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5 Fictional Ways to Go Very Fast in Space

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 Chances are, by the time they got here we would have already bombed ourselves to extinction and been replaced by evolved apes.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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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech
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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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