Can you help me understand Star Trek's Time Warp?
August 31, 2018 2:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm referring to the The Original's "Tomorrow is Yesterday" episode.

I'm revisiting the Original Series which is my favorite of all the star trek universes for some reason even though it came out many years before my birth. In this episode, the crew is pulled in by the gravitational pull of a "black star" and it takes all their engine power to escape from it. They succeed, but then find themselves sling-shot towards the direction they were headed before the warp -which happened to be toward earth- which turns out to be Earth of the 1960's.

Using the gravitational pull of the sun they go back in time again by a day or two in order to return a man they beamed up from 1960's Earth (and so that he doesn't remember anything that happened) and then they go back to their own time by using warp again, but this time without the sun I think. I saw a scientist on a panel like 10 years ago and he claimed that based on what we know all this is supposedly possible, but my puny unscientific brain needs help understanding it. I don't understand ANY of it really, but I also don't get why the sun doesn't burn up the ship as they orbit around it or why they need the sun when the ship is already capable of warp drive anyway.
posted by fantasticness to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I saw a scientist on a panel like 10 years ago and he claimed that based on what we know all this is supposedly possible

Based on what we know (at this point in time) this is not possible.

There is a reason that Star Trek is generally seen as being part of the Science Fiction genre.
posted by mygoditsbob at 2:26 AM on August 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Think of the massive object like a pole. Time is like a rope wrapped around the pole spiraling up like a snake. The accident was that they got to the pole and wrapped the wrong way... down instead of up and ended up in the past. They did their thing. Spock figures it out. On the return they do the same thing, they wrap down the pole further into the past, then make a correction to start wrapping back up the pole in the right direction (up/forward). The fling off early enough to whiz past earth and do the beaming without stopping on their trip back into the future. So, the massive object was needed for all time travel shenanigans.

In reality, you can only wrap the pole in the going up direction. Going slowly is a wide spiral going up like a vine. Going fast is close/tight wraps like a rope.

The science-y "well maybe" usually involves something like an infinitely long cylindrical black hole where space is so bent that there is a way in theory to wrap around in the minus-time direction. If warp-drive also bends space, maybe if you hit it just right, a black hole, or even a sun will bend spacetime some, and your warp bends some more, so maybe you don't need the infinite rod black hole to make the math work.

Man, 3blue1brown should totally animate this journey.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:57 AM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of the weirder consequences of theoretical physics is the tachyon a particle with imaginary mass that travels faster than the speed of light and backwards through time. There are also aspects of Einstein's theories of relativity that predict that time travel could be possible, but those situations likely violate other theoretical principles. Since the Enterprise is already traveling faster than the speed of light, that aspect is handwavium. The "slingshot" is very, very, very loosely based on gravity assist trajectories, but again, since the Enterprise is already FTL, there's a lot of handwavium going on.

IMNSHO Star Trek fits the Darko Suvin "based on science" definition rather than the "extrapolated and explicable using science" definition. So there really isn't much explanation for a lot of first-season stuff beyond "Roddenberry and the writers thought it would be cool if..." The first season isn't even consistent with itself, and the series is quite enjoyable as an anthology of "... BUT IN SPACE!" stories.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 9:26 AM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's also the Oberth Effect, which refers to the way rocket engines actually get more efficient when they (and thereby the rocket they are attached to) are moving faster. Since orbiting closer to a planetary or stellar body results in a faster orbit, using your engines, whether to speed up, slow down, or do other maneuvers (such has changing the plane or shape of your orbit) can be done with the least fuel.

It's unclear if this law would apply to a spacewarp drive such as on the Enterprise, since it's not a rocket as such, and it's not clear whether it's a system where thrust is applied to an inertialess ship, or if it's all about stretching space-- compressing in front while expanding behind, as in the Alcubierre Drive model, which is a hypothetical method of FTL travel that does not exceed to local speed of light, i.e. within the warp bubble, so to speak.

Memory Alpha has a good compendium of the several TOS-crew episodes in which time was travelled, deliberately or not, using this technique. That might lead you to some more clues about what, if any, real idea is supporting the fiction. Certainly you'll get an idea of why Kirk is notorious to the organization that preserves the Temporal Prime Directive.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:59 PM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

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