Ground Effect

Why not? Here's why not. Hypothetical scenario. Let's build one of these things, a photonic human, a high-speed-thought light-based soldier-human, a speedster, or whatever you want to call it. Let's tap into this hitherto-mythical "Ground Effect" and see what happens when we connect a real-life human to it. Let's follow this proposal through to its logical conclusion.

We can't control or guess at all the effects likely to come out of this. For one thing: if the man is capable at thinking at thousands or tens of thousands of times faster than a conventional human or his own pre-accelerated self then that is a function of his unaltered brain. There's an interface between the outside world as moves at the speed we're all to seeing it move and the accelerated human who exists in this dynamic pocket of accelerated spacetime. That interface, the envelope, is the key to the whole process, because it in and of itself does not move except in the figurative sense that a shadow moves. It is a function of the standing Ground Effect Field that is a natural property of all gravitationally-bound bodies, the result of channelled energy in that field, analogous with the intersection between two beams of light. As we know, by changing the angles of the light beams, the point of intersection can be made to move faster than light. This is an artifact of our tendency to call a point of intersection a physical thing when it is in fact ephemeral, made at any given instant from relativistic matter moving at or below the speed of light. Likewise a shadow can be cast and moved across a distant object at faster-than-light speeds. The user changes the point of intersection and a nearby area of the world opens up a little and the current area of the world closes down and you have moved. The point is, the Field Envelope does not move, so it does not need to be aerodynamic, or even round. It can be square, or act like armour surrounding the user. When he runs, spacetime opens up ahead of the user, and closes behind him, as if he were running through a series of stationary doors.

But what the envelope cannot do is enclose only a man's brain. Or his feet. There are vast, catastrophic biological effects which would arise out of that. The brain would start of oxygen in a minute or two-- or a microsecond from an external observer's perspective-- as blood seeped into it at such slow subjective speeds. You might as well amputate.

This isn't a thought experiment. I can show you footage of rats whose hind legs and tail are grey and moulding, dead, while the front half of the rat, still alive and in a great deal of pain, tows them around. Dying rats with living bodies, still beating hearts, but dead heads.

So what we must have is a man who is completely bound to this high-speed perspective. All or nothing. If the envelope is created, it must enclose him instantly or not at all. Second observation: he must be kept stationary and cordoned off, preferably with rebar! Nobody can be allowed to approach the field while it's active, in case some unlucky fool slips and falls into it while it's active and is dead from the waist up and decaying to a skeleton before he or she hits the floor. If the envelope is mobile, the subject cannot and must not touch another human being or living thing, in case they were only drawn partially into the envelope and the same thing happened again. He could kill anyone instantly just by dragging him or her into the field. The best we can say for this murder means is that it would be leave unmistakeable residue and would be easy to identify. "This man died from the Ground Effect..." You just gave them the power of life and death over the human race. You created a Person of Mass Destruction. What about accountability?

Let's say we make the field adhere to the skin, tightly enough to be worn, hermetically sealed. That means everything inside the shell is accelerated, and everything outside of it is not. How much air can one man carry? A few hours' worth? At accelerated speeds, he runs out in a second. By the time you get the suit shut down, he's dead.

Make the suit air-breathing. Now it's no longer sealed safely, which can be risky. You've exposed the mouth and nose. That's a raw acceleration interface. The amount of air being cycled through the accelerated lungs is thousands or millions of times more than a human's. You're in an enclosed space? Now it's full of carbon dioxide and you're choking to death. Your soldier's been dead on the floor for two weeks by the time you reach the door. You're outdoors? That's better. It's just equivalent to running a jet turbine next to your ear. Now, what about water? What about food? How long can the fellow go without needing to use a lavatory? A few seconds? You're talking about creating a mobile, self-contained life-support environment that can hold a human being for weeks at a time. That's submarine-complicated, Space Shuttle-complicated.

So you let the guy switch it off. When he needs to, he flattens down the accelerated envelope and does whatever needs doing: eats, spits, whatever.

How fast does spit come out of the field? Here's a plate of steel we tried that on. What about a punch? Here's another one. Notice the enormous hole. The tangled formations you see at the ragged edges of the hole? Those are stress marks from direct interaction with the envelope. Materials do frightening things.

