Rebuttal To New Scientist Article On Impossibility of Star Trek Warp Travel

Yesterday New Scientist posted an article titled "Starship pilots: Speed kills: especially warp speed." This article is getting a lot of play across the web on other sci-fi sites. Debating the science of science fiction may be dubious, but TrekMovie would at least like to point out how Star Trek has already addressed the issues presented by New Scientist, and that there is some back-up from real science. 


Star Trek fans prepare to be disappointed?

The New Scientist article starts off with the following statement:

Star Trek fans, prepare to be disappointed. Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew would die within a second of the USS Enterprise approaching the speed of light.

Really? Oh no! What is the problem? Well the conclusion from William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is that space will kill you. Specifically:

Special relativity describes how space and time are distorted for observers travelling at different speeds. For the crew of a spacecraft ramping up to light speed, interstellar space would appear highly compressed, thereby increasing the number of hydrogen atoms hitting the craft.

Worse is that the atoms’ kinetic energy also increases. For a crew to make the 50,000-light-year journey to the centre of the Milky Way within 10 years, they would have to travel at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light. At these speeds, hydrogen atoms would seem to reach a staggering 7 teraelectron volts – the same energy that protons will eventually reach in the Large Hadron Collider when it runs at full throttle. "For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC beam," says Edelstein. [more at New Scientist]

The argument is sound, in that it is true that space is chock full of hydrogen and it would be nasty to be running into all of that while approaching (and exceeding) the speed of light. However, throughout its history Star Trek writers have worked hard to develop solutions to the scientific challenges of warp travel (and more). The hydrogen issue is only one of many things that makes routine faster than light travel on Star Trek an issue. Another is the relativistic effects of time and space. However, Star Trek does provide answers and even though they were created by TV and movie writers, many physicists agree that there may be loopholes to some of the apparent barriers to faster than light travel.

Montage of Trek ships going to warp — is this lethal?

Science to the rescue?

The best place to learn about this is in the book "The Physics of Star Trek" by Professor Lawrence Krauss, which includes a forward by Stephen Hawking. Below are some excerpts from the book that talk about three specific plausible ‘Treknologies’ that solve the issues brought up in the New Scientist article .

Warp Drive

The article in New Scientist seems predicated on the notion that a Starship would be using conventional means to propel itself to light-speed and beyond. However, in the world of Star Trek, impulse drives only move the ship at sub-light speeds, and it is the warp drive that breaks you through the light barrier. And warp drive may not be such a crazy idea. Here is what Steven Hawking says about Star Trek’s warp drive:

Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows the possibility for a way around this difficulty: one might be able to warp spacetime and create a shortcut between the places one wanted to visit. Although there are problems of negative energy, it seems that such warping might be within our capabilities in the future. There has not been much serious scientific research along these lines, however, partly, I think, because it sounds too much like science fiction.

– Stephen Hawking, forward to "The Physics of Star Trek"

Part of the solution to the lethal hydrogen atom problem lies in the term ‘warp’ itself, as explained by Krauss:

If spacetime can locally be warped so that it expands behind a starship and contracts in front of it, then the craft will be propelled along with the space it is in, like a surfboard on a wave. The craft will never travel locally faster than the speed of light, because the light, too, will be carried along with the expanding wave of space

– Lawrence Krauss, "The Physics of Star Trek"

Two NX class ships inside their safe ‘warp field’…as space moves around them

Deflector Shields

And so if space is moving around the ship, then the problem of all those hydrogen atoms goes away. And again it is a piece of treknology that helps, again as noted by Krauss:

Warping space has other advantages as well. Clearly, if spacetime becomes strongly curved in front of the Enterprise, then any light ray—or phaser beam, for that matter—will be deflected away from the ship. This is doubtless the principle behind deflector shields. Indeed, we are told that the deflector shields operate by "coherent graviton emission." Since gravitons are by definition particles that transmit the force of gravity, then "coherent graviton emission" is nothing other than the creation of a coherent gravitational field. A coherent gravitational field is, in modern parlance, precisely what curves space! So once again the Star Trek writers have at least settled upon the right language.

– Lawrence Krauss, "The Physics of Star Trek"

And the deflector would be protecting your ship both at warp speed, and even at high sub-light speeds while on impulse drive. No wonder Star Trek ships usually keep real clean.

