How I invented a star drive without annoying Einstein too much

The ‘star drive’ in my hard SF story ‘Missionary‘ was always a side issue – a small wave of the hand, as it were, to enable a people-oriented plot (you DO want to check it out…). But I thought I’d post, today, on broadly how such a drive might work.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem with interstellar travel is that the distances are colossal, and the good Dr Einstein’s speed limit is very low relative to that distance. Interstellar SF has to wrestle with the fact that Einstein has been proven right – every time, every test. Even the exciting moment where a signal did seem to break light-speed was nailed down to a loose connector plug.

You can test General Relativity yourself, right now, on your phone: GPS relies on it to work – the satellites have to correct for relativistic frame-dragging, even at their orbital speed and distance, in order to bring the accuracy down to the level we use and enjoy.

There are also no loopholes – well, not ones we can use. In theory – and without violating either Special or General Relativity – you could drop into a black hole and reappear somewhere else, without crossing the intervening space. In practise, this – er – ‘Interstellar’ answer has issues, not least of them the fact that to travel interstellar via black hole, you first have to get to the black hole by interstellar travel. It also has to be extremely large, because otherwise you’d be ripped apart by the tidal forces (‘spaghettification’). And even then, there’s a high chance that what would emerge on the other side would be an undifferentiated stream of particles.

What about quantum physics? The current Copenhagen interpretation (wave/particle duality, entanglement, and so on) is basically incomprehensible, even to physicists. This has given rise to a lot of pop-silliness in which ‘quantum’ has become the substitute word for ‘magic’ to the New Age woo brigade. The real thing only works at sub-microscopic scale – scales below the ‘Planck length’.

Does this offer options? There’s a new hypothesis that the ‘Planck length’ is also subject to Einsteinian space-time distortion, meaning it shrinks in a gravity well. In places that don’t have so much distortion (‘Minkowski space’, well away from mass or energy), it’s possible that quantum effects might apply on larger scales. Nothing’s been proven yet, and nor do we know the actual scale. But it’s a thought – and it doesn’t violate anything else, which makes it fertile ground for sci-fi speculation.

But there’s more. Physicists also have some reason to doubt the current ‘Copenhagen’ explanation of quantum physics. That’s not to doubt what’s observed, because we know that to be true; but maybe the way we explain it is wrong. Einstein, who was also one of the physicists who developed quantum theory, was certain that he and his colleagues had missed something. And if Einstein was dubious – well, that’s good enough for me. In point of fact, a couple of theories have been proposed, that account for quantum observations, without using the ‘Copenhagen’ explanation, and accounting for relativity.

Put all that together and some options emerge, all of which are ‘plausible’ and none of which (I hope) would soak up stupid amounts of energy. Unlike other ‘jump-point’ drives (Heinlein’s ‘congruences’ in Starman Jones, Niven and Pournelle’s Aldeson Drive in the Mote series, among others) the one I concocted by virtue of piling up all of Einstein’s ideas in a heap and jumping over them several times while shouting ‘abracadabra’, works anywhere, providing space-time is flat enough.

Get to Minkowski space, turn the drive on, say the magic words (‘Frammin at the Jim Jam, Frippin in the Krotz’) and ZOT. You’re somewhere else.

OK, I can hear the cries now. Details! How do you navigate? How much energy does it use? What’s the range? Well, I haven’t thought of that yet. It wasn’t necessary for the story…

And yeah, now I gotta do a story where it is.

More soon. And meanwhile, ‘Missionary’ is available as part of the Endless Worlds Vol. 1 anthology, on Amazon. 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


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