#BEDM Day 2: Education
Please click here, or click the BEDM button above, to find out what on earth this is about and find more loons who are doing the same thing…
“Educate us on something you know a lot about or are good at.”
So. Day Two. The difficult second blog post.
This is actually a tricky one. Although I know a little bit about a lot of things I don’t know very much about anything, certainly nothing interesting or important… Eureka! I have it! Here is The Foppish Drunk Layman’s Guide to Warp Drive Off Of Star Trek. Buckle up kids, we’re about to do made-up science. While also educating you on what a hopeless (yet simultaneously endearing and handsome) geek I am.
Faster-than-light (FTL) travel is the best way we could get to properly explore this amazeballs Universe we’ve been let out to play in. If we could trap along at c (which is how physicists abbreviate the speed of light and tops out at 186,282 miles per second) then Proxima Centauri, the the second-nearest star, is four years and three months away. Even the first-nearest star, the Sun, is eight minutes away. Basically, everything in the Universe is hellaciously far away from anything else.
The other fun thing about lightspeed is that it’s basically impossible to reach unless you’re, like, an actual particle of light. And even if we could reach it, very weird things happen if you do. If you were going at almost-but-not-quite c, then actual time would speed up for the rest of the Universe as far as you were concerned. You’d effectively be time-travelling into the future, with no way to come back. (What is amazing about science is that this apparently crazy assertion can be easily proven with a thought experiment involving a train, some light, two mirrors, a clock and a basic knowledge of geometry.)
Which brings us to warp drive. It neatly circumvents every limitation I’ve described above while simultaneously allowing us to bridge ridiculous distances and, frankly, make sexy, cool-looking starships while doing it.
Make It So
There are two parts to a warp engine. Firstly, is the warp core. This is where the raw power needed to shove a ship about so fast is actually made. It contains a furiously powerful reaction, where atoms of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) and anti-deuterium are brought into swift conjunction. They proceed to completely mutually annihilate because they just cannot fucking stand one another. This kind of reaction could generate up to a million times more power per unit of fuel than the fusion reaction which burns within the hearts of stars and which we hope soon to start harnessing in places like the ITER.
So far, so good. Next though, is the complicated (and totally made-up) bit.
The high-energy plasma screaming away from the warp core is funnelled along to the warp coils, usually housed in nacelles stuck off the back of the ship. These massive coils are made of what scientists call “exotic matter”, which is their way of saying they made it up. The plasma is basically squirted onto these huge coils, the energy in the plasma hits the exotic matter (verteriuum cortenide is its name in the Trek Universe) and is converted into a shift in the fabric of reality. The frequency at which each coil is energised and the forward-to-back sequence the coils are energised in creates an intense, multilayered and moving distortion around the ship, effectively bulging space out in front and contracting it back behind. But space doesn’t really like being stretched and very much wants to go back to being flat. This tension between normal space and the “warp bubble” is what propels the ship forward.
The way warp drive neatly avoids all the inconvenience is that the interface between space and the bubble is actually slightly apart from the hull of the ship, meaning the ship is actually sitting in a bubble of completely normal space. And because the bubble of normal space is moving, not the ship, the ship is technically at rest with respect to the Universe, which means no weird time distortion or any other lightspeed-related nonsense. Neat, huh? A proper physicist called Miguel Alcubierre has actually done the initial modelling to develop a similar engine which involves creating a massive gravity well to do approximately the same thing. A visitor to the Star Trek set once asked the question “how does warp drive work?” The science advisors quickly went through some of the stuff I’ve talked about above but said that no-one really has any clue about how to make things go faster than light. But Patrick Stewart said “nonsense! All you have to do is say ‘engage’!” He may be right. Finally, I would like to leave you with this, from the man they call Wil Wheaton, über-twink Ensign Crusher back in the day, on why being a nerd is awesome. Thank you and good night…