Hello and welcome to the inaugural edition of Gaming on the Fringe. In this series I’m going to look at fringe physics and theoretical physics applications as well as their analogs in gaming. While the theoretical physics applications are within the realm of physics as we currently know it, fringe physics gets a little more blurry. These can be ideas that have yet to be proven or radically different takes on established physics. Let’s take a lot at one gaming example, and one of the most well written ones in all of fiction, Mass Effect.
I’m not discussing the plot of Mass Effect here, but the titular mass effect itself. Pretty much mass effect is an extension of the actual physics theory called “negative mass” or “negative matter.” All of galactic civilization in the games is based upon technology powered by element zero – “eezo” in common parlance – which has a bizarre property. It decreases the mass of a given unit of spacetime when negative current is passed through it, but raises the mass of that unit when positive charge is applied to it. No, it’s not actually element zero as an element’s number on the periodic table roughly equals their atomic weight. An element with a zero atomic weight wouldn’t freaking exist! It’s just a nickname humans gave the substance. By the time humanity discovers the mass effect technology, the various other civilizations have used it for everything from artificial gravity and faster-than-light travel to weapons. Even the mass effect relays are nothing but gigantic eezo cores that allow for huge FTL jumps across the galactic plane. Let’s look more in depth at some of the most obvious uses of mass effect.
The first, and arguably most important, is the use of mass effect to enable FTL travel. In physics, general relativity proves that as an object with mass approaches light speed (186,000 miles per second, or c) it gains mass by a large amount. At full c it gains an infinite amount of mass thereby making any acceleration to c physically impossible. By use of a mass effect field that lowers the mass around the ship, this limit is averted by simply making it higher. In this area of low or negative mass, the barrier of increasing relativistic mass is removed so accelerations can take a ship many times faster than c. The games suggest most of the common races get about 12 light years from a 24 hour trip, or about 4380c. In case you’re wondering, a single light year, the distance light travels in one year, is about 6 trillion miles. So in just about 2 hours a mass effect powered ship can go 6 trillion miles. Not bad at all. The only downside is that 12 ly/day is only good for a star cluster, not the galatic distances the game takes place upon, and that FTL builds up an energy charge that must be discharged into a planet’s magnetic field or installations on space stations designed for the task. The mass relays use a large eezo core to produce light-year long paths of mass-free space that ships jump through instantly, operating as a sort of wormhole. In a curious note none of the species you meet in game, even those who have been starfaring for millenia, know how to reproduce the technologies in mass relays that were left by precursor aliens. Interestingly, the vast majority of mass effect powered ships use conventional engines to provide the acceleration as mass effect only allows for FTL travel. Except for things involving wormholes/gates, I can’t think of any other fiction where the FTL mechanism has no motive power of its own.
If you’re going to be using a spaceship and you’re a member of any species that evolved on a terrestrial planet, you will likely be more comfortable if your ship has some sort of artificial gravity. By reversing the mass effect that allows for FTL you can create an artificial gravity well to satisfy more species. Albert Einstein’s landmark general relativity proved that gravity is simply objects of mass warping spacetime (yes, that’s one word because space and time are interwoven, just trust me) akin to putting a ball onto a stretched bedsheet. All objects that have mass have gravity, even tiny ones. Obviously, the larger in mass an object is the more warping it does therefore the more gravity. By simply making a large mass effect field directly below the ship normal gravity is achieved. I honestly wonder if “artificial gravity” applies here as it’s gravity made by the exact same mechanism as what keeps us on Earth, but I digress. Interestingly, they use such gravity in other ways in the games. There are construction yards that are mentioned as using high gravity fields to supercondense matter into very very strong materials. For example, armor plating that isn’t welded but bonded at the molecular level due to the high gravity. There would be no potential weak points in the welds as it’s all the same object now. Very nice.
Now, how about combining these two uses into one clever plot device? Don’t worry, Mass Effect has you covered. The starship that the main character commands, the Normandy, uses both versions of mass effect technology to make a very intelligent drive system. The Normandy features an element zero core that is far larger than ships of comparable size as it uses the prototype Tantalus drive system. The system uses mass effect fields to create strong gravity wells that the ship “falls” into, propelling the ship. It’s a clever way to make a drive system that requires no reaction mass and wouldn’t have an exhaust that sensors could pick up. Now, if there were sensors checking for gravity disturbances you might be in trouble but that’s a fluke and a half. This drive is actually quite similar to a theoretical FTL drive that wouldn’t violate relativity. The theoretical drive is called the Alcubierre Drive after its creator, Miguel Alcubierre. Don’t worry, that will definitely be another article in this series.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention biotics. Essentially “space magic,” biotics are people who were exposed to dust form element zero in utero and thus had pockets of it throughout their bodies. As they mature, they gain the ability to manifest mass effect fields. Granted, they require lots of training and the assistance of implanted amplifiers or “amps” to control it, but the effect is pretty impressive. They can use the projected fields as telekinesis, shields or even to paralyze enemies in their tracks. The game avoids the normal ignorance of the Law of Conservation of Energy. In the Systems Alliance – the human government – biotic soldiers are given an extra meal per day as well as a canteen full of energy drink instead of water to provide many more calories so they have the energy to power their abilities. Well done, Bioware.
