Cheating Light

There’s a lovely article that came out recently by Alasdair Reynolds about how humanity might reach the stars. In it, he talks about how unlikely it is that we’ll ever travel faster than light, but how we might reach other worlds anyway.

His assessment is, to my mind, broadly correct, and his message is ultimately optimistic. But on reading that post, I feel motivated to write one of my own proposing a somewhat different vision. I want to convince you by the end of this article that humanity has a hope of cheating light speed, and that you, dear reader, can help us do it. How? By having fun.

Does that seem unlikely? Yes? Good. Now let’s get down to business.

My reasoning starts with a story about Star Trek. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, apparently wanted a premise with an at least vaguely plausible scientific basis. So, to justify the speed of the Starship Enterprise and avoid the difficulties of relativity, he and his writers speculated nebulously about ‘warp drive’. They proposed that space was distorted somehow to allow the light barrier to be broken and from it created one of the more enduring tropes in science fiction.

Years later, a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre, purely out of fun, as I understand it, decided to look for special case scenarios in general relativity that would allow a Star Trek-style space-warping drive to work. To his surprise, he found one.

While Alcubierre, to my knowledge, never meant for his paper to be anything other than interesting speculation, the world gleefully seized on his idea and ran with it. Despite the huge technical difficulties inherent in his model, there is now a NASA-funded research group trying to make progress with it. Their chances of success are slim, but interestingly, little pieces of research keep popping up that keep hope alive. Once the door of theoretical possibility was opened, human ingenuity started pouring in.

The lesson of this story, for me, is that when we bother to suspend disbelief, and to use our imagination to stretch science, we begin to see exciting possibilities that we otherwise miss. Most of those possibilities don’t pan out, but unless we stretch, we never look, and consequently, never learn. But this lesson is only part of the greater picture I’d like to paint for you. The next part has to do with how science proceeds.

As I have alluded to in previous posts, science has a problem. The funding and career conditions under which scientists have to exist have become ridiculous, and this isn’t just bad for scientists, it’s bad for science itself. Nobody wants to risk an already fragile career on an unpopular or speculative idea. That’s a recipe for a doomed postdoc trajectory and years of underpaid misery.

Unfortunately, though, that’s exactly what scientists should be doing. It’s not just a scientist’s job to exercise robust skepticism. It’s also their job to extend bold, falsifiable ideas that can push human understanding of the universe forward. The current institutional paradigm lets precious little of that happen.

Take string theory, for instance. Because it’s been the dominant paradigm in particle physics for years now, universities have produced thousands of string theorists, despite there being no testable evidence for the theory’s validity, and no success in even completely writing it down. Now there’s mounting evidence from the LHC that while the math may be useful, the theory isn’t actually correct. By contrast, I suspect you could count the number of people professionally studying warp drive on the fingers of your hands despite the fact that there’s no experimental evidence that actually rules it out.

So of course warp drive looks impossible right now. We’ve barely looked at the options. Which brings me to my next point, which is this: we hardly understand spacetime at all.

The truth is that we currently have little or no idea about what spacetime is or how it works. Measuring particles, we can do. Testing the properties of the context they inhabit is much harder. But what we do know about it is weird and suggestive and points to a gap in our knowledge big enough to drive a starship through.

First off, we know that general relativity has problems, even though everyone agrees that the math is lovely. Kurt Godel pointed this out within a few years of Einstein pushing out his general relativity paper.

Secondly, we know that empty space should contain some amount of energy, called ‘zero point energy’. The problem is that if you try modeling this using the theoretical tools we have right now, that energy either comes out as being minuscule or infinite.

Thirdly, we have to account for the fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Not only does this completely mess up our notions of conservation of energy, but it also demonstrates that there must be some anti-gravitational effect at work in the universe that is not addressed in the Standard Model. Most likely it only operates at very large scales, but right now, we don’t actually know.

Fourthly, there’s the fact that the Standard Model itself, on which our understanding of the universe rests, has no room in it to model ordinary gravity either. And a solution to that problem has evaded discovery for getting on for a hundred years. Why? At root because relativity and quantum mechanics require different notions of what spacetime is like that don’t actually agree.