He has no transport. If he wants to travel, he has to travel in a conventional car or train or bus or plane. But the field might accommodate a bicycle. And in theory he can run for as far as he likes. He can take a full night's sleep inside the envelope and be vulnerable only for a second. He can walk into a building and kill everybody inside it just by waving a finger through each throat, and be out of the building and a mile away before anybody can blink, leaving just shattered doors torn into pieces like this steel plate and a hundred people all falling and hitting the ground at once.

This is not a comic book. Somebody shoots a bullet at him? He just walks around it-- if he sees it coming. Someone sneaks up on him? As soon as he feels something touching the back of his head, an iron bar, let's say, he can go to high speed mode and duck or dodge it. A trip-wire? From his perspective, he runs into it at regular pace and hits the ground like any normal human. It's not fatal, he recovers in a second. An explosion? He walks away from it and watches it happen. We're at T plus ten minutes and democracy in this country is over.

A speedster with a brain? A human brain attached to a mature eigentechnology? You want to use that against another country? It's your worst nightmare.

Vulnerabilities? He has to eat, and the food has to be prepared in real time. If poisoned, there's nothing he can do to save himself. He can't use a book at high speed and he can't learn any more quickly than a normal human: a tough book remains a tough book even at accelerated brain-rates. He can't use a computer at high speed. Anything he can't do himself has to be done by someone else at regular speed - that opens up avenues of attack. He can jump high, and survive arbitrary falls, but he can't fly; the clue is in the title, "Ground Effect". He has to be physically in contact with Earth or some other body for the effects to persist correctly. He can theoretically be surprised and killed before he reacts. He can be killed slowly in a way he doesn't realise is happening until too late. He is human. He makes mistakes.

These aren't enough for us. There aren't enough outs here. Don't make a Ground Effect soldier. There are too many routes to catastrophe.


Try this instead.

The Ground Effect can be inverted. You can create a region of the world which moves slowly. In exchange for slower reactions or even a completely useless soldier, you have a lowered metabolism and total stasis. Move a troop or a set of troops from one part of the world to another in real time without needing to feed them. Install the whole system into a ship.

Install a full-fat positive Ground Effect in a ship and get an aircraft carrier capable of Mach 1 on the open ocean. Give us thirty years and that'll happen. Direct installation into a jet aeroplane or a space rocket are both no-gos. Again, see the title. But I showed you what happens when one spits out of the envelope? It was like a bullet. Can you imagine what happened when we fired a bullet out of the thing? Close to escape velocity. Are you getting it now? Shoot down a satellite from the ground with a conventional rocket launcher.

Got the electrical capacity? Got a fibre optic cable which can handle the bit-rate that'll come out of it? Got room in your installation? Wrap a computer in a Ground Effect Envelope and you have a supercomputer. What can you do with a thousand-fold supercomputation boost? Crack the entire encrypted world open? Simulate the future? These are just off the top of my head. Grow crops faster. Raise animals faster. Mature wine faster. Install the tech into a refrigerator and keep perishables for longer. I created this list in five minutes. Until I came into this meeting I didn't even know what Project Ground Effect was.

A human being? Draw up an international treaty outlawing that tosh. God help us, there isn't a worse idea in the world. We just created a brand new superpower and you're talking about bestowing it on a human being?

Discussion (14)

2010-11-12 16:49:01 by qntm:

1698 words. Running total is 23707. This is based on a title I've had kicking around for a while: "I'm your worst nightmare: a speedster with a brain". It was originally intended to be an account of exactly what would happen if the Flash in DC Comics was remotely competent and used his powers to their fullest extent. The answer: every single crime or supercrime would be solved and perpetrator locked up within a second of commencing. But I decided that after "The Future", Justice League fan fiction would be pushing it, so I went in this direction instead.

2010-11-12 17:29:41 by EthZee:

See, I liked this. It's got a feeling like your earlier fiction; there's something pleasurable about reading someone thinking aloud, as it were, about hypothetical technology.

2010-11-12 18:42:32 by qntm:

Oh, and this also ties in with my pet theory that the Flash's powers are directly tied to the ground. He has to have something under him to run on, and he is connected to the ground while running. This explains why (1) he can't fly just by making swimming motions in the air, (2) he can run up the side of buildings and (3) he doesn't fly off at a tangent when he tries to run around the circumference of the Earth at too high a speed.

