Playing Nice with Physics In Science Fiction

As a Sci Fi writer, I’ve bent the rules of physics to make a story work. In fact we all have. However, if you want to be realistic, here’s some things to remember:

A laser beam travels at the speed of light. While the neutrinos involved in a laser firing travel FTL, and can be detected, the actual beam can’t be seen. Why? The laser will strike at the same time you see it. So, that throws a wrinkle into any science fiction if you’re trying to be accurate. A good example of this is the anime “Starship Operators,” which plays fairly nice with physics.

As for FTL travel, there are several theories that I’ll list here courtesy of wikipedia.

Quantum mechanics[edit]

Certain phenomena in quantum mechanics, such as quantum entanglement, appear to transmit information faster than light. According to the no-communication theorem these phenomena do not allow true communication; they only let two observers in different locations see the same event simultaneously, without any way of controlling what either sees. Wavefunction collapse can be viewed as an epiphenomenon of quantum decoherence, which in turn is nothing more than an effect of the underlying local time evolution of the wavefunction of a system and all of its environment. Since the underlying behaviour doesn’t violate local causality or allow FTL it follows that neither does the additional effect of wavefunction collapse, whether real or apparent.

The uncertainty principle implies that individual photons may travel for short distances at speeds somewhat faster (or slower) than c, even in a vacuum; this possibility must be taken into account when enumerating Feynman diagrams for a particle interaction.[23] It has since been proven that not even a single photon may travel faster than c.[24] In quantum mechanics, virtual particles may travel faster than light, and this phenomenon is related to the fact that static field effects (which are mediated by virtual particles in quantum terms) may travel faster than light (see section on static fields above). However, macroscopically these fluctuations average out, so that photons do travel in straight lines over long (i.e., non-quantum) distances, and they do travel at the speed of light on average. Therefore, this does not imply the possibility of superluminal information transmission.

There have been various reports in the popular press of experiments on faster-than-light transmission in optics—most often in the context of a kind of quantum tunnelling phenomenon. Usually, such reports deal with a phase velocity or group velocity faster than the vacuum velocity of light.[citation needed] However, as stated above, a superluminal phase velocity cannot be used for faster-than-light transmission of information. There has sometimes been confusion concerning the latter point. Additionally a channel that permits such propagation cannot be laid out faster than the speed of light.[citation needed]

Quantum teleportation transmits quantum information at whatever speed is used to transmit the same amount of classical information, likely the speed of light. This quantum information may theoretically be used in ways that classical information can not, such as in quantum computations involving quantum information only available to the recipient.

Hartman effect[edit]

Main article: Hartman effect

The Hartman effect is the tunnelling effect through a barrier where the tunnelling time tends to a constant for large barriers.[25] This was first described by Thomas Hartman in 1962.[26] This could, for instance, be the gap between two prisms. When the prisms are in contact, the light passes straight through, but when there is a gap, the light is refracted. There is a nonzero probability that the photon will tunnel across the gap rather than follow the refracted path. For large gaps between the prisms the tunnelling time approaches a constant and thus the photons appear to have crossed with a superluminal speed.[27]

However, an analysis by Herbert G. Winful from the University of Michigan suggests that the Hartman effect cannot actually be used to violate relativity by transmitting signals faster than c, because the tunnelling time “should not be linked to a velocity since evanescent waves do not propagate”.[28] The evanescent waves in the Hartman effect are due to virtual particles and a non-propagating static field, as mentioned in the sections above for gravity and electromagnetism.

Casimir effect[edit]

In physics, the Casimir effect or Casimir-Polder force is a physical force exerted between separate objects due to resonance of vacuum energy in the intervening space between the objects. This is sometimes described in terms of virtual particles interacting with the objects, owing to the mathematical form of one possible way of calculating the strength of the effect. Because the strength of the force falls off rapidly with distance, it is only measurable when the distance between the objects is extremely small. Because the effect is due to virtual particles mediating a static field effect, it is subject to the comments about static fields discussed above.