I could go on. I could talk about dodgy equivalence principles, research on negative mass, dark matter, issues with Lorentz invariance, and all manner of other things, but I think you get the point. While we have a great handle on the stuff in the universe we can see, our handle on what we can’t see is weak.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but showing that our understanding is limited is different from showing that something is actually possible. After all, there’s still no evidence that FTL could ever work. And you’d be right. Furthermore, in his post, Al Reynolds points at several disappointing results in recent years where potentially superluminal effects have turned out to be nothing of the kind.

Here’s the question, though: are we looking for evidence in the right places? Because, let’s be honest. if building a warp drive is possible, it’s likely to require some pretty serious nature-hacking. We’re probably going to have to figure out a lot more about how space works before we get a reliable demonstration.

If I were looking for suggestive results, I’d look at the output from Fermilab’s awesome holometer experiment and other gravity wave studies, which may be on the brink of demonstrating that spacetime comes in tiny chunks. I’d be looking for more evidence of the so-called penguin anomaly which hints at physics beyond the Standard Model. I’d even be looking at condensed matter experiments like the weird and tantalizing bosenova. It’s out of effects like these that we’ll tease out a deeper understanding of the universe and maybe find ways to bend its rules.

But there’s still obviously a gap here. All these results I’ve mentioned are a long way off from showing anything even remotely useful for FTL research. There are hints that spacetime can be manipulated and little else. But that’s where you and I come in, dear reader. Our job, as I see it, is to speculate, and to have fun doing it.

Science belongs to everyone, not a small elite corps of professionals, and it is helped when public engagement remains high. The more we care to read, to play with ideas like warp drive, and to tell the world we care, the better the chances that projects like the one at NASA get funded. And therefore, the better our chances of finding something awesome. Because, at the moment, we’re hardly looking. We’re too proud of our own skepticism to try.

Am I doing my part? You bet. In my first novel, Roboteer, which comes out this summer, I tried to pick up where Alcubierre left off. I speculate that there are particles called curvons that are essentially knots of spatial potential. They’re radiated by black holes, because black holes can’t pay their information debt to the universe any other way.

The ships in Roboteer fly faster than light by triggering the collapse of curvons around the ship to force space to expand or contract, thus creating the necessary warp field.

There’s a catch, though. Unless you can match the curvon density ahead of your ship with the density behind it, you’re stuck at sublight speeds. And that means that the only stars mankind can visit lie in a thin shell all the same distance from the galactic core.

But how would such particles climb out of a black hole’s gravity well when nothing else can, I hear you ask? Great question, reader! Well depending on how you model spacetime, such things can be done. Remember we’re talking about space exiting a black hole, not matter. For instance, if you model the fabric of reality as a dense, directed network as I did for this very speculative simulation, such things are not too hard to arrange.

Would this method work in reality? It’s highly unlikely, but not yet known to be impossible. And that’s the point. From willful speculation, great futures are made. Because speculation is hope. And hope is worth holding onto. If we let the healthy habit of skepticism overtake the equally healthy habit of scientific play, progress dies.

But we don’t need just one speculative warp drive. We need thousands. Because almost all of them are going to faceplant at the first hurdle.

Currently, that group in NASA has about $50K in funding, which is nothing, and they’re trying to give us the stars. The failed ‘Star Wars’ defense projects started under Reagan that are still running have wasted countless billions of public money without delivering anything useful. Imagine what we might achieve if just one percent of that budget went towards researching crazy ideas like warp drive. Certainly it wouldn’t be less. And maybe it’d be everything. Isn’t it worth buying a lottery ticket now and then if the prize is THE ENTIRE GALAXY? If you agree, the world needs to hear you roar.

So there we have it. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is simple: read avidly, extrapolate from what you know, and dream. Share wild ideas. Insist on science in your science fiction even if you can’t follow it. Be a proud crackpot whenever opportunity arises. Because if we don’t work together to kindle the public imagination, who will?

(Roboteer comes out from Gollancz in July, and frankly, I can’t wait.)