Special Relativity. It’s been the bane of space explorers, futurists and science fiction authors since Albert Einstein first proposed it in 1905. For those of us who dream of humans one-day becoming an interstellar species, this scientific fact is like a wet blanket. Luckily, there are a few theoretical concepts that have been proposed that indicate that Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel might still be possible someday.
A popular example is the idea of a wormhole: a speculative structure that links two distant points in space time that would enable interstellar space travel. Recently, a team of Ivy League scientists conducted a study that indicated how “traversable wormholes” could actually be a reality. The bad news is that their results indicate that these wormholes aren’t exactly shortcuts, and could be the cosmic equivalent of “taking the long way”!
The recent news of neutrinos moving faster than light might have got everyone thinking about warp drive and all that, but really there is no need to imagine something that can move faster than 300,000 kilometres a second.
Light speed, or 300,000 kilometres a second, might seem like a speed limit, but this is just an example of 3 + 1 thinking – where we still haven’t got our heads around the concept of four dimensional space-time and hence we think in terms of space having three dimensions and think of time as something different.
For example, while it seems to us that it takes a light beam 4.3 years to go from Earth to the Alpha Centauri system, if you were to hop on a spacecraft going at 99.999 per cent of the speed of light you would get there in a matter of days, hours or even minutes – depending on just how many .99s you add on to that proportion of light speed.
This is because, as you keep pumping the accelerator of your imaginary star drive system, time dilation will become increasingly more pronounced and you will keep getting to your destination that much quicker. With enough .999s you could cross the universe within your lifetime – even though someone you left behind would still only see you moving away at a tiny bit less than 300,000 kilometres a second. So, what might seem like a speed limit at first glance isn’t really a limit at all.
To try and comprehend the four dimensional perspective on this, consider that it’s impossible to move across any distance without also moving through time. For example, walking a kilometer may be a duration of thirty minutes – but if you run, it might only take fifteen minutes.
Speed is just a measure of how long it takes you reach a distant point. Relativity physics lets you pick any destination you like in the universe – and with the right technology you can reduce your travel time to that destination to any extent you like – as long as your travel time stays above zero.
That is the only limit the universe really imposes on us – and it’s as much about logic and causality as it is about physics. You can travel through space-time in various ways to reduce your travel time between points A and B – and you can do this up until you almost move between those points instantaneously. But you can’t do it faster than instantaneously because you would arrive at B before you had even left A.
If you could do that, it would create impossible causality problems – for example you might decide not to depart from point A, even though you’d already reached point B. The idea is both illogical and a breach of the laws of thermodynamics, since the universe would suddenly contain two of you.
So, you can’t move faster than light – not because of anything special about light, but because you can’t move faster than instantaneously between distant points. Light essentially does move instantaneously, as does gravity and perhaps other phenomena that we are yet to discover – but we will never discover anything that moves faster than instantaneously, as the idea makes no sense.
We mass-laden beings experience duration when moving between distant points – and so we are able to also measure how long it takes an instantaneous signal to move between distant points, even though we could never hope to attain such a state of motion ourselves.
We are stuck on the idea that 300,000 kilometres a second is a speed limit, because we intuitively believe that time runs at a constant universal rate. However, we have proven in many different experimental tests that time clearly does not run at a constant rate between different frames of reference. So with the right technology, you can sit in your star-drive spacecraft and make a quick cup of tea while eons pass by outside. It’s not about speed, it’s about reducing your personal travel time between two distant points.
As Woody Allen once said: Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. Space-time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening in the same place at once.
Anyhow, this prompted me to look up different ways in which apparent superluminal motion might be generated, partly to reassure myself that the bottom hadn’t fallen out of relativity physics and partly to see if these things could be adequately explained in plain English. Here goes…
1) Cause and effect illusions
The faster than light pulsar story is essentially about hypothetical light booms – which are a bit like a sonic booms, where it’s not the sonic boom, but the sound source, that exceeds the speed of sound – so that individual sound pulses merge to form a single shock wave moving at the speed of sound.
