5 science fiction concepts that are possible (in theory)

Sci-fi novels and movies are packed with wacky ideas, most often as a springboard for an action-packed adventure rather than a serious attempt to predict future trends in science or technology. Some of the more common tropes, like accelerating a spaceship to fantastic speeds in a matter of seconds without crushing the occupants, are simply impossible according to the laws of physics as we understand them. Yet those same laws seem to allow for other seemingly implausible sci-fi concepts, from wormholes to parallel universes. Here’s a rundown of some of the sci-fi ideas that could actually be made, in theory at least.


Traveling through a wormhole might be possible under certain gravity conditions.

Traveling through a wormhole might be possible under certain gravity conditions. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The idea of ​​a wormhole, a shortcut through space that allows for near-instantaneous travel between distant parts of the universe, appears to have been created as a fictional story conductor. But under its more formal name the Einstein-Rosen bridge, the concept has existed as a serious theoretical concept long before science fiction writers got hold of it. It comes from Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which sees gravity as a distortion of space-time caused by massive objects. In collaboration with physicist Nathan Rosen, Einstein theorized in 1935 that extremely strong points of gravity, such as black holes, could be directly connected to each other. And thus the idea of ​​wormholes was born.

The forces around a black hole would destroy anyone who came close to it, so the idea of ​​traveling through a wormhole wasn’t seriously considered until the 1980s, when astrophysicist Carl Sagan decided he was going to write. a science fiction novel. According to the BBC, Sagan encouraged fellow physicist Kip Thorne to find a viable way to travel interstellar distances in an instant. Thorne duly devised a way, possible in theory, but highly unlikely in practice, that humans could achieve interstellar travel by going through a wormhole unscathed. The result found its way into Sagan’s novel “Contact” (Simon and Schuster: 1985) which was later adapted into a film with Jodie Foster in the title role.

While wormholes are highly unlikely to ever become the simple and convenient transportation methods described in the movies, scientists have now found a more viable way to build a wormhole than Thorne’s original suggestion. It is also possible that if wormholes already exist in the universe, they can be located using the new generation of gravitational wave detectors.

Warp motor

In theory, it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light if you manipulate the space around the spacecraft.

In theory, it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light if you manipulate the space around the spacecraft. (Image credit: EDUARD MUZHEVSKYI / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images)

An essential prerequisite for most space-based adventure stories is the ability to go from A to B much faster than we can today. Wormholes aside, there are multiple obstacles to achieving this with a conventional spacecraft. There is the enormous amount of fuel required, the crushing effects of acceleration, and the fact that the universe has a strictly imposed speed limit. This is the speed at which light travels, precisely one light year per year, which in a cosmic context is not very fast at all. Proxima Centauri, the second closest star to Earth, is 4.2 light years from the sun, while the center of the galaxy is a whopping 27,000 light years away.

Fortunately, there is a loophole in the cosmic speed limit: it only dictates the maximum speed at which we can travel through space. As Einstein explained, space itself can be distorted, so perhaps it is possible to manipulate the space around a ship in such a way that the speed limit is subverted. The spacecraft would still travel through surrounding space at a speed slower than that of light, but space itself would move faster than that.

This was what the “Star Trek” writers had in mind when they came up with the concept of a “warp drive” in the 1960s. But to them it was just a plausible-sounding phrase, not actual physics. It wasn’t until 1994 that theorist Miguel Alcubierre found a solution to Einstein’s equations that produced a real warp momentum effect, Live Science’s sister site reported, collapsing space in front of a spacecraft and expanding it toward the ground. rear. Alcubierre’s solution was no less artificial than Thorne’s traversable wormhole to begin with, but scientists are trying to refine it in the hope that it will one day be practical.

Time travel

An illustration of time, spacetime, with a clock and a cosmic background.

The theory of general relativity shows that time travel is possible. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The concept of a time machine is one of the great devices of the sci-fi plot, allowing characters to go back and change the course of history, for better or for worse. But this inevitably raises logical paradoxes. In “Back to the Future”, for example, would Doc have built his time machine if he hadn’t been visited by future Marty using that same machine? Because of paradoxes like these, many people assume that time travel must be impossible in the real world, and yet, according to the laws of physics, it can actually happen.

