A Blog for the Curious and the Scientifically Perplexed

This is the story of a great journey that started with a great thought. One day in 1895 a boy looked into a mirror and wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel on a beam of light. That sixteen year old boy was Albert Einstein and that one thought started him on the road to discover his Theory of Relativity. The great man has been reinvented as Albert 2.0 to come back and blog about a journey through space on a beam of light and explain the science behind everything from atoms, blackholes to global warming. If you've just joined and want to start at the beginning use the index on the left. If you're bored try these links below just for fun.


Monday, December 31, 2007

Albert’s lost secret revealed. What is the one thing that can travel faster than light?

The time has come, as the Walrus never said, to think of many things: of light and life and quantum cats, of planets and their rings and why the sun can shine so hot and give imagination wings.

By now Albert and his travelling companion are lost somewhere inside your head which just leaves me to finish off the story. Albert 2.0, like an imaginary friend, is only the palest imitation of the real thing. But then what sequel ever matched the original? I hope having first imagined this journey over a hundred years ago Einstein would have enjoyed finally completing it.

This journey was a thought experiment, the real Albert’s favourite type of experiment. A thought experiment that allowed us to imagine travelling across huge distances of space and time. When we started out 3000 years ago humans didn’t understand much about how things worked. Almost everything humanity knows about light, the universe, life and just about everything else about science was discovered during our travels. From a distant star called Deneb this journey has covered everything from how the sun shines and atom bombs to quantum mechanics and black holes. By ending up being seen we even managed to get inside one of the most the mysterious places in the universe, the human mind.

Different parts of this journey connect in surprising ways. People that made big discoveries in one area often made just as big a discovery in another. Newton worked out gravity and the basics of what light is all about. Kepler worked out planetary movement and was the first to properly explain how the human eye works. Albert himself, famous for his theories of relativity and E=Mc2, received his Nobel prize not for that but for showing that light comes in little packets or photons as they were later named. The total eclipse of the sun that shot Einstein to fame happened at a place and time that was predicted using Newton’s and Kepler’s laws.

Erwin Schrödinger who made the breakthrough in quantum mechanics went onto write a little book in 1944, called ‘What is Life?’ based on three lectures he gave in Trinity College Dublin in early 1943. He predicted that life needed some genetic code in the form of what he called an aperiodic crystal. James Watson read this book and this set him on the path to discover the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. As Watson himself put it, “Up until then, I was interested in birds. But then I thought, well, if the gene is the essence of life, I want to know more about it. And that was fateful because, otherwise, I would have spent my life studying birds and no one would have heard of me".

The discovery of the structure of DNA relied on a technique that involved using the scattering of X-ray photons to work out the internal shape of crystals. Linking all these discoveries together is light. Light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation, like x-rays and microwaves, crop up in almost every aspect of science from physics to understanding the climate, possibly even in the origin of life itself.

Not bad progress in 3000 years, even if humanity didn’t leave the planet for the first time until 40 years ago. Humans haven’t travelled far in galactic terms but our understanding of what’s going on out there now stretches across the galaxy and the whole universe. In just 500 years since the renaissance, human knowledge and awareness of the universe has spread from one little planet to distant galaxies billions of light years away. So human understanding has travelled far faster than light ever could - the one thing in the universe that breaks Einstein’s rule about nothing going faster than the speed of light, apart from imagination of course.

The big question that no-one can answer is ‘why are all these laws here in the first place?’ Did they just happen by chance? Some of the laws seem so simple and elegant it’s hard to imagine they were just the random results of a huge cosmic accident. To mathematicians and physicists these equations even appear beautiful. The question of how it all started is still unanswered. Did God invent the rules and then just sit back let the universe unfold for the next fifteen billion years? Is it all some huge cosmic experiment by a super advanced race, so powerful they might as well be God? Or are we really inside The Matrix, a huge computer simulation? It’s always worth remembering that despite everything that all the smartest people on Earth do know, there is much more that they don’t know.

