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wormholes, part I

I saw Christopher Nolan's latest film Interstellar a couple weeks ago on opening night. I hadn't even heard about it before, my company just decided to buy us all tickets to see it in IMAX, one of the nice things they do for employees once a month or so. I loved it and it left a big impression on me, and I intend to go back and see it again as soon as I get a chance. (Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil anything about the plot here--the intention of this series of posts is not to talk about the movie but about wormholes.)

I mostly loved it for the story, but also that you see concepts from theoretical physics like time dilation, black holes, and wormholes being applied in a relatively mainstream hollywood movie. Not all of it was very accurate scientifically, but it was still really exciting to see these things show up on the big screen in such a prominent spectacular way.

Lots of people were asking me about the time dilation effects after the movie, and it took me a few days to remember exactly how everything works and do enough back of the envelope calculations, but I eventually came to the conclusion that there is no realistic way in which the effects portrayed could have worked the way they did in the movie. But something similar could have maybe possibly happened if things had been a bit more complicated (for instance if there were two black holes nearby instead of just one). Maybe Kip Thorne (who consulted on the movie) suggested something like this but they decided they didn't care enough about the details to bother getting everything exactly right.

Regarding the wormhole itself, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite for getting excited about it. I've always been annoyed at how big the disconnect is between what the sci-fi community thinks is plausible and what is actually plausible according to our latest and most up to date scientific knowledge. As I've always told people who ask me, traversable wormholes are most likely completely impossible, not something that any civilization no matter how advanced could create. But they show up in sci fi all the time as if all we need to do is gain enough technology and then we can figure out how to build one. Worse, the depictions of them in sci fi are usually nothing like a real wormhole would look like, in the unlikely case it turned out somehow they were possible. At least, in Interstellar, they got this right--a real wormhole would look like a sphere, not like a hoop as I've seen in most sci fi.

After I watched the film, I started thinking about wormholes and the different conversations I've had with people, many of whom tend to be very enthusiastic about the possibility of using them for interstellar travel some day. I always have tried to emphasize that it's very unlikely that they are possible at all, even in principle. But I realized that the truth is--I have never looked into the science behind them deeply enough to know exactly what the reasons for this are, and what possible loopholes there could be that might allow some advanced civilization to build one. So for the past couple weeks I did my due diligence and looked through the current scientific literature to find out what the present state of knowledge is. What is the most solid argument against them being possible--are they almost certainly impossible, or just probably impossible, or is it that we really just don't know whether they are impossible? I think my answer to this is about the same as when I started looking through the literature--they're either very likely impossible or almost certainly impossible depending on who you believe, but as of yet nobody has succeeded in coming up with an absolutely rock solid proof that they are impossible. However, I now know much more of the details than I did a few weeks ago, so I'd like to share them and let you be the judge!

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