Warp Drive, When?
December 15, 2007 12:09 AM   Subscribe

Warp Drive, When? "Have you ever wondered when we will be able to travel to distant stars as easily as in science fiction stories?"
posted by amyms (60 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, I have.
posted by ninjew at 12:21 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm still waiting for my hover board.
posted by rhizome23 at 12:28 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


It seems only fair to note before anyone digs through this thing that the answer to the question is probably never. It's a nice, concise overview of the related science but the question in the FAQ at the end, "Can NASA engineers evaluate my invention, drawing or plans?" hints at the reason why this is up there.
posted by XMLicious at 12:32 AM on December 15, 2007


When is the last time we've had any major scientific breakthroughs? When you subtract out the iPod, GPS, and Internet gadgetry, we might as well be living in the 1960s still.
posted by chips ahoy at 12:35 AM on December 15, 2007


When is the last time we've had any major scientific breakthroughs? When you subtract out the iPod, GPS, and Internet gadgetry, we might as well be living in the 1960s still.

Uh, all of modern biology?
posted by delmoi at 12:43 AM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


...we might as well be living in the 1960s still.

Well they didn't have glow-in-the-dark kittens in the 1960's. I mean, come on, splicing jellyfish genes into a cat? Things like genetic engineering and nanotechnology aren't too shabby.
posted by XMLicious at 12:45 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


And speaking of biology, almost all of it would be impossible without computers, too. If you include all computers as "gadgets", then it becomes difficult to separate any advance from computation, because computation really defines the modern world. I mean, so much of how we learn about the world now is with computers. It's hard to think of "advances" that don't deal with computers.

Although lasers are newish. They were around in the 1960s, but most of their applications today are in computers. LEDs are newish too (although they were discovered in the 1920s)

All kinds of stuff in quantum mechanics, with atom smashers and whatnot. We just discovered a substance harder then normal diamond. This is not an exhaustive list.
posted by delmoi at 12:55 AM on December 15, 2007


What I've gleaned from the comments so far is that we've spliced jellyfish genes into a car, and lasers are jewish.

I really need to get some sleep.
posted by Krrrlson at 1:06 AM on December 15, 2007 [12 favorites]


SciFi writer Charlie Stross (on SciFi Writer John Scalzi's blog) explains why this interstellar stuff ain't gonna happen.
posted by wendell at 1:15 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


For another sci-fi dream made real: cloning.

And I was always impressed with destroying objects remotely with beams of sound. (But new to me is the even-more-impressive-sounding name of that medical treatment - Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy!?! I want one. Just don't cross the streams.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:21 AM on December 15, 2007


The problem with waiting around for somebody to invent warp drive before we start out on the long journeys, is not only that it might be impossible, but that we'll exhaust our planet before we figure out how to do it, even if it is possible. And I don't think this how people used to think of exploration. I blame Star Trek for holding us back.

The Pioneers didn't wait for Henry Ford to make cheap cars, and Dwight Eisenhower to start the Interstate system, before they headed west. As it says on the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, "The cowards never started. The weak died along the way. Only the strong survived. These were the Pioneers." Although, considering what's become of California, maybe we'd be better off had they stopped in Colorado.

Any race that thinks holodecks, phasers, replicators and warp drive are essential to the long journeys of deep space, will never make even the shortest of the long journeys.
posted by paulsc at 1:24 AM on December 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


When you subtract out the iPod, GPS, and Internet gadgetry, we might as well be living in the 1960s 1990s still.

Fixed.
posted by spiderwire at 1:28 AM on December 15, 2007


On a tour of the Star Trek: The Next Generation sets, Stephen Hawking smiled while looking at the warp core and said "I'm working on that."

If anyone can do it, Stephen can.
posted by Effigy2000 at 1:34 AM on December 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


When is the last time we've had any major scientific breakthroughs?

Well, there was Claude Shannon.