With all this progress humans tend to think that all the big discoveries have been made. Does that mean there’s nothing much left to discover nowadays? People thought the same thing a hundred years ago. It wasn’t true then and it almost certainly isn’t now. One of the most successful scientists of the 19th century and one of the contributors to the second law of thermodynamics, Lord Kelvin, proved this point. In 1895 he said that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”, just 8 years before the Wright brothers flew the Kitty Hawk on December 17 1903 - the world’s first heavier-than-air flying machine or aeroplane as they are now called. He also came up with the now famous line in 1900 –

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

This was just a few years before Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the discovery of radioactivity completely changed science. So being a world famous scientist doesn’t guarantee you’ll always be right.

The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, the man that wrote ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, invented three laws about progress.

First law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Second law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Imagine how the things you take for granted would look like to Lord Kelvin if we could take him on a 100 year journey forward through time. Supersonic aeroplanes, space travel, microwave ovens and computers would all look like some form of magic. What seems like science fiction now could, with the help of the next generation of scientists, be just as real as all these things. Sometime it takes a leap of imagination to start believing that there are things still to be discovered.

So how much more is still to be discovered? Of all the things that seem impossible now, how many will become possible in your lifetime? Maybe someone reading this will go on to prove the impossible really is possible. Remember Einstein was only working in the patent office as a clerk when in a single year he changed the world. May be it could be you that’ll make the next great breakthrough and produce hover cars and space ships that can cover huge distances to finally let humans travel more than a light second into the galaxy. Admittedly there are only a few Albert Einsteins and Isaac Newtons ever born, but for every one of them there are thousands of scientists and inventors who have imagined the impossible and proved it’s possible. Like Alice said, in Through the Looking Glass:

So every second your brain is working flat out to make sense of the pattern of light reaching your eyes. Scanning across this page a jumble of black and white arrives at the retina in the back of your eyes. At the back of your head edges are picked out by individual brain cells. Lines of light and dark put together to make up the letters of the alphabet, the shapes programmed into your brain from nursery school. The letters are effortlessly pieced together into words. Words into sentences and sentences into meaning. The meaning lingers on in your memory, slowly fading over time.

So we will last within you for as long as the memory of this journey remains with you. I hope that some of what you’ve read will stay with you forever and you will try to imagine at least one impossible thing everyday before breakfast. I know we were only a minute fraction of the light reaching your eyes at the moment we arrived. But we can still say we were there, we were seen. Not immortality perhaps, but far better than never being seen at all.

After travelling so far it would have been a dreadful pity to have arrived just as you were blinking.


  1. Blackmirth said...
    Anonymous said...
    Thanks Albert2.0
    Anonymous said...
    Old news, but soon to be new news: the best part of the equation is the = sign.

    Matter/Energy, consciousness and Time form the world without end, endlessly repeating differently every timelessness.

    Old news: Sat Chit Ananda

    God the Universe between God the Father and God the Mother in the unknowable unity which is nothing...which is something

    or it wouldn't be anything.

    Isn't Science Wonderful?
    IT-Audit Duijnborgh said...
    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!
    Sean said...
    I'm in love! Sadly i lust for that which i cannot attain- a full understanding of science- the ultimate fantasy! I imagine myself running along a beam of light AT the speed of light only to find out its the same speed as when i was standing still! How wonderful, how despairing!
    James R said...
    That reminds me of when I was kid.. I thought if you went faster then the speed of light, in order to look where you had come from, you would have to look to where you were going...

    Insanity aside, Science isn't the understanding of everything. That would be boring! IT's the finding out that matters. Afterall, Einstein would've been out of luck if he hadn't been taught Newton's basic laws and simple arithmetic.