Counting all the uses I’ve labeled and the various ones I skipped, you can see that mass effect would be a incredibly useful technology. However, we live in the real world where such a technology doesn’t exist. Does physics offer anything that can be used for as many sci-fi applications as mass effect? Surprisingly, it does and while still in the experimental stages, even in theory it doesn’t violate any known physics. This will be one of the few times I get to say that in any Gaming on the Fringe. It’s called Mach Effect.
You may have heard the phrase “Mach 1” or some other number, and this refers to a speed versus the speed of sound. It is named for same man as Mach Effect, Austrian physicist/philosopher Ernst Mach. The Mach Effect was theorized by James Woodward, an American physicist and historian of science. He based this idea upon Mach’s Principle of Inertia which states that inertia is affected locally by distant activity. Inertia is simply an object’s resistance to changes in velocity; the classic phrasing is “a body at rest stays at rest until acted upon by an outside force.” The same applies to a body in motion. Mach stated his principle in more philosophical terms but Albert Einstein himself considered the principle to be a foundation of general relativity. He boiled the principle down to essentially inertia being the action of multiple objects. Dr. Woodward may have theorized the effect, and it is often called the Woodward effect, but Dr. Woodward greatly prefers Mach Effect and since it’s his theory I’ll use his preferred name. That’s only fair.
Woodward postulated that during either linear or circular motion the mass of an object fluctuates. By “pushing” against the object during higher mass while “pulling” away during lower mass you can generate thrust without expelling any kind of propellant or requiring any reaction mass. Now, I know a few of you science knowledgeable readers may be wondering how this doesn’t violate Newton’s Third Law of Motion – any action has an equal and opposite reaction – and Dr. Woodward explains that the inertial reaction is spread out over a large area, perhaps the entire universe. 50 foot-pounds of force on something human sized is a good push, but if you spread that same energy onto something the size of a house the response would be negligible. By suitable usage of the Mach Effect you can produce an apparent reactionless drive that still obeys the laws of physics.
This is the “linear” term of the Mach effect equations, and the easiest to test, so let’s look at it for a bit. With current technology we can get to Mars in about 6 months to a year, powered by chemical thrust or ion engines. An effective Mach Effect thruster providing 1 G – that’s one Gravity, or the amount of force the Earth’s gravity exerts on us all – can get us to Mars in just 3 days. Sticking with the 1G acceleration the whole way a Mach Effect powered ship could reach Jupiter in a week or the asteroid belt in about 6 days. Imagine that, we could spend just 6 days’ time flying to the asteroids before we started mining them for the various rare elements that are locked inside them. You may be wondering why I stuck with a 1G acceleration, and that’s a good question. With a 1G acceleration you could arrange your ship to be laid out like a skyscraper instead of a boat and have constant Earth gravity the entire trip. In the real world artificial gravity is at best a future tech, and at worst not possible, but it can be simulated by either accelerations or by centrifugal force. If you keep your ship accelerating at 1G you will always have gravity, until you slow down/stop. However, it gets even better than that.
Though I am not a fan Star Trek is a hugely influential piece of science fiction which has even crossed over into mainstream terms. You may not have a preference of Kirk over Picard but you likely know that “warp speed” is essentially “really damned fast,” or even that a warp drive is faster than light. Unfortunately, general relativity states that nothing can go faster than light in real space…but one physicist decided to have some fun with that idea. While on vacation in 1994, sci fi fan and theoretical physicist Dr. Miguel Alcubierre* was watching a Star Trek rerun when he got the notion to see if he could make a warp drive work in the real world without violating physics. He came up with a way to create a bubble of space-time around a ship that could exceed the speed of light. By compressing space-time in front of the ship while expanding it behind, this bubble could travel faster than the speed of light without violating any physics. This has become known as an Alcubierre drive, or Alcubierre metric, in his honor and has become a science fiction trope in its own right, especially for “harder” science fiction. I’ll go in further detail on this concept in a later article but to make things quick, one of the problems with the drive is that the expanding space-time behind a ship required negative energy or negative matter.
