The Alcubierre drive is frequently referred to in any and all discussion about FTL travel as "the Star Trek drive", but is there any in-universe evidence to suggest that the principles are at all similar?

Are the principles and workings of the Warp Drive shown at all in-universe, and if so, is there any similarity to that of the Alcubierre theory?

  • Two questions--first, do you want to restrict the question to TV canon, or would stuff from works created by one of the TV shows' technical consultants, like the TNG Technical Manual, be relevant? Second, are you also interested in the question of whether it would be possible or impossible to reconcile in-universe descriptions of the workings of Trek warp drive with the Alcubierre drive (possibly combined with some other mainstream physics ideas)? I have some thoughts on that but could make a diff question... – Hypnosifl Nov 19 '15 at 16:18
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Not canonically.

The Star Trek warp drive has some features in common with the Alcubierre drive, a theoretical faster-than-light drive proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. There is no canonical statement by producers or writers of the series to suggest that the warp drive is the Alcubierre drive.

From the Wikipedia article on the Alcubierre drive:

The Star Trek television series used the term "warp drive" to describe their method of faster-than-light travel. Neither the Alcubierre theory, nor anything similar, existed when the series was conceived, but Alcubierre stated in an email to William Shatner that his theory was directly inspired by the term used in the show, and references it in his 1994 paper.

In particular, the Alcubierre drive uses a "warp bubble".

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From the same article:

The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space, known as a warp bubble, and would not move within this bubble but instead be carried along as the region itself moves due to the actions of the drive.

As it stands, the Alcubierre metric is the best model we currently have for understanding Star Trek's warp drive at a mathematical / general relativistic level. (Caution: being the best model does not mean it is a good model).

  • Sadly, the Alcubierre drive wouldn't work as advertised (among other discussions on PSE), so I'd argue that it's not even a model of warp drives. – Kyle Kanos Nov 7 '15 at 12:10
  • @Kyle Kanos - which statement in that link are you referring to when you say it "wouldn't work as advertised"? I thought the consensus was that it would work in general relativity, although there are reasons to suspect that in quantum gravity some effects related to the chronology protection conjecture would kick in and prevent it from allowing FTL travel (though it's possible it would only kick in with specific situations involving multiple warp bubbles that would allow for time travel, which a single lone bubble doesn't). – Hypnosifl Nov 7 '15 at 15:54
  • @Hypnosifl: The Alcubierre drive doesn't allow FTL travel, which is kinda a requirement for a model of the ST warp drive. – Kyle Kanos Nov 7 '15 at 16:01
  • 1
    @Kyle Kanos - No GR solution allows one to locally travel faster than light, is that all you mean? But it does allow one to do what we see on Star Trek, get to distant stars and back home in a much shorter time than it would take a beam of light that wasn't itself within the warp bubble (or wasn't itself traveling through the wormhole). In this sense, there isn't really any clear evidence that Star Trek ships travel locally faster than light either, speeds may just be expressed relative to the approximately flat part of spacetime outside the bubble. – Hypnosifl Nov 7 '15 at 16:39
  • @Hypnosifl: With the AD, you'd get to Alpha Cen in 14 days but everyone else not in the bubble ages the 817 years (as per the first answer I linked). This is clearly not what happens in ST, so this cannot be a model for a ST-esque warp drive in the least. – Kyle Kanos Nov 7 '15 at 16:45

IIRC the star trek drive creates a warp bubble that pushes the ship into a layer of subspace or something to that effect (which is why the omega particle and the damaging of subspace are plot points in certain episodes)

Alcubierre was inspired by the star trek description of a warp drive but the star trek warp drive is not technically an Alcubierre drive

No.

The Alcubierre drive makes use of a supply of negative energy whose gravitation creates a carefully shaped distortion in the space-time of General Relativity, nicknamed a "warp bubble" because Alcubierre was a Star Trek fan.

The Star Trek drive uses field coils to generate a warp field which in turn form a subspace bubble. Our current model of physics does not include either warp fields or subspace. There is no tradition in science fiction of using the word "subspace" to mean distortions in space-time, and as far as I know there is no indication in Star Trek canon of any direct connection between the warp drive and the various space-time distortions that they do come across.

In addition to the incompatible terminology, there are some explicit discrepancies:

  • There is no indication in canon that the Star Trek drive requires a supply of negative energy. If a supply of negative energy were required it would surely have been mentioned at some point. Note: antimatter has positive energy, just like ordinary matter.

  • Conversely, an Alcubierre drive does not require a supply of antimatter like a Star Trek warp drive does.

  • I believe an Alcubierre ship has a net mass of zero, so would not be directly affected by gravity even when the drives were off. In such a ship, it should (for example) be easy to avoid crash-landing on a planet. Ahem.

  • It is clear that in Star Trek there is an absolute rest frame, i.e., a meaningful "now" that applies at least throughout the galaxy, and that warp drive speeds are relative to the rest frame. While warp drives can be used to violate causality they do not do so as a matter of course. The theory of the Alcubierre drive does not allow for this, and in fact the lack of any obvious mechanism to resist causality violations is perhaps the primary criticism leveled at the concept.

  • There might be a way around the negative mass issue--physicist Kip Thorne says in his book The Science of Interstellar that in certain theories with where our universe is a kind of 3D membrane sitting in a higher-dimensional space, which physicists call the "bulk", manipulating "bulk fields" in the higher dimension could allow for certain tricks that would be impossible if the 3 dimensions of space that we know are all that exist--one of these tricks would be changing the value of the gravitational constant, and he says another would be holding a wormhole open without exotic matter. – Hypnosifl Nov 7 '15 at 23:33
  • (continued) ...and this could fit with Star Trek in certain ways, since we know warp drive depends on manipulating the "subspace field", and certain episodes seem to hint at the idea of subspace being another dimension, like Schisms where the Enterprise crew was being kidnapped by beings that lived in a different "subspace manifold" (with 'manifold' ordinarily referring to a type of surface, including the 3D surface of our universe in the brane cosmology I mentioned). – Hypnosifl Nov 7 '15 at 23:38

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