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Blog-a-Day #11 -- Space Origami

I chose this picture because today’s topic is the most fantastical. If you can believe that two full-grown lions will lie down next to a little girl reading a phone book and her Teddy bear, you might believe the method of interstellar travel we’ll talk about today is possible. In what is, in my opinion, the greatest science fiction series of all time, Frank Herbert’s Dune, interstellar transport is a monopoly held by the Spacing Guild. The Guild employs giant spacecraft called heighliners that carry entire fleets of military spaceships in their bellies. The heighliners are piloted by Navigators, humans who have been mutated into strange beings through continuous immersion in the spice mélange.

Guild Navigators don’t use some super-powerful warp drive or primordial wormhole to move the heighliner from star to star. No, first he uses the prescience imbued by the spice to predict the best path to the next star, then he “folds space” with the power of his mind. OK, I absolutely love the Dune books. I’ve read the six books in the original canon multiple times. But, every time space gets folded, I shake my head a little. There are a lot of other mental powers exhibited by people specially bred for the purpose, but none are as outrageous as the Navigators’ ability to fold space. As a result, many reviewers have called the Dune series “science fantasy”. Hence, my picture choice.

Herbert never explains a mechanism for folding space, although in later novels in the series a mechanism is developed for folding space that does not require a Navigator. Let’s see if we can imagine how that would work. We’re going to go back to the sheet of paper universe, but you don’t have to make a Mobius strip this time. Remember, one surface of the sheet represents an entire two-dimensional universe. We don’t need the tiny dimension represented by the thickness of the paper this time, though.

Space folding assumes that our three-dimensional universe (I’m ignoring the time dimension here) is embedded in a superverse of more than three dimensions. In our analogy, the two-dimensional surface is inside of our three-dimensional space. In a way, this is the inverse of punching holes through the tiny M-Theory dimensions. Now, draw two points, Point A and Point B on the same surface of our paper. For us, it’s trivial to fold the paper, using a third dimension, so that points A and B are right next to each other. The spice mélange lets the Navigator “see” the higher-order dimensions surrounding space-time. That “explains’ how Navigators can predict where to fold the universe, but it’s completely unexplained how they actually move the big ship through that extra dimension. Oh, well.

I want to talk about a related method, again with no physical explanation. Some of the earliest science fiction stories I read as a kid where classics by Asimov, Heinlein, Blish (don’t worry, we’re not going to talk about his “spindizzy” drive), and others. They all made up FTL technologies, but Asimov’s spaceships “jumped”, semi-randomly across the galaxy. That randomness is probably why I remember the spaceships in the stories but have no recollection of their plots.

The ship’s captain ordered a jump, the crew would felt queasy for a second then the navigators whipped out their sliderules to figure out where they ended up. What’s important about this randomness? Back to our sheet of paper. We’re going to simulate both folded space and extra dimensions this time. How, you might ask? By crumpling the paper into a ball. Imagine that each of those random folds you just made represents a different dimension. Our points A and B, though closer in the third dimension than they are in two, are separated by these random folds. Jumping toward point B across one of these folds puts the spaceship in a random location in two-dimensional space, possibly even farther away from B than when they started!

We’ll talk about higher dimensions in one more article as we discuss navigating them. You’ll need a new sheet of paper.

Rob Johnson

May 26, 2020

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