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Warp Speed March 25, 2012

Posted by peterxu422 in astrophysics, cosmos, Science, Technology.
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Even if you are not a card-carrying sci-fi fan, you may have at some point encountered the term warp speed and perhaps even contemplated about its realities. While inter-galatctic travel and teleportation are still a far reach technologically, theoretically, that is within the known laws of physics, they are not in violation with our understanding of nature.

Warp speed, if you are not familiar, is traveling through space much faster than the speed of light. According to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, the fundamental speed limit in the universe is the speed of light, 300 million meters per second. Sounds fast right? But let’s put that number in perspective. If you were to travel at the speed of light from Earth to the center of the Milky Way, it would take you 25,000 years to get there. Forget about going to another galaxy within a reasonable time period. Also from relativity, due to a phenomenon known as length contraction, we know that objects get contracted as they get faster and faster. If an object travels at the speed of light, it will ultimately become contracted and squeezed into nothingness. Not very convenient for space travel either.

But if the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit, how do we get around this problem? The potential solution lies in Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which tells us how space is curved and can be warped. The one thing that can move faster than light is how fast space itself stretches. We know this because during the Big Bang, space expanded faster than the speed of light. Thus, to travel between two distant points in space, we can manipulate space itself to get to our destination.

The way to do this would be to expand the space behind you and compress it in front of you. The expansion of the space behind you gives the appearance of a push while the compressing space in front of you is dragging you forward. But realize that this does not violate Einstein’s postulate that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. You yourself are not moving, but space is and it can move as fast as it wants.

The best way to imagine this is by taking a balloon, where the surface of the balloon represents space. Suppose you draw two dots A and B. You are at A but B is located very far away. Now imagine taking a cut-out spaceship and taping it to a ribbon that can wrap around the balloon so that the ribbon is tied around the balloon, but not bound to it. If you squeeze the portion of the balloon in front of the spaceship, “space” is being compressed. But you’ll also notice that point A got farther away from the spaceship and point B got closer. From your perspective, the spaceship did not actually move, space did.

How then do we actually go about warping space? Well, it’s not easy, and certainly requires technology beyond anything humanity possesses currently. But in theory, a way to accomplish this is by using a HUGE amount of energy, specifically negative energy. Negative energy has an opposite effect on things. For example, if something were about to collapse in on itself, negative energy would hold it outward. If something falls down, negative energy would make it float up. A combination of negative and positive energy pushing and pulling on the space around the spacecraft would give the desired warping effect of space. So a spaceship with warp drive capabilities would have on it an engine that could create something like a bubble of this negative and positive energy enveloping the vessel.

Also, as you may have seen in sci-fi flicks that when spaceships go into warp drive, the light from point sources in space begin to stretch and get all line-y. The reason it is rendered this way is because as the spaceship moves faster, it is catching up in speed to these light beams and so the crew on-board sees how the light actually looks in its beam form. But remember, the ship itself isn’t moving faster, the space around it is.

VIDEO: World Science Festival Warp Drive, Lawrence Krauss

Star Trek 2009 Warp

The Need To Look Up March 17, 2012

Posted by peterxu422 in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmos, Science.
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Whenever I leave campus during the evening, I look up at the clear night sky. First, I look for the moon, if it is visible. I then look at stars that have not been drowned out by light pollution. Finally, I look for Jupiter and Venus, which have recently been particularly visible. There is something marvelous about being able to look at a planet with the naked eye that makes you feel a lot more connected with the cosmos, which is often perceived as distant and separate from humanity.

Questions that arise while stargazing include “Is there life out there?” and “When will humans live in space?” Scientists search for intelligent life based on a potential civilization’s energy consumption. They categorize them as Type I, Type II, and Type III civilizations.

Type I is planetary. They control the energy of a planet. They have the ability to tap the energies of tornadoes, volcanoes, and earthquakes as opposed to running away from them.
Type II is stellar. They control the energy of a star, much like the Federation of Planets from Star Trek.
Type III is galactic. They control the energy of billions of stars in their galaxies, like the Empire from Star Wars.

We are a Type 0 civilization. Humans gather their energy from dead plants (oil and coal). But we are seeing the birth pangs of a Type I civilization. For example, the European Union is the beginning of a Type I economy. English is a Type I language. The Internet is the beginning of a Type I communication system. Rock and Roll, Rap music, Gucci, Prada, Hollywood celebrities are signs of a Type I culture.

