Warp Numbers in the Timelines Universe

In Chapter 15, for the first time, Wolff correlates a warp number with a certain amount of travel time. He says, at Warp 5, it takes about four hours to get back to Sol from Alpha Centauri. At light speed (Warp 1) it would theoretically take approximately four years, or 35,040 hours, to make that trip. If, at Warp 5, it takes only four hours, then 35,040 / 4 = 8,760. Warp 5 is therefore 8,760 times the speed of light. Roughly. All of these numbers are going to be rough. But it turns out that Wolff, von Barronov, and the Space Force don’t give a damn about x times light speed. They care about how long it takes to get from point A to point B.

So, some background. I decided right off the bat I was not going to use the system of warp factors from Star Trek, regardless of the convenience (read: laziness) factor involved in letting someone else do the work. And after looking it up the other night, I’m glad I didn’t. It sucks, it changes between series, and frankly the writers could never keep it consistent anyway. (That’s the short version. I had written a much longer paragraph about what a radioactive dumpster fire it is, but I don’t actually care that much, so I deleted it.)

Wolff and von Barronov’s system is arbitrarily based on how long it takes to get to the nearest (well, not nearest, that would be Proxima Centauri, but there’s not that much difference) star to Sol, and it’s based on human time values that make sense to the human brain. The two inventors decided they’d go with a system where the four year trip at light speed would be four hours at Warp 5. Warp 1, being only light speed, would probably be something used only for intra-system travel, because nobody is going to want to take four years to get to Alpha Centauri. Warps 2, 3, and 4 would then have to fall somewhere in between, but where, and how?

So our “warp number” table looks like this:

Warp Number
x Light Speed
Time To a Centauri
Time to go 100 light years
1 1 4 years 100 years
2 12 4 months 100 months
3 52 4 weeks 100 weeks
4 365 4 days 100 days
5 8760 4 hours 100 hours

Human beings don’t tend to look at a long trip in terms of velocity, but rather, in terms of duration. It takes me 10 hours to drive to Washington, D.C., from Indianapolis. Similarly, it takes me about 20 hours to drive to Naples, Florida, from Indianapolis. (In both cases, that’s just driving time; five to six hours, absolute maximum eight, is about as far as I can drive in a stretch, anymore, and then we stop for the night.) Shorter trips, well, three hours plus to Chicago, six hours to Cleveland, two hours to Fort Wayne, etc. How fast I’m going is immaterial; the time it takes to get there is key.

So a system of warp numbers that breaks down to how many duration-units it takes to go one light year, as opposed to how many times light speed each warp number represents, makes a shitload more sense than “Warp 1 is light speed, Warp 2 is 8 times light speed, Warp 3 is 27 times light speed, . . . “, based on a mathematical formula of confusing provenance, which has been diddled further as further series have been created (if the writers have even paid attention to it, which it appears to me in many cases they have not). And honest to Bog, why didn’t Roddenberry just say that warp factors increased velocity by powers of 2? The table in the linked article shows ST:ToS warp factors going 1, 8, 27, 64,125, 216, 343, 512 . . . and powers of 2 go 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512 . . . and you don’t need a fancy-schmancy equation to calculate it.

Plus, when you look at that calculated values table, Warp 8 (which in ToS was the point at which the Enterprise generally started to shake, shimmy, and fall apart) is 512c; whereas with a powers of 2 table, Warp 9 is 512c. So powers of 2 just makes more damn sense and only adds one extra warp factor to the table, which it immediately gets back because a “powers of 2” Warp 10 is 1024c and the table shows Warp 10 being 1000c. The argument that there’s also lag calculated in due to relativistic time dilation doesn’t cut much ice with me, either, because again, and I cannot possibly say this too many times, or loudly enough:

I don’t care how fast I’m going, I want to know how long it takes to get there.

On this basis, then, we might then further postulate that the Wolff-Von Barronov Warp 6 would take 4 minutes to reach Alpha Centauri, yielding this addition to our table above:

Warp Number
x Light Speed
Time To a Centauri
Time to go 100 light years
6 (in theory) 525600 4 minutes 100 minutes

Though in fairness, that’s probably not what they have in mind. Warp 5 may be the practical upper limit of the Alcubierre warp drive as developed by our intrepid inventors, and to get somewhere faster than that may require the use of the Heinlein rotation drive. Or, alternately, the warp numbers above 5 just don’t map directly to human scales. In that case, Warp 6 might be twice Warp 5, that is, 35,040 times light speed, taking 1 hour to get to Alpha Centauri, and taking 25 hours to go 100 light years. Warp 7 might simply double that again, and so on and so forth. I haven’t gotten that far yet. But there will be an upper limit, and it’s not going to be anywhere near 525,600 times light speed.

Bottom line, the average human doesn’t use logarithmic scales or random mathematical gyrations to calculate trip duration. He just wants to know how long it takes to get somewhere, and he wants to be able to calculate it in his head. So all you math-addled Trekkies out there, feel free to gnash your teeth, but that’s not how we do things around here. 🙂

Oh, and sublight speeds. We get sublight speeds from the Alcubierre drive by projecting singularities that aren’t large enough to create a warp bubble. In this way we get acceleration at x number of gravities. Sublight 1 we already know is 1G acceleration (from Chapter 14). Sublight 2 is 2G, sublight 3 is 3G, etc. The practical upper limit is whatever the acceleration dampers can take plus whatever the humans can take. Since at some point it makes better sense to warp away, in practice it’s unlikely sublight 5 will ever be exceeded.

Finally, if you think only 5 warp numbers/levels is paltry and mean, and I should allow for more, let’s do some perspective:

1) Within 100 light years of earth, there are thought to exist more than 500 type “G” stars (that is, like our sun), not even counting all the rest of the OBAFKM types. That’s a lot of stars within four days’ flight time at Warp 5. It will take years, decades, probably centuries to survey them all. So the idea of a drive that can cover only 100ly in 100 hours, when taken in that perspective, is not really out of line. And that’s the extreme; a system like Tau Ceti, which appears to have a number of rocky planets, is 11.9ly distant, so it’s less than a one-day round trip at Warp 5. Sigma Draconis, no planets found yet, is 18.8ly distant, so about a 38-hour round trip at Warp 5.

2) Long distances are going to take a long time. But even the center of the Milky Way galaxy is only a three-year trip, one-way, at Warp 5. Not a trip one would want to take in a Constellation-class frigate, but in a large dreadnought or other super-ship planned for long cruises and equipped with appropriate amenities (including a large open “parkland” area), that might not be so bad. If you don’t mind getting too close to the giant black hole at the core, that is.

3) Extra-galactic is probably a whole ‘nother story. At 158,200 light years to the Larger Magellanic Cloud, you’re looking at 18+ years at Warp 5, and that’s assuming the ship holds together long enough to get there without needing dockyard repairs. Extra-galactic travel, if it ever happens, is probably going to be a combination of Alcubierre warp and Heinlein rotation.