Negative Energy And Interstellar Travel
August 9, 2010 9 Comments
Can a region of space contain less than nothing? Common sense would say no; the most one could do is remove all matter and radiation and be left with vacuum. But quantum physics has a proven ability to confound intuition, and this case is no exception. A region of space, it turns out, can contain less than nothing. Its energy per unit volume–the energy density–can be less than zero.
Needless to say, the implications are bizarre. According to Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, the presence of matter and energy warps the geometric fabric of space and time. What we perceive as gravity is the space-time distortion produced by normal, positive energy or mass. But when negative energy or mass–so-called exotic matter–bends space-time, all sorts of amazing phenomena might become possible: traversable wormholes, which could act as tunnels to otherwise distant parts of the universe; warp drive, which would allow for faster-than-light travel; and time machines, which might permit journeys into the past. Negative energy could even be used to make perpetual-motion machines or to destroy black holes. A Star Trek episode could not ask for more.
For physicists, these ramifications set off alarm bells. The potential paradoxes of backward time travel–such as killing your grandfather before your father is conceived–have long been explored in science fiction, and the other consequences of exotic matter are also problematic. They raise a question of fundamental importance: Do the laws of physics that permit negative energy place any limits on its behavior?
We and others have discovered that nature imposes stringent constraints on the magnitude and duration of negative energy, which (unfortunately, some would say) appear to render the construction of wormholes and warp drives very unlikely.
Before proceeding further, we should draw the reader’s attention to what negative energy is not.
It should not be confused with antimatter, which has positive energy. When an electron and its antiparticle, a positron, collide, they annihilate. The end products are gamma rays, which carry positive energy. If antiparticles were composed of negative energy, such an interaction would result in a final energy of zero.
One should also not confuse negative energy with the energy associated with the cosmological constant, postulated in inflationary models of the universe. Such a constant represents negative pressure but positive energy.
The concept of negative energy is not pure fantasy; some of its effects have even been produced in the laboratory. They arise from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which requires that the energy density of any electric, magnetic or other field fluctuate randomly. Even when the energy density is zero on average, as in a vacuum, it fluctuates. Thus, the quantum vacuum can never remain empty in the classical sense of the term; it is a roiling sea of “virtual” particles spontaneously popping in and out of existence [see “Exploiting Zero-Point Energy,” by Philip Yam; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, December 1997]. In quantum theory, the usual notion of zero energy corresponds to the vacuum with all these fluctuations.
So if one can somehow contrive to dampen the undulations, the vacuum will have less energy than it normally does–that is, less than zero energy.[See, Casimir Starcraft: Zero Point Energy]
- Negative Energy
Space time distortion is common method proposed for hyperluminal travel. Such space-time contortions would enable another staple of science fiction as well: faster-than-light travel.Warp drive might appear to violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity. But special relativity says that you cannot outrun a light signal in a fair race in which you and the signal follow the same route. When space-time is warped, it might be possible to beat a light signal by taking a different route, a shortcut. The contraction of space-time in front of the bubble and the expansion behind it create such a shortcut.
One problem with Alcubierre’s original model that the interior of the warp bubble is causally disconnected from its forward edge. A starship captain on the inside cannot steer the bubble or turn it on or off; some external agency must set it up ahead of time. To get around this problem, Krasnikov proposed a “superluminal subway,” a tube of modified space-time (not the same as a wormhole) connecting Earth and a distant star. Within the tube, superluminal travel in one direction is possible. During the outbound journey at sublight speed, a spaceship crew would create such a tube. On the return journey, they could travel through it at warp speed. Like warp bubbles, the subway involves negative energy.
Negative energy is so strange that one might think it must violate some law of physics.
Before and after the creation of equal amounts of negative and positive energy in previously empty space, the total energy is zero, so the law of conservation of energy is obeyed. But there are many phenomena that conserve energy yet never occur in the real world. A broken glass does not reassemble itself, and heat does not spontaneously flow from a colder to a hotter body. Such effects are forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.
This general principle states that the degree of disorder of a system–its entropy–cannot decrease on its own without an input of energy. Thus, a refrigerator, which pumps heat from its cold interior to the warmer outside room, requires an external power source. Similarly, the second law also forbids the complete conversion of heat into work.
Negative energy potentially conflicts with the second law. Imagine an exotic laser, which creates a steady outgoing beam of negative energy. Conservation of energy requires that a byproduct be a steady stream of positive energy. One could direct the negative energy beam off to some distant corner of the universe, while employing the positive energy to perform useful work. This seemingly inexhaustible energy supply could be used to make a perpetual-motion machine and thereby violate the second law. If the beam were directed at a glass of water, it could cool the water while using the extracted positive energy to power a small motor–providing a refrigerator with no need for external power. These problems arise not from the existence of negative energy per se but from the unrestricted separation of negative and positive energy.
Unfettered negative energy would also have profound consequences for black holes. When a black hole forms by the collapse of a dying star, general relativity predicts the formation of a singularity, a region where the gravitational field becomes infinitely strong. At this point, general relativity–and indeed all known laws of physics–are unable to say what happens next. This inability is a profound failure of the current mathematical description of nature. So long as the singularity is hidden within an event horizon, however, the damage is limited. The description of nature everywhere outside of the horizon is unaffected. For this reason, Roger Penrose of Oxford proposed the cosmic censorship hypothesis: there can be no naked singularities, which are unshielded by event horizons.
For special types of charged or rotating black holes– known as extreme black holes–even a small increase in charge or spin, or a decrease in mass, could in principle destroy the horizon and convert the hole into a naked singularity. Attempts to charge up or spin up these black holes using ordinary matter seem to fail for a variety of reasons. One might instead envision producing a decrease in mass by shining a beam of negative energy down the hole, without altering its charge or spin, thus subverting cosmic censorship. One might create such a beam, for example, using a moving mirror. In principle, it would require only a tiny amount of negative energy to produce a dramatic change in the state of an extreme black hole.
[Image Details: Pulses of negative energy are permitted by quantum theory but only under three conditions. First, the longer the pulse lasts, the weaker it must be (a, b). Second, a pulse of positive energy must follow. The magnitude of the positive pulse must exceed that of the initial negative one. Third, the longer the time interval between the two pulses, the larger the positive one must be – an effect known as quantum interest (c).]
Therefore, this might be the scenario in which negative energy is the most likely to produce macroscopic effects.