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Experiments to examine the possibility of making a real-life warp drive may fail, but they teach us a lot more about the limits of the universe and the physics that describes it.

Is there a way past the light barrier? The signs have not been good for more than a century. The experiments that led up to Einstein’s publication of the theory of special relativity 110 years ago in his 'annus mirabilis' seemed to rule it out completely for anything made out of normal matter.

Jules Henri Poincaré worked on predecessors to Einstein’s theories. He remarked on the apparent “conspiracy of dynamical effects” which caused apparent time and distance to alter according to the speed of an object following an 1887 experiment performed by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley that failed to obtain the results anyone at the time expected.

Under conventional Newtonian physics, light travelling in the direction of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun should have appeared to have a different speed from that of light travelling at right angles. It remained resolutely, suspiciously constant. Distances compress and time slows enough to make the velocity of light stay constant.

Einstein’s later paper on general relativity only served to seal the prohibition on travelling faster than light (FTL). Developed upon special relativity, the general theory built in the effects of gravity with the result that mass, time and energy are so intertwined that any attempt by normal matter to get even close to the speed of light will be stymied. Increasing velocity to relativistic levels sees most of the energy used going disproportionately to the mass part of the equation that governs momentum. Only truly massless particles can travel as fast as a photon in a pure vacuum.

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