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FTL Travel: The Realities of an SF Cliche by Brian A.


1. The Constant in the Chaos In 1676, Danish astronomer Ole Christensen Roemer noticed something odd about the moons of Jupiter. Because Jupiter's moons orbit at a constant rate, one would expect the times at which they appear to pass behind Jupiter to be consistent. However, Roemer noticed that this was not the case. Roemer knew that the distance between the Earth and Jupiter varies as the two planets orbit the sun. The eclipses of Jupiter's moons appeared later the farther the Earth was from Jupiter. Roemer reasoned that this was because the light from the moons took longer to reach us when we were farther away. Because his measurements of the variations in the distance of the Earth to Jupiter were inaccurate, Roemer's value for the speed of light was also off, but his insight was accurate: the speed of light is a constant. It would be 1865 before British physicist James Clark Maxwell proposed a proper theory for the propagation of light, and later yet before Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the infamous E=mcc implied that because bodies have infinite mass at the speed of light, no amount of energy can make them travel faster. Faster Than Light (FTL) travel has long been a staple of Science Fiction (SF). SF authors, myself included, have constructed various pseudo-scientific explanations to explain how FTL travel might be possible, but are any of them achievable? 2. Tachyons, Extra Dimensions, and Other Pretensions There have been a number of proposed FTL techniques which, over the years, have failed to deliver. Tachyons were once thought to hold the key. Tachyons are theoretical FTL particles compatible with the Theory of Relativity because they are created already traveling at speeds faster than light. There is no general consensus among physicists as to whether tachyons would permit the transmission of either information or matter, but it hardly matters because no tachyon has ever been detected. Physicists seem to have a habit of speculating on the existence of particles or exotic materials simply to explain natural phenomena which they cannot understand. Having said that, even if tachyons exist, it seems obvious that they would lend themselves to the transmission of information and not matter. Personally, I don't relish the thought of having my composite particles converted to tachyons and squirted across the universe. Superluminal quantum effects were a hot topic for a while. These include the Einstein- PodolskyRosen (EPR) paradox, quantum teleportation, and that sort of conjecture. These approaches rely on transmitting information via the wave function and often rely on an accompanying classical light signal as well, ultimately limiting the transmission to the speed of light. Physicists argue passionately about the reality of the wave function and whether it collapses. There is no consensus. No quantum superluminal effect has ever been demonstrated. Quantum theory tells us that "empty space" is not empty at all. At the quantum level, there exists a soup of virtual particles that wink in and out of existence, their short life spans made possible with energy borrowed courtesy of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The existence of these particles

