Chapter One: From Here to Neverwhere
The universe is big, really big!
But don't take my word for it. Consider a few of these numbers. I warn you, if you actually try to get your mind around them, they'll turn your brain to tapioca.
There are 250 billion stars in the Milky Way. The Milky Way, for you nonastronomers (like me), is the galaxy we live in. Experts who know about these things have told me that if I were to ship off from one edge of it traveling 700 million miles an hour (the speed of light), it would take me 144,000 years to get to the other side! That's a lot of years. But even more astounding than the enormity of the Milky Way itself is the fact that it represents only a tiny fraction of the universe -- a droplet in an ocean of Milky Ways. There are an estimated 100 billion galaxies out there beyond our tiny planet. If you were to count the number of stars in the cosmos -- first you would be long dead before you could count even a fraction of them -- but if you could, you would come up with a number that has twenty zeros behind it.
And there's more...
Even if every one of the stars above us were crammed together cheek by jowl; if there wasn't room to slip even a teensy silicon chip between all of the heavenly bodies in all of the galaxies, the immensity of space would still be staggering. However...they are not crammed together. They are spread far, far apart. The emptiness between these bodies would shame even the emptiest heads of some studio executives I know. It is so empty in fact that if I were to place you in the transporter room of the Enterprise and set the controls to beam you to some random location in the galaxy, the chances of you arriving anywhere at all close to a planet or a star or any kind of solid body, would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion.
Space is spacious.
More proof. The swiftest object we humans have created is a spacecraft called Pioneer 10, launched from earth way back in 1972. About twelve years ago it departed the solar system, zipping along at twenty-five miles a second, a pretty stout speed. (I'm lucky if I can go twenty-five miles an hour on the freeways of Los Angeles). Having left our relatively crowded solar system behind, Pioneer 10 now finds itself sailing through a vast vacancy, as solitary as a clam. Even traveling at 90,000 miles an hour, it is moving 7,500 times slower than the speed of light!
The nearest star to Earth, other than our own sun, is Proxima Centauri, combusting 4.3 light-years away. It will take Pioneer 10 32,000 years to get there. And this is the closest star! It will take 15 billion years for it to reach the next galaxy. That's a billion with a "B." To place that number in perspective, keep this in mind: 15 billion years is the current estimated age of the universe. Everything that has ever happened, from the big bang to your last meal, from the extinction of the dinosaurs to the rise of alien civilizations in star systems we don't even know about -- everything has happened in those 15 billion years. And remember there are a hundred billion galaxies roughly the size of our own out there, circling, colliding, transmogrifying.
Okay. Fine, you say. I get the picture. The universe is big and things in space are far apart. This is probably why we call it "space," Bill. But we can close those distances, right, by increasing the speed?
That's what I thought, but no. Ninety thousand miles an hour might be okay if you're going from planet to planet, but when dealing in a Star Trek universe we're talking interstellar not interplanetary travel. To handle traveling between stars, we have to kick things up into a much higher gear, say the speed of light.
Okay, so let's go the speed of light. I mean let's build a big, turbocharged mother of a starship, load it with antimatter, rev it up to light speed, and plot a course for the center of the Milky Way. Be there in no time, right?
Be there in 30,000 years! This is traveling at186,300 miles a second. Of course it won't feel that way to those of us onboard the ship because of something called time dilation (more on this later). We, on the starship, would only be twenty-one years older at the end of the trip, but back on Earth, assuming there is an Earth, things will have changed thirty millennia worth -- that's enough time for all of recorded human history to have come and gone five times. Considering that almost everything I buy these days (except sweatpants) is outdated the moment I open it, I'm betting Earth will be just a smidgen different than it is now.
What does all of this tell us? For one thing, if you want to trek among the stars, chugging around the galaxy at the dismal speed of light is not going to cut it. Even when moving at 186,300 miles per second (at that speed you would encircle the Earth seven and a half times in a second!), we would hardly even have gotten out of the gate before Star Trek's five-year mission would have been called on account of boredom. We certainly wouldn't have been encountering an alien a week.
Nope, for star trekking, we need something even faster than light speed. We need something that is, shall we say, warped.
Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, was a smart guy. So when he looked at the starscape in which he had chosen to set the series, he quickly understood the inherent "spacey-ness" of space. Having been a World War II pilot himself, he certainly had some sense of speed and distance. And having devoured volumes of science fiction, he knew he wasn't the first writer to confront the problem of a huge galaxy. He also knew that being constrained to the piddling speed of light simply wouldn't do given the territory his spacefarers had to cover each week.
But there is a problem with traveling faster than light, and his name is Albert Einstein. Early in the century, after much ruminating, Einstein wrote this simple, elegant equation:
In addition to reflecting cosmic realities that have made everything from lasers to computers to the atomic bomb possible, this formula set the universal speed limit at 186,300 miles per second, the speed of a beam of light. Nothing, Einstein said, could travel faster, no way, no how. More precisely, he wrote in 1905, "Velocities greater than that of light...have no possibility of existence."
You can't go up against the leading genius of the age and expect to win, so Gene did what every other self-respecting science fiction writer this century had done before him. He made something up.
He called it warp drive.
Warp drive made it possible for Star Trek to skirt Einstein's universal speed limit and zip around the galaxy fast enough to knock off a thoughtful (usually) and entertaining adventure a week. Imagine the problems we would have had holding to our timetable without warp drive.
Kirk: "What's our estimated time of arrival at Tycho IV, Mr. Spock?"
Spock: "Exactly twenty thousand three hundred years, six months, three weeks, four days and seven hours, Captain."
Kirk: "Very well, break out Star Trek XLIII: Spock Jr. Meets the Son of the Nephew of Khan and have everyone injected with enough sodium pentothal to put them out cold for a couple millennia."
So warp drive, or something like it, was an absolute necessity. At top speed, the Starship Enterprise could travel exactly 199,516 times 186,300 miles per second. Damned fast. But again, just to refresh your memory about the incomprehensible dimensions of the universe, even at this speedy speed (1,380,000,000,000,000 miles per hour), it would take us eighteen days to cross the celestial territory of the United Federation of Planets (10,000 light-years across), and it would still require ten years to reach the next galaxy. It says so right in the Star Trek Encyclopedia. This is traveling at maximum warp to the next nearest galaxy, never mind the remaining 99,999,999,999 other ones. (I told you this was big.) Of course it would take no time at all to get to Proxima Centauri. In fact if you left right now, you'd arrive just inside of thirteen minutes, shorter than the average urban commute.
Gene was not the first science fiction writer to conjure up faster-than-light travel. Even by the early 1960s there had been plenty of references to it in science fiction literature going all the way back to John Campbell and his 1930s pulp magazine Astounding Stories. In fact it's Campbell who is credited with coining the term "warp drive."
Then there was Isaac Asimov's famous Foundation series where he had his characters jaunt around the universe at faster-than-light speeds using something called "hyper drive." In fact it was the discovery of hyperspace travel that had led to the rise of Asimov's fictional Galactic Empire in the first place. Not that he went into a whole lot of detail explaining how hyper drive worked. Here's how Asimov described the experience in the opening pages of Foundation:
He [Gaal] had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the few items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest uninhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time...it ended in nothing more than a trifling jar, a little internal kick which ceased an instant before he could be sure he had felt it. That was all.
Nice passage, but not exactly advanced physics.
In the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, a movie that had enormous influence on Roddenberry, the terms hyper drive and hyperspeed were used again to describe the faster-than-light travel that got the movie's impetuous crew to the "Altair system" where they then proceeded to get into all sorts of hair-raising trouble.
In the opening credits the narrator intones (over some of the weirdest music to ever accompany a movie):
In the final decade of the twenty-first century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 a.d. they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyper drive through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so at last mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.
United Planets Cruiser C-57D now more than a year out from Earth base on a special mission to the planetary system of the great main sequence star Altair.
(Note to Cyril Hume who wrote the script: You were only 140 years off on the moon-landing prediction. We'll wait and see how accurate you are on everything else.) Once again, you can't really call this, well, rocket science.
The point is that Gene, as inspired as he was by these works, knew that this sort of vague sci-fi mumbo jumbo wouldn't do for Star Trek. Yes, in the earliest days of the show, Roddenberry played pretty fast and loose with the whole warp drive concept, and some unabashedly sloppy terminology was tossed around. At first it was considered nothing more than this "capability" that solved some obvious dramatic problems while it moved the Enterprise at high speed from one place to the other throughout the galaxy. I know that in the first pilot there was talk about hyper drive and warp factors, but no technical explanations were offered. That was fine for a pilot, but once the series was given the green light, Roddenberry and his writers were forced to become a little more specific.
