Star Trek’s Warp Drive and One of Physics’ Biggest Mysteries

The Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment, LHCb

The Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment, LHCb

The warp drive is a fundamental piece of Star Trek technology, without which, most of what we know about Star Trek wouldn’t exist. It’s the warp drive that allows our intrepid crews to flit from star system to star system at faster-than-light speed, boldly going where no one has gone before.

For the last 50 years, the idea of faster-than-light travel has captivated scientists and armchair scientists alike, eager to figure out whether a Star Trek-like warp drive is possible. Last month, particle physicist Chandra Prescod-Weinstein wrote an article for New Scientist, catching us up on some of the modern physics that might get us closer to a real warp drive.

Warp cores in Star Trek are driven by a matter-antimatter reaction. We know antimatter is real because we’ve seen it in a lab, Prescod-Weinstein says. But why is there so little of it? If antimatter is, well, the “anti” of “matter”, then why do we live in an asymmetrical universe? Many theoretical physicists believe that it’s due to violations of what’s called “charge-parity” (or CP) symmetry.

Now, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have found evidence of such violations in a type of D-meson, a subatomic particle. Prescod-Weinstein explains the significance of the finding: “This result is an exciting affirmation of a phenomenon that scientists had expected to find for decades, but had yet to produce in the lab. The discovery doesn’t radically change our perspective on physics yet because it matches theoretical predictions – and it certainly isn’t a warp engine. But it suggests that, under the right conditions, CP violation can occur. Perhaps those conditions existed during the big bang, producing the nearly antimatterless universe we see today.”

Alison Pitt