"It is impossible to travel faster than light, and certainly not desirable, as one's hat keeps blowing off."
Woody Allen, Side Effects
Last summer, a small neutrino experiment in Europe called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus) stunned the world with a preliminary announcement that it had clocked neutrinos travelling just a few fractions of a second faster than the speed of light. The news even briefly overshadowed the far more recognizable Large Hadron Collider’s ongoing hunt for the Higgs boson.
Despite careful hedging by scientists, the popular imagination jumped right from neutrinos to a viable spacecraft for fast interstellar travel. After all, the prospect of faster-than-light (FTL) travel has been a science fiction staple for decades, from wormholes and Star Trek’s original warp drive, to the FTL “jumps” used to evade the Cylons in SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot. It takes years, decades, centuries even to cross the vast expanses of space with our current propulsion technology – a realistic depiction of the tedium of space travel in entertainment would likely elicit the viewer equivalent of “Are we there yet?”
So the OPERA announcement was bound to generate excitement, even if the neutrinos in question were only moving nanoseconds faster than light – hardly sufficient to outrun the Cylons, but nevertheless faster than c, the cosmic speed limit set by Albert Einstein back in 1905.
Unfortunately, the euphoria was premature: the OPERA results were incorrect, thanks to a calibration error. The culprit: a faulty cable connection in the GPS system used to time the neutrinos along their journey. That killjoy Einstein wins again.
But if the OPERA saga did tell us anything, it’s that the idea of travelling faster than light continues to capture the imagination. As Hollywood screenwriter Zack Stentz (Thor, a.k.a. “Vikings in Space”) said recently at a Los Angeles panel on the science of superheroes, “Every science fiction writer who wants to get out of the solar system [within a human lifetime] gloms onto that. It’s the leap of faith that lets you tell stories on this bigger canvas.”
“You cannae change the laws of physics”
“Leap of faith” is a particularly relevant phrase to use here. The fact is we’ll never be able to travel beyond the speed of light, at least based on our current understanding of established physics.
As any object with mass accelerates – like a proton in the LHC – it gains energy, always needing just a little bit more energy to accelerate even further. The LHC, the largest and highest-energy particle accelerator we have, boosts protons as close to the speed of light as we can get, but they never quite hit the mark. If a proton did achieve that speed, it would need infinite energy to go any faster, and we don’t have an infinite supply of energy.
Equations don’t tend to lie, especially ones that have been tested and re-tested in countless experiments for over a century. For all practical intents and purposes, the speed of light is an insurmountable threshold.
But physicists would never make any progress at all if they threw in the towel quite that easily, and nobody thinks Einstein will have the final word in perpetuity. Many scientists are happy to consider the possibility of violations of relativistic principles, even if none have yet been experimentally confirmed.
One of the earliest proposed possibilities for FTL travel involved a hypothetical particle called a tachyon, capable of tunnelling past the speed of light barrier. This turned out to be more of a mathematical artifact rather than an actual physical particle.