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Monday, December 14th, 2009

Time Event
9:47a
Something Better than a Vacuum Against Which to React
A reader asks: A few years ago, you posted a link to an article talking about early speculations into the impossibility of space travel (something about how, in the vacuum of space, there will be no air to react against or some such). I've tried to locate it, and seem to have been unable to. Do you recall what it was? Thanks!

A: Yes. Here is the article I wrote: http://johncwright.livejournal.com/2008/07/16/ Full text is below.

* * *

I heard this story on Paul Harvey, and was so bemused, that I rushed home and looked it up. It is true. The NEW YORK TIMES has not changed a bit.

In 1919 Goddard published a monograph A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes where he described the multi-stage rocket, and proposed it would be possible to send such a device out of the earth's atmosphere and reach the moon. His idea was to set off an explosive charge during the new moon, with a flash brilliant enough to be seen by powerful earthly telescopes.

The January 1920 edition of the NEW YORK TIMES wrote an editorial calling Goddard's knowledge and honesty into question.

Science fiction fans still chortle over this one. I recall a short story by A.E. van Vogt which dealt with a professor-astronaut trying to explain to dimwitted newspapermen that a rocket, to fly in space, does not need air for its explosive charges to push against. (Go, go gadget Internet! The story was "The Problem Professor", published as "Project Spaceship" in 1949. If you wonder what I mean by 'professor-astronaut', keep in mind that in SF stories, like the Wright Brothers, the inventor was usually the test pilot. )

The money quote from the 1920 TIMES article is this:

"… after the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey it will neither be accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left."

It goes on

"That Professor GODDARD with his "chair" in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Note the scare quotes to refer to Goddard's chair at the college. But the TIMES now must question the great scientist's honesty:

"But there are such things as intentional mistakes or oversights…."

The TIMES then turns from calling Goddard a liar to critiquing science fiction. Here is the paragraph:

" ... JULES VERNE, who also knew a thing or two in assorted sciences—and had, besides, a surprising amount of prophetic power—deliberately seemed to make the same mistake that Professor GODDARD seems to make. For the Frenchman, having got his travelers to or toward the moon into the desperate fix of riding a tiny satellite of the satellite , saved them from circling it forever by means of an explosion, rocket fashion, where an explosion would not have had in the slightest degree the effect of releasing them from their dreadful slavery. That was one of VERNE 's few scientific slips, or else it was a deliberate step aside from scientific accuracy, pardonable enough in him as a romancer, but its like is not so easily explain when made by a savant who isn't writing a novel of adventure."

Forty nine years afterwards—one year shy of half a century— on July 17, 1969, the New York Times published a short item under the headline "A Correction," summarizing its 1920 editorial mocking Goddard, and concluding:

"Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."

Of course, this was one day after the launch of Apollo 11.

The TIMES is good-natured about the old mistake, mentioning that this principle has been known since Newton. But the TIMES is, as it turns out, behind the times: centuries late when it comes to physics, and decades when it comes to printing their retractions. (Better late than never—they still were swifter than the Roman Catholic Church pardoning Galileo.)

Just keep this sort of thing in mind when you read newspaper stories about stem cell research, global warming, the 'Star Wars' strategic missile defense initiative, diet fads, Alar, DDT, the ozone hole, or any other bit of science reporting. The newsmen really don't know what they are talking about, and they like to sneer as if they did.

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