Copernicus and the Warp Drive

Copernicus and the Warp Drive

Science historian James Burke points out two reasons why, in order to predict the future, we must look to the past. The first is that because the future hasn’t happened yet, the past is the only place we can look and the second is that the future is simply the present, with extra bits attached. In other words: today is simply yesterday, plus whatever happened the last 24 hours…a trend that seems likely to continue.

If our future includes interstellar travel, we will almost certainly learn to circumvent the intervening distance between two points. Absent such an option, the lightspeed limit imposes challenges to propulsion, energy, life support, mental & physical health, and the maximum human life-span. This is to say nothing of popular opposition we could expect from trying to allocate a significant portion of the world’s resources to a journey with no plausible return, proposing to take zillions of tons of extremely valuable hardware and hurl it all away at relativistic speeds…never to be seen again. Our position might be likened to people at the dawn of the steam era contemplating interplanetary flight, and even that could be generous. One advantage that changes the equation is our new knowledge of how scientific knowledge advances. This knowledge could turn the future odds in our favor in ways similar knowledge has in the past.

As an information consultant specializing in “what comes next” and how to get it, I’m interested in what we can say about future revolutions in physics. Assuming at some point that warp drive or space jump capability will be achieved, it will have to involve transformative scientific paradigm changes. To predict them with any accuracy, we must look to those of the past and learn what made them revolutionary. We can then learn something about future advances, like how they develop and perhaps, how we might recognize them in advance. That potential ability to see into the future of physics leads us to examine the history of major theoretical milestones. We are talking about really big ideas, theories like the earth goes around the sun, that all life is related by common ancestry, and lesser known transformations in science’s understanding of our world.


Focusing our thinking on future scientific revolutions requires a vision of future capabilities where the transformative ideas and technologies exist. Star Trek and other science fiction possess these. In fact, science fiction provides the most advanced, best elaborated visions of this type. Within that focus, we require a methodology to help us manage our effort as reliably and productively as possible, especially given the vast uncertainties. “Prediction is difficult,” said Mark Twain, “…especially about the future.” International management standards for success with strategy, operations, and projects offer the most robust solutions for dealing with these issues, so following them seems sensible.

Enterprise E


Management standards recommend using experts as much as possible to avoid reinventing the wheel. They also suggest a good first step in any kind of project is to review the current situation.  If recent lectures at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics are any guide, the current state of our situation is troubled, to say the least. A recent report from the Dark Energy Task Force laments researchers only have one remaining option of “continued observation” due to the absence of “theoretical guidance”. In other words, “We’re measuring it, but we don’t have a clue what it is.” The desperation lurking behind such reports is obvious and the problems giving rise to this status have been accumulating for some time now.

By far the most commonly adopted response to this morass is that presented by Dark Energy committee: continue the status quo, hoping that at some point, lightning strikes, somebody has a brainstorm, or the creative muse inspires.


While researchers lack a clear vision of success, some initial, halting steps toward developing at least a vague vision have been taken. To create that vision, project teams wisely looked to the past. The physics community now envisions a New Copernican Revolution, officially described in a landmark 2004 report entitled: “Quantum Universe, the Revolution in 21st Century Particle Physics”. The National Science Board’s report on transformative research 3 years later admits no generally accepted definition of “revolutionary” or “transformative” even exists. This tantamount to admitting the report literally did not know what it was talking about. Nevertheless, that report does offer “a revolution…transforms science by overthrowing entrenched paradigms and generating new ones.”

Quantum Universe, the Revolution in 21st Century Particle Physics

Meanwhile, far outside the hardcore science community, a small group of philosophers and historians has been quietly working away on paradigm change since the 1960’s. Picking apart exactly how revolutionary ideas came about, the investigators did not read what physics texts or creators of grand ideas claimed in their memoirs. These unknown sleuths went directly to the notes, letters, and other primary sources, tracking what the creator recorded during the development process of these revolutionary ideas. Everywhere they looked, a very different picture than the common preconceptions began to appear. Science texts and speeches written decades later presented  something of a mythology. Contrary to the anecdotes of flashes of insight, revelations during dreams, or a burst of realization while shaving, the actual record documented a journey both more prosaic and more complex.

It turns out that iconic revolutions we admire like Copernicus and Darwin result from the kind of normal, everyday problem-solving in which we all engage while going on about our daily business. It is a mix of a) which problem is selected, b) the resources applied to solve it, c) its context, and d) the manner in which it is attacked – these are what make the difference. Processes of searching for solutions to a problem were identified in 2008 by Nancy Nersessian, and labeled “model-based reasoning”, which uses analogies to produce creative ideas very similar to playing games.

If problems go unsolved despite large efforts over extended periods, we can conclude the right mix of resources are not being applied. For information systems, we can almost always track such problems to incorrect assumptions in the way the problem is formulated. Given the history and state of physics, we can conclude incorrect assumptions are probably at the root of our troubles. We might reasonably argue the number of problems in diverse areas of physics suggest an effective problem has yet to be identified, other than the vaguest notion of a physics revolution “as dramatic as any that have come before.” What management standards tell us here is that resources are not being provided sufficiently for the effort to succeed – resources like a good, concrete problem.

I suggest Roddenberry’s vision of warp drive could provide an effective problem where searching for solutions might catalyze the revolution in physics we need. To pursue those solutions, we will want to assemble the most suitable tools we can for the job, and for physics models, those tools are mathematical. We probably need better math.


Outside appraisals tend to support this conjecture. The history of how currently popular math came into use contrasts dramatically with a well-managed selection process. Thousands of years ago, when logic and geometry were first combined to create rational models of reality, we knew much less about the universe (and math) than we do now. Yet, ancient and inappropriate artifacts remain embedded in the math tools we use for modern cosmology. Zero dimensional point objects, one dimensional strings, two dimensional branes, and so on illustrate this incompatibility. As far as we know, reality never seems to exhibit Euclidean geometric figures. On the contrary, reality appears to have fractal structures at both very large and small scales.

Papyrus Scroll

We also have a number of reasons to suspect fundamentals in physics are probably not real. If a revolutionary model were to hold some fundamentals were actually as illusory as the motion of the sun or the separation of species, some current conflicts would seem to become non-issues. Problems with dark matter and dark energy measurements could evaporate, if space and time were some kind of observational consequence of our perception. In such a paradigm, our main concern would be understanding and describing the structures and processes that give rise to such illusions. Like revolutions of the past, a successful future paradigm will redefine some our current concepts in physics as observational effects.

My belief is that those in the interstellar community interested in pursuing revolutionary, warp enabling theory should work together to establish and strengthen cross-discipline partnerships with those in related communities where our interests overlap. Physicists and mathematicians, collaborating with scholars specializing in the history and philosophy of scientific revolutions and starship advocates might together enable what we could never do when divided: create new math disciplines, complete the revolution started by Einstein, and “Build a Starship”.