Physicists check out warp speed

January 2, 2012
physics
Warp speed ahead! Well, not really.
“Time Travel and Warp Drives,” University of Chicago Press

In December, NASA announced that its Kepler spacecraft had spotted a handful of Earth-size spheres orbiting a distant star. So, now would seem like a good time for mankind to fire up the starship and make haste for the space lanes. It’ll be a long trip, though — tens of thousands of years. And despite what you’ve seen in sci-fi fantasies, there’s not a lot of hope for a shortcut.

In their new book, Allen Everett and Thomas Roman, both physics professors and confessed “Star Trek” geeks, contemplate the viability of speeding up interstellar travel by using wormholes and space warps. “By chance — or good insight — Star Trek’s ‘warp drive’ turns out to be an apt description of one conceivable mechanism for traveling at faster-than-light speed,” they write. And they go on to describe how real physicists check it out, chapter by intense chapter, complete with diagrams and equations.

In theory, they say, it’s possible to construct a wormhole or warp bubble, which would shave a few millennia off of your travel time. But constructing it would take a lot of juice — whose source would be something called “the negative energy associated with a quantum field.” The problem is, to get enough energy to make a warp bubble big enough to hold a spaceship, you need negative mass “about 10 powers of 10 (i.e., 10 orders of magnitude) larger than the total mass of the entire visible universe!”

Honestly, it’s a bit of a letdown. “As scientists, it’s our job to understand the universe as it is, not as how we might wish it to be,” Everett and Roman write. “We must always keep in mind that the universe is under absolutely no obligation to fulfill our hopes and desires.”

Aaron Leitko


“Time Travel and Warp Drives,” University of Chicago Press
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