Marvel 1602 : The Future Physics of Alternate History Past

The Big Bang Theory – one of the few mainstream television shows with plots involving hard science and a recurring setting in a comic book store– has a notable episode:  The Comet Polarization Season 11, Episode 21 – first aired April 19, 2018.

Neil Gaiman, unrecognized by the characters, responds to a recommendation to Sheldon Cooper from the clerk for an alternate history.  He suggests (his own) Marvel 1602

If you’re interested in alternate histories Neil Gaiman wrote one called 1602 …It is pretty good actually, he takes the Marvel superheroes and puts them into Elizabethan England.

Sheldon Cooper, a string theorist and comic book aficionado, sarcastically asks “let me guess – everyone thinks the X-Men are witches?”  Gaiman hangs his head and sheepishly responds “yeah.”

In the series it’s a perfect cameo appearance for a comic book legend and a great moment for a show with a cast depicting fanboys and shop talk.

But the scene would have been so much more interesting for a physicist had Sheldon been acquainted with the series and focused instead on this exchange between Otto von Doom and Sir Richard Reed.

If the speed of light through a vacuum were a constant, it would explain so much.

That one sentence contains a wealth of experience of the history of science.  It is also a long conceptual distance from Journey into Mystery #103 (Apr 1964) where Thor returns to Earth by “spinning his hammer at twice the speed of light!”  (Emphasis mine.)

In the Twenty-First Century there are those who for whatever reason put superstition, politics, and/or job security ahead of things like objective knowledge.  For those reared on science and experimental method the notion of believing something just because the authorities say so is equally anathema.  Sadly this anti-objective-rationality prejudice is nothing new in the human experience and the belief in the plasticity of reality based on social and economic bullying would have been familiar to all of the real-world scientists we will become acquainted with in the next few pages.

But written authority, preferably in Latin or at worst case Greek in Latin translation, was the way huge swaths of the intellectual world at that time operated.  And it was only with constant prodding, mind-numbing patience, and irrefutable results that this attitude would change.  Current events in the COVID-19 pandemic of the 2020s indicate how precarious this victory remains.

Marvel 1602 came out in 2003, so it is beyond Silver and Bronze Age and into the current era, but it’s instructive in the context of this study to look at how the specific knowledge of science progressed and indeed how science itself progressed from that story’s time to our modern world. 

The scene is marvelous for its ability to clearly show us Sir Richard Reed (aka Reed Richards) one of the smartest men on the planet displaced in time thinking ahead and presaging Albert Einstein while Doom is interested only in the immediate and the deadly. 

No less a scientist than Werner Heisenberg wrote:

If Einstein had lived in the twelfth century, he would not have been able to make important scientific discoveries.[1]

But what in 1602 could Reed have been thinking of as a problem that needed explaining?

1602:  The English were ensconced in Virginia.  The Pilgrims would not leave England for the Netherlands until 1608 and the first enslaved Africans would not arrive in Jamestown until 1619.  The Pilgrims would not even form their Separatist congregations until 1605.   Harvard would not be founded until 1636 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would follow more than 200 years later in 1861.  It was a world where Aristotle was the authority on all aspects of the natural world and alchemy was some combination of witchcraft and Walgreens.

Where we are used to the big ideas – looking for a grand unification – the post-medieval mindset thought they already had it – personified in this story by the witchbreed (mutants) of the Master Carolus Javier’s Select College for the Sons of Gentlefolk[2]  praying appropriately dressed in chapel everyday just as they practice combat every day (Part Three). There was no search for Grand Unification because to them the universe was already unified.  And if you didn’t at least in public buy into that notion there was always the stake and the oubliette.  Giordano Bruno (one of the Church’s own) burned at the stake in 1600 for views that included extensions of the Copernican theory.  Of course, Bruno also questioned the divinity of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, and the doctrine of transubstantiation any one of which would ruffle the feathers of the authorities in Rome more than the notion of planets around other stars.

Do you ever wonder if light might have a speed?

But consider that in the year 1602 Copernicus (1473-1543), whose system is the start of the scientific revolution, had been dead for 59 years[1]. His 1543 heliocentric model introduced in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) system still was denigrated by political and religious authority.  In 1615 the Roman Inquisition investigated the theory of heliocentrism and found it contrary to Holy Scripture (classically Joshua 10:12-13).  In a move familiar to reactionary and ultraconservative political movements in our century the Vatican conveniently ignored that a close reading of Holy Scripture was also the chief intellectual ammunition used against them in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.

