The Physics of Star Trek – Warp Speed
“Engage.” One simple command that triggers an entire series of complex reactions deep in the core and within the warp nacelles of the Starship Enterprise. Engage implied not only a command to fly off into the unknown reaches of space, but also a revolution of thinking that combined fundamental physics with the innovative ideas of the future.
Warp technology, as envisioned by the writers of Star Trek, can be linked to today’s world of physics: Newton’s third law of motion and Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and also the latest advancements at CERN. The main dilemma for the writers was how to describe and create a world of warp speed without completely disregarding the laws of physics. They therefore decided that they needed to adhere, or attempt to adhere, to the fundamentals of physics by employing some of the basic laws of motion, time and space. The first concept the writers considered, and needed to overcome, for the idea of warp speed was Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. However, if this law of motion were simply applied to the speed that the ship was theoretically travelling (or even at half the speed of light), the force of the acceleration would kill a person by smashing them against their seats. Additionally, the fact that matter cannot travel faster than the speed of light caused further predicaments for the Enterprise. The writers attempted to sidestep these problems by utilizing Einstein’s theory of Special and General Relativity, and his ideas about the relationship between space and time. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity deals with the idea that space and time are relative – an object in motion actually experiences time at a slower rate than an object at rest. In regards to the Enterprise, this means that the closer the ship gets to the speed of light, the slower the rate of time they experience. So, in example, if the Enterprise had to travel...
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