The article on Yahoo News yesterday (actually from, Space.com) about discoveries making physicist Miguel Alcubierre’s concept of a warp drive was exciting to read. You can check it out here: “Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say” (Space.com, 9/17/2012).
(As a side note, I can see the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto reading that title and thinking, “Yeah, for some people thinking really is unfeasible,” but that’s another story.)
For those who’ve never heard of the “real life” warp drive scenario, Alcubierre worked out in physics what science fiction writers like to take for granted: the possibility of traveling faster than the speed of light. Actually, Alcubierre has stated that he was inspired by the “warp drive” of the Star Trek fictional universe. The idea was to take advantage of a loophole in physics’ normal “No faster than light” speed limit. Although matter could not be accelerated to faster-than-light speeds, space-time, itself, has no theoretical speed limit (part of the reason why inflation is considered a legitimate idea in current Big Bang cosmology). So, all you have to do is create a “bubble” of space-time around your ship that will remain constant to you and then accelerate this “bubble” through the intervening space-time between your current location and the location where you wish to be. The “bubble” moves as fast as you like, even faster than light, while you and your ship remain essentially motionless inside the “bubble.” Voila!
Well, not exactly voila… There are numerous practical problems–among them, the need for exotic matter related to “negative energy” and the need for an amount of energy equivalent to the mass of the planet Jupiter. Feel free to check out the Wikipedia article on the matter.
But, according to the Yahoo/Space.com article, the calculations and physics has been refined to allow for a different design of the warp field (“bubble”) generator that would reduce the amount of energy needed to the mass of one of the Voyager probes — still huge (a little mass means a lot of energy), but less than the mass of Jupiter by magnitudes and much more imaginably feasible.
Scientists are still considering the possibility of exotic matter, though I recommend that they begin looking into McDonald’s Chicken McNugget ingredients. You never know, you know?
Personally, I am fascinated by the idea but wonder about the paradoxes that would arise. It is generally understood that Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel causes causality paradoxes, where effects are observed to occur before their causes (see a discussion here if you are curious and don’t mind space-time graphs), but do we go so far as to say that FTL is impossible because of such potential paradoxes (as does the author of the notes I just linked to)? We like to talk about “Speed of Thought” travel in the Church — is there no resolution to such things? I suspect that there are, and I look forward to understanding those resolutions. For now, though, I’ll stick with STL travel. I’d hate to mess up the space-time continuum in some unforeseen way…