Warp Drives

“Warp drives” originated in the science fiction shows “Star Trek” in the 1960s, but in 1994, the Mexican Miguel Alcubierre published a paper arguing that under certain conditions exceeding light speed was not forbidden by Einstein’s General Relativity. Alcubierre reached his solution by assuming it was possible, then working backwards to see what was required while rejecting those awkward points that arose. The concept is that the ship sits in a bubble, and spacetime in front of the ship is contracted, while that behind the ship is expanded. In terms of geometry, that means the distance to your destination has got smaller, while the distance from where you started gets longer, i.e. you moved relative to the starting point and the destination. One of the oddities of being in such a bubble is you would not sense you are moving. There would be no accelerating forces because technically you are not moving; it is the space around you that is moving. Captain Kirk on the enterprise is not squashed to a film by the acceleration! Since then there have been a number of proposals. General relativity is a gold mine for academics wanting to publish papers because it is so difficult mathematically.

There is one small drawback to these proposals: you need negative energy. Now we run into definitions, and before you point out the gravitational field has negative energy it is generated by positive mass, and it contracts the distance between you and target, i.e. you fall towards it. If you like, that can be at the front of your drive. The real problem is at the other end – you need the repulsive field that sends you further from where you started, and if you think gravitationally, the opposite field, presumably generated from negative mass.

One objection often heard to negative energy is if quantum field theory were correct, the vacuum would collapse to negative energy, which would lead to the Universe collapsing on itself. My view is, not necessarily. The negative potential energy of the gravitational field causes mass to collapse onto itself, and while we do get black holes in accord with this, the Universe is actually expanding. Since quantum field theory assumes a vacuum energy density, calculations of the relativistic gravitational field arising from this are in error by ten multiplied by itself 120 times, so just maybe it is not a good guideline here. It predicts the Universe has long since collapsed, but here we are.

The only repulsive stuff we think might be there is dark energy, but we have no idea how to lay hands on it, let alone package it, or even if it exists. However, all may not be lost. I recently saw an article in Physics World that stated that a physicist, Erik Lentz, had claimed there was no need for negative energy. The concept is that energy could be capable of arranging the structure of space-time as a soliton. (A soliton is a wave packet that travels more like a bubble, it does not disperse or spread out, but otherwise behaves like a wave.) There is a minor problem. You may have heard that the biggest problem with rockets is the mass of fuel they have to carry before you get started. Well, don’t book a space flight yet. As Lentz has calculated it, a 100 m radius spacecraft would require the energy equivalent to hundreds of times the mass of Jupiter.

There will be other problems. It is one thing to have opposite energy densities on different sides of your bubble. You still have to convert those to motion and go exactly in the direction you wish. If you cannot steer as you go, or worse, you don’t even know for sure exactly where you are and the target is, is there a point? Finally, in my science fiction novels I have steered away from warp drives. The only times my characters went interstellar distances I limited myself to a little under light speed. Some say that lacks imagination, but stop and think. You set out to do something, but suppose where you are going will have aged 300 years before you get there. Come back, and your then associates have been dead for 600 years. That raises some very awkward problems that make a story different from the usual “space westerns”.

Dark Energy

Many people will have heard of dark energy, yet nobody knows what it is, apart from being something connected with the rate of expansion of the Universe. This is an interesting part of science. When Einstein formulated General Relativity, he found that if his equations were correct, the Universe should collapse due to gravity. It hasn’t so far, so to avoid that he introduced a term Λ, the so-called cosmological constant, which was a straight-out fudge with no basis other than that of avoiding the obvious mistake that the universe had not collapsed and did not look like doing so. Then, when he found from observations that the Universe was actually expanding, he tore that up. In General Relativity, Λ represents the energy density of empty space.

We think the Universe expansion is accelerating because when we look back in time by looking at ancient galaxies, we can measure the velocity of their motion relative to us through the so-called red shift of light, and all the distant galaxies are going away from us, and seemingly faster the further away they are. We can also work out how far away they are by taking light sources and measuring how bright they are, and provided we know how bright they were when they started, the dimming gives us a measure of how far away they are. What two research groups found in 1998 is that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating, which won them the 2011 Nobel prize for physics. 

The next question is, how accurate are these measurements and what assumptions are inherent? The red shift can be measured accurately because the light contains spectral lines, and as long as the physical constants have remained constant, we know exactly their original frequencies, and consequently the shift when we measure the current frequencies. The brightness relies on what are called standard candles. We know of a class of supernovae called type 1a, and these are caused by one star gobbling the mass of another until it reaches the threshold to blow up. This mass is known to be fairly constant, so the energy output should be constant.  Unfortunately, as often happens, the 1a supernovae are not quite as standard as you might think. They have been separated into three classes: standard 1a, dimmer 1a , and brighter 1a. We don’t know why, and there is an inherent problem that the stars of a very long time ago would have had a lower fraction of elements from previous supernovae. They get very bright, then dim with time, and we cannot be certain they always dim at the same rate. Some have different colour distributions, which makes specific luminosity difficult to measure. Accordingly, some consider the evidence is inadequate and it is possible there is no acceleration at all. There is no way for anyone outside the specialist field to resolve this. Such measurements are made at the limits of our ability, and a number of assumptions tend to be involved.

