A Month of Writers, Day Two: Charles Stross

Today’s guest writer is none other than Charles Stross, whom I’m fond of calling the poster boy of 21st Century science fiction, not in the least because he’s had four consecutive Best Novel Hugo nominations (for Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, Accelerando and Glasshouse), which is a trick only Robert Silverberg has managed before him. That’s a nice trick. Halting State, his latest, puts him in excellent position for a fifth nomination. He’s also a hell of a nice guy, and one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, in that good “wow, everything he says is actually interesting” sort of way.

Today Charlie talks about colonizing space — and what we need to do before we do.

CHARLES STROSS: The High Frontier

I write SF for a living. Possibly because of this, folks seem to think I ought to be an enthusiastic proponent of space exploration and space colonization. Space exploration? Yep, that’s a fair cop — I’m all in favour of advancing the scientific enterprise. But actual space colonisation is another matter entirely, and those of a sensitive (or optimistic) disposition might want to stop reading right now …

I’m going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn’t unfamiliar; domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O’Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore.And I don’t want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they’re there, that the case for space colonization isn’t usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. “We can’t afford to keep all our eggs in one basket” isn’t so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.

Historically, crossing oceans and setting up farmsteads on new lands conveniently stripped of indigenous inhabitants by disease has been a cost-effective proposition. But the scale factor involved in space travel is strongly counter-intuitive.

Here’s a handy metaphor: let’s approximate one astronomical unit — the distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 150 million kilometres, or 600 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon — to one centimetre. Got that? 1AU = 1cm. (You may want to get hold of a ruler to follow through with this one.)

The solar system is conveniently small. Neptune, the outermost planet in our solar system, orbits the sun at a distance of almost exactly 30AU, or 30 centimetres — one foot (in imperial units). Giant Jupiter is 5.46 AU out from the sun, almost exactly two inches (in old money).

We’ve sent space probes to Jupiter; they take two and a half years to get there if we send them on a straight Hohmann transfer orbit, but we can get there a bit faster using some fancy orbital mechanics. Neptune is still a stretch — only one spacecraft, Voyager 2, has made it out there so far. Its journey time was 12 years, and it wasn’t stopping. (It’s now on its way out into interstellar space, having passed the heliopause some years ago.)

The Kuiper belt, domain of icy wandering dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris, extends perhaps another 30AU, before merging into the much more tenuous Hills cloud and Oort cloud, domain of loosely coupled long-period comets.

Now for the first scale shock: using our handy metaphor the Kuiper belt is perhaps a metre in diameter. The Oort cloud, in contrast, is as much as 50,000 AU in radius — its outer edge lies half a kilometre away.

Got that? Our planetary solar system is 30 centimetres, roughly a foot, in radius. But to get to the edge of the Oort cloud, you have to go half a kilometre, roughly a third of a mile.

Next on our tour is Proxima Centauri, our nearest star. (There might be a brown dwarf or two lurking unseen in the icy depths beyond the Oort cloud, but if we’ve spotted one, I’m unaware of it.) Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years away.A light year is 63.2 x 103 AU, or 9.46 x 1012 Km. So Proxima Centauri, at 267,000 AU, is just under two and a third kilometres, or two miles (in old money) away from us.

But Proxima Centauri is a poor choice, if we’re looking for habitable real estate. While exoplanets are apparently common as muck, terrestrial planets are harder to find; Gliese 581c, the first such to be detected (and it looks like a pretty weird one, at that), is roughly 20.4 light years away, or using our metaphor, about ten miles.

Try to get a handle on this: it takes us 2-5 years to travel two inches. But the proponents of interstellar travel are talking about journeys of ten miles. That’s the first point I want to get across: that if the distances involved in interplanetary travel are enormous, and the travel times fit to rival the first Australian settlers, then the distances and times involved in interstellar travel are mind-numbing.

This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you’re not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money).

What do I mean by outrageous amounts of cheap energy?

Let’s postulate that in the future, it will be possible to wave a magic wand and construct a camping kit that encapsulates all the necessary technologies and information to rebuild a human civilization capable of eventually sending out interstellar colonization missions — a bunch of self-replicating, self-repairing robotic hardware, and a downloadable copy of the sum total of human knowledge to date. Let’s also be generous and throw in a closed-circuit life support system capable of keeping a human occupant alive indefinitely, for many years at a stretch, with zero failures and losses, and capable where necessary of providing medical intervention. Let’s throw in a willing astronaut (the fool!) and stick them inside this assembly. It’s going to be pretty boring in there, but I think we can conceive of our minimal manned interstellar mission as being about the size and mass of a Mercury capsule. And I’m going to nail a target to the barn door and call it 2000kg in total.

(Of course we can cut corners, but I’ve already invoked self-replicating robotic factories and closed-cycle life support systems, and those are close enough to magic wands as it is. I’m going to deliberately ignore more speculative technologies such as starwisps, mind transfer, or AIs sufficiently powerful to operate autonomously — although I used them shamelessly in my novel Accelerando. What I’m trying to do here is come up with a useful metaphor for the energy budget realistically required for interstellar flight.)

Incidentally, a probe massing 1-2 tons with an astronaut on top is a bit implausible, but a 1-2 ton probe could conceivably carry enough robotic instrumentation to do useful research, plus a laser powerful enough to punch a signal home, and maybe even that shrink-wrapped military/industrial complex in a tin can that would allow it to build something useful at the other end. Anything much smaller, though, isn’t going to be able to transmit its findings to us — at least, not without some breakthroughs in communication technology that haven’t shown up so far.

Now, let’s say we want to deliver our canned monkey to Proxima Centauri within its own lifetime. We’re sending them on a one-way trip, so a 42 year flight time isn’t unreasonable. (Their job is to supervise the machinery as it unpacks itself and begins to brew up a bunch of new colonists using an artificial uterus. Okay?) This means they need to achieve a mean cruise speed of 10% of the speed of light. They then need to decelerate at the other end. At 10% of c relativistic effects are minor — there’s going to be time dilation, but it’ll be on the order of hours or days over the duration of the 42-year voyage. So we need to accelerate our astronaut to 30,000,000 metres per second, and decelerate them at the other end. Cheating and using Newton’s laws of motion, the kinetic energy acquired by acceleration is 9 x 1017 Joules, so we can call it 2 x 1018 Joules in round numbers for the entire trip. NB: This assumes that the propulsion system in use is 100% efficient at converting energy into momentum, that there are no losses from friction with the interstellar medium, and that the propulsion source is external — that is, there’s no need to take reaction mass along en route. So this is a lower bound on the energy cost of transporting our Mercury-capsule sized expedition to Proxima Centauri in less than a lifetime.

To put this figure in perspective, the total conversion of one kilogram of mass into energy yields 9 x 1016 Joules. (Which one of my sources informs me, is about equivalent to 21.6 megatons in thermonuclear explosive yield). So we require the equivalent energy output to 400 megatons of nuclear armageddon in order to move a capsule of about the gross weight of a fully loaded Volvo V70 automobile to Proxima Centauri in less than a human lifetime. That’s the same as the yield of the entire US Minuteman III ICBM force.

For a less explosive reference point, our entire planetary economy runs on roughly 4 terawatts of electricity (4 x 1012 watts). So it would take our total planetary electricity production for a period of half a million seconds — roughly 5 days — to supply the necessary va-va-voom.

But to bring this back to earth with a bump, let me just remind you that this probe is so implausibly efficient that it’s veering back into “magic wand” territory. I’ve tap-danced past a 100% efficient power transmission system capable of operating across interstellar distances with pinpoint precision and no conversion losses, and that allows the spacecraft on the receiving end to convert power directly into momentum. This is not exactly like any power transmission system that anyone’s built to this date, and I’m not sure I can see where it’s coming from.

