“It is technically sound, but there have been issues that have come up on almost every level.”
The Scientists Who Won’t Give Up on the Warp Drive
by Rahul Rao | Gizmodo
For most of us, traveling faster than the cosmic speed limit — the speed of light — is a science-fiction fantasy that breaks the very foundation of modern physics. But in the eyes of an engineering undergrad at the University of Alabama in Huntsville named Joseph Agnew, it’s a theory worthy of study.
The idea first came to Agnew in high school, when he became enamored of the warp drives he saw in Star Trek. “I thought about some of the technology postulated within,” he says, “and wondered what the scientific backing might be.”
Agnew isn’t just another Trekkie with dreamy eyes. In September 2019, he presented a talk on the subject at an aerospace engineering conference. Reports described Agnew’s audience as “standing room only,” and the event attracted a great deal of media attention.
It might seem remarkable that a piece of science fiction has found itself in an academic conference, but Agnew is far from alone in his interest. He hopes to become one of the dozens of engineers and theoretical physicists who have been studying warp drives in earnest for over two decades. But unlike Agnew, most scientists see the warp drive as little more than a thought experiment, though one that can still teach us a lot.
“It is still rightly perceived as a highly speculative idea which is interesting to illustrate certain points about general relativity but completely impractical,” says Jose Natarió, a mathematician and theoretical physicist at the Instituto Superior Téchnico in the University of Lisbon.
“It is technically sound,” says Gerald Cleaver, a theoretical physicist at Baylor University, “but there have been issues that have come up on almost every level.”
The field of warp drive studies is less than 30 years old. In 1994, a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre, then a doctoral student at Cardiff University in Wales, proposed something remarkable: a way to travel faster than the speed of light — in the eyes of an outside observer — without flaunting the laws of physics.
Alcubierre’s warp drive theory works not by pushing anything faster than light. Instead, his warp drive creates a bubble that literally warps space: compressing it in front and stretching it out behind. If you were in a spaceship traveling inside such a bubble, you’d still be moving under the speed of light, but you’d essentially be traveling through distances that have been squeezed shorter, as if you were riding the crest of a wave through space-time.
“A propulsion mechanism based on such a local distortion of spacetime just begs to be given the familiar name of the ‘warp drive’ of science fiction,” Alcubierre wrote in his original paper. Naturally, among both physicists and the general public, the name caught on.