I was asked to be a panelist on a very interesting panel being held at the Gen Con convention. I felt unprepared and started doing research. I ended up contacting a brilliant and educated friend of mine, Dave Myers and asked him to give me his take on the subject of quantum physics. Below you'll find Dave's fascinating email, plus the panel description.
Gen Con Indy Writers Symposium Panel
on August 5, 2010 at 11:00 AM at the Hyatt Hotel
Time Travel, Parallel Universes, and Quantum Physics: In a parallel universe somewhere, you've already attended this session and know all about how wave theory, super-strings, quantum entanglement, and things like noetics bear on frequent sci-fi concepts like time travel and mirror Earths, but since you're not in that universe and the handy Gen Con map doesn't show you how to get to it, you might want to attend this panel and get some insight into actual physics . . . or just enough gobbledy-gook to make your next story sound credible even though it’s quite fantastic. Remember, in some universe, you are bound to be a well-known, well-paid, best-selling author, adored by fans, critics, and even your mother-in-law. Why not make this universe be that universe?
Panelists: Donald Bingle (Moderator), Paul Genesse, Bob Farnsworth, Tobias Buckell
Science does not know its debt to imagination. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. ~Isaac Asimov
There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. ~Mark Twain
As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. ~ Albert Einstein
Notes from the email Dave Myers sent me:
Quantum Mechanics are used along the same lines as Magic is in the realms of Fantasy. They are presented with broad hazy strokes of overlapping colors. This prevents the reader from focusing too closely on any particular concept and therefore uncovering the shallow depths to which the author actually comprehends the concepts. While this may seem harsh I should state that Quantum Mechanics are such a difficult concept to grasp in their entirety that there are only a dozen people in the last century that are credited with major discoveries in the field. I spent close to two years studying a Quantum Mechanics curriculum written by one of the most prestigious technical colleges in the world and I would consider myself a neophyte at best.
Before delving too deeply into Quantum Mechanics I would recommend that the student already have a firm grasp of Calculus, Classic Mechanics and be able to comfortably apply Schrödinger’s Equation to various wavefunction calculations. However, for use as an author I think far less knowledge is required to accurately portray the concepts embraced so haphazardly in modern Science Fiction. Below I will outline some of the common themes and explain how they mesh with modern scientific theory.
Important concepts to consider with close to and faster than light travel:
Kinetic energy and its affect on bodies travelling at the speed of light: A spec of meteorite, weighing 1 gram travelling at the speed of light would have the same kinetic energy as a bomb over 10 times the size of the First nuclear weapon ever detonated here on Earth. Now consider the mass of a spaceship travelling at the speed of light. Were it to impact a planet it could conceivably do enough damage to end all life and alter the planets axis or orbit.
The common description of safety for travelling at this speed is a deflector shield; but the energy required to deflect a 1 kg piece of space junk while travelling the speed of light is > 100 times the power output of every Civilian Nuclear reactor operating in the world today. Now this is a simplification since to convert kinetic energy to power requires an element of time, I assumed the enaction of the power over a second which is actually a much, much longer time than you would have to deflect an object at this speed. The concept of the ability to draw this sort of power in a fraction of a millisecond makes the power source exponentially higher; as in 108 higher.
This being said, we have theorized with calculation that it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with intrinsic mass to the speed of light. This is due to the Lorentz factor which was derived from a Dutch Physicist who’s formulation later would provide some structure for mass-energy equivalence, or the infamous E=MC2 . This has later been tested in particle acceleration. In testing scientists were able to accelerate a particle to 99.99% the speed of light; however, no matter how much additional power they invested they could not achieve light speed.
Also, it is theorized that if an object were to travel faster than light it would create a violation of Causality as the object would move outside the normal time axis, essentially going backwards through space-time and creating potential paradoxes.
FTL travel ignores everything we know about space-time continuity and relative physics, and yet it is still used with abandon in various forms of fiction. I have to believe this is just ignorance, not intentional undermining of the Science community.
So, if FTL travel isn’t feasible, what are the options?
The easy answer is Einstein-Rosen Bridges. In 1935 Einstein and Rosen co-authored a paper that described the potential for a warp in space time that would allow a bridge from two essentially flat regions of space-time regardless of distance apart. They theorized that a tunnel like opening could join the two for a very short period of time. Travel through these tunnels would be impossible due to the shortness of duration, however it has been postulated that highly advanced civilization would have the technology to hold these bridges open long enough to use them for travel. These Einstein-Rosen bridges are commonly referred to as wormholes. Wormhole traverse could allow time travel, but to do so would either open up an alternative reality or you would have to subscribe to a true complete unified theory by which all of our actions past, present and future are governed. This theory of lack of free will is the most probable, but rarely used in fiction.
Books that succeeded in using Quantum Mechanics well are:
Dune by Frank Herbert – an excellent take on wormhole travel. The spacing guild navigators are augmented to the point of prescience by ingesting the spice Melange. This allows them to safely navigate the treacherous Einstein-Rosen bridges without encountering a singularity.
Timescape by Greg Benford - a Great portrayal of what a research physicist does as well as some interesting concepts on "realistic" time travel.
The Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson – A series of books written largely about the same characters in three separate parallel Universes. Very good use of Quantum Mechanics as they are understood today. You have to read all three to truly appreciate the series.
-The Universe Next Door
-The Trick Top Hat
-The Homing Pigeons
Reactors. Assuming we are still using a fission reactor there are the issues with Ionizing Radiation. Ionizing Radiation comes in 5 main forms. Aplha, Beta, Gamma, X-Ray and Neutron.
We can disregard X-rays as they are not normally produced from fission. The four other forms have to be dealt with via shielding. This shielding works on a couple principals, but mainly the goal is to attenuate the energy of the radiation reducing it to a non-ionizing forms. Alpha and beta can be stopped with a layer of paper. Gamma requires a high density material like lead. Nuetron need to be slowed to a thermal state or absorbed into a material that will not result in the formation of another radioactive isotope. Water having hydrogen atoms in abundance is a great Neutron moderator as the atomic mass of a Nuetron and Hydrogen atom are essentially equal. Imagine a pool ball hitting another, equal and opposite reaction causes transferrence and dispersal of energy.
All of these are forms of Radiation. Only Alpha and Beta can be stopped with protective clothing. Every movie and book that I see that has the characters don their radiation suits to go in and work on the active reactor shows the lack of understanding of radiation. The suits are supposed to protect from contamination. Contamination is nothing more than the radioactive particles that are releasing these forms of ionizing radiation. Radioactive dust, mostly microscopic if you will.
Dave Myers graduated with honors from nuclear engineering school in the Navy in 1994 and spent the better part of 7 years monitoring nuclear reactors on both Los Angeles and Trident class submarines with a specialization in radiochemistry. He has worked the last 9 years in the Semiconductor field as head of operations for a prominent OEM. When he's not working with materials far inferior to Unobtanium he enjoys hanging out with his lovely wife Suzzanne, and riding super-charged motorcycles at speeds that he wishes approached the speed of light.
Thank you all for reading,
Author of The Golden Cord