Let’s get something out in the open: not all science fiction is scientifically possible. Some of it is possible, but the laws of nature are pretty strict, and they prevent us from doing a number of things that — in principle — would be incredible to do. Examples on both sides, please?
Shrink rays? A la Fantastic Voyage? Completely impossible, unfortunately. Protons, neutrons, and electrons are stuck being the one-and-only size that the Universe demands they be; you can neither shrink nor grow them.
So yesterday, I was alerted that this story about Warp Drive hit the front page of Yahoo!
The warp drive, one of Star Trek’s hallmark inventions, could someday become science instead of science fiction.
I’m not buying it at all, and for good reason. Let’s take a look at why. First off, Einstein’s relativity tells you that nothing physical — matter, light, or energy in any form — can move faster-than-light. All experiments and plausible physical theories have verified that to be 100% true. So if you want to traverse vast distances, what you’d have to do is bend spacetime severely enough to let you either exit it at one point and re-enter at another (left) or collapse the space in front of you so you can move forward more quickly (right).
The exit-and-re-enter space is known as a wormhole, and it’s what Stargate uses. The collapse-space-in-front-of-you is the idea of Warp Drive, and that’s the famous form of transport used in the Star Trek incarnations. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure this is going to play a role in the new Star Trek movie.
Not only do we have no experimental or observational evidence for both of these, we also believe the both scenarios are physically impossible in principle. Wormholes can exist, at least in theory, just by having an arbitrarily strong gravitational field at two points in space that wind up connecting, and they would cause space to go from looking like a flat grid to looking like this:
To travel through it, all you’d have to do is pass through that bridge area. The insurmountable problem? The gravitational fields required to make such a bridge within our Universe are so strong that they would tear individual atoms apart! As there’s no such thing in the Universe as something that can shield the gravitational force, this idea is doomed.
Now, what about warp drive?
Again, all you need to do to “foreshorten” space in front of you and lengthen it behind you is to take that flat grid of space and make it look like this:
Which doesn’t look too hard, at a first glance. There are a few major fundamental problems with this idea, though, which does, in fact, make it physically impossible. First off, it requires a vast amount of negative energy, which doesn’t exist in this Universe. The only way we’ve ever even conceived of negative energy is to take something of enormously positive energy and then measure a small, negative change relative to that big, positive number. And second, if you actually want to move matter at this speed, you need to plunk it down at the speed you want it to move at. This is a catch-22, as it means that you need to be moving at warp speed already if you want to move at warp speed. There are other problems associated with this that may or may not be insurmountable, such as getting out of warp drive once you’ve gotten into it, whether the gravitational fields will crush you, and whether there’s enough energy in the Universe to make this happen. But these two problems I’ve identified above ensure that this will remain in the realm of science fiction for a long, long time. And fiction is fine, but don’t try to pass it off as reality.
So no, Yahoo!, it is impossible. And your reporting makes me question whether you should even get to have that exclamation point in your title. (It’s mine!)
And, for all of my wonderful readers, since you’ve made it to the end of the article, I’m trying to get something started not just for me, but for all of scienceblogs: an easy way to digg, stumble, facebook, reddit, or del.icio.us a post that you like! Check out the little toolbar at the bottom of this post, and give it a whirl if you like! I hope to make this a part of all my future posts, and help give you the opportunity to share your favorite articles with the world!