    Moral of the story, Be ignorant, get taught, and then try to prove your teachers wrong to make them proud!
    chippy said...
    chippy said...
    Hemant Dhupkar said...
    actual under actual experimental conditions {princeton university}
    and not with any stupid relativity experiments
    and also not with tachyons(imaginary particles having zero mass)

    light i.e.laser has been accelerated faster than c

    it has been accelerated upto 310*c

    laser light was passed thru cesium vapours to accelerate it

    einstein never did like quantum mechanics but that has been the only science which is explaining most of the things

    he even termed it as spooky
    but din disregard it
    he was wary of it

    now people have got to do some experiments and not just rely on the gr8 scientist only and the discoveries he made

    we need to move on and carry forward his good oh no great work

    one more thing too
    it is in accordance with what
    E = m*c^2 says

    "information cannot be transmitted faster than c"
    coz info is not

    may be debatable but still a good try
    Anonymous said...
    What an inspiring and beautiful essay. This should be required reading for the first day of every Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry course taught. Heck, every Math and Science course from elementary school through college. I will be reading this to my children whom I have taken the year off from college myself to home-school.

    It brings a tingle to my spine. Thank you.
    Anonymous said...
    Would it be at all foolish to say that time moves faster than light??
    Anonymous said...
    Time itself*
    albert2.0 said...
    Does time travel or do we travel through time? But as the real Albert
    said, 'Time only exists to stop everything happening at once.'
    Anonymous said...
    I think time does travel. We are just along for the ride.

    Time would still be here, even if we weren't.

    We don't call it "travelling" through the universe; we call it existing.

    Besides, we can't really "travel" when we can only go in one direction, at a constant speed...for lack of a better term, "against our will".
    Anonymous said...
    What is the only thing that travels faster than the speed of light, yep, huh, now that it has came out of nowhere and disappered just as fast. Thought! well it's an Ideal. just take the word stop and reverse the letters. Position. Of. The. Stars. Just a passing Thought. reelfast2
    Anonymous said...
    So then, time travel is possible. At least, it will be possible, after first being impossible.

    The limits are placed only to tell us how far we have striven until we have striven past them.
    Anonymous said...
    Well done sir!
    Dawning One said...
    time is nothing but a sequence of events that we can choose to enter or not at any given or chosen point.
    Ms Gray said...
    your blog is great to read... keep 'em coming... stuff i always thought and wondered about
    Reven said...
    very interesting blog, as questions like this always linger in my mind.
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    Ronald said...
    You can get more information by reading Albert's2.0 journey, then by watching Discovery Channel for 400 years!
    Anonymous said...
    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Anonymous said...
    This piece is a good demonstration of how science invariably and inevitably gets dragged back into philosophy/theology - everytime.
    Words like "imagination", "idea" and "memory" seem a little bit above the capability of a random collection of mere atoms which spontaneously evolved out of nothing and have no free will as they unquestioningly follow the laws of physics. I will keep using "God/soul/Love" as my Unified Theory of Everything and keep watching with interest as the Stephen Hawkins of this world come and go.
    Anonymous said...
    it would be difficult travelling thru time, coz you wouldn't be able to see where ur going. unless u control ur speed and slow it down to jus faster than light. What would u see behind u?
    University Physics prof said...
    Imagination aside, there actually is something that can travel faster than c, and that is space itself. The expansion of space is not restricted by c, since this "speed-limit" applies only to things moving *through* space, not to the space itself. This is not pseudo-science, it is true and well understood by physicists.

    Remember that space expands *everywhere* (like a balloon being inflated). And we now know that this expansion is *accelerating*. At some point, space itself will be expanding faster than c, and the night sky will turn black for us. Light from distant galaxies will not be fast enough to catch up with us as we move apart, and the only things that will be visible to us are the stars in our own galaxy (since the galaxy is "gravitationally bound", it moves together through space).

    If no light (or any other kind of signal or spaceship etc) can be sent to or received from those vanished distant galaxies, then they will be completely cut off from our existence forever, and humanity (or whoever is here to worry about it) would never even be able to know of their existence (without history books, we wouldn't even know that we didn't know they were there!).

