The Real Science of Warp Drives
Welcome to science goes to the movies, a look at the stories of science and how they change our culture i'm lisa beth kovetz, today, we're going to look at how two versions of star trek starship, engines, address speed of light limitations, as they cross the galaxy. We're joined by dr ethan siegel, theoretical, astrophysicist. And author of, beyond the galaxy, and. Technology. The science of star wars from tricorders. To warp drives you can find a shorter works on forbes, wall street journal, scientific, america. Just to name a few. Welcome, ethan. Yeah thank you it's my pleasure to be here thanks for having me on the show. In star trek discovery. The spore drive requires, a dip into something they call subspace. And interestingly, the concept, of subspace, appears only in three places. Star trek, the bdsm. Community. And mathematics. For this discussion, we're going to skip the s m and focus on the maths. What is what is subspace. In mathematics. And does that reality, have anything at all to do with how star trek is using the concept. Okay, so in in, math and in physics, right, we have this concept. Of, of space, and in einstein's. Theory, where, you also have time there we have this concept, of space-time. And it's like the fabric, of the universe, you put down matter and energy, and it curves, space-time. And that curved space-time. Then tells, all the other, forms of matter and energy in there how do you move. The idea. That there would be some sort of. Space. Would mean, that okay okay. Most of the things, all the things we've observed. In the universe. They go, in the regular, space in the regular space time and they obey the rules we're used to but, maybe. I can put down like some sort of imaginary. Shadow. Over space. And, maybe. Some of the things in our universe. Can go, into, like. This, alternate, set of rules. This alternate, form of space time. And they can, you know, exit our universe, go into subspace. And come back out or. They can, abide, by, some of the rules of normal space-time. And some of the rules of this you know, subspace. And maybe you can do something, interesting, with that this is basically, saying like okay, we have the normal rules. And we don't like what they give us so let's, put down something that has. Some other rules that isn't necessarily. Incompatible. With what we've seen so far, and maybe, we can do some real interesting, things with that but mathematically. Is the concept. Of subspace. It sounds like it's a placeholder. For. Uh for what you eventually, will figure out, later. Am i am i misunderstanding. It or is, so so what you're saying is you know hey, like we don't have any like experimental. Proof that subspace, exists we don't have like observational. Evidence, for it right. And that's fair, but you have to remember. That a lot of these ideas. A lot of these sci-fi, ideas that we've had for a long. Time. Um, they predate. Physical, discoveries, of how we make it possible, so when we say. Oh i want to communicate, faster than light yeah of course we do. Relativity. Doesn't allow that but maybe, there's a clever way, that we can get there maybe there's a clever way to achieve that and if. The concept, of subspace, has any relevance, for our, real universe. Maybe that's the key to unlocking, it, i am happy for you guys to to work it out and i just can't wait to. Reap the benefits, of what you figure out. With an understanding. That the way. Uh. Star trek discovery, has set up their mycelium. Network, is. Is scientifically. Flawed. You wrote. An interesting, article, about the use of the fourth dimension. Would make some of the elements of the mycelium, network. Possibly. Work. Yeah so, right now we say like okay there's like three spatial, dimensions. And. Right we can go we can go length we could go we could go length width and depth right you have your three separate directions. Right you have how long something is how wide something is and how deep something, is.
Imagine. If you didn't have three dimensions. Imagine, if we lived. On a flat, two-dimensional. Surface. Like. You live on a sheet of paper, right. You can say oh i want to get from one side, to the other side and you're like oh we'll just go straight, across. And i say no. That's, too slow. I don't want to go, just across, the space. Because, you two-dimensional. Nincompoops. You don't, even know that there is a third dimension. And if i took this. And i folded. It. Right. Now, i could go from, one end to the other, just. Lip, right, they're actually, touching each other, so i can go from here, to here. Like that by folding, space. And that's kind of the concept. Of how, instantaneous. Travel. Could be possible. To a two-dimensional. Creature if it could access the third dimension. And. To a three-dimensional. Creature like us. If there exists. And we could access. A fourth dimension. When. When. When, yeah, so, so we could get we could get impatient, right and be like come on where's my fourth dimension, where's my instantaneous. Travel, because what i really want to do right now, is leave. My house, and go to that socially, distant, beach that no one else knows about, and just go enjoy myself, and this lovely way, mayweather, that someone, is having, somewhere. Um. And you know, this is a really lovely dream and one that you are not alone in saying like, if this is even remotely, possible, why aren't we working on this harder and trying to bring it, into reality. And you know i could beg you for funding to say yeah yeah we should be funding this but i could also look at this and say you know. It's important. When you're developing. Something. To use your imagination. To be creative, and to understand. That what we know. About, physics, and the laws of nature today. Are almost, certainly, not all there is, there is almost certainly, more to learn. And it's very important, to keep your mind open to all of the possibilities. No matter how unlikely, they seem. That are out there so when you're imagining. The far future. Some of these things that you say okay well i can't rule out that it's possible. But, i don't know how i'd make it possible.
