Wes Clark, Space Ranger


The great man himself weighs in on time-space continuum:

"I still believe in e=mc?, but I can't believe that in all of human history, we'll never ever be able to go beyond the speed of light to reach where we want to go," said Clark. "I happen to believe that mankind can do it.

"I've argued with physicists about it, I've argued with best friends about it. I just have to believe it. It's my only faith-based initiative."

From Wired, via Uncle Brian's Rant.

NEXT: Fringe Air

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  1. Actually light just plods along. Scientists just say it’s going fast because they’re afraid of it.

  2. Blah blah blah. Normal old “Wants to change the laws of physics” short-sighted tripe. I fully agree with old Wes on this one. I mean, humans thought the Earth was flat… turned out wrong. We thought the Earth was the center of the universe/galaxy/whathaveyou… turned out wrong. I’m sure many thought we couldn’t break the sound barrier… but they were wrong. Land on the moon? Impossible! Whoops, wrong again.

    So why would anybody be so preposterous as to sit here and argue flat out that we will NEVER EVER in all human ETERNITY figure out a way to break the speed of light? What makes light so special that it is the be-all-end-all of speedy universal constants (which actually isn’t even a constant. We can slow the speed of light.).

    So what if current physics can’t describe the process with which an object can move faster than light? We used to only have Newtonian physics, but that didn’t always work properly. So there are Quantum physics now, and a host of others. But no, we now have the tools to describe the universe always and forever, and light is the fastest of all. Period. Full stop. No discussion.

  3. (sigh)

    OK, I’m working on my Ph.D in physics. Now, any physicist will tell you that all scientific knowledge is subject to error bars and can’t be considered truly valid under circumstances that have not yet been probed by experiments. (The more philosophical types on this forum are welcome to try and one-up that statement with more precise formulations by invoking various philosophers of science in a big pissing contest, but the basic idea is sound.)

    That said, I’d be willing to bet money that macroscopic objects will never be able to exceed the speed of light in vacuum under conditions that humans could survive, even with the benefit of advanced technologies. The Special Theory of Relativity is too well-tested under too many circumstances to just completely fall apart under “ordinary” conditions.

    Now maybe some day people will find a way to create wormholes in space time so that two points formerly separated by dozens of light years are now separated by a few light-seconds or whatever. But even that won’t be faster-than-light travel. If two people go from New York to Sydney at the same speed but one stays on the surface of the earth while the other takes a tunnel through the inner earth, the tunneler didn’t go any faster than the other guy, he just took a different path.

    Anyway, I want to know why in the world Clark feels the need to comment on this and sound like some guy at a Star Trek convention.

    P.S. To get off on a pet peeve of mine for a moment, physics teachers get it all wrong when they say that relativity is interesting because it means that objects traveling really fast obey non-Newtonian laws of motion. Nobody interested in applied physics (e.g. me) gives a rat’s ass about things moving at 0.99c. Relativity is interesting because it gives a very deep insight into how magnets work and how light is produced. That is VERY interesting and useful!

  4. thoreau,
    WTF? Seriously what are you talking about. Relativity doesn’t say anything at all about magnets and light. In fact, to get deeper than Maxwell you need quantum physics, a framework that’s inexpressible in relativistic terms (except in string theory, but that’s way way out there).

    The special theory speaks of time and space, and the general of gravity. Beyond the propagation of magnetic flux through space and the path of light beams I don’t see how relativity has any bearing on the subject at all.

  5. Warren-

    Ever read Purcell’s “introductory” E&M book? (The type of book that a genius like Purcell thinks is suitable for sophomores, but my professors used as reference books for seniors.) Ever read Schwartz’s E&M book?

    In both cases they start with Coulomb’s Law and special relativity. Say we have a charged wire. No current, just static charge. We can calculate the electric field around the wire quite easily and determine the force on a point charge quite easily. Now go to a reference frame in which the wire is moving. Do the necessary relativistic transformations on the force felt by the charge and you get a velocity-dependent term. That velocity-dependent term turns out to be the magnetic field, and it arises because the current and charge density in the wire can be shown to transform as 4-vectors when you look at the spacing between electrons that were stationary in one reference frame and are moving in another.

