wants to work on is helping the human species to SOMEDAY get to faster than light (FTL) travel,
as soon as possible, whatever it might take to make it real.
His question reminds me of a time long ago, when I told one of my kids: "You are excited by Star Trek, and by heroes like Captain Kirk and Captain Picard. Those were nice guys, but they were not the most important heroes of that story. The real hero is the guy or girl who GIVES us the starship in the first place; without that, none of those captains would have anything to drive, and humans would never be part of the larger galaxy at all (unless we just get run over).
"And in truth... YOU have the opportunity to become that hero. What it really will take is a new understanding of basic physics, the understanding which has to come before the engineering. No guarantee it can work -- there are never guarantees for this kind of thing. But in truth, I have spent most of my life doing the most unpleasant and hardest starting part of the job, developing a starting point. I would be very happy to turn it all over, for the next, more rewarding part of this great probe into the unknown..."
So what I wrote this starting graduate student was:
Thank you, Alan!
I am glad that you have decided not to forget really important questions, and you are right to ask me.
Most people who get past the PHD now tend to forget the important larger questions -- which creates an opportunity for those few who do.
But it is still extremely difficult.
I remember a time in graduate school when someone said: "Ah, so you are interested in learning how the universe really works. You need to understand that this pursuit is now like art.
You need to find a day job, which is different from what you really want to do, but which helps as much as possible in letting you do the important work on your own time. And you must be very patient."
Transportation faster than light (FTL) will not be easy, and of course we do not yet know whether it is possible. The effort to achieve it is a stochastic game.
(When I taught engineering optimization in a video course to Memphis a year or two ago, we spent about two weeks on the approach of Howard Raiffa, to understand in qualitative terms what stochastic optimization is really about.)
It will require connected efforts of people in many areas; no one person can do it all. Each person would have to decide which part of the puzzle they think they could help with.
The most obvious piece is that we need a better understanding of gravity, of bending space. Which model of gravity is really true, general relativity (GR) or the theory of Moffat or something else?
Moffat, at the Perimeter Institute, has an interesting theory (well-defined PDE) which tries to predict HOW the speed of light actually varies. I think it is far more mature than Dirac?s ideas in that area.
(Lately, I begin to see ways that variable Planck?s constant might be understandable, but not speed of light, in my own modeling efforts.) There are HUGE anomalies when people try to predict the movement of galaxies using GR;
with GR, it only works when we assume a lot of unknown dark matter and dark energy, but Moffat?s theory predicts what we observe without such epicycles. But there are other theories of gravity. Many gravity researchers are really honest about looking for alternative theories, and using experiments to learn which one is true. That is a vital field, but it is not engineering. I do not know whether the Perimeter Institute would accept PhD students coming from an engineering background.
Once a good theory is developed, there are still many issues in how to use it to design FTL communications and travel. Engineering design methods become important there. In fact: it is almost an engineering task to
study the question: can we develop designs for Moffat?s theory which would achieve FTL, like the Alcubierre solutions for GR, but without a need for exotic matter? Is it possible? I do not know whether anyone has ever studied that issue. Optimal design may indeed be very important in addressing that question ? or maybe not. I should not pretend to know.
For myself, I have put much more effort into trying to improve our understanding of the electronic, photonics and nuclear sectors, beyond the limited power of today?s standard model of physics.
That is abject heresy, but perhaps I am beginning to make some progress on the cultural barriers to this area:
I tend to believe that we will need more understanding of nuclear force, before we can actually have enough local focused energy to actually do FTL.
But I also worry that experiments in that area might accidentally blow up the entire earth. (There are curious hints of planets elsewhere in the galaxy which
blew up for reasons we do not begin to understand.) Thus I hope that experiments in space can be started as soon as possible, for things which might be dangerous.
Juan Robalino of Ecuador/Austria has also been working to juggle these worlds, and may be active long after I am not. Actually, I retire on , and probably many areas of science and technology I have started will
be cut off at that time (or, really, even before that).
Best of luck,