Saturday, 30 March 2013

Faster than c?

I seem to recall a news article somewhere I read or heard where scientists in Europe thought they had just witnessed particles travelling faster than the speed of light (that famous c in Einstein's equations). It was soon found out that there was faulty equipment...

I was watching the TV show, Touch, yesterday where Jake (the star character and narrator of the show) said something to the effect that Einstein suspected that time itself might be an illusion, that past, present and future may all co-existed in some unspecified field. It may well be that time may be an illusion (at the least "time" as we think we know it), but there are other inescapable laws of Nature that suggest time - whatever it is - does exist: the conservation laws; the law of entropy; the constant c itself (the speed limit for all particulate matter - ie, us and everything else in the material universe).

I was reading an article in Popular Science (April 2013) this morning, Warp Factor (p.50), that got me thinking about the recent discovery of the Higg's boson and the veracity of the Standard Model of particle physics (a model constructed on the principles of special relativity and quantum mechanics), and I thought: barring the fact that we are made up of normal matter, and could somehow interact with dark matter and dark energy (which we do not as far as present science tells us), I kind of think that the notion of a "warp drive" is pure speculation and mathematical navel-gazing.

There are many examples of these speculations and navel-gazings in physical and mathematical sciences that seem to take a life of their own (string theories (in the plural) and unprovable statements in maths, for eg) once they are stated but, following Einstein's admonitions, we should never forget that science should stick to experimentally verifiable results.

As in all life, this admonition is sound and proven to an astounding and perplexing degree. Einstein himself had deep doubts about quantum physics which he himself is one of its founding members, and he came up with tests and thought experiments for many of its strange and non-intuitive results - quantum entanglement, for one - but he never deviated from its principles though he was deeply dismayed by what they found (at his behest). This is real science at its very best.

The PopSci article said something that kind of baffled me:

It almost goes without saying that functional warp drive would have tremendous implications for space travel. It would free explorers not only from Earth's orbit, but from the entire solar system. Instead of taking 75,000 years to get to Alpha Centuri, the star system nearest to our own, warp-equipped astronauts...could make the trip in two weeks. (PopSci, April 2013, p. 52)

The thing I find puzzling is how they came up with the difference between 75,000 years and two weeks, let alone the four or so years it takes light to travel from the Alpha Centuri system to our eyes here on Earth. Like the often perplexing rightwing narratives that apparently do away with existential, religious and social (contradictory) consequences in their politics, methinks the problem stems right from the premise, the substance of the issue.

To wit: the circle can indeed be squared, but that is to mistake the physical act from the deeper question of reconciling transcendental numbers with rational numbers (a geometrical and numerical impossibility - at the least, in any rigorous way).

Even if warp travel were possible, there are still laws of conservation of energy and matter to contend with. E eqauls Mc squared tends to have devastating explosive consequences such that even if faster-than-light travel could be achieved deceleration may well preclude its functionality (ie, with us in such a vehicle). At miniscule fractions of c, meteors that come into our atmosphere tend not to survive the decelerative forces, the recoil from the shock wave (analogous to the hypothetical bubble in the PopSci article) alone is usually unsurvivable, which travels from a point outwards.

Then there is the problem of the uncertainty principle...I mean, the more we're certain of energy levels of quantum systems the less certain we are of the positions of the quantum systems (ie, particles), and vice versa...it's those damned laws of conservation and entropy (again) that wouldn't allow reabsorption into normal space as a coherent entity anyhow.

Jay

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