    Confused? I don’t know what your background is, whether you have a degree in a related science so you have some physics background, or whether you’re an interested layman. Either way, you clearly never took a class where they get to the good stuff. Once you apply relativity to the study of Maxwell’s equations you get all these great insights about how magnetic fields arise and how a magetic field in one reference frame can be an electric field in another frame.

    Even Jackson’s classic graduate E&M book has tons of stuff on relativity. All the really great insights into E&M come from applying relativity to the study of Maxwell’s equations.

    Of course, this is never discussed in most introductions to relativity, and that’s a shame. Even though most of what I’m typing now might sound confusing to the uninitiated, a careful teacher can make it much simpler (I’ve seen it done, but I’m in a hurry and I’m not an experienced teacher). The origin of magnetism is really a beautiful thing.

    Finally, the early insights into relativity (e.g. Lorentz transformations, which predate Einstein’s theory of relativity) came from the realization that Maxwell’s equations aren’t invariant under Galilean transformation (i.e. ordinary Newtonian physics) but are invariant under transformations discovered by Lorentz.

    See, relativity has a lot to say about electromagnetism!!!!

  6. Wow. I just thought it was funny and Bobo for Clark to be discussing relativity.

  7. I like the E&M discussion, but I’ll weigh in on
    SickofItAll’s comment about the speed of light not
    being a constant. When physicists refer to the
    constant, c, we of course mean the speed in vacuum.
    Non only is light slowed down in a medium, but
    particles can and do exceed that speed; this is the
    origin of Cerenkov radiation, a very real
    phenomenon which you can find a nice description of
    in Jackson Ch. 13.4.
    And shame on you thoreau for not giving a rat’s
    ass since 0.99c is about how fast we get our electrons
    going over here at SLAC.

  8. thoreau,
    Thanks. I was not aware of that analysis, but have a feel for the flavor of it. I grocked (there’s that word again) Halliday and Resnick before moving on into quantum for half a semester. My degree is BSEE and have enough of an interest in physics to watch Nova and read Scientific American.

  9. OK, I’ll give a physics shout-out to my homies at SLAC! I didn’t mean to be dissing you. Geek on, you 0.99c whizzes! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I forgot to address something Warren said about relativity and quantum physics not being compatible. Quantum mechanics and special relativity have been integrated quite successfully into quantum electrodynamics (QED). There are some problems in it, from what I understand, but not being initiated into the mysteries of relativistic quantum field theory I can’t say too much about those. I can, however, say that people have found ways to get exquisitely accurate predictions of electromagnetic phenomena from this theory (e.g. the electron’s magnetic moment).

    The really big problems come when people try to integrate general relativity with quantum physics. Then it all goes to hell and you have to delve into things far beyond the comprehension of my poor mortal brain.

  10. No harm done thoreau. You did say “applied”
    physics after all, which probably doesn’t have much
    use for 0.99c. Thanks also for bringing up QED;
    the agreement between theory and experiment for the
    electron magnetic moment (12 decimal places?) makes
    QED the most precise verifiable theory ever conceived
    by humans. So much for relativity being incompatible
    with QM, but he probably did mean general relativity.
    People need to take that stuff with a grain of salt,
    though. as physicists tend to be very hard on
    themselves for needing a whopping 23 input parameters
    to be able to describe every fundamental interaction
    ever observed in nature. Now, if you’ll excuse me,
    since I get my check from Uncle Sam I’m getting the
    hell out of my office before the clock hits 5:01.

  11. Oh now you’ve gone and done it. QED is the great triumph of my personal hero Richard P Feynman. I never advanced far enough to study his physics academically but I’ve read quite a bit that he wrote for the layman. He had a remarkable ability to express ideas simply without perverting them. QED is a quantum theory, not a relativistic one. It does take relativity into account in making the appropriate transformations. That serves to add more figures to the agreement with experiment. It works perfectly for photons and electrons but not so well inside the nucleus. I highly recommend Feynmans short tome “QED” for an introduction to the theoretical insights (no prerequisites needed).

