Archive for April 20, 2017

Is it a ship entering hyperspace, or one watching a fireworks display? You decide…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

“Punch it, Chewie!”  

Except for a certain sequel where the writers really seemed to want Han Solo to throw up his hands and – “go see Cal, go see Cal!” – for a new starship, punch it Chewie always results in a white shift of blurry stars as the Milennium Falcon jumps into hyperspace. If the heroes and other passengers chance to see out of the cockpit window, they will then see a blue-white vortex as the ship bends spacetime to shorten the distance between Tatooine and the unfortunate Alderaan. Or for the Trekkies amongst us (I straddle both camps), the order can be “Set Warp Factor Six…engage!”

Science fiction writers have basically wanted to dig up Albert Einstein, perform a zombie ritual only to kill him all over again for many decades. It sucks when actual science gets in the way of going somewhere likely to easily support life instead of almost rocks like Mars. General Relativity and the many following works basically tell us we aren’t going anywhere given the currently astronomical and expanding distances between stars because if the Speed of Light is the absolute speed limit in normal space, everywhere is too far way with a rocket.

So we basically threw some hard elbows and made up Hyperspace (Subspace or Warp Space in Trekland…six of one half a dozen…). Hyperspace is a extra substrate dimension permeating reality over, under or three left turns from the four dimensions that allow us to touch things and live through our lives. If there is an absolute speed limit, then how about we figure out how to shorten the distance between Earth and Procyon (in the Star Trek universe, I keep hearing about this awesome Italian-Klingon fusion joint just off the main marketplace on Procyon Four)? Sounds logical.

For this next part, I invite you to back channel this discussion to Neil DeGrasse Tyson or any other rock star astrophysicist for their opinions. I’m only a layman reading the summaries of their work on Wikipedia, but it seems the general thread of the hard science says extra dimensions exist but are tucked out of the way of the four we actually need (five if we fall into a black hole, according to a recent theory popularized by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar). However, untucking dimensions so we can use them seems to require energy…LOTS of energy.

In fact according to some abstracts, if we as a species could marshal that much energy and the related concept of manpower even once the Emperor, King, Pharaoh, Queen, El Jefe, Big Brother, Big Nanny or Grand Ayatollah leading that effort will justly get to take a bow along the lines of how Shelley described Ramesses the Second – “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair!” In some threads, that much energy breaking into the hyperspace dimension breaks normal spacetime based on the question – “So, guys, you folded, spindled and mutilated space near your departure point and did the same at the arrival point, what makes spacetime want to unbend itself to allow normal operation in the future?”

Enough science for the moment. I’m a writer speaking to other writers in a fascinating literary environment where we still get to make shit up to tell our story. And for the most part, those rock star astrophysicists won’t mind too much. They are almost all Star Trek fans, at the very least. I suspect the possibility that our current mathematical understanding of extra dimensions has some small relationship to these scientists wanting something cool to be true, so they expended research resources into finding out just what the science might allow. Luckily peer review, when it works, tends to wipe out confirmation bias.

But, how does hyperspace work for the writer burning to tell that story about a kid frustrated in his love for the girl next door and who joins the military to hone his skills in the very dangerous occupation of rescue pilot? However said writer wants things to work, after all it is his or her act of imagination and the rest of us either accept the fictional multiverse presented to us or we don’t pay our ticket for admission. But, perhaps the new writer needs a little help with the common methods of hyperspacing (ugly gerund there)?

STAR WARS – The galaxy far, far away and a long, long time ago makes use of a full dimension that shortens the distance everywhere in the galaxy. You jump away from home and jump towards space Tahiti or Coruscant and arrive at the destination in what in most cases seems like a few hours. I think George Lucas basically ignored anything coming out of a science journal in favor of a narratively fluid means of getting people from the sandbox planet on the outer rim to the formerly lush planet of Alderaan.

As best as I can figure hyperspace travel in Star Wars Land allows a ship to travel in its own dimensional bubble even as part of a fleet going in the same direction. We haven’t yet seen anybody try to shoot it out with an enemy ship while in hyperspace. The ship guided by a computer or (according to one of my more recent comic book store discussions) a Jedi or other Force-sensitive just ends up the destination, unless somebody screwed up and didn’t account for the supernova in between.

Star Wars hyperspace defines elastic literary concept. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids hitch a ride with Han and Chewie heading to Alderaan. Pay close attention; after blasting out of Mos Eisley, Han trusts the computer and autopilot to handle things while everyone congregates in the lounge. Chewie cheat-wins against C3PO. Han dismisses the Force while Obi-Wan uses a saber-drone to teach Luke the basics of the Force, like a five-year-old youngling. Implication, a few hours elapsed.

Most of the other episodes reinforce the nebulous concept of travel time to varying degrees. Send in the Clones…sorry, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones has this exchange between Padme and Anakin upon discovering the need to investigate the doings on Geonosis – “look, the Jedi Council has much further to go, but Tatooine is about half the distance. I’m going to Geonosis and you’ll just have to protect me there.” Juxtaposed against Han jumping from the Resistance base directly into Starkiller Base’s atmosphere in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A journey that takes ten seconds. Believe me for a franchise evolved out of a pitch of Battle of Britain meets an Akira Kurosawa samurai flick, even I would rather cut straight to the pistol fight, dogfight or, more to the point, the lightsaber fight at the destination.