Our one astronaut, 10% of c mission approximates well to an unmanned flight, but what about longer-term expeditions? Generation ships are a staple of SF; they’re slow (probably under 1% of c) and they carry a self-sufficient city-state. The crew who set off won’t live to see their destination (the flight time to Proxima Centauri at 1% of c is about 420 years), but the vague hope is that someone will. Leaving aside our lack of a proven track record at building social institutions that are stable across time periods greatly in excess of a human lifespan, using a generation ship probably doesn’t do much for our energy budget problem either. A society of human beings are likely to need more space and raw material to do stuff with while in flight; sticking a solitary explorer in a tin can for forty-something years is merely cruel and unusual, but doing it to an entire city for several centuries probably qualifies as a crime against humanity. We therefore need to relax the mass constraint. Assuming the same super-efficient life support as our solitary explorer, we might postulate that each colonist requires ten tons of structural mass to move around in. (About the same as a large trailer home. For life.) We’ve cut the peak velocity by an order of magnitude, but we’ve increased the payload requirement by an order of magnitude per passenger — and we need enough passengers to make a stable society fly. I’d guess a sensible lower number would be on the order of 200 people, the size of a prehistoric primate troupe. (Genetic diversity? I’m going to assume we can hand-wave around that by packing some deep-frozen sperm and ova, or frozen embryos, for later reuse.) By the time we work up to a minimal generation ship (and how minimal can we get, confining 200 human beings in an object weighing aout 2000 tons, for roughly the same period of time that has elapsed since the Plymouth colony landed in what was later to become Massachusetts?) we’re actually requiring much more energy than our solitary high-speed explorer.

And remember, this is only what it takes to go to Proxima Centauri our nearest neighbour. Gliese 581c is five times as far away. Planets that are already habitable insofar as they orbit inside the habitable zone of their star, possess free oxygen in their atmosphere, and have a mass, surface gravity and escape velocity that are not too forbidding, are likely to be somewhat rarer. (And if there is free oxygen in the atmosphere on a planet, that implies something else — the presence of pre-existing photosynthetic life, a carbon cycle, and a bunch of other stuff that could well unleash a big can of whoop-ass on an unprimed human immune system. The question of how we might interact with alien biologies is an order of magnitude bigger and more complex than the question of how we might get there — and the preliminary outlook is rather forbidding.)

The long and the short of what I’m trying to get across is quite simply that, in the absence of technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, furthermore, does things that from today’s perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics — interstellar travel for human beings is near-as-dammit a non-starter. And while I won’t rule out the possibility of such seemingly-magical technology appearing at some time in the future, the conclusion I draw as a science fiction writer is that if interstellar colonization ever happens, it will not follow the pattern of historical colonization drives that are followed by mass emigration and trade between the colonies and the old home soil.

What about our own solar system?

After contemplating the vastness of interstellar space, our own solar system looks almost comfortingly accessible at first. Exploring our own solar system is a no-brainer: we can do it, we are doing it, and interplanetary exploration is probably going to be seen as one of the great scientific undertakings of the late 20th and early 21st century, when the history books get written.

But when we start examining the prospects for interplanetary colonization things turn gloomy again.

Bluntly, we’re not going to get there by rocket ship.

Optimistic projects suggest that it should be possible, with the low cost rockets currently under development, to maintain a Lunar presence for a transportation cost of roughly $15,000 per kilogram. Some extreme projections suggest that if the cost can be cut to roughly triple the cost of fuel and oxidizer (meaning, the spacecraft concerned will be both largely reusable and very cheap) then we might even get as low as $165/kilogram to the lunar surface. At that price, sending a 100Kg astronaut to Moon Base One looks as if it ought to cost not much more than a first-class return air fare from the UK to New Zealand … except that such a price estimate is hogwash. We primates have certain failure modes, and one of them that must not be underestimated is our tendency to irreversibly malfunction when exposed to climactic extremes of temperature, pressure, and partial pressure of oxygen. While the amount of oxygen, water, and food a human consumes per day doesn’t sound all that serious — it probably totals roughly ten kilograms, if you economize and recycle the washing-up water — the amount of parasitic weight you need to keep the monkey from blowing out is measured in tons. A Russian Orlan-M space suit (which, some would say, is better than anything NASA has come up with over the years — take heed of the pre-breathe time requirements!) weighs 112 kilograms, which pretty much puts a floor on our infrastructure requirements. An actual habitat would need to mass a whole lot more. Even at $165/kilogram, that’s going to add up to a very hefty excess baggage charge on that notional first class air fare to New Zealand — and I think the $165/kg figure is in any case highly unrealistic; even the authors of the article I cited thought $2000/kg was a bit more reasonable.

Whichever way you cut it, sending a single tourist to the moon is going to cost not less than $50,000 — and a more realistic figure, for a mature reusable, cheap, rocket-based lunar transport cycle is more like $1M. And that’s before you factor in the price of bringing them back …

The moon is about 1.3 light seconds away. If we want to go panning the (metaphorical) rivers for gold, we’d do better to send teleoperator-controlled robots; it’s close enough that we can control them directly, and far enough away that the cost of transporting food and creature comforts for human explorers is astronomical. There probably are niches for human workers on a moon base, but only until our robot technologies are somewhat more mature than they are today; Mission Control would be a lot happier with a pair of hands and a high-def camera that doesn’t talk back and doesn’t need to go to the toilet or take naps.

When we look at the rest of the solar system, the picture is even bleaker. Mars is … well, the phrase “tourist resort” springs to mind, and is promptly filed in the same corner as “Gobi desert”. As Bruce Sterling has puts it: “I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes “Gobi Desert Opera” because, well, it’s just kind of plonkingly obvious that there’s no good reason to go there and live. It’s ugly, it’s inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it’s so hard to reach.” In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.

Actually, there probably is a good reason for sending human explorers to Mars. And that’s the distance: at up to 30 minutes, the speed of light delay means that remote control of robots on the Martian surface is extremely tedious. Either we need autonomous roots that can be assigned tasks and carry them out without direct human supervision, or we need astronauts in orbit or on the ground to boss the robot work gangs around.

On the other hand, Mars is a good way further away than the moon, and has a deeper gravity well. All of which drive up the cost per kilogram delivered to the Martian surface. Maybe FedEx could cut it as low as $20,000 per kilogram, but I’m not holding my breath.

Let me repeat myself: we are not going there with rockets. At least, not the conventional kind — and while there may be a role for nuclear propulsion in deep space, in general there’s a trade-off between instantaneous thrust and efficiency; the more efficient your motor, the lower the actual thrust it provides. Some technologies such as the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket show a good degree of flexibility, but in general they’re not suitable for getting us from Earth’s surface into orbit — they’re only useful for trucking things around from low earth orbit on out.

Again, as with interstellar colonization, there are other options. Space elevators, if we build them, will invalidate a lot of what I just said. Some analyses of the energy costs of space elevators suggest that a marginal cost of $350/kilogram to geosynchronous orbit should be achievable without waving any magic wands (other than the enormous practical materials and structural engineering problems of building the thing in the first place). So we probably can look forward to zero-gee vacations in orbit, at a price. And space elevators are attractive because they’re a scalable technology; you can use one to haul into space the material to build more. So, long term, space elevators may give us not-unreasonably priced access to space, including jaunts to the lunar surface for a price equivalent to less than $100,000 in today’s money. At which point, settlement would begin to look economically feasible, except …

We’re human beings. We evolved to flourish in a very specific environment that covers perhaps 10% of our home planet’s surface area. (Earth is 70% ocean, and while we can survive, with assistance, in extremely inhospitable terrain, be it arctic or desert or mountain, we aren’t well-adapted to thriving there.) Space itself is a very poor environment for humans to live in. A simple pressure failure can kill a spaceship crew in minutes. And that’s not the only threat. Cosmic radiation poses a serious risk to long duration interplanetary missions, and unlike solar radiation and radiation from coronal mass ejections the energies of the particles responsible make shielding astronauts extremely difficult. And finally, there’s the travel time. Two and a half years to Jupiter system; six months to Mars.