EPR Paradox[edit]

The EPR paradox refers to a famous thought experiment of Einstein, Podolski and Rosen that was realized experimentally for the first time by Alain Aspect in 1981 and 1982 in the Aspect experiment. In this experiment, the measurement of the state of one of the quantum systems of an entangled pair apparently instantaneously forces the other system (which may be distant) to be measured in the complementary state. However, no information can be transmitted this way; the answer to whether or not the measurement actually affects the other quantum system comes down to which interpretation of quantum mechanics one subscribes to.

An experiment performed in 1997 by Nicolas Gisin at the University of Geneva has demonstrated non-local quantum correlations between particles separated by over 10 kilometers.[29] But as noted earlier, the non-local correlations seen in entanglement cannot actually be used to transmit classical information faster than light, so that relativistic causality is preserved; see no-communication theorem for further information. A 2008 quantum physics experiment also performed by Nicolas Gisin and his colleagues in Geneva, Switzerland has determined that in any hypothetical non-local hidden-variables theory the speed of the quantum non-local connection (what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) is at least 10,000 times the speed of light.[30]

Delayed choice quantum eraser[edit]

Delayed choice quantum eraser (an experiment of Marlan Scully) is a version of the EPR paradox in which the observation or not of interference after the passage of a photon through a double slit experiment depends on the conditions of observation of a second photon entangled with the first. The characteristic of this experiment is that the observation of the second photon can take place at a later time than the observation of the first photon,[31] which may give the impression that the measurement of the later photons “retroactively” determines whether the earlier photons show interference or not, although the interference pattern can only be seen by correlating the measurements of both members of every pair and so it can’t be observed until both photons have been measured, ensuring that an experimenter watching only the photons going through the slit does not obtain information about the other photons in an FTL or backwards-in-time manner.[32][33]

FTL communication possibility[edit]

Faster-than-light communication is, by Einstein‘s theory of relativity, equivalent to time travel. According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, what we measure as the speed of light in a vacuum is actually the fundamental physical constant c. This means that all inertial observers, regardless of their relative velocity, will always measure zero-mass particles such as photons traveling at cin a vacuum. This result means that measurements of time and velocity in different frames are no longer related simply by constant shifts, but are instead related by Poincaré transformations. These transformations have important implications:

  • The relativistic momentum of a massive particle would increase with speed in such a way that at the speed of light an object would have infinite momentum.
  • To accelerate an object of non-zero rest mass to c would require infinite time with any finite acceleration, or infinite acceleration for a finite amount of time.
  • Either way, such acceleration requires infinite energy.
  • Some observers with sub-light relative motion will disagree about which occurs first of any two events that are separated by a space-like interval.[34] In other words, any travel that is faster-than-light will be seen as traveling backwards in time in some other, equally valid, frames of reference[citation needed], or need to assume the speculative hypothesis of possible Lorentz violations at a presently unobserved scale (for instance the Planck scale)[citation needed]. Therefore any theory which permits “true” FTL also has to cope with time travel and all its associated paradoxes,[35] or else to assume the Lorentz invariance to be a symmetry of thermodynamical statistical nature (hence a symmetry broken at some presently unobserved scale).
  • In special relativity the coordinate speed of light is only guaranteed to be c in an inertial frame, in a non-inertial frame the coordinate speed may be different than c;[36] in general relativity no coordinate system on a large region of curved spacetime is “inertial”, so it’s permissible to use a global coordinate system where objects travel faster than c, but in the local neighborhood of any point in curved spacetime we can define a “local inertial frame” and the local speed of light will be c in this frame,[37] with massive objects moving through this local neighborhood always having a speed less than c in the local inertial frame.

Justifications[edit]

Faster light (Casimir vacuum and quantum tunnelling)[edit]

Raymond Y. Chiao was first to measure the quantum tunnelling time, which was found to be between 1.5 to 1.7 times the speed of light.

Einstein’s equations of special relativity postulate that the speed of light in a vacuum is invariant in inertial frames. That is, it will be the same from any frame of reference moving at a constant speed. The equations do not specify any particular value for the speed of the light, which is an experimentally determined quantity for a fixed unit of length. Since 1983, the SI unit of length (themeter) has been defined using the speed of light.

