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Weird Physics

Section 1 – Relative to What – Faster than Light?

Einstein published five landmark papers in a single year, 1905, now called his “Miracle Year” (see book of that title).  This swiss patent clerk burst onto the stage in a discontinuous way that later caused conspiracy theorists to speculate that he was fronting someone else’s work, specifically a woman scientist that could get no “street cred” in that day and age.  No matter – Special Relativity theory went public in 1905.  General Relativity (which adds gravity) followed 10 years later.

Less than two years earlier (much less, given publishing lead-times), two bicycle mechanics experimented with curved surfaces on a beach in Kitty Hawk, NC, giving the world the first powered flight.  You can be fairly sure Einstein had never seen an airplane when special relativity was conceived, and certainly had never experienced a sonic boom.

This is important as it involves some key assumptions that led to the supposed conclusion that faster-than-light travel was not possible.

We are always free to use whatever coordinate system we choose to describe any physical space.  Some are more awkward than others, and the art is in finding the mathematical form that is most elegant in the way it describes a physical reality.  Einstein started by saying every point of view is valid (so far so good) but then went on to say that what is observed via the electromagnetic phenomenon called “light” is absolute truth, for every observer at all times.  That’s called setting up axioms, which is also fine when playing theory games, but you then have to let go of the axioms that they replace.  Einstein failed this one in a big way.

Doppler shifts were well understood in 1905 as an effect of velocity on frequency of a sound wave.  A vehicle rushing towards you seems higher pitch, but the pitch drops vey low after it rushes past and speeds away.  This is described mathematically.  There was a very real argument in those days as to what happened when you reached the speed of sound, and whether the break-down of acoustics would be so terrible that humans would not survive the experience.  Remember, nobody had ever experienced a sonic boom which is where a plane travels for awhile right around the speed of sound and all the sound waves pile up together giving a window-shattering “pulse” of noise in the flight path.  Afterwards, you hear the sound of the plane “catching up to you” from a distance, and it actually sounds like the plane is going backwards away from you.

Einstein applied the same reasoning to the effect of velocities near the speed of light.  Using the same equations you can calculate the apparent kinetic energy of an object as a function of velocity and show that it would appear to have infinite energy if its velocity matched that of light.  He reasoned that since the observation was valid, and energy cannot be infinite, travel at light speed cannot be possible.  He was describing the light-based analog of a sonic boom, and if he had brought forth that theory 50 years later, he would have been laughed off the stage.  What’s wrong with something simply appearing to have infinite energy, even though it doesn’t?  He can’t have his cake and eat it too.  He says the observation is both “valid” and “impossible”.  The problem is with the claims; he is holding on to contradictory axioms.  Reality will keep going on doing whatever it chooses, whether your mathematical model fits it or not.  What we need is a more intuitive understanding of electromechanical wave behavior.

This is an easy-to-understand example of how we are rooted in our human experience, and this fact shapes our ability to understand the implications of quantum mechanics.  In this series of essays, I will undertake the task of applying a different perspective to many of the core understandings of modern physics.  I’m not saying these new explanations are necessarily right, only that our blindness to alternatives has prevented us from giving these and similarly unpopular theories a fair hearing.

An so the adventure begins.

[© Copyright 2016 by Gerald Keep.  All Rights Reserved.]

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