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Wormholes, time warps, and anthropocentric dreams

Any time an article mentions Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, my day halts. The book so brilliantly sparks the imagination, and if you combine it with broader philosophical concepts that traditionally surround the universe’s greatest wonders, count on many hours successfully spent either daydreaming or procrastinating—depending on your philosophical bend.

Today I read “Why wormholes (probably) don’t exist”, by Matthew Francis, a great look into the evidence against wormholes that would allow travel of matter with positive energy density à la Deep Space Nine. The explanations aren’t news (Thorne and Stephen Hawking have smashed that particular dream in their books already, just to name two), but whenever a conversation starts about the reasons why wormholes and faster-than-light travel most probably can’t happen, Star Trek always comes up.

Not to pick on Francis in particular for choosing to write on the subject, but why give the reasons against wormholes and FTL travel again now, in 2015, when this knowledge is old news in physics? Black Holes and Time Warps was published in 1994, twenty five years after Star Trek: The Original Series ended, six years after Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired, and the year after Deep Space Nine’s first season. Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, which also put the idea of macroscopic wormholes to bed as far as I understand it, was published in 2001. It sounds recent, but that was fourteen years ago now!

We’ve created so many technologies that were first imagined in worlds like Star Trek, or in the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and many other speculative fiction authors. Scientists have made discoveries both of deliberate genius and wild accident that changed everything we thought we knew about the rules of space and time. Is it just that we can’t let this one idea go, that we are so attached to making the dreams of our fictional worlds a reality that we can’t believe there is a physical limit to the universe’s wonder? From a philosophical perspective, that may be just it.

The anthropic principle, proposed by astronomer Brandon Carter in 1974, suggests that the universe must exist in a certain configuration to both allow for our existence and the observations we make of it. The word “anthropic” in that title can be construed either as a misnomer of what should be a principle that accounts for any sentient life’s existence, but it can also be taken as a sign of our human-centric view of the universe in general. Expanding on the idea, I believe that only looking for life on planets that resemble Earth, the Star Trek universe’s “M-class planets”, should be labeled as the anthropocentric principle, a sort of negative-confirmation-bias-induced supposition that the universe can only exist in the particular configuration that allows life that exists as we recognize it simply because we haven’t found anything yet. Considering how often biologists continue to be surprised at the discoveries of new species in deep, cold, and hardy conditions on Earth, it seems a bit presumptuous to expect liquid water and an Earth-like temperature range to be requisites for life elsewhere.

“We must be prepared to take into account the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.” – Brandon Carter

So what does the anthropic principle, and the further idea of an anthropocentric principle, have to do with Star Trek and wormholes? In applying the anthropic principle to everything, examining every part of our culture and the way we relate to the universe, a science fiction writer and lover like myself comes up with another way to look at our attachment to far-fetched ideas and our need to constantly revisit their plausibility despite knowing the end of that debate: no other configuration of the universe can exist except that which allows our fantasies of wormholes, faster-than-light and time travel to be written.

We are born believing that the universe can’t be in any way except that which supports our existence, with no knowledge of physics required. And since part of our existence is what we create, the fantasies and stories of our wildest dreams, we won’t let them go so easily.

For more Star Trek (over)analysis, check out my last post: Star Trek’s Q as God, and the fear of humanity’s potential.