While the transition from Type 0 to Type I is perhaps the most glorious of transformations, it is also the most dangerous. Type 0 civilizations are rather primitive and vulnerable. They are subjected to nuclear warfare, germ warfare, terrorism, fatal asteroid collisions, and many other dangers to which they do not have the means to stop. It is not certain whether we will make it to Type I.

I see the issues that our civilization faces and I become more convinced of the necessity of space exploration and extending our means of survival beyond the Earth. A rising world population comes with tremendous demand. As resources grow scarce, violence and aggression will spread as people fight to survive. The Earth will be unable to sustain us indefinitely, and it will simply be too much to keep asking people to compromise the comforts of their lives. Space colonization is the optimal, inevitable, and necessary solution.

But at the current rate efforts in space exploration are being promoted, it is not likely the solution will be achieved in time to meet the problems we face. NASA receives only half a penny for every tax dollar. Their entire 50 year running budget is less than the $850 billion bank bailout. That funding has paid for space rovers, spaceships, the Hubble telescope, sending a man to the moon – all monumental achievements that have pushed our understanding of the universe and our technological capabilities to horizons beyond. Imagine what our world would be like if they had the other half of the penny. But more importantly, when making efforts to pioneer space exploration, you do not make advancements in one field, but across many other disciplines like electrical engineering, mechanical, robotics, materials science, biology. The space program is the tent pole to the entire scientific enterprise that can give manifold benefits in various ways.

How then do we make this happen? I think the first step is that more people should start looking up. Appreciate the heavens, the possibilities, and the necessity of expanding our understanding of the cosmos. And hopefully, this collective desire will trickle over to those who have the capacity to take action and the vision to partake in great opportunities. Maybe then, we will have the chance to reach Type I.

VIDEO: Neil Tyson at UB: What NASA Means to America’s Future

Book Review: Death By Black Hole January 16, 2012

Posted by peterxu422 in astrophysics, Science.
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Over the summer, I had the incredible privilege of meeting Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History. I, along with my fellow Fellows of the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship program, had a private seminar at the planetarium in his conference room. Before this meeting, I bought his book Death By Black Hole and took the opportunity to get it signed.

I began reading it during this winter break and have just completed it. It was a fun and enlightening read overall. The format of the book is mostly a collection of previous essays that Dr. Tyson has written and it is divided into chapters accordingly. Therefore, I found the transitions between each chapter a bit rough and sudden. I felt better bridges could have been built between the chapters, illustrating how the ideas/concepts discussed in one lead or relate to the next.

The other major question I had throughout was why he titled the book Death By Black Hole, as only one chapter covers this morbid, yet incredibly fascinating phenomenon. The book is primarily a discussion of astrophysics and the important events in history that lead to the development of the field, along with mentions of other scientific fields as well. My first impression by looking at the title was that the book would be an in-depth qualitative discussion of black holes.

Aside from those two concerns, I found the rest of his book informative and fun to read. Dr. Tyson certainly covers a wide range of important developments in science as well as cosmic phenomenons. A passage I enjoyed concerned Tyson’s thoughts on America’s declining role as a major leader in scientific research. He discusses the project that was canceled by Congress, known as the Super Conducting Super Collider (I would call it (SC)^2). The SC^2 was to be the most powerful particle accelerator ever created that would enable scientists to replicate the early conditions of the Big Bang, and perhaps understand how and why the universe came to be what it is, and not assume some other configuration. Tyson writes:

But in 1993, when cost overruns looked intractable, a fiscally frustrated Congress permanently withdrew funds for the $11 billion project. It probably never occurred to our elected representatives that by canceling the Super Collider they surrendered America’s primacy in experimental particle physics.

If you want to see the next frontier, hop a plane to Europe, which seized the opportunity to build the world’s largest particle accelerator and stake a claim of its own on the landscape of cosmic knowledge. Known as the Large Hadron Collider, the accelerator will be run by the European Center for Particle Physics. Although some U.S. physicists are collaborators, America as a nation will watch the effort from afar, just as so many nations have done before.

With the exception of the rather bleak but realistic outlook of this passage, Tyson’s enthusiasm and love of the cosmos is evident throughout the book. His pedagogical nature and at times humorous writing style will provide readers a basic understanding of the universe in a laymen fashion.

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