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5 Fictional Ways to Go Very Fast in Space

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Space operas would be pretty boring without some way to go very far, very fast. Traveling at 40,000 miles per hour—the speed at which Voyager is zipping along—it would take around 17,000 years for the Vulcans to fly to Earth and make first contact. Chances are, by the time they got here we would have already bombed ourselves to extinction and been replaced by evolved apes. Nobody would pay to see a movie like that. To keep things interesting, here are a few fictional ways to go very fast in science fiction.

1. FTL Drive


Photo courtesy BattlestarProps.com.

Mr. Gaeta was probably the busiest man on the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica. In addition to his other duties, he was responsible for spinning up the ship’s FTL (Faster Than Light) drive and plotting jumps. While newer (and more annihilated) battlestars had computer networks to make sure the Galactica didn’t emerge from FTL in the middle of a moon, Gaeta had a protractor and grease pen.

FTL is perhaps a misnomer, or at least, misdirection. The ship never moves faster than light. Rather, it folds space and creates an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. (Rosen here being Nathan Rosen, Einstein’s colleague and proto-“other guy,” paving the way for such OGs as José Carreras, Michael Collins, and Joey Bishop.) This is better known as a wormhole, and sends the ship to some other point in space. The upshot is that the Galactica could move slower than a Chevy Nova and still travel faster than light. This also creates a few interesting problems and opportunities. FTL-capable ships such as Raptors can emerge inside planetary atmospheres for tactical missions, but can also emerge inside of planets, for very bad days. (A tip of the hat to Tough Guy and Carousel of Raptor 612, lost during the final search and rescue operation on Caprica.) Likewise, spinning up an FTL drive close to or inside of another ship can cause severe trauma to that ship’s hull, a likely result of the distortion of space itself.

One other point worth mentioning: Traveling great distances with FTL drives requires multiple jumps. There’s no “Lay in a course for Earth. Engage!” but rather, hundreds if not thousands of short, perilous jumps. (Cylon FTL drives are far more efficient, but even they have an upper limit.)

2. Warp Drive


Photo courtesy Memory Alpha

Your basic Starfleet warp drive is technically known as a Gravimetric Field Displacement Manifold, and is powered by matter/antimatter reactions. (But not by dilithium crystals, which serve only to focus said reactions into a flow of electro-plasma. The reactions themselves are fueled by deuterium. Everybody got that?) It works something like this: The warp drive generates a subspace field around the ship, distorting space-time itself and moving the ship very, very fast. Just how fast is measured by Warp Factors, with Warp 1 being the speed of light, and Warp 10 being impossible and infinite, I don’t care what that one atrocious episode of Star Trek Voyager said. (Note that in various episodes in various series, there is the occasional “Warp 15!” thrown around. That’s merely an adjustment of scale. It’s just easier to say “Warp 15” than to say, “Warp 9.9999999999999923. Engage!”)

Zefram Cochrane invented the human variant of the warp drive in 2063, which weirdly enough means that high school students today will be around for it and for first contact with the Vulcans, which happens immediately after warp speed is achieved.

Safety measure: In the event of a warp core breach, which is very bad, a starship can save itself by ejecting its core, except that one time in Star Trek: Generations when Geordi forgot about that.

3. Akwende Drive


Photo courtesy Wing Commander News.

The Terran Confederation Navy uses jump drives to move ships from one jump point to another over jump lines. (Each jump point is marked by a jump buoy.) For that one guy reading this who’s not an expert in Wing Commander physics, here’s what that means: Jump lines (sometimes called jump tunnels) are rare paths in space that are created by the gravity wells of celestial objects. For our purposes, think of them as interstellar jet streams. Each jump line’s point of entry in space is called a jump point. Space colonists mark jump points with jump buoys to help navigation systems lock onto locations with precision. Jump lines are sometimes bidirectional, but just as often not.

Special propulsion systems were developed to take advantage of jump lines. The most capable are Akwende Drives (also called Jump Drives), named for Dr. Shari Akwende, inventor of the faster-than-light Morvan Drive and first human discoverer of jump points.

The strategic importance of jump points is pretty obvious. Controlling both nodes on a jump line opens up huge new expanses of space. Their value increases further if nodes connect habitable planets, or additional jump points. For this reason, humans and Kilrathi often war over regions of space containing said points.

4. Imperium Warp Engine


Photo courtesy of the Warhammer 40,000 Wiki.

Parallel to the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a turbulent dimension called the Immaterium, or colloquially, “the Warp.” It consists entirely of the psychic energy that underpins the material universe. Scientists developed special spaceship propulsion drives to allow ships to enter the Warp and slip into its speeding currents. Upon exiting the Warp, the ship is found to have traveled tremendous distances in real space. The effect is faster-than-light travel.

