Tuesday, September 15, 2015

There and Back Again - In SPAAAAAAACCCEEE!

When I heard that Star Trek: The Next Generation was going off the air, I anticipated the void in my life.  It wasn't that ST:TNG was the best thing ever, but I craved sci-fi adventure, exploration of the galaxy, etc. with decent production values.  The "spin-off", Deep Space Nine, had always left me flat - it felt claustrophobic, and seemed too often about interpersonal relationships.  The other TV offerings of the day were, IMHO, sub-par.  So I started thinking about what sort of series I'd like to see.  It would have to be one of starfaring exploration featuring sophisticated aliens, worlds that don't support human life, conflicts big and small, good science, and both drama and light comedy.  I thought it would be cool if a bunch of near-future humans (and therefore protagonists we can understand) stumbled onto an alien craft somewhere in Neptune's orbit, found their way inside, and WHAM!  The ship takes off, and by the end of the pilot episode our reluctant explorers realize they are on the other side of the galaxy (or universe!), and the show is about them getting home to Earth.  Well, fellow nerds will giggle at that - it was apparently a pretty cool idea, so much so that the folks at Trek decided to do much the same with Voyager.  Another example of my zeitgeist problem.

The first thing such a story needs is a reliable way to move the ship faster than light.  Even at light speed it takes way too long to traverse interstellar space to make a compelling adventure tale.  Sure, the characters may not experience those years of travel (thanks to relativistic time dilation), but in the meantime the Earth would march into the future without them - there'd be little point in the characters returning to Earth if it took thousands of years.  I'm a hard sci-fi nut, and other than the appearance of aliens I wanted the science in "my show" to be generally "correct", addressing or at least being informed by the real problems and the real theories on solving them.  Clarke's famous quote on advanced science essentially being magic does give us a lot of leeway to simply say "it works" and not get into the mechanism, but where's the fun in that?  Heck, the details on how the ship's engine works could even drive some of the story - how might it go awry and how to fix it, how to navigate properly, is it a banal or coveted technology, etc.

The warp drive of Star Trek is actually a thing, a real idea called the Alcubierre drive.  It gets around the speed of light (or SOL) limit by changing the space around the ship so that inside the bubble (the "warp field") the ship is barely moving at all, but the bubble itself, which has no mass, can be made to move many times the speed of light.  The engine basically moves the surrounding space instead of the ship, contracting the space ahead and expanding it behind - the ship just happens to be at the center.  While Star Trek did make up a lot of magical science (I'm looking at you, Heisenberg Compensators!), this much they pretty much nailed.  Whether or not we can ever get such a thing to work is beside the point - the theoretical model is solid.  My hat's off to the franchise for that.  Of course, that means that using this principle myself, whatever I called it, would be derivative.

Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.  How is the ship of my story going to get around?  I needed some new answers.  Not for me such magical tech as the Star Wars hyperdrive, Farscape's "starburst" (whatever the hell that was), or Bablyon 5's generic hyperspace "jump gates".  I wanted something new, odd, or at least explained in the show.  I came up with a few - maybe they'll be of use to someone:

  • The Null-Mass Generator: The physical reason there's an SOL at all is that an object gets more massive the faster it goes, and as it gets to the speed of light that mass approaches infinite, at which point it would take an infinite amount of energy to move faster - so you're out of luck.  The NMG suppresses the gain in mass.  The "magic" here is in how that works exactly.  But the result is that even standard chemical rockets could push such a ship past light speed, over time.  (Of course, this fictional ship would have much better sub-light engines than standard chemical rockets, maybe something like NASA's new EM drive.)  Such a ship runs up against another relativity problem regarding inertial frame of reference and time dilation, so the "solution" is that the ship "blinks" out of our universe into - you guessed it, "hyperspace" (or a different name, like "overspace").  It also occurred to me that this "uberspace" could be a tachyon universe, and perhaps it has worlds or stars of its own here and there, so our heroes could even have an adventure, friend, or antagonist in this place.  [DISCLAIMER: since coming up with this idea, I've learned that objects don't really gain mass, but inertial energy/momentum that merely acts like mass for the purpose of further acceleration.  Does this change the principle of the NMG?  Shrug.  Not my problem!  Worse yet, I learned even more recently that such "inertialess drives" have been around since 1928 - Edward Smith's The Skylark of Space!  DAMMIT!]

  • The Segmenter, or "Seam Ripper", or simply "Ripper": The Rip Drive is a variant on the Alcubierre principal.  Rather than bending space-time, the Ripper "wounds" the space around the ship.  Such a wound heals almost instantly, in micro-units of Planck time.  The "pressure" from sealing the wound pushes the space around the ship, carrying it at tremendous speed.  [DISCLAIMER: I later ran across a similar thing, around 2010 when I read Stephen Baxter's Vacuum Diagrams.  DAMMIT 2, Electric Boogadamn!]

  • The Quantum Agnosia Inducer, or "Psych" Drive: I've long wondered whether everything in the universe is really just a static clump of "stuff" with "properties".  For instance, an electron is just a piece of "stuff" with a set of properties, while a proton is also a piece of "stuff" with a different set.  Those properties include charge, mass, spin, and all that, but also positional relationships, a history archive perhaps, or even something weirder like "likes and dislikes".  If you smash a proton you seem to produce a bunch of smaller stuff, but what you're really doing is just splitting off properties - whether you're revealing new component particles with their own identities or adding new properties to account for the schism, I dunno.  (Yeah, I'm vague on it, too.  I think of it like a mask - every bit of "stuff" is identical under the mask.  Anyway...)  "Moving" a particle through the apparent universe is a brute force means of constantly changing its properties to account for position, motion, and relationship to other particles.  Well, what if instead of that, you could just monkey with the properties directly to set them as they would be if they had already arrived?  Bam!  You've convinced the particle it's somewhere else - and because everything's just properties, it is!  Hence the name "psych drive" - instantaneous motion ignoring space-time issues altogether by fooling the ship (or hypnotizing it - "hypno-drive"?).  Such an engine depends not on fuel or thrust or other baryonic physics, but on raw computational processing power.  The size of the ship determines the size and complexity of the required computer.  [DISCLAIMER: Apparently Greg Bear liked the application of this idea, too - it's central to his 1993 novel Moving Mars, which I first encountered in 2013.  DAMMIT 3, The Final Damnflict!]

You may have guessed by now that I'm not a physicist.  All too true.  A little knowledge + the Internet + an imagination = very questionable science.



0 comments:

Post a Comment