Put “science” in science fiction – The Varsity


Science fiction is a genre rich in wonderful stories, action-packed adventures, and worlds beyond our own. Anyone can agree that sci-fi stories are fictional, but they aren’t necessarily impossible. Their use of theoretical physics to explain tropes like time travel and hyperspace shows that attention is being paid to real science while constructing these fantastic stories. The question is, how real is science in science fiction, and how much is it the result of creative freedom?

Conquer time

The physics underlying time travel are not always explicitly stated in the books, shows, or even novels that describe it; many of them just assume time travel is possible and continue the story.

To take Doctor Who, where time travel is made possible thanks to the TARDIS. The TARDIS, the infamous blue police box larger inside, is powered by what is known as the ‘Eye of Harmony’, a star that forever collapses into a black hole and can travel anywhere in time and space. It navigates an extradimensional tunnel known as the “Time Vortex”, traveling between different points in time and space in the same way as hyperspace in Star wars allows you to travel between different points of the Galactic Empire.

Although it is fictional, Doctor Who has had an impact on the time travel theories of current physicists. Physicists Benjamin K. Tippet and David Tsang have write a paper explaining how a mechanism like the TARDIS could time travel.

Their paper uses Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which states that time and space are combined to form a four-dimensional space-time. Tippet and Tsang propose the creation of a space-time “bubble” which could travel freely forward and backward in time. While such a bubble would violate some universal laws of physics, Tippet and Tsang usefully suggest a hypothetical type of matter from which the bubble could be constructed that simply does not follow those rules.

Splice and combine enough of these bubbles together, and you could create a tunnel removed from the smooth flow of time like the one found in most Doctor Whoopening credits. It’s not a theory we’ll ever see tested, but it does demonstrate how theoretical physics can be mapped to fictional scenarios.

Jump through the multiverse

The show Loki uses the unique version of time travel found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rather than employing the butterfly effect, where the actions of the time traveler in the past affect the present, or the loop effect, where the time traveler is already part of past events, time travel in Loki Creates a branching timeline: Time travelers’ actions in the past have no effect on their original timeline.

LokiThe time travel version has merit in the scientific community. A physics professor at the California Institute of Technology provided a similar explanation of time travel to that Loki established, where a branching timeline is actually a branching universe. This concept of branching timelines is linked to ‘many worlds theory‘of quantum mechanics.

While Loki and Doctor Who both employ a real science degree, they are also both based on the assumption that time travel is possible. They use time travel as an instrument of intrigue, taking creative liberties to make it possible – but when it comes to showing how it works, they try their hand at creating a more scientific than magical explanation.

Take speed to the limit – literally

Spaceships are a staple of science fiction stories, and nothing more than ships from Star wars and Star Trek. Almost everyone recognizes the names Millenium Falcon and USS Enterprise.

They each take their own approach to crossing galaxies. Star Trekchain speed precedes Star wars‘hyperspace. He creates an engine known as the Warp Drive, which uses a reaction between matter and antimatter to reach and exceed the speed of light. Each increase in speed is called a “warp factor” and motors go from warp factor one – the speed of light – to warp factor 10 – an infinite speed. Everything else is a multiple of the speed of light.

Warp training works by pushing spaceships through a wormhole – a part of space that has curved into itself, connecting two different parts of the universe.

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