Faster Than Light – Modes Of Ftl In Science Fiction

Faster than light. We all assume humanity will figure it out, but how close is Science Fiction to reality? And how is FTL used in the many Sci-fi universes?

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Public Domain Mark 1.0

Creative Common Attribution 3.0

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Write up:

ever find yourself wondering about the Star Trek multiverse its concepts and characters do you spend your time thinking about how deep science fiction goes hi this is checked forties where we discuss all things sci fi through the lens of Star Trek in this episode we take a look at the meaning behind science fiction’s faster than light technology one of the long standing pillars of science fiction is space travel spaceships full of humans of various stripes and persuasions have been moving about the universe of our imaginations for a long time now visiting planet after planet for exploration glad to see you’re getting in the spirit of things pest extermination or even the occasional surfing trip in reality we currently do not have the capacity to travel to another star system just for the sake of scale let’s say that we found a way to carry enough fuel with us that we can make the trip to our nearest star system Alpha Centauri which is a mere four point three seven light years away the fastest speed recorded by a human made object is 25 miles per second as set by the Juno spacecraft how long would a voyage to Alpha Centauri take at that speed the answer is about 33,000 years please note that humans have only been building cities for about 10,000 years so better pack a lunch you can quickly see that the problem of interstellar travel in fiction had to be solved if we were ever going to get anywhere interesting so science fiction tackled this hurdle by hypothesizing various transportation methods that can move as faster than light or FTL how do these FTL solutions function and the stories that use them as with anything in sci fi it varies greatly FTL travel appears in several different incarnations throughout science fiction and more importantly serves several different purposes for each universe and story the vast majority of FTL concepts are based on nothing but pure imagination a tiny fraction are distantly connected to something resembling a scientific concept like the bergenholm drive from ee duck smith lensman series which capitalizes on the special theory of relativity is inference that all massless particles and waves must travel at the speed of light in a vacuum within the Star Trek universe warp drive serves as the primary mechanism through which Humanity engages in its exploration of space which is presented as the highest calling of our species the warping of space time allows starships to diverse great distances many times faster than the speed of light a trip to Alpha Centauri at warp 9 would take presumably less than a day for Star Trek the FTL technology enables humanity to become the best possible version of itself it unites humanity in a way that no one ever thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the universe poverty disease war they’ll all be gone within the next 50 years in the Battlestar Galactica reboot FTL travel takes the form of a sort of jump drive allowing denizens of the universe to literally hop from one place to another without traversing the distance in between variations of this style of FTL can be found in other places like Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda and Frank Herbert’s dune if it sounds like magic that’s because it is Battlestars FTL solution has no basis in science however the Battlestar FTL technology plays an integral role in the overall story it is a critical key to humanity’s salvation from the Cylon threat in dune FTL utility is limited by the availability of the spice the mind altering addictive drug that allows for interstellar travel whoever controls the spice controls the application of FTL dune takes the approach that FTL fuel is a limited contested raw material like oil is in our own context dealing with spice in the Dune universe takes the form of the familiar colonial political and economic overtones from our own reality wormholes not yet observed in our own universe are rooted in the theoretical implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity they have popped up all over the place in fiction from as far back as classics like Joe Hall demands the forever war and Madeleine L’Engle ‘he’s a wrinkle in time famously the Stargate franchise also makes heavy use of wormholes in order to explore the universe however unlike warp drive and Star Trek where human potential is unlocked by traveling faster than light stargates FTL solution is more for the purpose of intelligence gathering military exercise and strategy in addition to the fact that most of these FTL concepts are not based on any science quite a lot of them also have little to no utility in their respective stories for these stories FTL is nothing more than background decoration added on to make a fictional universe appear tech savvy or perhaps large take the hyperspace FTL technology of Star Wars considering how little the Star Wars universe relies on its FTL for plot points it would have been very possible to set the entire franchise within the confines of a single star system at sublight speeds and the core of the story would have lost nothing for it so if we start looking for the point of intersection between the fiction and the science we notice that all these properties draw on the theory of relativity Star Trek perhaps draws most directly as it turns out that it may be possible to warp space time in our own reality in fact Harald white and his team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center are currently working on designing practical experiments to test the possibility but even less hard science properties like Star Wars and Stargate organized a travel according to scientific principles after all and none of these stories do people cast spells or summon demons or use sacred objects to travel they all use science based machines in each fictional universe FTL technology serves a slightly different purpose but there is one thing common to all the assumption that the great spans of light years in the universe can be understood and conquered through science though faster than light travel is currently impossible in our reality its frequent appearance and fiction rep since the belief that humanity can someday reach past the current universal limit of the speed of light thank you for watching please feel free to leave comments below and subscribe to the channel for future episodes also check out Johansson’s video on the physics of space battles over on the it’s okay to be smart channel you’ll be glad you did..


