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21st century travel: building your own warp drive

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There is to be a gathering of boffins in London next Thursday (15 November), at which the future of intergalactic spaceflight will be discussed.

Not content with merely watching Star Trek re-runs, the good folk of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have organised a conference to discuss how to make faster-than-light travel a reality*.

According to Einstein (and we're not going to pick a fight with him...) the universal speed limit is the speed of light in a vacuum. Nothing can break that limit, which rather disappointingly restricts our ability to explore the universe.

The problem is simple enough for science fiction to solve: don't move faster than light, warp space instead, in the same way that a large mass does. And in 1994, a scientist suggested it might even be possible.

The BIS writes: Miguel Alcubierre used Einstein's theory of gravity to design a metric that resembled a bipolar distortion otherwise known as a spherical warp bubble in space-time.

The idea is that you build yourself a machine that moves some of space time along with you, much as airports have moving walkways that speed you along as you walk. In this way, you can effectively change the local speed of light. You'll never exceed light speed in your space time bubble, satisfying the laws of physics, but you'll still get to your destination much, much faster.

There are a few technical difficulties, such as the amount of (negative) energy you need to get something to warp space time. Or as the BIS puts it: "Calculations show that physically enormous and unobtainable amounts of negative energy are required to generate the desired geometrical warpage."

Which is why it is hosting the conference. Organiser Kelvin Long told The Guardian: "The main purpose is to raise awareness of this obscure field of research within general relativity and quantum field theory and attract new and particularly young researchers to work on the technical problems."

He argues that no one really took the idea of black holes seriously at first, and it is only after a huge effort, and literally hundreds of papers on the subject, that we have a good understanding of how such a beast might actually work. He says that with a similar level of work on warp drive theory, humanity could reap huge benefits. ®

*At some point. Not this week, not this year, and probably not even this century.

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