Speed of Sound not what it used to be

Speed of Sound not what it used to be

Perhaps you haven't heard: The speed of sound, assumed for 40 years to be 741.5 miles per hour, is actually a tad slower - a mere 741.1 mph. The initial calculation, based on an erroneous scientific assumption, has been proven inaccurate by a Canadian, Dr. S.K. Wong. "Wong Rights Wrong" is how the headline in the New York Times should have read, but that's another story.

After uncovering the faulty premise, Wong was quoted thusly: "You know physicists, they always calculate things assuming this, assuming that." Tell me about it, doc. Those wacky, devil-may-care nerds gave us the unified field theory, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the theory of relativity and, most recently, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Why, after a hard day of making grand assumptions and mind-boggling equations, these wild and crazy guys and gals can frequently be found at the "You Light Up My Life" Cafe, tossing down some frosties and radiating good fellowship. It would be easy to take physicists to task for permitting this speed-of- sound blooper to survive unchallenged for four decades. The news will hit some of us harder than others. Indeed, who among us would want to straighten out Chuck Yeager on this arcane point of science?

"Colonel Yeager?"


"Could I talk with you for a minute?"


"Remember your 1947 flight breaking the sound barrier for the first time?"


"Well, it turns out that you were traveling 0.4 miles per hour slower than you thought you were and if you could see fit to put this small matter behind you. . . ."

"Boy, I never look for trouble, but I think you do. . . ."

But let's be fair here. Human beings like pilots, physicists, politicians are forever making assumptions which are speculative, at best. Ronald Reagan, for example, thought he could cut taxes, raise spending and balance the budget. The President also believes that when he gets to heaven the angels will be sporting wings and singing hymns.

On the other side of the ideological coin, communists have always taken for granted that they have "the" answer to world problems. Once a movement, or a person, for that matter, "knows" what is right, little glitches like Stalin (he was a 30-year uncorrected gaffe), Pol Pot and Chernobyl become small potatoes in the overall scheme of things. Hey, what's everyone so excited about? We're here to help.

Actually, the world could not function without assumptions because hardly anything is absolutely certain. As with political theories, precise scientific calculations like the speed of sound vary outside the warm, friendly confines of a laboratory. The actual speed of sound in the real world depends on those pesky environmental conditions, which stand still for no man. Scientists try to overcome such messy details by establishing neat concepts like "standard air." There is, of course, no such thing. So, for all we know, Chuck Yeager may well have been flying at 741.5 mph, or even faster when he made the sky go boom.

Still, it is nice to have a few things we can count on. The plumber who told you last month that he'll be at your house tomorrow, won't be. Ronald Reagan will leave the Oval Office as firm a believer in a balanced budget as the day he went in. And physicists will continue making more and better bombs on the assumptions that progress marches on and that they will never be used.

Perhaps we should ask S.K. Wong to double-check that last notion.