We Don't know when those advances, are going to come, but we do know for a hundred percent, certainty. That if we don't imagine, those possibilities. And we don't start exploring, them, they'll absolutely. Never come to fruition. Dr siegel do all of these, models, and ideas, start, out. As math. Not necessarily. Math, is one way to get there math is like the tool. Right and it's an incredibly, useful, and powerful, tool, but it's not always, the only, tool capable, of doing the job, so when you say. Can it be described. By math, the answer is almost always yes i don't know of an instance where, something we've observed, can't fundamentally. Be described, by math, but mathematical. Endeavors, and explorations. Aren't the only, thing, that leads to these new imaginings. Sometimes. They come. Just, out of left field, or just from someone's. Someone's, brain, going on something, or, from a phenomena, that we saw that we can't explain. Or from captain kirk. Captain, kirk is his own unique thing, if you, can, fight, god, and win. There's no mathematics, behind that that i know of so captain, kirk you know. He he has his own special, case, that um, whatever, laws of physics he's on i want them. The first chapter, dr ethan, siegel's, very fun to read book technology. Describes, zephyr, cochrane's, year 2063. Leap into the future. Using an alcubierre. Warp drive, and yes, that is a plot line from the tv show star trek, but not all of it is fictional. So miguel, alcubierre. Was a graduate, student. In theoretical, physics, in the 1990s. And like, many graduate, students, in theoretical. Physics. While he was writing his dissertation. He was, procrastinating. Because. That is one of the things that people do, and one of his procrastination. Projects, was to sort of say hey, i know some general relativity. If i was interested, in, seeing. If i can write down a mathematical. Space, time. That describes. Warp drive, what will it look like and in the mid, 1990s. He, actually turned this into a published, paper. And realized, that okay. If, you want to take a starship. To a place. That's far away. You need to make sure that you don't destroy. The space that you don't have these like crushing, forces. In the space where your spaceship, is right that would be really bad if you were like you know, okay. Warp one, engage. And, everyone on your ship imploded. That's bad. So what alcubierre. Did was he said okay. If i can set up space in a particular, way and i need an enormous, amount of energy for it but don't worry about that. Don't worry that we don't have like, an, a jupiter's, worth of anti-matter. To put into this, spaceship, right now, just imagine.
You Have. Infinite amount, of energy, and all the things you need. What he realized, you could do is you could have a bubble. Like a little sphere. Or spheroid. Of space. That doesn't get bent. And. If you want to go, to your destination. Over in one direction. What you can do is you can keep this bubble constant. Compress. The space, in front of you, between, you and your destination. So again. What was maybe. 40 light years could shrink down to about. Half a light year. But there's a cost, and the cost, is. Behind, you so in the direction, you want to move space gets contracted. But in the direction, behind, you space gets rarified. Space expands. Behind, you. So that's the cost and he says oh well you just make the bubble, you move in the direction you want to move, you get to your destination. You turn off your bubble, you got to make sure the bubble doesn't kill you when you turn it on and turn it off but that's that's okay, we can do that. And then, you want to come back and do the reverse, thing, and this is great because it solves that earlier, problem if your journey, takes, one year, even though you're moving 40 light years, back on earth it also only takes one year, because you are moving, at warp speed, you're effectively. Moving, through. You're covering a 40 light year distance, in six months, for both you, and observers, back at home, so that's. A great, solution. The problem, is. When you start asking, what do i need. To turn this mathematical. Solution. Into a physical, solution, because just because you could write something, down. Doesn't mean it's necessarily. Real. What alcubierre's. Solution, requires. If we want it to be physical. Is that we not only, need. Energy. In the universe. To pump into this, we need a form, of. Anti-energy. Or, negative. Energy. And that's, not something. That we know, whether that exists or not the reason is i told you mass bends, space. In a certain way. If there were such a thing as, anti-mass. That would bend space like the opposite, way. We don't know anything that can bend space the opposite, way, but one possibility. That's out there, and i love this possibility, because it's very creative. Is maybe. Because we've only measured, gravity. For normal, matter. Maybe. Anti-matter. Anti-gravitates. Instead of regular, gravitating. There's actually, an experiment. That's underway. At, this enormous, complex. In cern where they have the large hadron, collider. They call it, the anti-matter.
