Yesterday, Austrian daredevil and all-around crazy person, Felix Baumgartner, broke the record for the world’s highest free fall and fastest free fall speed achieved. He rode a specially designed balloon up to just over 128,000 feet (24 miles) and jumped out. He was in free-fall for 4 minutes and 19 seconds and hit a top speed of 834 mph. MSNBC reported the story with this graphic:
Astute observers with a modicum of scientific education might notice a small error. Yep. MSNBC indicated that Baumgartner broke the speed of light. Baumgartner actually broke the sound barrier (768 mph), becoming the first person to do so without vehicular assistance. Chuck Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier in a supersonic jet in 1947. I’m sure this was just a simple mixup on MSNBC’s part and they actually intended for the graphic to read that he broke the speed of sound. A hilarious mixup nonetheless, when you consider what the ramifications of someone actually breaking the speed of light within an Earth-like atmosphere would be. Any macroscopic object travelling at relativistic speed in Earth-like conditions would be functionally equivalent to detonating an atomic bomb.
This is most awesomely illustrated here, where it is explained what would happen if someone tried to hit a baseball travelling at 0.9 c ( 90% of the speed of light, which is 604,000,000 mph). Short answer: It wouldn’t pretty.