Yesterday’s Sci-Fi is Tomorrow’s Technology

It is the end of 2011 and it has been an exciting year for science and technology.  Announcements about artificial life, earthlike worlds, faster-than-light particles, clones, teleportation, memory implants, and tractor beams have captured our imagination.  Most of these things would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago.

So, what better way to close out the year than to take stock of yesterday’s science fiction in light of today’s reality and tomorrow’s technology.  Here is my take:


Time to Revise Relativity?: Part 2

In “Time to Revise Relativity: Part 1”, I explored the idea that Faster than Light Travel (FTL) might be permitted by Special Relativity without necessitating the violation of causality, a concept not held by most mainstream physicists.

The reason this idea is not well supported has to do with the fact that Einstein’s postulate that light travels the same speed in all reference frames gave rise to all sorts of conclusions about reality, such as the idea that it is all described by a space-time that has fundamental limits to its structure.  The Lorentz factor is a consequence of this view of reality, and so it’s use is limited to subluminal effects and is undefined in terms of its use in calculating relativistic distortions past c.

Lorentz Equation

So then, what exactly is the roadblock to exceeding the speed of light?

Yes, there may be a natural speed limit to the transmission of known forces in a vacuum, such as the electromagnetic force.  And there may certainly be a natural limit to the speed of an object at which we can make observations utilizing known forces.  But, could there be unknown forces that are not governed by the laws of Relativity?

The current model of physics, called the Standard Model, incorporates the idea that all known forces are carried by corresponding particles, which travel at the speed of light if massless (like photons and gluons) or less than the speed of light if they have mass (like gauge bosons), all consistent with, or derived from the assumptions of relativity.  Problem is, there is all sorts of “unfinished business” and inconsistencies with the Standard Model.  Gravitons have yet to be discovered, Higgs bosons don’t seem to exist, gravity and quantum mechanics are incompatible, and many things just don’t have a place in the Standard Model, such as neutrino oscillations, dark energy, and dark matter.  Some scientists even speculate that dark matter is due to a flaw in the theory of gravity.  So, given the incompleteness of that model, how can anyone say for certain that all forces have been discovered and that Einstein’s postulates are sacrosanct?

Given that barely 100 years ago we didn’t know any of this stuff, imagine what changes to our understanding of reality might happen in the next 100 years.  Such as these Wikipedia entries from the year 2200…

–       The ultimate constituent of matter is nothing more than data

–       A subset of particles and corresponding forces that are limited in speed to c represent what used to be considered the core of the so-called Standard Model and are consistent with Einstein’s view of space-time, the motion of which is well described by the Special Theory of Relativity.

–       Since then, we have realized that Einsteinian space-time is an approximation to the truer reality that encompasses FTL particles and forces, including neutrinos and the force of entanglement.  The beginning of this shift in thinking occurred due to the first superluminal neutrinos found at CERN in 2011.

So, with that in mind, let’s really explore a little about the possibilities of actually cracking that apparent speed limit…

For purposes of our thought experiments, let’s define S as the “stationary” reference frame in which we are making measurements and R as the reference frame of the object undergoing relativistic motion with respect to S.  If a mass m is traveling at c with respect to S, then measuring that mass in S (via whatever methods could be employed to measure it; energy, momentum, etc.) will give an infinite result.  However, in R, the mass doesn’t change.

What if m went faster than c, such as might be possible with a sci-fi concept like a “tachyonic afterburner”?  What would an observer at S see?

Going by our relativistic equations, m now becomes imaginary when measured from S because the argument in the square root of the mass correction factor is now negative.  But what if this asymptotic property really represents more of an event horizon than an impenetrable barrier?  A commonly used model for the event horizon is the point on a black hole at which gravity prevents light from escaping.  Anything falling past that point can no longer be observed from the outside.  Instead it would look as if that object froze on the horizon, because time stands still there.  Or so some cosmologists say.  This is an interesting model to apply to the idea of superluminality as mass m continues to accelerate past c.

From the standpoint of S, the apparent mass is now infinite, but that is ultimately based on the fact that we can’t perceive speeds past c.  Once something goes past c, one of two things might happen.  The object might disappear from view due to the fact that the light that it generated that would allow us to observe it can’t keep up with its speed.  Alternatively, invoking the postulate that light speed is the same in all reference frames, the object might behave like it does on the event horizon of the black hole – forever frozen, from the standpoint of S, with the properties that it had when it hit light speed.  From R, everything could be hunky dory.  Just cruising along at warp speed.  No need to say that it is impossible because mass can’t exceed infinity, because from S, the object froze at the event horizon.  Relativity made all of the correct predictions of properties, behavior, energy, and mass prior to light speed.  Yet, with this model, it doesn’t preclude superluminality.  It only precludes the ability to make measurements beyond the speed of light.