The downside to entering a chaotic psychic realm is not only the daemons and dark gods that call it home, but also the certainty that such a dimension will immediately consume the soul of any traveler. To mitigate such risks, warp engines are equipped with devices that generate a protective Gellar Field around spacecraft. Still, traveling in such an inhospitable parallel universe is unpredictable at best, and ships often travel the Warp for weeks only to emerge and find that centuries have elapsed.

5. Infinite Improbability Drive

Here’s what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Infinite Improbability Drive: “The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.”

For a long time, scientists worked hard to build such a drive, but after repeatedly turning up unsuccessful, deemed such a device a “virtual impossibility.” One evening, a student tackled the problem, reasoning that a virtual impossibility meant that it was, in fact, a finite improbability. He worked out how improbable it was, fed the data to a finite improbability generator, and created an infinite improbability drive out of thin air. He went on to win the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness, and to be lynched by a mob of scientists.

Physics later developed the Bistromathics drive, which, according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is “a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances without all that dangerous mucking about with Improbability Factors.” Bistromathics take advantage of the special relationship between numbers in restaurants—specifically the proper table seating for an indeterminate number of guests, the unpredictability of stated times of arrival (the study of which is called recipriversexcluson, itself defined as “a number whose existence can only be defined as being defined as being anything other than itself”), and the unique division of numbers on a bill.

According to the Guide, once bistromathics was recognized and understood, “So many mathematical conferences got held in such good restaurants that many of the finest minds of a generation died of obesity and heart failure and the science of maths was put back by years.”

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Does Self-Control Deplete Over the Course of the Day? Maybe Not, Says New Study
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For months now, I’ve been trying to cut out sugar from my diet. I’ve read about all the ways my sweet tooth will be the death of me, and I’ve resolved to give it up. And yet, even as I write this, my long-term goal to eat healthy is losing out to my eternal desire to eat M&Ms at my desk. Is it because it’s the end of the day, and I’ve been trying to make choices for eight hours already? Or is it something else?

A new study in PLOS One pushes back on the popular theory known as "ego depletion," which hypothesizes that self-control is a finite resource that depletes throughout the day, much like energy levels. Instead, researchers from the University of Toronto and the learning technology company Cerego found that people's self-control depletes when it comes to doing one task for a long period of time, but that self-control fatigue isn't a factor when you're switching tasks. In other words, it's hard to say no to the box of cookies all day long, but saying no to the box of cookies won't impede other acts of self-control, like your ability to focus on your homework instead of turning on the TV.

The study used data from Cerego, which publishes online study materials, examining the study behaviors of two groups of college students using the Cerego system as part of semester-long psychology courses. The researchers looked at data from two groups of users, one group of 8700 students and one of almost 8800, focusing on how long they worked during each session and how well they performed at the memory tests within the curriculum.

If self-control really is a finite resource, it should be depleted by the end of the day, after people presumably have spent many hours resisting their first impulses in one way or another. But the researchers found that this wasn't true. Overall, students didn't do any better if they used the program earlier in the morning. Instead, performances peaked around 2 p.m., and people logged in to use the software more and more as the day went on, suggesting that the motivation to learn doesn't fall off at night (though that may also be because that's when college students do their homework in general).

However, mental resources did seem to be drained by doing the same task for a long period of time. The researchers found that after a certain point, students' performance dropped off, peaking at about 28 minutes of work. They made about 5 percent more mistakes 50 minutes into the session compared to that peak.

When it comes to the idea that we exhaust our store of self-control, the authors write, "the notion that this fatigue is completely fluid, and that it emerges after minutes of self-control, is under considerable doubt."

The notion of ego depletion comes from a 1998 study in which researchers asked participants to hang out in a room full of fresh-baked cookies, telling them to eat only from a bowl of radishes, leaving the cookies untouched. Then, those volunteers worked on an impossible puzzle. Volunteers who had spent time avoiding the delicious pull of cookies gave up on the mind-boggling task an average of 11 minutes earlier than a group of volunteers who were brought into the same room and allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. (Lucky them.)

Since then, the idea has taken off, leading to hundreds of subsequent studies and even influencing the habits of people like Barack Obama, who told Vanity Fair in 2011 that he only wore blue or gray suits in order to cut down on the non-vital decisions he had to make throughout the day.

This current study isn't the first to challenge the theory’s veracity, though. In 2016, a 2000-person replication study by some of the same authors (with scientists in 23 different labs) pushed back on the theory of ego depletion, finding that short spurts of self-control didn't have any effect on subsequent tasks. This study just adds to the evidence against the well-established idea.

So it's looking more and more like ego depletion isn't a good excuse for my afternoon vending-machine habit. Perhaps the true secret to excellent self-control is this: Just be a raven.

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