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Ask Dr. SETI ®

Chapter 1: Astrophysics

Faster-Than-Light Revisited

Dear Dr. SETI:
I feel your response to Don from San Antonio as regards faster than light communication is an over simplification. Faster than light communication is actually quite simple to physically demonstrate. Take that office desk toy, the line of steel balls hung on wire where one ball is raised and released to strike the next ball in the queue. The signal to the last ball which then "jumps" is transferred instantaneously. On a nano scale there is potential for this type of action using bucky balls. This is all pretty useless in the grander scheme of communication, because our knowledge is limited to sending signals via wave frequencies such as light and radio. It should be noted that gravity does transcend the faster than light barrier without breaking any known physical laws; e.g., were another planet to somehow immediately appear next to the sun its presence in terms of gravitational effect would take place instantaneously, not in the 8 odd minutes it takes for light to get here.

Whilst we cannot readily manipulate gravity, we do know that it is possible with the transfer of matter to energy during nuclear events. I believe that manipulation of gravity on a nano scale will allow communication across the universe in an instant and that the search for ET's using SETI is probably a waste of time as it is not only limited in scope of survey area, but in time, as radio communication may only be utilised for a short few hundred years before it becomes antiquated.

Feel free to remonstrate with me, but am willing to bet that radio communication will be old hat in 200 years.

Peter, New Zealand

The Doctor Responds:
Let me agree up front, Peter, with both your initial and your concluding statements. Certainly, my responses are an oversimplification. The nature of this medium requires it -- otherwise, I'd have to dedicate a significant life-fraction to researching and writing each and every Ask Dr. SETI response. Further, if radio communication has not become obsolete on Earth within the next two centuries, it means that we technologists are not doing our job!

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to respectfully disagree with your other assertions, starting with the instantaneous nature of gravity. No, it's not simple to physically demonstrate, although one can surely demonstrate mechanical analogies to instantaneous gravitation, such as the desktop toy you have described. Only, please do not confuse the analogy with the reality.

Admittedly, your idea that the gravity from an instantly appearing planet would immediately assert itself, violates no known laws of physics. However, the instantaneous appearance of the planet which gave rise to that gravitational effect most assuredly does! Gravitational manipulation, though often proposed as an instantaneous communications medium, presents us with engineering challenges which humans, and I dare say even advanced extraterrestrials, would find daunting.

This is not to say that other proposed means of FTL communication are completely without merit, and I remain cautiously optimistic that one will eventually be demonstrated. To date, I have been disappointed.

A case in point is the realization of quantum microwave tunneling, an effect I am on record as stating I will believe only when I see it with my own eyes. The desired effect was claimed in the 1990s by a scientist from Physikalisches Institut der Universität zu Köln (Germany). I was thus quite excited to learn that Herr Prof. Dr. Günter Nimtz had been scheduled to demonstrate his apparatus and methodology at the Fourth European Radio Astronomy Congress in Heidelberg, in September, 2006. On the appointed day, I scrambled for a front-row seat. The assembled multitude and I were disappointed when the good Professor failed to materialize for his presentation. This leads me to suspect that the claimed instantaneous communication, if in fact it was ever achieved, could not be duplicated on demand. (Or, perhaps he traveled through the lecture hall at a superluminal velocity.) So, I continue to wait for a personal demonstration of this promising technique.

To date, I am inclined to consign quantum microwave tunneling to the category of a "Technology Not In Evidence" (TNIE). The late SETI pioneer Philip Morrison used to speak of "zeta waves," mythical communications means which the aliens presumably possess, but of which humans remain ignorant. Whenever someone suggested employing a TNIE, he would reply, "sure -- just as soon as you build me a zeta wave detector."

Is FTL communication theoretically possible? I'm not ready to rule it out. Do we have any clue how to achieve it? I doubt it, Prof. Nimitz' claims notwithstanding. When we have the technology, I'm sure we'll embrace it. Until then, I'm afraid we're stuck with good old fashioned, obsolete electromagnetic waves. Maybe even for the next 200 years.

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