Douglas MercerEssays

Doing it Empirically

by Douglas Mercer

FOR THOUSANDS and thousands of years, the fastest a man ever traveled was on a horse: 12 miles per hour. Finally it was Europeans, as always, who moved us forward, creating the train going some five times that fast. Then along came cars and then planes.

When jet engines arose around 1930 a philosophical question came to the fore: Can anything on the Earth go faster than the speed of sound? No one knew, I guess, but some hidebound abstract thinkers were sure they did; they said it was impossible. That is, a priori, they said there was no way that anything ever under any circumstances could go faster than the speed of sound, not on planet Earth. Well, maybe light could — but then, light was special. They said it was just a fundamental physical law that could never be breached. They postulated that any man approaching the speed of sound would experience such turbulence that he would lose consciousness and then possibly be vaporized, but would surely die. Some others cautiously said that perhaps we should not judge the question so fast. Maybe — just maybe — it could be done.

And then there was a third set of men, educated enough, but still so rough-hewn that they did not cotton to the armchair theorizing of the coddled and cosseted whose idea of a grand venture was making doodles on paper. These men were impatient with these debates; to them, when someone picked over the questions and then picked over them again, refuting this and that, and then someone else refuted the refutations in endless turns, the old question about how many angels can dance on the head of an “intellectual” came to mind. And so they stood in front of the workers of numbers on paper and said: Leave off your pallid and wan discussions: Just build me a plane and give me a helmet and I’ll find out the only way anyone ever finds out anything; you make it happen, or you don’t.

That is, you do it empirically.

When the source of the sound begins to catch up with the sound that it is emitting magic happens: The sound waves that are being caught up with begin to pile up in front of the moving and emitting object; at sufficient speeds (which can always be attained, it was never sufficient speeds that were at issue, at issue was whether Nature had some hard law that could not be transgressed) the object can simply burst through the barrier in a show of superior power and brute force; this overwhelming situation changes the pressure system due to the fact that the object outruns all the pressure; this is what emits the famous sonic boom heard down below on the plains, which shatters so much glass.

If that does not sound like victory, I don’t know what does.

To the man on the ground, witnessing the grand event, he hears nothing as the object approaches because it is travelling faster than the sound it produces; once it goes by him, he begins to hear the deafening sound. These moving and and sharply contrasting areas are known as the zone of silence and the zone of action. To the person in the object, as he approaches the speed of sound he will experience a rough form of turbulence; on the first such flights, he might have wondered if that first set of thinkers had been correct after all — perhaps the bumpy ride means I will be vaporized, maybe I am being vaporized, maybe I am dying. This is the famous buffeting, the popping up and down and the compression of one’s chest, the near loss of consciousness and control; this is the zone of danger. But as the shock wave goes out below he bursts through and emerges from the darkness and fog and sees nothing but clear blue skies ahead. Then, as windows shatter below and the thunderclap finishes its final reverberations, a peaceful relative silence once more ensues, and all ahead is beautiful and ever-faster sailing. At ever-accelerating speeds, he has gained mastery of the Earth and of the skies, and of time and of space. He is in the realm where the gods meet us. He has entered the zone of eternity.

* * *

Source: Author

Previous post

Achieving Peace and Harmony

Next post

Gaining Understanding: An Interview with Will Williams, part 2

Notify of
Inline Feedback
View all comments
27 June, 2024 9:09 am

Inspiring post. Hey, just a heads up, Sallis has a new book out.

Douglas Mercer
Douglas Mercer
7 July, 2024 7:11 pm

comment image?w=1920&ssl=1