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Humans and the need for speed

Several years ago I was in traffic court, as a witness, and was listening to the judge as he decided the cases ahead of us. Most were routine.  However, there was one that got my attention. A young man was charged with riding a motorcycle, at 100 miles an hour, through a residential area.  He hadn’t come with an attorney and the judge told him he had better get one because it wasn’t unusual for him to give jail time in cases like this. Borrowing a line from the Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun, the “need for speed,” had gotten the better of him.

Speed, legal or otherwise, is a human obsession. However, for most of our existence as a species, how fast we could go was limited. We could run, which only got you so far, or if you had one, you could ride a horse. Which again, as much as I like horses, has its limits. Then came the steam engine. At which point everything changed. In 1835 a New York newspaper reporting on a short excursion on a new steam railway, then a relatively new technology, exalted at the train having reached the “break neck speed” of 30 miles an hour. By the 1880’s trains running wide open on straight track through the American West reached speeds of as much 70 miles an hour. But, the best was yet to come.

Early automobiles couldn’t go all that fast, at least at first, but their development was rapid. By the early 20th century a trend had begun of setting and then breaking land speed records. In 1924 the record was 127 miles an hour. Don’t try that in a residential area. Just a few years ago, in the deserts of Nevada, an Englishman, this time riding, what for lack of a better description, was a rocket on wheels, broke the sound barrier. Sound, and this varies based on conditions, travels at 768 miles per hour. That had never been done before in a land based vehicle.

Aviation, however, is where speed reached a new high. Propeller-powered craft got faster and faster, but there were limits. The famous World War II P-51 fighter could reach 473 miles per hour, and even faster in a dive, but that was pushing the edge of propeller driven speed.

Jet power was the next step. In 1947 Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and in the 1970’s the SR-71, a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, hit a record speed over 2,000 miles an hour and once made the hop from New York to London in an hour and forty five minutes.

However, when it comes to passenger aircraft, we’ve been far more conservative. The Concorde flew for thirty years, but, it was the only supersonic transport to ever enter commercial service. Fuel consumption was far too great to make it economical. Alas, when flying from Washington to Los Angeles on a Boeing 747, I go about as fast as my father did in the 1960s on an old 707.

However, if you really want to wow someone with some statistics on how fast we can go, then nothing beats the space program. On reentry, the Space Shuttle hits speeds of 17,400 miles per hour. But, nothing tops the record set by the Galileo probe. It launched a conical shaped object into the atmosphere of Jupiter. Within an hour, pulled by Jupiter’s immensely powerful gravity, it reached a staggering 30 miles per second. At that speed it could have gone around the world in 14 minutes. That’s a record for any man-made object anywhere.

Someday, who knows, maybe using such futuristic propulsion systems (all theoretically possible) as fusion reactors, solar sails, or, with apologies to Star Trek, anti-matter reactors, we’ll go fast enough that maybe our solar system, or even our nearby stars, won’t seem so fantastically far away.

Just how fast can humans go? The answer is pretty fast. But, if you’re driving a motorcycle in a residential area, I strongly advise that you keep within the posted speed limit.

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