Warp drive?

Fans can often tell right away if something is a real or made in a computer. Games, Movies, and TV are filled with visual effects, so we become expert at seeing and enjoying awesome images.

But did you know that many scientists also use computer graphics and models?

For example, this incredible CGI of a Black Hole merger was made as part of the Nobel-Prize-Winning LIGO project. And it also found its way into the hit movie Interstellar.

The researchers needed some idea of what to look for, since no one had ever seen such a thing, and the model gave them a clue. But it’s not real, just advanced computer graphics, made by scientists at CalTech, MIT, and other universities. Still, it impressed Christopher Nolan to want to work with retired Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne enough to use the idea in a Hollywood movie. What resulted was the first scientifically accurate visualization of a black hole in history. The boffins at Double Negative, the studio that created the visual effects for Insterstellar, with extensive help from equations supplied by Thorne, had to create a custom rendering system to work out how light would bend around one. Some of the frames took more than 100 hours to render, and the data involved approached one petabyte. When they were done with their work, they released a scientific paper on what they had achieved.

The concept of using computers to create models of the real world is called Numerical Modeling (catchy, huh?) A numerical model is a large set of mathematical equations that uses computers to find a solution. Often with a colorful visualization.

Here’s a numerical model of the weather:

Looks like a weather map, but it’s an amazing simulation!
from the National Centers for Environmental Information

Recently ScFi Radio reported on the creation of a warp bubble. Fantastic news! One of the researchers is actually quoted: “To be clear, our finding is not a warp bubble analog, it is a real, albeit humble and tiny, warp bubble…”

Except the bubble exists only inside a computer in Texas, and is not real. It’s a numerical model.

How could we know that? Well, the first clue is in the title of the source article: “Worldline numerics applied to custom Casimir geometry generates unanticipated intersection with Alcubierre warp metric”. A mouthful and a half! Let’s break it down.

The key info is the first two words: “worldline numerics.” When you see numerics in an article, it means they are talking about a computer model. Something every scientist knows, but not every lay person.

Worldline numerics is a particular brand of model used for quantum mechanics.

The lovely picture that has the caption “actual, real world warp bubble”, in the source article has the caption: “Comparison of energy density for the numeric worldline…” Again, the term numeric tells us this is CGI from their model.

The confusion didn’t start here, but with an interview done at thedebrief.org with one of the researchers. A Dr. White said: “our detailed numerical analysis of our custom Casimir cavities helped us identify a real and manufacturable nano/microstructure that is predicted to generate a negative vacuum energy density such that it would manifest a real nanoscale warp bubble, not an analog, but the real thing.”

That may be true, but he didn’t explain that “the real thing” from “numerical analysis” is actually a computer model. Not a real world physical object. A red flag?

Could that scientist be creating the science equivalent of clickbait? Funding can be hard to come by and popular support helps. Science Fiction fans would love to hear warp drive is real.

More Reasons for Skepticism

Artists concept of computer modeling

Another clue is where the research was published. Creating a real warp drive (or bubble) would be revolutionary, a major breakthrough no matter how tiny the bubble. Discoveries of that magnitude are usually published in Science or Nature. These are the prestige journals that every scientist dreams of publishing in. And the first place they submit to if they think they have something really amazing to report. Yet those journals didn’t even report on the “warp drive” experiment paper. A red flag.

That article has another quote where the fellow backtracks a bit:

“To my knowledge, this is the first paper in the peer-reviewed literature that proposes a realizable nano-structure that is predicted to manifest a real, albeit humble, warp bubble.”

The key phrase is “predicted to manifest a real, albeit humble, warp bubble”. Meaning it is a theory, with a prediction, not an actual experiment. But said with a touch of hyperbole?

The rest of the science in the ScFi Radio article is accurate and well done. It’s fascinating theory explaining the concept of the Alcubierre warp bubble, which could move a real object faster than the speed of light — if it’s real.

A real world Casimir effect experiment – it was the mathematical model for something like thiss that Dr. White was working with when he noticed the similarities to Albucierre’s warp field equations.

It could be that the model of Casimir nano-cavities will spark real world experiments. The Casmir effect is real and causes energy to appear from nothing via quantum fluctuations. This is an interesting experiment. Just not a real warp drive, yet.

And I want to stress this again, neither is there a real world warp bubble. Yet. All we really have is a recipe to make one, but the plans are still all in a computer somewhere. And even then, even if we do, the only spaceship that will fit inside this theoretical warp bubble would have to be smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

And nobody’s flying to Alpha Centauri in that.

One of the most important features of scientific method is a good healthy skepticism, but when the first working warp bubble finally does actually happen, we’ll report it to you and explain how it works, so watch this space.

What do you think of science reporting, and how far scientists should go in promoting their work?


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.