The man to whom we owe the foundations of modern physics and experimental science in general, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), went on trial in 1633 for his 1632 work Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) comparing the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems (spoiler alert: he came out in favor of the Copernican system).

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)   

Empedocles, for example, says that the light from the sun arrives first in the intervening space before it comes to the eye, or reaches the Earth. This might plausibly seem to be the case. For whatever is moved, is moved from one place to another; hence there must be a corresponding interval of time also in which it is moved from the one place to the other. But any given time is divisible; so that we should assume a time when the sun’s ray was not as yet seen, but was still travelling in the middle space[2]

But with regard to light the case is different. For light is due to the presence of something, but it is not a movement. And in general, even in qualitative change the case is different from what it is in local movement. Local movements, of course, arrive first at a point midway before reaching their goal (and sound, it is currently believed, is a movement of something locally.[3]

What Aristotle is saying here is something to the effect of: Empedocles thinks light is actually MADE of something because it needs to MOVE from the source of light (the Sun) to Earth – and to do that it would need to get halfway there (that is, we would sense some intermediate movement or progress on the progress of light) and effectively we do not experience that (as we sometimes do with sound for example).

In the scene that was the inspiration for this rumination, Count Otto the Handsome is clearly an Aristotelian, as he’s basically restating Aristotle’s position “There is light and there is darkness – there is no speed.”  Also just like true Aristotelian he is automatically dismissive of any alternate view.  Doom’s fractur font also marvelously conveys the regimented personality of dogmatic thinking.

A lot of this sounds like the kind of mathematical reasoning you would expect from a Greek discussion on geometry.  Not a lot of surprise there – if you could use reasoning and geometric arguments to come up with conclusions that were valid for (say) triangles why couldn’t you use the same method to come up with conclusions that are valid for things like physical phenomena?  If you read math texts before the Greeks, many are aimed at practical solutions to practical problems – how much land do we have here?  How much wine is in these pots?  The Greeks bumped the meta level up a notch or two – instead of asking “how can I solve THIS problem” they asked “How can I solve ANY problem LIKE this one?”

Modern science demands both the abstraction from every possible variable down to a set of controlled conditions AND the reproducible experimental results that instill confidence in results instead of fear in dissent from them.

Note that this is from Aristotle’s Sense and Sensibilia, not the Physics.  To Aristotle the question of what was light was an issue of how the sense of sight worked and the role light played in it – not a question of how light itself worked.

But Marvel:1602 happens at the best of times and the worst of times for the experimental method.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) observed the physical world and possessed more interest in deciphering it than apologizing for it not matching what HAD to be true because it was written in a source antedating everyone alive five centuries ago.

Galileo’s specific discoveries on the motion of falling bodies, pendulums, and inclined planes would be enough to enshrine his memory.  Added to his placing experimental method and mathematics central to his natural philosophy and it’s a slam dunk until Isaac Newton comes along and combines it all into universal gravitation.  As related in Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (The First Day), Galileo placed an assistant with a lantern on a hill roughly a mile apart (his description of the experiment calls for a 6 mile round trip distance).  Signaling with a lantern from a known distance away he was attempting to observe a lag time in signaling that would allow him to calculate a velocity for light.   The same passage tells that he understood from observation that the flash of artillery is much faster than the sound of artillery, proving there was some different in speeds. 

Assuming Galileo could time 1 second apart the two endpoints would have needed to be separated by 300,000 km for an observable result.  For comparison the distance from earth to the moon is 384,000 km.

The basic thinking is sound but the experiment did not have adequate situational and technical support to achieve a useful result given the parameters. But the question had been asked and for once someone was actually looking at observables and trying to do some math to answer it.

But observables for determining the speed of light were not far off in time, though they were far off in space.   Galileo himself first observed the moons of Jupiter, and their regular motions readily seemed to him to be a celestial timepiece available to anyone with a telescope.   After being the first to observe the moons of Jupiter, Galileo thought perhaps they might function as a universal clock to tell time anywhere on earth including the ocean.  Why do you need a good clock in a boat on the ocean?  To be able to tell your longitude[4]

This led Giovanni Domenico Cassini to start a long-term study of the Jovian system at the Paris Observatory starting about 1642.  What was an Italian doing in Paris?  Louis XIV knew talent when he saw it.

