If you’re at all scientifically inclined, or simply peruse major media outlets regularly, you likely saw the big news today: Scientists have successfully detected gravitational waves, thus confirming a key piece of Albert Einstein’s theories regarding the universe.
And lots of science fiction writers cried out in joy. No, really, you could probably hear their echoes now if you listen closely.
I’m going to put on my journalistic hat for a moment and basically summarize why this is such a big deal. Back in 1916, Einstein theorized that the massive energies created from certain phenomena — such as the collision of supermassive black holes — would be so profoundly ka-boom that they would disrupt the very fabric of space-time. Mass would be transformed into energy, and that energy would be so powerful, it would create gravitational waves — ripples in space and time.
It was just a theory, of course, one that Einstein couldn’t really prove because nobody knew how to detect gravitational waves. And the wild-haired dude himself wasn’t always so sure about the theory — he went back and forth on it more than once in his career. And until last year, it really was just a theory.
But then scientists built some things — 2.5-mile long antennae that could detect the most minute movements at the subatomic level. And these antennae soon found ripples all over the place. Gravitational waves are real.
So what does this mean? Now, bear in mind, I’m no scientist. All the research I did for the Daedalus trilogy was, frankly, super hard. But I get the gist of it, and this is what has me excited: space-time is fungible. That is now, pretty much, a for-real fact.
Thus, when we talk about a “warp drive,” a la Star Trek, there’s a more solid scientific grounding for it. The “warp” in warp drive is the ability to warp space-time itself — folding space so that two points, separated by immense distances, could be brought together by either compressing or going around the space-time between them.
And let’s throw Interstellar into the mix, too. Wormholes, in terms of science fiction, are old news — they are basically pre-existing tunnels in space-time that allow you to go from point A to point B without expending the massive amounts of energy needed for a warp drive. But the key to saving the human race was in harnessing gravity as a source of propulsion. The movie was, perhaps necessarily, fuzzy on how that would work, and trying to get “quantum data” from a black hole seems like a total made-up thing.
But think about it — if there are gravitational waves rippling all around us, perhaps it’s possible for us to figure out a way to catch the wave, as it were, and basically surf gravity. Or again, if we had some serious, serious energy at our disposal, such as a harnessed matter-antimatter collision, we could theoretically make our own waves to surf — though I think warping space-time would be much more efficient for interstellar travel, as gravitational waves are only traveling at the speed of light, rather than faster.
Still…Earth to Mars in nine minutes by hitching a ride on a gravitational wave? Great stuff. Smarter people than I will surely plumb those depths in fiction. Maybe I’ll even do it some day.