Actually, I think the most recent serious theoretical breakthrough was the development of chaos theory.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:35 AM on December 15, 2007


I wouldn't rule out faster than light or close to light speed travel yet. There is a shit load of physics we don't know. How gravity works. What is dark matter. Why the universe is expanding. These are basic questions, and the fact that we don't understand these phenomenon makes any predictions of future technology that would need to exploit these processes pretty useless.
posted by afu at 2:13 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Let

L = the number of times chaos theory has been legitimately used

and

B = the number of times 'chaos theory' has been referenced by people who barely know algebra to support questionable philosophical assertions, wishful thinking, terrible movie plots, belief in the supernatural, or completely unrelated policy decisions

then, to within measurement error, the legitimacy-bogosity ratio for 'chaos theory' is

r = L/B = 0

Some scientists believe that this ratio is not in fact zero, but has a very small positive value that one day very sensitive instruments may be able to measure. However, this position is still highly controversial within the scientific community.
posted by Pyry at 2:13 AM on December 15, 2007 [18 favorites]


Who cares? We have the Internet and 24/7 access to hundreds of channels of streaming porn! Oh, and youtube.

At least we finally figured out how to keep airplanes from running into each other in the sky. Well, for the most part...

We're getting there!
posted by drstein at 4:34 AM on December 15, 2007


the number of times chaos theory has been legitimately used

Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park? Now that was chaos.
posted by mattoxic at 5:22 AM on December 15, 2007


SciFi writer Charlie Stross (on SciFi Writer John Scalzi's blog) explains why this interstellar stuff ain't gonna happen.

it's a lot like asking a baby to fly a jet plane before he can crawl

his article seems to make the assumption that people have to live on planets to colonize space - what we need to solve first are the problems of designing habitats that people can live and work in (or designing people to live in the habitats we can build) and finding a way to effectively utilize solar energy to run them

once that's done, people can refine the technology and creep slowly to the outer limits of the solar system - then, depending on how many resources are available in interstellar space, we can either continue the slow creep outwards or come up with a plan b

it may take us many thousands of years just to get that far and realistically evaluate how possible it is - if we can find energy and matter in interstellar space, it will be possible for generations of people to slowly spread out

this may be the answer to the question "where are the aliens?" - they're out there, but it's taking them millions of years to get anywhere, just like it's going to take for us, and they've just started, like us
posted by pyramid termite at 5:32 AM on December 15, 2007


Two words:

Heim-Dröscher.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 5:32 AM on December 15, 2007


When is the last time we've had any major scientific breakthroughs?

Nanotech, baby, nanotech. There is some awesome shit coming down the pike all based on carbon nanotubes. Sadly, warp drives aren't part of the program.
posted by briank at 5:41 AM on December 15, 2007


When we can get the ISS to smell like something other than comic-book-store-back-room-after-nine-hours-of-Warhammer.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:59 AM on December 15, 2007


The problem with "warp drive" is that humans are not built to take advantage of it - even if it is theoretically possible. The skeleton and internal organs can only tolerate so much g-force... it would take half a lifetime to accelerate to a speed close to "c" and the other half to decelerate.
posted by three blind mice at 6:03 AM on December 15, 2007


Disregarding the question of warp drive for the moment, this page's sound file is totally rad. I hope they add more soon.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:14 AM on December 15, 2007


The fact that everybody on the internet is able to instantly identify that someone has Asperger's Syndrome has got to qualify as a major scientific breakthrough.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:33 AM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


three blind mice Actually, if we can just manage constant acceleration at any significant fraction of 1g we can get damn close to c fairly quickly.

Accelerating at 1g, constantly, gets you to c in about a year, so tolerating a lot of g force isn't really a problem.

The problem is: how the hell do you maintain 1g acceleration for a year? Its all about fuel when it comes to reaction drives, and carrying enough fuel to keep accelerating at 1g for even a few months is a non-trivial problem. And, of course, once you've reached your crusing speed (say, .9c) then you've got to have enough fuel to decelerate back down to rest relative to your destination, which would take about as long (and about as much fuel) as the initial boost.

Naturally, that's ignoring the problem of "what if you hit a grain of sand while traveling at .9c".
posted by sotonohito at 7:58 AM on December 15, 2007


The problem with "warp drive" is that humans are not built to take advantage of it - even if it is theoretically possible.

Yeah, not the bonus handwaves that go with it -- controlled gravity and either supermaterials or the later "Structural Integrity Field"

When nanotube composites can't handle the acceleration, you have a real problem with humans.