    It's a good thing for physics and astronomy that humans developed when we did. In a few billion years when space is expanding faster than c and things begin to disappear from our sky, we won't be able to look up for answers. The famous microwave light leftover from the Big Bang will one of the first signals to disappear. If humans had developed after this happened, we would never have been able to reconstruct the first few minutes of our universe, or understand as much as we do about how the universe has evolved into what it is today. After that signal is gone, there will be absolutely nothing we could do to ever retrieve that information again. Humbling thought! Good thing we showed up when we did.
    Naerzuel said...
    There is infinite to learn. No one can know everything, even if they created everything. It just doesn't work that way. Therefore, even "God" doesn't know everything, if there indeed is a god.

    Albert 2.0 has added to the world of science, unfortunately that is only furthering the mystery. As we discover more, we ask more questions. When things are created, new things need to be created to help the old things work or serve a purpose.

    Example: Batteries would never have a use without most of modern technology.

    Get what I'm saying?
    Anonymous said...
    can anybody help me out? if dark matter and dark energy exsist is there not dark light by default and also if E=MC^2 then DE=DMDC^2 I think! help please!!!!!!!
    Anonymous said...
    What we call "God" depends on what your personal beliefs say. It is my belief that what we call God is the infinite dimensions of Time and space that we can't reach, but one day might find through the disappearing gravitons, supposidly produced by atom smashing in closed strings. I long for the day to come, however I quite disagree that God can't know everything. If he is in existance in a more sophisticated dimension than we may be able to comprehend, why couldn't he watch every move we make, and know everything to life, the universe, and everything?

    Also, about the "Lost Secret" :
    It might be so that thought is in fact faster than the speed of light, but the speed of thought can not be measured like the speed of light can.
    Anonymous said...
    in regards to things travelling faster than the speed of light. is'nt it true that if we take a pair of electrons, have one in the room with us, and have the other one on the other side of the universe, that whatever you do to one of those electrons, it immediately affects the other, with no time involved. thats a lot faster than the speed of light!
    Anonymous said...
    On March 21, 2009, Anonymous said...."If He is in existance in a more sophisticated dimension than we may be able to comprehend, why couldn't He watch every move we make, and know everything to life, the universe, and everything?"

    When we leave the every day mundane and explore the concepts of Einstein and challenge our dormant minds, occasionally someone will make a profound statement such as this one and it will demand our attention due to its simple intelligence and depth of thought.

    This site has been a wonderful find for me and offers a challenge to what was once a high powered thought engine but one that has allowed a sufficient amount of sludge to build up in it.

    We need to continue to challenge ourselves each day and insist on never accepting the status quo but never ingoring the necessity of maintaining certain aspects of the status quo as well.

    This along with the climate change or global warming discussions is enlightening and has opened up a few avenues to explore before making an informed decision or position on the matter. For now, I am a skeptic of the arrogance of man to ever assume he is powerful enough to actually make a significant enough contribution to be the primary cause of global warming.
    Anonymous said...
    if you want to know what god is then search zeitgeist, watch the first movie, you may not agree with the rest of it but it does provide an educating view on the conception of the so called christian "god" and a further insights into the world we live in today.
    Jeff said...
    Interesting! However, I have to point out in your graphic, the dialog is between the White Queen and Alice in "Through the Looking Glass", and in the picture you have the Red Queen and Alice.
    Anonymous said...
    AWESOME blog!!! You bravely tackled difficult topics and concepts in a very clear, easy and fun to read manner. Brilliant!
    Anonymous said...
    If, there is a god, then how was he created? Everything has a beginning and an end, if im correct, which i believe i am. So if there is a god, then there must be something before him and then something before the one that created god, and so on... so I feel it is absolutely impossible to find out where an origin of the universe came from. Also, if there is our universe, then is there also another? is there some sort of different dimension to which at this same exact moment and this same exact time, the same exact fingerstrokes are going on for someone else just like me??? how is anything possible? the realm of possibility? is there anything actually impossible?
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