Physics problems and Engineering problems

It’s been quite a while since my last post, and I feel almost guilty that the top couple of entries (and the first things that someone coming to the page for the first time would encounter) are ridiculously technical. So let’s talk about something a bit more lighthearted today: the difference between physics problems and engineering problems in speculative and science fiction.

This is prompted a bit by the response in other blogs to Gliese 581g.  In particular, I read a lot of speculation about traveling to other star systems, and how we might go about it.  People described engines which (apparently) operated at greater than 100% efficiency, or ships which require tens of thousands of years to make a voyage, or (like me) require millions of years and quintillions of dollars to make it happen.

Physics problems — like the non-existence of warp drives (and their very likely impossibility), are of a very different type than engineering problems like traveling through space for roughly the same amount of time that humanity has existed.  They are “impossible” for two different reasons.  The best science fiction technology (in my mind, at least) doesn’t yet exist not because it violates physical law, but because we’re just too primitive.  In other words, they’re engineering problems only.

So for example:

Engineering problems:

Physics problems:

  • Warp drives (I am sure someone will write to me with a link from physorg or somesuch which they believe contradicts this — I’m going to stand by my guns on this one.)
  • Faster than light communications (quantum entanglement or no)
  • Transportation to parallel universes (if they exist)

I’d actually like to try to compile a canonical list, so please suggest your own, even if you don’t know which list it should go into, but before you do, let me backtrack a bit and say that I think the very best sci-fi technology are those that we don’t yet know what category it falls into, including:

  • Wormholes, (and related to this)
  • Time machines (though I’ve spoken, and written extensively about this in the past)

As I said, I’d be very interested in hearing your own lists of fundamental physics vs. engineering problems.  I’ve clearly implied that I think physics problems are a whole other level of “impossible” though I suspect engineers reading this may come to the opposite conclusion.


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6 Responses to Physics problems and Engineering problems

  1. Jose says:

    Anyone interested in this subject should read Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Impossible”.

    It is a great work on what we might expect to achieve from the engineering point of view and what we shouldn’t expect according to our actual knowledge.

    It does not fully agree with Dave, but pretty much he does.

    I must confess that I feel very comfortable with your idea that quantum entanglement will not lead to faster than light communications, but I honestly think that this is due to my better understanding of relativity.

    Quantum mechanics looks like a very obscure world to me.

    As an electrical engineer, I place one question. I think that anything that is physically possible can be engineered with the right amount of time and money. Do you agree?

    • dave says:

      I disagree. I think Kaku does a very bad job distinguishing between the two. He constantly fails to distinguish not only between physics and engineering problems, but also between what we know and what is simply a speculative, but unproven idea.

  2. Steve says:

    Could we discuss a theory that I have to prevent a bunch of time and money on trying to build something that won’t work?

  3. why do we observed colours in case of thin flim

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