2010-11-12 19:06:46 by BenFriesen:

I really enjoyed this; The Flash is one of my favorite superheroes in concept, but my least favorite in execution because he's incredibly dumb about how he uses his powers. If you're hurting for ideas at the end of the month, revisiting this one would be greatly appreciated.

2010-11-12 22:35:04 by wat:

The "acceleration field" aspect seems reminiscent of ARM, by Larry Niven.

2010-11-12 23:02:31 by skztr:

Speed remains my favorite traditional super-power, and your writing in Fine Structure completely reshaped the way I think about the whole thing. However, when trying to think about things "realistically", it's the interface-aspect which always bothers me. For example: light always moves at the same relative speed, but if you think ten times as quickly, would you perceive there being only one tenth of the light? Only one tenth the amount of photons would be hitting your optic nerve per subjective instant, after all. But the part that seems most like it "couldn't work" is the whole idea of moving so much faster than the anthropic principle has prepared the world to survive. In a car crash, even the bluntest of objects can pierce like a knife. Moving fast enough, wouldn't everything else feel like play-doh? No need for a mystical force to tear up objects on contact, just rubbing your finger along a steel plate which doesn't have any time to provide "reaction" to your "action" could leave enough of a mark as it is. Of course, these are the kind of wonderings which one can achieve through a combination of hypothetical musings and ignorance- perhaps someone with a stronger background in physics can point out all of the reasons what I said is beyond absurd.

2010-11-12 23:30:55 by Snowyowl:

As far as light is concerned, I imagine the frequency would stay the same at the interface (to prevent discontinuities), but lightspeed is increased proportionally to the time dialation. I think this is how it actually happens in GR (when spacetime is distorted by a powerful gravitational field). Any light that entered the field would be shifted to far infrared, and any visible light leaving the field would become gamma rays. Put a laser in the field: instant death-ray. And yes, photon flux would also vary proportionally. I wonder about the relation between super-speed and super-strength. As shown with the spitting example, the speedster's mass is unchanged but his speed is increased a thousandfold. An ordinary punch would have the momentum of a cyclist and the energy of a dangerously fast lorry. On the other hand, carrying a heavy object is just as hard as ever, since you have to overcome inertia (but not so much gravity) and hold it off the ground for subjective hours just to move it a short distance.

2010-11-12 23:33:03 by YarKramer:

I was confused at first because when I looked up "ground effect" on Wikipedia and found only established scientifically-understood phenomena. So a bit more "establishment" of the idea might be useful on the rewrite.

2010-11-13 16:10:07 by JeremyBowers:

If the interface can be nested: Wrap an acceleration Ground Effect around a vehicle, wrap the internal of the vehicle with an anti-effect canceling it out. Now a tube train crosses the country faster than a plane, and the train itself is nothing fancy. But nobody inside is a superpowered. Perhaps still too dangerous to actually deploy, but you might build this for your country's leadership or something.

2010-11-13 23:43:29 by Ben:

I liked this one a lot, but there are more typographic errors than usual. The affected sentences are: "There's an interface between the outside world as moves at the speed we're all to seeing it move and the accelerated human who exists in this dynamic pocket of accelerated spacetime." "The brain would start of oxygen in a minute or two--" "Those are stress marks from direction interaction with the envelope." "If he wants to travel, he has to travel in a conventional car or train or bus or plain." "From his perspective, he runs into it at regular pace and hits the ground like any normal human."

2010-11-14 22:00:25 by Vladimir:

Pretty big hole here: "I can show you footage of rats...", and then five minutes later "Until I came into this meeting I didn't even know what the Project was".

2015-08-19 15:18:14 by Argent:

Larry Niven did this in the first "Gil the Arm" detective story, ARM. Covers about half the tropes listed here. Worth reading.

