I’ve Given Ya All She’s Got, Captain!
I remember fondly watching reruns of Star Trek when I was a kid (I’m not quite old enough to remember them airing for the first time, although we were born in the same year!) and Scotty was always one of my favorite characters. His engineering miracles pulled the Enterprise and her crew out of the fire more often than most. Sometimes it seemed like every other episode, Kirk demanded something of Scotty and the ship that had never been done before, and Scotty never failed to deliver.
Warp speed, Star Trek’s version of faster than light travel, was how the Enterprise zoomed around the galaxy. Star Wars had hyperspace. They folded space in Frank Herbert’s Dune stories. Stargates, wormholes, black holes, and numerous other devices have been used in science fiction to get around nature’s cosmic speed limit: the speed of light.
The speed of light is around 186,000 miles per second. Light moves fast enough to circle the Earth more than seven times a second! Why would anyone need or want to travel faster than that? The unfortunate answer to that is space is mind bogglingly big.
The Earth seems very large to us, sitting on its surface. Yet, when we look around in space, we see that the Earth is quite tiny on the cosmic scale of things. And the distances required to move from planet to planet, or star system to star system, are truly enormous indeed. As I mentioned in the last post, it takes radio transmissions, traveling at the speed of light, about fourteen minutes to reach Curiosity on Mars. And Mars is our closest neighbor!
The distance between stars is measured in terms of lightyears; in other words, the distance light can travel in a full year of time. That’s about six trillion miles. The closest stars which are similar to our sun in size and temperature, are ten to twenty lightyears away. In contrast, the first Earthlike planet which astronomers discovered late last year, orbits a star around 600 lightyears away. Think about that. If aliens on that world had a telescope powerful enough to see us, they would be viewing the Earth as it was 600 years ago. Those aliens might be watching the coronation of Henry V in England! In order to communicate with those imaginary aliens, we would have to wait 1,200 years for a message to make that round trip.
In order for science fiction stories to involve extraterrestrials, the vast majority of them have employed some method to circumvent the lightspeed dilemma. In the book I’m currently working on, I’m using a method involving extra dimensions than the three we’re familiar with, but I think I’ll save that discussion for another post. I do hope someday humans can solve the lightspeed riddle. The universe is so vast and interesting, it would be a shame not to be able to explore it.
Beam me up, Scotty!