As with wormholes and space warps, the physics that tell us that time travel is possible comes from Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This treats space and time as part of the same “space-time” continuum, the two being inextricably linked. Just as we talk about distorting space with a wormhole or distortion unit, time can also be distorted. It can sometimes become so distorted that it folds back on itself, in what scientists call a “closed curve in the shape of time,” although it could just as accurately be called a time machine.

A conceptual design for such a time machine was published in 1974 by physicist Frank Tipler, according to physicist David Lewis Anderson, who describes the research at the Anderson Institute, a private research laboratory. Called a Tipler cylinder, it has to be large, at least 60 miles long, according to Humble, and extremely dense, with a total mass comparable to that of the sun. To function as a time machine, the cylinder has to rotate fast enough to distort space-time to the point where time is reversing on itself. It may not sound as simple as installing a flux capacitor in a DeLorean, but it has the advantage that it would actually work, at least on paper.


Star Trek The Adventure exhibition in London, 2002.

Star Trek The Adventure exhibition in London, 2002. Science fiction shows and movies use teleportation as an easy way to move people to new locations, but the reality is much more limited. (Image credit: Scott Barbour / Staff via Getty Images)

The archetypal science fiction example of teleportation is the “Star Trek” transporter, which, as the name suggests, is simply described as a convenient way to transport personnel from one place to another. But teleportation is quite different from any other form of transport: instead of the traveler moving through space from the starting point to the destination, teleportation results in the creation of an exact duplicate at the destination while the original is destroyed. Viewed in these terms, and at the level of subatomic particles rather than human beings, teleportation is actually possible, according to IBM.

The real world process is called quantum teleportation. This process copies the precise quantum state of one particle, such as a photon, to another that may be hundreds of miles away. Quantum teleportation destroys the quantum state of the first photon, so it actually appears as if the photon has been magically transported from one place to another. The trick is based on what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” but is more formally known as quantum entanglement. If the photon to be “teleported” contacts one of a pair of entangled photons, and a measurement of the resulting state is sent to the receiving end, where the other entangled photon is, then the last photon can be switched to same state as the teleported photon.

It’s a complicated process even for a single photon, and there’s no way it can scale to the kind of instantaneous transport system seen in “Star Trek.” Still, quantum teleportation has important real-world applications, such as hacker-proof communications and super-fast quantum computing.

Parallel universes

Bubble universe, multiverse shown in the conception of this artist.

Bubble universes in a multiverse that is shown in the conception of this artist. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The universe is everything our telescopes reveal to us: all the billions of galaxies expanding outward from the Big Bang. But is that all there is? The theory says maybe not: there could be an entire multiverse of universes out there. The idea of ​​”parallel universes” is another familiar science fiction theme, but when shown on screen, they usually differ from our own universe only in small details. But the reality can be much stranger than that, since the basic parameters of physics in a parallel universe, such as the force of gravity or nuclear forces, differ from ours. A classic portrait of such a genuinely different universe, and the creatures that live in it, is Isaac Asimov’s novel “The Gods Themselves” (Doubleday: 1972).

The key to the modern understanding of parallel universes is the concept of “eternal inflation.” This represents the infinite structure of space in a state of perpetual and incredibly rapid expansion. Occasionally, a point located in this space, an autonomous Big Bang, breaks out of general expansion and begins to grow at a calmer rate, allowing material objects such as stars and galaxies to form within. According to this theory, our universe is one of those regions, but there can be many others.

As in Asimov’s story, these parallel universes could have completely different physical parameters than ours. At one time, scientists believed that only universes with virtually the same parameters as ours would be able to support life, but recent studies suggest that the situation may not be as restrictive as this, Live Science previously reported. So there is still hope for Asimov’s aliens, though perhaps not for making contact with them, as is the case in the novel. However, the traces of other universes could be detectable to us by other means. The mysterious “cold spot” in the cosmic microwave background has even been suggested to be the scar from a collision with a parallel universe, wrote Ivan Baldry, professor of astrophysics at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK in The Conversation.

Originally posted on Live Science.

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