Warp Speed Kills

An article at NewScientist tells of the deadly effects of traveling at or near light speed, citing a presentation by William A. Edelstein, Ph.D, a professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (“I’m a doctor, not a physicist!”). He uses Einstein’s special theory of relativity to explain how the human body could not survive the warp speeds depicted in Star Trek. The culprit is the matter surrounding the ship, sparse as it is.

Special relativity describes how space and time are distorted for observers traveling at different speeds. For the crew of a spacecraft ramping up to light speed, interstellar space would appear highly compressed, thereby increasing the number of hydrogen atoms hitting the craft.Worse is that the atoms’ kinetic energy also increases. For a crew to make the 50,000-light-year journey to the center of the Milky Way within 10 years, they would have to travel at 99.999998 percent the speed of light. At these speeds, hydrogen atoms would seem to reach a staggering 7 teraelectron volts – the same energy that protons will eventually reach in the Large Hadron Collider when it runs at full throttle. “For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC beam,” says Edelstein.

My first thought was how this effect would make a cool science fiction movie by itself. Other geeks had different reactions, ranging from “Duh” to “But but but what about…” Some selected comments about the aricle:

In fact the ship would have a bow shock wave in front of it and micro-meteorites would tend to get vaporised anyway. Large boulders (extremely rare) would have to be navigated around.The Bussard Ramjet proposal discussed in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos not only deflects the induced radiation, but also utilizes the interstellar hydrogen as a fuel.

The Romulan D’deridex-class warbirds of Star Trek’s 24th century (in the original fiction timeline, not the alternate created by the actions of Nero in the latest movie) were powered by a forced quantum singularity.

Well the hydrogen is one thing but kicking into warp speed anywhere near a magnetic field (such as a planet like earth) would probably melt whatever metal or anything even vaguely conductive in the craft through the induced eddy currents (ie. moving a conductor in a magnetic field). That would include the human bodies….

The Alcubierre drive, which is the theoretical basis for “warp” drive using Einstein’s General Relativity has many problems. However, the main idea behind the Alcubierre drive is that star vessels have no need of traveling near the speed of light. In fact, there is no real need for standard propulsion at all since what the theory seems to show is that space-time can be compressed in front of the “ship” and stretched behind it — hence the warp. The result of that warping of space-time is that distant locations in front become closer, while the location the ship once occupied become farther. The ship itself is not moving much at all relative to local distance markers. So, light-speed travel is not an issue.

Now see, this is the kind of stuff you pick up by watching Star Trek and hanging around on the internet. And all my kids want to do is read books and play soccer.


2 Responses to Warp Speed Kills