Why Can't We Travel Faster Than Light?

James writes: I know light is the fastest thing in the universe, but why can’t anything else go that fast? Is it just that we haven’t built a ship fast enough yet?

James, I am no physicist. I believe I understand the reason for “lightspeed” being the cosmic speed limit, but I could be wrong. Here goes my best shot:

The hard part, to me, is why light travels at a constant velocity – and why that velocity is 299,792,458 meters per second (in a vacuum; going through air or other media slows it down). I have no idea why light travels at exactly that speed, instead of going faster or slower. But Albert Einstein’s famous relativity equation – E=mc² – explains why we cannot build a ship that goes that fast.

In the relativity equation, “E” stands for the energy of an object. The “m” on the right side of the equation is the object’s mass. And “c” means “constant”: the velocity of light. In math, a constant is a value that does not change. Variables are properties that can change. “E” is a variable, because the energy an object has can change. For example, if a karate master moves his fist very slowly towards a wooden board, he might push it out of the way, but the board will not break. But if the karate master throws a fast punch at the board, his fist will break through it easily. Why? Because his fist had much more energy when it was moving fast. Energy increases with speed; this is why cars (and passengers) are damaged a lot worse if they crash at high speeds than if they crash when moving slowly.

An equation is a statement that both sides are equal, like 3+2=5. The left side equals the right side. If we add to the left side, we must add the same value to the right side for the equation to be true: 3+2+1=5+1. Einstein’s relativity equation states that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the square of a constant, “c”. The constant does not change, so if “E” changes, “m” must also change. In effect, an object moving very quickly becomes more massive.

More mass means that it takes more energy to accelerate. This is why a Ferrari can accelerate faster than a dump truck, even if the dump truck has more power. So if we build a starship and move it faster and faster, its mass will begin to increase. The more massive it is, the more energy it takes to make it go faster. As we approach the speed of light, the mass becomes so great that it would take an infinite amount of energy to make it go as fast as light. Since we do not have an infinite amount of energy, we cannot reach lightspeed.

That is as much as I understand about your question, James. I hope it helps. If there are any physicists in the audience who can explain it better, or correct any mistakes I have made, I will appreciate it.

Stay curious, my friends!

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