STAR TREK – The competing franchise runs subspace travel somewhat differently. Warp travel happens when a warp engine that focuses a matter-antimatter explosion through an interesting unobtanium substance, dilithium crystals. The energy of hydrogen anihilating with anti-hydrogen (still calculated as insufficient by the average rock star astrophysicist who loves watching the show) is filtered through the crystals asserted to be an extra-dimensional energy multiplier for the juice to go places fast.

Navigation with this system typically relies on straight line travel with pre-programmed sharp turns handled by that sultry computer voiced by Majel Barrett. Speed between Warp One and Warp Nine represents a cubing of the Warp Factor times the Speed of Light. The travel is reactionless in the sense that the energy expended warps local spacetime to create a bubble of subspace in which to freely violate General Relativity and to bunch up spacetime behind the starship creating the localized effect of surfing downhill.

Faster speeds than Warp 9.99, retconned out of normal Trek physics by the modern spinoff shows, require a different kind of antimatter reactor that taps into a deeper realm of subspace where the ship either creates an out and out wormhole (transwarp conduit) or taps into conduits that already permeate the fabric of spacetime. The literature suggests both. Usually only bad guys like the Borg have transwarp, until the plucky Federation crew pulls off an operation akin to Prometheus stealing fire to make it home in the nick of time.

Regular warp travel does quite a few things for the intrepid storyteller wishing to borrow the Trek lawnmower. While hydrogen is so widely distributed across the universe and anti-hydrogen is clearly an industrial byproduct of having a high level of reactor/particle accelerator technology that fuel should be essentially free, dilithium crystals are not. Star nations roll up to planets with scans of dilithium deposits and let the political metaphors pertaining to resource (petroleum) acquisition diplomacy and last resort special forces missions commence.

Because of the cubing of the Warp Factor times the Speed of Light, time and distance in Trek become standardized. When the Science Officer looks up from the scope and reports that the Big Bad is on a trajectory towards Earth, Vulcan, Tellar or…God forbid the pleasure planet Raisa at Warp Five due for arrival in five days, the nitpick holding the remote can hit Pause and do the math to get a rough distance from the target planet, which will match published star charts for the Trek universe.

If there is one silliness to this model, ships traveling through the shallows of subspace in regular warp still interact with four dimensional spacetime. Phaser and disruptor fights at warp speed take place all the time, leading to this question – “beam weapons seemingly move at the Speed of Light, shouldn’t the Faster than Light starship arrive before the beam?”

A common just go with it answer relies on a solution from modern jet dogfights, that when a fighter spooled up to Mach Two fires a missile rated at Mach Three will have an initial launch speed of Mach Five until air resistance and the first series of sharp turns slow the missile down to the speed rating of the rocket motor. So the phaser adds the Warp Factor of the firing vessel to the Speed of Light still allowing normal operation.

A late addition to Star Trek FTL travel, includes several areas of subspace instability where flying through an area too fast will erode the fabric of spacetime. When threatened with whole areas of the Federation cut off from civilization, artificial speed limits are enacted. I want to see those traffic cops making stops.

Or hyperspace could be a full realm above, below or three left turns from normal where distance is merely shorter but physics remains the same. The only energy required is that needed to bust through the dimensional barrier and fuel consumption once inside hyperspace is otherwise normal. This kind of hyperspace allows for fleets to lurk until needed to close the trap. Some variations include jump gates helpfully left behind by the ancient race that found hyperspace first.

Another major thread of faster than light travel is the fold drive. Backed up by some curious possibilities in the paltry available science, a fold drive assumes that a ship can harness enough energy to connect two disparate points in spacetime allowing instaneous travel to anywhere in the universe. This method assumes that the fabric of the universe will snap back to normal with the release of the applied energy that seems cosmic in scale. Certainly, a species fighting over the balance between the efficiency of hydrocarbon fuel versus needing to breathe on dry land can’t even conceive of the vast energies to use a fold engine even once.

Writers basically fill in their currently pretend FTL physics however they want to because heading out on a whim to your favorite pizza joint on Arcturus just isn’t a thing. Slipstreams, wormholes, subspace, hyperspace, black holes and anything else we haven’t thought of will work for you as the writer as you need it to. So what are my contributions to our imaginary usage of faster than light travel?

Check it, my starships enter a realm where external gravity is reversed. Black holes and blue giant stars repel objects causing a downhill surfing type navigation except for null spots where the gravitational influence of several stars work against each other. Downhill equals free energy much like just declaring that all distances are just shorter. Of course, the fields of the hyperspace engine allow normal physics inside the ship. Can’t have objects floating away from the deck stuck in the center of everything.

Just make up your physics as you go along. If our rock star astrophysicists bust your chops, you’re ahead of the game because they don’t really know how any of this stuff works either.