Now, these problems are subject to a variety of approaches — including medical ones: does it matter if cosmic radiation causes long-term cumulative radiation exposure leading to cancers if we have advanced side-effect-free cancer treatments? Better still, if hydrogen sulphide-induced hibernation turns out to be a practical technique in human beings, we may be able to sleep through the trip. But even so, when you get down to it, there’s not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live there for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don’t exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there’s no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we’ll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow, driven by our increasing dependence on near-earth space for communications, positioning, weather forecasting, and (still in its embryonic stages) tourism. But the domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

(Original post, with comments, is here)

119 thoughts on “A Month of Writers, Day Two: Charles Stross

  1. Scalzi love, the RSS feed has an “unknown LJ tag”…were you trying to make a cut? If so, it didn’t work…

  2. He had no further intercourse with Space Travel, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Colonisation well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so as Ghlaghghee observed, im in ur singularity steelin yur lobsters!

  3. “Gods bless us one and all” – – – except those fundie Geminons anyway . . . .

    Although I digress: One thing I fund utterly fascinating about writers of the sciencey fiction goodness I so love, is the ability, nay, nay! The basic requirement, often, of badassedly ignoring certain things they KNOW about science . . . . to get them where their stories need to go. Not an original insight, clearly, but certainly interesting nonetheless. But my church, alas, it is a strange faith.

  4. First you build a solar power station orbiting the sun. Then you hook it up to an antimatter production facility. Use that to fuel up your ship. That’ll give you the thrust you need.

    Then you equip your ship with a magnetic sail. This is a nifty idea that was originally intended to be used for propulsion, but then somebody realized it could be used to stop a spaceship. The faster your ship is going the more effective it is (for details you can read Robert Zubrin’s Entering Space). What this means is that you don’t need a turn around for reverse accelaration (no such thing as decelaration), so you can just accelarate the whole way there.

    As far as economics go, did you know that the space program is the only government program to produce more wealth than it cost? And folks this wasn’t from selling moon rocks. The phrase you need to be thinking is ‘spin-off technologies’.

    No magic wands required.

    I have to run now but I’ll come back another time to discuss Mars and the rest of the solar system.

  5. Is it weird that I think it would be flippin’ cool to colonize the Gobi Desert?

    If they can set the Gobi Desert up with the sort of colony we get in Space Operas, with either a domed habitat or a subterranean one, man, I think that would be pretty sweet. Not sweet enough that I’d want to be in the first wave, granted, but mostly because I’m pants at heavy lifting and downright terrifying when given access to heavy machinery.

    But that’s my big question about colonizing space. I know a lot of people that say they’d jump at the chance to live on Mars, but I wonder how many of them would want to make the first trip. The second, maybe, or the third– after that everything would be all set up. But that first trip? The bar-none most dangerous phase of colonization? The one where you do all the backbreaking labor to set the place up for those who will follow in exchange for a chance to be part of the next Roanoke legend? A straw poll at an SF convention would probably turn up a high percentage of people who’d say they’d love to, but I honestly wonder, when faced with the reality of it, how many would opt to stay planetside and finish catching up on Doctor Who until the colony had established itself a bit. I know I would.

    (But now that I’ve made the Roanoke joke, I have to say that if I was forced to participate in the first wave of a colony and the neigh-on inevitable disaster did happen, I would totally make it my mission to carve ‘Croatoan’ into something before I died).

  6. Worrying about interstellar travel at our current technology level is rather like George Washington worrying about putting a man on the moon.

    Interplanetary colonization is still plausible. A key point I think Mr. Strauss misses is the “misfit factor.” There are all kinds of folks who for political, religious and cultural reasons don’t like living on Earth.

    Give them an opportunity, and they’ll leave for someplace with less restrictions. Even if that opportunity is babysitting robots at a mining camp.

    From the corporate point of view, bringing people back is expensive. Oil rigs aren’t a good example – mines in the Canadian artic are. People do work on shifts, but they’re longer, and if you could figure out a way for them to stay, it would be worth it. The town of Yellowknife grew out of just such economic decisions.

  7. “A key point I think Mr. Strauss misses…”

    What are you gonna do, Chris? Keeping time is one thing; Waltz Kings have just never had the higher math for really insightful futurism. :-P

  8. “The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.”

    Yeah, that’s sort of my attitude toward global warming. In fact, I burn extra carbon for the heck of it, cause it ain’t gonna affect me.

    Why would anyone go to a hot muggy swamp in Orlando? What? There are cartoon characters there? Sign me up for ridiculous prices.

  9. Is it me, or is thisw guy totally short sighted? In the past 100 hundred years, we have gone from thinking that reaching the Moon was a fool’s trek to landing there, and thinking about making a “colony” there. To think that, in the next 100 years, we will not come up with a way to transverse the vast distances needed to cross the galaxy, or even the universe, is done right stupid! The logic does not work. That would be akin to saying that eventhough we can double our computing power every eighteen months, up till now, that tomorrow will will hit a wall, and go no further.
    I understand that it seems impossible to travel faster than light, but if I’m not mistaken there are those that may have found a way to send, at least data, faster.
    The only thing I have to say to Mr. Stross is, pardon my french, “Shut the fuck up!”

  10. Also in the past 100 years, we have gone from having no passenger airplanes, to passenger airplanes, to Concorde jets. What’s the status on those, again? They should be up to a speed of 3000 MPH or so by now, right?

    (The preceding rhetorical device was shamelessly stolen from James NIcoll.)

  11. Hey, yeah, if they can ever send data faster than light, sending people will be a stone-cold cinch! All I need to do is figure out how to create quantum entanglements with every particle in my body with a mass of particles on the other side of the universe, and I am so out of here!

    [Let’s see… box of paperclips, check. Silly Putty, check. Three rolls of duct tape, check. Cardboard tubes from Christmas paper rolls, check. Empty refrigerator box with “quantum entanglulator” and picture of me on other side of universe scribbled on it with a Shapie… check.]

    Smell ya’ later, losers!

  12. Cybersage, that was pretty rude.

    Also more to the point, Charlie’s likely thought more about these things than anyone who is not in fact a physicist, so when says things are difficult, he’s not talking out of his ass.

  13. Great work from Mr. Stross (whose new book is on my must read immediately list), but overall it’s got me down. Though I don’t agree with Cybersage’s manner, I at least agree with some of his points.

    #7 Rigen Kent: I like the way you’re thinking. That’s the best response so far (to me), and better than anything I could have come up with…

    BUT: it may not be the Gobi, but doesn’t Vegas count as colonizing a desert? Sure, there’s a river with a great big dam right up the road, but it’s still a pretty inhospitable desert, isn’t it?

  14. cybersage @15: You were making some defensible points in your comment right up until the last sentence. Here’s a tip: telling Charlie Stross, a well-known and highly respected author, to “Shut the f*** up!” is not an effective rhetorical device. For me, it pretty much negated everything you said up to that point.

  15. so–if i followed this correctly–Mr. Stross is saying that interstellar travel is not going to happen in my lifetime.

    damn.

