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The Science of Fiction

Vintage magazine, circa March 1960. (photo: photoscott via Flickr)

I imagine most of us watched plenty of Star Trek, Star Wars and etc. when we were younger, I’ll bet many of us still do. Even those who were never really science fiction fans had to be aware of it. You know the premise: A starship crew travels to far away places, encountering aliens, preventing invasions of the Earth and saving the universe as we know it. More times than not the travellers originate in the Sol system and radiate out to stars with familiar names like Rigel, Vega, Alpha Centauri or Altair. Our carbon based, oxygen breathing heroes almost never need environmental suits when adventuring on the planets orbiting these distant points of light and it usually only takes weeks, days or even hours to get to their destinations. This of course is important in order to keep the plot line moving. I mean who wants to watch a movie that mostly consists of people eating, sleeping, performing routine maintenance or just passing the time? The only movie that I can think of offhand that approached space travel in a realistic way was 2001 A Space Odyssey and it’s important to note that story took place almost entirely within our inner solar system, right up until the climactic and altogether confusing ending.

A couple of films have tried to approach space travel in a different manner. In both the Alien series and in the recently released Avatar film, the sticky, (and boring), subject of long space travel was dealt with by having the crew sleep through most of the journey, thus negating the need to bore the audience silly with make work tasks that will inevitably be the vast majority of any long space journeys. Most books, television series and movies though, use some form of faster than light travel. Battlestar Galactica and Dune used a less common version of science fiction faster than light travel in which coordinates were entered, the engines were engaged and the whole kit and caboodle was immediately folded into it’s destination. The more common versions of fictional faster than light travel is usually in the form of a warp drive arrangement in which space in front of the vessel is dramatically shrunk while the space behind it is expanded by an equal amount.  . . .

Like the suspended animation of some science fiction stories, such is necessary or our space pioneers would be long dead and turned to dust before they got anywhere near where they were going. Even in the Alien series, when they are woken up early and found themselves in orbit of LV-426, Lambert, the navigator told them that they were still six months from home. This means that plot expediting, medically induced sleep notwithstanding, they still must have been traveling many times faster than the speed of light. Though there used to be a number of science fiction books which tackled the method, I can’t think of any motion pictures or television programs that use generation ships, which is about all we are even remotely capable of doing right now.

Now, as strange as it may seem, all of these methods are theoretically grounded in sound science. For example, though physics tells us that the ultimate speed limit in the universe is the speed of light, no such laws govern the speed at which space itself can expand. This can be seen in inflationary theory. If that idea is sound, then early on the universe itself expanded at many, many times faster than the speed of light. Thus the “warp drive” method is scientifically feasible. The instantaneous transfer across vast distances can also be theoretically accomplished by creating some sort of artificial singularity which could then form a wormhole. Never mind the enormous quantities of power involved or the tricky problem of having it come out exactly where you want it to or for that matter finding the power to somehow emerge from the event horizon of said singularity when you reach the other side, it could someday be possible.

Why do the science fiction writers have to go to such lengths to explain away space travel before the plot even starts to unfold? It’s important to put distances into perspective. Space is vast, huge, enormous, mind bogglingly big. The distances are almost unimaginable to us for whom a long journey might be from San Diego to Orlando. Here’s some perspective: Let’s represent our solar system, all the way out to the orbit of Neptune using a tiny disc that is one millimeter in diameter. Go ahead and find a ruler and look at the millimeter mark. Most of those of us who were born in 1960 and before may have trouble even resolving individual millimeter lines without some sort of aid. Now, on this scale, the very nearest star to us, Proxima Centauri, (which is about 4.243 light years away) would be about 14.622 feet from our tiny disc! Keep in mind that we are representing the diameter of the solar system with just one millimeter. The New Horizons spacecraft is the fastest thing ever launched by human beings. By a lot. It launched on January 19, 2006 and won’t reach Pluto, (which is currently just outside Neptune’s orbit) until July 14, 2015. That’s over nine and a half years traveling just about half a millimeter on our scale! Recently there was a stir about Gliese 581g, a possible exoplanet located in the habitable zone of it’s parent star. Gleise 581 is about 20.3 light years away, which on our scale puts it at 69.95 feet away from the center of our one millimeter disc. The center of our own galaxy would be almost exactly 17 MILES away and the near edge of the Andromeda galaxy would be about 1,305 miles from us. So, if the fastest spacecraft we are capable of launching travels at just half a millimeter in a decade, how long would it take to travel 14 1/2 feet? 70 feet? How about 17 miles? If it takes almost ten years to travel barely half a millimeter, how long would it take to drive halfway across the United States?

Personally, I love science fiction and I love science. Why else would I spend part of my day doing this sort of mental exercise? It’s fun to keep it all in perspective though. So the next time you’re watching an old, original Star Trek episode, remember that according to Trek doctrine, Spock’s home planet is over 56 and a half feet away. On our millimeter scale of course.

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49 year old very progressive female trying to turn Texas blue again.