It would make one hell of a wine press, though.
posted by eriko at 8:22 AM on December 15, 2007


how the hell do you maintain 1g acceleration for a year?

A big pile of concatenated trap doors?
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:26 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Further reading to be had at: Centauri Dreams -- a great little blog about interstellar exploration.
posted by popcassady at 8:37 AM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Accelerating at 1g for a year doesn't get you to c: it gets you to τ = 0.5, or about 87% of c in the rest frame you departed from. It's also the velocity at which your kinetic energy equals half the mass energy of your spacecraft, i.e. roughly 11.5 megatons per kilogram of spaceship weight, which should give you a handle on how much energy you've got to pump into that spaceship to reach τ 0.5. (And your space drive had better be 100% efficient; if it isn't, the waste heat ... well, even if it's 99.9% efficient, you're going to be dumping the equivalent of a Hiroshima-sized nuke's worth of energy for every kilogram of your starship.)

To add to the fun'n'games, at that speed every unbound stationary electron in the interstellar medium you're travelling through has the same energy as the gamma ray emitted by a positron/electron annihilation event; it's nice and toasty at speed. And a one microgram interstellar dust grain will release the equivalent of about ten tons of TNT if you plough into it.

Interstellar travel at high slower-than-light speed is a Non Trivial Problem.

(My pet theory is that what's wrong with interstellar travel is us — we need to redesign ourselves to be more space-friendly before we try it. Sending canned primates into space is a project fraught with problems, not least of which is the fact that canned primates aren't really evolved to survive in space.)
posted by cstross at 8:38 AM on December 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


Accelerating at 1g, constantly, gets you to c in about a year, so tolerating a lot of g force isn't really a problem.

g, the force of gravity on Earth is equal to 9.81 meters per second^2

c, the speed of light in a vacuum, is equal to 299 792 458 m/s

The time to reach c, under constant acceleration, is 3,056 x 10^7 seconds = 5,093 x 10^5 minutes = 8,489 x10^3 hours =3,537 x 10^2 days.

Or a bit less than one year.

I stand corrected!
posted by three blind mice at 8:46 AM on December 15, 2007


The time to reach c, under constant acceleration, is 3,056 x 10^7 seconds = 5,093 x 10^5 minutes = 8,489 x10^3 hours =3,537 x 10^2 days.

You're working this problem in Newtonian terms, and in this problem, Einstein trumps Newton. The real answer is time to reach c is ∞. You can't reach c if you're made of matter. Worse, your acceleration will not be linear.

Thanks to Relativity, as your velocity increases, your mass increases. This is why you can't travel at c, because your mass would increase to ∞, and you'd need infinite energy to do that.

So, as your velocity increases, your acceleration will slow. As you approach c, you'll spend more energy for the same acceleration, or get less acceleration for the same energy. The effect is noticeable at .1c, and gets worse as your velocity approaches c.

As a bonus, time will slow for anyone onboard. A 1 year trip at a constant .9c will take about 6 months, ship time. At .99c, ship time would say about 50 days passed, and it gets stranger from there.
posted by eriko at 9:02 AM on December 15, 2007


verily i say unto you, humans will never cross the interstellar gulfs due to the problems of supporting humans in a small metal pod surrounded by absolutely no resources whatsoever for thousands of years, however, their frozen gametes do have a chance for this because they require much less resources. after 8000 years of interstellar travel, our robot ship will approach a nearby star, its systems will scope out the planets for habitability and make landfall on a new earth with abundant water and moderate temperatures. the robots will gently thaw the vials of human sperm and eggs preparatory to mixing them, at which point the vial of eggs will say "i don't feel we've made sufficient contact on an emotional level to do this."
posted by bruce at 9:24 AM on December 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


"If you have a breakthrough device or theory that you feel is ready to be put to the test, consider having a local university or other educational institution test your idea"

Go bother someone else, nutball!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:38 AM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


For another sci-fi dream made real: cloning.

Mm, not really. In sci-fi, I get in a tube and then out of another tube pops an identical version of me. Like a photocopier. Real cloning is all extracting and implanting and giving birth and stuff. Borrrrring.
posted by notmydesk at 9:40 AM on December 15, 2007


Any kind of faster-than-light travel or information transmission (warp drive, wormholes, clicking your heels three times), as long as relativity holds, imply closed timelike curves. Which you can always use to generate paradoxes. Thus far, I haven't heard any reputable scientist come up with anything besides "Maybe there's something that makes that not happen!" as a way to deal with the paradoxes.