    On a lighter note, I am concerned that if interstellar travel is ever achieved, someone will have the bright idea to stick the Creation Museum on one of those interstellar vehicles and do some educatin’.

  16. Stross’ arguments are old stuff, though well-arranged in his essay. He’s 100% right that most people don’t really comprehend the scale of the distances involved and that sending humans out into interplanetary space to colonize will be insanely expensive. INterstellar distance far more so.

    But his essay strikes me oddly… he’s a VERY imaginative guy, yet the essay seems to shrink back from what’s possible. Think about this – Stonehenge and the Pyramids impress us. What impresses us is that these were done 4-5,000 years ago with nothing more than muscle and simple tools. The ingenuity and technical acumen is impressive… for that time. Today most developed societies could easily recreate both structures at modest cost. In fact, the cost would be trivial to a nation… very doable for a single city. The understanding of astronomy and math behind them is similarly impressive for the time… and trivial for today.

    My point is that projects which seem unattainable by today’s standards may likely seem trivial in both cost and technical challenge 1000 or 5000 years from now. Certainly if we nuke ourselves or have a widespread plague that leaves only Will Smith alive we’ll be in trouble. But if you stipulate that there’s no global catastrophe that ends civilization, then over a timescale of thousands of years it’s almost certain that the solar system will find itself heavily colonized.

    Now, short of some misunderstanding of physics that enables FTL communications or travel we’ll never see things like an intersteller empire. But that doesn’t mean that human won’t be spread across at least the nearer inhabitable stars in that timeframe. Building huge ships that would seem ludicrous to us now might be relatively modest a few thousand years hence and so people might move that way. Or we might do the upload/starwisp thing Stross explores in Accelerando.

    And if we stretch out the scale out… 50,000 years… well who knows? Keep in mind that it’s roughly 10-20,000 years since Neolithic times.

    All of these are fairly obvious points – I wonder if Stross was pulling legs with that essay, at least in part.

  17. First of all Mr. Mitchell; Thanks! Always nice to be appreciated.

    Secondly Cybersage, RELAX! Theres just no reason for the ‘tude. Obviously I disagree with Mr. Stross as well, but that’s just not the way to go about it.

    I think I know where Stross is coming from. I’ve been dreaming about space my whole life. And I think Stross has as well. And for the last thirty years having that particular dream has meant having your dreams pissed, shat. and stomped on. After a while that just sucks.

    And it’s a perfectly natural reaction to want to distance yourself from that kinda pain. I think that’s what he was doing with this essay.

    Of course I could be talking completely out of my ass as well. Who knows?

  18. John… and that he has… (for anyone who hasn’t, click through and read the comments on the post on Stross’ site… there are about 700 of them. )

  19. Cybersage @: 15: Your poor analogy is not “logic”.

    Rick @ 22: I don’t think he was making 50,0000 year projections. Taking those first faltering steps with teleoperator robots and other prepartory devices is going to take some time….possibly more than the century that cybersage for galaxy-traversing technology. While mankind’s technology has improved a tad since neolithic times, so has our ability to do thought experiments, to plan requirements and costs, to lay out an argument like Charlie’s. If near-term colonisation is to work, then the counter-arguments, the counter-examples need to be better made.

  20. This post inspired me to write a new Eddie Izzard routine. If Eddie is reading (and why wouldn’t he be) he’s free to put this into his act, as long as he does the whole thing while holding up a copy of RADIO FREEFALL for the cameras.

    SPACE, THE FINAL …

    Fuck off this place is huge! I mean really, really, fuckin’ huge. Enormous, really. I’m sorry, do go on.

    OUR FIVE YEAR MISSION …

    Five years? It’ll take five fuckin’ years just to get to fuckin’ Pluto, mate. Five fuckin’ years, you better go back to the calculator. Did you see how big this fuckin’ place is?

    TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE!

    What, like the Gobi desert?

  21. rick gregory: I think those are fair points–it may well be that the things Stross cites as problems may become less relevant. On the other hand, I’m not sure that his arguments regarding interstellar travel would be invalidated by such future builders–our own solar system is relatively vast enough to occupy such extraordinary builders for millennia, without the inconvenience of completely losing contact with extraplanetary humans.

    This brings up one of the key things about Stross’ comments that some folks–possibly some commentators, possibly Stross–might be missing. When we talk of “colonization,” we tend to imagine the European empires of the 16th-20th centuries. The Americas, India, Southeast Asia. The colonies were remote, but accessible; frontiers, but governed.

    Barring some major correction of physics–Einstein being fundamentally wrong, basically–there will never be an interstellar colonial empire in those terms, the terms Stross addresses. I think Stross is absolutely correct in those terms. There will not be a United Federation Of Planets, an Empire Of Sol, nor a Galactic Senate. That doesn’t preclude interstellar (or interplanetary) exile: sending an arcology on a one way trip to Gliese 581c, say, with the full understanding that those passengers may be a “colony” but no longer a part of the Earth’s human family. We might have occasional communications with them (unless someone does create a quantum communicator, those messages will take 41 years to send and receive a reply). But the idea that they will be manageable or supportable from Earth is patently ludicrous (unless, again, Einstein is wrong). They will truly be on their own.

    And how long will they be human?

    Think about that: small, isolated populations exposed to new environmental selectors… sound familiar? In this sense, too, the idea of “human” colonization of space begins to fail–even if we find a way to make the journey cost-effective (or abandon cost-effectiveness and Stross’ main points entirely), even if some new spooky tech means our branching descendants can phone “home” any time they’d like, I think it’s only a matter of generations before these “colonists” are sub-species and then new species with a common human ancestor. At that point does it still make sense to think of the venture as “the human colonization of space”? Personally, I’d say no….

  22. My apologies for being rude. I just think that there should be some optimism when it comes to space travel/colonization. I understand that he probably thought about it. I suppose I just didn’t like his conclusions. I probably should have thought of a better (less rude) way of getting my point across. Thanks for calling me on it, Mr. Scalzi.

  23. One thing I will point out is that the numbers that Stross uses that have dollar signs attached to them shouldn’t be all that scary. Assuming 2% real productivity growth, five hundred years means median household incomes of something like $100M/year in todays dollars. If an average family is pulling in Bill Gates sort of bank, $2K/kilogram to get to the Moon is pretty doable.

    I’ll also note that if colonizing Mars is less sensible than colonizing the Gobi, then by analogy colonizing L5 is less sensible than colonizing the bottom of the North Sea.


    I just think that there should be some optimism when it comes to space travel/colonization.

    That’s your childhood talking. You’re better off not listening to it. There’s way more interesting things going on here and now to be interested in. Charles mentioned some of them.

  24. I’d be quite happy to watch people cram themselves into little tin cans for a trip to mars…or even to see colonies pop up in Antarctica. But, you won’t catch me signing up for either location.

    I mean, we’ve got the most mind bogglingly cool planet in the solar system, possibly the coolest planet in the galaxy, right under our feet. I can go out in my backyard at any time of the year and find organisms that I’ve never seen before. There’s more interesting stuff in a drop of water from a stagnant puddle than in the entire outer solar system, and no artificial habitat will ever come close to replicating that complexity, unless it’s the size of earth and we leave it alone to stew for half a billion years.

    I’m reminded of a scene from Cherryh’s Tripoint that I found particularly poignant. Our hero gets to keep a leaf fallen from a tree in a space colony botanical garden. Cherryh’s universe has massive space colonies and nifty FTL starships, but life on those starships is so narrow and deprived that a single leaf is a treasure.

    Not only is space mind bogglingly big, but viewed a little bit at a time from a colony, it would be mind-numbingly boring. Worse than Antarctica in the middle of winter.