As Yogi Berra would later say “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

We fast forward in time to 1676.   Danish astronomer Ole Roemer (1644–1710) at the Paris Observatory noticed that the timing of the disappearance of the moons behind Jupiter had some variation to it.  When Jupiter was moving away from the earth, the expected time was later than predicted.  While it is possible to create tortured physics to explain this, it is much easier to come to the conclusion that light has a finite speed and measuring the delay was one way to get a realistic estimate of said speed of light.

Roemer’s initial determination was that light takes 22 minutes to cross the earth’s orbit.  Our current more accurate determination is that it takes 16 minutes – but Roemer had succeeded in determining a method, making a good first measurement, and not letting the issue fade into obscurity.

Roemer presented his results to the French Academy of Sciences in September, 1676, seventy-four years after Reed pondered relativity.  Having accurate predictions in hand, and having been borne out in reality there was still opposition to the work in France, the details of which we need not go into in this narrative.

But in England, Roemer’s work was championed by Edmund Halley whom he met (along with Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed) in England in 1679.  Keep in mind this is before Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was published in1687 but after Newton’s key insights in 1666.  It was later that James Bradley in 1728 (while working on stellar aberration) would more accurately determine the velocity of light and vindicate Roemer.  More on this after we discuss the notion of a vacuum.

If the speed of light through a vacuum…

“Air” was considered by the ancient Greeks one of the four fundamental constituents of all matter (the others being Fire, Earth, and Water[5]).   In the world of Marvel 1602 (Part 5), Clea clues Doctor Strange in on the location he has just mystically visited: “I am in the heart of a mountain, far from here, a place built to hold Earth and Air, Water and Fire…” To which Strange replies: “Aye… But what can the four elements signify?  Everything that is, is made of those substances…”

Reed has his own pentad of ontology (not to compose all things but to classify all things): Borssian, Lamorackian, Peredural, Merlinic, and Galvanic, based on scientists Niels Bohr, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck[6], and Luigi Galvani and of course the Arthurian Merlin.  Rojhaz/Rogers may truly be the “man out of time” but Reed’s ontology combined with his relativistic thinking makes him a neo-Aristotelian and a post-Newtonian – truly a man without of any historical intellectual context.

While we (reared on atoms, molecules, and Mr. Wizard experiments repeated so often we become inured) regard this as “quaint” or “baffling” the idea really did not have serious competition until the 1700’s.  Joseph Priestly, an English dissenting theologian and chemist, almost literally lit the fuse.

Why did this come to a head in the 1700’s in England?  One word:  Economics[7].  The Industrial Revolution being birthed at the time meant people stood to make money using machines to produce goods in quantities unimaginable to previous generations.  The steam-powered machines required combustion and combustion required air.  To power their machinery English chemists had huge incentive to study air. 

The main theory of combustion at this point involved a hypothesized substance called phlogiston.  Proposed by physician and alchemist Johann Joachim in 1667, the idea was basically that any combustible body (like wood) had to have a substance called phlogiston latent within it which is given off as the substance burns.  When you’re starting off with four elements, this sounds like a reasonable theoretical extension. 

Suppose you take a candle.  By this reasoning when the candle burns, the phlogiston in the candle is transferred to the surrounding air.  Obviously, something is lost when a candle burns as the candle progressively gets smaller.  However, when a metal burns the mass is greater, so phlogiston is actually taken up in that case. 

Physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734) took this to the next level – trying to relate specific substances to specific reactions.  This made its way into the English language in the Philosophical Principles of Universal Chemistry[8] (1730) of Peter Shaw (1694-1763).

Phlogiston theory offered the first explanation of why charcoal works to smelt metallic ores. Charcoal must be rich in phlogiston (since it leaves no residue on burning), and in the smelting process the phlogiston passed from the charcoal to the ore to give the pure metal.

To take phlogiston to the experimental level: place a mouse and a lighted candle in a closed container.   The theory held that when the closed space could contain no more phlogiston the mouse would die.  We recognize this as the combusting candle consuming the available oxygen and producing carbon dioxide, asphyxiating the test subject.  But let us give credit to the willingness to adopt an experimental mindset and to aim for a comprehensive theory of how and why substances combine.

