How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1036

My husband and I watch Star Trek often. He says that travel at warp speeds (faster than the speed of light) is impossible and that Einstein's theories prove it. Is this true? — JL, Las Cruces, NM
I'm afraid that travel at or above light speed is simply impossible and that "warp speed" travel is just a Hollywood fantasy. Einstein's special relativity forbids objects with mass from reaching or exceeding the speed of light and even if there were some way to travel vast distances in less time than it would take light to cover those distances, but without actually traveling at light speed, such travel would violate some important principles of causality—you would be able to meet your own grandparents as children and that sort of thing.

One of the reasons that Hollywood ignores real physics so often is that real physics is almost wilder than fiction. Suppose that you decided to travel to a star 5 light-years away from the earth and that you have a starship that can almost reach the speed of light (another nearly impossible thing, but let's ignore that problem). If you travel to the star at almost the speed of light, make one loop around it, and head right back to earth, I will have aged 10 years while waiting for you to return. However, you will only have aged days or weeks, depending on just how close you came to the speed of light. During the trip, we will have disagreed on many physical quantities, particularly the times at which various events occurred and the distances between objects. The mixing of time and space that occur when two people move rapidly relative to one another would be so disorienting to movie or television viewers that Hollywood ignores or simplifies these effects.


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