That is, of course, unless we can figure out how to make measurements utilizing a force or energy that travels at speeds greater than c.  If we could, those measurements would yield results with correction factors only at speeds relatively near THAT speed limit.

Let’s imagine an instantaneous communication method.  Could there be such a thing?

One possibility might be quantum entanglement.  John Wheeler’s Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser experiment seems to imply non-causality and the ability to erase the past.  Integral to this experiment is the concept of entanglement.  So perhaps it is not a stretch to imagine that entanglement might embody a communication method that creates some strange effects when integrated with observational effects based on traditional light and sight methods.

What would the existence of that method do to relativity?   Nothing, according to the thought experiments above.

There are, however, some relativistic effects that seem to stick, even after everything has returned to the original reference frame.  This would seem to violate the idea that the existence of an instantaneous communication method invalidates the need for relativistic correction factors applied to anything that doesn’t involve light and sight.

For example, there is the very real effect that clocks once moving at high speeds (reference frame R) exhibit a loss of time once they return to the reference frame S, fully explained by time dilation effects.  It would seem that, using this effect as a basis for a thought experiment like the twin paradox, there might be a problem with the event horizon idea.  For example, let us imagine Alice and Bob, both aged 20.  After Alice travels at speed c to a star 10 light years away and returns, her age should still be 20, while Bob is now 40.  If we were to allow superluminal travel, it would appear that Alice would have to get younger, or something.  But, recalling the twin paradox, it is all about the relative observations that were made by Bob in reference frame S, and Alice, in reference frame R, of each other.  Again, at superluminal speeds, Alice may appear to hit an event horizon according to Bob.  So, she will never reduce her original age.

But what about her?  From her perspective, her trip is instantaneous due to an infinite Lorentz contraction factor; hence she doesn’t age.  If she travels at 2c, her view of the universe might hit another event horizon, one that prevents her from experiencing any Lorentz contraction beyond c; hence, her trip will still appear instantaneous, no aging, no age reduction.

So why would an actual relativistic effect like reduced aging, occur in a universe where an infinite communication speed might be possible?  In other words, what would tie time to the speed of light instead of some other speed limit?

It may be simply because that’s the way it is.  It appears that relativistic equations may not necessarily impose a barrier to superluminal speeds, superluminal information transfer, nor even acceleration past the speed of light.  In fact, if we accept that relativity says nothing about what happens past the speed of light, we are free to suggest that the observable effects freeze at c. Perhaps traveling past c does nothing more than create unusual effects like disappearing objects or things freezing at event horizons until they slow back down to an “observable” speed.  We certainly don’t have enough evidence to investigate further.

But perhaps CERN has provided us with our first data point.

Time Warp

Time to Revise Relativity?: Part 1

Special Relativity.


Faster than light (FTL) travel.

Most physicists says that you can only hope for at most two of these three concepts to hold.

Special Relativity has the advantage of 100 years of supporting experimental evidence.

Causality has the advantage of 1000s of years of philosophic thought, and daily experience (at least until very recently – see Rewriting the Past)

Which seems to be bad news for faster than light travel.  But we all so much want FTL travel to be true.  How else are we supposed to communicate with ET?

Well, Special Relativity may have received its first chink in the armor.  Particle physicists at CERN recently released a report on the experimental evidence of FTL neutrinos.  The 6-sigma quality factor reported implies that the margin of error for this experiment is insignificant, meaning that these results may need to be taken seriously.

So, which concept falls by the wayside: Special Relativity (sorry, Albert)?    Or Causality (sorry, Aristotle)?  Alternatively, maybe the “2 outta 3” rule needs revision.

As usual, I have an opinion.

And it is…

1. Special Relativity holds for the moment.  But we need to stop using circular logic for relativistic effects.  We need to stop drawing FTL paths on Minkowski diagrams that are based on the assumption that FTL is impossible.  And, finally, we have to come to terms with the fact that Special Relativity has to do with subluminal speeds and is UNDEFINED at FTL.