Joseph Black identified carbon dioxide in 1754.  Referring to it as “fixed air” because it reincorporates (or “fixes”) to the solids from which it emerged.   It is to Black that we owe a great debt for the actual identification and naming of latent and specific heat.   Black’s work on heat and his collaboration with James Watt greatly improved the steam engine.

 In 1766 Henry Cavendish produced “flammable air” which Antoine Lavoisier would later name “hydrogen.”

In 1772 Daniel Rutherford burned material in a bell jar, then used potash to soak up the “fixed air” / carbon dioxide, leaving nitrogen which Rutherford called “noxious air” because the gas asphyxiated mice placed in it.

Carbon Dioxide, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen had been identified and reproducibly isolated.  There remained one major gas which  Joseph Priestly was poised to identify as oxygen.   Using inverted containers and displacing water or mercury, Priestly could isolate gases and study them further.  This involved either putting a flame in the jar to see if it would smother or ignite, or putting a mouse in the jar to see if it could survive.  But Priestly also made the next great step – putting a green plant in the “fixed air” / carbon dioxide and exposing it to sunlight would “refresh” the air allowing a mouse to survive.  In 1774 Priestly used a glass lens to focus sunlight on a sample of mercuric oxide in an inverted glass container in a pool of mercury thereby producing a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas  which had the properties of causing a flame to burn intensely and to sustain a mouse four times as long as the same amount of air.

In the context of the theory of phlogiston, Priestly called this product “dephlogisticated air.”  Obviously, this gas supported combustion because there was no phlogiston in it yet – so it could take in more than regular air.

Scientific collaboration being as important then as it is now, Priestly visited fellow gas researcher Antoine Lavoisier in France shortly after reaching these conclusions. 

Avogadro has a number, Boyle has a law, Cavendish has some elements.   To Lavoisier goes credit for an entire science.

While we might today imagine that the names “hydrogen” and “oxygen” were bandied about by ancient Romans along with Ferrum (Iron), Wolfram (Tungsten), Kalium (Potassium), and Sulfur (Sulphur), among others, it was Lavoisier who named them from the Greek for “water maker” and “acid maker.”

Of Lavoisier’s credentials I will invoke Stephen Jay Gould’s introduction:

The textbook one-liners describe him as the discoverer (or at least the namer) of oxygen, the man who … recognized water as a compound of the gases hydrogen and oxygen, and who correctly described combustion, not as the liberation of a hypothetical substance called phlogiston, but as the combination of burning material with oxygen.  … Lavoisier set the basis for modern chemistry by recognizing the nature of elements and compounds — by finally dethroning the ancient taxonomy of air, water, earth, and fire as indivisible elements; by identifying gas, liquid, and solid as states of aggregation for a single substance subjected to different degrees of heat; and by developing quantitative methods for identifying true elements.  [9]

Lavoisier abandoned the idea of phlogiston – instead arguing that burning substances did not give off hypothesized phlogiston, but rather incorporate the very tangible oxygen into their makeup while combusting.

This idea carried great explanatory capability.

Politics had its effects on science then as it does today. Priestly being a Dissenter was unable to attend Oxford or Cambridge.  Lavoisier would lose his head in the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.  Priestly and his family would emigrate to the United States in 1794, settle in Pennsylvania, isolate carbon monoxide (or as he called it “heavy inflammable air”), found the Unitarian Church in the United States, and become friends with Thomas Jefferson.

So it was 200 years after 1602 that the notion of the atmosphere being a mixture of gases and gases engaging in chemical reactions emerged in what we in hindsight regard as the beginnings of modern chemistry.  Science as a discipline had started to get a grip on what made “matter” and how it all “transformed” from one substance into another.

I cannot resist another quick aside into the land of comic book chemistry to show the Grey Gargoyle whose powers are to turn objects into stone (noted earlier) here transforming “a stream of gas” with “the slightest touch” of his hand (Captain America # 142, Oct 1971).

One problem – if that’s the case he’d be constantly transforming the path he’s moving through into stone.  Earth’s atmosphere is gas too…. And gas is gas.