Why? Well, a movie or pilot is a one-shot deal. You can slip a vague generalization or two by the audience and they might be willing to buy into it, but that's not going to fly for a weekly television series. In an ongoing story you can't escape explaining how various exotic technologies work because they keep coming up. Warp drive was certainly no exception. In fact, come to think of it, it probably came up more than any other did. Pretty regularly it seemed the warp drive engines seized up or were wrecked in battle or needed "routine maintenance," and Scotty would start yapping about how if we didn't get them fixed we were going to blow a twenty-third century gasket. More than one plot was driven by a need to get a fresh supply of dilithium crystals.
Naturally, being the captain of the ship, if something was wrong with the engines, I would have to ask Scotty for an explanation. That's what captains do, right? And, since the series was determined to feel real, the answer had to be plausible. I mean somehow it just wouldn't have worked if Lieutenant Commander Scott would have answered, "Well, Cap'n, the engines just keep goin' ka-chunka, ka-chunka, and if we don't fix 'em we're all going to die faster than Spock in The Wrath of Khan."
No, he would say something like, "Captain, you can't mix matter and antimatter cold. We'd go up in the biggest explosion..." That's what he told me in "The Naked Time," an episode where delusional crewman Lieutenant Kevin Riley had shut down the Enterprise's engines and we suddenly found the ship overheating and spiraling in the atmosphere of the planet we were orbiting (Psi 2000).
The whole scene went something like this:
Scotty: He's turned the engines off. They're completely cold. It'll take 30 minutes to regenerate them.
Uhura: (on the intercom) The ship's outer skin is beginning to heat, Captain. Orbit plot shows we have about 8 minutes left....
Kirk:...Captain's Log Supplemental: The Enterprise, spiraling down out of control. Ship's outer skin heating rapidly due to friction with planet atmosphere.
f0 Scotty:...[I need] maybe 22, 23 minutes --
Kirk: Scotty, we've got six.
Scotty: Captain, you can't mix matter and antimatter cold...
Kirk: We can balance our engines into a controlled implosion.
Scotty: That's only a theory -- it's never been done!
Kirk: Bridge. Have you found Mr. Spock yet?
Scotty: If you wanted to chance odds of 10,000 to 1, maybe assuming we had a row of computers working weeks on the right formula...
Uhura: Mr. Spock is not on the bridge, Captain.
Where was that slippery Vulcan when I needed him?
Anyhow, if you notice, this dialogue doesn't have an iota of truly technical information in it, but the overall effect of the whole conversation was that real technical issues had to be dealt with and you couldn't just snap your fingers and make them all magically disappear.
It was very effective.
But how did writers even come up with explanations like this? I asked one of the veterans of the show, D. C. (Dorothy) Fontana. Dorothy had been Gene's secretary going all the way back to his days as producer of The Lieutenant, an early sixties television series starring Gary Lockwood. Later she joined Gene on Star Trek, again as his secretary, and then, eventually, as one of the series' most valued and knowledgeable writers.
"Gene worked with several consultants," D. C. told me. "One in particular was named Harvey Lynn, a scientist with the Rand Corporation, a big think tank in Santa Monica. At first Gene didn't think so much about how a ship would travel from planet to planet, just that it did. But later he started working out the details and I'm sure the whole concept of warp drive came out of some of those discussions with Harvey Lynn. But there was never any eureka moment when Gene suddenly burst from his office and said, 'At last, I've got it! We'll call it...warp drive!'"
Lynn, it turns out, was an invaluable resource. He had been referred to Gene through Colonel Donald I. Prickett, an old Air Force buddy from his days as a pilot during World War II. "I am going to forward a copy of Star Trek to a physicist at Rand," Prickett wrote Gene after he had read an early summary of the series. "He's a retired AF type and I can count on him to keep it to himself -- he is a creative, scientific thinker and will appreciate your concepts."
Lynn became thoroughly involved in brainstorming technical issues with Roddenberry. As Prickett had predicted, Star Trek was right up his alley. The Rand Corporation in Santa Monica was, and is today, a think tank that, among other things, speculates on the future. At first Lynn worked informally on the series. Later he was paid a whopping $50 per show for the use of his brain and expertise.