The net result of this is that if the universe is really expanding, we need a value for Λ because that will describe what is pushing everything apart. That energy of the vacuum is called dark energy, and if we consider the expansion and use relativity to compare this energy with the mass of the Universe we can see, dark energy makes up 70% of the total Universe. That is, assuming the expansion is real. If not, 70% of the Universe just disappears! So what is it, if real?

The only real theory that can explain why the vacuum has energy at all and has any independent value is quantum field theory. By independent value, I mean it explains something else. If you have one observation and you require one assumption, you effectively assume the answer. However, quantum field theory is not much help here because if you calculate Λ using it, the calculation differs from observation by a factor of 120 orders of magnitude, which means ten multiplied by itself 120 times. To put that in perspective, if you were to count all the protons, neutrons and electrons in the entire universe that we can see, you would multiply ten by itself about 83 times to express the answer. This is the most dramatic failed prediction in all theoretical physics and is so bad it tends to be put in the desk drawer and ignored/forgotten about.So the short answer is, we haven’t got a clue what dark energy is, and to make matters worse, it is possible there is no need for it at all. But it most certainly is a great excuse for scientific speculation.

Gravitational Waves, or Not??

On February 11, 2016 LIGO reported that on September 14, 2015, they had verified the existence of gravitational waves, the “ripples in spacetime” predicted by General Relativity. In 2017, LIGO/Virgo laboratories announced the detection of a gravitational wave signal from merging neutron stars, which was verified by optical telescopes, and which led to the award of the Nobel Prize to three physicists. This was science in action and while I suspect most people had no real idea what this means, the items were big news. The detectors were then shut down for an upgrade to make them more sensitive and when they started up again it was apparently predicted that dozens of events would be observed by 2020, and with automated detection, information could be immediately relayed to optical telescopes. Lots of scientific papers were expected. So, with the program having been running for three months, or essentially half the time of the prediction, what have we found?

Er, despite a number of alerts, nothing has been confirmed by optical telescopes. This has led to some questions as to whether any gravitational waves have actually been detected and led to a group at the Neils Bohr Institute at Copenhagen to review the data so far. The detectors at LIGO correspond to two “arms” at right angles to each other running four kilometers from a central building. Lasers are beamed down each arm and reflected from a mirror and the use of wave interference effects lets the laboratory measure these distances to within (according to the LIGO website) 1/10,000 the width of a proton! Gravitational waves will change these lengths on this scale. So, of course, will local vibrations, so there are two laboratories 3,002 km apart, such that if both detect the same event, it should not be local. The first sign that something might be wrong was that besides the desired signals, a lot of additional vibrations are present, which we shall call noise. That is expected, but what was suspicious was that there seemed to be inexplicable correlations in the noise signals. Two labs that far apart should not have the “same” noise.

Then came a bit of embarrassment: it turned out that the figure published in Physical Review Letters that claimed the detection (and led to Nobel prize awards) was not actually the original data, but rather the figure was prepared for “illustrative purposes”, details added “by eye”.  Another piece of “trickery” claimed by that institute is that the data are analysed by comparison with a large database of theoretically expected signals, called templates. If so, for me there is a problem. If there is a large number of such templates, then the chances of fitting any data to one of them is starting to get uncomfortably large. I recall the comment attributed to the mathematician John von Neumann: “Give me four constants and I shall map your data to an elephant. Give me five and I shall make it wave its trunk.” When they start adjusting their best fitting template to fit the data better, I have real problems.

So apparently those at the Neils Bohr Institute made a statistical analysis of data allegedly seen by the two laboratories, and found no signal was verified by both, except the first. However, even the LIGO researchers were reported to be unhappy about that one. The problem: their signal was too perfect. In this context, when the system was set up, there was a procedure to deliver artificially produced dummy signals, just to check that the procedure following signal detection at both sites was working properly. In principle, this perfect signal could have been the accidental delivery of such an artifical signal, or even the deliberate insertion by someone. Now I am not saying that did happen, but it is uncomfortable that we have only one signal, and it is in “perfect” agreement with theory.

A further problem lies in the fact that the collision of two neutron stars as required by that one discovery and as a source of the gamma ray signals detected along with the gravitational waves is apparently unlikely in an old galaxy where star formation has long since ceased. One group of researchers claim the gamma ray signal is more consistent with the merging of white dwarfs and these should not produce gravitational waves of the right strength.

Suppose by the end of the year, no further gravitational waves are observed. Now what? There are three possibilities: there are no gravitational waves; there are such waves, but the detectors cannot detect them for some reason; there are such waves, but they are much less common than models predict. Apparently there have been attempts to find gravitational waves for the last sixty years, and with every failure it has been argued that they are weaker than predicted. The question then is, when do we stop spending increasingly large amounts of money on seeking something that may not be there? One issue that must be addressed, not only in this matter but in any scientific exercise, is how to get rid of the confirmation bias, that is, when looking for something we shall call A, and a signal is received that more or less fits the target, it is only so easy to say you have found it. In this case, when a very weak signal is received amidst a lot of noise and there is a very large number of templates to fit the data to, it is only too easy to assume that what is actually just unusually reinforced noise is the signal you seek. Modern science seems to have descended into a situation where exceptional evidence is required to persuade anyone that a standard theory might be wrong, but only quite a low standard of evidence to support an existing theory.

