Friday, May 24, 2013

Warp Drive: Imagined and Real (Maybe, Eventually)

This week I'm mostly looking at not-quite-yet applied physics: Alcubierre's 'warp drive' equations.
  1. Weird Physics, Warp Drive, News, and NASA
  2. A Robot on Mars
  3. The Next Mount Saint Helens Eruption

Travel to the Stars

I might live long enough to read about a prototype warp drive. On the other hand, maybe faster than light travel actually is impossible. There could be a flaw that physicists haven't found yet in Alcubierre's math: although that seems less likely each year.

Using what happened after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's 1903 publication as a model, we could have faster-than-light starships in a half-century.

That's probably much too optimistic. We don't have anything even close to the necessary technology today. But in 1903 the closest we had to a spaceship was the zeppelin: and we don't seem to have stopped developing new tech.

Maybe the first human beings will return from the stars a hundred years from now.

Or maybe Tsiolkovsky is the wrong place to start. Rockets were developed more than two thousand years before the he was born: if you count Archytas of Tarentum's steam-powered bird. I'm not making that up.

China developed solid fuel rockets in the 1200s. A bit over seven centuries later, folks were walking on the moon.

Maybe it will take us nearly a thousand years to develop practical star-hopping transportation systems. I think it's a trifle more likely that we will start traveling to other stars 'soon:' a century or so from now.

Unlike folks living during the Song Dynasty, many of the world's 7,000,000,000 or so citizens have Internet access. Granted, most of us chat about movie stars, sports, and what we do or don't like. But folks with the interest and background necessary can discuss warp drives, quantum physics, or any other topic: fast. We don't even have live on the same continent.

I like the Information Age, and that's another topic.

Science, Technology, and Doing Our Job

Recapping what I've said before, we're not supposed to worship science, technology, or anything else. Idolatry, treating anything that's not God as if it's divine, is a really bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)

On the other hand, we're expected to take care of this creation: and need technology to get just about anything done.

Happily, we're able to study this creation and develop new technologies. That's okay, although ethics apply. 'Because we can' isn't an excuse for bad behavior. (Genesis 1:26-31 Catechism, 355-361, 2293-2295)

Finally, we can learn about God by studying what God created. Again, this is okay. (Catechism, 31-36, 282-289)

1. Weird Physics, Warp Drive, News, and NASA

The first sensible question for an op-ed like this is - who's writing it? For example, it's one thing when someone with a PhD in English Literature says that interstellar flight is possible - or impossible. It's something else when the opinion comes from someone with a background in science or a technical discipline.

As it turns out, this opinion piece is written by someone who should have an informed opinion:
"Marc G. Millis headed NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project and took an early retirement to continue this work as part of the interstellar research activities of the Tau Zero Foundation. He contributed this article to’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Here's what he wrote
"Warp Drive and 'Star Trek': Physics of Future Space Travel (Op-Ed)"
Marc G Millis, Tau Zero Foundation, via (May 22, 2013)

"...Another 'Star Trek' film just hit the screen - featuring the venerable Starship Enterprise. To enable such fantastical star flight, we need faster-than-light (FTL) flight, control over inertial and gravitational forces, extreme energy prowess, and the societal discipline to harness that much power safely. Between the sensationalistic hype and pedantic disdain, how much progress is really being made?

"For starters, the technical goals ceased to be just science fiction decades ago with a legacy of pertinent publications (see editor's note below). To be clear, this does not mean that these breakthroughs are on the threshold of discovery. What it does mean is that these notions have advanced to where they are now problems that are able to be attacked. A graduate-level treatise, along with next-step research options, is available as the compilation 'Frontiers of Propulsion Science' (AIAA, 2009). For the rest of us, here is a short version...."
I could buy "Frontiers of Propulsion Science," AIAA, for only $123.45: a quite reasonable price for a publication of that sort. I don't have that much in my book budget, so I'll rely on the summary - and summarize that. As usual, I strongly recommend reading the original - summary, in this case. By definition, summaries leave stuff out. The AIAA book's ISBN numbers are ISBN-10: 1563479567 and ISBN-13: 978-1563479564, by the way.

One more thing: AIAA stands for American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Crawling Along at the Speed of Light

"...Compared to the distances between stars, lightspeed is slow. The neighboring star system nearest to us (Alpha Centauri) is more than four years away at light speed (as measured from the perspective of an external observer). The nearest habitable planet might be anywhere from 25 light-years to 200 light-years away. And, to consider meeting new aliens for each week's episode, our ship would need a naive cruise speed of at least 25,000 times light speed. The word 'naive' is used to remind us that we don't really know what happens to time and space beyond lightspeed. [Warp Drive & Transporters: How 'Star Trek' Technology Works (Infographic)]..."
(Marc G Millis, Tau Zero Foundation, via
Hats off to Millis, for pointing out that we don't know what happens when something moves faster than light, relative to neighboring space-time.

