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Did we just discover warp drive?

In Star Trek the crew of the USS Enterprise zips between the stars in mere days, traveling a distance that takes light itself months or even years to cover. To do it they use a fantastic sci-fi technology called warp drive. The antimatter-powered warp drive bends spacetime for the Enterprise, making the distance between stars much, much shorter for the ship. Without it Kirk and the crew would grow old and die before they reached the outer edges of our galaxy—where a lot of the show takes place. And here on earth hundreds of years would pass. It would be a pretty depressing show.

And indeed the reality of long-distance space travel seems pretty depressing. It would take a ship traveling near the speed of light 40 years to reach the Trappist-1 System—which has seven earth-sized planets—and another 40 to get back. In that time whoever launched the ship would be long gone and NASA may not even be a thing anymore. The crew, however, would only experience about a year because time slows down the faster you go. Because they’re traveling near the speed of light they’d barely experience any time passing. But for us earthlings, who are just puttering around the sun, time would tick along at the same pace. It’s called time dilation and it’s a huge problem for space travel.

Warp drive, in Star Trek and in theory, avoids time dilation. That’s why Kirk and his crew can spend five years exploring deep space without the Starfleet admirals back on earth aging hundreds of years. He and his crew can get there and back in a reasonable amount of time.

But is warp drive real? If you casually pay attention to science news you might have heard the announcement that a scientist recently created a tiny warp bubble in a lab. This would mean that a: warp drive is real and b: we know how to make it work. Unfortunately, neither is true. So what gives? What are all these blogs and magazines freaking out about?

In December 2021 the Limitless Space Institute (LS) team led by former NASA engineer Dr. Harold G "Sonny" White announced they saw a warp bubble when they were investigating another curious physics phenomenon called the Casimir effect. But they didn’t. Not really. They saw some math that points to a warp bubble. So why all the excitement? Because Sonny White made a really big deal out of it. He told reporters that he and his team definitely discovered a real microscopic warp bubble and they believed him.

I’m no theoretical physicist, so if Sonny White had told me about his warp bubble I would’ve believed him, too. Ethan Siegel, a real theoretical physicist and author of the book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek, did not believe Sonny White. Instead he read White’s published paper and found the truth: It’s all just a theory.

To figure out what’s going on here we need to understand a few really complex things. First, the concept of a warp drive itself. Back in 1994 Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre wrote a paper explaining how a warp drive could work. He used standard physics equations developed by Einstein and others to show that it would be possible to warp spacetime if you had the right amount of mass and energy in the right configuration. Using math, he showed that you could squeeze the space in front of a spaceship and expand the space behind it. The spaceship would zip between the stars just like the Enterprise. To do it you’d need an insane amount of mass and energy—and negative mass and energy as well. Negative mass and energy are purely speculative, but could be what we call dark matter and dark energy. And since we have absolutely no idea what either one of those are, a warp drive is really just a cool math trick—for now, anyway.

So was Sonny White and his team studying warp drives? No, they were studying something called the Casimir effect, which is only kinda-sorta warp-drive adjacent. The Casimir effect was predicted by brilliant physicist Dutch Hendrik Casimir back in 1948. He and his colleague Dirk Polder at Philips Research Labs were pondering the various fields that permeate reality. These fields create forces like electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces, and gravity (hey there, Higgs field). Casimir predicted that if you spaced two conductive plates a few nanometers apart in a vacuum they would interfere with those fields. That interference would impart a tiny force, pushing the plates together. This was named the Casimir effect after him and remained a theory until 1997 when it was measured by Steve Lamoreaux, a physics professor at Yale.

Sonny White and his team were studying the energy density within the tiny space between those two plates for DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Who knows what kind of superweapon or killer robot DARPA is working on that uses the Casimir effect—Sonny White doesn’t mention it. But I digress. Sonny and his team made some measurements of the energy density, then did a ton of math. That math showed a negative energy density within the Casimir effect they measured that’s kinda-sorta like the negative energy you’d need in an Alcubierre-style warp drive. But at a microscopic scale, not anything big enough to move a spaceship.

It’s still a cool discovery, and it will no doubt spark a lot of debate and inspire physicists to investigate the Alcubierre warp drive, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be zipping off to Trappist-1 anytime soon. White’s discoveries are cool, no doubt, but it seems disingenuous for him to announce the discovery of a warp bubble. And this isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. Sonny White and his team released a paper back in 2015 stating that they had invented the EM or electromagnetic drive. He claimed that by bouncing microwaves around in a cone-shaped chamber he could generate force to push a spaceship. The EM drive violates the laws of physics and nobody has been able to replicate the results of White’s experiments. So what gives? Does white genuinely believe he’s discovered not only the EM drive but also a warp bubble? Or is he discovering cool stuff in physics and giving it sci-fi names to get people interested? And if that’s the case, what’s the problem?

Claiming you’ve invented a fantastical EM drive or discovered a warp bubble may get a lot of attention, but it could quickly backfire when both turn out to be false. It erodes the public’s trust in scientists and science itself. It’s pretty neat to drum up publicity, but it can be devastating to a society in the long run. If people can’t trust scientists when they say stuff like this, will they trust them about proven science like climate change or pandemics? A large part of America already has a problem trusting scientists. Stuff like this won’t help.

If you want more info about warp drives and other Star Trek tech, check out Ethan Siegel’s book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive. It’s really a fun read about all of the amazing technology in the Star Trek universe, including impulse drive, warp drive, antimatter reactors, phazers, transporters, replicators, and more. Most of them won’t happen anytime soon, but some of them are closer than you think.

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