The Lingering Reasonableness of Alcubierre's Metric

A simplified image of what Alcubierre's space warp looks like.As an aging ex-physics major, knowing just barely enough to glimpse at possible answers but not enough to really know if I’m right–a little knowledge is a dangerous thing because it makes you presumptive that you’ve got all the facts when you don’t, I remember the first time I read about Alcubierre’s space warp. It was in American Scientist magazine at the Crossroads Shopping Mall in 1994, just before the Internet was opened to the public. I even used the idea in a collaborative fiction role-playing game on Compuserve.

I state that to give you some context about how long I’ve known about the idea and how badly I currently understand it.

Since that time, other physicists have made calculations and have done research that indicate Alcubierre’s warp has a lot of problems, so I’ve remained very skeptical of it. But recently I read on Slashdot and IO9 that NASA’s Harold White and others have worked out some calculations that indicate that Alcubierre’s faster than light idea might be easier than we thought.

Let me give some more boring information about how insane I am. When I was a kid in high school back in the late 1970s, I decided I wanted to be a physicist. I decided this for a lot reasons but chief among these was the secret wish to prove that faster than light travel and communications was possible. Mostly because I read a lot of science fiction but also because I knew how huge and old the universe was and how frustrated I was that we’d never have any reasonable means to look at any of it close up. Out of all the fantasy of science fiction, faster than light travel was the one thing I desired the most. The insanity comes from having this desire yet also knowing enough science to know how utterly impossible it is. Einstein, for very, very good reasons, conclusively proved that for things to make sense there must be a cosmic speed limit.

Since that time, Robert Forward wrote some speculative articles in Analog and Omni magazine about how wonderful negative mass would be if it existed, Kip Thorne did some calculations to make a stable wormhole for Carl Sagan’s science fiction book, Contact and then Alcubierre came out with his calculations. And there is a lot experimental evidence for negative space-time metrics, the Casimir Effect, Alan Guth’s Inflation Era and, just recently, the discovery of the cosmic acceleration and dark energy. That and the embarrassing, eighty year old problem of reconciling General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.

The idea just wouldn’t go away. And now Harold White thinks that FTL motors are actually doable, that it’s no longer a scientific problem, it’s an engineering one. Part of me is utterly thrilled like a little kid, the other part thinks it’s utter bullshit. I’m crazy.

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