  12. I certainly don’t know as much about physics as thoreau, but I still have to disagree. I think, as far as laypeople are concerned, creating a wormhole to travel between solar systems in a matter of seconds would count as faster-than-light travel. Someone like Clark is far more concerned with the practical benefit of space travel than the technicalities of physics.

    I’m not sure I agree with the criticism of Clark for talking about physics either. The context in which he made that statement isn’t really clear. For all we know, a reporter specifically asked about it.

  13. According to the Wired article, the context was “at the end of a long answer to a question about his views of NASA and the U.S. space program.”

    Seems like the good General got just a little out of his depth on the question, which I found kind of amusing. Kind of like me commenting on interior design.

    Thoreau, et al: thanks for the enlightening comments. You make me wish I retained more of my (apparently, very introductory) emag course back in undergrad, which I took on my way to a chemistry degree before hopping on the biology train for my PhD. Much respect.

  14. Does anyone know how many g’s someone would have to endure to get up to light speed? (just for arguments sake) I thought I heard somewhere that you would need to endure 4 g’s for a week or something just to accelerate up to it. I wasn’t sure if this was true or not and don’t really want to do the math.

  15. Um, if you’re a massive object, it will take an infinite amount of energy to actually reach light speed.

    How close to light speed do you want to get?

    (BTW, am delighted to see so many physicists here on Reason. Does anyone know what the latest verson of quantum gravity is trying to work with? Back in the 1980s it was SU(5). Or has everyone scampered off into string theory and Calabi-Yau manifolds?)

  16. So Clark is going to open wormhole and get chased through it by a giant white rabbit that wants to kill him – oh wait I’m getting my delusional politicians confused again.

  17. No but lets just say you could make the jump to light speed, its not gonna be like, “hey, better sit down while we make the jump into hyperspace”, won’t it be more like hey, better deal with a lot of pain while we go from 0 to 669,600,000 m/h.

  18. Xavier:

    The problem with this definition is that it’s not tracing the path you take – your path is defined as the path through the wormhole, not the “normal” path you could have taken.

    Think of it this way – the maximum speed my car will go is 100 miles per hour. Given the roundabout path I go from point A to B which just so happens to be 100 miles, theoretically the fastest I could ever get there would be one hour (it’s a very roundabout path). Now, all of the sudden tomorrow they construct a straight line path to my destination, this time it only being 10 miles. Suddenly, I can get to my destination in 10 minutes. Does this mean my maximum speed changed, or simply that my mean path has?

    Somewhat contrived, but it’s applicable because it forces us to think about what “space” is. Say I take a sheet of paper and mark two points on it. Theoretically, in a 2-D world, the shortest distance between those points is my proverbial straight line. Now I fold that sheet over and punch a hole between the two points. I can now make them infintessimally close. This does not mean that my maximum velocity changes – simply that my mean free path is shorter.

    (brought to you by another geeky physics graduate student)

  19. thoreau:

    As a physicist, you’re not into dowsing, are you?

  20. It doesn’t matter how many “g’s” you endure. You can get to any speed (below the speed of light) with even a very tiny acceleration (say a tiny fraction of a g) if you just undergo that acceleration for a long enough time.

    The problem is that even if you accelerate at a huge rate for a duration longer than Strom Thurmond’s political career you still won’t reach light speed (light speed in vacuum, that is). Unless you have zero rest mass, in which case you’re already traveling at the speed of light.

  21. What’s dowsing?

  22. Sorry, just trying and failing to make an “insider” joke.

    Dowsing is the psuedoscience of finding underground water with a Y shaped stick. I have been lead to believe that it’s a hobby for some physicists.

    Check out http://www.skepdic.com/dowsing.html

    I wish I had the concentration and discipline to understand physics better. It’s like by the time I get the second half of a sentence, I’ve forgotten the first half.

  23. thoreau,
    About six months ago I looked at a book in Barnes&Noble that, I think I remember, argued (mathematically) for the idea that S.R. can be derived from just Newtonian physics. I also think I remember, at least, semi-approving reviews from academics on the back of the book. I spaced out the title and authors name and wish I hadn’t. Do you know anything about this volume or the idea?