The Deflector Dish on the USS Enterprise D – every Enterprise in Star Trek has had one since the show began in the 60s

Bussard Collectors

There is also another key piece of treknology that comes into place, and that is the Bussard Collectors which are the glowy things on the front of the nacelles on the Enterprise and other standard Starfleet ship designs. These collectors are specifically made to scoop up all that hydrogen to use as fuel.  Hydrogen deuterium is the matter used in combination with anti-matter to create the matter-antimatter reaction that provides Starships with their warp power. In fact, the problem may not be that there is too much of this hydrogen out there, but too little.

…hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Can you not sweep it up as you move through the galaxy? Well, the average density of matter in our galaxy is about one hydrogen atom per cubic centimeter. To sweep up just one gram of hydrogen per second, even moving at a good fraction of the speed of light, would require you to deploy collection panels with a diameter of over 25 miles. And even turning all this matter into energy for propulsion would provide only about a hundred-millionth of the needed propulsion power!

– Lawrence Krauss, "The Physics of Star Trek"

And then of course there is the issue of Starships being able to store enough matter and antimatter to fuel the ship for the astounding amount of energy a real warp drive would require. This may or may not be plausible, but running into hydrogen atoms appears to be the least of Starfleet’s worries.

The Bussard Collectors on the USS Enterprise E scooping up fuel in a nebula

So should Trek fans be "disappointed." Um, well first of all, it is just a TV show. We know (or most of us at least know) that Star Trek is not a documentary, and as Scotty liked to say, he "canna change the laws of physics". However, Star Trek can come up with the technology to make the dream of light-speed travel possible. And many physicists today think that this technology is at least possible. And isn’t that what Star Trek is all about? Inspiring people by showing them a future full of possibilities?

What do you think?

So do you buy into the Treknobabble, or do you say that it is all just sci-fi and that mankind is never going to break that light-speed barrier? Vote in the latest poll



Further reading

If you enjoy this kind of thing, then you should probably pick up a copy of Krauss’ "The Physics of Star Trek" (which has recently been revised and updated). Krauss also wrote a follow-up book "Beyond Star Trek: From Alien Invasions to the End of Time." Many of the issues of Star Trek physics (including warp) are also discussed in Michio Kaku’s "Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel."

All of these are available at Amazon.



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Being a physicst myself, I personally say, TV show aside, that a lot of things ST does for now are mainly discussed via theoretical models, so it’s hard to predict what exactly could happen. I guess instead of “impossible” one would say, better, “implausible for now”.

Reading this makes me wish I could see into the future and find out just who is right and who is wrong

Well the light bulb is impossible? The telephone, oh let us not forget TV..color yet was considered near implausa le. How bout nuclear reactor controlled fission or is it easier to build bombs! The horseless carriage? No way! As long as we believe and work hard at any goal invention. Or Zephram Cochran . And his invention hey we can work out kinks all invonations have glitches problems that must be worked out time patience,perseverene

re: ” For a crew to make the 50,000-light-year journey to the centre of the Milky Way within 10 years, they would have to travel at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light”

Okay, maybe I’m completely misunderstanding. But wouldn’t a journey of 50,000 light years AT the speed of light take, well, 50,000 years? If that’s the case, then how can traveling just slightly slower than the speed of light reduce that journey to just 10 years?

Well, it is sci-fi afterall. Me think the Mr. Edelstein is taking it all a wee bit to seriously. jk.

My opinion, we will begin to discovery many things we had never even dreamed up before. I like to say, never say never.

Boy there are a lot of typos in this article. I definitely don’t think we’ll “Definately” have warp drive.

Be careful. If you let JJ or any of those two writers know about this so-called “Warp Field”, they’ll say that the hull is doing all the protective work because they don’t think protective space bubbles are realistic. Cause if slow moving debris can dent a ship with it’s shields up, god only knows what anything else would do if it were to hit the ship moving faster than the speed of light.

I can just see it. The Enterprise is at warp, a rogue piece of metal hits the port warp nacelle, causing it to rip clear from the secondary hull, and some crewman reassures everyone with a “Shields are holding!”. But everything is ok! Cause as Pike says in the movie, the Enterprise has many port nacelles… somewhere… that you can’t see….

My first thought, when reading the original scientist’s statement was:

“Don’t the Bussard Collectors collect Hydrogen?”

Gotta love being a fan sometimes!

“Star Trek is not a documentary”.

Wha? I’m selling all my DVD’s immediately. I feel cheated.


Isn’t that the British spelling? They always throw in an extra vowel or two. ;)

How could you do a piece on warp drive and not mention Dr. Miguel Alcubierre?


Anthony, I challenge you to a duel. Phasers on stun at 10 paces.


