Chapter 1: The proposal
If I am being stuffy, my name is Doctor William Axon Ph.D. Otherwise, it's Bill Axon, a lecturer in Computer Science at USA, the University of Southern Arkansas in Magnolia. My undergraduate degree is in mechanical and electronic engineering, gained before the computing bug infected me. I'm also an amateur astronomer.
Late one Friday afternoon in early May, I was working in my office, thinking about my lectures for the next week. Or rather, I had thought about my lecture material, and was now goofing off. My eyes were gazing vacantly at the ubiquitous Anniversary Tower as the thought passed through my mind that I had never seen ducks on the Duck Pond. I was now deciding what I would do over the weekend.
A colleague from the Physics Department came in through the open door.
"I say Bill, Could I have a word with you?"
"Sure, James, what can I do for you?"
James Burton is a Professor of Quantum Physics at the same college. He has some advanced articles to his name, which are a bit beyond me. I know because I had tried to read some of them. Quantum Physics seems to have nothing in common with the real world. I didn't think he would appreciate being asked for the 'For Dummies' version of his articles.
"I'd really like to chew the fat with you. Perhaps bounce some ideas off you."
"Sure. Take the weight off your feet. I'm more or less finished for the day."
He sat down, crossed his legs and put his fingertips together, and said, "Tell me, Bill, do you watch 'Star Trek'?"
"What do you see as the main problems in building the 'Enterprise'?"
"Do you mean a working version?"
"Yes. I'd like to build a small one so that we have a proof of concept and all that."
"Well, James, you'll need the hull structure, which is airtight. As for the drive, that would probably come in two parts: what in the television series they called the 'Impulse' drive and then there was the 'Warp' drive."
"That describes my thoughts exactly. Would it surprise you to know that for some time, I've been thinking about the 'Warp' drive, to give it, its 'Star Trek' name."
"I thought that Einstein had proved that you can't travel faster than light and that a 'warp' drive was purely fiction. How do you get around that?"
"Time travel is the answer. He didn't prove that time travel was impossible. Let me give you an example. Suppose that you want to travel a thousand light years and that you can travel at half the speed of light."
"Yes. That would mean a trip of two thousand years, just for the travel time, and not counting time for acceleration and deceleration."
"Correct! Now suppose that at the same time, you traveled back in time by nineteen hundred and ninety-nine years. How long would the trip appear to take?"
"Would that be only one year?"
"Yes, and what would your apparent speed be?"
"Would it be a thousand times the speed of light?"
"Correct, again. It would appear to be a thousand Cee," James sounded as though he was leading a slightly retarded student through a thought process.
"So how do you travel through time?" I asked.
"There have been experiments using lasers at the University of Connecticut, which I have been trying to replicate. They are about the distortion of the time component of the space-time continuum. The stumbling block has always been the sub-light drive, but I think I may have come across something that I can develop. The experiments that I've been carrying out on the application of lasers to subquantum kinetics have produced a totally unexpected force."
He took a breath and continued, "So that I could measure the force, I turned the experiment on its end, and mounted the whole thing on a wooden pallet. You see, to measure the force, I lifted it onto a couple of large balance scales that I borrowed from the sports department, and measured the decrease in weight. The trouble is that they need their scales back from time to time. It's making my work more difficult. Now then, how can I set up a suitable environment for further development?"
"Do you mean a working spaceship hull?"
"I suppose so, although it may be a little too early to be thinking of that. One thing about it, though, it mustn't cost the earth."
"How big do you see your drives being?"
"There's just the one. It's a combination of both the 'Star Trek' drives. At the moment, it's about the size of three filing cabinets like those."
He waved at my filing cabinets. Each was about a foot and a half wide, three feet deep and five feet tall. A quick mental calculation gave a total volume of sixty-seven and a half cubic feet.
"Hmm ... I wonder. Would an old airplane body suit you?"
"It might do, particularly if it still had its undercarriage, and if it didn't cost too much."
"How much is too much?"
"Almost anything, at the moment," he chuckled.
"Perhaps we could get a backer?"
"You didn't think I'd just walk away from this did you? It's too exciting! In any case, you'll need a lot of ancillary equipment: computerized controls, navigation gear, radar and communications equipment, et cetera. Won't you?" I continued, "I've got one or two ideas that might prove helpful. How can we see where we are going at faster-than-light speed?"
"I'm not altogether sure! I think we'll find that out on a short local trip."
"Why don't you leave it with me and I'll look into things."
He agreed, thanked me for my input, and got up and left. I continued to sit while I thought through the problem of getting a suitable aircraft body and, hopefully, find a backer. I suddenly realized that I was thinking back to front. Find a financial backer and the airframe would look after itself!
I picked up my phone and rang an entrepreneur friend of mine, Steve Edmunds.
"Steve? It's Bill Axon. I think that you could help me with a problem. Do you think we could meet this evening to discuss it? No. Not over the phone. There are too many wagging ears about. The bar at the Magnuson Hotel, at eight? That's fine by me. See you then."
I decided to eat in the College Cafeteria to save time. By eight o'clock, I was in the bar waiting for Steve to turn up. When he arrived, I got both of us drinks and we found a quiet corner for our chat.
"Right, now tell me: how much money do you need and what's so almighty mysterious about it?"
