Science or Fiction?

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Blog 3: Talking about time travel and relativity in this class and reading Kip Thorne’s book challenged many of the preconceptions I had about the applications and the reach of science. I had little knowledge of advanced physics concepts such as wormholes and time travelling. I knew that they were theoretically possible (meaning to me that they hadn’t been disproved yet) but I thought that they were so unrealistic that they had basically been placed in the ‘trash heap’ of physics research. I was surprised to learn of all the scientifically and mathematically-based thought that had been put into these concepts, by such renowned scientists like Kip Thorne. One of the things that truly astounded me was that notions such as time travel, which previously was considered firmly in the realm of science fiction, and had been met with disdain by actual scientists, have gained much more scientific credence over a relatively short period of time. For example, time travel, contrary to simply never being disproven, has actually been predicted to be possible under certain circumstances. The fact that closed time-like curves have been predicted or even proven to appear under certain configurations of matter and energy, such as an infinitely long, cylindrical black hole from Einstein’s field equations is not only enlightening but also exhilarating to me. I’m disregarding the fact that these configurations have never been seen and in some cases are unable to exist because it is the thought that things such as time travel are possible under a circumstance – even if that circumstance itself is impossible – that truly piques my imagination. As another example, Thorne mentions that it is possible to keep a wormhole open with a type of exotic matter that there is no evidence of. I think that this case is of more interest because there have been observed phenomena that have some of the characteristics of this exotic matter. For example, vacuum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole have a negative average energy density, a characteristic of exotic matter.

This got me thinking: could there be other, unknown substances in the universe that could be made of this exotic matter? There is a little historical irony here: in the medieval ages, people thought that things outside the world were made of mysterious ‘ether’, a substance that was separate from the Earth and was not subject to the same laws. Obviously, since the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, it has been shown that this is not the case; matter and the laws of physics are the same down here as they are up there. Now, we are looking for a different kind of matter; one that may not follow the laws that have been held to be universal. For example, if antimatter is defined to be the opposite of matter, could it have properties such as ‘negative mass’ and ‘negative energy’, which could give it a negative energy density? Or could little known features such as dark energy, which is thought to be the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe, also prevent wormholes from collapsing? I am no expert, but being inspired by reading Thorne’s book, I am simply asking questions in the spirit of Thorne, following his belief that “among all thought experiments…the ones most likely to yield deep new insights are those that push the hardest.” I think that even such improbable phenomena such as wormholes should still be studied, if not for pure scientific curiosity, then because considering such things could lead to a better understanding of the universe.

Looking at how far we have progressed in the short time span of 500 years, and the meteoric rise of scientific and technological innovation, I am confident that some of the fundamental questions we have today will be resolved in the not-too-distant future. However, there is a caveat; it is imperative that we always consider the implications and possible repercussions of scientific advancement. Thorne talks of infinitely advanced civilizations. I’ll end my post with my take on this – I believe that one day, human scientific knowledge may become (essentially) infinite. However, human wisdom will never be.



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