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Miguel Alcubierre and science fiction

Miguel Alcubierre Moya*, Mexican physicist and current director of the Institute of Nuclear Sciences of the UNAM, has coexisted throughout his life with scientific abstractions, of course, but also literary ones. We can tell from his voice that, since he was young, he got hooked on the imaginings of science fiction writers. We do not know – because there hasn’t been a way of measuring this – to what extent these readings influenced him to propose a model of space geometry that, without contradicting Albert Einstein’s theories, would allow us to travel faster than the speed of light.

So we decided to interview him, and this is what he replied:

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All the images that appear in this article are images of Mars in 3-D taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover (http://mars.nasa.gov/mars3d/)

Límulus [L]: How did you discover science fiction books?

Miguel Alcubierre [MA]: Since I was a little boy I liked the science fiction series on television. This naturally led to science fiction books in middle school. Our English teachers would ask us to do book reports on whatever we chose, and I would usually pick science fiction books. They weren’t easy to get, I’d look for them at the Británica and American libraries

L: What was the first one you read and liked?

MA: The first one I read was by Jules Verne, specifically Around the World in 80 Days. Then I switched to Isaac Asimov with the Foundation Trilogy, which I loved. I continued reading many Asimov books. Then I discovered Ray Bradbury with The Martian Chronicles. Later on I read the whole Dune series by Frank Herbert.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech, View from Mars towards mount Sharp by ‘John Klein’

L: Who’s your favorite science fiction author?

MA: I have many, among them, Asimov, Frank Herbert, Dan Simmons, Alistair Reynolds. But recently, my favorite author has been Iain Banks with his so-called “Culture” series and Peter Hamilton with his books about “the Confederation.”

L: From when you started studying Physics up to now, has there been a science fiction dream you’ve seen accomplished?

MA: Not directly. Time and space travel (at least far away) are still science fiction. I would’ve expected for us to be in Mars by now, and for us to have a permanent presence on the Moon, but this hasn’t occurred. Perhaps the closest thing has been the Internet, with the ability to have humanity’s entire information literally in your hand, with cellphones. Although the Internet as we know it was not exactly predicted in science fiction, there were a few approaches, like in William Gibson’s novels.

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NASA/JPL/University of Arizona, Well-preserved impact crater

L: In your experience as a reader and scientist, how would you describe the relationship that is established between science fiction and scientific advances?

MA: It’s ambiguous. There are scientists that love science fiction and others that can’t stand it. Science fiction can be inspirational to scientists and inventors, but oftentimes it is too speculative and not based on real science. Real science is much more complex and doesn’t correspond to the world we wish existed in fantasy; it corresponds to the universe as it is in reality.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems, 3-D view of the MAHLI Calibration Target

L: And as a teacher, reader and scientist, do you consider that science fiction participates in scientific education? If so, how?

MA: To a certain extent. The so-called “hard science fiction,” that seeks not to go too far from the established science does help divulge it. But the more speculative science fiction tends to give the wrong idea and false expectations. It does not, however, cease to be entertaining, but one has to know to what extent the ideas presented are feasible or not. Oftentimes people ask things like “when will we have time machines?” or “when will we travel faster than the speed of light?” without understanding that in reality both things are highly impossible. It is not a technological matter; it is a matter of the fundamental laws of nature. But science fiction plays another role. When thinking of the future, it not only thinks of advanced technology, but in society’s reaction. Thus it has an interest in analyzing possible futures and seeing how humanity could adapt to them.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ, ‘Lunokhod 2′ Crater on Mars

L: Have you ever had the urge to write a science fiction book?

MA: Yes, I wrote science fiction stories at some point in high school, but they weren’t that good. I even participated in competitions and once got an honorary mention because of a story called “Parallel evolution,” which was published in the #2 of the magazine Umbrales in 1993.

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*Got his degree in Physics from the UNAM from 1983-1988 and graduated with honors. He then got a Masters in Science from the UNAM from 1988 to 1990. He got his PhD in Physics at the University of Wales College of Cardiff in the UK between 1990-1994 as well as a PhD scholarship from October 1993 to September 1996 from the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Wales College of Cardiff. After leaving Wales in 1996, he worked for some time at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany, where he developed new mathematical techniques to describe the physics of black holes. Since 2002, he has worked at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences of the UNAM where he coordinates an investigation on numeric relativity, an effort to use computers to formulate and solve physics equations formulated by Albert Einstein.

 

Information obtained from the website of the Institute of Nuclear Sciences of the UNAM: http://icn.d-webstudio.net/investigadores/miguel-alcubierre-moya.html

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