He contributed indispensable insights that helped shape ideas like the ship's computer (he suggested that it talk, in a woman's voice), the sickbay (he suggested that beds be outfitted with "electrical pickups" that monitor the body) and teleportation. He brought an unusual perspective to the job. He was a hardheaded scientist, but he wasn't so literal that he couldn't speculate intelligently on how you might pull something crazy off like warp drive. Gene wanted authenticity and Harvey helped deliver it.
Once Gene had realized that the Enterprise would need industrial strength propulsion to make its way around the galaxy, he next needed to nail down a fuel and a mechanism that infused the whole imaginary technology with that air of reality he loved so much. Nuclear power was considered, but that was ruled out. Far too puny to rev a ship up beyond light speed. Remember when the warp drive engines would go out, and Scotty would say we had to go "to impulse power." Well, impulse was another way of saying, "Turn on the nuclear engines." But nuclear power converts only a small portion of its fuel into usable energy. That's fine when dropping nuclear bombs on Earth, but not much when you want to get from here to the next star. The best those engines could do was reach a quarter of light speed.
In the end, when it came to moving the Enterprise at high speed, only one power source really made sense. Matter and antimatter. You chuckle. You say, "Sure, Bill, antimatter. Talk about mumbo jumbo!" Okay, when I first heard about it, that was my reaction too. Antimatter -- right up there with flubber on the reality scale. But guess what? It is real; predicted in 1928 by physicist and Nobel prize-winner Paul Dirac, and first detected in 1932. It turns out that the universe is awash in antimatter.
Every particle of matter, it seems, has an equal-partner particle of antimatter. The anti-particle of a negatively charged electron, for example, has a positive charge and is called a positron. Not only is antimatter real, but when you combine it with an equal amount of matter, it packs a colossal wallop, releasing every last quark of its mass as energy. Nothing is wasted. So handle with care because matter, any matter, ignites antimatter. Put enough matter in contact with antimatter and boom! there goes the planet. Compared with an antimatter reaction, a hydrogen bomb explosion is as piddling as a struck match. It is, in other words, the perfectly efficient fuel. Just what you need if you want to power up a starship built to exceed the universal speed limit.
But...where do you find it?
That's a problem. In the early days of the universe there were nearly equal amounts of matter and antimatter. But as it turned out, there was just a pinch more matter, not much mind you -- about one extra particle for every 100 million photons and particle/antiparticle pairs. (I looked that up.) Because matter and antimatter annihilate one another in a burst of electromagnetic radiation (energy in the form of particles called photons, to be precise) the universe we see today is dominated by the extra matter that hasn't found antimatter with which to annihilate itself.
The result: antimatter is tougher to find than an emotional Vulcan. However, I am told that physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland have managed to manufacture antiprotons and have even stored them in supercooled magnetic fields. Just don't count on picking up a six-pack at the corner store any time soon; they can only whip up very small quantities.
But let's assume, since that's what science fiction is all about, that we can get our hands on tanks of antimatter, gobs of it. Then what? Then you need dilithium crystals and warp coils and nacelles, all of the "stuff" that makes warp engines "fly," at least in the world of Star Trek.
Over the years, the supporting information for all of this faux "Treknology" has become nearly as complex as you'd expect the real technology to be and has been refined to the finest of arts. After starting out as a kind of black box dramatic invention not much better defined than Asimov's hyper drive, Star Trek's writers developed an increasingly detailed picture of how everything "warped" worked. Today the supporting information for these Treknologies is very impressive. A new generation of writers for ongoing Star Trek series can consult a fifty-one-page guide entitled the Writers' Technical Manual (not to be confused with the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual) and read highly detailed passages like this one on dilithium crystals:
Dilithium, in its fifth-phase crystal form, is the only material yet discovered in nature [fictional Star Trek nature, that is] or manufactured which can withstand exposure to antimatter (specifically antiprotons). Its lattice structure is arranged in such a way that antimatter is held suspended in the empty spaces between the atoms when the crystal is subjected to a high-frequency electromagnetic field in the megawatt range.
The manual goes on:
Matter and antimatter are introduced into the warp engine through separate injection reactors....The crystal is placed in the path of the two streams, which would naturally collide to produce the well-known explosive reaction. Antiprotons slip through one crystal face like water through a sponge, and travel up to an opposite face....The primary reaction takes place at the exit face of the crystal, at a depth of but a few atoms. Matter and antimatter undergo mutual annihilation, and the reaction is guided by the crystal....
