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100 Years Later, Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity Still Fascinates, Perplexes Theoretical Space Travelers


March 14th Marks Albert Einstein’s Birth Date

LOS ANGELES, CA, 03/10/2005 -- Researchers have discovered the possibility of billions or trillions of stars and planets like our own in existence, but can you imagine what would happen if you could visit just one of them at near light-speed?

In the 100th anniversary year of Albert Einstein’s published theory of special relativity, the physics of reaching even the closest of star systems remain daunting, says Dr. Jerry Pournelle (best-selling author and Science Editor of Byte magazine). Assuming a near light-speed propulsion system were invented, getting to Proxima Centauri (the star nearest to the Sun) would take 4.2 years one way.

There are bigger problems, he adds. Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity says that if we could travel at or near the speed of light, time, as regulated by a stationary point such as Earth, would differ greatly from time as measured on the moving vessel. Meaning? “Space travelers returning to Earth would have experienced only a few years, while decades could have passed on Earth,” says Dr. Pournelle.

“Popular science fiction fare basically leaps over the issue of aging while heroes and villains travel to and from solar systems,” says Dr. Pournelle. “It would get very tricky if special relativity was addressed.”

One science fiction writer who tackled the subject head on was L. Ron Hubbard. Indeed, Hubbard based his classic 1950 novel “To the Stars” on the possibilities of the theory itself. In the introduction to the novel, Hubbard states: “Two mathematicians derived the equations first -- Lorentz and Fitzgerald. And a theoretical philosopher, Albert Einstein, showed its application. But if Lorentz and Fitzgerald and Einstein gave man his Solar System, they almost denied to him the stars.”

“When you finished a round trip, you would have hardly aged compared to the folks you left on Earth,” says Dr. Pournelle. “That could cause real social problems over time as a space traveler gets farther and farther out of date with their contemporaries.”

“I’m not sure we’ll have an answer to this in the next 100 years, but we’ll continue to speculate and make scientific advances in space exploration,” says Dr. Pournelle.

Hubbard believed that interstellar travel and space exploration were the hope for humanity. In fact, in the novel Hubbard writes, “Earth will not live forever... and unless he is helped, neither will man,” adding, “This ship and her sisters in the stars and on the passage are, without the slightest help from Earth, the only means which shall cause man to survive as a race and triumph everywhere.”

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