[Fiction] Mind the bump

cosmic highway

There are laws in this universe that cannot be broken.

I was young when they first told me that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. It was just past my seventh birthday, and I was still at that stage in my life where others’ rules did not apply to me and where my best friend Calvin’s belief that his parents were aliens sent ahead of the invasion fleet was plausible, and even likely. In defense of my younger self, I wasn’t completely stupid — I at least possessed the good sense to accept Mr. Nelson’s chocolate chip cookies, when offered. I like to take this as evidence of a shrewd pragmatism emerging in my juvenile self, but the reality is that more than likely I was helpless to resist. Whether they were insidious tools of the coming alien invasion or not, papa Nelson’s choc chip cookies were legendary amongst Calvin’s extended friendship circle — they had that rare and enviable quality of being crunchy on the outside and warm, gooey and slightly raw in the center which is the epitome of cookiedom. Sure, Calvin didn’t end up being such a great friend in the end, but boy do I miss his dad’s cookies.

Now, in those days it was my parents’ habit to bust out the station wagon about two weeks into the summer holidays for the annual family trip up north to the Seal Islands, just off the coast of Washington state. These trips were notionally to promote harmony and goodwill in our little suburban family unit, but I think the reality was that two weeks of my sisters and I fighting over the television and stealing each other’s Beanie Babies was the length of time required to remind my parents why they hated summer holidays. I was never sure why they didn’t just bundle us off to camp every summer, rather than engaging in these long, drawn-out exercises in forced proximity, but whatever the reason they kept at it. I guess they liked it well enough.

So there we were: in the family wagon on our great adventure north along Route 101, the highway which runs between Oregon and Washington. My sisters and I were being annoying brats in the back as usual, demanding cassette tapes be played, snacks handed out, and gracing our parents with various out-of-tune renditions of ’99 Bottles of Beer’, none of them good. Eventually, boredom set in for real and we could no longer be placated by the promise of candy and snacks, the point at which my parents would usually settle into survival mode: hunched backs, clenched teeth, hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel. On this trip my dad must have been feeling particularly energetic, though, because my normal routine of inquiring whether we were there yet a few dozen times followed by a description of how if we just traveled really really fast we could arrive in zero seconds was not met by tense, teeth-grinding silence but rather by his indulgent chuckle.

‘I’m afraid not, son,’ he said, without looking back. ‘Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light!’

That nothing can travel faster than the speed of light was an astonishing revelation to me then, and it still is. At the time, I made sense of this as a practical limitation — if you were to go faster than the speed of light, the traffic police would pull you over and issue you a ticket, like they had when Mr. Nelson ran a red light taking me and Calvin to soccer practice. Even when my dad told me that this was true right across the universe — something I had no real concept of — I just scaled it up in my mind to include stars and galaxies running along a much larger cosmic highway, something I could conceptualize thanks to the colorful illustrations I’d seen on episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Even now, having completed four years of physics at university, this fundamental law of the universe still astounds me, especially when I realize information is bounded by the same limit. Are you telling me that if the Sun went out, I wouldn’t know about it until eight minutes later? That it’s not possible to know about it until eight minutes later, peering out from the surface of the Earth? The light reaching us from the very edges of the known universe could be from long-dead stars and galaxies that have been cold for millennia — and likely is — but we won’t know until enough time has passed. We’re playing a waiting game with no shortcut or secret quick solution. It’s not a matter of engineering a better interstellar warp drive or improving our measuring equipment. It just can’t be done. Maybe you can cheat by folding space like paper or, like the theoretical tachyon, exist on the other side of the barrier and slide helplessly backwards through time for all of time, but that’s about it. The universal speed limit holds firm no matter how you approach it.

The universe is full of inflexible and arbitrary laws that can only be broken in the head of a seven-year-old kid.

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