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:
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.)
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).
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.
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'?
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?