Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ask a Physicist: How Long Until We See Warp Drive; Teleportation or Wormhole Travel?

More accurately, Ask a bunch of physicists at Top 20 schools.
From Professor Tom Murphy's Do the Math blog:

Futuristic Physicists?
One day, sitting around with a group of undergraduate physics students, I listened as one made the bold statement: “If it can be imagined, it can be done.” The others nodded in agreement. It sounded like wisdom. It took me all of two seconds to violate this dictum as I imagined myself jumping straight up to the Moon. I may have asked if the student really thought what he said was true, but resisted the impulse to turn it into an impromptu teaching moment. Instead, I wondered how pervasive this attitude was among physics students and faculty. So I put together a survey and in this post report what I found. The overriding theme: experts say don’t count on a Star Trek future. Ever.

The Survey
I am most interested in functional aspects of the phenomenon, rather than clever technicalities that many of us might proffer. For instance, teleportation may have been “shown” in quantum optics experiments, but teleporting a human from San Diego to Boston stands apart from this lab trick.
For each question, choices are (and the numbers will play a role):
  1. No Opinion
  2. likely within 50 years
  3. likely within 500 years
  4. likely within 5000 years
  5. likely to happen for humans eventually
  6. unlikely to happen for humans
  7. < 1% likely to ever happen, or impossible
Note that answers 5 and 6 qualify as pessimistic: probably not ever. Answer 4 is a non-committal “probably.” It is easy to remember answers 1, 2, and 3 as a sort of scientific notation: 5×10x years.
Okay; here is the set of twenty questions:

What do you think is the likelihood that humans can:

  1. Have widespread personal transport that can replace the task of driving with a fully-automated piloting system (auto-pilot)?
  2. See jet-packs as practical transportation devices on a daily basis?
  3. Carry out the bulk of transportation in personal flying machines, rather than being tied to the ground in cars (what are wheels, daddy?)?
  4. Routinely teleport live human bodies respectable distances—enough to revolutionize the way we travel?
...And which academic department would you visit to query about teleportation, artificial gravity, or nuclear fusion? Theater? History? Psychology? Medicine? Chemistry? Physics? Yeah—that last one. So even though the questions are somewhat diverse and out of left field, let’s conclude that academic physicists at top research universities are as qualified a pool of experts as we’re likely to find for these topics.

I invited physics faculty at a handful of top-20 schools across the U.S. (using graduate program rankings from the US News and World Report) to participate in the anonymous survey. I promised that neither they nor their institutions would be revealed. I also invited physics graduate students and physics undergraduates to contribute, so that I could track attitudes as a function of age, expertise, or selected path in life....MORE
Beam me up! Traveling to the other side of the world takes a whole day and is such a hassle! (Just wait until fossil fuels are scarce and see what you think then.) If we could just teleport ourselves as coded energy streams (or whatever) we’d finally be liberated—unless it turned out to cost $10 million a pop… What do physicists think? We see the usual gradient, with 85% of professors saying it’s not likely to ever happen (the bulk labeling it as impossible). The median marches from 4 to 6 among the three groups. The grad distribution resembles the faculty distribution, but the undergrad distribution is much more nearly uniform.
So what about faster-than-light interstellar travel (warp)? This looks pretty similar to teleportation, with a slightly higher fraction (91%) of faculty saying it’s essentially impossible. Student opinions are regressively softer.

When it comes to using wormholes to get around, majority opinion counts this as unlikely to ever happen. It’s almost a lock among faculty, except for one individual who thinks we’ll be doing this inside of 500 years! This same outlier registered identical answers for the previous two questions. We’ll see more of him/her later....MORE