Can We Travel Through Wormholes?

Source: Quanta Magazine

In sci-fi, wormholes provide shortcuts through space. But do they really exist and are they worth exploring?

 Wormholes (Einstein-Rosen bridges) are a long-time mainstay of science fiction. The concept is often demonstrated in movies such as Event Horizon with a piece of paper representing space. Instead of having to travel the full distance to get from one end of the sheet to the other, the paper may simply be folded in half or rolled up before punching a hole through it. Voila, you have a shortcut! All you have to do is bend the fabric of space, punch a hole through it, then pass through an interdimensional bridge.

Do Wormholes Exist?

Physics supports the possible existence of wormholes. In addition to Einstein, one version of string theory indicates that there could be a multitude of wormholes in the universe created by the big bang. With the universe constantly expanding, there would be tears in the fabric of space in the form of black holes. But the problem with this shortcut should be obvious: it requires the travelers to enter a freakin’ black hole in the hopes that these theoretical bridges exist.

Bajoran wormhole connecting 70,000 light years between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. Source: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Bajoran wormhole connecting 70,000 light years between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. Source: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Despite how scientists revealed the first photos of a supermassive black hole, black holes are impossible to detect with our current technology. They don’t emit light or radiation, so they’re completely invisible. If you were wandering through space, the only way to spot a nearby black hole is by seeing the distorted light from background stars, in which case you’d be dead. Scientists are only aware of a tiny fraction of existing black holes – mostly the ones that happen to be part of binary star systems where a sun orbits the black hole. It’s by tracking the movement of that star that we know a black hole is nearby.

We could head toward one of the known black holes, but that’s another problem. There are two types of black holes: supermassive black holes at the center each galaxy and stellar black holes that occur when stars go supernova and collapse in on themselves. The center of the Milky Way is 27,000 light years from Earth, so that’s off the table. Comparatively, the closest known stellar black hole, V616 Monocerotis (which is believed to be 9-13x the mass of our sun), is way closer at 3,000 light years away. But that’s still more than 697x the distance to Alpha Centauri. Therefore, you would need faster-than-light travel just to reach a black hole.

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Entering Black Holes

Even if we were to discover a black hole that’s just far enough to keep from destroying our solar system (which would still be alarming), entering or getting close to it poses a whole new set of issues. The first is spaghettification, which is what happens when one part of your body enters an area with much stronger gravity. That body part will start stretching, followed by the rest of you, until you’re extruded into infinity.

Developing an anti-gravity shield out of negative mass could protect the ship from being sucked in, stretched, and crushed by the black hole. It might even prevent the effects of gravitational time dilation. But there’s still the fact that no one has any idea what a wormhole looks like. These bridges could be straight, they could be winding, they could be infinitely long, and/or they could be squeezed to an infinitesimal size in the middle. Its entrance, located at a black hole’s singularity, could be microscopic, requiring a device to pry it open. Also, we might not have the technology or senses to perceive these bridges, much less navigate through them.

The Even Horizon was outfitted with an engine that generated artificial black holes leading straight to hell. Source: Event Horizon, 1997
The Even Horizon was outfitted with an engine that generated artificial black holes leading straight to hell. Source: Event Horizon, 1997

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote that traversing a wormhole may be less like folding a paper in half and more like doing origami with the universe. Entering a wormhole means discovering a dimension of space that no one has ever seen before. Therefore, it’s unlikely that we’d have the technology needed to deal with it.

But even if humanity found ways to deal with all those challenges, there’s still a major issue: we have no idea where these wormholes lead to. They could lead to a distant part of the galaxy or an entirely different universe. Some theorize that there’s a white hole at the other end of the bridge, which is like a big bang that constantly spits out everything that the black hole is sucking in. If that’s the case, then going through a wormhole would likely be a one-way trip. This new universe might not include any planets to visit, physics might act differently, and time could run backwards. Yes, it’s entirely possible that the ship could end up in a hell dimension the way the Event Horizon did.

Another solution is to create artificial black holes or using a kind of Stargate network to bridge distances together. But even if generating a micro black hole didn’t destroy our little corner of the galaxy, we still have no idea what the impact of poking a bunch of holes into the fabric of space will be. We could end up creating time paradoxes and unraveling the universe. Again, things certainly didn’t end well for the Event Horizon.

In the meantime, we should still reach out to the stars. Scientists have taken the first ever photos of a distant supermassive black hole!

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Steven is a pop culture junkie who regularly binges on sci-fi TV shows, movies, books, and video games before completely overthinking them.