“Eyes in the dark… One moon circles.”


Relativistic view: for the crew of the ship, it would seems like only 10 years went by, while 50 000 would go by for the outside. Call that time travel too, if you will.

Yeah I’m gonna take what Stephen Hawking has to say over who ever wrote that article against warp drive. And Star Trek has always worked around most of what he had to say, as was pointed out well in this rebuttal. They took into account things like hydrogen atoms and debris hitting the ship with the deflector and bussard collectors and the rest by the fact that a warp field…well warps space around the ship. I don’t think its 100% possible, but I think its sound for now. And anyways, I’m a strong believer in infinite possibilities. Sadly I doubt we’ll see warp in my lifetime. Even if it does happen in 2063 I’ll be old then.

“The Deflector Dish on the USS Enterprise D – ever ship in Star Trek has had one since the show began in the 60s”

Except the Miranda-class (Reliant) and Oberth-class (Grissom)…



“William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is that space will kill you.”

William Edelstein is a nub and is wrong.

Try hitting a spinning disk with water and see what happens to the water droplet, right back in your face William. Basic magnetism with positive and negative poles can easily deflect the hydrogen atom nub, some people are just born stupid and closed minded.

Memorizing text books and becoming a doctor, any chimp that can remember can do that. Creating and thinking outside the box and artistry, now that is genius.

I seriously doubt that everything we need to know to achieve warp drive/space travel is contained in the human brainium at this time. I very much like the prospect of gaining knowledge on a predictable path. One projection puts warp drive about a thousand years into our future, sted April 5, 2063. This is based on an assumption that our math continues to evolve at a predictable rate. Since NO ONE here or at New Scientist will be around to argue about it (unless they put their head in a bell jar) then there’s nothing much to sweat about.

The future has…possibilities. We don’t yet know what wonderous elements we will discover in the future. Maybe they’re on the moon or Mars or even here on Earth. A new element capable of providing incalculable energy. That, and a new prodigy scientist, a la Zephram Cochrane to show us the way. New discoveries are being made every day.

My bet is that warp drive will never become a reality, even if it IS allowed by the laws of physics (which is itself not a sure thing), because humans in general (and Americans in particular) will NEVER be willing to spend the vast sums of taxpayer money required to make it happen. Just the sad truth.

I guess this guy hasn’t read ” the physics of Star Trek”. warp speed is the space moving and not the starship itself so with inertial dampeners in place, there would be no danger to the crew of any federation or any other race ship. plus, since this is all theoretical, can’t they just let us dream of what could be? nothing is assured truth anyways………
“There are always possibilities” (Star Trek 2)

I ain’t no physicist, but I know what i like!

the Wrath of Khan and First Contact warps are the best , IMHO :-)


New economic models/leaders have yet to be created/born, everything and anything is possible. Considering we have such short life spans and our human race has been alive for a fraction of time relative to the earth

If you extrapolate into the future say a 100,000 years to a million years, the technology and discoveries we would have made would be mind boggling.

Fingers crossed we don’t destroy each other or get wiped out by a natural phenomenon before then.

“hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Can you not sweep it up as you move through the galaxy? Well, the average density of matter in our galaxy is about one hydrogen atom per cubic centimeter. To sweep up just one gram of hydrogen per second, even moving at a good fraction of the speed of light, would require you to deploy collection panels with a diameter of over 25 miles. And even turning all this matter into energy for propulsion would provide only about a hundred-millionth of the needed propulsion power!”
– Lawrence Krauss, “Physics of Star Trek”

That is correct and that is why it is important not to model a propulsion system around whales eating plankton, think of something else in nature, perhaps mimic the engine of light, faceplam.

This time line is so depressing, kinda wish, I was born later.

At least we have Star Trek to keep us going, are we the only race in the galaxy/universe that is not space farring? lol

@15 and 4:

That just shows how off this New Scientist is. Enterprise doesn’t travel in an Einsteinian way. Otherwise, perhaps 10 years would pass for the crew, but more than 50,000 would have passed on Earth! That wouldn’t make for very good Trek episodes. So, Enterprise must be using non-relativistic propulsion that allows it to get places rapidly, but without slowing down its clocks. There is no real theory that could allow this for now, hence “science FICTION”…


Vanna went out one night, she went faster than the speed of light and she came back the previous night.

Someone should send him a copy of The Physics of Star Trek.

As a phyicsist, I have no problem with warp drive. Just “red matter” and black holes forming inside planets. But, whatev….It’s all good in the hood…

I agree that humans cannot approach or travel at the speed of light, at least from zero mph. Someday we will find another way. I accept sounds in space like Star Wars, If you want realism in space, better stick to 2001.