Energy from the primary reaction is split into two plasma streams at equal angles from the ship's centerline. The streams are then magnetically channeled along the power transfer tubes to the warp engine nacelles.
Does any of this make sense? Could any of it work? Are you talkin' to me?
I knew after reading that passage that the time had come to seek out help. I needed to find someone who could tell me if warp speed is even possible and if so how it could be managed. Because if it isn't, to my small and mystified mind, it seemed that we humans could pretty much count on doing no more than swim around the wee pond of our own solar system until the sun blew up or Homo sapiens kicked off, whichever came first. At slow speed, planet trekking might be possible (we already know that), but star trekking? Not.
So I set out to find an expert, a modern-day Harvey Lynn.
Warp Drive When?
It's not every day that you find a real, honest-to-God warp drive expert, but I got lucky. His name is Marc Millis. No, Marc doesn't live on the street pushing a grocery cart and he doesn't claim to have been probed by visiting aliens and he isn't walking around Star Trek conventions with a portable warp engine in his briefcase whispering, "Psst. Hey! Over here. Gotta blue-light special going on antimatter."
Marc is actually a real scientist who is truly investigating how to build advanced propulsion systems for NASA. In fact he is in charge of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program (BPP to all of you aeronautical engineers). He works out of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, formerly known as the Lewis Research Center. Okay, so you don't generally think of Cleveland as warp central, but it's a crazy world, and you go where the trail leads you.
Marc is a quiet, dedicated scientist who grew up fascinated with space, partly because of the Apollo program that took men to the moon and partly because of Star Trek and other sci-fi shows that were popular in the sixties. "I grew up with Apollo and Star Trek and even Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And I thought, 'Yeah, this is kind of cool. I like this.'
"But I figured by the time that I got into a career, given the progress that Apollo was making, that rockets would soon be old hat and that by the time I was grown up they would be looking for what would come after that. You know, the kind of things that were in Star Trek. When you're a kid, you aren't really sure how much of what you see is raw fiction and how much is based on something real. Anyhow I was very curious to figure that out."
So Millis earned his physics degree at Georgia Tech and applied at the only two NASA centers working at advanced propulsion -- the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the (then) Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. Lewis hired him. He went straight to work on interesting, but far from cutting edge technologies during his first several years. After all, even at NASA, any talk about something as nutty as warp drive was verboten, at least on an official level.
Unofficially, it was a different story. NASA's Glenn was loaded with science-fiction and Star Trek fans, and there was plenty of time passed at the cafeteria talking about any number of wild engineering ideas including warp and ion drive and wormholes. So after a while Millis started to pull together little informal groups of scientists and engineers who brainstormed wild ways to get around the galaxy in lengths of time that could be measured in years rather than millennia.
Hey, we do things all the time that were once considered impossible. Spaceships were considered nonsense a hundred years ago; now we launch satellites and shuttles and interplanetary probes every day. So, why not think about interstellar travel? It's got to come sooner or later.
So they mixed real science and engineering with some far-out science fiction and brewed up all sorts of interesting theories. They even considered starting a nonprofit group called The Interstellar Propulsion Society -- anything to try to advance the cause.
Help came from unexpected quarters.
In 1992 a new administrator named Daniel Goldin took over NASA. Goldin wanted to energize the space agency, give it a little boost, so to speak. He felt it had lost its sense of adventure and to capture the public imagination it needed to tackle more daring agendas. A small part of that plan was to have engineers within the agency start exploring some envelope-pushing technologies.
"Marshall Space Flight Center was asked to lead an effort to come up with long-range advanced propulsion plans," says Millis. "Their first two proposals didn't fly very well with Goldin, who told them to be more visionary. Eventually someone from Marshall sought me out. Someone -- I don't know who -- had apparently asked, 'Well, what about things like faster-than-light travel and controlling gravity?' And so they tracked me down. By then I had my warp drive Web page (http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/WWW/PAO/warp.htm), and I was doing a few public talks to learn how to communicate these wild ideas in ways that would be pretty accurate and understandable.
