warped imaginiation

Did you know it is mathematically possible to effectively transport an object (or person) faster than the speed of light? It just can’t travel faster than the speed of light in the process. Make sense?

I have been trying to follow this research for a couple of years now. Most of the science is definitely beyond me. The implications are out of this world.

The thrust of it goes something like this. Einstein was, by all accounts, correct with both special and general relativity. Star Trek got around this by rather vaguely claiming warp drive induced motion by “warping” space-time. Sounds wacky but it essentially means that you don’t try to accelerate your ship, instead you twist the space around you so that space moves instead of you and your ship. And it turned out to be a good guess – about as accurate their prediction that you might use a handheld “communicator” for talking with your buddies when you have an away mission on a Friday night. In 1994 the concept of warp drive was finally presented as a theoretically and mathematically sound interpretation of relativity by Miguel Alcubierre.

The real problem is that we have no experience twisting space-time. When Einstein proposed special relativity in 1905 it was “a theory that fit the math.” It expands on the Galilean notion that everything moves with respect to something else. Galileo’s theory fell apart when humans developed the ability to measure the speed of light and things started misbehaving. Einstein proposed that Galileo was right, just incomplete: space-time (or light and time) behave in a manner consistent with established physics for each observer, but two observers may see different things if they are in motion relative to one another. As a result we get effects like time expanding and contracting, light cones of future and past, and a present moment that carves out a hyper-plane through space-time. Whatever that means. The concept has not become less mind melting in the 100+ years since it was proposed. It took Albert a further 5 years to generalize relativity to include gravitational effects.

The really wacky part, I think, is that humans have since experimentally demonstrated Einstein was bang on about relativity. Every test we concoct – typically involving atomic clocks hurtling through space or smashing atoms underneath mountains – they all agree with his revolutionary “thought experiment” (he was unable to actually test any of these theories himself). The physics holds for everything we have been able to test, so it seems rational to conclude the untested stuff is likely to hold true as well.

Basically, the loophole is that relativity does not prohibit the use of gravitational effects to distort space-time – even better, it lays the ground work for figuring out what that distortion could look like in various situations. A well crafted distortion cold rearrange the space-time around a ship in a special way such that space moved around the ship, expanding behind it and contracting in front such that, when the distortion is collapsed, the ship would be in a new location.

The down side is that we have not got a good handle on how to create these distortions, let alone control them. And then there are the energy requirements. It turns out Star Trek was also right that it would take a shitton of energy to run this sort of thing. Early estimates suggested that it would take a matter/energy conversion on the scale of more-than-what-exists-in-the-known-universe in order to fire this puppy up. A setback to be sure.

But the theoretical physicists had not given up. There have been substantial advances in recent years. Reworking the first treatise revealed an approach that would consume less than one star, but more than a big planet. Earlier this year the lead researcher on the NASA project devoted to this (yea! how rad is that?!!) announced that his team had devised a configuration that could be fueled by less than 1000 kg. That is still pretty big considering it is a complete matter/energy conversion – something we have only demonstrated at the atomic scale.

And then there is the rather unexplored branch of science we might call “distorting space-time”. It turns out there is a plan in the works to test the principle at the laboratory scale: use some funky lasers to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million. After that we just need to scale it up from “perturb” to “controlled manipulation of the space-time continuum”.

No big deal, right?

If humanity survives its present technological adolescence, I think the next hundred years are going to be soooper gnarly.


Alcubierre, M., The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity, 1994, Classical and Quantum Gravity, vol. 11, issue 5, p L37. doi:10.1088/0264-9381/11/5/001

Aclubierre Drive, Wikipedia.

White, H., A Discussion of Space-Time Metric Engineering, 2003, General Relativity and Gravitation, vol. 35, issue 11, pp 2025-2033. doi:10.1023/A:1026247026218

White, H., Warp Field Mechanics 101, 2011, NASA Center for AeroSpace Information. retrieved from NASA Archive.

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5 Responses to warped imaginiation

  1. nala7299 says:

    Reblogged this on flyingleapwithme and commented:
    If you have a crippling (or even mildly impairing)desire to understand and love fancy science things, but don’t have the right kind of brain training for its overwhelming complexity, then read this blog post (and others in you may be curious to discover on this same said blog). Do it because: a) it’s super cool AND as a result, that’s what all the cool kids are doing and you don’t want to be left out b) any kind of dweeb, including ones like myself, and maybe even you, can understand and learn stuff without feeling like giant dum dums.

    What can be better than that? Weeee to knowledge in all its shapes, sizes, and smarty pantsedness levels!

  2. concerned in Vancouver says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter,

    I love your blog. You have developed a knack for dumbing this stuff down that I really appreciate. Also, you have a nice mix of funny. My one criticism is the serous lack of PSA`s regarding public enemy number 1: Bears.

    Concerned in Vancouver

    • kaan says:

      Hello CiV,

      Bears are godless killing machines. I try not to think about them. If I have a day going so well it needs kicking down a notch then, and only then, would I attempt to think about bears long enough to put together a PSA. My days are usually pretty good though so it might happen soon.

      • smailliwoeht says:

        Hi Kaan,

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I do however feel the need to point out that “burying your head in the sand”, while as fun as all things ostrich, wont help anyone when face with a marauding bear. I hope that you take this issue as seriously as you claim.

        Thank you for your ongoing vigilance.

        Hopeful In Vancouver

  3. Len says:

    Fascinating stuff Kaan, and very well written! I took a general relativity class and we actually talked about the Aclubierre Drive, mostly as an interesting curiosity. But the 1000kg of energy is promising – that’s just 213 times the global energy consumption in 2008!

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