HOW WARP SPEED WORKS
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How does warp speed work?
Star Trek was the first to introduce us to many
technologies we have today. Things like wireless earpieces, personal computers,
and tablets that you could sign or write on using a stylus or your fingertip
without an actual keyboard, were all ideas that were just that in the 1970s when
Star Trek first came out – they were just ideas. Today, we all drive around with
Bluetooth in our ears, with our trusty iPhones or iPod Touches in our pockets.
And then of course, we all go home to our personal computers where we carry out
many daily transactions. It cannot be denied that Star Trek did a lot for us in
the way of technology. But there’s another technology that’s commonly found in
Star Trek, and that is warp speed. This of course, is not something that all of
us do every day. But, does anyone travel at warp speed really? Or is warp speed
just something that we’ll only see in science fiction? And either way, just how
does warp speed work?
Warp Speed and Newton’s Third Law of Motion
One of Star Trek’s biggest problems was the fact that it’s
science fiction that spans thousands of galaxies and light years in a very short
amount of time. When people think of Star Trek, they most likely think of the
Enterprise hopping from planet to planet and light year to light year, all in an
effort to fight some aliens with their highly technologically advanced weapons.
While the technology was difficult enough, there was the fact that the producers
had to find a way to make it work so that the audience could follow along on
these journeys, all in less than an hour’s time.
Adding to this problem was the fact that, traveling
light years at warp speed in that time frame is not actually possible. Even if
it was possible to travel that quickly, traveling in a ship going from planet to
planet would still take hundreds if not thousands of years. And because the
producers wanted to adhere as closely as possible to the laws of physics,
actually doing so would ruin the entire concept of the show completely. To solve
this problem, in walks the creation of warp speed – traveling faster than the
speed of light. But this answer actually only led to more problems. The problem
with the invention of warp speed was that Albert Einstein proved in his Special
Theory of Relativity that it’s impossible for something to travel faster than
the speed of light. So, how could they explain then, just how warp speed
Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every
action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This means that when a moving
object hits an object that is resting, it will not only move the resting object,
which is the action, and the original moving object will also move backwards,
which is the opposite reaction. It’s easy to imagine when you imagine a ball
resting on the floor. Then imagine another ball coming up to hit the resting
ball. The resting ball will move forward, and the first moving ball will roll
backwards after hitting the resting ball. For the action, there’s an equal and
But this Law of Motion comes into play much more
practically when you’re behind the wheel of a moving object. When a vehicle
begins to move after being at a stop, the people inside the vehicle can feel the
pressure of the car moving by feeling the pressure pushing them down into their
seat. The problem then, with warp speed, is that if those on the Enterprise were
to actually travel at warp speed, the pressure would be so great that it would
thrust them so far back into their seat that it would be fatal to anyone on the
ship. In fact, travelling at even half that time would be enough to kill anyone.
In the case of the passengers on the Starship Enterprise, although they would be
traveling backwards with an equal force, their weight would simply be too small
to compare with the force hitting them. Imagine a mosquito’s fate after it has
flown into your windshield, and you can get the picture.
Einstein and Relativity
In answer to the problem of Newton’s Third Law of
Motion making the quick travel of the Enterprise impossible, one can look to
another genius, Albert Einstein, and his theory of relativity and the space-time
continuum. They actually talk about the space-time continuum quite a bit on Star
Trek, and this is so they can show how they’re traveling so fast when it seems
so improbable. What is the space-time continuum? The space-time continuum is
based on the fact that space is three-dimension. Space consists of up-down,
left-right, and backward-forward. Put this together with time to make up the
space-time continuum, and combine all of that with relativity, which is
something else that is often referred to on Star Trek.
Relativity can be explained by looking at Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of
Relativity. This theory states two things: that the speed of light, which is
3,000,000,000 meters per second, is the same for anyone who sees it, whether
they are moving or not, and; that anyone moving at the same exact speed should
experience things in the same manner. However, Einstein also realized that space
and time were relative, meaning that something or someone that is moving will
experience things slower than those who are standing still. Of course, this
doesn’t seem possible to us. Why then, do houses and trees fly by when we’re in
a car yet, they will never move when we are standing beside them.
The answer comes from the fact that although we
can’t feel that things are slower when we are moving, they actually are. Sort of
like how we can’t feel the Earth constantly spinning, although it is. But this
theory has actually been proven by scientists that sent atomic clocks up on
rocket-ships that traveled at about 20,000 miles an hour. When the clocks and
the ships came back to the ground, the clocks were behind the clocks that
remained on Earth.
So what does that mean for the Enterprise and its
passengers? It means that while traveling the distances they do would take
25,000 years in Earth’s time, for the spaceship and the crew it means that it
would only take about 10 years. This is because, the closer the starship gets to
the speed of light, the slower the actual object moves. But dig deeper into Star
Trek’s plot and you come up with another logistical problem.
