Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.
Things used to be so simple, on Earth, when it came to engines. You would put some fuel in your engine. The engine would burnt it, and then the energy released would propel the vehicle, stuck around that engine, to move in the direction you wanted. Unfortunately, this simple but practical approach was a nightmare when it came to interstellar travel. The only ships that worked, using this method, were powered by fusion, fission or directed plasma. They were hideously dangerous and violently unstable. Only the most dedicated, the most brave and reckless people climbed aboard them and travelled across the galaxy. Something new had to be developed, something safe and clean, so that all humans could star-hop. Eventually, scientists and engineers found what they wanted, the quantum-pinch engine.
A quantum-pinch engine, or QPE, takes advantage of several quantum phenomena. Firstly, empty space contains potentially infinite energy, known as zero-point energy. Secondly, our universe’s inherent quantum uncertainty means that a lot of that energy can appear, in space, out of nothing if it appears in a short enough length of time. A quantum-pinch engine siphons off this energy during the fleeting moments that it appears. As a result, it gets power for nothing, effectively stealing it from the universe, hence the name ‘quantum-pinch’. It was a brilliant breakthrough… but it had problems, quantum problems.
The first quantum problem that the QPE suffered from was the Observer Effect. Because it was deeply connected to quantum events, it had to be constantly observed to stay real. If no one kept an eye on it, it could disappear or worse, explode. The scientists and engineers working on its development did their best to handle this flaw but two months into development, an engineer called Alex, tasked with watching the drive, nodded off. He failed to report in, the base alarms went off and staff rushed to the scene. Before they opened the sealed door to the engine room, they realised something awful. Since Alex and the drive were both in a fully sealed-off chamber, disconnected from any outside influence, then according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, they weren’t real any more. Just like Schrödinger’s Cat, they could not be said to be physical. Instead, they were in a superposition of all possible states, including ‘Alex and the engine are safe-and-sound’ and ‘the engine has exploded, obliterating Alex’. No one, therefore, wanted to open the sealed door and observe if Alex was alive or not, as that might collapse the quantum-state superposition inside and kill him. Since then, the room has remained closed, pending a legal resolution. Alex is still, officially, both alive and dead. Because of this, as a mark of respect and accuracy, his colleagues celebrate his birthday every other year.
After the Alex disaster, the QPE project-team changed tack. Dozens of them worked day and night on a new engine, inspecting it, measuring it, focussing on its behaviour and generally keeping it real. Eventually, they made a working, usable and physically stable QPE, able to power a ship through interstellar space using its limitless source of energy. Travel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy had become possible for anyone.
In the next two years, hundreds of ships fitted with QPEs were built. Ordinary, everyday humans could explore the Milky Way, safe in the knowledge that their ship’s engine would hum away to itself, supplying all the power they needed. Everything looked great, and then, one day, the QPE ship Vector left Earth, heading for a planet around Aldebaran. It got halfway there in two weeks and then exploded in a minor nova because the ship’s janitor had lost confidence in the whole endeavour. Its last message was an internal memo about poor motivation amongst the cleaning staff and it was gone. The ensuing investigation discovered something awful. All quantum-pinch engines suffered from the Pauli Effect, named after the famous Quantum Physicist Wolfgang Pauli. It was simple; the presence of a certain person could cause an experiment to fail. Something about a certain person’s mental presence could crash a quantum-based system. No one, up to that point, had noticed this problem because the scientists and engineers had believed that the QPE would be a success. As a result, the engine had always worked. The first people to use a ship powered by a QPE were also convinced that the drive would work, because of its safety record and test results and it therefore did just that, but once everyone found out that a QPE spaceship could blow up if its crew stopped believing in it, then suddenly almost no one wanted to travel in one.
After that revelation, human space-travel entered a new era or, in some ways, returned to its earlier era. Once again, just as in the time of fusion-fission-plasma ships, only a few dedicated, reckless, obsessively-focussed human beings got into space-ships and travelled across the galaxy. Once again, human star-travel was the domain of only the most courageous, the most daring and the most optimistic. Perhaps, after all, that’s the way it should be.