And while relativity will eventually be supplanted, assimilated, or otherwise replaced by something that incorporates QM and pretty much everything else, each successive replacement of physical theories doesn't seem to grant us any more freedom. In a Newtonian world, you can go as fast as you like and measure the position and momentum of an object to any precision you like. I doubt any new theory will grant us more freedom while simultaneously beating the paradox problem.

Without FTL, about the only way humanity is gonna travel to the stars would be in thimble-sized probes, pumped near c by lasers bouncing off of the back, containing just enough nanomachinery, genetic and epigenetic information, and copies of the Google cache to slowly seed the nearest stars. That's at a reasonable speed. Or we'll have slow moving tankers full of corpsicles, Alien style. No element or mineral we could mine would be worth the transportation cost.

Sometimes physics makes space opera sci-fi boring.
posted by adipocere at 9:45 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


this may be the answer to the question "where are the aliens?" - they're out there, but it's taking them millions of years to get anywhere, just like it's going to take for us, and they've just started, like us

The future won't be here until someone invents "the Punctuator®" for pyramid termite.
posted by interrobang at 10:09 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


SciFi writer Charlie Stross (on SciFi Writer John Scalzi's blog) explains why this interstellar stuff ain't gonna happen.

Can't wait for the explanation of the ultimate limits of wizardry from J. K. Rowling.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually, the Alcubierre drive allows arbitrarily high acceleration with no perceptible g-forces at all. It has the time travel paradox problem obviously.
posted by snoktruix at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2007


I came up with the hydrogen ram scoop in a short story in 7th grade. I was surprised to learn it was a real idea when I did a project with some friends on the reality of interstellar travel in high school. Looks like NASA basically stole our research and slapped their name on it. Either that, or not much has changed in 12 years re: theoretical physics.

We even e-mailed Miguel Alcubierre (yeah, we had e-mail in high school 12 years ago, bitches!). Bastard never e-mailed us back. Judas Priest did, though, but that wasn't for a project.
posted by Eideteker at 10:33 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


On a topic this visionary and whose implications are profound, there is a risk of encountering, premature conclusions in the literature, driven by overzealous enthusiasts as well as pedantic pessimists. The most productive path is to seek out and build upon publications that focus on the critical make-break issues and lingering unknowns, both from the innovators' perspective and their skeptical challengers. Avoid works with broad-sweeping and unsubstantiated claims, either supportive or dismissive.

Very well put.

I agree with paulsc's points that we are relying too much on technological breakthroughs to get to the stars and that will, determination and time can overcome those distances. I'd also add that those Pioneers needed more than just courage and strength; they needed a vision to guide them and inspire them. Those who will follow their example and blast off into the cold, empty spaces between the worlds will need it as well.

And there's the rub. This age we are living in is not strong on "the vision thing." We are living in a society that is mediocre in its values, parochial in its outlook, and incurious about anything other than pop culture and money.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:00 AM on December 15, 2007 [7 favorites]


Planetary Politics
posted by homunculus at 11:15 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


how the hell do you maintain 1g acceleration for a year?

The orange portal goes on the floor, and the blue one on the ceiling.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 11:54 AM on December 15, 2007 [8 favorites]


"When is the last time we've had any major scientific breakthroughs?"

Peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time!

Is this one of those times when Wikipedia is wrong? I still consider George Washington Carver a god among men cuz I believe without him I wouldn't have peanut butter, but Wikipedia disagrees. Still. Major scientific discovery that peanuts can be made into over a hundred different things. I call that a breakthrough. Everything since then has been just gravy.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2007


And there's the rub. This age we are living in is not strong on "the vision thing." We are living in a society that is mediocre in its values, parochial in its outlook, and incurious about anything other than pop culture and money.

And people who do dream about becoming something beyond rich and famous are called names.

It's really sad what Americans have become if you look at it that way.
posted by SpecialK at 1:12 PM on December 15, 2007


Peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time!

