The engineers & scientists who won't give up on the warp drive


EXCERPT: For most of us, traveling faster than the cosmic speed limit—the speed of light—is a science-fiction fantasy that breaks the very foundation of modern physics. But in the eyes of an engineering undergrad at the University of Alabama in Huntsville named Joseph Agnew, it’s a theory worthy of study.

[...] Agnew isn’t just another Trekkie with dreamy eyes. In September 2019, he presented a talk on the subject at an aerospace engineering conference. Reports described Agnew’s audience as “standing room only,” and the event attracted a great deal of media attention.

[...] The field of warp drive studies is less than 30 years old. In 1994, a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre, then a doctoral student at Cardiff University in Wales, proposed something remarkable: a way to travel faster than the speed of light—in the eyes of an outside observer—without flaunting the laws of physics.

Alcubierre’s warp drive theory works not by pushing anything faster than light. Instead, his warp drive creates a bubble that literally warps space: compressing it in front and stretching it out behind. If you were in a spaceship traveling inside such a bubble, you’d still be moving under the speed of light, but you’d essentially be traveling through distances that have been squeezed shorter, as if you were riding the crest of a wave through space-time.

“A propulsion mechanism based on such a local distortion of spacetime just begs to be given the familiar name of the ‘warp drive’ of science fiction,” Alcubierre wrote in his original paper. Naturally, among both physicists and the general public, the name caught on.

But for Alcubierre’s mathematical vision to work, the warped space would have negative energy—in other words, less than the zero energy which exists in a perfect vacuum. As bizarre as that sounds, it’s not physically impossible. In order to get that negative energy, Alcubierre’s warp drive theory invokes what physicists call “exotic matter”—a sort that has negative mass.

Negative-mass exotic matter would be pretty peculiar if you encountered it on Earth. Both mathematically and literally, it would act as a polar opposite of the positive-mass matter you interact with every moment of your life. If you tried to kick a ball of negative-mass exotic matter away, for instance, it would actually come toward you—and Earth’s gravity, rather than binding that ball to the ground, would push it up into space.

For now, negative-mass exotic matter lives in the realm of hypothesis, but that doesn’t faze Agnew. “There are some theories that indicate exotic matter could exist,” he says... (MORE - details)

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