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For most of us, traveling faster than the cosmic speed limit—the speed of light—is a science-fiction fantasy that breaks the very foundation of modern physics. But in the eyes of an engineering undergrad at the University of Alabama in Huntsville named Joseph Agnew, it’s a theory worthy of study.

The idea first came to Agnew in high school, when he became enamored of the warp drives he saw in Star Trek. “I thought about some of the technology postulated within,” he says, “and wondered what the scientific backing might be.”

Agnew isn’t just another Trekkie with dreamy eyes. In September 2019, he presented a talk on the subject at an aerospace engineering conference. Reports described Agnew’s audience as “standing room only,” and the event attracted a great deal of media attention.

It might seem remarkable that a piece of science fiction has found itself in an academic conference, but Agnew is far from alone in his interest. He hopes to become one of the dozens of engineers and theoretical physicists who have been studying warp drives in earnest for over two decades. But unlike Agnew, most scientists see the warp drive as little more than a thought experiment, though one that can still teach us a lot.

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Category: Science