Exotic Detections: Wormholes and Worldships

by Paul Gilster on August 22, 2012

SETI always makes us ask what human-centered assumptions we are making about extraterrestrial civilizations. When it comes to detecting an actual technology, like the starships we’ve been talking about in the last two posts, we’ve largely been forced to study concepts that fit our understanding of physics. Thus Robert Zubrin talks about how we might detect a magsail, or an antimatter engine, or a fusion-powered spacecraft, but he’s careful to note that the kind of concepts once studied by the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project at NASA may be undetectable, since we really don’t know what’s possible and what its signature might be.

I mentioned zero-point energy in a previous post because Zubrin likewise mentions it, an idea that would draw from the energy of the vacuum at the quantum level. Would a craft using such energies — if it’s even possible — leave a detectable signal? I’ve never seen a paper on this, but it’s true that one classic paper has looked at another truly exotic mechanism for interstellar travel, the wormhole. These shortcuts through spacetime make space travel a snap. Because they connect one part of the universe to another, you go in one end and come out the other, emerging into another place and, for all we know, another time.

The fact that we don’t know whether wormholes exist doesn’t mean we can’t think about how to detect one, although the authors of the classic paper on wormhole detection make no assumptions about whether or not any intelligent species would actually be using a wormhole. The paper is “Natural Wormholes as Gravitational Lenses,” and it’s no surprise to find that its authors are not only wormhole specialists like Matt Visser and Michael Morris, but physicists with a science fiction connection like John Cramer, Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Benford and the formidable Robert Forward.

Image: A wormhole presents a shortcut through spacetime. Can one be detected? Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The analysis assumes that the mouth of a wormhole would accrete mass, which would give the other mouth a net negative mass that would behave in gravitationally unusual ways. Thus the GNACHO (gravitationally negative anomalous compact halo object), which playfully echoes the acronym for massive compact halo objects (MACHOs). Observationally, we can look for a gravitational lensing signature that will enhance background stars by bending light in a fundamentally different way than what a MACHO would do. And because we have MACHO search data available, the authors propose checking them for a GNACHO signature.

In conventional gravitational lensing, when a massive object moves between you and a much more distant object, a greatly magnified and distorted image of the distant object can be seen. Gravitational lensing like this has proven a useful tool for astrophysicists and has also been a means of exoplanet detection. But when a wormhole moves in front of another star, it should de-focus the light and dim it. And as the wormhole continues to move in relation to the background star, it should create a sudden spike of light. The signature, then, is two spikes with a steep lowering of light between them.

The authors think we might find the first solid evidence for the existence of a wormhole in our data by looking for such an event, saying “…the negative gravitational lensing presented here, if observed, would provide distinctive and unambiguous evidence for the existence of a foreground object of negative mass.” And it goes without saying that today’s astronomy, which collects information at a rate far faster than it can be analyzed, might have such evidence tucked away in computer data waiting to be discovered by the right search algorithms.

Would a wormhole be a transportation device? Nobody knows. Assuming we discover a wormhole one day, it would likely be so far away that we wouldn’t be able to get to it to examine its possibilities. But it’s not inconceivable that a sufficiently advanced civilization might be able to create an artificial wormhole, creating a network of spacetime shortcuts for instantaneous travel. Matt Visser has discussed a wormhole whose mouth would be held open by negative energy, ‘…a flat-space wormhole mouth framed by a single continuous loop of exotic cosmic string.’ A primordial wormhole might survive from the early universe. Could one also be created by technology?

Civilizations on the Brink

More conventional means of transport like solar or laser-powered sails present serious problems for detection. In Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s The Mote in God’s Eye, an alien lightsail is detected moving at seven percent of the speed of light, its spectrum the same as the star that it is approaching but blueshifted, which is how analysts have determined it is a sail. The novel’s detection occurs with far more sophisticated observatories than we have in our day, when finding a solar or lightsail in transit would be a tricky thing indeed. A fusion rocket, for example, would emit largely in the X-ray range and could be detectable for several light years, but a lightsail is a highly mutable catch.