Now, whether anything like this really happens with light from pulsars remains a point of debate, but one of the model’s proponents has demonstrated the effect in a laboratory – see this Scientific American blog post.
What you do is to arrange a line of light bulbs which are independently triggered. It’s easy enough to make them fire off in sequence – first 1, then 2, then 3 etc – and you can keep reducing the time delay between each one firing until you have a situation where bulb 2 fires off after bulb 1 in less time than light would need to travel the distance between bulbs 1 and 2. It’s just a trick really – there is no causal connection between the bulbs firing – but it looks as though a sequence of actions (first 1, then 2, then 3 etc) moved faster than light across the row of bulbs. This illusion is an example of apparent superluminal motion.
There are a range of possible scenarios as to why a superluminal Mexican wave of synchrotron radiation might emanate from different point sources around a rapidly rotating neutron star within an intense magnetic field. As long as the emanations from these point sources are not causally connected, this outcome does not violate relativity physics.
2) Making light faster than light
You can produce an apparent superluminal motion of light itself by manipulating its wavelength. If we consider a photon as a wave packet, that wave packet can be stretched linearly so that the leading edge of the wave arrives at its destination faster, since it is pushed ahead of the remainder of the wave – meaning that it travels faster than light.
However, the physical nature of ‘the leading edge of a wave packet’ is not clear. The whole wave packet is equivalent to one photon – and the leading edge of the stretched out wave packet cannot carry any significant information. Indeed, by being stretched out and attenuated, it may become indistinguishable from background noise.
Also this trick requires the light to be moving through a refractive medium, not a vacuum. If you are keen on the technical details, you can make phase velocity or group velocity faster than c (the speed of light in a vacuum) – but not signal velocity. In any case, since information (or the photon as a complete unit) is not moving faster than light, relativity physics is not violated.
3) Getting a kick out of gain media
You can mimic more dramatic superluminal motion through a gain medium where the leading edge of a light pulse stimulates the emission of a new pulse at the far end of the gain medium – as though a light pulse hits one end of a Newton’s Cradle and new pulse is projected out from the other end. If you want to see a laboratory set-up, try here. Although light appears to jump the gap superluminally, in fact it’s a new light pulse emerging at the other end – and still just moving at standard light speed.
4) The relativistic jet illusion
If an active galaxy, like M87, is pushing out a jet of superheated plasma moving at close to the speed of light – and the jet is roughly aligned with your line of sight from Earth – you can be fooled into thinking its contents are moving faster than light.
If that jet is 5,000 light years long, it should take at least 5,000 years for anything in it to cross that distance of 5,000 light years. A photon emitted by a particle of jet material at point A near the start of the jet really will take 5,000 years to reach you. But meanwhile, the particle of jet material continues moving towards you nearly as fast as that photon. So when the particle emits another photon at point B, a point near the tip of the jet – that second photon will reach your eye in much less than 5,000 years after the first photon, from point A. This will give you the impression that the particle crossed 5,000 light years from points A to B in much less than 5,000 years. But it is just an optical illusion – relativity physics remains unsullied.
5) Unknowable superluminal motion
It is entirely possible that objects beyond the horizon of the observable universe are moving away from our position faster than the speed of light – as a consequence of the universe’s cumulative expansion, which makes distant galaxies appear to move away faster than close galaxies. But since light from hypothetical objects beyond the observable horizon will never reach Earth, their existence is unknowable by direct observation from Earth – and does not represent a violation of relativity physics.
And lastly, not so much unknowable as theoretical is the notion of early cosmic inflation, which also involves an expansion of space-time rather than movement within space-time – so no violation there either.
I’m not sure that the above is an exhaustive list and I have deliberately left out other theoretical proposals such as quantum entanglement and the Alcubierre warp drive. Either of these, if real, would arguably violate relativity physics – so perhaps need to be considered with a higher level of skepticism.