I am a science fiction fan. Since I was in third grade, I’ve been reading science fiction books and stories and they continue to dominate my leisure time reading. Certainly I read some other sorts of things, ranging from theology to history to biography. I enjoy many science fiction movies and television shows, especially Star Trek.
One of the necessary conventions in science fiction has been “faster than light” travel. It’s necessary for the story telling that our intrepid heroes be able to get from one planetary system to another in a reasonable length of time. However, it must be accomplished through “handwavium” and “wink, wink, nudge nudge.” The reality, as anyone who has taken a course in physics or astronomy, or who pays attention to some of the science programs on TV is that we know it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. The problem is not one of technology, but, as Scotty in Star Trek might say, “Ye cannot change the laws of physics, captain.” Traveling faster than the speed of light is like trying to fly by flapping your arms. Flap as hard as you like, you’re not going to fly if you’re a human being.
The problem with traveling faster than light is that in order to get to the speed of light all the matter in an object must be converted to energy—at which point you’re out of fuel. Kind of like trying to go another mile when your gas tank is empty. It’s not going to happen.
But that’s not the only problem. The faster you go, the more massive you become; that may be counterintuitive, but what it means is that it takes ever more energy to increase your speed the closer you get to the speed of light, with your mass exponentially rising toward infinity.
And that’s not all! There’s the little matter of time dilation to worry about. The faster you go, the slower time goes for you. This isn’t just a theoretical thing; the whole GPS system works only because the computers compensate for the time dilation effects affecting the satellites in orbit thanks to their speed. If allowance wasn’t made for that, you’d never be able to find your way around—and ships, planes and banking transactions would be significantly messed up. At the speed of light, the time dilation becomes very significant: time stops passing altogether. That’s right. At the speed of light, time ceases. Thus, if you did go faster than light, you’d be going backward in time.
So. Science fiction authors are aware of all these sorts of things, and so they fudge things to get around it. The invent such conceits as hyperspace—such as one sees in Star Wars. Or there are wormholes, that one passes through to get from here to there faster than the laws of physics would otherwise allow—this was what was done in Carl Sagan’s Contact, both the book and the movie. And then in Star Trek, we get the “warp” engine, which—without any real explanation—allows the Enterprise to go large distances far faster than light beams can.
None of these things are real ways of getting to the stars.
Except. In 1994 Miguel Alcubierre came up with a theory. While one cannont travel through space faster than the speed of light, space itself has not such limitation. In fact, we know that space bends (that’s how gravity works, and it can bend light beams: we can image distant galaxies on occasion thanks to “gravity lenses” where the light is bent by the mass of a galaxy or black hole, allowing us to see it.) We also know that the universe as a whole expanded at a rate faster than the speed of light in the first moments after the Big Bang.
Alcubierre’s idea was that with the right material, one could compress space in front of a star ship, expand it behind, and send the ship from one place to another faster than a light beam could. Interestingly, by this method not only would you feel no acceleration, you wouldn’t even be bothered by time dilation effects.
The downside, as pointed out by other researchers, was that based on Alcubierre’s math, it would require more energy than exists in the whole universe to pull it off. So, as interesting as Alcubeirre’s idea was, it was obviously not possible.
Well, then some other researchers fiddled with it and realized that with a few minor adjustments, the energy requirements could be shrunk to where one would need “only” the energy of converting a mass the size of Jupiter into energy.
Hmm. Not really possible, either.
And there it sat, until just last week.
At the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a researcher at NASA, Harold White, presented a paper which demonstrated that the Alcubierre warp drive could be powered with about 2000 pounds of matter. And—he added—if the drive were “oscillated” the energy requirements could be reduced even further. White is quoted in news articles as saying that it would be possible to go to Alpha Centauri (about 4.3 light years from Earth) in only two weeks travel time.
That alone is fascinating. He suggested that the idea of a warp drive has moved from being “impossible” to “plausible.”
But wait, there’s more! White has started setting up an experiment to generate a very tiny warp bubble using something called a “White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer” which should be able to perturb spacetime by one part in ten million or so.
They are now building this thing at NASA. If it works, this table top device won’t be able to take us to the stars. But if it works, it will prove that warp drives are no longer science fiction, but instead, science fact.
White said that the test rig can be compared to the “Chicago pile moment.” In 1942 scientists for the first time demonstrated that a controlled nuclear reaction was possible. That first device produced half a watt of power. Not much, but it proved the theory worked. Within a year, they could produce four megawatts. Of course the atomic bomb came in 1945, and by 1955, the first nuclear powered submarine went into operation.
The White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer, if it works, will be for the warp drive what 1942 was for nuclear energy.
In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the first warp flight happened in 2063. Though I remain a bit skeptical, who knows, it might not stay fictional.