The one thing I have in common with Albert Einstein is his birthday.  We were both born on Pi day, March 14.  Pi day?  Pi is 3.14 plus additional digits that go on forever.  Thus, the mathematically inclined have adopted the day for its collection of numbers.  March 14, 2015 is an especially big day for mathematical celebration, since that will give the next two numbers in the sequence of Pi: 3.1415.  And if you add in the time of day, then 9:26:53, and so on (if you include every smaller fractions of a second) gives you Pi in its entirety on Saturday morning.  2015 is also important as the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

            In any case, one of the things that Albert Einstein gave the world besides his birthday was the famous equation, E=MC2 which for most people is meaningless or something to put on a T-shirt to attempt to look more profound than if they were simply wearing the name of a beer company.

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            What does Einstein’s famous equation mean?  It tells us that matter and energy are convertible.  Energy may be converted into matter and matter can be converted into energy.  More than that, it tells us that matter and energy are pretty much one and the same.  Remember, the amounts on two sides of an equal sign are just that: equal.

            So what are the implications of Einstein’s equation, along with his other theories?  Well, the one most people are most consciously familiar with is the atomic bomb.  His theories let everyone know that such a weapon could work.  But of course, bombs are not the only nuclear technology.  For instance, that bright yellow thing you see in the sky during the day, and the infinite number of small bright dots that you see at night, at least if you aren’t in a bright city, all function according to the laws that Einstein’s famous equation recognized. 

Stars, our sun included, are examples of nuclear energy in action.  In fact, what makes a hydrogen bomb go boom is what is going on with even greater power in the sun and stars every moment of every day.  For those who worry that the electromagnetic and other radiation from things like their cell phones and microwaves might cause them harm, simply comfort yourself with the knowledge that the sun and stars are bathing you with far more energy each second than your cell phone could give you in a thousand years.

Given that the stars and sun function so well and safely, one wonders why people are so fearful of nuclear energy.  Not too many years ago I got a tour of one of our nation’s nuclear submarines, the USS Jefferson City.  It has a nuclear reactor on board that powers the sub and allows it to run for years without refueling.  The submarine itself is about 360 feet long and 30 feet in diameter.  The reactor that powers it is only 8 feet in diameter and generates enough electricity to provide for all the energy needs of a small city.  Which makes me wonder why more small cities don’t build nuclear power plants.  They’re cheap, safe and don’t pollute.

Other things that we take for granted thanks to Einstein’s theories and their implications are MRIs, nuclear medicine, radiation treatments, and all things electronic.  Computers, cell phones, and similar gadgets all exist today thanks to Einstein’s theories, which others were able to build upon.

Turning now to the realm of science fiction, doubtless most have heard that it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light.  Given that some experts used to say that traveling faster than sound was impossible, a lot of people might be skeptical of the prognostications of experts on this subject.  However, in this particular instance, skepticism is unwarranted.

That traveling faster than the speed of light is impossible is as certain as two and two equaling four.  And our certainty is a consequence of such a simple mathematical equation.  Back to Einstein’s famous E=MC2.  What his equation, along with a few others, informs us, is that in order to accelerate a material object to the speed of light, it must be entirely converted into energy.  And there’s the rub. Once it’s all energy, there’s nothing left to boost the power.  You’ve spent your wad and you simply aren’t going to be able to go any faster.

This is not to say, however, that getting from point A to point B faster than a beam of light is necessarily impossible.  How can that be?  Buried in Einstein’s theories are some potential loopholes relating to the behavior of space-time itself.  

            I am a science fiction fan. I’ve been reading science fiction books and stories since third grade. One of the conventions in science fiction has been “faster than light” travel.  Without it, our intrepid heroes wouldn’t be able to get from one planetary system to another in a reasonable length of time.  But we readers of science fiction know that it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light in the real world.  The problem is not one of limited technology, but, as Scotty in Star Trek might say, “You cannot change the laws of physics, captain.”  Traveling faster than the speed of light is like trying to fly by flapping your arms.  It’s just not going to work; it violates the laws of physics as much as trying to create a perpetual motion machine.

            So.  Science fiction authors are aware of all these sorts of things, and so are the readers, but we fudge things to get around it.  They authors invent such conceits as hyperspace—the sort of thing the Milennium Falcon did in Star Wars.  Or  we pretend that there are wormholes that astronauts can pass through to get from here to there faster than the laws of physics would otherwise allow: this was what was done in Carl Sagan’s Contact, both the book and the movie.  And then in Star Trek, we get the “warp” engine, which—without any real explanation—allows the Enterprise to go large distances far faster than light beams can.

            None of these things are real ways of getting to the stars.

            Or at least, we didn’t think so. 

But in 1994  Miguel Alcubierre came up with a theory.  While one cannont travel through space faster than the speed of light, he pointed out that space itself has no such limitation.  In fact, we know that space bends and warps.  That’s how gravity works.  We’ve seen it bend light beams.  In fact, we can image distant galaxies on occasion thanks to “gravity lenses” where the light is bent by the mass of another galaxy or black hole, allowing us to see what’s behind it.  We also know that the fabric of space expanded at a rate much faster than the speed of light in the first moments after the Big Bang.

            Alcubierre’s idea was that with the right material, one could compress space in front of a star ship, expand it behind, and send the ship from one place to another faster than light could make the trip.  Interestingly, by this method not only would the astronauts feel no acceleration, they wouldn’t even be bothered by time dilation effects.

            The downside of the scheme, quickly pointed out by other researchers, was that based on Alcubierre’s math, it would require more energy than exists in the whole universe to pull it off.  So, as interesting as Alcubeirre’s idea was, it was obviously not possible.

            But soon, some other researchers fiddled with Alcubierre’s math and realized that with a few tweaks, the energy requirement could be shrunk to where one would need “only” to convert a mass the size of Jupiter into energy.

            Hmm.  Still not really possible.

            And there it sat, until just last week.

            At the 100 Year Starship Symposium a couple of years ago, a physicist at NASA, Harold White, presented a paper which demonstrated that the Alcubierre warp drive could be powered with the energy derived about 2000 pounds of matter.  And—he added—if the drive were “oscillated” the energy requirements could be reduced even further.  White is quoted in news articles as saying that it would be possible to go to Alpha Centauri (about 4.3 light years from Earth) in only two weeks travel time. 

            He suggested, therefore, that the idea of a warp drive has moved from being “impossible” science fiction to “plausible” science fact.

            That, in itself, was fascinating and startling news.  But wait, there’s more!   White revealed that NASA has started building an experimental test rig to generate a very tiny warp bubble using something called a “White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer” which should be able to perturb spacetime by one part in ten million or so.

            If it works, this table top device won’t be able to take us to the stars.  But if it works, it will prove that warp drives really are no longer science fiction, but instead, science fact.  Creating warp drive then will just be a matter of engineering.

            White said that the test rig can be compared to the “Chicago pile moment.”  In 1942 scientists for the first time demonstrated that a controlled nuclear reaction was possible.  That first device produced half a watt of power.  Not much, but it proved the theory worked.  Within a year, they could produce four megawatts.  Of course the atomic bomb came in 1945, and by 1955, the first nuclear powered submarine went into operation.

            The White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer, if it works, will be for the warp drive what that moment in 1942 was for nuclear energy.  Experiments are ongoing.  The latest report was that the results are "interesting."

            In the fictional world of Star Trek, the first warp flight happened in 2063.  Though I remain a bit skeptical about White’s idea, who knows, the warp drive might not be fictional after all.

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