No, antimatter is not negative matter as it still has positive mass. Negative matter is essentially what you got when you applied a negative current to element zero in Mass Effect. This is not ruled out by physics, and in fact may have comprised a lot of the early universe. Even today, we can see negative energy states in the event horizons of black holes or using the Casimir effect. For those who want a FTL warp drive, Dr. Woodward has some good news for you. The second Mach effect, or the “quadratic term” of the equation, he has theorized is the ability to generate negative matter or “exotic” matter. The quadratic term is usually small but in certain situations it could become very large, thereby enabling negative energy densities. Exotic matter would be very interesting stuff if we could find it. For one, it would have anti-gravity and could be accelerated faster the less energy you put into it. Some have even conjectured that dark matter, which comprises most of the universe yet does not interact with light in anyway, may actually be exotic matter. If a Mach Effect device could be used to create enough negative matter then it could used to form the warp bubble – and yes, Dr. Alcubierre actually used this term in the paper he published on his drive concept – to make a FTL Alcubierre drive. So with the same effect, a ship can not only have a slower-than-light thruster that allows for good speed for interplanetary distances but also the means to create the space-time warp that gives the Alcubierre warp drive its name. This is all cool stuff but there’s a downside. You may not believe this, but space is really freaking huge. The nearest star to our own Sol is Alpha Centauri or Proxima Centauri, depending on when you look. Close is of course a relative term as it’s still over 4 light years distant. Even with the rather fast FTL in Mass Effect that’s nearly a work day’s worth of travel, unless there was a shortcut. That’s where wormholes come in.
Now I’ve touched on wormholes in a previous article but a quick refresher is that a wormhole is a hole in spacetime that connects two points that are separated by long distances, even multiple light years. The intriguing part is that general relativity allows for wormholes, and a few theories in quantum mechanics state they pop up in the microscopic level all the time just to blink back out of existence. The name “wormhole” comes from the illustration of a worm on an apple. It would take longer for the worm to crawl across the apple than to just dig a hole through it. Using negative energy or matter – it pops up a lot in FTL theories – you can keep the wormhole open either long enough to get through or even permanently. This wormhole could connect two points across vast distances while being a very quick trip for a starship. Dr. Woodward has theorized that a use of a battery of Mach Effect negative energy generators could be used to create and sustain wormholes. Even further, appropriate use of the negative energy can manipulate the layout of the wormhole to create what’s called an “absurdly benign traversable wormhole.” Think “Stargate” or “Portal” and you’ve got the idea.
The very best thing about Mach effect for a physics nerd like me who prefers their scifi on the hard end of thing and the physics at least plausible is that Dr. Woodward has always encouraged testing of his theory. The original paper was published in standard peer reviewed journal, as has a lot of his work after, and it has been tested multiple times. Unlike a lot of “fringe” physics or ideas you’ll see in this series Woodward wants his theory put to the rigourous test of the scientific method. The tests have been from various sources and have run the gamut from inconclusive to very interesting. Judging from a sample of tests provided on the Wikipedia page there is something to the theory that begs for further investigation. A part of the reason why we don’t have strong Mach Effect thrusters yet is that our current technology isn’t powerful enough. Woodward uses piezoelectric capacitors in his tests, and our current versions of such items aren’t that powerful. There are new tests involving a capacitor embedded in a magnetic field show promise. Dr. Sonny White of NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Team has been working with the idea, alongside his experiments to develop a working Alcubierre drive. Tests are on going. While I admit to being a huge fan of the Alcuiberre drive concept and the Mach Effect theory I’m waiting to see experimental proof. It could turn out that Mach effect is just a neat thought experiment.
It’s rather interesting that by developing a very well researched and written fictional technology the Mass Effect team accidentally made a parallel to a real world theory that just happens to be two letters way from even being called the same thing. I doubt that the Mass Effect team had Mach Effect in their minds as they crafted their fantastic universe as it is more likely they read about negative mass and extrapolated a coherent world around it. I also doubt that Dr. Woodward himself has ever thought about his very intriguing hypothesis in terms of a technology from a videogame or even the eponymous mass effect itself. However, it’s really cool to me that for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that sci fi fans often create about how physics seems to be ruling out a lot of sci fi tropes that physics responds with ideas that can reconstruct classic story ideas. While I doubt we’re going to get an announcement from NASA any time soon letting us know the light speed barrier just got shoryukened right in the fruit stand, we may well see a breakthrough related to Mach Effect. That alone could put a lot of science fiction tropes firmly in the realm of real life engineering. I would personally love to see this theory proved to be fact.
As always, I hope you enjoyed this article, and maybe even learned something. If you want to know more about Mach Effects from Dr. Woodward himself? He has a short video that details his theory. You should definitely watch it, as it’s very interesting and Woodward himself is a very good teacher. Thanks for reading.
*In case you’re wondering, Dr. Alcubierre’s name is pronounced “Al-cu-BYAIR-ray”