I remembered reading something about this in Gregory Matloff’s Deep Space Probes (Springer, 2005) and checked the book to extract this:

If ET prefers non-nuclear travel, he might utilise a laser or maser light sail. If the starship is near enough and the laser/maser is powerful enough, reflections from the sail might be observable as a fast-moving and accelerating monochromatic ‘star.’ However, detection will depend on sail shape and orientation as well as other physical factors.

Therefore, it is not as easy to model the spectral signature of these craft as it is energetic nuclear craft. A starship accelerated using lasers or masers may be easier to detect during deceleration if a magsail is used.

Writing in the comments to yesterday’s post, Centauri Dreams reader James Jason Wentworth recalls Larry Niven’s short story “The Fourth Profession,” which has a lightsail detection something like the one in The Mote in God’s Eye:

“All right. The astronomers were studying a nearby nova, so they caught the intruder a little sooner. It showed a strange spectrum, radically different from a nova and much more constant. It got even stranger. The light was growing brighter at the same time the spectral lines were shifting toward the red.

“It was months before anyone identified the spectrum.

“Then one Jerome Finney finally caught wise. He showed that the spectrum was the light of our own sun, drastically blue-shifted. Some kind of mirror was coming at us, moving at a hell of a clip, but slowing as it came.”

Some sails could be truly gigantic, and we can imagine worldships large enough to require sails the size of a planetary radius, which could be detected when near their home or destination stars, but would be hard to find when in cruise. Matloff goes on to suggest that any search for this kind of ship should look near stars from which an entire civilization might be emigrating. A star like Beta Hydri is a possibility, a nearby (21 light years) solar-type star now expanding from the main sequence. This is the longest shot of all, but finding unusual signatures in visible light near a star leaving the main sequence would at least compel a second look.

The wormhole paper is John Cramer, Robert L. Forward, Gregory Benford et al., “Natural Wormholes as Gravitational Lenses,” Physical Review D (March 15, 1995): pp. 3124–27 (available online). See also Matloff and Pazmino, “Detecting Interstellar Migrations,” in Astronomical and Biochemical Origins and the Search for Life in the Universe, ed. C. B. Cosmovici, S. Bowyer and D. Werthimer, Editrici Compositori, Bologna, Italy (1997), pp. 757-759.

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{ 255 comments }

Eniac December 16, 2012 at 0:16

V1 can be anything, V2 is varies linearly between the plates from V1 to V3, and V3 is V1 + V, where V is the differential voltage the capacitor is charged to. The field in the three regions is, as it is always, the gradient of the potential. V1 and V3 are constant, thus E1 and E3 are zero. V2 varies linearly from V1 to V3 over the distance d, therefore E2 is (V3-V1)/d.

This is the truth, nothing in your citation says any different, and what you have been saying to the contrary does not make any sense.

Note also that you cannot have different potentials on the two sides of a plate. The plates are metal, and have equal potential everywhere. Thus V2 must equal V1 at one plate, and V3 at the other, and vary in between, as stated above. Furthermore, if V1 were equal to V3, V2 would be equal to both, all would be constant, and there would be no field. All this is as elementary as it gets in electrostatics, and in complete agreement with the material you cite. You should quote a contradiction if you can find one.

Note: In my previous formulas I did not number the V2 as you did, so the numbering is different there. V1 there is V1 here, V2 there is V3 here, and V3 there is V1 here, but of the next capacitor. Look at the formulas again, they are correct. If you disagree, state which part you think is faulty.

To point out explicitly one of your fallacies, take this one, for example:

If the electric field E~0, the voltage V~0, Eniac.

This is just plain wrong, and your contorted “derivation” of it is nonsense. Generally, the field is the gradient of the potential, always and everywhere. It is zero anywhere where the potential is constant. Not zero. Constant. A field of zero thus does not imply a potential of 0, not even a little bit.