We knew light could move through the air – and by 1800 we knew the air was made of some mixture of gases and with different properties — but could light move through NOTHING?  Was “nothing” even possible?  Nothing was certainly possible as scientists learned to evacuate gases from inverted jars.  Interesting experiment you can perform when you do this – put a bell in a jar and ring it – there’s no problem hearing the sound when there is air in the jar.  But once you remove all the air you can ring the bell but not hear it.  BUT you can SEE it.  So now we know that sound waves need a substance to propagate through, but removing air still allows light to get to us.  So the natural next question is:  What’s light need to move through to get to us?

Aristotle in the Physics Book IV put forth many arguments that a vacuum could not exist.  For example, if it DID exist any matter in its proximity would immediately flow into it thereby negating the notion of a vacuum.  Note that this sounds a lot like the way people envisioned phlogiston to work and very much how we think of a black hole singularity gravitationally gobbling everything at its event horizon.

With the benefit of satellites and aeronautics we know that outer space is a really good vacuum.  Really good in this case meaning that it contains only a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter.  In the laboratory we can at obtain around 100 particles per cubic meter.

… were a constant, it would explain so much.

What problems could Sir Richard Reed have been referring to that needed explaining?

In 1602 he truthfully could not have known of any.  As we’ve seen it was only starting in 1676 that light could plausibly be said to have a measurable speed.  Though as in almost all scientific revolutions it took some time to be accepted.  The concept of a vacuum meant have a concept of matter and as a corollary, matter’s absence.  None of this was clear until almost two centuries later.

In Part Eight he explicitly states “I just wish Rojhaz (the supposedly Native American chaperone but in reality a time-displaced Captain America) here were able to tell us more about the Sciences and Alchemies of his day.”

Sir Richard Reed in 1602 could have had no experimental evidence that disturbed him   But what would eventually lead us down the path to Albert Einstein’s special relativity?  Or in the context of Marvel 1602, what would Sir Richard Reed have needed to know in order to leap to the idea of a constant speed for light?

It starts with stellar aberration.

In 1725 James Bradley tried using trigonometry, parallax, and knowledge of the earth’s orbit to measure the distance to stars.  “Parallax” is such a cool sounding word it’s been re-purposed as the name of a Green Lantern Corps villain[10].  But in real life it refers to how a distant stationary object appears to move as an observer moves.  How parallax works is familiar to anyone who’s ever moved around trying to look at someone hiding behind a tree or corner.  How the math in this experiment works is familiar to any surveyor or sophomore algebra student.  You use the earth’s orbit as a base of a triangle, measure the angles to the target star at either extreme, and apply trigonometry.

The most interesting experiments in the history of science are the ones that give unexpected results.  Bradley performed an interesting experiment.  Parallax is almost unobservable for most stars (how then can we determine their distance?  Red shifts[11]!).  Bradley found that there was an effect — but it was in exactly the least likely points in the orbit expected.  Where we would expect the points closest and furthest the orbit of the target star to have the greatest parallax.  In other words: the points in line with the sun, earth, and star.  What Bradley found instead was that the points equidistant from the star had the greatest angle change; that is, the points where the earth and sun were perpendicular to the sun and star.   These are exactly the points where earth was moving fastest towards the star and away from the star.  

Rather than being dependent on the position of planet earth relative to the star, Bradley found it was dependent on the velocity of the planet relative to the star.

One of the ways this roiled the waters involved the discussion between light being a particle or light being a wave.  And it should still blow your mind that it is in fact both.  Though this is a fascinating history and discussion in its own right we do not need to get into the details here since it doesn’t bear directly on Reed’s observation.

But if light is a particle then with Newtonian physics you can imagine it moving through empty space — as planets and stars (which are just really large particles) do.  But if it’s a wave, the mindset is that waves are a disturbance through some medium.  Waves on an ocean are a displacement of water, sound is a compression of air, you can set a tuning fork vibrating and see that the metal in it moves. Drumheads vibrate.  Waves in nearly everyone’s opinion required some substance to vibrate.  What substance could be vibrating for light waves to pass though?

The proposed medium through which light propagated was called “ether.” But if that was the case, how would one prove its existence? 