You mean its not real?

re:#4 and #15

Alright, so I’m trying to wrap my brain around this. I like to read about physics from time to time, I wouldn’t call it studying by any means but anyway….

10 years pass in the crews frame of reference as they travel 50,000 light years at 99.999998% of light speed. If they make an immediate return trip, 20 years will have passed for them and they will have traveled 100,000 light years. Does this mean that 100,000 years will have passed on Earth OR does it mean that it would take someone within Earth’s observational reference frame 100,000 years to ‘watch’ the journey?

If that much time does pass on Earth then instead of warping the ship Trek style, would creating an artificial traversable wormhole that ‘stretched’ the same distance allow you to leave Earth, make the trip there and back, and get you back in time to catch Super Bowl 64? (If you left a few weeks ago of course)

Am I way off base or what? All of this is very confusing but I love trying to understand it, even if I fail.

The truth is, we won’t know if warp speed is possible or not until someone comes up with a plan based on credible research and theories with sufficient technology allowing for attempts to be made. Of course, none of us know how a “test flight” could be carried out without understanding the dangers of such a trial. How a ship holds together during faster-than-light travel as well as how an astronaut would be able to survive, let alone fly the craft. As well as ensuring that the ship doesn’t hit anything. Even a tiny particle could prove catastrophic. Although space is immense, there are countless trillions of tiny debris floating through space. Also, there is the potential of flying straight into a planet or a star. It is not just a matter of finding a way to travel past the speed of light, it is also about taking into account the inherent risks of such an endeavor.

Actually, some theorize that the Miranda class starships did have deflector dishes, they were the pods on each side of the top of the saucer at the end of the ship’s registry decals.

As for the Oberth class, the deflector dish could easily be housed at the front of the secondary hull, it may simply not need to be exposed like dishes on other ship designs.

@17 – Deflector dish

Both ships have a deflector dish. Reliant’s isn’t as apparent as regular starfleet vessels. It’s listed on blueprints for the Miranda class and on earlier versions it’s more prominent. Grissom’s is on the bottom hull.

But the Star Trek has been know to wander away from future technology guidelines before. Just not in this instance.

Also, in regards to alien ships, there is no descernible deflector on many of them. The Klingon ships don’t have dishes. Neither to the Romulan ships or the Borg vessels.

#35 Some have theorized that the blue circular thing behind the weapons “bar” on the Reliant might have been a deflector dish.
Though I think that may actually be a part of the impulse engine.

“At these speeds, hydrogen atoms would seem to reach a staggering 7 teraelectron volts – the same energy that protons will eventually reach in the Large Hadron Collider when it runs at full throttle. “For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC beam,” says Edelstein.”

to (mis)quote Butch Cassidy:

“Hell, the inertia will probably killya!”

We know much less about the universe than we think we do. So, we ought not to worry too much about what we think we can or cannot do.

How DO the Miranda and Oberth classes get by without a deflector dish, anyway? And no saying a wizard does it.

#40 Because they’re special :-)

Speaking of deflector dishes, it’s always bugged me that the USS Reliant didn’t appear to have one, as much as I like that design.

Speaking of starships, I was just watching the TNG episode Data’s Day and began to wonder what class of starship appears alongside the Enterprise in the first scene after opening credits. The view is from the rear but it looks like the Enterprise C. Thoughts?

Sorry for going a little off topic.

The front of the Oberth class is a shuttle-bay door.

I don’t see the need to debate FICTIONAL tech.

#42 – It’s an Ambassador-class. It’s the Enterprise-C model slightly modified/modernized.

hey i just had a thought in light of the Hadron Collider being mentioned there, – the Enterprise engine room dosnt look a million miles away from that thing with all the pipes etc

Well, the poll is not working for me for some reason, but I vote “Definitely”.

I believe that we will be able to jump / skip / surf through space /time by manipulating gravity to fold / warp it similar to what Hawking describes.

I think the ability to manipulate gravity / time will come from Einsteinian thinking though.

We will NOT be “flying” at FTL speed though, it will be a “skipping” through space / time.

What !! Star Trek isn’t real !! Come on ! It isn’t a real timeline of the future sent back to us to let us know we will survive. I am calling my Dr. now !

Depending on how you look at it though, my answer to the poll could easily be “No”.

My theory kinda supports both POV’s

BTW: Anthony, EXCELLENT article! =D