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The Alcubierre Warp Drive

You probably don’t know what the Alcubierre warp drive is, but that’s cool.
March 30, 2012, 4:00am

You probably don’t know what the Alcubierre warp drive is, but that’s cool. This is called the Learnin’ Corner for a reason—to pick up where our poorly funded public education system petered to a halt in your life, and quell your eager and absorbent mind with obscure knowledge that you can use to get an internship at the Large Hadron Collider. Recently, Professor Geraint Lewis and two post-graduate students Brendan McMonigal and Philip O’Byrne from the University of Sydney tested the capacity of the Alcubierre warp drive by doing some crafty mathematics against Einstein’s theory of relativity. Before I get into their discovery though, you need at least a basic understanding of what this incredibly complicated and completely theoretical drive even is.

The Alcubierre warp drive, theorized by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, essentially proposes a mechanism where a spacecraft may actually travel faster than the speed of light, allowing for interstellar space travel. More elaborately speaking, this states that the spacecraft’s motion, in its insanely high speeds, would create a situation where the area in front of the spacecraft would diminish, as the area behind it would expand. At this point, the spacecraft would land itself in a theoretical “wave bubble,” and would essentially whip the bubble so that the spacecraft would travel faster than the speed of light, via the bubble’s propulsion, not the spacecraft itself.

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Now, you as the reader inevitably just splattered your computer screen with breakfast grain fragments from a condescending guffaw, thinking to yourself, You fucking idiot Miguel Alcubierre! What about Einstein’s Laws of Relativity stating that an object slower than light can’t increase its speed past that of light? What kind of theoretical physicist are you anyway? Whoa reader, relax. He took care of that issue in the Alcubierre Metric—a Lorentzian manifold, which specifically notes that light beams within the warp-bubble would still be traveling faster than the spacecraft itself. It’s a self-contained, inertia-less inhabitation that moves faster than the speed of light only in the sense that the bubble itself shifts its position to a destination quicker than light would.

Although Dr. Alcubierre gave us some awesome knowledge, Professor Lewis, Brendan McMonigal, and Philip O’Byrne weren’t satisfied. McMonigal says that they “were interested in what would happen when a ship using the Alcubierre warp drive traveled through ‘empty’ space,” devoid of any sort of influence to its journey (also known as a vacuum).

However, empty space is an unreality because it’s always filled with light and tiny particles. So, if society is to really exploit the Alcubierre warp drive, it needs to account for this. The group of Australian Icaruses “used computers to numerically solve a set of equations from Einstein's General Relativity, which govern interactions in space time.” This gave them “the paths taken by the light and dust during and after interacting with the Alcubierre warp drive, and also the way in which the warp drive affected their energy,” according to McMonigal.

In these paths they discovered that the light and dust traveling in the direction of the ship would be caught in a bow wave, the energy of which would increase and release once the ship had reached its destination, be it Zobax of the poorly named planet known as Gastronormative in Galaxy 11, or, like, Toledo, Ohio. Either way, any relatives or loved ones at the baggage claim area not fitted with the proper anti-Alcubierre bow wave technology would predictably be decimated by a cocktail of light beams and dust which because of the whip, were unable to stop with the spacecraft. This is assuming that baggage claim itself was fitted accordingly, because that would probably be destroyed too, along with the spacecraftport, and, depending on how far the spacecraft was traveling, potentially the whole city. If it was indeed Toledo Ohio, then that’s great news for all of us. Otherwise, it would really suck for those frugal individuals who didn’t invest a few extra dollars into the aforementioned anti-Alcubierre bow wave technosuits.

Apart from the obvious reasons why the whole experiment seems odd, it’s especially confusing, considering we already have a means of space travel. So I also asked McGonical what exactly this implies in terms of our modern technology for space travel. He says that modern space travel is fundamentally different than what would be necessary to actually inflict an Alcubierre warp drive. According to McMonigal, “In present day space travel, you fire a rocket behind yourself, and push yourself through space. Whereas when using the Alcubierre warp drive, you create a particular negative energy density distribution around your ship, and the space your ship is in moves towards your destination.”

From an experimental standpoint, this group of Sydney University scientists only explored two special dimensions, when they really need four—the fourth being time—to be thorough enough to turn it into practice. From a bigger, less theoretical, more physical side of the proverbial space coin, inventing a ship that autonomously creates the negative energy density orb needed to engulf itself and ride the Alcubierre wave is not high on our world’s priority list. The last time I checked, the only politician that still cares about figuring out this whole space thing is Newt Gingrich, and he just wants to build a bunch of golf courses on the moon or something like that.

So Professor Lewis, McGonigal, and O’Byrne are officially the first people to mathematically describe the interactions between particles, light beams, and the Alcubierre warp drive. In doing so, they helped to crush the dreams of lots of Trekkies. The major takeaway then, is that if you’re reading this and you have a Mr. Sulu poster on your bedroom wall, put down that handful of Cheetos, walk upstairs to your parents’ living room, and consciously tell yourself that it’s time to move on with your life. There are a lot of ideas worth believing in, but as some very clever Australians have proved, interstellar space travel probably shouldn’t be one of them.