The Alcubierre Drive: When Sensationalism is Valued Over Science


Science reporting is a beautiful thing. It bridges the gap between scientists and the general public by translating the incomprehensible world of science into something people can understand. Someone can just pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or go online and learn about the vast world of stem cell research or interstellar travel without having to spend years studying at a university. However, what happens if the text is mistranslated, perhaps on purpose, and what if the science is sensationalised far beyond its years?

The Alcubierre Drive is one of the most interesting theoretical devices produced in recent history. It’s based off of the Alcubierre metric, which suggests that contracting the space in front of a ship and expanding the space behind it would allow it to travel at speeds far greater than we have before. It would be possible to reach over 100 times the speed of light if it were to work. Some of the more scientific minds among you may be wondering about the theory of relativity right now and the beauty of this device is, it exploits a massive loophole in Einstein’s theory as you are expanding and contracting space-time rather than just traveling through it. Complicated, I know.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but these aren’t wild fantasies. This is actual theoretical science. Of course, sci-fi fans everywhere were overjoyed, especially when the first few rendered pictures of NASA’s prototype craft “ISX Enterprise” were released. This garnered massive press coverage. From IFLS to the Daily Mail, many news outlets and science blogs were reporting on this new, exciting piece of technology. So what’s the problem?

It’s quite simple. The ISX Enterprise doesn’t exist and probably won’t for a very long time. Why? There are many difficulties with this device, the most notable being it needs matter with ‘exotic’ properties, specifically negative mass. If this condition is not met, the equations do not work. How is this a problem? Negative mass may or may not exist, but we have no way of collecting or synthesising it if it does. There are currently several researchers trying to design a drive that doesn’t require negative mass but as of yet, there’s been no success.

There are many interesting and wonderful things going on in science at the moment, especially in space. Unfortunately, warp travel isn’t one of them.

There is also a more worrying problem. The build up of of particles trapped in the distortions as the craft travels through space would be released when the ship stopped. This sudden release of high energy particles, gamma rays and other miscellanious substances picked up along the way would, to quote a research paper from The University of Sydney, leave any people at the destination “blasted into oblivion”.

Even with these problems, people still aren’t deterred. Titles like “Engage Warp Drive!” and “NASA Shows Latest Warp-Drive Ship Designs” are rife. Just type “NASA warp drive” into your favourite search engine and have a look yourself. This wouldn’t be a problem, if NASA didn’t say this work was mere speculation at the moment. They’ve said themselves that the tests they’ve run so far have been inconclusive.

It’s not just space science that’s overblown. Some publications love their sensaitonalist titles. Check the Express for example, that starts off their article with “EXCLUSIVE: Cure for ALL cancers is on it’s way“. I’ve linked it so you can read the article. Seems revolutionary, doesn’t it? In truth, it’s far from it. This study just noted that mole rats are immune to both spontaneous and chemically caused forms of cancer, and that treating human cancer cells with mole rat tissue extract kills them. This research is still years off finding a cure that applies this knowledge. Hardly just around the corner. Check here to see Cancer Research UK’s response to this article.

Thankfully several articles have popped up since the first wave which actually outline the pros and cons of the Alcubierre drive without overstating the theory behind it. If you sensationalise science, it becomes something other than itself. Science should be reported as science is, with both the benefits and drawbacks reported in tandem. We’re almost certainly not going to travel to Alpha Centauri in the next decade. This isn’t a cause for defeat, as there are many interesting and wonderful things going on in science at the moment, especially in space. Unfortunately, warp travel isn’t one of them.


Useful links:

Alcubierre’s original paper

NASA’s Goals

YOUTUBE: Starship Congress – Day 3 (Quick warning. It is 12 hours long)


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