  24. Rick-

    Sorry, can’t help you there. It’s possible that the synopsis said something like “The author starts by reviewing the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics and goes on to develop relativity.” All that would mean is that the author reviews the older theory that relativity replaces, but which relativity must nonetheless agree with in certain experimental regimes if it is to be considered valid (i.e. the regime of observations that supported Newtonian physics for centuries).

    Or, maybe the author set out to derive relativity from the fewest assumptions possible. That’s a very instructive exercise. Some people simply postulate the full machinery of relativity and say “It turns out that…” and then apply it to various physical phenomena. Others start from some common assumptions about relativity and derive the theory from that. And still others try to weaken those assumptions as much as possible to see what the real physical content behind the theory is.

    Anyway, I will state without equivocation that the theory of relativity requires some sort of physical assumption above and beyond the assumptions that went into Newtonian mechanics.

  25. The mathmatical framework of special relativity (which describes frames of reference travelling with a constant velocity) is not particularly complicated once you assume the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference. Newtonian dynamics assumes no maximum velocity and therefore does not include special relativity physics. The mathematical framework of general relativity (which describes accelerating frames of reference, i.e. gravity) is a real bitch and doesn’t have much to do with Isaac Newton.

  26. Mark A., the electrons have an energy of 8995MeV, and
    the positrons 3118MeV so we’re talking more like
    .999999998c but my calculator doesn’t have enough decimal
    places to be trusted. Of course, rounding up would
    violate special relativity so I rounded off. The energies
    are such that the center-of-mass rest energy is at the
    Upsilon(4s) resonance, the lowest mass bottom quark pair
    that is above the threshhold for B meson hadronization.
    The asymmetry in the energies gives the quark pair
    a Lorentz boost of beta*gamma = 0.56 in the lab frame.
    While there is of course nothing wrong with the general
    speculating that there is more out there that we still
    need to learn, I wonder if when he “argued with physicists”
    whether it was on scientific grounds or philosophical.

  27. BaBar,

    Likely philosophical … I hope. Nothing more unnerving than someone who doesn’t know when they are wrong, insisting on unprovable beliefs despite lack of evidence, and having his finger on the “button.” And I am not talking about Clark.




    PS Fantastic thread folks!! Enjoyed it immensely. I believe PBS is going to be running a good series on the latest and greatest of Physics soon…using the latest CG tools. Might be interesting.

  28. There are barriers, and then there are barriers. The “sound barrier” was never a theoretical limitation, only a practical one. Scientists knew that things could punch through “the sound barrier,” both in atmospheric conditions (e.g., the cracking end of a bullwhip) and the vacuum of space and extremely high-altitudes (e.g., meteors, or even the Earth itself). There was nothing in theory that prevented acceleration to the speed of sound or beyond. All the problems were practical. Engineers feared that man might not “break the sound barrier” for some time, because we didn’t have materials, construction techniques, engines, energy sources, or sufficient knowledge of such things as streamlining , etc., which are necessary to build a vehicle that will maintain stability and structural integrity (protecting a human occupant!) as it moves fast enough to overcome atmospheric resistance and generate the “sound barrier” shock wave.

    With lightspeed travel, the problem is qualitatively different. Our best theory (insofar as I have heard, anyway) does not support the idea that one can ever accelerate to the speed of light without using up all the energy in the universe, much less accelerate beyond that intrinsic, real “barrier.” (Yeah, I know that there’s nothing to say you couldn’t go FASTER than light, if only you could skip the messy part of accelerating to light-speed in the first place, but once again, we have no clue how to do this. It’s not just a matter of refining our knowledge, techniques, and materials.)

    Clark appears to be hoping for a “miracle” of progress, a total — and totally unpredictable — breakthrough, whereby the theoretical limitations we have known no longer apply (or become irrelevant — who cares if we cannot technically accelerate to light speed, as long as we can open a magic hole to some place unimaginably far away and, by stepping through it, travel a farther distance per unit time than light could?).

