The Art of Warp

When campaigning, be swift as the wind...

An exam at Flatiron School’s immersive web development program recently afforded me the opportunity to create a superhero, and to endow her with my choice of powers from a list that included “flight”, which was defined as, “the ability to fly through the skies at supersonic speed”.

After the test it occurred to me that such a character would actually age a bit more slowly than other humans. In October of 1971, scientists Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating took a group of atomic clocks that were perfectly synchronized with each other. Some of those clocks were placed on jets that flew around the world, after which they were slightly behind the clocks that had stayed on the ground. And more recently, at the super-collider in Geneva , Switzerland, they’ve been able to accelerate small particles up to 99.99% of the speed of light. And it was determined that those particles experienced the passage of time at 1/7,000th of the rate the rate at which we experienced it.

Pursuant to Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, time slows down as velocity increases. That’s why, if your twin ever gets on a spaceship and travels at 90% of the speed of light for 10 years, all the instruments on his ship will have only registered the passage of 5 years, your twin will have only perceived the passage of 5 years, and your twin’s body will have only aged 5 years. So your twin will have effectively traveled forward in time.

In order to move backwards in time, you need to move faster than light, which is theoretically impossible because it supposedly requires an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object up to the speed of light.

However, there is a group of scientists working on a way for humans to effectively travel at 10 times the speed of light. It has long been theorized that one way around the limitations of acceleration might be through bending or warping space. Those of us familiar with “Star Trek” are aware of the phrase “warp drive”.

And in 1994, a Mexican physicist named Miguel Alcubierre suggested a concept for actual warp drive technology. At the time his naysayers dismissed it because if one converted the entire planet of Jupiter into energy, that’s how much energy the engine would require. But 6 years ago, scientists announced that they’ve been able to modify Alcubierre metric such that it would only require the mass-energy of, say, the Voyager 1 probe that NASA launched in 1977. And if the intensity of the warps can be oscillated over time, that would further reduce the energy requirement. The starship would be roughly shaped like a football, and would be surrounded by a large ring that would warp space-time around the starship; a chunk of space in front of the ship would be contracted; a chunk of space behind the ship would be expanded, and the ship itself would remain inside that bubble. So the bubble would be moving, but the ship itself would not be moving at all, and the passage of time for the ship and everyone on board the ship would remain normal.

In 2013 NASA published a paper about an experiment in which they attempted to generate a microscopic warp bubble for almost 20 seconds. But the results were inconclusive. And even if we eventually figure out how to create a warp bubble in any part of space that doesn’t already have one, we still don’t know how to escape from such a bubble. But fortunately, in 2002, an engineer from NASA named Marc Millis founded the Tau Zero Foundation, an organization of scientists and engineers that is dedicated to researching the possibility of faster-than-light travel.

We shall see…