Warp drive isn't science fiction!

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Since I've been knee-high to a grasshopper, I've been a huge fan of Star Trek, both the original series, the Next Generation series and the recent J.J.Abrams movies. Quality stuff. But recently, since I've becoming a budding science fiction writer, I've felt duty bound to write science fiction that is based on solid science. In other words, if the technology in a story is not evidently scientifically sound or no attempt is made to explain how it is scientifically sound, then I can't write about it as it's not science-fiction, it's fantasy fiction.

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This is where Star Trek has become a big problem to me, because Einstein, in his famous Theory of General Relativity, makes it clear that no material object can go faster that the speed of light. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that travelling between the stars is an impossible task. You either go so fast that you're rapidly smeared all over your pilots chair like a coating of gravy, or if you go slow enough to stay in one piece and end up dying of old age or being turned into a biological colander by endless cosmic ray bombardment, or both, or all three. We all may be used to the crew of Star Trek zooming between the stars in a few hours, enough time to develop a slow-burning romance, or play an odd version of chess, or play an instrument that neatly doubles up as a kitchen implement, but that doesn't mean it's scientifically okay.

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Some science fiction is science fiction. For example, H.G.Wells ‘War of the Worldsis science fiction as it involves spaceships that travel from Mars to Earth and attack with heat rays, which is scientifically credible. John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’ is also science fiction as it involves genetically altered plants, bred for fuel, that go on the rampage after Earth’s populations is blinded by a rogue satellite, which is also fine. Interestingly, Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never let me go’ is also science fiction as it involves a boarding school containing children destined to donate organs. All of them would go into the science-fiction shelves.

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But a lot of classic sci-fi stories have what could be called the 'magic box' approach. In other words, they involve a teleporting vehicle/box/cubicle that can transport you to another part of the galaxy and they make no attempt to explain how it moves. This effectively makes it a magic box and the story is a fantasy. The story might be a cracker, but it's still a fantasy. It doesn’t matter if the box is made of metal and has some dials and levers, if there’s no evidence that that box’s technology is based on solid scientific principles, then it’s still a magic box. It doesn’t matter if a character explains that the device works by ‘fluxing reality waves’ or ‘threading between dimensions’, you’re still reading a fantasy story because the writer has effectively put up a big sign saying ‘I DON’T GIVE A RAT’S ASS ABOUT BEING SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE’. ‘Back to the Future’ is therefore a fantasy story, Doctor Who is a fantasy story and Star Trek, the exciting, fun series of my childhood is also a fantasy story because our scientific understanding tells us that it’s impossible to send a metal ship faster than light, especially one equipped with a cocktail bar. It's true that the ships in Star Wars don't have cocktail bars (even on the Death Star! Man, that must have been a dull place to work) and their ships look a little battered and clunky, but Star Wars is also a fantasy story. In truth, this is hardly surprising as there's lots of evidence that George Lucas's script was a fantasy saga hurriedly re-written as a science fiction saga, something I waffled about in this earlier blog entry.

But the thing is, I found out this week that travelling between the stars in a practical length of time is theoretically possible after all.

As mentioned above, Einstein's Theory of General Relativity makes it clear that you can't move a physical object through space at a speed faster than light. This is because when you accelerate an object through space-time, you increase its relative mass. As Einstein pointed out in his famous equation E=mc2, energy and mass are two side of the same coin. Acceleration increases energy and therefore the effective mass. As an object approaches the speed of light, its mass heads towards infinity and so it becomes impossible to accelerate it further.

But there's a trick. What if you manipulated space-time, the fabric of space, around a central area? What if you compressed space in front of that area and expanded space behind it? This would effectively cause that area of space-time to move in relation to the larger world around it but inside that area, nothing would actually be changing. The process would effectively consist of moving a patch of space-time intact through the larger cosmos. Here's a neat picture to demonstrate the idea:

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This idea was postulated in a scientific paper by Miguel Alcubierre from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Wales (which is where the above picture originated). As Miguel says in his introduction to the paper:

[In this paper] it is shown how, within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes, it is possible to modify a spacetime in a way that allows a spaceship to travel with an arbitrarily large speed. By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it, motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible. The resulting distortion is reminiscent of the 'warp drive' of science fiction. However, just as it happens with wormholes, exotic matter will be needed in order to generate a distortion of space-time like the one discussed here.


The last sentence of the above quote is key; 'exotic matter will be needed in order to generate a distortion of space-time like the one discussed here'. In other words, it might be theoretically possible for someone to go shuttling around the galaxy on their own personal space-time skipping stone, but how are they going to find the energy to do all that space-time warping? They're sitting in a small patch of space-time. What are they going to do, carry a personal, mobile sun around with them?

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Fortunately, another piece of modern scientific theory comes to the rescue. Quantum physics tells us that empty space isn't really empty. In fact, every small smidgen of empty space holds enough potential energy to boil all the oceans of Earth. This is known as the vacuum energy or zero-point energy. Theoretically, if someone could create an engine that could draw out some of that vacuum energy and use it to warp space-time around their craft, they would be able to travel between the stars in hours or days. Warp drive travel is therefore possible; they could even take a cocktail bar with them.

Time for a summing up. I used to think that warp-drives weren't science-fiction, even though everyone was under the delusion that they were. I now realise that a warp-drive isn't necessarily science-fiction, as it's theoretically possible that such a device could be built, and therefore a warp-drive can be part of science-fiction, as it's a story element that's based on solid science. Therefore, although it was, I thought it wasn't, but now I think it is, as it's possible that it isn't. I hope that makes sense.

All of this means that I can now watch Star Trek with a relaxed and niggle-free mind, at least if I ignore another question; if it's the twenty-fifth century and humanity is beyond petty tribal issues and small-minded, shallow concerns like money and vanity, and their ships are incredibly advanced technical marvels, why do the crew of the Starship Enterprise all wear clothes?