2. Causality holds for the moment.  At least in the context of our conventional space-time.  Throw in inter-Hilbert Space travel or Programmed Reality and all bets are off for Causality. (again see Rewriting the Past for more on the latter)

3. Given the caveats in #1, maybe we can get 3 outta 3.

Here’s just one example where it seems to fit:

Imagine a supersonic jet travelling at twice the speed of sound (2S meters/second) in the land of the blind.  A blind observer stands at 10*S meters from the jet at t=0.  At t=0, an audible event (call it Event A, the cause) occurs on the jet, such as an explosion on board the plane.  The sound waves from Event A reach the observer in 10 seconds.  At t=1 second, the entire jet explodes as the gas tanks catch fire (Event B, the effect).  At t=1, the jet is 8*S meters from the observer since it is traveling at 2S, so the observer hears Event B eight seconds later.  In other words, the observer hears event B at t=9 and event A at t=10.  Therefore the observer observes the effect before the cause.

But that doesn’t mean that the effect happened before the cause.  It only appeared to happen that way in the observer’s reference frame.  Similarly, anyone on the jet (who could actually hear things happening outside) would observe a full sequence of events happening backwards in time.  Is this time travel?  No.  No one is going back in time.  They are just experiencing a sequence of events in reverse chronological order happening in someone else’s reference frame.  Is there any reason to assume that the same arguments would not also hold in the domain of light?

In fact, the same thing might happen if you hopped aboard the tachyonic neutrino express.  First of all, I should note that there is some debate about this whole idea of time unfolding in reverse at superluminal speeds.  Much of it stems from the nature of the Lorentz factor:

This is the factor that gets applied to time and distance to calculate time dilation and Lorentz contraction effects at relativistic speeds.  It is also the factor applied to mass in general relativity.  It can easily be seen that as the velocity approaches c (the speed of light), the factor under the square root sign approaches zero, causing the Lorentz factor to approach infinity.  For this reason, time stands still, mass goes to infinity, and the apparent size of the rest of the universe shrinks to zero at the speed of light.  Or, more accurately, “apparent size” as you would SEE it.  But, what happens if you go past the speed of light?  In that case, the factor under the square root sign is negative.  For mathematics, this is not allowed for real numbers.  However, trigonometry has a trick, which is to define an entity i that, by definition, is the square root of -1.  Numbers containing i are considered “imaginary” or complex numbers.  In the real world, these numbers actually have a great deal of use in fields like electrical engineering, where they are used to determine the phase between periodic signals, or in physics, where they are used to determine the relative angle between field vectors.  But what they might mean to relativity is really anybody’s guess.  But it is for this reason that many physicists claim that you can’t accelerate past light speed; that is, that it would necessitate mass exceeding infinity or becoming “imaginary”.  Thus, the entire idea of traveling back in time is just one interpretation of what happens when the Lorentz factor goes imaginary.

So, let’s go with that idea on our tachyonic neutrino express, for the moment.  If you had hurtled through space superluminally in 1804 toward Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, you would watch Hamilton “fall up” into a standing position, the bullet flying out of his stomach and back into Aaron Burr’s gun.  The assassination would still have taken place in their reference frame.  Once you arrived in Weehawkin, NJ and got off the transport, your reference frame would have shifted back to theirs.

One might wonder what happens when you land.  Does the sequence of events go forward again, in which case you could predict the future?  No, that would truly violate causality.  What happens is that you have to decelerate to stop, and as you approach light speed, the backwards time effect slows down.  When you cross over into subluminal, it reverses and the events start forward again from whatever point in the “past” was hit at light speed.  Then, you get to watch the events unfold again in the normal temporal direction.  By the time you decelerate and land, you are at the same point in time as Burr’s reference frame, well ahead of the event that you just witnessed.  Hamilton would be dead, of course.  No time travel, no ability to interact with the past.  No grandfather paradox to solve.  All relativity equations still make sense, from the standpoint of the observations that we can make via known observational methods.  We would still experience time dilation and Lorentz contraction up until we hit light speed.  After that, what happens is anybody’s guess.  But I have a theory.

It’s just going to have to wait until Part 2.

einstein_raspberry185 timewarp185

Rewriting the Past

“I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way.”
-John Lennon

The past is set in stone, right?  Everything we have learned tells us that you can not change the past, 88-MPH DeLoreans notwithstanding.

However, it would probably surprise you to learn that many highly respected scientists, as well as a few out on the fringe, are questioning that assumption, based on real evidence.

For example, leading stem cell scientist, Dr. Robert Lanza, posits that the past does not really exist until properly observed.  His theory of Biocentrism says that the past is just as malleable as the future.