    In another leap of faith, some people have believed for decades, that computers will someday be sentient and outstrip their human creators in intelligence. It may indeed someday happen, but anyone who bet on it at the beginning of the “electronic brain age” in the 1950s would still be waiting to collect today, and probably for many years to come. Not beacuse we lack means and hardware — surely there are enough processors and memory chips in the world to construct a collection of artificial neurons that rival human brains in complexity, if only we could figure out the right way to put them all together. Our problem is that we lack basic knowledge — theory — about what intelligence is and how to model it. People are even still arguing about whether it is possible — not just feasible, but even possible — to adequately model a biological brain, or to produce similar levels of intelligence, with computer code or circuitry. Maybe someone will discover tomorrow how to do this, or in another 100 years. Or perhaps someone will discover how to build a machine that performs tasks that now require human intelligence; whether that machine is “truly” intelligent or sentient will be irrelevant. Any of these unpredictable events would seem more likely than finding a way to get around relativity’s speed limit, at least until some artificial intelligence theorist

    To sum up, there are “barriers” that crop up when something we know we can do is way beyond our practical abilities. There are “barriers” that crop up when we really don’t know whether something can be done or not, much less how to do it. And then there are barriers imposed by the implications of everything we know and everything we can prove, which indicate that something simply cannot be done, no matter how hard we try. If anyone ever finds a way to do something like that, we will have to change our fundamental view of the universe. It’s happened before, but not often in human history, so Clark’s certainty really is a kind of unjustified faith. I hope his faith is rewarded, but I don’t expect to see it happen in my lifetime.

  29. In the next-to-last paragraph in my posting above, I left an unfinished sentence:

    “…Any of these unpredictable events would seem more likely than finding a way to get around relativity’s speed limit, at least until some cognition theorist determines unequivocally that the nature of intelligence cannot be expressed by any finite, textual description (i.e., by a program or other symbolic representation).”

  30. There once was a fencer named Fisk
    Whose swordplay was exceedingly brisk
    So quick was his action
    Fitzgerald contraction
    Reduced his rapier to a disk!

    There was a young lady named Bright
    Who could travel much faster than light
    She set out one day
    In a relative way
    And came back the previous night

    Help me. I’m very, very ill…….

  31. BaBar,

    0.99999999677306570718043193725854c is what I get for 8995 MeV electrons. I find that the scientific calculator function that comes with Windows is quite good, generally exceeding by a considerable margin the best handheld units (as well as Excel). Since I’m usually at my desk for any calculations of any import anyway….

    Nice little gadget you have there. ๐Ÿ™‚

  32. Thoreau,
    What’s the dirt on this stuff in academia ?


  33. Hey, Clark should know; after all, the joint chiefs are among the few humans allowed to know about Stargate program.

    I’m joking, I think ๐Ÿ˜‰

  34. I started out trying to use the calculator in KDE
    Linux, but couldn’t find a squareroot button. Either
    I’m blind or that is a pretty major oversight on the
    programmer’s part.
    I’m sure you realize that your calculation (and mine)
    assume 8995.0000000000000000000000000MeV electrons,
    which we of course don’t guarantee.
    The previous experiment collided at ~90GeV center of
    mass (Z resonance), so it’s actually been tuned
    down quite a bit for B physics.

  35. The question has been answered: Wesley Clark is indeed a secular-loving Democrat

    Yeah, like that rat-bastard James Madison. ๐Ÿ™‚

  36. “The problem is that even if you accelerate at a huge rate for a duration longer than Strom Thurmond’s political career you still won’t reach light speed (light speed in vacuum, that is).”

    But if you accelerate at a single g for a period of one year, you’ll get awfully close.

    Keep accelerating, and you’ll get even closer, and time dilation kicks in. You’ll get where you’re going in a decent amount of time (by your own reckoning!). On the other hand, when you get back, you’ll find things changed just a wee bit ๐Ÿ™‚

    On the gripping hand, if we ever get that anti-aging pill, you’ll still find your friends and family waiting for you when you get back from your interstellar trip. And, if you left your pregnant wife behind, your great-grandchildren.