The assumption is that Mother Nature works this magic using some yet-to-bediscovered FTL communication. a tricky way of changing the vacuum energy via the Casimir Effect. The energy reduction results in a net force pushing the plates vacuum a certain energy. In a black hole. frying our intrepid explorer. A bridge connects two otherwise widely separated regions of space. There is. The basic problem with hypothesizing extra dimensions is to explain why we are not aware of them. MT wormholes appear to offer the possibility of FTL travel. Stabilization could be accomplished with a Casimir Effect spherical capacitor placed in the mouth of the wormhole. Wormholes SF writers have made much use of black holes and wormholes. Since the well's bottom lies at a single point in these dimensions. Recently. physicists have decided to refer to nonlocality as a feature of quantum mechanics. rather than an anomaly in their theories. Of course. but it's an energy that cannot normally be measured or changed. however. infalling radiation blueshifts to infinity. Unfortunately. carrying the bubble with it. we have no evidence of their existence. Wormholes were first hypothesized in the form of Einstein-Rosen bridges. Louis has proposed a variant approach to extra dimensions.e. MT wormholes would require planet-sized masses of energy to create. The Casimir effect is relevant to FTL travel because it has been predicted that the speed of light is greater in the energy-depleted vacuum between the Casimir plates. which uses compacted (rolled-up) extra dimensions to explain fundamental forces.. With this approach. and stabilize. inflate. through the other dimensions) would require massive energy and the acquisition of momentum. no one has any idea how this might be accomplished. 3. Since Einstein's days. The existence of alternate dimensions has often been proposed as a means of FTL travel." by looping the extra dimension on itself and reducing the radius of the loop to a distance scale at which it would have little or no experimental consequences. even when those elements are separated by light years of distance. however. a force that has been measured in a lab. if the tidal forces don't shred him or her first. Visser proposes that the extra dimensions form a bowl-shaped energy well with our everyday reality at the bottom of the well. The hot topic these days is the Morris-Thorne (MT) spherical wormhole. However. consistent with gravity theory. there is no direct opportunity for FTL travel. Visser himself has no suggestions as to how either might be accomplished. If nonlocality could somehow be harnessed. Shortcuts through space. The most inspiring work done in this arena is the Klein-Kaluza theory. One might conceivably surround a spaceship with a bubble of energy-depleted vacuum in which the spaceship could travel at FTL velocities.could travel through them. however. There are some problems with this concept. The Casimir capacitor must provide a . but more and more it appears that it does not provide even a theoretical avenue for FTL travel. Einstein called nonlocality "spooky actions at a distance" and regarded it as demonstrating a fundamental flaw in quantum mechanics. Rising up through the well (i. it might provide a means of FTL communication. This property is called nonlocality. Quantum mechanics also implies a correlation between the individual quanta of an overall system. The Klein-Kaluza theory solves this problem by "compactification.if they exist -. they are short-lived and pinch off so quickly that only tachyons -. Matt Visser of Washington University in St. some of the quantum energy is suppressed within the gap that separates the plates. If one places a pair of grounded conducting parallel plates close together.

including the space through which a traveler must pass. propose a Chronological Protection Conjecture (CPC) which says the universe shall not allow time travel. perhaps a Jupiter-sized mass. quantum field and gravitational effects build up as the two ends of a wormhole approach the critical point and either collapse the wormhole or induce a mutual repulsion. It's easy to convince oneself that. it's more physics mumbo-jumbo thrown at a structure we haven't the ability to create or sustain. An alternative is a wormhole proposed by Visser. it's possible to modify spacetime in a way that allows a spaceship to travel at FTL velocities. the negative mass of the strut edges balance the positive mass of the mouth. exotic matter will be needed in order to generate a distortion of spacetime. They approached the problem by asking what forms of matter would hold a wormhole open permanently. Early in 1993. Elaborate and very convincing papers by Thorne's group and others reconcile time travel with quantum theory. if we define the relative speed of inflation as the rate of change of spatial distance over . His calculations indicate that vacuum fluctuations of drastically increasing energy will arise when the wormhole connection becomes "timelike. but theoretically it existed under conditions of extraordinary pressure in the early universe. However." a highly stressed material with enormous tensile strength. she may well abhor a time machine. Visser would frame a flat-space wormhole connection with "struts" that constrain it. consider the inflationary phase of the early universe. he showed that wormholes do not enable time travel by proposing physical mechanisms that enforce CPC.large quantity of negative energy. Distortions of Spacetime Recently. Miguel Alcubierre has mathematically shown that. If this seems confusing. like Hawking. For struts. Visser proposes the creation of a wormhole geometry by "cutting similar holes in two regions of space-time and then sewing the edges together. Thus. Regardless. Among the team that worked on this problem was Thorne and his grad students at Caltech. Cosmologists speculate that loops of cosmic string might have been produced in the early phases of the Big Bang. Visser proposes the use of cosmic strings with negative mass. but we've yet to discover how to create or use them. just as it happens with travel through wormholes." Instead of disturbing the curvature of space at the wormhole mouth over a broad region. Despite much debate. MT wormholes could use relativistic time dilation to create a time difference between one mouth and the other. The tension or pressure of such a material would exceed the energy density. no general consensus has emerged on this paradox. and this must be in delicate balance with the equivalent positive energy of the wormhole's spatial curvature. motion faster than the speed of light is possible. One of the time travel skeptics is Matt Visser. within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes. Without this. destroying anyone attempting to traverse the wormhole. At a point where a paradox could develop. 4." collapsing the wormhole. The answer: "exotic matter. We have no familiarity with such matter today. large radial tension (stretching) and tangential pressure (squeezing) develop in the wormhole mouth. Theoretically. while others. Carl Sagan asked some theoretical physicists for plausible methods of FTL travel when he was writing Contact. By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it. Hawking has suggested that while nature does not abhor a vacuum.

