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Does Einstein's Theory of Relativity Imply That Interstellar Space Travel is Impossible?

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Does Einstein's theory of relativity imply that interstellar space travel is impossible?

Paul Mainwood:

The opposite. It makes interstellar travel possible—or at least possible within human lifetimes.

The reason is acceleration. Humans are fairly puny creatures, and we can’t stand much acceleration. Impose much more than 1 g of acceleration onto a human for an extended period of time, and we will experience all kinds of health problems. (Impose much more than 10 g and these health problems will include immediate unconsciousness and a rapid death.)

To travel anywhere significant, we need to accelerate up to your travel speed, and then decelerate again at the other end. If we’re limited to, say, 1.5 g for extended periods, then in a non-relativistic, Newtonian world, this gives us a major problem: Everyone’s going to die before we get there. The only way of getting the time down is to apply stronger accelerations, so we need to send robots, or at least something much tougher than we delicate bags of mostly water.

But relativity helps a lot. As soon as we get anywhere near the speed of light, then the local time on the spaceship dilates, and we can get to places in much less (spaceship) time than it would take in a Newtonian universe. (Or, looking at it from the point of view of someone on the spaceship: they will see the distances contract as they accelerate up to near light-speed—the effect is the same, they will get there quicker.)

Here’s a quick table I knocked together on the assumption that we can’t accelerate any faster than 1.5 g. We accelerate up at that rate for half the journey, and then decelerate at the same rate in the second half to stop just beside wherever we are visiting.

You can see that to get to destinations much beyond 50 light years away, we are receiving massive advantages from relativity. And beyond 1000 light years, it’s only thanks to relativistic effects that we’re getting there within a human lifetime.

Indeed, if we continue the table, we’ll find that we can get across the entire visible universe (47 billion light-years or so) within a human lifetime (28 years or so) by exploiting relativistic effects.

So, by using relativity, it seems we can get anywhere we like!

Well ... not quite.

Two problems.

First, the effect is only available to the travelers. The Earth times will be much much longer. (Rough rule to obtain the Earth-time for a return journey [is to] double the number of light years in the table and add 0.25 to get the time in years). So if they return, they will find many thousand years have elapsed on earth: their families will live and die without them. So, even we did send explorers, we on Earth would never find out what they had discovered. Though perhaps for some explorers, even this would be a positive: “Take a trip to Betelgeuse! For only an 18 year round-trip, you get an interstellar adventure and a bonus: time-travel to 1300 years in the Earth’s future!”

Second, a more immediate and practical problem: The amount of energy it takes to accelerate something up to the relativistic speeds we are using here is—quite literally—astronomical. Taking the journey to the Crab Nebula as an example, we’d need to provide about 7 x 1020 J of kinetic energy per kilogram of spaceship to get up to the top speed we’re using.

That is a lot. But it’s available: the Sun puts out 3X1026 W, so in theory, you’d only need a few seconds of Solar output (plus a Dyson Sphere) to collect enough energy to get a reasonably sized ship up to that speed. This also assumes you can transfer this energy to the ship without increasing its mass: e.g., via a laser anchored to a large planet or star; if our ship needs to carry its chemical or matter/anti-matter fuel and accelerate that too, then you run into the “tyranny of the rocket equation” and we’re lost. Many orders of magnitude more fuel will be needed.

But I’m just going to airily treat all that as an engineering issue (albeit one far beyond anything we can attack with currently imaginable technology). Assuming we can get our spaceships up to those speeds, we can see how relativity helps interstellar travel. Counter-intuitive, but true.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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