    YMMV, of course, if you are one of those heathens who prefer physics to biology or actually like the idea of spending the rest of your life in a larger version of your office cubicle.

    Oh yeah, and I pity you city dwellers too.

  25. And how long will they be human?

    Most likely we will fragment into subspecies via engineering, not natural selection. I would be very surprised if that didn’t happen long before we reach the Oort cloud.

  26. I really liked Stross’s article and the ideas he put forward. He’s obviously thought about this a lot. However, I have to put myself on the side of those who see it as a little shortsighted. As someone who’s studied history pretty extensively, one theme I’ve seen throughout is the concept that at various times we “know everything” about a particular topic (such as physical principles that prevent interstellar travel). Then along comes a paradigm shift and we realize we’ve been barking up the wrong tree. People thought heavier-than-air craft were a physical impossibility until somebody figured out that their physics was wrong. People thought we could never go to the moon until other technologies (computers, materials, etc.) made the old assumptions wrong. I think we’re doing the same thing now; people are still stuck in familiar concepts of propulsion (action/reaction) and we’re running into the wall of the physics we understand. Who knows, in 500 years (barring a collapse of ciivilization, a real possibility from a historical perspective) our knowledge of physics, etc. will include areas and concepts we can’t even imagine right now. There might be a new discoveries that make it obvious how to travel interstellar distances, discoveries based on concepts we haven’t yet figured out. Well, in any case, if Stross wanted to get me thinking, he did!

  27. I would hate to get branded a sensitive optimist. But he is making some pretty grand and hopefully incorrect assumptions. The first isn’t so much wrong as sad. His assertion is that we shouldn’t take the issue of long term survival of humanity personally since we will already be long gone. For me, the long term survival of the species is personal. I wonder if he thinks it should only personal if you know your decedents. Should we only care up to our grandchildren or great grandchildren? Or should it stop being personal when your own genetic material is too diluted to show a direct relation? If the survival of Humanity does in fact matter, then the rest of his arguments falls short. Quite frankly it also fails to take into account the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know.

  28. “The preceding rhetorical device was shamelessly stolen from James NIcoll.”

    Like most people, I’ve read Kahn’s Alternate World Futures and he points out two things that kept increasing on a fairly predictable curve, even when it wasn’t immediately clear how approaching limits could be surmounted. One of them, no surprise, was what we now call Moore’s Law. The other was the top speed of human-made vehicles. Moore’s Law is still going. If peak speeds had stuck to the curve that held true between 1900 and 1960, we’d have 3000 km/s delta vehicles by now.

    This sort of modelling led me to the Great Textile Singularity, where I showed that by extrapolating the increasing textile production in the 19th century, all organic matter on Earth would unavoidably be processed into cloth in a surprisingly short time. If there’s one thing history teaches us, it is that short term trends never have limits.

  29. Dave: whether or not we fracture into subspecies because of deliberate tampering, geographic (or interplanetary or interstellar) isolation reintroduces classic Darwinism and possible true speciation. In the unlikely event there are ever human-descendants on a hypothetical world orbiting Gliese 581c, they may not be able to successfully reproduce with human-descendants on Earth despite engineering.

    Mike: the idea of paradigm shifts in science has proven so rubbery that apparently even Thomas Kuhn has shied away from some of his early conclusions. And even if you accept that there are scientific revolutions in which a dramatic shift of human perceptions occur, there is no reason to conclude that objective reality changes. In other words, relativity theory is either right or wrong, and if it’s fundamentally right then FTL travel is essentially impossible–the theoretical loopholes that might exist aren’t ones that a human being in a tin can will be able to pass through (e.g. quantum weirdness–“spooky action at a distance”–may mean that entangled particles can instantly “exchange infrormation” at interstellar distances, but there’s no way to build a spaceship out of that principle).

    That doesn’t mean that Stross is 100% right: it might be that an advanced civilization finds itself in a position to make an absurd and irrational sub-luminal journey across the void for the same kinds of reasons that people hauled megaliths across England just to stand them in a circle; or stones across Egypt to glorify a pharoah’s tomb; or shot men into space to take holiday snaps of the Sea Of Tranquility, pick up a few rocks and come home again. Or that the advanced civilization in question won’t have a different economy to work with–maybe someday building ark-ships will be as “cheap,” “simple” and commonplace as building office towers today. (I put “cheap” and “simple” in quotes because these everyday achievements are marvels of finance and engineering from a certain POV.)

    But I think your examples are kind of wrong and miss the point: whoever said we couldn’t fly or go to the moon were marginal figures at best. Both were staples of speculative fiction going at least as far back as the Renaissance. The more fundamental debate in each case wasn’t whether it could be done, but the best way to do it; e.g. in the case of powered heavier-than-air flight, the main controversy was Langley’s “engine-based” approach versus the Wrights’ “wing-based” approach, and people who said “it can’t be done” really meant that Langley’s prototypes were insufficiently aerodynamic or the Wrights’ prototypes were too underpowered. (And let it be noted that, notwithstanding the Wrights’ eventual success, both criticisms had merit.)

    Finally–and this was the point that may have been missed–it is quite possible that there are walls, points where the universe limits human accomplishment. It is possible that the speed of light is an absolute limit and nothing can travel faster, that there’s a scale beneath which nothing can be further miniaturized without quantum instabilities, that there’s an absolute limit to knowledge and progress. It happens that in the case of interstellar travel we can see what some of those walls might be: relativistic consequences of near-c travel and the related mass/fuel-paradoxes (?increases at relativistic speeds which requires more mass to increase speed but mass?).

    Sorry for the long post. I get excitable. I should go hide in my entangluator now….

  30. In the order that they were advanced:

    Antimatter starship with magnetic braking:

    Where does the money come from to build your AM factory? Who on Earth (literally) goes hungry, cold, without medicine, gets stomped by the armies looking for resources to support the Cause?

    Where does the technology come from to turn idle thoughts based on remote theoretical possibilities into real artifacts based on sound engineering? What efforts get shorted or cancelled altogether to free up the thousands of physicists, chemists and engineers to make a starship possible?

    It’s all strictly magickal thinking until you answer those questions with more than, “If we imagine it, we can do it.” One can imagine a lot of things that don’t break any known physical laws. That doesn’t mean one’s going to get them.

    Misfits as space colonists:

    As my college history prof was so fond of pointing out, the only thing European colonists were really good at doing for the first 100 or so years of a colony was dying. That was because people that were misfits at home weren’t any more fit overseas, on the average. And that was with air that was free, water that was nearly so, food that required no more effort than it did at home to hunt/cultivate, and competing humans with (mostly) inferior military technologies.

    Misfits in space wouldn’t have the 80% fatality rate that European colonists did — they’d be lucky to suffer only 99% fatalities. There are just too many ways that things could go wrong. For cost reasons alone, if not for the safety of the colonists, people moving into space are, for quite some time, likely to be the most highly trained and conditioned that are available.

    Yet people with those kind of qualifications aren’t going to want to move permanently off the Earth. They have too much going for them right here. If people start living permanently off of Earth, it will only be by accident and over a long time.

  31. I agree with most of Charlies Stross’s post. However, as an economist, I would express it somewhat differently.

    With any reasonable rate for long-run productivity growth, we will have levels of total resources per person 1,000 years from now that are simply amazing. Therefore, it sometimes seems reasonable for many to posit that with those huge resources, we will be able to accomplish any goal we want, including interstellar travel, solar system colonization, etc. (I leave aside the issue of whether natural resource limits may increasingly limit the rate of productivity growth, which is quite possible.)