The M 87 Black Hole

By now, unless you have been living under a flat rock somewhere, you have probably seen an image of a black hole. This image seems to be in just about as many media outlets as possible, so you know what the black hole and its environs look like, right? Not necessarily. But, you say, you have seen a photograph. Well, actually, no you haven’t. That system is so far away that to get the necessary resolution you need to gather light over a very wide array, so the image was obtained from a very large number of radio telescopes and the image was reconstructed by a sequence of mathematical processes. Nevertheless, the black sphere and the ring will represent fairly accurately part of what is there.

No radiation can escape from a black hole so the black bit in the middle is fair, however the image as presented gives no idea of its size. Its radius is about 19 billion km, which is a little under five times the distance from the sun to Pluto. This is really a monster. Ever wondered what happens to photons that are emitted at right angles to the gravitational field? Well, at 28 billion km or thereabouts they go into orbit around the black hole and would do that for an infinite time unless they get absorbed by dust falling in. The bright stuff you see is outside the rotating photons, and is travelling clockwise at about half light speed.

The light is obviously not orange and the signals were received as radio waves, but when emitted they would be extremely high energy photons. We see them as radio waves because they have lost that much energy climbing out of the black hole’s gravitational field. One way of looking at this is to think of light as a wave. The more energy the light has, the greater the frequency of wave crests passing by. As the energy lowers due to gravity lowering the energy of the light, the wave gets “stretched” and the number of crests passing by lowers. At the edge of the black hole the wave is so stretched it takes an infinite amount of time for a second crest to appear, which means no light can escape. Just outside the event horizon the gravity is not quite strong enough to stop it, but a gamma ray wave might take 100,000 of our years for the next crest to pass when it gets to us. The wave is moving but it is so red-shifted we could not see it. Further away from the event horizon the light is a little less stretched, so we see it as radio waves, which is what we were looking at in this image, even if it still started as gamma rays or Xrays.

It has amused me to see the hagiolatry bestowed upon Einstein regarding this image. One quote: “Albert Einstein’s towering genius is on display yet again.” As a comment, I am NOT trying to run down Einstein, but let us be consistent here. You may note Newton also predicted a mass at which light could not escape. In Newtonian mechanics the energy of the light would be given by E =mc^2/2, while the gravitational potential energy would be GMm/R. This permits us to calculate a radius where light cannot escape as R = 2GM/c^2, which happens to be exactly the same as the Schwarzchild radius from General Relativity.

Then we see statements such as “General relativity describes gravity as a consequence of the warping of space-time.” Yes, but that implies something that should not be there. General Relativity is a geometric theory, and describes the dynamics of particles in geometric terms. The phrase “as a consequence of” should be replaced with “in terms of”. The use of “consequence” implies cause, and this leads to statements involving cosmic fabric being bent, and you get images of something like a trampoline sheet, which is at best misleading. Here is another quote that annoys me: “Massive objects create a sort of dent or well in the cosmic fabric, which passing bodies fall into because they’re following curved contours (not as a result of some mysterious force at a distance, which had been the prevailing view before Einstein came along)”. No! Both theories are done a great disservice. Einstein gave a geometric description of how bodies move, but there is no physical cause, and it has the same problem, only deeper, than the Newtonian description had, because you must then ask, how does one piece of space-time know exactly how much to distort? Meanwhile, Newton gave a description of the dynamics of particles essentially in terms of calculus. Whereas Einstein describes effects in terms of a number of tensors, which most people do not understand, Newton invented the term “force”.

Now you will often see the argument that light is bent around the sun and that “proves” General Relativity is correct. Actually, Newtonian physics predicted  the same effect, but general Relativity bends it twice as much as predicted by Newtonian physics, so yes, in that sense General relativity is correct if the bend is correctly found to be twice that of Newton. You will then see statements along the lines this proves the bent path is “due to the warping of spacetime”. That is, of course, nonsense. The reason is that in Einstein’s relativity E = mc^2, which is twice that of the Newtonian energy, as you can see from the above. The reason for the difference appears to be the cosmic speed limit of light speed, which Newton may or may not have considered, but had no reason to go further. Why do I say Newton might have considered it? Because as a postulate, the fundamental nature of the speed of light goes all the way back to Empedocles. Of course, he did not make much of it.

Finally, I saw one statement that “the circular nature of the black hole again confirms the correctness of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Actually, Aristotle provided one of the first recorded reasons why gravity leads to a sphere. Newton would certainly have predicted a basic sphere, and of course the algorithm used to make the image would not have led to any other result unless there were something really dramatically non spherical. The above is not intended to downplay Einstein, but I am not a fan of the hagiolatry that accompanies him either.