Specific experiments in Quantum Mechanics appear to prove this conjecture.  In the “Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser” experiment, “scientists in France shot photons into an apparatus, and showed that what they did could retroactively change something that had already happened.” (Science 315, 966, 2007)

Paul Davies, renowned physicist from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney, suggests that conscious observers (us) can effectively reach back in history to “exert influence” on early events in the universe, including even the first moments of time.  As a result, the universe would be able to “fine-tune” itself to be suitable for life.

Prefer the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics over the Copenhagen one?  If that theory is correct, physicist Saibal Mitra from the University of Amsterdam has shown how we can change the past by forgetting.  Effectively if the collective observers memory is reset prior to some event, the state of the universe becomes “undetermined” and can follow a different path from before.  Check out my previous post on that one.

Alternatively, you can disregard the complexities of quantum mechanics entirely.  The results of some macro-level experiments twist our perceptions of reality even more.  Studies by Helmut Schmidt, Elmar Gruber, Brenda Dunne, Robert Jahn, and others have shown, for example, that humans are actually able to influence past events (aka retropsychokinesis, or RPK), such as pre-recorded (and previously unobserved) random number sequences

Benjamin Libet, pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness at  the University of California, San Francisco is well known for his controversial experiments that seem to show reverse causality, or that the brain demonstrates awareness of actions that will occur in the near future.  To put it another way, actions that occur now create electrical brain activity in the past.

And then, of course, there is time travel.  Time travel into the future is a fact, just ask any astronaut, all of whom have traveled nanoseconds into the future as a side effect of high speed travel.  Stephen Hawking predicts much more significant time travel into the future.  In the future.  But what about the past?  Turns out there is nothing in the laws of physics that prevents it.  Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne designed a workable time machine that could send you into the past.  And traveling to the past of course provides an easy mechanism for changing it.  Unfortunately this requires exotic matter and a solution to the Grandfather paradox (MWI to the rescue again here).

None of this is a huge surprise to me, since I question everything about our conventional views of reality.  Consider the following scenario in a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) or simulation.  The first time someone plays the game, or participates in the simulation, there is an assumed “past” to the construct of the game.  Components of that past may be found in artifacts (books, buried evidence, etc.) scattered throughout the game.  Let’s say that evidence reports that the Kalimdors and Northrendians were at war during year 1999.  But the evidence has yet to be found by a player.  A game patch could easily change the date to 2000, thereby changing the past and no one would be the wiser.  But, what if someone had found the artifact, thereby setting the past in stone.  That patch could still be applied, but it would only be effective if all players who had knowledge of the artifact were forced to forget.  Science fiction, right?  No longer, thanks to an emerging field of cognitive research.  Two years ago, scientists were able to erase selected memories in mice.  Insertion of false memories is not far behind.  This will eventually perfected, and applied to humans.

At some point in our future (this century), we will be able to snort up a few nanobots, which will archive our memories, download a new batch of memories to the starting state of a simulation, and run the simulation.  When it ends, the nanobots will restore our old memories.

Or maybe this happened at some point in our past and we are really living the simulation.  There is really no way to tell.

No wonder the past seems so flexible.


LOST, Time Travel and Quantum Mechanics

For those who have been following the TV show, LOST, I hope you are not as LOST as I am!  Still, the topics that they touch on are on the fringe of the scientific fringe, which is perhaps why I enjoy the show.

Take the recent episode entitled “He’s Our You,” which aired on 3/25/09.  To make an intricate plot-line even more confusing, the writers have decided to throw time travel into the mix this season.  Which of course brings about our old friend, the “Grandfather Paradox,” a hypothetical scenario whereby you go back in time and kill your grandfather, negating your own existence, all Back-to-the-Future-like.  Seems like such an idea would make time travel impossible.

But, the Everett (aka “Many Worlds”) interpretation of Quantum Mechanics comes to the rescue.  Because in that theory, every quantum mechanical decision, every possible outcome of a particles movement forks a new universe.  In one, the particle moves, spins, or whatever, in one direction.  In the other, it goes in the other direction.  It solves the time travel paradox because as soon as you kill grandpa, reality forks a new universe, in which he is dead and you are never born.  Who is the guy who killed him?  Somebody from another universe.  Entirely self-consistent.

So don’t worry that Ben Linus’ path in the past will affect the gang in the future.  Not if Hugh Everett had anything to say about it.

Oh yeah, and check out my Powers of 10 simulation.  It just might hold the key to the show.