    But there is the question of whether we will choose to use our resources to send persons across space. And, if it is the case that fundamental physical laws limit the speed with which we can cross space, which seems to be the case according to our current knowledge of physics, then the “time costs” of crossing space will also tend to rise with the rate of productivity growth. In the long-run, wages and productivity rise together, and the value people place on their time will tend to rise with the hourly wage rate.

    In addition, there is no reason to think that the discount rate that affects people’s evaluation of the present vs. the future will decline over time, so it is unclear whether people will be any more willing in the future than they are today to undertake projects with payoffs many years in the future.

    For these same reasons, I also think it unlikely that there are many interstellar civilizations deliberately sending us messages. We aren’t doing this. They will have more resources per capita than we have, but why would they spend the time to do so when any benefits to them are far in the future? Of course, who knows what will motivate some advanced civilization, let alone an alien civilization, but if they respond at all to the time costs of different actions, and have any reasonable rate of discounting the future, it seems unlikely that a long-term program of sending out communications to different stars makes any sense.

    Of course, all of these arguments are negated if it proves possible to travel faster than the speed of light, or to communicate faster than the speed of light.

  32. Technological imperitives:

    Things will happen when they can be made to happen. One cannot say that just because we went from the Wright Bros. to Neil and Buzz in less than a century, we must necessarily progress from there to some arbitrary goal in the next. Where space flight is concerned, we’ve actually been stalled technologically for about 40 years. That’s not because nobody’s invested the money to unstall us. It’s because nobody’s come up with a theory of a better way to do things that has been worth investing money in.

    (Note to you people who continuously wallop and flog the idea that the Moon Race led to technological spinoffs: It never happened that way. The tech used in the Apollo program was almost all whatever the contractors could provide from existing technology. Most of the R&D was in aerospace engineering — and most of that was in applications (i.e. how to use a restartable hypergolic rocket for lunar lander propuslsion, not how to build a restartable hypergolic rocket.).)

    Optimism:

    There’s a difference between optimism and unrealistic thinking. There’s a reason why we have cell phones today but not personal helicopters, even though both were predicted by 50s SF. Cell phones were a reasonable prediction, because the difference between a cell phone and the already existing walkie-talkie was one of miniturization (something that was already happening) and setting up the right switching system. Personal helicopters would have required a fundamental change in the economics of aviation and the controlability of rotary winged aircraft. Both of these were and are much more grounded in the physics of flight than the differences in size and utility between a cell phone and walkie-talkie were or are grounded in electronic physics.

    By the same token, one can’t handwave away the physical realities of space access and space flight just because it would be convenient for some perceived purpose. It takes a fixed amount of energy to get a kilogram into orbit and from there on to Mars or the asteroids. This amount of energy can’t be miniaturized away. A way ahs to found to generate it. Right now the best way we have is chemical rockets, ion motors, and maybe (in a few decades) nuclear thermal rockets of approximately only twice the efficiency of the most efficient chemical rockets (and only useable in space for safety reasons). These technologies have been known since the late Forties (even nuclear rockets were tested in the Sixties). Not one advance on them has been seriously proposed in all that time, and none are practically foreseen in any of the responsible physics or engineering work being done today. It’s just not happening.

  33. “For these same reasons, I also think it unlikely that there are many interstellar civilizations deliberately sending us messages. We aren’t doing this.”

    Actually, yes we are. The Canadian science show Daily Planet sent a message to 37 Geminorum back in 2005.

  34. I think that there’s a component to this discussion, that being that humans have this need to move (in general), to conquer, and to see/do things that others have never done before (Please hold your Star Trek taunting to a minimum). With just a casual glance at the histories of most civilizations on this planet, one can see this idea at work. The flip side to this is when those said civilization lose interest, or become content with the “here and now” they are usually overrun by one that is interested, and is not content with the “here and now.” Greece, Rome, Egypt, and some European nations have succumbed to the slow death of contentment. The US rose out of England’s complacency, Rome rose out of Greece’s. Egypt simply fell to the Romans, and the Central American groups fell to the Spaniards. Even in our own country the Confederacy fell to the Union armies because they were happy to stay in the “good ol’ days” of a slavery based system. This evolution takes place in the” realm of ideas” as well. Reason, Superstition, Religion, and Morality continue their battle to this day. But what keeps all of them going is that they are not willing to simply stand their ideological ground. They push each other to the limits of their arguments. A great example of this is the fight between the science of evolution and the belief in creationism (Kudos to Mr. Scalzi for his sacrificial trek to the Creation Museum). Don’t get me wrong, most, if not all, of the tenets of creationism are extremely Kooky, but they do ask some questions that the scientists needed to have asked of them. If anything, it keeps the scientists honest. The same goes for the Climate change/Global warming debate. Which brings me back to the discussion at hand in that when scientists come to conclusions like Einstein’s Theories’ preclude Faster-Than- Light travel, Cost precludes deep space travel, and fatality percentages preclude even attempting a colonization program someone needs to stop and ask if the scientists are really being honest. Is the situation as bleak as the scientists want to say it is? These sorts of statements should rile the dreamers, the rebels, and kooks to start asking the tough questions. Make the scientists prove their assertions, because if they don’t we might as well go back to thinking as the Pre-Socratics did that the Ocean is the source of the wind, rain, and clouds, that the Earth is being mixed into the sea over time, that we never step into the same river twice, the sun is new every day, or that the land floats as if on the sea. Wait, that doesn’t sound right, does it?

  35. “For these same reasons, I also think it unlikely that there are many interstellar civilizations deliberately sending us messages. We aren’t doing this.”

    Actually, yes we are. The Canadian science show Daily Planet sent a message to 37 Geminorum back in 2005.’

    But we are not REGULARLY and systematically sending messages to many stars, which is what it would take to have any reasonable probability of the message being detected. No one on Earth thinks it worth their time and resources to systematically and regularly send out messages to many stars.

  36. An Erik: Virtually every scientific theory has been proven incorrect and/or subject to significant change. We have no idea what 1,000 years of scientific advance, or one accident of chance could bring us. Not Even Einstein thought Relativity was the end of the story otherwise he wouldn’t have spent the majority of his career looking for, and failing to find, a unified field theory. Since the early Greeks, man has always believed he was at the cusp of knowing everything there is to know about the Universe and every generation we look back on the absurdities and “certainties” of the past.

  37. Sergeante E – the European misfit colonist of say 1600 was probably marginally literate at best, stunted from malnutrition and chronic childhood deseases, and had truly no idea what awaited him or her in the New World.

    The average misfit of 2007 is probably at least a high school graduate, capable of operating a PC, in much better health, and can* find out more about his or her new home then the man from 1600 could dream to ask. Although the misfits of today face a higher challenge, they start from a higher base.

    There’s a memoir called “Icebound” about folks who winter over on Antartica. They are in many ways misfits (that’s why they go) but yet they survive in a very hostile environment.

    I should be clearer as to my definition of potential colonists. There are various extreme religious cults, white (and black) separatists, and other utopian groups that just don’t like being around other people. Yet they are all capable of functioning in a modern society.

    I do agree with a point Strauss makes – until we get cheaper access to near-Earth orbit, space colonies are an economic non-starter.

    * whether they will or not is another story, of course.

  38. “These sorts of statements should rile the dreamers, the rebels, and kooks to start asking the tough questions. Make the scientists prove their assertions…”

    Quite frankly, the scientists have proved their assertions. The dreamers, the rebels, and kooks can’t do the math to understand the proofs.

  39. “Virtually every scientific theory has been proven incorrect and/or subject to significant change.”

    When was Newtonian mechanics proven to be incorrect or even significantly changed? Einstein just provided a more accurate and detailed theory of gravity, and then only for some special cases. We still use Newton’s equations to navigate our robots around the solar system.

