Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

Science/Fantasy Monday: Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

USS Titan going at warp speed, from startrek-ships.com

Faster-than-light travel.  Imagine it.  To go anywhere in the galaxy, maybe the universe, in no time at all.  Think Star Trek and warp drive.  It wouldn’t be instantaneous, but it would be incredibly, mind-numbingly fast.

A little over three weeks ago, on 22 Sept 2011, a group of CERN scientists working with the “Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus” (OPERA) announced that they believed they had succeeded in making neutrinos (an electrically neutral elementary subatomic particle with extremely tiny but not-quite-zero mass, that is able to pass through ordinary mass almost unaffected) travel faster than the speed of light — a barrier speed of 186,282 miles per hour, which, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, cannot be surpassed.  Here is the first article I caught wind of about the announcement, from The Telegraph: “Speed of light ‘broken’ at CERN, scientists claim.”

And, here is the actual paper written by the OPERA scientists on the experiment: “Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam.”

Of course, nothing like this can ever be taken at face value.  There are a million things that could lead to a misreading, miscalculation, or flat-out falsehood (the number of scientists who have made fraudulent claims in the last few years has been staggering).  Immediately, an whole army’s worth of scientists were called in to check, re-check, and triple-check all the experimental parameters, equipment, and results — a process that is still ongoing.

lateral view of OPERA, from http://operaweb.lngs.infn.it/

Still, almost immediately an slew of scientists had climbed out of the woodwork to offer their explanations for why this discovery could not possibly be real.  On 26 Sept 2011, Scientific American released an article in which they had asked for reactions from a number of fairly-well-regarded scientists, most of whom voiced varying levels of doubt and skepticism: “Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts.”  Some of these scientists said they were withholding judgement until further tests and checks could be performed.  But some were embarrassed that the scientists involved had made any announcement at all — as far as some are concerned, it is simply impossible.  Period.

To that end, Wired Online released an article on 14 Oct 2011, discussing a number of the more down-to-earth and boring explanations scientists have come up with to explain away the apparently faster-than-light travel of these neutrinos: “Physicists Offer Mundane Explanations for Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos.”

In the October issue of ScienceNews, and on the ScienceNews website, an article written by Devin Powell offers a brief and balanced summary of the event and the current reactions, discussing what was done to prepare for the original experiment and some of what is being done to try to recreate the experiment: “Neutrinos Seen to Fly Faster than the Speed of Light.”  A few of the quotes in this article show the interesting struggle between exciting optimism and strong skepticism.  Theoretical scientists Matthew Mewes and Lee Smolin are voice some of the thoughts all scientists (and some of us laypersons).  Mewes: “This may mean that there’s much more going on in particle physics than we thought possible.  We could be seeing signs of exotic theories like string theories.”  Smolin: “This is a serious experiment, and these are serious people.  But at this point nobody sober would be willing to say that this is right.”

Obviously, even if the results prove to be correct — and of course, there’s nothing at this point saying that they WILL, but let’s assume for a moment that they are — somehow getting a few neutrinos to travel faster than the speed of light is a LONG way off from faster-than-light travel for humans.  But still… just think of the implications!  Think of the possibilities!  It’s difficult not to get at least a little excited.  Gene Roddenberry’s vision has been proven true before.  You never know, warp drive might be just around the corner (relatively speaking…).

So, what do you think of this news?  A mistake?  A hoax?  Or the real deal?