Almost the same question burns at the center of physics in the 2020s.  If you’re a string theorist (like, say Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory) and proposing a universe of 11-dimensions, what experimental evidence do you have to prove to the rest of the world that 11 is indeed the dimensionality of the totality of existence?  What evidence does anyone have that the entirety of string theory corresponds to objective reality and is not just an elaborate mathematical fantasy in pretty much the exact way as Aristotle’s reasoning about the nature of light? 

Short answer: absolutely none. 

In fact, coming up with a successful experiment to prove or refute this would pretty much guarantee you a Nobel Prize.

But some clever people DID figure out an experiment to determine if light propagated through ether. And in 1907 A. A. Michelson became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in physics for doing it.  And like all interesting experiments, the results were surprising.

We need not go into the details of his original device 1884.  We only need to know that it was a marvel of clever thinking that split a light beam, sent part of it through a mirror, down a perpendicular path to some nearly parallel plates, combined the beams, and displayed at the interference pattern that resulted.  This is why the device is called an interferometer. 

If light propagated through this “ether” then there should be a measurable difference in the interference pattern when the light went through it in different directions.  Why?  Because the earth is moving through this ether as well, and if we turn the device around the velocities should add in one direction and subtract in the other.

Michelson found no difference in the patterns in different orientations.

The conclusion: the ether did not exist.

Taking the potential criticism that his device might not be precise enough (in other words, sensitive to its sensitivity) in 1889 Michelson and E.W. Morley produced a device with ten times the resolving power.  The results are forever known as the Michelson-Morley Experiment.

Once again there was no difference in the interference patterns and the conclusion was that the ether did not exist.

To a physicist at this time this was almost like Chicken Little seeing the sky not simply falling — but the sky not being there at all! 

Coming at about the same time as Max Planck’s quantum theory the late 1800s were an exciting time to be a scientist.

The Watcher on the speed of light

In Book 6 The Watcher brings Doctor Stephen Strange to the moon for a discussion.  This is the only other location the speed of light is explicitly referenced.

… would initially merely destroy your world… then expand destructively in all directions at the speed of light…

It’s tempting to think of the Watcher as having deity-like omniscience – but both he and Reed have imperfect knowledge.  As the Watcher admits a few panels after this: “The universe follows certain law, Stephen Strange, … Some laws I understand, some I do not.  I am young, as we reckon things.”

While The Watcher clearly senses “Transient singularities produce showers of particles I had thought only hypothetical in this sector of the universe” (Part Three) and tells Stephen Strange that “the forerunner could be seen as an infection, which the universe must create antibodies for, which then destroy the host organism” (Part Six).  Strange of course has no way of knowing about antibodies or even really the cellular nature of biological tissue, which was not even observed until the invention of the microscope later in the century.  Reed acts as if fundamental particles are assumed in Part Seven, but this is also anachronistic.

This is intriguing here – the Watcher correctly deduced that the crisis of the universe was the result of the arrival from the future of Steve Rogers, against the judgement of older, more experienced Watchers.  But is self-aware of his limitations.  In many ways, this is the most modern scientific attitude of any of the characters in this story.

While no signal can travel through space faster than light, this says nothing about how space itself might act.  If this confuses you then you are at least paying attention.  If this intrigues you then you have the right stuff to be a scientist or a philosopher.  There are inflationary theories that rely on a mathematical model augmenting the Big Bang with a period of faster-than-light expansion of the entire nascent cosmos[12]

Since we’re talking about the destruction of space, it is at least worth talking about as a realistic idea that the collapse of space itself could happen faster than the speed of light.   The Watcher skates close to this but hedges his bets by placing speed of light destruction at the earliest point in the universe he can.

We concluded that the destruction of this universe while still bounded by the speed of light, would occur within an expanding simultaneity, which would, paratemporally, have begun immediately following the initial nanoseconds of this universe.

In either case, Reed is over-knowledgeable about lightspeed for his era, and the Watcher is potentially under-knowledgeable for his advanced culture.  On the nature of humans in the 21st Century putting the destruction of the entire universe in motion through a functional but flawed time travel device — probably not.  As the Marvel Universe is populated with Skrulls, Kree, Watchers, Galactus, Kang, and entire dimensions of magic, it’s unlikely humanity alone would in its short-time-to-get-dressed-for-the-ball, late-to-the party existence on Terra, come up with such a singularly effective doomsday device.  The laws of probability argue against.  Human technical ingenuity pales in comparison to the civilizations it has encountered in the Marvel Universe.  Still, Gaiman needed something to put the plot in motion and the drama is certainly engaging.

