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Space and Time Warps Cont...

General Relativity was a major intellectual revolution that has transformed the way we think about the universe. It is a theory not only of curved space, but of curved or warped time as well. Einstein had realized in 1905, that space and time, are intimately connected with each other. One can describe the location of an event by four numbers. Three numbers describe the position of the event. They could be miles north and east of Oxford circus, and height above sea level. On a larger scale, they could be galactic latitude and longitude, and distance from the center of the galaxy. The fourth number, is the time of the event. Thus one can think of space and time together, as a four-dimensional entity, called space-time. Each point of space-time is labeled by four numbers, that specify its position in space, and in time. Combining space and time into space-time in this way would be rather trivial, if one could disentangle them in a unique way. That is to say, if there was a unique way of defining the time and position of each event. However, in a remarkable paper written in 1905, when he was a clerk in the Swiss patent office, Einstein showed that the time and position at which one thought an event occurred, depended on how one was moving. This meant that time and space, were inextricably bound up with each other. The times that different observers would assign to events would agree if the observers were not moving relative to each other. But they would disagree more, the faster their relative speed. So one can ask, how fast does one need to go, in order that the time for one observer, should go backwards relative to the time of another observer. The answer is given in the following Limerick.

There was a young lady of Wight,
Who traveled much faster than light,
She departed one day,
In a relative way,
And arrived on the previous night.

So all we need for time travel, is a space ship that will go faster than light. Unfortunately, in the same paper, Einstein showed that the rocket power needed to accelerate a space ship, got greater and greater, the nearer it got to the speed of light. So it would take an infinite amount of power, to accelerate past the speed of light.

Einstein's paper of 1905 seemed to rule out time travel into the past. It also indicated that space travel to other stars, was going to be a very slow and tedious business. If one couldn't go faster than light, the round trip to the nearest star, would take at least eight years, and to the center of the galaxy, at least eighty thousand years. If the space ship went very near the speed of light, it might seem to the people on board, that the trip to the galactic center had taken only a few years. But that wouldn't be much consolation, if everyone you had known was dead and forgotten thousands of years ago, when you got back. That wouldn't be much good for space Westerns. So writers of science fiction, had to look for ways to get round this difficulty.

In his 1915 paper, Einstein showed that the effects of gravity could be described, by supposing that space-time was warped or distorted, by the matter and energy in it. We can actually observe this warping of space-time, produced by the mass of the Sun, in the slight bending of light or radio waves, passing close to the Sun. This causes the apparent position of the star or radio source, to shift slightly, when the Sun is between the Earth and the source. The shift is very small, about a thousandth of a degree, equivalent to a movement of an inch, at a distance of a mile. Nevertheless, it can be measured with great accuracy, and it agrees with the predictions of General Relativity. We have experimental evidence, that space and time are warped.
The amount of warping in our neighbourhood, is very small, because all the gravitational fields in the solar system, are weak. However, we know that very strong fields can occur, for example in the Big Bang, or in black holes. So, can space and time be warped enough, to meet the demands from science fiction, for things like hyper space drives, wormholes, or time travel. At first sight, all these seem possible. For example, in 1948, Kurt Goedel found a solution of the field equations of General Relativity, which represents a universe in which all the matter was rotating. In this universe, it would be possible to go off in a space ship, and come back before you set out. Goedel was at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton, where Einstein also spent his last years. He was more famous for proving you couldn't prove everything that is true, even in such an apparently simple subject as arithmetic. But what he proved about General Relativity allowing time travel really upset Einstein, who had thought it wouldn't be possible.

We now know that Goedel's solution couldn't represent the universe in which we live, because it was not expanding. It also had a fairly large value for a quantity called the cosmological constant, which is generally believed to be zero. However, other apparently more reasonable solutions that allow time travel, have since been found. A particularly interesting one contains two cosmic strings, moving past each other at a speed very near to, but slightly less than, the speed of light. Cosmic strings are a remarkable idea of theoretical physics, which science fiction writers don't really seem to have caught on to. As their name suggests, they are like string, in that they have length, but a tiny cross section. Actually, they are more like rubber bands, because they are under enormous tension, something like a hundred billion billion billion tons. A cosmic string attached to the Sun would accelerate it naught to sixty, in a thirtieth of a second.

Cosmic strings may sound far-fetched, and pure science fiction, but there are good scientific reasons to believed they could have formed in the very early universe, shortly after the Big Bang. Because they are under such great tension, one might have expected them to accelerate to almost the speed of light.
What both the Goedel universe, and the fast moving cosmic string space-time have in common, is that they start out so distorted and curved, that travel into the past, was always possible. God might have created such a warped universe, but we have no reason to think that He did. All the evidence is, that the universe started out in the Big Bang, without the kind of warping needed, to allow travel into the past. Since we can't change the way the universe began, the question of whether time travel is possible, is one of whether we can subsequently make space-time so warped, that one can go back to the past. I think this is an important subject for research, but one has to be careful not to be labeled a crank. If one made a research grant application to work on time travel, it would be dismissed immediately. No government agency could afford to be seen to be spending public money, on anything as way out as time travel. Instead, one has to use technical terms, like closed time like curves, which are code for time travel. Although this lecture is partly about time travel, I felt I had to give it the scientifically more respectable title, Space and Time warps. Yet, it is a very serious question. Since General Relativity can permit time travel, does it allow it in our universe? And if not, why not.

Closely related to time travel, is the ability to travel rapidly from one position in space, to another. As I said earlier, Einstein showed that it would take an infinite amount of rocket power, to accelerate a space ship to beyond the speed of light. So the only way to get from one side of the galaxy to the other, in a reasonable time, would seem to be if we could warp space-time so much, that we created a little tube or wormhole. This could connect the two sides of the galaxy, and act as a short cut, to get from one to the other and back while your friends were still alive. Such wormholes have been seriously suggested, as being within the capabilities of a future civilization. But if you can travel from one side of the galaxy, to the other, in a week or two, you could go back through another wormhole, and arrive back before you set out. You could even manage to travel back in time with a single wormhole, if its two ends were moving relative to each other.

One can show that to create a wormhole, one needs to warp space-time in the opposite way, to that in which normal matter warps it. Ordinary matter curves space-time back on itself, like the surface of the Earth.

However, to create a wormhole, one needs matter that warps space-time in the opposite way, like the surface of a saddle. The same is true of any other way of warping space-time to allow travel to the past, if the universe didn't begin so warped, that it allowed time travel. What one would need, would be matter with negative mass, and negative energy density, to make space-time warp in the way required.
Energy is rather like money. If you have a positive bank balance, you can distribute it in various ways. But according to the classical laws that were believed until quite recently, you weren't allowed to have an energy overdraft. So these classical laws would have ruled out us being able to warp the universe, in the way required to allow time travel. However, the classical laws were overthrown by Quantum Theory, which is the other great revolution in our picture of the universe, apart from General Relativity. Quantum Theory is more relaxed, and allows you to have an overdraft on one or two accounts. If only the banks were as accommodating. In other words, Quantum Theory allows the energy density to be negative in some places, provided it is positive in others.