PHYSICS

What if high-altitude skydiving daredevil Felix Baumgartner had, in fact, exceeded the speed of light?

On Sunday, Felix Baumgartner became the first human being ever to travel faster than the speed of sound in nothing but a spacesuit. He did it by jumping from a high-altitude balloon at an altitude of around 127,000 feet, landing on Earth after 4 minutes and 20 seconds of free fall and another five minutes or so under a parachute.

But that feat apparently wasn’t exciting enough for US cable network MSNBC, which reported that Baumgartner had, in fact, broken the speed of light:

Breaking the speed of light is:

  • impossible, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity; and
  • highly improbable, given that Baumgartner was merely falling toward Earth. (To reach anything close to the speed of light under Earth’s gravity he would have to fall for several decades—but then he would have to start so far away from Earth that its gravity would be negligible.)

But what if Baumgartner had in fact broken (or even come close to) the speed of light? Fortunately, web comic XKCD has already answered this question for us. The answer is pretty straightforward: if Baumgartner managed to land, the area would be hit by a thermonuclear blast—the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Baumgartner, meanwhile, would be little more than a “bullet-shaped cloud of expanding plasma (mainly carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen).”

In addition, anyone on the ground would be vaporized before they even saw Baumgartner coming because the wave of x-rays originating from the fusion reactions between Baumgartner’s atoms and those of the atmosphere would arrive even before the light of Baumgartner’s disintegration.

It would have been an even more dramatic, although highly anti-climactic, end to Baumgartner’s record-breaking skydive. As XKCD imagined it…

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