Science or Fiction in 50: Ansibles
Can you hear me now? Will we experience instant communication in our lifetime?
Our major introduction to faster than light communication begins in the 50s and 60s. Often our authors provide a theoretical physics or even a philosophical explanation on how a device sends messages across the universe in real-time. Ursula Le Guin gets credit for the name Ansible in Rocannon’s World, and continues to explore the topic in her later books, implying that gravity drives this capability. Larry Niven reinforces the idea that gravity could have an impact on faster than light physics. In addition to the name “Ansible”, authors used the terms Hyperwave and Ultrawave.
Foundation by Isaac Aisimov (1951)
This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones (1952)
Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven (1964)
Rocannon's World by Ursula K. Le Guin (1966)
We are fueled in the 70s and 80s by our discoveries of a world smaller than protons and neutrons. The observations of quarks at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in 1968 and Murray Gell-Mann’s award of the Nobel Prize in 1969 feed our imagination. The term “Ansible” goes from curiosity to mainstream with the introduction of the Ender Wiggins’ universe. A competing theme used by writers at this time involves different forms of space that can operate on different laws of physics: “Subspace” in Star Trek and the “Slow Zone” of Vernor Vinge. We don’t invent this space, we discover it and use it.
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (1977/1985)
Star Trek (70s and 80s)
The Blabber and other stories of Zones of Thought by Vernor Vinge (1988)
That brings us up to the 90s and beyond. The number of stories with faster than light themes really explodes, largely based on the principles of quantum entanglement. The quantum world is not a new one. Quantum mysteries were first explored during Einstein’s day and reignited by the experiments from Stuart Freedman, John Clauser, and Alain Aspect of the John Stewart Bell theory in the 80s. The progress into quantum computing in the 2000 ignites new enthusiasm for FTL communication. While our authors don’t necessarily use quantum computers, devices like the Lodestone Resonator in Pullman’s novels imply quantum entanglement.
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan's (2002)
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (2003)
Illium by Dan Simmons, (2003)
Remembrance of Earth's Past by Liu Cixin (2008)
Avatar Film (2009)
Armada by Ernest Cline (2015)
The science behind an Ansible is more physics than engineering. Tachyons, wormholes, alternate space, and quantum entanglement are often theoretical, not directly observable. Our only real shot at harnessing FTL tech, for now, rests in quantum entanglement. And really, this only exists because companies like IBM and Google and a handful of startups are investing in quantum computing. Even basic quantum computing will be years in the making, and nothing in that work implies that sending data via entanglement will play any role. For now, we can hope that large investments in quantum computing lead to accidental discoveries that open the door to our Ansible.
Verdict: Not in our lifetime