So, my previous post on the “Super” and “Micro” moons were a rather tame example of my problem with mainstream media “reporting” about “science”. Here is a much more common sort of example, with a reporter from “The Atlantic” hyperventilating about “warp drives” and travel to Alpha Centauri in two weeks. (Note to those who might have some understanding of relativity. She’s not talking about two relative weeks which would be over four years in earth-time. She means four weeks in earth time AND ship time.)

So, one-tenth the speed of light and we could be there in 40 years. That’s not half bad. As Seager notes, many people would be willing to give up Earth and make that assuredly miserable journey for the privilege of being the first humans to explore another solar system. But still: 40 years, it’s no cakewalk.

That’s why a new number, care of NASA physicist Harold White, is so stunning: Two weeks. Two weeks to Alpha Centauri, he told io9, if only we can travel by warping space-time.

via What If NASA Could Figure Out the Math of a Workable Warp Drive? – Rebecca J. Rosen – The Atlantic.

How is such a thing even theoretically possible?

Well, the concept is based around a highly controversial paper published years ago which has generated wild speculation among the pseudo-scientific about zipping through the universe like the starship Enterprise. Here’s how it “works”.

Heh, notice the Federation starship image there? I wonder if the Atlantic got permission to use that image in their article.

Anyway, I’m not going to pretend to understand all the math involved in this, it’s highly speculative interpretation of general relativity equations generated essentially by assuming a mathematical symmetry between positive and negative energy. The rationale behind the “theory” (and I put “theory” in quotes because this sort of proposed starship drive is not only not theoretical, it’s based on such a highly controversial interpretation of general relativity equations that “wild guess” is a better word than “theory” to describe it) was first inspired by the sudden “realization” that the universe is mostly comprised not of normal “matter” (the stuff that makes up you, me, the earth, the stars, galaxies, and everything else we can see), not even of exotic “dark matter” (the stuff that gravitational mechanics analysis of the universe seems to imply has to exist in huge amounts and makes up the vast majority of the universe’s mass, even though we can’t see it and have no idea what it is), but that the vast majority of the universe is actually made up of “dark energy” which not only dwarfs normal matter, but dwarfs “dark matter” and is the driving force behind the expansion of the universe which will eventually rip apart the very protons and electrons themselves.

“Dark energy” is theorized to be constantly flooding the universe and appears to come from nowhere, as far as our normal physical laws of the universe are concerned.

Well, this guy, Miguel Alcubierre, took that idea and made the assumption that “dark energy” is essentially what you get if you flip the mathematical sign on Einstein’s general relativity equations. Which is fine, in a way, that’s not terribly controversial. Other physicists have speculated that dark energy could arise in that fashion and the result would be a set of symmetrical field equations, which is always highly desirable by physicists. Physicists love symmetry. Symmetry is the fundamental concept that drove Einstein’s general relativity theory, and was a driving concept behind Newton’s theories as well.

But there is not only no experimental evidence to support this idea, there is no plausible means of devising an experimental test. It’s closer to metaphysics than it is to real-world physics. It’s fun to contemplate, but it’s really pure speculation at this time. But even that speculation is generally done in cosmological scales with no real exploration of where all the energy comes from to do this stuff. (One of the truly amazing things to me about modern cosmological high-energy physics is that the entire concept of “Dark Energy” totally violates everything physicists have ever believed about the “Law” of conservation of matter and energy. It totally violates that “Law” and nobody seems to care. But I digress, this sort of thing will eventually lead me to discuss why I can’t believe that black holes are what they are supposed to be…).

Anyway, what Miguel Alcubierre did that was so breathtakingly revolutionary is that he assumed that the dark energy theories can be applied on a local scale. Since the whole new cosmological model is all about how the space-time continuum is as malleable as cookie dough, he just asked the question “can you warp space and time locally? And if so, can you use that as a means to travel through space?”

Then he just started applying the equations to see what it would take to warp space to the degree that a ship could travel “faster than light”.

That last part is in quotes because even these equations assume that in local frames of reference you can’t travel faster than light. Instead you have to stretch or compress space-time outside of the ship, while maintaining a “bubble” of “normal” space-time for the ship to survive the process.

That led to the concept of warping space-time in front of the ship (compressing it) and in back of the ship (expanding it). The combination of the two results in the ship “moving” from one location to another, while remaining dead stationary in its local frame of reference. Meaning the ship itself would feel no acceleration from the process.

The problem is that the equations suggest that while this might be possible, it requires energy input that is truly astronomical. The first proposed technique would have required the total conversion of Jupiter’s mass into pure energy in order to move a ship from our solar system to Alpha Centauri.

Which seems a bit excessive since even if it would work, there aren’t enough Jupiter-sized masses laying around to convert into energy, so this would be a one-time effort. Not to mention that the total destruction of Jupiter might offend some environmentalists’ sensibilities and they might register a lawsuit to stop the endeavor.

But since that early paper enthusiasts have refined the process and come up with tricks that reduce the amount of energy required to manageable levels of matter-energy conversion.

This is fun to speculate, not just because of the potential for writing stories with some supposed link to theoretical physics, but also because of the remarkable ramifications of such a “warp drive”.

Basically this sort of drive would potentially operate in a very, very similar manner to the “warp drive” as conceived by Gene Roddenberry in the iconic “Star Trek” TV series and movies. One of the things that always used to amuse me is how the ship would accelerate to faster than light travel on a dime without crushing the ship from the acceleration effects. The drive as proposed would keep the ship in a stationary local frame of reference, so you could, hypothetically, drink your coffee comfortably as your ship zipped along its jaunt through the galaxy.

In fact, if plausible, this sort of drive would not only make travel within the galaxy feasible, but would also make travel BETWEEN galaxies possible. That is beyond amazing.

Of course all of it is currently nothing more than a crazy idea that exploits several completely untestable hypotheses, including the need for us to finally completely understand dark energy and how it can be manipulated, but at one point that’s what all new theories are. Einstein’s relativity theories were no less mind-bending when they were first proposed, and yet we now accept them as basic universal laws.

Unfortunately there is a major, major problem with this theory. That problem is that if this sort of drive is technically possible, then even if intelligent life is rare, by now some race of space-faring aliens should have created fleets of galaxy-spanning ships zipping around like buzzing bees.

Which takes us back to the famous question first proposed by Enrico Fermi: “Where are they?”