Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Alcubierre Equation: Blueprint for a Working Warp Drive?

Named after a theoretical physicist who got inspired after watching an episode of Star Trek, is the Alcubierre equation a blueprint for a possible faster-than-light interstellar travel?

By: Ringo Bones

A growing number of people in the 21st Century had been starting to believe that it could have been possible for Leonardo da Vinci to be able to invent a working airplane. Unfortunately, given that any piece of advanced technology seems to be very dependent on advanced mathematics – like calculus. Chances of Leonardo da Vinci inventing the airplane without the aid of a form of advanced engineering mathematics that has yet to be invented more than a hundred years in the future would have been very, very close to nonexistent. Even those aviation pioneers that came a few years before the Wright brothers had to wait for the Swiss mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli to publish his paper titled Hydrodynamica in 1738. Given the analogy, would the Alcubierre equation be the Hydrodynamica equivalent in the Star Trek universe where Zefram Cochrane became the warp drive’s version of the Wright brothers achieved in inventing a working Warp Drive before the end of the 21st Century?

Named after a Mexican theoretical physicist named Professor Miguel Alcubierre who in his college days got inspired while watching an episode of Star Trek about how to travel faster than light without breaking the laws of physics. Alcubierre was born in 1964 in Mexico and at the end of 1990, moved to Wales where in the University of Wales received his Ph.D. in Numerical Relativity in 1994. Now permanently tenured at the National University of Mexico, Prof. Alcubierre was best known for his May 1994 paper titled “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel within General Relativity”. In which appeared in the science journal Classical and Quantum Gravity after Alcubierre was urged by his college professor due to the sheer brilliance of his insight into this subject.

Using a method first used by Albert Einstein called “thought experiments” to make fairly esoteric mathematical equations understandable to the average person. The Alcubierre equation is now more famously known as the Alcubierre drive due to the fact that it describes how the warp drive in Star trek could actually work given on what we know so far in the field of theoretical physics. In this, Prof. Alcubierre describes the theoretical means of traveling faster than light of his namesake that does not violate the accepted law of Einsteinian physics stating nothing can locally travel faster than light. But how does your typical Alcubierre drive works?

Given our current cosmological knowledge, spacetime has been proven to have the ability to be expanded and contracted faster than the speed of light in a vacuum – i.e. 186,000 miles per second. Because such “superluminal” (faster-than-light) expansion has been postulated to occur during the early “inflation” phase of the Big Bang. This is why the estimated size of our universe is much more than 13 billion light years – being that 13 billion years, give or take a few million – is the age of our universe. Now properly called the Alcubierre Spacetime Inflation Warp Drive, the general relativity equations can be used – from a mathematical perspective - to describe the workings of a faster-than-light warp drive reminiscent of the warp drive being used on the Starship Enterprise.

The key to generate a distortion of the fabric of spacetime is so called “exotic matter”. Exotic matter has the thought-provoking property of having negative energy in which a normal particle and an exotic particle would repel each other, while ordinary or normal particles would attract each other by their gravity. Exotic matter is also closely related to the phenomena called negative energy.

Strong exotic fields with negative energy density are used to “inflate” or expand the space in the back of a starship, increasing the effective distance between the starship and its departure point. While simultaneously also being used to “deflate” or shrink the space in front of the starship, thus decreasing the effective distance to its arrival point.

By properly shaping the exotic fields, the strong tidal effects from the superdense exotic field can be made small near the starship. Although creating and shaping the necessary exotic fields are “engineering details” for some yet to be invented advanced technology to solve. Like the engineering principles behind future Higgs Field manipulation technology.

From the perspective of Einstein’s general relativity, objects being separated by such an inflation process – like the early inflation phase of the Big Bang – are not going faster than light in their local regions. The enormous effective speed of separation comes from the expansion of spacetime itself. Given that a Star Trek-style warp drive was deemed theoretically possible by Prof. Miguel Alcubierre before the end of the 20th Century, he did have a little help on works previously done by other scientists that point to the existence of a strange phenomena called negative energy. Which in the 1990s spurred a mad rush of countless of hapless souls to develop economically viable schemes to harness an also little understood phenomena called zero-point energy.

It all started back in 1948, when Dutch physicists Hendrik B. G. Casimir and Dirk Polder proposed the existence of a mystery force – now known as the Casimir force – when the two of them formulated an experiment to detect in while working at Philips Research Labs. The Casimir force is related to zero-point energy, negative energy, and exotic matter – all of which, at the time, are a hypothetical concept of theoretical physics about subatomic particles darting in and out of existence. Even Stephen Hawking had later proved it mathematically that the phenomena of negative energy is a necessary condition for the creation of a close time-like curve near naturally strong or manipulated gravitational fields.

The actual detection of the phenomena of negative energy was confirmed during routine atomic force microscopy experiments in the late 1980s. The atomic force microscope or AFM was developed from the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, which was developed by Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer in the early 1980s. Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) / Scanning Force Microscopy (SFM) is a very high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy with a demonstrated resolution of fractions of a nanometer. More than 1,000 times better than the optical diffraction limit / Rayleigh Criterion limit of optical telescope. Calvin Quante and Christoph Gerber invented the first AFM device in 1986.

The Atomic Force Microscope gathers data or information by “feeling” the surface with a mechanical probe composed of piezoelectric elements that facilitate tiny but accurate and precise movements via electronic commands to enable very precise scanning. The mechanical probe’s deflection is very dependent on the Casimir force – i.e. a pseudo negative pressure density produced by the Casimir effect. Thus proving the existence of the phenomena of negative energy. Even Prof. Federico Capasso of the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who together with Mariangela Lisanti and Davide Iannuzzi. Had recently published a white paper titled “Observation of the Skin-Depth Effect on the Casimir Force Between Metallic Surfaces” only serve as further proof that the phenomena of negative energy / zero-point energy is real.

Sadly, to propel a starship the size of the Enterprise to nearby star systems we need negative energy in quantities the size of the planet Jupiter. Given that we can only produce minuscule amounts of negative energy as a by-product of atomic force microscopy, such form of superluminar interstellar travel won’t be happening anytime soon.