  37. Ah, good ‘ol Wes. The Ross Perot moments just keep coming.

  38. SickOfItAll,

    You’re confusing beliefs that were arrived at arbitrarily or driven by religious dogma with knowledge acquired by objective means. The speed of light and the conditions surrounding it were discovered by scientific methodology. The answer is the answer regardless of whether it is attractive.

  39. My God, but you are one sexy bastard, thoreau. LOL

    For all of my educational failings, I do have to throw a mention of Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace into this discussion. He managed to make clear the possibilities of avoiding the constraints of general physics when discussing things like FTL travel.

    For instance, the Einstein-Rosen bridge – one could (theoretically, of course) cross through a black hole. Whether we’d ever find a way to get a human being to tolerate the forces generated is doubtful in my mind. No matter how fond I am of human space travel, this may be an instance in which we will never be able to experience it ourselves but one that we may explore remotely.

  40. That’s right–space elevators all the way!

    I’m glad to see Clark’s interest in science and space development, however. We need a few people in the WH who actually understand both. I think Quayle was the guy who–at least verbally–came out with the most howlers about science. He might actually have been more intelligent.

  41. Wow, you guys are still talking about this.
    LauraN, in addition to a human not being able to
    withstand the forces accompanying her entry into a
    black hole, it would be impossible to explore it
    remotely (if I understand what you mean) since any
    probe which crossed the event horizon would be
    effectively outside our universe forever, barring
    FTL travel of course.

  42. “It’s my only faith-based initiative.”

    The question has been answered: Wesley Clark is indeed a secular-loving Democrat. What a joke. Clark is the 21st century version of H. Ross, but without the money.

  43. I stop visiting (the frequently inaptly-named) Reason Online for a few days and they actually generate an interesting thread! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Eric Pobirs, there is nothing inherently wrong with what the General says. It should be remembered that EVERYTHING we ?know? is based on belief (or, for scientists who recoil at that word, ‘assumptions’). Indeed, even empirical observations derive their credibility from nothing more (or less) than a fundamental belief in their validity. We believe that there exists an external reality separate and distinct from our subjective perceptions of the world, in which all quantities can be expressed in various & sundry combinations of mass, length and time, but we cannot prove it. For all we know, the Red King could awake and we would all cease to exist (assuming that all of you exist; perhaps you are all just figments of my imagination?). It is PRACTICALITY which ultimately drives the way we conceptualize science and nature and reject solipsism.

    As I recall, Einstein simply assumed the invariability of the speed of light. He was not aware of the results (all negative) of the Michelson and Morley experiments. It fit very neatly into the work of Fitzgerald, Lorentz and Poincar? and happened to work exceedingly well. Still, special relativity took a while to be accepted and Einstein?s only Nobel prize (there?s a shame!) was not for this work (I?ve read it was for his analysis of Brownian motion [and thus demonstrating the existence of atoms] and I?ve read it was for his explanation of the photo-electric effect; I don?t know which). However, relativity is now so highly regarded that a substitute would have to be VERY compelling vis-a-vis Occam’s Razor and new/ additional phenomena explained.

    James Merritt, all those things you mention are multi-variable functions; i.e., they depend on much more than technical/ scientific factors. Remember that as much as science and technology influence society, the influence of society (cultural mores, economics, etc.) on science and technical development is probably at least as great.

    BaBar, my calculations show 0.99c –> 3.6 MeV electrons. Is there a scientific reason for this energy, or is it just a practical matter [i.e., all you Stanford folks can muster :-)]?

  44. The real question here is 1) will time travellers (TT) from the future help or hurt Clark’s campaign? If he wins we can assume that he was a TT plant or otherwise helped so that TT could get off the ground. Conversely, if he loses I think it is safe to say that the TTs will have undermined his campaign bcse either 1) we are not ready to pursue TT or 2) it was all a big mistake and the TTs need to stop it.

    Either way forget about free will.

    Now, if you will excuse me I have to go kill my great-great-great grandmother…..

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