold justice and put down villainy?

-165-

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