The movie ‘Interstellar’ and wormholes

The other day, I did a post on interstellar exploration which linked to one by Sten Odenwald on the problems with interstellar travel.  Well, he posted some follow-up remarks, expressing some surprise at the response, doubling down on the aspects of the limitations of interstellar travel he identified, and urging people to be optimistically realistic.  (I predict he’ll get a similar response to this post.)

One thing I wanted to add to the remarks I made in my post, is that I don’t oppose research into possible faster than light solutions.  I just think we have to realistic about their prospects.  This subject is coming up again with the release of the movie ‘Interstellar’ tomorrow.

It sounds like a big part of the movie’s plot is going to involve wormholes.  These are actually theoretical concepts, and the movie had a heavy weight physicist, Kip Thorne, consulting to make sure they got it right.  (Thorne is actually releasing a book about the physics of the movie.)

As I said in my earlier post, these faster than light concepts are extremely speculative.  To understand how speculative, you might be interested in this write up by Paul Halpern at the Starts With A Bang blog.  The TL;DR is that traversable wormholes require something called “exotic matter” to produce “negative energy” to keep them from instantly collapsing.  Exotic matter has not yet been observed in nature.  Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that it couldn’t conceivably be manufactured.

But then there’s this:

Even if exotic matter is identified and put to use, there is another obstacle to traversable wormhole construction — the enormous amount of ordinary matter required. Researchers estimate that one would need a glob of mass comparable to millions of suns. Clearly, wormhole construction is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.

It’s always possible someone will find a way around these difficulties.  We don’t know what science will discover in centuries to come.

But if we’re doing scientific speculation, the probabilities are that exploring the stars will happen on far longer time frames than we’re used to now, and our best bet may be engineering ourselves to cope with those time frames.  Far out?  Sure.  But anywhere near as far out as harnessing the mass of a million suns to create a wormhole?

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9 Responses to The movie ‘Interstellar’ and wormholes

  1. Brett says:

    It definitely seems like the only civilizations that could engage in wormhole engineering (barring some weird break-through that seems unlikely at this point) would already have really good interstellar travel below the speed of light. I’d almost wonder if they’d even care about the time differences, since they’d presumably have a system set up by then that was built around them in terms of communications.

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    • Good point. It might be that wormholes, if they ever come to pass, would be used to travel truly immense distances (like between galaxies), but interstellar travel would happen only using sublight methods. Even if the wormholes only allowed microscopic objects to pass through, it could used to establish a toehold in remote regions of the universe, and FTL communication with that region.

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  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    We’d better figure out how to get off this rock in big numbers. We only have a few billion years before the sun expands and parboils the place. Light sails offer some interesting possibilities…

    An interesting fact:even at sub-light speeds, it’s possible to colonize the galaxy in a mere 250,000 years or so. That we don’t seem to see any signs of that is also somewhat interesting. Fermi’s Paradox!

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    • I think it was Jon von Neumann who pointed out that even if it’s only possible to travel at 1% of light speed, self replicating probes could colonize the entire galaxy in 100 million years. A long time for us perhaps, but not in cosmic terms.

      Even if that turns out to be hopelessly infeasible, our star will have many “near misses” of other stars as it goes around the galaxy, where we’ll be perhaps a 10-20% of a light year apart. From what I understand, this can be expected to happen every few tens of millions of years. So, there’s no reason to expect we won’t be in thousands of solar systems, at least, by the time ours dies. (Surviving the heat death of the universe will be a different matter entirely.)

      Of course, all of this assumes we don’t kill ourselves off first.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I think that last is the most likely. I know an SF author who posited that _all_ intelligent races kill themselves off eventually — it’s inevitable. It would explain why there seems to be no one out there. Maybe reality is just too dangerous to allow evolved chimps to go around banging atoms together.

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  3. Pingback: Interstellar: more accurate than the typical sci-fi movie, but still had issues | SelfAwarePatterns

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