Special Relativity in Pop Culture: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

          “The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.” (Adams, 1979)

          In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur and Ford are picked up by their spaceship, The Heart of Gold, after they are unceremoniously ejected into space without a breathing apparatus. This particular ship has a unit called The Infinite Improbability Drive, which allows the ship to travel unlikely distances in an improbable amount of time. The reason why such a device resides in fiction and is not in general use has to do with the speed of light. Albert Einstein created his Theory of Special Relativity in his seminal paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” in 1905. Einstein realized that problems occurred when he tried to apply Newton’s Laws of Motion in regards to light. In one of his postulates, he notes that  “light travels at the same speed in a vacuum regardless of the observer.” This means that no matter how the light is traveling, whether it is from a car’s headlights or the cockpit of a spaceship, it always travels at the same speed.

          This leads to the issue of the time it takes to travel large distances. According to Alcubierre, “if two places are separated by a spatial proper distance D, it is impossible to make a round trip between them in a time less than 2D/c (where c is the speed of light) as measured by an observer that remains always at the place of departure.” (Alcubierre, 1994). One of the more practical problems is finding a source of energy for traveling at such high speeds. In special relativity, energy, mass, and speed are all related by the relativistic equation E=γmc2. Since energy and mass are related, increasing the speed would increase the mass as well. An increase in mass would cause the spaceship to travel a little bit slower, requiring an awful lot of energy to be expended in order to increase the speed further. In fact, it would require an infinite amount of energy to travel at the speed of light! (Simonetti). In order to plausibly traverse those large distances “in a mere nothingth of a second” as in Adams’s novel, it would require the space ship to warp space in some other form.

          Strangely, it is theoretically possible to distort space in such a way as to travel space at hyperfast speeds. This would require creating two local distortions of spacetime. One will have to produce an expansion behind the spaceship, while the other creates a contraction in front of it. The net effect of this would be to push the spaceship away from Earth while simultaneously pulling it towards a distant star (Alcubierre, 1994). Unfortunately, there is no current material or physical way to distort space as described.

          Thus, a device such as the Infinite Improbabilty Drive or a general ship to quickly travel through space is not something that could be developed with today’s technology. Due to the limitation that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, one would have to come up with some clever way to distort space instead. Despite some interesting theoretical ideas, it would require some major revisions to Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and the discovery of new and exotic forms of matter to be able to accomplish such a feat.

Final Word Count: 571

Written by Alexis K., Edited by Shane Warga.


Adams, Douglas. The Utimate Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: five novels and one story. New York: Harmony , 2014. 70. Print

Alcubierre, Miguel. “The Warp Drive: Hyper-fast Travel within General Relativity.” Classical and Quantum Gravity 11.5 (1994): 2-3. Arxiv. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Simonetti, John. “Frequently Asked Questions About Special Relativity.” Frequently Asked Questions About Special Relativity. Virginia Tech, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. <http://www.phys.vt.edu/~jhs/faq/sr.html>.


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