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Washington Post Article GWU Symposium

From: John Velez <johnvelez.aic.nul>
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 12:41:13 -0500
Archived: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 06:15:03 -0500
Subject: Washington Post Article GWU Symposium

Source:  The Washington Post


A Trip as Far Away as Space-Time Will Allow
Scientists Contemplate Ideas, Impossibilities of Interstellar Transit

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, November 18, 2002; Page A12

So: It's about 7:45 p.m. in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on a chill,
blustery December night, when this "big round thing" with
flashing red lights suddenly crashes in Big Lake Park, just off
North Eighth Street.

Eleven witnesses, including cops and firefighters, either see
the crash or rush to the scene within 15 minutes to watch the
flames from the molten metal - mostly carbon steel - that covers
the ground.

It happened on Dec. 17, 1977. The "big round thing" that local
resident Chris Moore saw hovering in the air 25 years ago has
never been explained.

No one knows if aliens are really blowing up their starships
over Council Bluffs. But if extraterrestrial life forms are
visiting from time to time, somewhere some sentient beings must
have figured out a way to transit interstellar space.
Discussions about unidentified flying objects march hand in hand
with the feasibility of interstellar space travel.

Earlier this month, George Washington University and the Sci-Fi
Channel sponsored a symposium at the university where serious
people took up these two topics. Scientists agreed that we won't
be doing star trips anytime soon, but "soon" may not mean much
in the context of the cosmos.

"The universe is 14 billion years old," said symposium panelist
Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist from City University of New
York. "Human civilization only began 5,000 years ago."

So give science a chance.

The trick, of course, is to be able to travel faster than the
speed of light - 186,000 miles per second - which is as fast as
anything travels in the world as we understand it, but not
nearly fast enough to commute to stars. Our nearest stellar
neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away.

There are glimmers about how this problem might be overcome.
They involve bending space-time in such a way that one could
scoot Enterprise-like through the cosmos.

One way is through "warp speed," implying that we can move
faster than light through space-time by distorting space-time
itself. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
likens warp drive to a moving sidewalk: A person walks at one
speed but travels much faster because the sidewalk moves as

Another way to distort space-time is by harnessing an enormous
amount of energy - like that of an entire star -- to create a
pathway, or "wormhole," connecting two points that used to be

Suppose, Kaku said, "you wanted to get from one side of a rug to
the other, and instead of walking across, you used a big hook to
pull the other side of the rug close to you. Then you just
stepped over." By crumpling the rug, you built the wormhole,
Kaku said: "It's like Alice Through the Looking Glass - you
start in Oxford, then step through the wormhole and you're in

Which is where all of this is right now. The theories are
neither proven nor discounted, the science doesn't exist to
describe these phenomena with the necessary rigor, and the
engineering needed to pull off the technological feats can't
even as yet be contemplated.

"I like to speculate about this stuff as much as the next guy,
but it's really hard to do," said Ralph L. McNutt Jr., chief
scientist for the Space Department at the Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory. "There is no obvious way
of getting to warp drive out there."

Instead, McNutt would test the limits of the real world. He is
leading a team that has suggested to NASA's Institute for
Advanced Concepts the possibility of sending a 340-pound probe
powered by nuclear generators into interstellar space to a
distance of 93 billion miles from Earth. "It's still not far
away," McNutt said, noting that a light-year is more than 63
times farther, but it will test the current limits of

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists have moved a bit
further with what the laboratory's Henry M. Harris calls the
"proof of concept" for a "beamed energy sail" that could cut
travel time to Proxima Centauri from 400 centuries (in a rocket)
to a mere 40 years.

Using a lightweight, high-temperature-resistant, carbon-based
sail material, the JPL proposal envisions a starship pushed deep
into the solar system by a huge laser: "We could get to Jupiter
in eight hours and be moving at a tenth of the speed of light,"
Harris said.

Harris said that JPL and the sailmaker, Energy Science
Laboratories Inc. of San Diego, have accelerated small sails in
vacuum chambers "at a few g's" and that "we can extrapolate that
material for a spacecraft accelerating at 100 g's." One g is the
measurement of the force of gravity on an object at rest on

But 10 percent of light speed still isn't very fast, and "we
can't go much faster," Harris said, because even a speck of dust
"could do serious damage in a high-speed interstellar

So the message is that comfortable, interstellar space travel -
 at least by Earthlings - is not on for now. But will it ever

This is a hard question to get at, but what evidence there is
suggests that thinking people believe it will. GWU panelist
Peter Sturrock, an emeritus physicist from Stanford University,
suggested that scientists tend to give credence to UFO reports -
 as long as they are polled by secret ballot.

Ted Roe, executive director of the privately funded National
Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena, found in an
aircrew survey of a major airline that 25 percent of the
respondents had seen something they couldn't explain, but
virtually no one had reported it. Aircrews, like untenured
physicists, can get the sack for reporting a UFO sighting.

But if UFOs are real, then so is interstellar space travel, even
though "when you talk about going faster than light speed, then
you're talking about [harnessing] the energy of stars," Kaku

For Earth, this is probably attainable in "100,000 to 1 million
years," Kaku added. "When I look at the age of the universe, I
see that we've attained technology in the blink of an eye.
There's plenty of time."

Others are not so sure. Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott
III invoked the Copernican Principle - a bedrock tenet of the
scientific method - which holds that nothing is "special."

If interstellar space travel were common, then "the Earth would
have been colonized by extraterrestrials a long time ago," Gott
said. "The Copernican Principle tells us that a significant
fraction of the intelligent observers in the universe must be
sitting at home on their own planets, or they'd be special. If
they aren't, then we're special."

=A9 2002 The Washington Post Company

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