"Anyhow, NASA proposed a really advanced propulsion program, and we decided to submit a proposal. I reformatted a lot of the work and writing our group had been doing, got a network of other people from universities to screen it, and submitted it. To make it acceptable, I tried to break it down into digestible pieces. I said, 'Okay, I'm going to prove that this is worthy one step at a time. The first step or the first question: Is there anything in the credible [scientific] literature that indicates that now is the time that we can start doing something?' And guess what? There was. It wasn't very far along, but there was plenty of material."
NASA funded Millis's proposal, and just like that (after more than a decade of preparation), he was put in charge of the BPP. Its official NASA mission: "Seek the ultimate breakthroughs in space transportation. To boldly go..." No, wait, wrong mission. Here we are. To tackle experiments and theories regarding the coupling of gravity and electromagnetism, the quantum vacuum, hyperfast travel, and superluminal quantum effects.
"It comes down to this," Millis told me. "Warp drive, when?"
Well, not anytime soon. Millis doesn't pretend that he and his team are going to come up with a warp engine within the next decade or even the next few, but he figures if someone isn't out there asking these questions, how will any progress get made?
"It's easy to say it can't be done, but if we accept that, where does it get us?" asks Millis. "Literally nowhere. Progress is not made by conceding defeat.
"The way I see it, it's as important to explore these technologies as it is to attempt to figure out the age and mechanics of the universe. If we can't develop hyperfast travel, then what do we lose? We'll still have learned a lot. But if we do succeed, the benefit is huge!"
Millis says, given what we know now, he wouldn't be surprised to find it is just flat-out impossible to fly faster than the speed of light. But, he points out, when we were thinking in the 1950s about ways to go to the moon -- before Apollo -- there were experts that said it was impossible. They worked out their calculations and they were absolutely right -- it was impossible to land on the moon in that particular way. You just had to change your approach, look at it from a different angle. So maybe the lesson is to redefine the problem, turn it on its head. Then maybe it won't look so impossible.
I decided to cut right to the chase with Marc. Why mess with pleasantries when such weighty issues were at stake? I pulled out Pocket Books's Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual and laid out drawings of the Enterprise's warp drive -- dilithium crystals, warp coils, Heisenberg compensators, the whole twenty-third century shootin' match. I looked him in the eye. Did any of this make sense?
Millis took the book in hand and looked at it, and then looked up. "This?"
"Yeah, with the antimatter being combined and refined through the dilithium crystals. The (I looked at the book) magnetically channeled plasma streams, the nacelles...all of it."
Millis looked back at the diagrams again. If I'm not mistaken, he actually squirmed a little. "Well, the Enterprise is an excellent tool for inspiration," he said diplomatically, "but you definitely don't want to use it as a research guide. The motivation for putting this together," he said, gesturing at the manual, "is for dramatic effect. And then folks have thrown lots of things in to fill in the gaps. And they've been very clever with the terminology they use to give it more weight and greater feeling of reality."
He looked up. "But drama is not science."
"So there is some serious suspension of disbelief going on here."
"Yeah. Some big suspenders."
"Well, if you don't do it this way, how do you do it?"
Millis made one thing immediately clear: You don't outrace the speed of light by simply propelling the Enterprise down the star lanes at faster and faster speeds. What? You don't? I had always assumed that the Enterprise's warp engines worked something like a supercharged space shuttle, or, simpler still, a balloon powered by escaping air that made rude noises as it flew around the room. I mean, that I get. Fire the engines up and they propel you like a rocket through space, breaking the light barrier the way Chuck Yeager shattered the sound barrier back in 1947.
Of course thirty-five years ago, wandering the Desilu lots where we shot Star Trek, I didn't wonder much about how these things might have worked. I didn't question why we weren't all splattered like paint balls around the deck of the Enterprise as the G-forces reached into double digits. And I certainly didn't consider the complex physics involved in all of this. All I did was sit in my captain's chair and say, "Yo, Sulu, warp factor two, and don't let the moons of Saturn hit us in the ass as we leave the solar system." So when Marc told me that traveling faster than light doesn't involve anything like the balloon propulsion concepts I had been thinking about, I couldn't get it.
He patiently explained it to me using the sound barrier as an example. When Yeager broke the sound barrier, he told me, using the sound barrier as an example. When Yeager broke the sound barrier, he told me, it wasn't sound that broke the barrier, it was an object, the X-15 jet that he was flying. The X-15 reached speeds that were faster than the sound waves it was creating.
