Author: Jefferson Lin
Editors: Yanxi Chen and He-Hanson Xuan
Artist: Tiffany Gao
Under Newtonian physics, the highest theoretical speed achievable by an object is the speed of light. However, in many sci-fi movies, this intergalactic speed limit is often broken by human innovation. Hyperdrives from Star Wars and warp drives from Star Trek are exemplary instances where the film industry has surpassed the speed of light. But is that even possible in real life?
Before diving into theoretical methods that can actually surpass the speed of light in terms of distance and time, we first need to discuss what is the speed of light and why physicists believe that it is the fastest speed attainable.
Light travels at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second which is the fastest speed out there. With the theory of relativity, as an object with a mass close to the speed of light, its relativistic mass increases to infinity. This means that as the speed of the object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases infinitely, and it would require an infinite amount of energy to accelerate the object to the speed of light. The formula below illustrates this concept:
As velocity, v, increases closer to the speed of light, c, the formula will approach 0 in the denominator and as explained in practically all math classes, as the denominator approaches 0, the equation will approach infinity. Thus, as you attempt to approach the speed of light, the mass will need to be infinite. Similarly, if the velocity is greater than the speed of light, the calculation will involve a negative square root, resulting in numbers on the imaginary plane.
Now that we have discussed that it isn’t possible to travel faster than the speed of light, let’s look at alternative methods to theoretically pass it in terms of distance traveled and time spent. The three things we will be going over are Alcubierre Drive, Wormholes, and Quantum Tunnel.
The Alcubierre Warp Drive is a hypothetical concept for a propulsion system proposed in 1994, by physicist Miguel Alcubierre. The idea behind Alcubierre Drive is to create a "warp bubble" around a spacecraft that will allow it to travel faster than speed. Light, without actually exceeding the speed of light inside the bubble. The Alcubierre drive concept is based on the theory of general relativity and the idea that space itself can be manipulated. This drive would work by compressing the space in front of the spacecraft and expanding the space behind it, essentially creating a "warp bubble" that would move the spacecraft through space-time. While inside this bubble, the spacecraft would not move. Rather, the bubble itself would be moving across space faster than the speed of light due to the wave-like distortion of space the bubble creates. Since the spacecraft isn’t moving, it does not violate the law of relativity, which states that objects with mass cannot travel faster than the speed of light.
Wormholes, although only a prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which allows for the existence of "shortcuts" in space-time known as Einstein-Rosen bridges, will allow these bridges to potentially connect two separate points in space-time and allow for almost instantaneous travel between them. Depending on the distance between these bridges, the distance traveled will technically be faster than what light can travel in the timeframe it took the object to go through the bridge.
All in all, these are two examples of methods that scientists believe can actually travel faster than the speed of light. Although there are more methods such as surviving through a black hole and quantum tunneling, these two were the most probable, yet at the same time, improbable.
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