N11. at best. requiring. but they've taken no one even so far as across their living room. Miguel. 1973. Cramer. 5. This is the basis for Alcubierre's FTL model: create a local distortion of spacetime to produce an expansion behind the ship and an opposite contraction ahead of it. V12. Hawking. However. "NASA goes FTL.. and strong. Perhaps wormholes or expansions of spacetime or even the sheer human power of wishing on a star hold the key. 2. This doesn't mean that two observers comoving in the expanding universe are traveling faster than light." Physical Review D. . 6. 1988. violates all three energy conditions. exotic matter. as Alcubierre is quick to admit. S. 7. Thorne. The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime. "Transversable Wormholes: Some Implications. Alcubierre. let alone say how such could be created. G.R. John G.. Summary By proposing exotic materials and speculating on the existence of certain cosmic phenomena (which.time." America Journal of Physics. et al. Dec 94 and Feb 95. once again. "Wormholes in Spacetime and Their Use for Interstellar Travel.. Michael Clive. we obtain a value that is much greater than the speed of light.F. the question remains: How feasible. Price. Hawking. (This superluminal speed is very often a source of confusion." Classical and Quantum Gravity. Stephen W. Morris and Thorne. The enormous speed of separation comes from the expansion of spacetime itself. how probable is it that we will ever travel at velocities exceeding the speed of light? The theories discussed in this article have seen physicists and cosmologists published and paid. V56. 1994. S.W. 3.. quite literally. 6. harnessed. This model. weak. how achievable. and Ellis. 1990. or sustained) it's possible to make a case for. Hawking. V46. 8. but until such time as one of these methods is founded on demonstrated science and materials. dominant. one can use a contraction of spacetime to approach an object at any speed. date unknown. Bantam. July 92. says Alcubierre. In the same way." Physical Review D. a spaceship would be pushed away from Earth and pulled toward a distant star by spacetime itself. "Chronology Protection Conjecture. 4.) This example shows how one can use an expansion of space time to move away from some object at an arbitrarily large speed. scientists cannot substantiate the existence of." Extropy. N11. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. "Cauchy Problems in Spacetimes with Closed Timelike Curves. 5. Parts 1 and 2. FTL travel remains unlikely. anything. In this way. Cambridge University Press. For Further Reading 1. N2. 1988. "The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity. It is also a very good example of how an intuition based on special relativity can be deceiving when one deals with dynamic spacetimes." Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact.

I want to believe in FTL travel as much as the next SF writer! I was paid to say all those negative things. May 89. I drew the con side of the argument. (Author's notes: This article was commissioned by and first appeared in 1998 in Just Because. Hey. hence the article above.. the other being Richard Dunbar. "Wormholes." Physical Review D..9. "From Wormholes to Time Machines: Remarks on Hawking's Chronology Protection Conjecture. Matt. Richard and I were to write pro and con sides of the FTL argument. "Transversable Wormholes: Some Simple Examples. Visser. Visser. V47. N10. 10. Visser. 1990. V39. Matt. a publication for which I was one of two Science Editors. Jan 93. V41. Baby Universes and Casuality. N4." Physical Review D. Matt. N2. 11." Physical Review D. ) .