Factory. Because they produce, more antimatter. There than anywhere, on earth, they have taken. Anti-protons. The anti-matter. Counterpart, of protons. And they have taken, positrons. Which are the anti-matter. Counterparts, of electrons. And they bound them together. And they've made. Anti-atoms. And they've contained. These anti-atoms. And measured their atomic, spectro, which are the same, as they are for normal atoms. And, one of the things they're doing now, is they're trying they haven't succeeded, yet in making this measurement. They're trying to isolate, these atoms. Anti-atoms. So severely. That they can have them at rest. And then drop them, and see in a gravitational. Field. Just like normal matter do they accelerate. Downward, or, does normal matter go down, and anti-matter. Go up. We have not measured this yet, this is an exciting, project, the leading. Experimental. Candidate. To measure this is known as the alpha. Experiment. Going on at cern, i mean they're, furloughed, right now because of coronavirus. And everything, but they are working hard on doing this there are some estimates, and expectations. That either this year or next year we will have our first results. Most people expect, anti-matter. Is going to gravitate, just like normal matter does, and if it does. Then that's. Probably, not going to be how we achieve. Warp drive, or, an alcubierre. Drive. But. If anti-matter. Anti-gravitates. Which you never know until you measure it, then all of a sudden. This goes from being a science, challenge, from can science, do this, to being an engineering. Challenge, of yes, science, can do this and now we have to build it. And that to me is that's an incredible, story that's an incredible, demonstration. Of the power of science. And of theoretical. Imagining. To say like you know this thing. If we make this experimental. Measurement. If we go and do this thing and we get this result. Then this sci-fi, dream. Can become reality. Are those particles, being. Manufactured. Or are they being discovered. Oh, so. First they were discovered. Now we can manufacture. Them, so they uh they take, right because at first we didn't know what was out there when we started discovering. Anti-matter. Particles, for the first time. People didn't know what they were, when we predicted, them mathematically. In 1928. Or so, a lot of people didn't think they were real, so first we discovered, them, and now, that we've manipulated. Matter, well enough we understand. How to create them basically if you take matter, and you smash it together with more matter with enough energy. Right you've heard of einstein's. E equals m c squared. That means. If you take enough energy. You can create. Mass. That are brand new you can create new masses, but the only way we know how to do it is you have to create an equal amount, of matter. And anti-matter. So if i take two protons. And i smash them together which we do at cern. Then what i could get out, is. Three protons. And one, anti-proton. Same total number of protons. But i have one extra proton. And one extra, anti-proton. Now i don't care what happens to these guys because, you're boring normal matter, but this the anti-proton. So, interesting. So we, shunt it off to the side because it bends in a specific, way, we slow it down. And then we take it with, the electrons. Anti-matter. Counterpart, that we also, create. We bind them together. And the ones that are neutral we keep them we slow them down we can find them and that's how we do our experiments. But it sounds like, uh, all of these. Uh models and theories, that make up the warp drive and faster, than light travel, uh more than just fantasy. Are, require. Require, particles, that, may not have yet been discovered but you're telling me are just are just about, to be discovered. Well, you know that's the whole thing is we only know, what's out there in the universe, up to where we've looked, right we have this, this, not only this cosmic, frontier, of where we've gone and where we're trying to get to, we have these scientific.
Frontiers, About, what we know, and where the limits of what's been tested, and what our knowledge is, if you had gone back, even just a few decades, and say like oh gravitational, waves we'll never detect those but here we are detecting, them, because we came up with a clever experimental, scheme, to tease them out you could have gone back, 50 years and said like oh the higgs boson. Like yeah that's a clever theory, but, where is that ever going to show up and now we've built the technology, that it can show up so what lies beyond that, what exists. At higher, energies. What exists. On larger, cosmic, scales or fainter, cosmic scales than what we can see, what exists, as we get closer and closer and closer. To absolute, zero, are there going to be new phenomena. That emerge, at these scientific. Frontiers. As we've looked every time we've looked we've revealed, more and more, about the fundamental, laws of nature, and the things that are possible. I personally. Think, that the more we look and the more we invest, into pushing, those fundamental, frontiers. The more we're going to learn about what's possible. And if you look, at what that has meant, technologically. Right you can look at technologies. We have today that were pipe dreams, 50 or 100, years ago, that are so ubiquitous. Now. We don't even think about them as being futuristic. When was the last time, you walked into a grocery, store or an airport, saw those automatic, doors open and thought i'm living in the future. Right, we take them for granted, now, you know. A cubier. Published his solution, in 1994. And although most of us picture in 1996. James cromwell, in the role it was all the way back in 1967. That star trek writer jean, imagined, the fictional, zephrim, cochran, creating, a, functional. Mechanical. Version, of what would, eventually. Become, this real life, theory, oh my god, ethan did we just. Did we just prove that time travel exists. I wish. I wish we did, that sounds like a good argument, too like. Maybe. Alcubierre. Had the solution. Maybe. Zefram, cochrane, figured it