    The basic hereditary science that has long informed stock breeding is not invalidated by modern genetics and bioinformatics. It’s still going to be used by your local dog breeder for the foreseeable future.

    Anything truly scientific — IOW, stuff thats reliable knowledge about the world arrived at through careful observation and inductive reason — is never disproven. It is sometimes shown to be an imperfect explanation for which refinements can be demonstrated.

  40. “Quite frankly, the scientists have proved their assertions. The dreamers, the rebels, and kooks can’t do the math to understand the proofs.”

    I think Einstein, Galileo, Hawkings, Alcubierre, Pythagoras and many other later noted scientists, all condemned at one point or another for the radical theories that they put forth, might disagree. The Nazis pushed the envelope with their ideas about eugenics, and the importance of reason. Darwin was thought to be a nut, and Wagner was thought to be flat out wrong about continental drift. Should I dig out the history of science books and continue to point out that those whom were thought of as dreamers, rebels, and kooks did have quite a large a large impact on science whether they knew the math or not, my friend? My point was that the establishment is not always right. The lauded scientific masters are human as well, and as such, are subject to the human condition of making mistakes. They should welcome the challenge; all true scientists should whether they come from peers or those that “can’t do the math to understand the proofs.”

  41. Corrected: (emotion overwhelmed my use of correct grammer)

    “Quite frankly, the scientists have proved their assertions. The dreamers, the rebels, and kooks can’t do the math to understand the proofs.”

    I think Einstein, Galileo, Hawkings, Alcubierre, Pythagoras and many other later noted scientists, all condemned at one point or another for the radical theories that they put forth, might disagree. The Nazis pushed the envelope with their ideas about eugenics, and the importance of reason. Darwin was thought to be a nut, and Wagner was thought to be flat out wrong about continental drift. Should I dig out the history of science books and continue to point out that those whom were thought of as dreamers, rebels, and kooks did have quite a large impact on science whether they knew the math or not, my friend? My point was that the establishment is not always right. The lauded scientific masters are human as well, and as such, are subject to the human condition of making mistakes. They should welcome the challenge; all true scientists should whether they come from peers or those that “can’t do the math to understand the proofs.”

  42. “Anything truly scientific — IOW, stuff thats reliable knowledge about the world arrived at through careful observation and inductive reason — is never disproven. It is sometimes shown to be an imperfect explanation for which refinements can be demonstrated.”

    What if these bits of knowledge are first writen in a religeous text, or by ancients thought to be out of their depths as far as modern science is concerned? In the time between when it was writen until the masters of modern science deemed it to be true, these bits of knowledge most likely were thought to be merely anecdotal (in other words, not true), wouldn’t you agree?

  43. In my HS science class, the first thing, on the first day, we learned was the difference between dogma and scientific knowledge. I find it highly offensive when people think that science has all the answers, and is, without failure, always right in everything that it concludes. To believe that just because science says it is so, it must be the truth written in stone is a major fallacy in logic (appeal to authority). One of the major parts of the scientific method is to question everything in order to get to the “big T truth,” and to make sure that you really have it. There are no stupid questions no matter from whom, or where those questions come. We would not accept these kinds of assertions in philosophical discourse, or any area of the criminal justice system, so why should we give science a pass on this when this is one area of discourse where the questioning of one’s assertions is of the utmost importance not only to those in the know, but humanity as a whole.

  44. Cybersage, I hate to say it, but a good bit of what you write is simply wrong: the U.S. didn’t arise out of any British “complacency,” and the Spaniards successfully crushed at least one of America’s most dynamic and aggressive cultures (the Aztec). In fact, in both of these cases change occurred in spite of or even because of the aggressiveness of the cultures you claim were “complacent”: British crackdowns against the colonists (e.g. the 1770 Boston Massacre) inspired rebellion and Cortez’s small force was aided by indigenous tribes sick of Aztec brutality.

    And while it’s true the CSA tried to cling to an outmoded quasi-feudal economic system based on plantations and deserved to lose their ideological war against modernity, it’s also true that the Southern States were the aggressors in the War Between The States, however much some of my fellow southerners may want to claim a martyr’s mantle and beat their chests over “Northern aggression”–the shots fired at Fort Sumter weren’t fired by Yanks.

    Creationism doesn’t ask any questions biologists aren’t already asking–except for the ones they’ve already answered, the ones that the creationists keep coming back to even after eyeballs have been explained to them for the 12 billionth time or someone points out that a recent paper conclusively demonstrates that a bacterial flagellum isn’t irreducibly complex since it consists of molecular parts repurposed from a y. pestis “syringe.”

    I’m not aware of anyone particularly condemning Einstein or Hawking. To the contrary, Einstein was vindicated in fairly short order, with astronomers claiming in 1919 that they had validated a 1911 prediction. (Interestingly, it appears that the 1919 observations in fact contained errors, although Einstein’s predictions were subsequently confirmed by more reliable procedures; but the 1919 work suggests that far from being condemned, Einstein’s work was being seized on so eagerly that some observers may have been willing to overlook problems in their own work.)

    In similar fashion, Darwin was never thought to be a nut: naturalists of his era immediately recognized that Darwin had proposed an innovative solution to a problem that had vexed a generation, and even those who disagreed with him generally or in particulars recognized that his work needed to be seriously addressed. It says something, too, that Darwin’s work was so well-known and seriously considered that he was recognized as an expert in the field before he’d published the Origin–when Alfred Russell Wallace needed to send his own thoughts on the problem of speciation to a leading peer for review, he chose Darwin as a correspondent. The only people to attempt to label Darwin a “nut” were people who saw Darwin’s implicit conclusion that man is an animal and not a special creation were the same kinds of people who called Galileo a “nut” for his implicit conclusion that Earth is a planet and not a central creation–the religious dogmatists who saw the ideas as serious threats to their worldview. (Speaking of Galileo: I’m not sure there were any natural philosophers who considered him a “nut,” especially since his experiments and observations could easily be duplicated. Again, the people who marginalized him did so because he was a serious threat, not because they really thought he was crazy.)

    It’s also extremely odd that you seem to think “Einstein, Hawking, Pythagoras and Galileo”–some of the finest mathematicians and theorists in human history–may not have known the math. To the contrary, they knew the math quite well (and in at least one case, helped invent it). The reason these men weren’t considered nuts by anyone serious is that you could go back and reproduce their work, test their predictions, and track their calculations. Even Alcubierre is a theoretical physicist who–whether he’s right or wrong–knows his math.

    Finally, nobody has said “science has said it is so, it must be the truth.” To the contrary, several of us have said that if Einstein is right, FTL travel is impossible. It is certainly possible that some other understanding will be reached; on the other hand, the weight of a century of scientific observation and challenge is behind Einstein right now. If one is to choose between a vaporous imaginary dream and the guy who has been right for 100 years and counting, the smart money and common sense is on the guy who’s been right. That’s not a difficult concept to handle. If you need medical care, are you going to go with the physician who has a 90% cure rate or the guy who has a wacky untested theory about “de-ionized water” or somesuch that he’s “pretty sure ought to work.” And while inquiry is always welcome, there’s foolishness (and madness) in questioning what repeated observation has shown to be true; if the sun has risen in the east every day of your life, there’s little sense in questioning where it will rise tomorrow morning, although a dreamer can certainly imagine what it would be like if it rose in the south-by-southwest for a change. Some questions, then, actually are kinda stupid–they have no predictive value and raise no new valid fields of inquiry. Note that I’m not saying FTL travel falls into that category: maybe Einstein was right, and maybe he wasn’t. But right now the evidence backs him, and it’s reasonable to assume he was, and to say things like, “barring some major revision or repudiation of relativity theory, FTL travel is impossible and relativistic velocities impractical for human travel.”

