Thursday, January 11, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, January 11, 2001

Absolute certainty laid low

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Columnist

Some things they teach in school you just have to accept on faith. Most of us just aren’t smart enough to have it any other way.

The value of pi is 3.14159. William conquered Britain in 1066. The half-life of plutonium 239 is 24,000 years. Columbus discovered America in 1492.

When all else fails, these are the facts we cling to. They are our anchors in a sea of change. We don’t need to understand them; we just need to believe in them.

Mount Everest is 29,002 feet tall. There are 109 elements. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, and nothing can go faster than that. These are the facts we hold sacred.

Then you find out it’s all a big lie.

Modern surveys show Everest is really 800 feet higher than we used to think, plus or minus 10 feet of snow. At least three new elements have been discovered in recent years.

And now comes word that scientists can change the speed of light. Last year, different teams slowed light down to 38 mph and accelerated it up to 330 times its normal speed.

Maybe this doesn’t bother you, but it shakes me right down to my childhood faith in science. I may not really grasp Einstein’s theory of relativity, but I always accepted it.

The implications of the new speed-of-light experiments are mind-boggling. It means that scientists can now make light arrive at its destination literally before it has started its journey. The light can almost be in two places at once. What’s more, if light (and thus information) can travel forward in time, it would breach one of the basic premises of physics — causality.

In effect, cause wouldn’t necessarily have to come before effect. You could have shadows before the light goes on. Movies would flop even before they are screened. Votes would be counted before all ballots are punched.

Besides, why do we really want things to go faster than the speed of light?

OK, it’s 2001 and we’re dreaming, again, of time travel across the universe. But here on Earth, things already are moving way too fast.

Remember (1965) when getting a ready-made hamburger from a drive-through window was the height of fast-food efficiency? Remember (1985) when we thought 55 mph was fast enough on our highways? Remember (1990) when quarterbacks could still outrun defensive linemen in the NFL? Remember (last year?) when we thought a 56K modem hookup for our computers was top-of-the-line stuff?

By and large, we’ve become convinced faster is better. I don’t argue with that. I just think when it comes to speeding up light, maybe it’s time to say enough is enough.

The next thing you know, somebody’s going to be arguing that Columbus didn’t really discover America at all.

Mike Leidemann’s columns are published in the Advertiser on Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached by phone (525-5460) or e-mail (

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