With light, however, it's a different story. The atoms and molecules that make up matter are connected by electromagnetic fields, the very same stuff that light is made of. Both are governed by the same physical laws. That means that when you try to break the speed of light, you are trying to do it with the very same forces that light itself consists of. So how can an object possibly travel faster than the force that makes it possible in the first place? Einstein said it can't. That's why he called the speed of light "constant" (the C in mc2). Got that? Good, because I'm not sure I do. (There will be a pop quiz later.)
Dilate "T" for Time
The light-speed speed limit is one problem, but there are plenty of others. One of them is called time dilation. As a star cruiser approaches light speed, a speed so much faster than the other objects around it, time actually slows down for those on the ship. Why? Well, a few thousand people in the world might truly understand why. I'm not one of them. So I asked Millis for an answer.
He explained it like this. When one person is moving much faster than another, the whole idea of events happening simultaneously goes out the window. For example, let's say you are standing still, watching Leonard Nimoy take a bow onstage following a great performance. If I am moving at the speed of light, I will not see Leonard take his bow at the same time that you do because I am traveling at somewhere around 186,000 miles a second. Our perception of reality is, relatively speaking, out of sync because our speeds, relative to one another, are extremely different.
This means that our perception of time is different based on how fast we are moving. In fact it means that if I am traveling faster than you are, time actually stretches out, slows down for me as compared to you. It dilates.
As ridiculous as this sounds, time dilation has actually been proven. Here's how. Let's say I have two atomic clocks (doesn't everyone?). To perform a time dilation experiment, I keep one in Los Angeles and send the other to Leonard Nimoy who happens to be in New York meeting with some high-powered publishing executives. (He's always got some deal going.) I pocket my clock and hop on a New York-bound jet. As I'm taxiing down the runway I sneak a call to Leonard and tell him to start his clock. I start mine at exactly the same time. When the jet lands in New York, Leonard greets me at the airport. After hugs and hellos and some Vulcan dancing, we compare the elapsed time on the two clocks. Low and behold, my clock, the one that has been airborne for the past five hours, has ticked off twenty-two nanoseconds less than Leonard's -- exactly what Einstein himself would have predicted.
So never let anyone tell you that you can't save time by moving fast. It's a fact.
Now if you can literally wrinkle time flying on a commercial jet at a paltry five hundred miles an hour, imagine the time dilation you could rack up on the Enterprise which spends most of its five-year mission jamming around the galaxy at way better than the speed of light.
This could create some serious plot problems. People all over the Federation would be out of sync because almost no one would be moving through time and space at the same speed. Birth dates would mean nothing, rendered obsolete by star travel. Those living on space stations like DS9 or on planets like Vulcan or Earth would be aging like crazy relative to those of us zipping around in our starships. You wouldn't want to make a date with someone at home and agree to meet six months later. When you showed up at the door, your date would be ancient, if not dead, and you would be young and ready to boogie. Bad combination.
Simply by doing some high-speed space traveling, we will have flung ourselves years into the future, or others equally far into the past, take your pick. As Einstein said, it's all relative.
As if we don't have enough trouble already, there remains one final problem with hyperfast travel. Energy. No matter how fast you are traveling, if you want to pick up speed, you need more energy. Simple example: you get in your car, jump onto the nearest freeway, and floor it. You're going to run out of gas a lot sooner than if you simply cruised. Why? Because the faster you go, the more fuel (energy) you need. Same with traveling among the stars. If you want to travel at the speed of light, it takes not simply more energy, or even a lot of energy, but all of the energy there is in the universe. This is a problem. And remember we are merely talking about light speed -- a plodding 700 million miles an hour. Never mind warp-factoring multiples of light speed.
So it turns out that attaining speeds that outrun light isn't about just coming up with a real powerful fuel, lighting up the engines, and letting her rip. It's about, as Marc says, "getting traction on the surface -- the very fabric -- of space and time itself, like a car's tires get traction on a highway."
Accomplishing that means getting way beyond the universe that Newton imagined, even beyond the one Einstein imagined, certainly beyond anything I can imagine. It isn't about propulsion in the space shuttle sense. It is, if I understood what Marc told me, about flying without propulsion. It's about folding, spindling, and mutilating the fundamental electromagnetic forces of the cosmos -- the same forces that make light possible, and hold the fabric of existence itself together. It means building a machine that can actually warp space and time around it.
But is that even possible?
Copyright © 2002 by Melis Productions, f/s/o William Shatner