24

Something recently reminded me of a short story I once read in a back issue of Analog. I think the issue was from sometime in the 1960s -- I'm sure it was one that came out while John W. Campbell Jr. was still running things. (Which, according to Wikipedia, means it came out no later than 1971.)

Here's what I remember about the plot:

  1. There wasn't a great deal of action taking place. The part I remember best simply involved a lot of discussion of physics. In that conversation, the speakers were two aliens who had recently been taking an interest in conditions on modern Earth. (Without us humans being aware that we were under observation, you understand.)

  2. It was presumed, as part of the backstory, that somewhere on or near Earth (possibly elsewhere in our solar system?), there was a derelict alien spaceship with a "hyperdrive" (or whatever this author's version of FTL capability was called). I don't remember why the derelict had been here so long -- I have a vague impression that the alien government had simply lost track of it entirely, many centuries ago -- but here's why it mattered: Since the hyperdrive generator had never been switched off after the crew were dead from something-or-other, there had been a "field effect" encompassing the entire Earth (and probably some considerable distance out beyond our atmosphere). Within the affected zone, the observable velocity of light worked differently than is normally the case in most of the universe (except in those times and places where another hyperdrive generator is currently switched on).

  3. A side effect of this was that the famous Michelson-Morley experiments led to an erroneous conclusion. Human physicists concluded that the speed of light is a fixed constant, regardless of the frame of reference. (For instance, the fact that you are standing on the surface of a planet, which is spinning on its own axis while simultaneously zipping around the sun, etc., does not particularly influence the apparent speed of a beam of light going from one hilltop to another.) One alien explains to the other that this unique misconception that lightspeed is a fixed constant has become fundamental to modern human physics, and that someone called Einstein had developed an elaborate "Theory of Relativity" on that basis.

  4. The other alien says something along these lines: "Well, maybe it isn't fair to expect them to realize there might be a derelict starship in their neighborhood when they haven't actually found it yet. But didn't it ever occur to them that the behavior of a beam of light on the surface of the Earth might not be perfectly representative of the behavior of every other beam of light in every other part of the universe?" The first alien explains that human theorizing about natural laws rests upon the sacred belief that the results of any observations they make of physical phenomena are equally valid for extrapolating what would have happened in a similar experiment, anywhere else in the entire universe! Naturally, this explains why an otherwise advanced culture is still fooling around with rocketry as a means of space travel, and has not yet made the breakthrough which would allow them to develop Faster-than-Light propulsion. Their doctrine of 'relativity' says that by the time you accelerated a ship up to lightspeed, it would have acquired infinite mass -- which is obviously impossible to ever achieve -- so why should they even try to move beyond that 'lightspeed barrier'?

  5. At the very end, I think there are plans to salvage the derelict ship and turn off that hyperdrive generator, which will terminate its odd physics-bending field, and thereby mess up all the assumptions that human physicists have previously made on the subject of lightspeed and related issues. But in the long run, of course, the shock will be good for us humans as it brings us closer to understanding the basic realities of the universe which we live in.

I don't remember who wrote this story. I doubt it was one of the Very Big Names in mid-20th-Century science fiction circles (such as Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, etc.), or else I probably would have run across the story in collections of their shorter works, and I'm sure I only saw this one when I happened to pick up a decades-old copy of Analog. I got the feeling that the whole thing might have been written by a physicist as an academic joke.

Does anyone think this sounds familiar?

  • 4
    Times like this I wish there was an alert function that would let casual passers-by to be alerted when an answer to a question is posted. This sounds like a fun read. – Broklynite Mar 27 '17 at 0:55
  • 6
    @Broklynite - it's called the favorite button. You get blue numbers on your profile when it receives activity. – Mithrandir Mar 27 '17 at 8:25
  • @Mithrandir hm, I've done that in the past in hopes that would be the case, but never saw anything. Maybe they just never got an answer. Thanks for the heads up! – Broklynite Mar 27 '17 at 12:23
  • @Broklynite There's a better version: the RSS feed. It's at the bottom of every question page. – wizzwizz4 Dec 20 '17 at 16:55
13

That short story is "Local Effect", the only work by D. L. Hughes in the ISFDB; published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, April 1968 and apparently never reprinted. Excerpts:

When studying Galactic science, one finds many systems of thought so odd that it is difficult to understand how sentient beings could have come to create them. None so odd, however, as that which arose on the third planet of the star Sol, where an isolated human culture based an entire system of cosmological science upon the side effects of a derelict space drive. Consider, then, this oddity, as seen through the eyes of Firefoal of Swaylone . . .

[. . . .]

Firefoal paused, and then spoke again. "That experiment is crucial to the development of physics and the space drive. From what the Corps knows of the way physics develops, it is always this experiment which makes the physicist aware of the reality of the spatial fabric. Then they study the properties of that fabric, and are led towards the development of the space drive."

Again he paused, then went on. "But on this planet, with that derelict drive field still operating, the planet will be encapsulated, with the result that the movement of the planet through the spatial fabric will be totally masked. The result is that the interferometer experiment will have a negative result, to that the motion of the planet will appear to have no effect upon the velocity of light. This will produce a paradox which those physicists will have to deal with, and the Corps is interested to find out how they do this. It may be that they have deduced the existence of some artificial interference, or they may have some other solution. Whatever they do, it will be valuable, because the situation is unique."

[. . . .]

Firefoal replied, slowly and musingly. "They did the experiment. They called it the Michelson–Morley experiment after the men who first did it. It did have a negative effect, for the reasons we know of. All this is what one would expect, but after that, their thinking was uniquely odd."

[. . . .]

"Basically, what they did was to assume that conditions on the surface of the planet were completely representative of conditions throughout the universe. This means they did not make the simplest hypotheses which you just mentioned. Instead, they assumed that the velocity of light is constant in all reference systems, for any motion of these systems."

[. . . .]

"Their view of the universe is absurd," said Poleflash. "One cannot create a physical model of the universe, if the speed of light is assumed to be the same in all frames of reference. One cannot even visualize it, or think about it."

"That does not worry them either," replied Firefoal. "They rely heavily on mathematics, as a language of description, and for them, anything which can be described in mathematical terms is satisfactory, whether or not a physical model is possible. [. . .]"

  • This must be it. I didn't remember the emphasis on "spatial fabric" per se in the explanation, and the character names ring no bells, but I'm sure you've found the right answer. So D.L. Hughes never had any other SF published? That certainly helps to explain why I didn't remember recognizing the name at the time, and, as you say, why it hasn't been reprinted in a collection of the author's stories. I wonder if I was right in the snap impression that this was something a hard-working physicist might have written as a joke? – Lorendiac Mar 30 '17 at 22:43
  • @Lorendiac Could be. I wasn't able to find any more information about the author. – user14111 Mar 31 '17 at 4:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.