What did this Einstein guy actually DO anyway?

Relativity comes in two flavors – special and general.[13] 

The constant velocity of light means we’re only concerned with special relativity.   Had Sir Richard Reed begun a discussion about gravitational singularities we’d be in the realm of general relativity.  But he did not, we are not, and we move on.

While there has been an on-going discussion if Einstein actually knew of the Michelson-Morley experiment (which would be a hugely mind-bending thing and almost the situation Reed is in in 1602) it seems that he in fact had[14]

Michelson and Morley had found that there was no ether, which meant that there was no absolute medium through which light moved, and furthermore, light moves with the same velocity regardless of how you, your planet, the universe around you, is moving.  The search for anything else in the universe that behaves this way is left as an exercise for the interested reader.

Light has the same speed everywhere, regardless of how one is moving.  The core idea of relativity, and what Reed is in essence pondering – if you’re in a spaceship moving in space at almost the speed of light and you turn on a flashlight – the beam races ahead of you at the speed of light.  This does not jibe well with quotidian experience.

Einstein’s genius was to follow this simple idea to its conclusions, put together the mathematical framework for what it meant, and then publish this for yet experimentalists to confirm or debunk.  The experimentalists have proven him right time and again.  Having revolutionized how we thought about light and space and time he then went on to revolutionize how we think about gravity and space and time.

What experimental evidence do we look at that light races at the final speed limit?  The fastest human-fashioned objects are spacecraft and they move slowly compared to light.  Voyager I attained a velocity of about 38,000 Miles Per Hour (MPH).  The Helios satellites achieved 157,000 MPH.  This pales in comparison to the velocity of light at 186,000 Miles Per SECOND. 

But – humans are ingenious sorts.  While we cannot (yet) fashion visible objects that move with light-like velocity, we can produce machines that produce entities that can be made to approach the speed of light.  We call them particle accelerators.  The Large Hadron Collider at CERN routinely accelerates protons to 99.9999991% of the speed of light with 0.00000000047 grams total mass circulating in the ring at any time[15].  The equivalent energy of this particle beam at close to the velocity of light is about the same as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier at cruising speed.  That so much energy is required to move a beam of particles whose total mass is less than a skin cell should tell you something about moving anything larger at the speed of light.

The science in Marvel 1602 is all out of chronological sequence.  This is fitting for a story that is initiated by Steve Rogers being sent to the past, after all.  Luigi Galvani’s experiments with frogs appear in Part Four, marvelously detailed.  As Doom says, “Astonishing, is it not? Simply a jar, containing oil of vitriol and water, a rod of copper, a rod of Chinese zinc.  Yet when we touch the rods to the frog…”  The research here was refracted through his nephew Giovanni Aldini in London in 1803 demonstrated an opening eye, a clenching hand, and moving legs on a hanged murderer[16].   This experiment influenced Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, the progenitor of the entire genre of science fiction with Frankenstein (1818).  Doom gets this, presaging Doombots with “Imagine an army of dead men, their limbs moved by galvanic force, marching across Europe…”  Cleverly, referring to it as “galvanic” before the birth of Galvini (1737-1798) is dealt with by Reed referring to galvanism as one of his Round Table-inspired (in this timeline continuity) categories.

Also of note is the puffer fish in Doctor Strange’s house (Part Three) from which is derived tetrodotoxin (TTX).  Nick Fury fakes his own demise with this in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).  While tetrodotoxin was well-known in Asia, the first appearance of it in English was in Engelbert Kaempfer’s A History of Japan (1727 English translation) and the first Europeans recorded affected by TTX were Captain James Cook’s men eating pufferfish and feeding the remains to pigs kept on board.  The men recovered and the pigs died (log entry of September 7, 1774).

But these were isolated, contained anachronisms and one can reasonably posit alternative narrative mechanisms of discovery in this story.  Fugu could have come across the Silk Road, or some covert Dutch anatomist could have made part of Galvani’s discovery earlier.

Reed’s comment implies a wealth of additional knowledge, intuition, and experimentation that would be hard-gained over a few centuries.

