Tuesday, November 22, 2011


When I was about twelve or thirteen years of age, I found a book at the public library titled "Spacetime Physics", by Edwin F. Taylor, and John Wheeler. Despite having only just mastered decimals, fractions, and ratios, I was able to follow this book on Einstein's Special Relativity.

It wasn't that I was a precocious young sprout. Rather that the text of this book was just so damn clear and accessible that even a 6th grader could follow it.

Well, after reading through the book a few times,  I realized I could compute just how much fuel the starship Enterprise needed to zoom around in space.

Well, actually, no. I didn't know about the square root of minus one yet. I also had no solid figures on what the equivalent to specific impulse a warp plasma  using a dilithium conversion of matter/antimatter explosion was.

Relativistic Kinetic Energy
So, instead, I decided, since I knew what specific impulse was from my geek eldest brother, I decided to find out just how much fuel it would take for 190,000 tons of the Enterprise to go from zero to almost the speed of light (.99c) using its impulse drive. I just found the (theoretical) numbers in other books at the library, applied No. 2 pencil to yellow tab paper, plugged in the numbers into the equation for relativistic momentum, and voila!

Imagine my disappointment, when my figures indicated a fuel tank full of liquid hydrogen approximately ten times the volume of the USS Enterprise.

Well, my sixth grade calculations were off just a bit. Really more like a fuel tank a thousand times the volume of the Enterprise. Nevertheless, I was quite disillusioned with the show.

(I think that was also the year I figured a loving personal God was also probably not in the offings as well. At least, no God worth worshiping. But that was done strictly via good old fashioned logic and scholasticism. So, two birds with one stone, basically).

But the graph for relativistic momentum provided me with a new epistemological metaphor for science and technology and truth. See? The closer you get to absolute truth, the harder it gets to get there. That particular mental model stuck with me well through high school, until I got to college.

No, I did not become a postmodern relativist butthead, thank you. I just realized that:

1) There may be no such thing as absolute truth
2) If such a thing exists, the path to it may be not so straightforward and direct
3) There's always going backwards, backtracking, dead ends, blind alleys, and wild goose chases
4) Even if you manage to struggle to the top of one mountain, there's a whole new, much bigger range on the horizon.

Now what do I think about stuff like this?

I think... I think I need a nap.

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