20 January 2013

Warp Drives and the Human Spirit

I want to talk about some news that hasn't been given too much attention recently and, considering it may end up being the most important discovery in the history of the species, I thought a page or two on WordPress was justified.

The news

Recently, a loophole in Einstein's theory of general relativity discovered by science Miguel Alcubierre  and published in a paper in 1994 has been generating a lot of buzz because it allows for faster than light travel. At the time (and even now) it's a pretty far-fetched idea that would take energy of the mass of Jupiter to make it work and then a guy named Harold White and some of his buddies worked out how to do it with a magnitude less energy and now everyone's talking about it again.

That's the story but in our lifetimes we've seen all kinds of sci-fi things come to life. What's the big deal?

It's a big deal!

It might be tempting to think "well, they were bound to start working on it eventually."  but let's step back for a moment for some perspective.

When I was shorter I was a giant Star Trek nerd.  I inhabited that world so fully that I knew the layouts on their computer screens. I memorized tiny details on technical specifications from manuals that were as much fiction as the characters on the show. I wanted Gene Roddenberry's vision to be real and I wanted it right bloody now!

But there was always a big problem. The warp drive. It was mercilessly poo-poo'd by critics as a trite and convenient plot device.  These nay-sayers, who would later turn into my physics profs at university, would love to point out the impossibility of faster than light travel. It was just something we had to accept. There's no breaking the laws of the universe, after all.

And that's when my 9-year old heart broke. The universe became an unfathomably cold and lonely place where a birthday party invite from ET today would make us a million years late to the party. How could we become responsible citizens of the universe when a simple jaunt to our next-door neighbour takes four years?!?

Then I saw the news. "WARP DRIVES ARE REAL" (yes I chose a gossip mag on purpose)

Warp drives are not real.....yet

The Alcubierre drive isn't a thing yet. It's not even something we're considering. Nobody knows if it's really going to be possible or feasible. There are all kinds of problems like the still-amazingly-high energy need and the slight chance that we might destroy the entire solar system in our efforts. A lot of people would argue that there are lots of other great causes right here on earth that are worthwhile  and I agree with them..... but whether or not to commit resources is not the point I'm trying to make.

What I feel we really need to address here is the defeatism out there still. People are still saying things like "never", "can't" and "won't" and to them I say: Wake up and smell the history people! Ok, that came out wrong. If you're going to smell a historian, don't let them see you doing it.

I'm not a betting man but why is it that people who've studied a single year of elementary school history could bet against human innovation.  Since the first discoveries were quilled on papyrus how many impossibles have we smushed? Have we forgotten what the Wright brothers did at Kitty Hawk? How about what Neil Armstrong did with his left foot? What did 1980's mullet-wearing you think a computer could do? Has that changed? We're innovating so fast that science fiction can't keep up.

Here's the point: It doesn't matter whether faster-than-light travel is possible. It only matters that it could be. I'm not a smart enough man to debate the merits of Alcubierre's drive but I will defend with mind-numbing tenacity the dream that it embodies.

Doing the impossible

When I was born people were saying NEVER about FTL travel and it had big scary capital letters. Now they're saying maybe in a soft italics. For our generation this may be remembered as a Copernican Revolution.

Could it reignite our dream of living among the stars? What else do we think is impossible today? If we could bend the one, completely unbending law of physics, what else could we do?

My observation of our species is that the transition from can't to might is as significant as the transition from might to can.  The very instant children of a generation grow up with dreams that a thing that might be possible you might as well consider it done.

Question: What do you think is impossible? Is there anything you're willing to use the word "never" for? Why?

"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

-- George Bernard Shaw

p.s. this post was written a while ago and then Hank Green did a video on the subject so I decided it was time to hit publish:


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