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  • Sorry to correct you there. The Dune universe does not use Spice to “fuel” their FTL/space folding drives. Spice is used by the Navigators in order to SAFELY conduct space folding and accurately determine their destination so they don’t accidentally jump into the middle of a star or planet. The Spice gives the Navigators precognitive abilities and this is what they use to Navigate. They do not use Spice to power their Holtzman drives.

  • Battlestar Galactica is based on temporary wormholes. Instead of Star Trek’s making space in front of the ship smaller and and space behind the ship ‘bigger’ (leaving it the close the same size but according to one Next Gen episode, not close enough); a 12 Colonies tech ship simultaneously calculates the wormhole needed to connect where they are with where they need to be while building up enough energy to collapse that location to the current one and when done correctly the ‘jump drive’ generates this wormhole in much the same way a warp drive warps the space in front of it. Since the generator no longer exists at the origin point, space snaps back and hence why Battlestar Galactica holds ships that jump to be ‘untrackable’ by the means of jumping.

    Meaning Battlestar Galactica is about as science based as Stargate’s wormhole/ring deals. It’s just using one at a time and taking it with you. Hence, no stable tunnels & no FTL manuevering. Star Trek may be the best chased tech, but that seems to be due to power constraints. Our most favorable calculations that match Einstein’s equations of relativity call for the amount of Joules that make up an ~ton of mass for Warp 2 / 10c travel, which we may be able to squeeze out of a hydrogen fusion reactor. I know of know tech that’s even on the drawing board for handling the Wattage. Even (very) sublight microwaved Xeon drives aren’t being fielded because while the drive can be built, the magnetic shielding to guard the ship from the million degree exhaust can’t.

    TL;DR – Battlestar Galactica matches current models of physics just as well as Star Trek. The engineering required, from material construction to computational ability, is more of an obstacle to both.

  • The Spice in Dune is not the fuel for FTL. FTL uses conventional fusion power. However, in order to make the jump, complex astrophysical calculation have to be made. Because of the Butlerian Jihad, any kind of complex computers, aka “Thinking Machines”, are religiously prohibited, and thus the calculations needed for a jump must be done by a human (During the Jihad itself, before the widespread use of the Spice and the discovery that it could be used for navigation, humans were forced to utilize navigation computers, which they carefully monitored and which were rigged with multiple redundant cutoff and self destruct systems). Even Mentats, who can serve in most other roles that computers once did, cannot perform these calculations. By ingesting the Spice, Navigators are able to operate the system via prescience, essentially twiddling the settings until they foresee that they have the setup right.

  • I think it’s interesting that, despite being portrayed as a joke, the infinite improbability drive is one of the concepts with arguably the best scientific basis. It is based around the concept of manipulating the probability of the ships location, getting the probability just right for the ship to appear somewhere else, avoiding the probability of it becoming a Sperm whale or a bowl of petunias along the way.

    This is actually just a way of thinking about quantum tunnelling, and there is work going in to showing quantum tunnelling effects in larger than sub-atomic objects.

    That’s not to say it’s any more probable or realistic than any other FTL, I’m not Deepak Chopra, just that it conforms to real physics better than most. Which has always amused me given that it was always just a joke.

  • Using near light speed travel, and time dilation, would make a trip considerably shorter for the person going that speed, an example might be at 99% light speed, time is only running at around 1% (not quite, because it asymptotes towards infitiny at light speed, but it works for our example here). So, a 100 year journey at 99% light speed would only take one apparent year, and fuel usage, etc would only be apparent for one year of travel, however, to the rest of the universe, it would take that 100 years relative.

  • I have been to Alpha Centauri… It’s crap! it’s a 9 day week of 31 hour days & the weekend is only 1 day! But the beer was cheap!