These legendary sequences from the Star Wars saga are spectacular, but unfortunately incompatible with physical reality according to MIT.
Hyperspace, this alternate dimension that some spaceships in the universe Star Wars can reach by traveling at the speed of light, is one of the pillars of folklore in the work of George Lucas. This notion is even passed down to posterity through several sequences of the films where we see the protagonists spinning through a corridor of light streaks. But a recent study has suggested that this representation may be wrong; and for the first time, it also suggests a method to test this hypothesis.
In any case, this is what MIT researchers think, whose work has been spotted by Space.com. According to them, the pilot of a Millennium Falcon or another machine equipped with a hyperdrive would not see these famous long luminous streaks. They feel the crew would rather see some sort of “quantum aurora” predicted by an astrophysical model called the Unruh effect.
A story of quantum fluctuations
This Unruh effect is a surprising prediction from a branch of quantum physics. Very vulgarly, this theory states that matter accelerating to very high speeds begins to interact with quantum vacuum fluctuations; this interaction at the quantum level then generates radiation which, if intense enough, can become visible as a glow.
The problem is that, as is often the case in fundamental astrophysics, this prediction is exceedingly difficult to verify. In theory, there should be a hyperdrive functional like that of the famous vessel captured by Han Solo… or of another device capable ofaccelerate an atom to the speed of light in less than a millionth of a second. Not the kind of gear you can find at the local dealership.
Fortunately, however, there is another way: that of chance. Indeed, if we wait long enough, the statistics suggest that one of these fluctuations will necessarily end up hitting an atom, which would then make it possible to observe the Unruh effect.
The problem is that if this phenomenon is guaranteed on an infinite time scale, it is extremely unlikely to witness it on the scale of a human lifetime. The researchers estimate that without intervention, we would have to wait several tens of billions of years – more than the age of the Universe itself.
Force the hand at random
The challenge is therefore to increase as much as possible the probability of observing such an event. Researchers have always come up short since the Unruh effect was first proposed in the 1970s. But for the first time, scientists at MIT have come up with a solution that could achieve this in a reasonable amount of time.
The solution proposed by the team is based on photons, these massless particles that serve as a support for electromagnetic fields. The researchers explain that their presence would have the effect ofincrease the frequency of these famous quantum fluctuationswhich would greatly facilitate the detection of the Unruh effect.
Their work theoretically showed that if an atom could be accelerated with a specific trajectory through a field of photons, he could interact with them in a very particular way. This trajectory would make all other elements of the simulation “invisible” in the eyes of the researchers, which would allow them to focus on the famous radiation produced by the Unruh effect.
Experimental confirmation awaited
For now, it’s just work entirely theoretical. And the transition to the concrete phase will not be easy. To send an atom at such a speed while maintaining an ultra-precise trajectory, you need ultra-specialized equipment at the cutting edge of technology.
The verification of this hypothesis will therefore pass through the construction of a particle accelerator specially designed for this purpose, which is obviously no small feat. But if the verification will wait several more years, the researchers are still satisfied to have overcame the biggest theoretical hurdle.
Mathematically and physically speaking, the circle is complete, and all that remains is to verify it experimentally. “In theory, we have now removed the biggest bottleneck of this 40-year-old problem.”, welcomes Vivishek Sudhir, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. Now all they have to do is capture the phenomenon to show us exactly what Han Solo and company saw during their hyperspace journeys!
The text of the study is available here.