The experimental determination has been made in vacuum. However, the vacuum we know is not the only possible vacuum which can exist. The vacuum has energy associated with it, unsurprisingly called the vacuum energy. This vacuum energy can perhaps be changed in certain cases.[38] When vacuum energy is lowered, light itself has been predicted to go faster than the standard value c. This is known as the Scharnhorst effect. Such a vacuum can be produced by bringing two perfectly smooth metal plates together at near atomic diameter spacing. It is called aCasimir vacuum. Calculations imply that light will go faster in such a vacuum by a minuscule amount: a photon traveling between two plates that are 1 micrometer apart would increase the photon’s speed by only about one part in 1036.[39] Accordingly there has as yet been no experimental verification of the prediction. A recent analysis[40] argued that the Scharnhorst effect cannot be used to send information backwards in time with a single set of plates since the plates’ rest frame would define a “preferred frame” for FTL signalling. However, with multiple pairs of plates in motion relative to one another the authors noted that they had no arguments that could “guarantee the total absence of causality violations”, and invoked Hawking’s speculative chronology protection conjecture which suggests that feedback loops of virtual particles would create “uncontrollable singularities in the renormalized quantum stress-energy” on the boundary of any potential time machine, and thus would require a theory of quantum gravity to fully analyze. Other authors argue that Scharnhorst’s original analysis which seemed to show the possibility of faster-than-csignals involved approximations which may be incorrect, so that it is not clear whether this effect could actually increase signal speed at all.[41]

The physicists Günter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Cologne, claim to have violated relativity experimentally by transmitting photons faster than the speed of light.[27] They say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons—relatively low energy packets of light—travelled “instantaneously” between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 3 ft (1 m) apart. Their experiment involved an optical phenomenon known as “evanescent modes”, and they claim that since evanescent modes have an imaginary wave number, they represent a “mathematical analogy” to quantum tunnelling.[27] Nimtz has also claimed that “evanescent modes are not fully describable by the Maxwell equations and quantum mechanics have to be taken into consideration.”[42] Other scientists such as Herbert G. Winful and Robert Helling have argued that in fact there is nothing quantum-mechanical about Nimtz’s experiments, and that the results can be fully predicted by the equations of classical electromagnetism (Maxwell’s equations).[43][44]

Nimtz told New Scientist magazine: “For the time being, this is the only violation of special relativity that I know of.” However, other physicists say that this phenomenon does not allow information to be transmitted faster than light. Aephraim Steinberg, a quantum optics expert at the University of Toronto, Canada, uses the analogy of a train traveling from Chicago to New York, but dropping off train cars at each station along the way, so that the center of the ever shrinking main train moves forward at each stop; in this way, the speed of the center of the train exceeds the speed of any of the individual cars.[45]

Herbert G. Winful argues that the train analogy is a variant of the “reshaping argument” for superluminal tunneling velocities, but he goes on to say that this argument is not actually supported by experiment or simulations, which actually show that the transmitted pulse has the same length and shape as the incident pulse.[43] Instead, Winful argues that the group delay in tunneling is not actually the transit time for the pulse (whose spatial length must be greater than the barrier length in order for its spectrum to be narrow enough to allow tunneling), but is instead the lifetime of the energy stored in a standing wave which forms inside the barrier. Since the stored energy in the barrier is less than the energy stored in a barrier-free region of the same length due to destructive interference, the group delay for the energy to escape the barrier region is shorter than it would be in free space, which according to Winful is the explanation for apparently superluminal tunneling.[46][47]

A number of authors have published papers disputing Nimtz’s claim that Einstein causality is violated by his experiments, and there are many other papers in the literature discussing why quantum tunneling is not thought to violate causality.[48]

It was later claimed by the Keller group in Switzerland that particle tunneling does indeed occur in zero real time. Their tests involved tunneling electrons, where the group argued a relativistic prediction for tunneling time should be 500-600 attoseconds (an attosecond is one quintillionth (10−18) of a second). All that could be measured was 24 attoseconds, which is the limit of the test accuracy.[49] Again, though, other physicists believe that tunneling experiments in which particles appear to spend anomalously short times inside the barrier are in fact fully compatible with relativity, although there is disagreement about whether the explanation involves reshaping of the wave packet or other effects.[46][47][5

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