Marvel 1602 is a brilliant piece of storytelling.  This picayune commentary on a few lines of dialogue in two panels can in no way detract from the jewel of imagination Neil Gaiman has produced and gifted to us all.  Just as the work allows us a knowledgeable and multifaceted look into a period of history crucial on both sides of the Atlantic, so too does it allow us to examine one tile in the kaleidoscope and come away with a different set of insights.  While Sir Richard Reed lacked the evidence to have beaten Einstein to his insights there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have rivalled Newton.  Einstein advised that imagination is more important than knowledge[17].  Regardless of Reed Richard’s work within fiction, Neil Gaiman’s actual imagination impresses even more within our concrete reality.

[1] To show how much more quickly progress comes in our era, consider that this is almost the exact same amount of time between the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 and Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital spaceflight in 1961.

[2] 446a20-446b2 Complete Works (Aristotle). Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. 1991.

[3] 446b28-447a7

[4] This is actually a really cool problem in its own right and told very well in a book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.

[5] The notion still retains echoes in our culture.  The movie The Fifth Element (1997) plays off exactly these components as the key to unlocking an alien defensive weapon.

[6] Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) is an interesting choice for the biological sphere.  He came up with the first theory of biological evolution (briefly summarized as “use and disuse”) which Charles Darwin (1809-1882) superseded with the theory of natural selection.  Lamarck was certainly an originator and an excellent zoologist.  Lamarck also argued against Antoine Lavoisier’s notions of chemistry.

[7] It is no coincidence that economics as a dedicated study came into being at almost exactly this same time via Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776).


[9] The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier   by Stephen Jay Gould in Bully for Brontosaurus ()  originally from Annals of the Museum of Natural History 98 , 6 (1989): 16 – 22 

[10] Created by writer Ron Marz and artist Darryl Banks for Green Lantern vol. 3 #48 (Jan 1994), the character has undergone significant revision over time.

[11] Consider the set of what’s going on here: parallax, apparent movement based on position; aberration, apparent movement based on velocity; now we have red shift, changes in the wavelength of light based on velocity relative to an object, which in this case also relates to distance from the earth.  “The Sky-High Man” by Otto Binder (who was also a noted science fiction author) in Mystery in Space #49 (Feb 1959) posited alternate universes, one of which the protagonist visited where “the red shift…was a hundred times ours… (the) universe expanding at a super-rate!  Not only the space between stars, but the space between atoms!  That means I expanded into a super-giant while I was there!” Later his expanding radio waves could not be picked up by Earthly sets. The rest of the adventure proceeds just as goofily.

[12] We do not need to get into this level of detail.  But if you want a quick read on the subject How can space travel faster than the speed of light? “Travel” is a verb in this title, not a noun.  from February 23, 2015 is a non-technical overview.

[13] What’s the difference?  If you’re in a situation moving at constant velocity it’s special relativity.  If you’re in a situation that is not (i.e., changing velocity which is by definition acceleration) you’re in the realm of general relativity.  The actual term is “frame of reference” but let’s say “situation” to keep the word count down.

[14] For an easy discussion of the issues, see Newsweek, June 30, 2009, What Newly Released Papers Reveal About Einstein

[15] Brumfiel, G. LHC by the numbers. Nature (2008).

[16] See the fascinating article The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Sharon Ruston

[17] Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms (1931) by Albert Einstein, echoing an earlier comment made in The Saturday Evening Post in an interview printed October 26, 1929.  The New York Times review of Einstein’s book on March 8, 1931 also mentions the quote.  Clearly the notion struck a resonant chord.

[1] In his book, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (translated from the German by Arnold J. Pomerans).  Harper & Row, 1971.  The subtitle tells the truth.  Composed largely of conversations the book reads like a dialogue by Plato or Galileo.  In this context a friend (Walter) was asking Heisenberg to elaborate “… you believe that anyone concerned with cultural progress must necessarily make use of the historical possibilities of the age in which he lives… if Mozart had been born in our day, he, too, would be writing atonal and experimental music?”  Heisenberg’s comment bears directly on the situation here.

[2] The motto of the school “Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.  All things change, and we change with them.” (Part Two) plays well with an anti-Aristotelian mentality as does the motto Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s word for it) of The Royal Society soon to be founded in 1660.

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