Space Travel and I

CARL ROSE has been illustrating the ATLANTIC’S Accent on Living pages for over thirteen years. His article “Save Our Symbols!" appeared here a year ago.

That was a very fine issue the Atlantic brought out last October with those sixty-four pages on science and all. The two pieces “Reaching for the Stars” by Dr. Eugen Sänger and “The Paradox of Motion” by William R. Brewster, Jr., were especially engrossing to one who maintains an enthusiastic if necessarily nonparticipating interest in space travel. I was much cheered by Dr. Sänger’s optimistic speculations on the possibilities of booking passage for a star as far off as a thousand light years — six quadrillion miles — and getting there in only eleven years = a couple of months, or twenty-two years for the round trip. Of course, twenty-two years is a sizable slice of any man’s life, but a visit to Deneb or Aldebaran is not like running over to New Canaan to see a movie, and I am assuming that Dr. Sänger’s photon-propelled spaceship would have service and accommodations on a par with its advanced mechanical design, even in tourist class. No sir, I’m not frightened by that twenty-two years if the library has plenty of crossword puzzles and the lounge is stocked with playing cards.

But Mr. Brewster, in the following article, troubled me by his invocation of that old FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction law. Somehow, the mathematical researches of the Messieurs FitzGerald and Lorentz led them to conclude that a moving body is shortened or flattened in the direction of its movement, and the extent of the flattening/shortening is proportional to its velocity.

The law has been accepted by every theoretical physicist, and a bleacherite like me would be foolish not to go along with them. My grandfather may have laughed at Edison and Ford, but my generation doesn’t laugh at anybody, especially not at theoretical physicists. One of them, for instance, estimated that a Rolls-Royce, purring along at sixty miles, is shorter by as much as a trillionth of an inch than when it is parked in front of Bergdorf-Goodman. A Rolls-Royce did pass my 1950 Plymouth on the Merritt Parkway the other day; it was easily doing sixty — perhaps sixty-five — and I couldn’t help wondering not only what sort of miracle instrument could be applied to prove this calculation, but also whether the RollsRoyce engineers were aware of the FitzGerald-Lorentz law. A trillionth of an inch is a pretty fine tolerance and would surely be passed by the Detroit mass producers, but you know how carefully those fellows over there put together their cars. Anyway, the contractile Rolls-Royce is not really the point of this article.

What bothers me is that when we board Dr. Sänger’s interstellar cruiser (naturally, my wife would never think of letting me make the trip alone) Mr. Brewster reminds me that Dr. FitzGerald’s law will be right there with us. Personally, I don’t mind being flattened a trillionth of an inch or so in my Plymouth, as I rarely push it beyond fifty, even on the Jersey Turnpike, but Dr. Sänger speaks of speed approaching the velocity of light, and that is no sixty or seventy-five mph. It happens to run around six hundred and seventy million miles per hour, so if Dr. FitzGerald is correct and one is shortened/flattened in proportion to one’s velocity, we’re in for an appreciable amount of bodily distortion.

The physicists assure us that we wouldn’t be aware of it because everything else is subject to the same process, and I’m willing to accept that, too. But Dr. FitzGerald also stated that the shortening/flattening is in the direction of the movement, and that’s the part that has me worried. For the supposition is that during a twenty-two-year journey, the passengers would at all times face forward and remain completely immobile, not daring even to turn their heads to peek out of a porthole (viewport, in interstellar travel parlance). On this premise, we’d look like this to the nonrelative observer: and that would be all right too, as long as everybody and everything that are aboard undergo the same degree of distortion.

However, Dr. Sänger must realize that paying passengers cannot be held immovable for twenty-two years; they’re bound to take constitutionals around the deck, not to speak of four or five daily trips to the dining saloon and visits around among the cabins and so forth. I even become fidgety on that little commuting trip between Darien and New York, and usually get up for at least one drink of water during the hour. And this would be a twenty-two-year proposition. Twenty-two years!

On any trip, long or short, somebody always organizes a bridge game, and a journey like this would certainly be no exception. In the usual north-east-south-west formation one player will face toward and his partner away from the direction of flight while their opponents sit edgewise. How speedily the FitzGerald shortening/flattening process takes place, no physicist, as far as I know, has yet adduced, but it is reasonable to assume that it will work before many rubbers are played. It follows then that this is what happens, and I cannot for the life of me see how a player with his nose flattened to within a half inch of his back hair would remain unaware of the fact that his opponents’ heads have been narrowed to the point where their ears are no more than half an inch apart. A man whose bidding would be unaffected by such circumstances is just plain crazy about bridge.

Wait, I’m not through yet. I’ve seen cabins where the bunks were arranged at right angles to each other. It would be just our luck to be housed in one such, and here again, Dr. FitzGerald’s law would evoke some Strange consequences. In a Pullman, I like to sleep feet forward, and so I’d take the bunk set lengthwise to the ship. It would make no difference to my wife, who is a restless sleeper anyway and sometimes takes mild sedatives on long trips.

This, then, is how my wife would see me asleep in my lengthwise bunk and this is how she’d look to me in a bunk set athwart the direction of flight:

The woman I married is a dear girl, and after all these years, I am still most devoted to her. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how even the happiest of marriages can withstand such radical changes in the appearance of one’s partner.

Nor are the complications over. God knows, I’m rather difficult in the morning. Arising in my foreshortened form (if I could ever move in such an outrageous shape), I’d sit on the bed for a few minutes as I usually do, until the worst of the fog clears. The mere act of sitting would change my contours thus, and whether my beleaguered atoms could take such treatment before my morning coffee is hardly problematical. I’m dead sure they can’t. The same goes for my wife’s.

The longer I ponder this FitzGerald contraction problem, the more I visualize my fellow passengers and myself as beings made of extraordinarily flexible rubber, now flattened, now shortened, now elongated into two-dimensional profiles; and if one is lying down in the direction of flight, squattened. It would be like living for twenty-two years surrounded by those distorting mirrors we see in the larger amusement parks — funny and rather interesting for a time, but highly unsettling in the long run. In short, it doesn’t look like the restful, carefree period I’d expect of a journey of this duration.

Unless physicists and astrophysical engineers get together and do something about this awkward phenomenon of fast motion, interstellar travel on a paying basis is in for some hard sledding, mark you my word. They’ll have to amend it, abrogate it, abolish it, compensate for it — something, anything, to stabilize the human shape as we know it. Failing that, no matter how alluringly the travel posters delineate the charms of the second planet of Ophiuchus, or the third of Altair; no matter how they minimize the dangers of collision with a wandering meteorite, or how they protect me against showers of cosmic particles, or how cleverly they avoid getting lost in an uncharted spatial magnetic field or a cloud of frozen hydrogen, I’ll stay earthbound, within my normal proportions, which happen to be 5' 5", 34-38-36. They are not ideal, but I don’t intend to have Dr. FitzGerald and his law fool around with them.