See also:

The Invention of the Nacho, during WW2, by Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya.

That's right, boys, girls, GCUs, and indeterminate objects of other natures, it took until World War 2 for science to advance to the point that we could melt cheese onto tortilla chips reliably and without fear of accidental genocide.

Imagine if Senor Anaya had never been born, or if he hadn't been pestered in exactly the right way that led him to invent the nacho. In such a miserable, paltry, grey world, it is doubtful that the human race would have evolved stoners. To be sure, one can spark a big fat doobie and not each nachos, but could one really spark a big fat doobie in a world where nachos literally could not be found? In a world that did not even contain the concept of the nacho, I suspect that fear of inconsolable munchies would prevent even snowboarders, if there were any in such a horrible dimension, from getting righteously baked.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:38 PM on December 15, 2007


one can spark a big fat doobie and not each nachos

s/each/eat , if that isn't clear.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:39 PM on December 15, 2007


The Invention of the Nacho, during WW2, by Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya.

no, it was invented in a passaic, nj diner by nancy randi sauvage, aka "nacho nan randi sauvage"
posted by pyramid termite at 2:02 PM on December 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


SciFi writer Charlie Stross explains...

Would that be MetaFilter's Own Charlie Stross?
posted by nielm at 2:05 PM on December 15, 2007


Hmmmm... I've got to wonder if Anaya actually invented nachos, or as with the Earl of Sandwich, he just popularized something that had been around for a while. Anyone know?
posted by sotonohito at 2:48 PM on December 15, 2007


when we will be able to travel to distant stars

When such travel becomes a necessary and important step towards killing people.
posted by CynicalKnight at 4:19 PM on December 15, 2007


I've also heard it suggested that by the time we're able to physically travel to other star systems, we may not want to. By the time you've solved the problems that stand in the way you may have other abilities, like quantum tunnelling or just plain creating arbitrary realities.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:56 PM on December 15, 2007


when we will be able to travel to distant stars

CynicalKnight: When such travel becomes a necessary and important step towards killing people.



Eponytypical!
posted by grubby at 7:27 PM on December 15, 2007


>SciFi writer Charlie Stross (on SciFi Writer John Scalzi's blog) explains why this interstellar stuff ain't gonna happen.

>>Can't wait for the explanation of the ultimate limits of wizardry from J. K. Rowling.

>>Would that be MetaFilter's Own Charlie Stross?


Uh, guys, Charlie's commenting here in this thread.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:32 PM on December 15, 2007


OMG! The call's coming from inside the house!
For the record, wondercluck, my comment came before cstross's contribution; I'd like to think I drew him here, but I didn't call his name 3 times. And yet, I feel guilty that I was too lazy to link to his (and Scalzi's) member profiles as I usually do when referring to MetaFilter's Own Anybody.
posted by wendell at 7:48 PM on December 15, 2007


Naturally, that's ignoring the problem of "what if you hit a grain of sand while traveling at .9c".
Shit, so we have to invent the main deflector array before we uncouple it/reroute power from it/reverse its polarity/go to warp? Sheeeit, but it's never gonna get invented.

Everybody: get cracking on the holodeck instead, pls.
posted by bonaldi at 9:35 PM on December 15, 2007


Mm, not really. In sci-fi, I get in a tube and then out of another tube pops an identical version of me. Like a photocopier.

What kind of crap sci-fi have you been reading?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:06 PM on December 15, 2007


(My pet theory is that what's wrong with interstellar travel is us — we need to redesign ourselves to be more space-friendly before we try it.

You're right. Seems like a much neater solution to the whole light speed issue would be to work around it by cracking the twin problems of making people

a) Immortal
b) Immune to boredom

Then c can go stuff itself, 55kph'll do just fine.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:07 AM on December 16, 2007


My pet theory is that what's wrong with interstellar travel is us — we need to redesign ourselves to be more space-friendly before we try it.

Your novel Accelerando introduced me to the concept of the singularity and it was quite an eye opening experience.

The method of interstellar travel that you described in the book seems to be the only plausible solution.
posted by yifes at 3:04 PM on December 16, 2007


a) Immortal
b) Immune to boredom


Bring on the Oscars!
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:36 AM on December 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


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