Dealing With the Problems First

The main problem with any attempt to create an FTL information transfer system can be traced  philosophically to relativity theory. Before Albert Einstein, scientists had assumed that energy moved through space instantaneously, or at least at a speed so fast that it appeared to be instant.

Information transfer and energy

Since information can be carried using energy, such as the energy of an electromagnetic field, information transfer could also benefit from this high speed. It makes sense, since any information you put into a wave will be carried at the speed of the wave.

understanding waves

To understand this better, think of a water wave for example. You can make water waves by swishing your hand in a swimming pool, or pond, and you can control the height of the wave by how hard you swish. You can call this a form of amplitude modulation, and it is analogous to how we can control the information in an electromagnetic wave.

Limitations of water waves

We can amplitude modulate a water wave as well as an electromagnetic wave. Also, since water waves travel only a few hundred miles per hour, you would be limiting yourself speed-wise using water.  Not to mention the logistics of using water. You need to be near it, for one, and how do you make a wave that can span an ocean?

Well, you can drop an asteroid into the Atlantic Ocean, but seriously folks, it's not impossible. Again, just look to nature... whales use low frequency sound, which moves nicely through water, to hear other whales many hundreds, and even thousands of miles away. But, it is a slow way to talk across the big pond.... whales may not care, but we would.

AM radio and electromagnetic waves

Thankfully, your AM radio is designed for the electromagnetic spectrum, and not the water spectrum of waves! At first, we didn't know just how fast electromagnetic waves were, only that they were fast.

We were shocked to realize that what we called light was really an electromagnetic wave. Through experiments, we found these EM (short for electromagnetic, of course) waves zipped by at 186,000 miles per second. We were amazed. After all, 186,000 miles per second seemed

Electromagnetic waves and the birth of radio and television

As an added bonus, it turned out electromagnetic waves were easy to manipulate, easily used to carry information in many ways. Of course, the fact still remained, the information they carried was bounded by the physical parameters of the waves used. The message could not go faster than the medium used to carry it.

Still, we managed, creating a profitable information transfer technology based on these waves, which goes by the name of radio, television... wanna be a movie star? Get friendly with EM waves (Star, Light, get it? OK, bad pun)....

But since electromagnetic radiation was light itself, we really lucked out by developing it into a communications medium that allowed us to literally talk at the speed of light, and watch re-runs of I Love Lucy. Yes, lucky indeed...

Lightspeed: the ultimate cosmic crawl

Then, Einstein did a naughty thing. He came up with a theory showing that the speed of light (C) is, in fact, the fastest speed in the universe. Energy itself, no matter what form it takes, is bound by this limitation - it can go no faster. Since even solid objects like rockets and bulldozers are essentially congealed energy, this limit applies to everything (can you even imagine a bulldozer zooming at lightspeed?).  The speed of light is also the top speed for transmitting information because there's nothing else we can use that's faster. And that, it seemed, is that. Ahhh, pooh.

why isn't lightspeed fast enough?

So what's the big deal, you may be asking? Isn't 186,000 miles per freakin' second fast enough? Well, that depends.... for planetary communications, maybe it is, but that is only because the earth is so small, compared to the rest of creation. At the speed of light, it takes a radio wave around 2 seconds to reach the Moon. It will take about 3 minutes for a signal to reach Mars when it is closest to the Earth. The time lag only gets worse the farther out you go. And don't forget to double those numbers for two way communications.

The challenges of space exploration

The recent probes we sent out to Mars, for example, especially that cute little robot (the mars rover) we landed there a few years back,  had to have computers built-in to make simple decisions, like to tell the robotic vehicle to stop when it reached the edge of a cliff. When any of these Mars planetary probes began to land, we here on Earth could only hold our breaths and wait. Either the probe would land successfully or crash (and many did crash). Because the distance between Earth and Mars constantly changes as they orbit the sun, we wouldn't know the outcome for anywhere between 3 to 22 minutes - the time it took for the probe to send a signal back to Earth announcing a successful landing.

We knew everything had gone smoothly when, right on time, we started receiving radio signals confirming a successful descent. If there was silence instead, we knew there was some sort of boo-boo. Ask any planetary scientist how much better our space program would be if we could take control of the probe from here on Earth, and give it instructions in real-time... you could dump the computer and use all the extra space for more experiment packages. Hey, that sounds like a good idea, but we can't do it because, over large distances like from Earth to Mars, the speed of light becomes a significant barrier, and this issue only worsens as the distance increases.

Einstein's unpleasant message

Heck, even here on Earth the speed of light can get in the way. If your telephone call is routed through a satellite 22,000 miles above your head, you can begin to hear the delay in transmission. We perceive it as an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. So, even though the speed of light is fast, it just isn't fast enough. But Professor Einstein gave us the word - energy of any kind simply can't go any faster. Thank you, Albert. Oh, it really wasn't his fault. It's not fair to get upset at the messenger, when the message is so unpleasant, right?

In this case, it is easy to see where the bottleneck is - energy itself. Are there alternatives to using energy as a carrier of information? Yes, there are, but the news is both good and bad.