Diagnosis: Death by warp speed

Was going to put this out yesterday, but WordPress was down for almost two hours — rare, but it happens.  Thankfully, it the post was nothing of consequence.  Hopefully it didn’t affect too many of you trying to access the blog.

The post-of-no-consequence was a report on the impact of traveling at “warp speed” on humans, etc. riding such a warp-capable craft, based on some work by William Edelstein of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  You can read the article here on the New Scientists website: “Starship pilots: speed kills, especially warp speed” (February 17, 2010).

It’s a quick read for the geeky-at-heart out there.  I find it priceless that there is a correction, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek, at the beginning in which the author or editors correct their previously published comment about a Borg ship “decloaking” without, as they call it, supporting “televisual evidence.”

The issue is that as speeds approach light speed, the sparse hydrogen atoms that exist out there in space (at an incredibly thin fewer-than-two atoms per cubic centimeter on average) become virtually-unstoppable death rays for anyone traveling at such speeds.  For details, read the article.

The discussion in the comments section after the article was interesting, too, for those who enjoy being a fly on the wall in such geekified, sci-fi conversations.  (I could certainly add my own points…  (1) The problem is relativity and the effects on matter as one approaches the speed of light, yet in sci-fi such as Star Trek and Star Wars, “warp speed” is actually a superluminal velocity — that is, faster than light — for which fictional physics rules the day: subspace, hyperspace, warp fields & warp dynamics, etc.  Yet, (2) it seems generally understood that Star Trek’s “impulse power” involves incredibly-fast-but-subluminal velocities — that is approaching but still slower than light — for which the articles’ questions still hold.  That is, I could add my own points if I were a geek-type of person.  Which, um, of course I am not.  Ahem.  I think I want to leave these parentheses now…)

These things, though, are not just science fiction considerations, as ships that approach the speed of light are currently within mankind’s technological abilities.  The discussion of such craft was one of the many things I enjoyed about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, way back when — from interstellar ramjets to ships propelled by nuclear explosions, it’s within mankind’s reach.  (Genesis 11:6 comes to mind.)

If it’s your cup of tea, read it here.

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6 thoughts on “Diagnosis: Death by warp speed

  1. Undoubtedly you know (but not everyone else might) that’s why Federation starships have that big parabolic dish on the fronts of their secondary hulls: to keep those relativistic death rays from frying the starship. You see, people were thinking about that way back in the 1960’s at least…:) I have no idea at the moment how the Klingons, Romulans or other handled that problem.

  2. Steve

    Couldn’t get me on a space ship if you tried. You’re living in a submarine. Sterile air. No place to go. Ugh!

  3. Thomas

    Of course, that deflector thingy doesn’t do much good when the Enterprise is going in reverese.

    – “It’s worse than that, they’re dead, Jim!” – Bones McCoy, paraphrased from various TOS episodes plus one memorable song.

  4. Mike

    Of course, the article also supposes that the hulls are made of aluminum, rather than the duranium, tritanium, and corbomite from which they’re actually made. Not to mention any potential EM shielding which could be used to deflect incoming hydrogen. Furthermore, I’ve seen no one else even postulate my idea of a “light shock”, akin to supersonic shockwaves in air. Like a bow shock on a blunt body, there could be a buildup of material near the edge which causes the shock to detach from the body. We just won’t know until superluminal experimentation is feasible.

  5. Mike, that’s how the Picard Maneuver was defeated, but I think it was the trace amounts of gas in space they were monitoring. Hmmm, sounds rather Newtonian, though.

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