I'm not quite as happy about's posting an infographic that mixes well-done art and text about the (fictional) Star Trek universe with a discussion of the (real) Migel Alcubierre equations that started serious discussion of (real) warp drives in 1994.

Basically, Zefram Cochrane is a fictional character. Harold "Sonny" White is a real person who works for NASA.

Adding to the possible confusion, some of White's more readable papers about exotic propulsion technology weren't available earlier this year: a frustrating situation for me. I wrote about that yesterday. (May 23, 2013)

Space-Time Distortions, Business as Usual in the News

"...Recent news regarding the work of Harold 'Sonny' White at NASA's Johnson Space Center has been exaggerated. That work is an attempt to measure space-time distortions caused by the presence of negative energy. Unfortunately, I do not have an article to cite about that hypothesis or the methods being used, since such information has not (yet?) been published. Although Eric Davis is tracking this for the Tau Zero Foundation, we do not yet know enough to render judgment...."
(Marc G Millis, Tau Zero Foundation, via
What Millis said about news reporting on White's research is true: and no surprise. I've harangued occasionally about old-school journalism:
Stable Supplies for Horse People, used w/o permission"...If establishment news covered the Super Bowl the way they cover religious news, we'd see expert discussions of the quality of this year's home runs compared to number of women employed by the NFL, and speculation about why the jockeys weren't wearing feed bags....."
(June 15, 2012)
Sadly, many news editors don't seem to have realized that it's also a good idea to have a science editor who knows a little about science: apart from what they've learned by watching classics like "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster" and "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

On the other hand, what NASA may or may not be working on doesn't seem to involve negative energy. White has discussed negative energy in connection with a working warp drive. ("Warp Field Mechanics 101," pages 7, 9) He's also discussed a way to test some warp field math: the White-Juday warp field interferometer.

As far as I can tell, that device would test space-time distortions of about 1 part in 10,000,000 in a sphere about 1 centimeter across. The equipment isn't the sort of thing I've got laying around the house: but apparently the field generator could be "something as simple as a very high voltage capacitor ring." ("Warp Field Mechanics 101," page 8)

The warp field interferometer would be pricy - but doesn't seem to require unavailable technology.

With a field that's smaller than a golf ball, and miniscule space-time distortions, it's a useful laboratory device: but not even close to a practical warp drive.

It looks like we could test some of the basics of Alcubierre's math. That would be a start.

Skylark Physics, Quantum Entanglement, and All That

We've started learning about the universe at very large and very small scales. In each case, things get a bit weird.

Millis mentions quantum effects like tunneling and entanglement. These may eventually lead to near-instantaneous communication over interstellar distances: or not. He links to "Status of nonlocal quantum communication test," and I'll leave it at that.

I've read some of E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark stories. They're rip-roaring good old fashioned space opera: and use what's at least an early example of an inertialess drive. They're also, like Kirk's starship Enterprise, fiction.

Millis says that we've had some intriguing suggestions for how gravitation and other fundamental forces could be altered: without stepping out of Einstein's general relativity equations. Or at least not very far. The problem is that, although some of these ideas have been bouncing around for decades: we still don't know how to make these things happen.

It's a little like the situation when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky showed how folks could travel to other planets: provided someone could get outside Earth's atmosphere and accelerate to unreasonable speeds.

Even cutting-edge transportation technology like zeppelins didn't have what it takes in 1903. (May 17, 2013)

Energy: LOTS of Energy

Another issue that Millis discusses is the amount of energy that's required for making current ideas work. Even if we knew how to make something like a wormhole or warp drive, we don't have an energy source that's up to the job.

Although I gather that someone tweaked warp field math so that power consumption wouldn't be measured in Jupiter-mass per minute: a real 'warp ship' would need more power than we've got today. Even if we knew how to make the engine.

Refreshingly Non-Gloomy

I was pleasantly surprised when Millis wasn't conventionally despondent over humanity's odds. The section heading "Sustainably peaceful society" ends with:
"...Although trends indicate that humanity is becoming more peaceful, overall, I am concerned that this challenge might turn out to be harder than creating the new physics for FTL and controllable gravity. The good news is that this is something we can all work toward by being more thoughtful about how each of us chooses to resolve conflicts of views, wants and needs..."
(Marc G Millis, Tau Zero Foundation, via
I'm inclined to agree with him. Compared to establishing something like Tennyson's "Federation of the world," developing starships or stargate networks will probably be easy.