2018-10-04 04:05:05 by tahrey:

I could swear I've seen Snowyowl's idea about the light frequency changing being put into action somewhere before, probably in some kind of speculative fiction... though not so much the photon flux thing, which seems rather more obvious in retrospect than before it was mentioned. You'd be OK in daylight so long as you didn't accelerate too hard (just dilate your pupils), but night time would be a problem. Which also brings in another problem that's not covered in the story or other comments: heat dissipation. This would quickly become a problem for any human speedster, or a computer within an acceleration field. You need to dump body or processor heat to the environment quicker than it can actually find its way down the normal temperature gradient, meaning the gradient has to increase to raise the dissipation rate. Unless you're only going to operate at the poles, or on one of the atmospheric moons in the outer solar system (the vacuum of space is a poor choice for heat dissipation - no conduction or convection, only radiation), your core temperature will shoot up in order to achieve this. Which means rapid death from hyperthermia, or hardware failure. After all, the main problem we have with highly clocking existing computer hardware isn't the availability of suitable clocks. Or nano-transistor technology that can operate at ultra high speeds (without it, the extra high speed network switching fabric - 10 gbit/s and up - that most corporate nets and a lot of the internet backbone depend on simply wouldn't exist). It's the sheer amount of heat that said transistors pump out on a second to second basis. The relatively simple, low transistor count network switch chips can get away with it, but scale that up to the extreme complexity and multi-million transistor counts in a typical microprocessor (or even DRAM chip) and you're on a one way ride to meltdown city. Even with advanced water or oil cooling solutions, pulling much more than 5GHz is a serious challenge right now. Naturally if the whole computer was wrapped in an acceleration field the actual internal problem of moving heat from CPU die to heatsink to the air or water flowing through it (and then the air moving over the water radiator) wouldn't be much of an issue and you could even significantly underclock the machine to reduce the ambient heat and extend the operating lifespan. But the produced heat has to interact with the outside environment at *some* point - and if you have a CPU with a moderate 50w TDP running flat-out, accelerated 40-fold so a single laptop can do the job of ten blade servers, what you now have is a howling gale both inbound to and blasting out from the machine's main vents, with the outbound carrying as much heat energy per second as would a 2-kilowatt space heater. It might not be an insurmountable problem to provide for the necessary airflow and cooling on top of the machine itself, but you might find yourself wondering if just setting up the rack of blades would have been about as efficient. Oh and of course the power has to come from somewhere - 2 kilowatts of heat doesn't come for free. That's enough to overload a domestic small-appliance socket in some countries, and certainly challenge the fuse installed in the plug itself where the standards are more robust, never mind completely overwhelming the transformer itself if it's not within the field. But if it (and even the plug proper) IS within the field, you'll need something able to cope with extremely low frequency (from its' perspective) AC, on the order of about 1.2 to 1.4Hz... And if we scale up from a laptop to a desktop or an actual server (never mind an existing supercomputer), the problems just get worse. Essentially, with the state of play of computer hardware, you'd likely only see a mild speedup for your money with the application of such a field, once all the mitigating add-ons were in place, vs just doing it in the conventional manner. If twere possible just to throw money at the heat dissipation issue and will it away, someone would have done it with the conventional hardware already, never mind some exotic time-compressed version. Instead what we actually do is distribute the processing load over many parallel processors and server blades, running at regular speeds, instead of trying to push single cores to ludicrous speeds... However I would protest the point about Gravity. When you get down to it, gravity is experienced as an accelerative force - however many metres per second per second, per kilogramme of mass. If your personal timescale has been stretched out tenfold, then the apparent acceleration is decreased to one-tenth of original. Gravity, essentially, appears decimated. You can lift things ten times heavier than you would normally manage, because you can exert ten times the force - with the same old muscles, and ignoring the heat and oxygen load, you can make use of ten times the energy per external second, even though your internal energy exertion doesn't appear to have changed. Inertia is still a bitch, massive items still need as much of a shove to move around in free space by your subjective timescale as they ever would have done, but the other forces acting on them - gravity, and indeed friction - will appear much reduced. It's as difficult to influence the sideways movement as ever, but picking up and carrying heavier things becomes MUCH easier.

2020-11-22 14:20:28 by Tim:

There's a speedster in The Fall of Doc Future, which has a physics-informed take on superpowers. Very different rules than this one, but people might enjoy it as well.

New comment by :

Plain text only. Line breaks become <br/>
The square root of minus one: