Because I am sensitive to charges that the media nitpicks every utterance from this particular president — looking for “gotcha” mistakes — I decided to do precisely the opposite by lining up scientific support for his plan, starting with its very name. So I got on the phone with Sean Carroll, a renowned theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. Sean specializes in quantum mechanics, gravity and cosmology. He is an internationally recognized expert on the Higgs boson, an extremely important tiny thing that apparently only he understands. I don’t want to overstate Sean’s credentials for the purpose of inflating the gravitas of this column, but he is basically Isaac Newton, with less foofy hair.
Me: So, this warp speed thing! Going at warp speed — literally at, or faster than, the speed of light — how fast can the president bring this project in? Might it be done already?
Sean: Warp speed is physically impossible. It is unfeasible based on absolutely everything we know about the laws of physics. I am 99.99 percent confident of that.
Me: Surely, that can’t be true! The president said it! Also it was on “Star Trek”!
Sean: As you accelerate incrementally to speeds closer to the speed of light, it takes more and more energy until you would have to expend more than an infinite amount of energy. So.
Me: So ...
Sean: That was just a rephrasing of the fact that you literally can’t do it.
To understand warp speed, it’s helpful to understand the famed Karate Neck Chop, a device used in early “Mission: Impossible” episodes and other low-budget 1960s-era TV shows. It is employed when the hero is being held at gunpoint by the bad guy. This is resolved when the hero delivers a karate chop to the back of the bad guy’s neck, briefly knocking him out and thus facilitating an escape, thereby resolving a plot problem without turning the hero into a murderer. For a book, I once consulted a neurologist who assured me that this maneuver is impossible, but if it were possible, it would also cause death.
Same background to warp speed. Though it has been twisted over the years to refer to the fastest possible speed, the only valid way to define it is by its original meaning. It was a baseless theoretical contrivance used to solve plot problems in science fiction, because if you couldn’t fly faster than the speed of light, you could never get to another star system — the distances are too great, meaning there would be no strange new worlds to visit, aliens to see, etc. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is a better tag line than “You can’t get there from here.”
Actually, Sean told me there is one possibility for interplanetary travel by humans, but he warned me it would sound far-fetched: “However,” he said, “it is easier to imagine extending the human life span to thousands of years, than that we might travel at the speed of light.”
I had one last idea to save the president’s terminology, and broached it: Wormholes!
Sean: Ah, wormholes. Well, here’s the thing. As my colleague Kip Thorne once said, if there were such a shortcut through space and time, you’d be able to go back in time and kill your grandparents.
Sean: So, no.
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