The Alcubierre-White Warp Drive

Just a bit of background information about me: I studied physics in college. I never really settled on a specialty, which is part of the reason why I’m a lawyer now instead of an eternal adjunct, but I did enjoy the class I took in general relativity.

One of the things we covered was the Alcubierre warp drive. It’s basically a way to get people used to thinking about weird spacetime metrics, with the “warp drive” name being used to sell it to bored college students. The core concept is that a particular deformation of spacetime would allow travel through space at a speed that appears, to the outside observer, to be faster than the speed of light.

To be clear, there is no reason to think the Alcubierre warp drive is physically possible. Just because the math allows something doesn’t imply that nature will let us get away with it. But for all that, it has inspired popular science articles for decades. And legit science is still being done to explore the concept, such as at NASA’s Eagleworks, which more recently got involved with the EM Drive.

One Eagleworks guy, Harold White, has done work on the warp drive to try to make it feasible. His work was the inspiration for today’s patent application: The Alcubierre-White Warp Drive Machine.

USPP 2020/0130870, FIG. 2

I’m not going to get into the physics of it. Maybe such a thing is possible, and maybe this patent application does describe a theory for a working warp drive. But it seems undisputed that nobody has built it, and the underlying principles remain unproven. That’s why the application was rejected as being inoperable. The USPTO said, “However, as warp drives are theoretical, as is generating gravity and anti-gravity, and superliminal travel is not possible because it contradicts Special Relativity (e.g. E=MC^2), the invention is considered inoperative.”

I actually have some sympathy for the applicant here, because the Examiner was wrong. The whole point of an Alcubierre drive is that it doesn’t violate special relativity–the space ship moves slower than light in a small portion of space, and then space itself moves too.

But I do agree with the Examiner that the application doesn’t actually enable a person to make or use such a drive. In an interview with the inventor, he said the problem was that the USPTO didn’t understand the physics. As I see it, the true problem was that the inventor didn’t understand the patent system. I have shown on this blog that impossible things can get patents–a sufficiently credible letter by someone with the appropriate abbreviations after their name will get you over this hump. But they’ll never let you get away with claiming science fiction if you don’t describe how to make the thing.

And that’s the real difference between the warp drive and something like homeopathy. It’s easy to slap a jar of water with a leather strap–it’s hard to build a spaceship.

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