"Have you watched the 'Star Trek' series?"
"Yes," he chuckled, "Don't tell me you've met Zefram Cochrane?"
"Why, who is that?"
"Only the guy who invented the warp drives in the film, 'Star Trek, the First Contact'."
"Well, sort of. There's someone at work who thinks he's got a start on a combined 'Impulse' and 'Warp' drive."
"Are you serious? Exciting! How can I help you?"
"Yes, and I'm hoping that you might help us to find a backer and suggest how we could get a suitable vehicle."
"What sort of vehicle?"
"We were thinking about an old airplane body. It doesn't need wings, but it would have to be airtight and it would be neat if it still had its undercarriage."
"And how much money is wanted to develop these drives?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. I'll have to ask James about that"
That was how we left it after agreeing to meet at the bar the following Monday, at the same time. That meeting would include James.
In the meantime, I spent odd moments trying to dream up solutions to related problems, like navigation and communications, and thinking how we might solve them. I was developing quite a long list of the problems that would have to be solved. I suddenly thought; how are we going to power James' drives. It is one thing to use mains electricity in the lab, but how could we do it in a closed environment, in outer space?
I saw James the following Monday, and he enthusiastically received my news about the coming meeting; it almost seemed as if he was trying to rush me through the afternoon.
We were sitting in the same corner when Steve turned up. I made the introductions and we ordered our drinks. After they arrived, I asked Steve if he had made any progress. He looked at James and asked.
"Would an executive turboprop aircraft body do what you want it for?"
"I should think so. Why, what have you found?"
"There's someone I know. I arranged backing for him when he started up an aircraft recycling business. He has a dismantled Piaggio, P180 Avanti, nine-passenger aircraft. The body is still more or less intact.
"That would be fine if we can use the center of the cabin for the drive," replied James.
"How are we going to power the drive?" I asked James, "and how much extra room is the power source going to occupy?"
"I had a stroke of luck there. You've heard of those miniature nuclear power sources that the military are considering. I think I can get the loan of one for 'extensive testing'."
He waved his fingers as quote signs on the last two words.
"What about the radiation shielding? Won't that put the weight way up?" asked Steve.
"No. These are the extra low radiation type. What's more before you ask, I included their bulk in the volume estimate I gave Bill."
"Steve," I said, "have you had any joy in finding backers for us?"
"No. After we broke up, I thought 'What the hell'? This is the opportunity of a lifetime. If it works, it's going to make Bill Gates look like a pauper. How could I give up the chance to get in on the ground floor of an enterprise like this? I looked at what I had and what I could raise. I reckon I'm good for a million without breaking out in a sweat. If we need more, I'm sure we can get more. Anyhow, can someone explain to me ... in simple terms ... how your drives are going to work?"
"Well, I'm not sure," James said. "Have you heard of Miguel Alcubierre?"
"No. Who's he?"
"A Mexican theoretical physicist who suggested a form of faster-than-light drive. Let me think. Now, have you heard about the LIGO in Louisiana? That's the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. It should have detected gravitational waves." "But didn't they in 2016?" "Yes but that was the effect of two black holes absorbing one another. Now everyone knows that the laws of physics break down ata black hole so that we shouldn't be surprised when two of them get together. Perhaps a better analogy would be the Michelson–Morley experiment. You remember that?"
"At the start of the last century, two physicists, Michelson and Morley, set out to measure the speed of the solar system through the luminiferous aether, that's outer space to you, by measuring the speed of light in two directions at right angles. Their first experiment gave them a zero speed of the Earh through space, but then they should have discovered a measureable speed six months later. Their experiment failed, as have all similar subsequent experiments. The speed of light was invariant. Because of that, Einstein produced his theories of relativity based on the speed of light being constant. Similarly, we should have detected gravitational waves at the LIGO. We haven't. This leads me to believe, therefore, that we can control gravity. I think that my apparatus is making use of dark energy to do just that."
"I don't see," I said, "How does that translate into a drive?"
"It uses the concept originally proposed by Alcubierre in 1994. What the drive does, in essence, is to tilt space-time. That's all that gravity is; a tilt in space-time. I've found a configuration of powerful lasers that appears to carry out that distortion. That done, you just slide downhill. Put the tilt into overdrive and you're traveling much faster than the speed of light. It's all done with lasers, though, not mirrors."
"And how do you get a warp drive?"
"The Alcubierre drive produces a tilt in space-time. Think about that. Gravity is a tilt in space. What is a tilt in time? Time travel. That's what. Remember Miss Bright."
Steve and I were not sure to what James was alluding. He told us.
"There was a young lady named Bright,
Who traveled much faster than light.
She set off one day,
In a relative way.
And got back on the previous night."
"But surely, that's a paradox?" I said.
"It is, but suppose you could travel back in time at something slightly less than the rate of one year for each light year of movement. That, if you think about it, is warp speed travel. A tilt in the 'space' of space-time is gravity and the tilt in the 'time' of space-time is a force for time travel."
"Wow! Well, what do you need from me besides the airplane and funds?"
"We need a hangar or some other large lock-up where we can work in peace. Of course, it will have to be approved by the military as we are using a piece of their equipment. They might even be prepared to supply security for the building."
That more or less concluded our deliberations for the evening. We stood up, shook hands and departed.