I think that eventually we'll have an "international authority with the necessary competence and power," that protects people without resorting to military force. (Catechism, 2308)

It won't be perfect, and I've been over that before. (December 3, 2012)

2. A Robot on Mars

"NASA Mars Rover Curiosity Drills Second Rock Target"
Guy Webster, Mars Science Laboratory, Mission News, NASA (May 20,2013)

"NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has used the drill on its robotic arm to collect a powdered sample from the interior of a rock called 'Cumberland.'

"Plans call for delivering portions of the sample in coming days to laboratory instruments inside the rover. This is only the second time that a sample has been collected from inside a rock on Mars. The first was Curiosity's drilling at a target called 'John Klein' three months ago. Cumberland resembles John Klein and lies about nine feet (2.75 meters) farther west. Both are within a shallow depression called 'Yellowknife Bay.'

"The hole that Curiosity drilled into Cumberland on May 19 is about 0.6 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 2.6 inches (6.6 centimeters) deep.

"The science team expects to use analysis of material from Cumberland to check findings from John Klein. Preliminary findings from analysis of John Klein rock powder by Curiosity's onboard laboratory instruments indicate that the location long ago had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. The favorable conditions included the key elemental ingredients for life, an energy gradient that could be exploited by microbes, and water that was not harshly acidic or briny...."
The life we're talking about here is the sort of thing we find under rocks and in cool, damp places. No beautiful space princesses, colorfully wicked interstellar warlords: almost certainly. Flying whales, maybe. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (December 8, 2009)

Why bother with Mars? We're human: checking out as much of creation as we can is part of what we are. (January 27, 2013)

3. The Next Mount Saint Helens Eruption

(from AccuWeather, via, used w/o permission)
"Mount Saint Helens 'Reloading' For Future Eruption"
AccuWeather, via (May 17, 2013)

"On Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, an earthquake that measured magnitude 5.1 triggered an eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington state that did not fully cease until 1986.

"The force of the eruption destroyed more than 200 homes and more than 185 miles of roads, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The lava flow from the volcano scorched 230 square miles of forest. By the time the eruption ended, 57 people had been killed.

" 'A volcano can go from nothing to a very large eruption in a very short time,' said USGS Hydrologist and Outreach Coordinator Carolyn Driedger. 'Mount Saint Helens only took one week to go from nothing to a full eruption.'..."
The nice thing about asteroid impacts is after it hits Earth once, an asteroid won't come around again. On the other hand, it's not the sort of thing we'd want to happen even once, and that's almost another topic.

Volcanoes, even 'dormant' ones, keep erupting at intervals. We're learning more about Earth's inner workings, but 'eruption forecasts' aren't even close to being as accurate as weather forecasts.

Really Hot Toothpaste

"...Teams of scientists use seismographs to monitor the movement of magma below the surface of the volcano. They use GPS units to measure the movement of rocks and changes in the volcano at ground level and they measure the gases that are coming from the volcano to determine how close the magma is to the surface, said Driedger.

" 'Gases measured from the crater help predict the force of future eruptions.' Driedger said the more gas that is trapped in the silicate rocks during an eruption the larger the explosion will be.

"Mount Saint Helens erupted again during the years of 1989 through 2001 and 2004 through 2008. Those eruptions were not anywhere near the force of the eruption of 1980.

" 'The first eruption was very explosive,' said Driedger. 'The second eruption was relatively calm, like toothpaste squeezing out of a tube.'

"Driedger said volcanoes can erupt in a variety of ways. Driedger believes future eruptions will be less explosive than the one in 1980. 'The eruption in 1980 collapsed the northern side of the volcano, so a future eruption won't be able to cause as large a landslide.'..."
(AccuWeather, via
Comparing what oozed out of Mount Saint Helens to toothpaste is an effective way to describe the event. That would be very hot toothpaste, though.

Exploding Mountains and Other Excitement

(from USGS, used w/o permission)

Earth isn't a particularly boring place.

Every now and then a mountain explodes.

Debris ranging in size from sand and gravel to rocks the size of Rhode Island and up falls out of the sky. "The impact rate on Earth," The Royal Society (December 15, 2005), gives statistics on how often we can expect something the size of, say, Kansas, to hit.

Even so, it's a nice place to live. Taking care of it is part of our job, and - that's yet another topic.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.