As a physicist I have been always interested about experiments that can corroborate theoretical findings. Most of these often become important applications for everyday life or change forever the course of the history of mankind. With this in view, I am currently following with great interest the efforts by the NASA group headed by Harold White. This work has arisen uproar in the web and in the media as it was come to envision the possibility to realize a warp drive, in the way Alcubierre devised it, and the stars were in the reach shortly. As it is well-known, Alcubierre drive implies exotic matter something that does not appear at hand neither in small nor in large quantity. On the other side, it was indirectly observed in the Casimir effect, a beautiful application of quantum field theory to real life. So, it is rather normal to link warp drive with exotic matter. It should be emphasized that nobody on Earth ever managed it in some way and it is not available at your nearest grocery store. The experiment carried out by Harold White and his group is realized with an interference device using lasers on an optical table. The idea is to observe a modification of space-time, a minuscule one, that would modify the paths of the laser beams. This would be comparable to the realization of the Chicago pile by Enrico Fermi that was the starting point for the Manhattan project. I would like to emphasize that such a laboratory small-scale manipulation of space-time would be a huge breakthrough in physics and would open up the way to a new kind of engineering, that of space-time. So, our hopes for a warp drive would be totally fulfilled.
There is an eager desire to obtain any possible information about the progress of White’s work but, of course, there are a couple of hurdles. The first one is that a scientist needs to be certain before to claim a result and we know very well why from some blatant examples in the last years. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Last but not least, Harold White is employed at NASA and some restrictions could be required by the organization he is working with. So, it is really interesting a video appeared quite recently where White claims that the effect is there but further work is needed for confirmation. If you have a hour of your spare time, this video is worthwhile to be seen.
This video is interesting per se because Harold White is talking to his colleagues at NASA. But in the question time happens the interesting fact. A White’s colleague asks him “where is the exotic matter?”:
and here something interesting happens. White seems to avoid the question and admits that they talked before in the office. What is more interesting is what the White’s colleague is saying then unveiling some of the machinery behind the experiment. The colleague says that the experiment could be carried out in some strong coupling regime that makes the magic happen without any exotic matter. White denies and disagrees. We know that he is using strong electromagnetic fields in the interference zone. Indeed, the matter of the behaviour of the space-time in a strong perturbation was studied for cosmological aims by Belinski, Kalathnikov and Lifshitz, the BKL trio. This scenario was confirmed by numerical studies by David Garfinkle (see here). I was able to derive it by analysing the behaviour of the Einstein equations under a strong perturbation (see here) in analytical way. So, the chance to study such effects in a laboratory would be really striking and would mean an incredible breakthrough for people working in general relativity and related fields. What the exchange between White and his colleague implies is that this could be already at hand and without exotic matter. All the growing concerns about the work at NASA are then not applicable and a different kind of analysis would be needed. Particularly, Alcubierre drive should be devised in a different way. As a physicist, I am eager to learn more about this and to know the real answer, from the horse’s mouth, to the question “where is the exotic matter?”.
Miguel Alcubierre (2000). The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity Class.Quant.Grav.11:L73-L77,1994 arXiv: gr-qc/0009013v1
David Garfinkle (2003). Numerical simulations of generic singuarities Phys.Rev.Lett. 93 (2004) 161101 arXiv: gr-qc/0312117v4
Marco Frasca (2005). Strong coupling expansion for general relativity Int.J.Mod.Phys.D15:1373-1386,2006 arXiv: hep-th/0508246v3