Warp speed

Warp speed ahead

Geraint LewisProfessor Geraint Lewis is an astrophysicist, who is best known for his work on dark energy, gravitational lensing and galactic cannibalism. He is currently Professor of Astrophysics and ARC Future Fellow at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, and Associate Head for Research at the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

Professor Lewis gave a lecture last night as part of National Science Week, titled ‘Einstein’s Wonderful Idea: A century of space-time, black holes and expanding universes.’

Professor Lewis explored how Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the geometric theory of gravitation, had changed our view of the universe in the past one-hundred years, and how it predicts some of the strangest and most extreme objects in the cosmos. While a century has passed since Einstein conceived his groundbreaking theory, we have only scratched the surface of Einstein’s genius, and we can only speculate what the next one-hundred years and beyond will bring as we build practical applications around the theory.

Prior to the lecture, Professor Lewis spoke to ABC News and explained Einstein’s theory indicates that high-speed space travel between galaxies, or ‘warp speed’ as it is commonly known, may be possible.

If you look at the equations that Einstein gave us, it shows how you can bend and warp space so you can travel at any speed you like in the universe.

Theoretically it’s possible, but the big question we have now is it actually something we can physically realise, can we ever build a warp drive? And we have hints that the kind of materials that we would need exist in the universe, but whether or not we could get them together and build a warp drive, we still don’t know.

The big problem we have, is that the speed of light while fast, 300,000 kms per second, the distances involved are immense, so even travelling at the speed of light it would take four years to go to the nearest star, and 2 million years to go to the nearest large galaxy. So … this would stop you basically colonising the universe quickly and rapidly travelling around, so you would need some sort of way to beat that speed limit and Einstein’s general theory of relativity gives it to you.

You need a material … that has a negative energy density … it’s not a material we actually have in our hands, but there are signs there are aspects of the universe that have this kind of property … actually, empty space itself has a negative energy density. The big question we have is if we could ever mine it, and shape it, then we would basically have a warp drive there and then. But we just don’t know at the moment if that’s possible.

There is plenty of science that started off as speculative ideas and becomes real in the future.
You have to look at the work of Newton 400 years ago, and even people working in quantum physics a 100 years ago, and those things are real things today and they started off as dreams essentially.

Einstein’s theory is a hundred years old, but we have only started to scratch the surface. I think … in the next 100 or 1,000 years we will reveal a lot more about the universe and maybe this hyper-fast travel will be realisable.

The idea of ‘warp speed’ travel has long fascinated science-fiction fans and scientists alike. Professor David Pares from the University of Nebraska has been attempting to build a warp drive for some time now. It is perhaps easy to make fun of the idea of the first warp drive being built in a garage, but remember Apple started in a garage.

NASA has also been exploring the possibility of designing faster than speed of light travel. Harold White, a mechanical engineer, aerospace engineer and applied physicist, has been working on developing a concept for a functional Alcubierre warp drive at the Johnson Space Centre since 2010. The idea is to try warp space time, literally shortening the distance between two points around the ship and allowing it to travel faster than light.

Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!

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