Is Warp Speed Possible? We Ask a String Theorist   Leave a comment

PopSci talks to futurist Michio Kaku about the (not necessarily) impossible physics of Star Trek

By Rebecca Boyle



                     The Enterprise Courtesy Industrial Light & Magic/Paramount Pictures

Science geeks, Trekkers, and action-movie fans have now had a few days to digest the newest incarnation of the Star Trek franchise. PopSci set out to answer some of the movie’s most puzzling questions (aside from what Winona Ryder was doing on Vulcan): Can we time-travel through black holes? Can we seed said black holes using something called “red matter”? How about teleportation — will someone named Scotty (or Chekov) ever beam someone up?

To get a better grasp on these seemingly impossible concepts, PopSci talked to Michio Kaku, co-creator of string theory, professor, author and, of course, Star Trek fan. Kaku’s latest bestseller,Physics of the Impossible, has entire chapters devoted to Star Trek lore like phasers, force fields, and time travel. A TV show with the same name will debut this fall on the Science Channel.

According to Kaku, science fiction is often prescient. He believes scientists might one day create laser (or phaser) guns powered by nano-batteries or nano-capacitors, for instance. And he doesn’t rule out warp-speed travel.

This really isn’t too far-fetched; there have been many instances wherein fiction fertilizes real discoveries. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea inspired American Simon Lake to invent the submarine, for instance. In H.G. Wells’ 1914 book The World Set Free, a scientist unlocks the secret of atomic bombs in 1933. The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard read that book in 1932 and made the discovery his goal. In 1933, he figured out the chain reaction process. And when the U.S. created its first reusable space ship, we named the prototype the Enterprise.

There are a few spoilers ahead, so consider this fair warning.

PopSci: Let’s talk about some concepts that are familiar in the show and that you talk about in your book, like teleportation. There is a scene in the movie where Kirk and Sulu are falling without a parachute, and they have to be beamed up; Chekov decides he has to do it manually. Unlike “The Next Generation,” which had “Heisenberg compensators,” the movie doesn’t mention the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (the more precisely you locate the position of a particle, the less you can know about its momentum.) I know there has been success in teleporting atoms, but will we ever be able to teleport a human?

Michio Kaku: Well, quantum teleportation already exists. For the past 10 years, we’ve been teleporting photons as well as atoms of cesium and rubidium and terbium. The world record is 1,800 feet, across the Danube River. I suspect very soon that we will be teleporting molecules. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming decades, we are able to teleport DNA, or maybe even a virus. But beyond that, it starts to get very difficult. You have to entangle two atoms, they have to vibrate in unison, and that is very difficult beyond the molecular level. But, Star Trek takes place in the 23rd century, so maybe by then we can teleport 100 trillion cells, which is about the number of cells in a human body.


In the entanglement process, is the initial piece of matter that you are teleporting destroyed or changed in some way? What would happen to a person?

You have to have a carbon copy waiting for you; you can’t be beamed to the surface of a planet. And the information content of the original gets destroyed when you beam the information over to another place. You are destroying the original to reconstruct it somewhere else. Well, then you begin to ask the question, who is this copy over there? All the atoms and cells get destroyed; you’re dead. But somebody over there has emerged who is identical, atom to atom, to you. Well then it raises the question, who are you? Are you your body and all your neurons, or are you just information that can be transmitted across a room? Is there a soul? It raises all sorts of questions.

The movie makes frequent use of black holes. Future Spock, or old Spock, travels through one after he fails to save a planet from being blown up by a supernova, and he winds up 130 years in the past. Events change that alter the course of history as we know it for the Enterprise crew (which will be handy for sequels.) But my understanding of physics is that it’s not possible to go through a black hole and come back out, at least in one piece?

Yes and no. There is a debate about this question. If you have a spinning black hole — and all the black holes we’ve seen in space are spinning very rapidly — then the math says they collapse to a ring, not a dot. If you fall through the ring, you wind up in a parallel universe. This solution was first found by Roy Kerr in 1963, and it is the most realistic description of a spinning black hole. There are many, many questions raised by this. If you could go through the ring, then who knows where the other universe is located? It could be backwards in time, it could be a parallel universe. But there are problems like radiation. The radiation would be very intense. And if you add radiation, there is a debate among physicists right now about, will it close up the wormhole, is it stable? Math says there is a wormhole at the middle of a spinning black hole. To keep the hole open so you can go through it, you need negative matter to stabilize the black hole. These are called transversable wormholes; you can go back and forth freely without too much effect.

Negative matter meaning antimatter, or something else?

Negative matter meaning negative mass. It falls up, it doesn’t fall down. On Star Trek, they call these things dilithium crystals, which open up gateways through space and time. We physicists don’t call them dilithium crystals; we call them negative matter. But no one has ever seen negative matter.


Posted September 11, 2013 by kitokinimi in Uncategorized

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