Challenge 482 Response
The Luminiferous Aether
with John C. Conway
“Letters to the Luminiferous Aether” appears in issue 482.
2.a. What must the lightship’s mass be: Infinite? Zero? Negative?
Based on our understanding of physics, the mass of the lightship should not be either zero, infinite or negative. Its relativistic mass can only approach infinity as a limit if it accelerated from a velocity less than light speed initially. The mass transformation should be the inverse of the time-dilation transformation.
Lorentz transformations do not allow for real solutions with mass equal to zero. A negative mass may be mathematically feasible but does not, in my view, fall within the realm of physical characteristics upon which we have a solid handle, at least not within normal space-time.
But all this begs the question of whether physics as we know it is at play for the Garveys. Certainly time-dilation is evidenced, consistent with modern relativity. But other aspects of the story, including the apparent existence of a luminiferous aether and its catastrophic unfolding (not to mention the implied, unexplained ability to send and receive mail), suggest that different conclusions could have been drawn from the Michelson-Morley experiment, conclusions that are not presently understood but will be at a future time.
If that is the case, then it might be rash to discount the possibility of zero or negative mass (or even infinite mass, although it is the hardest to reconcile with the simple assumption that we have been “wrong” for the past century).
2.b. How much power might be needed to keep the lightship in orbit rather than flying off in a straight line?
The lightship’s velocity, if relativity applies at all, has to be so great that an Earth escape velocity would be a nominal fraction of the lightship’s speed, so it could probably not “orbit” Earth (without tearing it apart against nearly infinite mass and gravity) so much as follow a plotted circular course around Earth, which is close to the assumption Paulson M. Jones seems to make.
However, beginning at least with J. R. Sanderson, it seems finally understood that the lightship is passing Earth in a “sub-aether loop” and is not in normal space-time. Accordingly, potential other features are at play; features not understood in 2008, but understood by CE-2230, a date that may or may not correlate with the present calendar system.
Nevertheless, assuming most of relativity applies, the energy required to keep the lightship circling Earth at its velocity would be staggeringly large (approaching infinity) and ought to be calculable using a Lorentz transformation, modified only slightly by other physical factors, such as gravity and friction, to the extent they apply.
Thank you very much for the explanations, John! They comprise a truly Bewildering Story all in themselves. And yet and I think I understand them.
This is not a case of A beau mentir qui vient de loin — roughly, ‘What do I know? You can tell me anything.’ Rather, what you say is strange but quite literately coherent.
I’m normally allergic to stories or poems that require footnotes, but I’m also very fond of footnotes that are stories in themselves. And here we have a gloss that is, like the story itself, sheer fun.
Of course the point of “Luminiferous Aether” is not where the Garveys are, what they’re doing or even who they are. Rather, we see the record of a process by which “magic” — namely a sufficiently advanced technology — is demystified, and we witness the concomitant changes in the correspondents’ epistolary styles, social and physical conditions.
I imagine Stanislaw Lem, Jules Verne and Ray Cummings, among others in literary Heaven, getting a good chuckle out of all this even as we speak.