In his long and distinguished career, Arthur C Clarke has had a disconcerting habit of thinking of things first, that others dismiss as nonsense. Now, in his latest prophetic work "3001: The Final Odyssey" -- looking forward to the next millennium -- Clarke may well have done it again, this time by giving a simple five-letter name to a fictional propulsion unit -- the "SHARP Drive".
More about the significance of those five letters in a moment, but first a question. How do you travel faster than the speed of light? Every schoolboy knows the answer to that; you simply lean forward in the captain's chair, say "Warp Nine -- engage!" And off you boldly go, where noone has gone before.
Of course, everyone who has even the slightest acquaintance with science -- fact or fiction -- knows that what the crew of the Enterprise do every Wednesday night is scientifically impossible. You can't travel faster than light -- Einstein says so.
There is a perfectly good reason for this (although it isn't spelled out as often as it might be). As an object increases in speed, it's mass increases. This is not merely theoretical, it has been observed in particle accelerators like that at CERN: speed up an electron and it's mass increases. As it approaches light speed (186,000 miles per second) it's mass approaches being infinitely large. Just to keep its speed, it would thus need all the energy in the universe to propel it. Clearly, this is not on -- whatever James T Kirk and Jean Luc Picard might say.
Perhaps science might discover new methods of propulsion? Scotty's fabled Dilithium crystals, perhaps? Or a matter-antimatter reactor? Sadly, there is no reactor, no crystal, that can get around the light-speed barrier. The obstacle is in the mathematics, not in the engineering.
However, there is one possibility quivering on the horizon that just might make starships feasible and it is Clarke who has identified and named it.
The SHARP Drive is the fictional drive that propels his third millennia spaceships across the immense distances between stars. Clarke coined the terms SHARP from the initial letters of the four physicists who he jointly credits with originating the concepts and discoveries that make the drive possible Sakharov, Haisch, Alfonso Rueda, and Hal Puthoff.
Andrei Sakharov is the distinguished Russian physicist who first suggested that space is not empty but is full of energy, the so-called 'zero-point field'. This suggestion was taken up by astrophysicist Bernhard Haisch of Lockheed's Research Laboratories and physicists Alfonso Rueda, a professor at California State University at Long Beach, and Harold Puthoff of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin
Their article 'Inertia as a Zero-Point Field Lorentz Force' appeared in the February 1, 1994 issue of the eminent journal Physical Review A, and it offered a radically new interpretation of the origin of the strange quality of inertia.
This new concept of inertia also points to a new understanding of gravity, since gravity and inertia are inextricably intertwined. Hal Putoff goes even further. Pointing to recent success in manipulating atomic processes by controlling zero-point fields in the lab, Puthoff says "If we are right that both gravity and inertia stem from the zero-point field, then someday we might be able to manipulate both."
This, In turn, means quite simply a warp drive. And Puthoff's idea is not merely a twinkle in physics's eye. In 1994 Miguel Alcubierre, a theoretical physicist at the University of Wales published a paper called "The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity."
Alcubierre showed it is theoretically possible to distort space to allow warp speed travel: to literally expand the volume of space-time behind a starship, while compressing it up ahead -- like feeding a tent pole through its sleeve by bunching up the fabric ahead, and pulling it along behind.
Alcubierre showed that space-time can be similarly manipulated. The position of a starship within such a distortion would change, relative to its destination - yet the ship itself need not actually "move" at all.
So it looks as if, one day, someone really will be issuing orders to engage Warp Nine