Avatar2.0 December 22, 2012 at 2:49

“V1 can be anything, V2 is varies linearly between the plates from V1 to V3, and V3 is V1 + V, where V is the differential voltage the capacitor is charged to. The field in the three regions is, as it is always, the gradient of the potential. V1 and V3 are constant, thus E1 and E3 are zero. V2 varies linearly from V1 to V3 over the distance d, therefore E2 is (V3-V1)/d.

This is the truth, nothing in your citation says any different, and what you have been saying to the contrary does not make any sense”

Actually, this is non-sense, Eniac. And you refusing to accept it changes nothing.

As for the explanations and formulas I posted in my previous posts, they unambiguously prove me right: In a capacitor with a plate + charged and a plate – charged, beyond the plates of the capacitor E is 0 and, as such V is 0.

Where are your formulas?
BTW: “This is actually V1 = 0*1 + C, with C an arbitrary constant”
I’m still waiting for the the meaning of this ‘C’, Eniac.

“Note also that you cannot have different potentials on the two sides of a plate. The plates are metal, and have equal potential everywhere. Thus V2 must equal V1 at one plate, and V3 at the other, and vary in between, as stated above. Furthermore, if V1 were equal to V3, V2 would be equal to both, all would be constant, and there would be no field. All this is as elementary as it gets in electrostatics, and in complete agreement with the material you cite.”

Eniac, E is 0 beyond the capacitor BECAUSE the electric fields generated by the + charged plate and the electric field generated by the – charged plate cancel each other out beyond the capacitor (but not between the plates of the capacitor).
And yes, this IS POSSIBLE. Which shows you have problems with understanding elementary electrostatics.

We’re not talking about a single charged plate, but of the interaction of the electric fields generated by 2 plates.

“This is just plain wrong, and your contorted “derivation” of it is nonsense. Generally, the field is the gradient of the potential, always and everywhere. It is zero anywhere where the potential is constant. Not zero. Constant. A field of zero thus does not imply a potential of 0, not even a little bit.”

And again you come up with non-sense.
Eniac, you once told me to read “The Feynman Lectures on Physics Volume 2. Mainly electromagnetism and matter”.
You are obviously in dire need of reading it yourself. PLEASE DO SO – so we can move forward, as opposed to me keep explaining to you fundamental concepts and you not understanding them.

What you will find out is that the electric field is the one causing the voltage and not the other way around. Remove the cause, remove the effect.

Then what exactly is voltage? How is it caused by the electric field?
The voltage between 2 points A and B is the work done per unit charge by an electric field in order to move this unit charge from point A to point B.
To put this mathematically:
V=(F*d)/q2;
And F (the Coulombic force) is F=E*q2 (or, to put it another way, the force exerted by the electric field generated by a charge q1 upon a charge q2). Feel free to reap up on the formulas for the electric field and the Coulombic force, confirming all this.
As such, V=(E*q2*d)/q2.
Now, if E is 0, what is the value of V? This is kindergarten mathematics, Eniac.

I’ll tell you the punchline anyway: if E is 0 in a region, V is 0.
And yes, Eniac, I know you have trouble wrapping your mind around this basic fact – I already explained it half a dozen times, formulas and all (which, btw, are far from contorted; indeed, they’re quite simple).

Avatar2.0 December 22, 2012 at 3:00

Eniac, I’m thinking about submitting this difference of “opinion” we’re having to a “peer-review”.
Meaning, I’ll just post this “controversy” on the latest article on this site (along with my concept of the interstellar ship). And I’ll go from there.

Before I do so and and you are, consequently, thoroughly embarassed, I am giving you a chance to read up on the relevant concepts. So – reap up; fast.

Eniac December 23, 2012 at 0:04

Go ahead, embarrass yourself all you want…

tom February 14, 2013 at 21:04

Archaeologist don’t seem to have arguments like these. I don’t think they contemplate finding the remains of Atlantis or Aladinn’s Cave of Wonders in their field work? Not necessarily derisive of what this forum promotes, but if its less than fantastic it would be here.
It would be surprising to find out we are the only intelligent life in the Universe.
Because that in my mind would require a bigger explanation than the other premise.

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