That problem is the Federation. The Federation runs
the different galaxies. And in order to run these galaxies, it needs to be able
to travel back and forth among them. And, when a round trip to the center of the
galaxy takes 50,000 years, this would be impossible. Because of this, the
Enterprise needs to be able to move faster than the speed of light, in order to
hop from planet to planet. At the same time however, it must avoid the speed of
light so that the ship and its crew continue to move through a smaller amount of
time. Compounding on this problem that the ship must physically do two totally
opposite things, there’s also the small problem still that Einstein stated in
his Special Theory of Relativity that nothing moves faster than the speed of
light. To answer this question of course, there’s one more theory.
That theory also comes from Einstein and is the
General Theory of Relativity. This theory explains how, when referring to space
and time, gravity also comes into play. Imagine holding a bed sheet at each of
its corners, lifted off of any surface. This represents space and time. Place a
bowling ball onto that sheet and the sheet will drop in the middle. Place a
smaller ball, such as a baseball onto the sheet, and it will roll towards the
bowling ball, because gravity will pull it towards the ball. Of course, our
solar system doesn’t act like a sheet and sports balls, but you can use this as
a comparison to the solar system. If you consider that the bowling ball is the
sun, and the baseball represents the other planets that are being pulled towards
the sun. Of course, the planets don’t crash into the sun; this is because they,
unlike the baseball, are traveling at such high speeds.
This comes into play on the Starship Enterprise
when you consider that, if moving objects warp the space around them as they
travel, the crew could make the space in front of them smaller, while expanding
the space behind them. By being able to manipulate space in this fashion, the
Enterprise could avoid traveling at the speed of light. By doing this, it would
actually create its own gravitational field, and by doing so it would not only
be able to keep the clocks of the Federation in sync with the clocks on the
other galaxies, it would also be able to bypass Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
Essentially, the ship wouldn’t really be traveling at a speed or over a certain
distance. Rather, it would be pulling the other galaxies towards it, rather than
having the spacecraft move towards it. At the same time, it’s moving its
starting point away from it, behind the starship.
While this of course, all sounds extremely far-fetched to us, and warp speed is
something that is difficult for many of us to wrap our heads around, it all
comes down to one thing. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity are extremely
complicated, and they are also wide open to interpretation. Because of that,
it’s easy for science fiction writers, and even researchers and scientists, to
make guesses and create ways for them to actually be plausible. And when you
consider that at one time, wireless earpieces were also considered something out
of this world and a fictional technology, we may someday look at warp speed the
But there is still one question left to be
answered. If the crew is traveling at the speed of light, they are still
traveling at a distance that is fatal to them, going back to the mosquito on the
windshield example. So, how do the Star Trek writers accommodate for this
problem? With the warp drive.
The Warp Drive
The warp drive is often referred to in Star Trek,
because it is this drive within the ship that allows it to travel at warp speed.
The warp drive has a motor that it runs off, and within this motor is dilithium,
which is a substance that produces matter-antimatter reactions. This reaction
produces electro-plasma, which has its own magnetic field, and reacts with the
warp coils within the Starship Enterprise. These coils are contained in what’s
called a warp nacelle on the show. This whole system creates a bubble for the
Starship Enterprise and its crew to travel in so that they can be protected
while traveling at the speed of light.
But sometime between the first show, Star Trek, and
the second, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek writers decided that the
plot just wasn’t complicated enough. They didn’t think that the starship should
be able to travel anywhere at anytime. This would simply not be deep enough for
the plot. And to answer to that, the Star Trek writers placed a limit on how
fast the starship could travel, and at what distances.
For this, the writers created the warp factor. This
is a rating based on the warp scale, which is a scale ranked from 1 – 10. Warp 1
is the slowest warp speed there is, and that travels at the same speed of light.
Warp 2 travels at a warp factor of 2, which is ten times the speed of light.
Warp 10, however, is infinity times the speed of light, or more simply called
“infinity.” But in Star Trek, traveling to “infinity and beyond” is impossible.
This is because the writers decided to make it impossible to travel at Warp 10.
Doing so would actually place the starship at all points of the universe at one
time. Not such an impossibility when you consider the galaxies are actually
moving towards the ship rather than the other way around. Still, the writers
decided to give the crew one more small obstacle to overcome. For this reason,
the fastest the Starship Enterprise can travel is at Warp 9.6; 1,909 times the
speed of light.
One could also argue that Star Trek is science
fiction. And so, it’s fiction and the Star Trek writers can write pretty much
anything they want. But one things that Trekkies base so much of their pride on
is that Star Trek bases itself as closely as possible to actual science, actual
physics, and actual facts. This is evident when you look at the fact that the
writers even take into consideration the fact that there is no sound in space.
So given that these small loopholes are not overlooked, it’s not hard to see
that when warp speed is something fantastic straight out of the writer’s
imaginations. And while small things may have been filled in, it is based
largely on fact and so, while there’s obviously no starship today that can
travel faster than the speed of light, it can’t be said that there won’t ever
be. Or that warp speed is something that is completely implausible today.