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Faculty Author on the Science of Deep Space Travel

Emeritus Professor Contemplates Starships, Stargates and Absurdly Benign Wormholes

April 10, 2013

Blue book cover with gold title

The cover of “Making Starships and Stargates: The Science of Interstellar Transport and Absurdly Benign Wormholes.”

The idea of speeding to distant galaxies through portals and warp drives strikes some people as the stuff of science fiction. But for James F. Woodward, stargates and wormholes are real science. The emeritus professor of history and science historian has worked for more than 30 years as an experimental physicist on gravitation research and the challenges of space travel. Woodward explains the physics and technologies needed for interstellar space travel in "Making Starships and Stargates: The Science of Interstellar Transport and Absurdly Benign Wormholes," recently published by Springer.

"If my research is essentially correct," Woodward argues in his introduction, "while I won't see starships and stargates in my lifetime, there's a fair chance others will see this technology in theirs."

Writing neither for an "educated audience with an interest in science and technology," the author argues that "there is an important point to be made in all of this talk of understanding and being able to master a technology. Although most of us might be willing to admit that dealing with the unknown might be challenging, indeed, perhaps very challenging, we would likely not be willing to admit that dealing with the unknown might prove completely insuperable. After all, we deal with unknowns all the time in our everyday lives. Our experiences and prior education, however, equip us to deal with the sorts of unknown situations we routinely encounter. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions' more than half a century ago, the sciences function in much the same way by creating 'paradigms,' collections of theories, principles and methods of practice that guide practitioners in the field in handling the problems they address. Actually, paradigms even guide practitioners in the selection of problems sanctioned by their peers as worthy of investigation."


This may sound like the practitioners of a discipline collude to circumscribe things so that they only have to work on tractable problems that assure them of the approbation of their colleagues when they successfully solve one. But, of course, that's not the case. The practice of what Kuhn calls "normal" science can be exceedingly challenging, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to solve whatever problem you choose to tackle.

That said, there is another order entirely of unknowns and problems. In the quirky turn of phrase of a past Secretary of Defense, there are "unknown unknowns" in contrast to the "known unknowns" of paradigms and everyday experience. They are essentially never tackled by those practicing normal science. And when they are tackled by those with sufficient courage or foolhardiness, they usually try to employ the techniques of the normal science of the day. An example would be "alternative" theories of gravity in the age of Einstein.

As the importance of Special Relativity Theory (SRT) became evident in the period of roughly 1905–1915, a number of people realized that Newtonian gravity would have to be changed to comport the conceptualization of space and time as relative. Perhaps the earliest to recognize this was Henri Poincare. In a lengthy paper on relativity and gravity written in 1905, but published more than a year later, he did precisely this. His theory was not the precursor of General Relativity Theory (GRT). It was constructed using standard techniques in the flat pseudo-Euclidean spacetime of SRT. Not long after, others, notably Gustav Mie and Gunnar Nordstrom, also tackled gravity in the context of what would be called today unified field theory. They, too, used standard techniques and flat spacetime.

When Einstein told Planck of his intent to mount a major attack on gravity early in the decade of the teens, Planck warned him off the project. Planck told Einstein that the problem was too difficult, perhaps insoluble, and even if he succeeded, no one would much care because gravity was so inconsequential in the world of everyday phenomena. Einstein, of course, ignored Planck's advice. Guided by his version of the Equivalence principle and what he later called Mach's principle, he also ignored the standard techniques of field theory of his day. Rather than construct his field theory of gravity as a force field in a flat background spacetime, he opted for the distortion of spacetime itself and the non-Euclidean geometry that entails as his representation of the field.

It is easy now to look back and recognize his signal achievement: GRT. But even now, most do not appreciate the fundamentally radical nature of Einstein's approach. If you look at the history of gravitation in the ensuing century, much of it is a story of people trying to recast GRT into the formalism of standard field theory where the field is something that exists in a flat spacetime background and is communicated by gravitons. That's what it is, for example, in string theory. String theory is just the most well known of these efforts. GRT, however, is "background independent"; it cannot meaningfully be cast in a flat background spacetime. This property of GRT is pivotal in the matter of wormhole tech. It is the property that makes wormholes real physical structures worth trying to build.

The point of this is that if Einstein had not lived and been the iconoclast he was, the odds are that we today would not be talking about black holes and wormholes as real geometric structures of spacetime. Instead, we would be talking about the usual sorts of schemes advanced in discussions of deep space transport: electric propulsion, nuclear propulsion, and so on. Radical speculation would likely center on hypothetical methods to reduce the inertia of massive objects, the goal being to render them with no inertia, so they could be accelerated to the speed of light with little or no energy. That is, the discussion would be like that before Kip Thorne did his classic work on wormholes.

You sometimes hear people say that it may take thousands, if not millions, of years of development for us to figure out how to do wormhole tech. Perhaps, but probably not. The key enabling ideas are those of Einstein and Thorne. Clever aliens, if they did not have an Einstein and a Thorne, may well have taken far longer to figure out wormhole tech than, hopefully, we will. We have been fabulously lucky to have had Einstein, who recognized gravity as fundamentally different from the other forces of nature, and Thorne, who had the courage to address the issue of traversable wormholes, putting his career at serious risk.

If you've not been a professional academic, it is easy to seriously underestimate the courage required to do what Thorne did. As a leading figure in the world of gravitational physics, to stick your neck out to talk about traversable wormholes and time machines is just asking for it. Professionally speaking, there just isn't any upside to doing this sort of a thing. It can easily turn out to be a career ender. Those of lesser stature than Thorne were routinely shunned by the mainstream community for much less and often still are. It is likely, though, that in the future Thorne will chiefly be known for his work on wormholes. And both his work and his courage will be highly regarded …

… So who exactly is this book written for? Strictly speaking, it is for professional engineers. You might ask: Why not physicists? Well, physicists don't build starships and stargates. They build apparatus to do experiments to see if what they think about the world is right. You'll find some of this sort of activity reported in the second section. But moving beyond scientific experiments requires the skills of engineers; so they are the target audience. That target audience justifies the inclusion of some formal mathematics needed to make the discussion exact. But grasping the arguments made usually does not depend critically on mathematical details. So if you find the mathematics inaccessible, just read on.

You will find, as you read along, in the main part of the book, that it is not written like any engineering (or physics) text that you may have read. Indeed, much of the main part of this book is written for an educated audience who has an interest in science and technology. This is not an accident. Having read some truly stultifying texts, we hope here not to perpetrate such stuffiness on anyone. And the fact of the matter is that some, perhaps much, of the scientific material belongs to arcane subspecialties of physics, and even professional engineers and physicists in different subspecialties are not much better prepared to come to grips with this material than members of the general public.

If you are an engineer or a physicist, though, you should not get the idea that this book is written for nonprofessionals. Mathematics where it is needed is included for clear communication and to get something exactly right. Nonetheless, we hope that general readers will be able to enjoy much, if not most of the content of this book. For if the material in this book is essentially correct, though some of us won't see starships and stargates in our lifetime, perhaps you will in yours."

© 2013 by J.F. Woodward, Published by Springer, New York and reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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