out, and maybe he sent it back, to a science, fiction writer in 1967. Who did this now in reality, of course people have been imagining, these things since, long, before. Star trek was a thing since long before, even einstein, came up with relativity, there were people in the 19th, century. Playing with geometry. How you could fold. Space. There was a wonderful, book called, flat land that was written in the 1880s. That talked a lot about. Two dimensions, to three dimensions. Versus, three dimensions, to four dimensions. Traveling, through space. Being able to do things and access, things that are not, possible, in our three-dimensional. World, so, i would say this is really a testament, to the power of human imagination. And, our capabilities. Of imagining. Worlds, that never were, and imagining. New laws. Of physics, and of nature. That, may or may not ever pan out what's remarkable. Is how kind to us nature has, been, that we have this. Phenomenal. Theory of gravity, general relativity. That ties, together. Matter and energy. With space and time. And that so many things if we can just. Provide, the right conditions. So many things are actually, possible. You know, in 1967. Star trek writers placed humanity's. Jump to warp capacity. And first welcome, meet and greet. In the year, 2063. Which is just 43. Years away from the date this interview is recorded, so, dr siegel, are we on schedule, for that. You know, i i want to be the optimist. And so i'll say. Um. If nature, is kind. To us. Right and we have no idea what that looks like if nature, is kind to us, if anti-matter. Does, anti-gravitate. Or, if, we can, create, the alcubierre. Bubble, and warp drive. Through. You know some form, of anti-energy. Some way of bending space in a negative, way. Um, maybe it is, maybe we are, on schedule. What it's going to take though. Is. I believe. It's going to take a, worldwide. Investment. In. Creating. And building. These, phenomenal. Technologies. That may or may not be physically, possible. If we wanted to build something like this realistically. It, it would cost, you know, more money than even the richest, mega billionaire, on earth has in their entire, fortune, this is going to require. A civilization. Scale, endeavor. Um, and so i think a lot of it's going to depend, on our will, right do we have the will to make this possible, i know that from cochrane was just alone in his desert with a tin can and and a bottle of whiskey, and he made it happen.
Well I i think that's why people like star trek also it's not just because. Of the technology, it's because the world is so. Um. So organized, and so, kind to each other and ever and all the worlds are pulling together in star trek so, i i think that's part of the model that makes it so appealing, no that was one of the things that drew me into it too, you know is not just like. I've always loved space, and science, and physics, and, astrophysics. And and this was a passion of mine long before i was ever introduced, to star trek i, was wondering about all of this stuff as an even small child and i've never lost my wonder for it, but with star trek it brought in this additional, element. Of ethics, and morality, and kindness, and goodness, towards, others and the betterment. Of the entire. Enterprise, of civilization. And that's, what i thought was this wonderful. Fusion, of things for me of these. Of these. Lofty. Dreams. Of not only what we can achieve. As a species. Scientifically. And technologically. But also, of what we can become. As a species. By being kind to each other, by working together, for the betterment, of all, and how far we can go. If we're willing to think of the good of ourselves. No higher, than we think of the good, of all of us, you know ethan it seems that in the past, the two. Uh avenues, open to scientists. Were industry. And university, and you seem to be carving out a different path. Oh yeah i mean i. It's funny, you say that because i'm like yeah i did them both and now i don't want to do either one, like i was a college professor, for a number of years, and i, i did work in the private sector, also for a number of years, but now i'm off. Now i'm off doing science, communication. And writing books, and trying to basically, be a translator. For. I'm going to tell you how to go from like, physics and astronomy, into english. Because i think that. These are wondrous, things that are happening, in the universe. And everyone. Should know about them whether you, have a phd. In this specific, field, or not. The wonders, and joys of the universe. Are for everyone. And i'm just happy for all the ways that i get to help bring those stories. To the general public, it seems also, especially, when you live in a democracy. That, you. That people need to understand. Science. Or, we end up in, trouble. I mean i think we've gotten into trouble. Many times, over, very long periods, of time not just now but you know you could argue especially, now but but i'll say for all of history. Where people are like, i think things should be this way and i think things should be the other way what science, does, is it gives you this broad, knowledge, set, that everyone, should be agreeing, on that there are some things that are objectively.
True About reality. And we will make better decisions. More informed. Decisions. And we will, be better prepared. To be compassionate. Towards, one another. When we all accept, those scientific. Facts, about reality. And, if i can help. Make that possible. If i could help, just, push the ball forward a little more, in that direction. I'm more than happy to do it i think that's, that's an unequivocal. Good, dr siegel we are out of time thank you so, much for visiting, with us. Thank you for making it such a pleasure, i really enjoyed my time here and thanks for a wonderful conversation. Dr siegel's, other book that we didn't even get to to scratch, the surface, of is called, beyond the galaxy. How humanity. Look beyond our milky way and discover the entire, universe. It's 388. Pages, and, about the entire universe, so you're gonna have to come back and talk to us again. No, problem. You.