  45. “In the order that they were advanced:

    Antimatter starship with magnetic braking:

    Where does the money come from to build your AM factory? ”

    Infrastructure and spin-off technologies. Right now there are companies making insane amounts of money just in Earth orbit. Companies making tons of money tend to expand in those areas that there making money in so they can make more money. Other companies see this and try to get some the action for themselves.

    The more people do something the better they get at it. And the more people you have involved the faster this improvement happens. It means improved delivery systems. It means improved ways of handling those systems. It means more space stations because having people on location provides advantages you just can’t get from remote. It means that somebody realizes that while going from the Earth to the moon is difficult and costly, from Earth orbit to the Moon is much easier. And there are more than quite a few valuable resources on the moon.

    And then building things like factories (or solar power stations) on the moon and sending them to different parts of the solar system now makes sense because not only do they have the infrastructure to accomplish it, but to profit from it.

    Sure it’ll take time, but what’s a century or two in the lifetime of the human race?

    “Where does the technology come from to turn idle thoughts based on remote theoretical possibilities into real artifacts based on sound engineering?”

    I hate to break it to you Sergeante E but everything I’ve described is already technologically possible. It’s just that the cost is so prohibitive. We can already produce antimatter, but it quite literally takes more energy then you get from it to do so. So they don’t except for experimental purposes.

    We can build soar power plants, but we don’t have the delivery systems to put them in orbit around the sun. Yet.

    The magsail was invented by Robert Zubrin and Dana Andrews in 1988. It’s just that right now there are no starships to put one on. Like I said: What’s a century or two in the lifetime of the human race?

    “Who on Earth (literally) goes hungry, cold, without medicine, gets stomped by the armies looking for resources to support the Cause?”

    I’m curious Sergeante E, did you write that line with a straight face? ‘Cause I know I had a hard time reading it with one. Life is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to ‘take’ resources from one group and give it to another. You create more resources. If life worked the way you apparently think it does we’d still be hunting with rocks.

    Not that I think anything I say (or type) is going to have any effect on you Sergeante E, you’re the kinda guy who gets his kicks from telling somebody else why they can’t do a thing. Why this or that dream is silly or impossible.

    Me, I’ve just never found that satisfying. For me trying, even I fail (which I’ve done more times than I can count), is more satisfying.

  46. Relativity and QM and genetic science where and upheaval to the prevailing understanding of the laws that govern the universe and the understanding of heredity. Excuse me for not adding or greatly added on to…. My point was and is, their is so much about the universe that we don’t know. Boats, planes, cars, internet have all changed the way human interact with the world. Assuming that we know enough to say what is and is not possible, is little more the hubris.

  47. First let me clarify, my reference to complacency was more aimed at thought than action. The Grand political experiment undertaken in the US had its roots in Locke and others; however the “complacency” of the British Zeitgeist was not conducive to allowing it to be put into practice. Of course, the British crown wanted to retain control of the colonies, for whatever reason, and were willing to do whatever it took to do so. The complacency was in their thinking not their actions. The simple arrival of the Spaniards in Central America was the beginning of the end. The ritual sacrifice of human beings, and age old tradition in the culture, was the first thing to which they turned to save them. It is not disputed that they were savage in their defense of themselves, but the seeds of their downfall were sown long before the Spanish ever arrived. The same sort of thing holds true for the War of the States. The South was complacent not in their willingness to take up arms, and fight to the last man, but in their thinking. As for the Creationists, their simply have the right to question and ability to do so is what is of help to science. The platform that the creationists have (media access, congregations, and printing presses) helps science, and the individual scientists, to defend themselves to the general public in way that science journals just do not do. The debate is healthy even if one side is completely out of its mind. One question that might be raised by a creationist might point to the changing of the taxonomic systems that the biological sciences are using. They might ask why if evolution brought us from basic matter to where we stand, are there now signs of similar adaptations in different areas of the kingdoms of life that do not have direct lineage to one another? Could this mean that is a design inherent somewhere in the mix? I know this is a form of the “watchmaker” argument. But since evolution has created so many different forms of life based on the DNA model, could it not be inferred that our destiny to come into being was always there, and that even though the thinking of evolution as a process may be valid, the thinking of evolution as the reason “why it happened at all” may not?
    I in no way implied that the likes of Einstein and Hawkings were anything other than the geniuses that they are. There is, however, a difference in how they were thought of before they were seen to be right, and thus became famous, and when they were “nobodies” simply trying to get their radical ideas heard, and accepted. Einstein worked in a post office, Hawkings was not always in a wheelchair, Galileo was a member of the Church and did not want to be excommunicated. If I recall correctly Darwin was unemployed, and his Father was not all too happy with the “hobby” he was undertaking. So Darwin went on that fateful voyage not out of sheer scientific altruism, but he went to “work.”
    “If one is to choose between a vaporous imaginary dream and the guy who has been right for 100 years and counting, the smart money and common sense is on the guy who’s been right.”

    Newtonian Physics was thought to be the only physics at work in the universe for over a hundred years, so would like to place your money with those who said that quantum mechanics, and the new physics that it bring with it, were right, and a sure bet? Or should the scientific community and the general public hear what they have to say before anyone says that it can’t be true? It was to this all too familiar situation that I was referring in my statements about “what science says must be true.” In this day and age of high speed communication, the window between the initial “ney saying” and proof is shrinking, but in the past this window has cost people their lives, and could do so in the future. It most certainly cost Galileo his career as a scientist, and could have cost him his immortal soul. Why? Because the science of the day had proven, mathematically, that the earth was the center of the universe. The Church accepted it, and it had serious implications for Galileo. It was till Copernicus brought a better, mathematically more accurate model that things changed. The math didn’t lie in either case. It was misinterpreted by people.
    My other main point was that human emotions, desires, psychologies, and socialization also should be taken into account when one deals with science in a broad and general way. Just because it seems impossible to do something to science, does not mean people won’t, can’t, shouldn’t be motivated to do it. I’m sure some in Britton and around Europe thought that it was stupid to even try to attempt colonization of the new world, but why did they go and do it anyway? Why did the European crowns motivate, and send those colonists to their eventual/inevitable deaths? It was not just about economics, science, or resource acquisition, but about servicing the emotional/psychological needs of their people as well.

  48. cybersage:

    You’re the (unwitting, I hope) victim of inexpert popularization and irresponsible sensationalism. An Eric has rendered an explanation of the details better than I can, so I’ll let it stand as is. Your only cure is to get an education in an engineering or scientific discipline. Or listen to people who have such educations when they tell you something. Until then, for the sake of your own reputation, you really should listen way more than you talk, until you get hip to the way the real world works.

  49. “Infrastructure and spin-off technologies.”

    Where does the money for the infrastructure (and what infrastructure are we talking about here, anyway) come from? What justifies the investment? And even if there were direct spinoff technologies — an idea that was a lie when it was first advanced as a justification for the space program, and which hasn’t gained any verisimilitude in the interim — why would the profits from them be invested in an insterstellar spacecraft instead of towards the interests of the contractors who provided them?

    “Right now there are companies making insane amounts of money just in Earth orbit.”

    Who? Doing what? Space operations are cost centers, not profit centers, even for the large telecommunications companies. They are usually embarked upon because they make certain things easier to do in some ways. That doesn’t mean they add to profit, it just means they help an organization stay competitive.

  50. “But we are not REGULARLY and systematically sending messages to many stars, which is what it would take to have any reasonable probability of the message being detected.”

    That wasn’t mentioned as a condition in the original formulation.

    The interesting thing about interstellar radio communication is that it’s getting cheaper all the time and it’s the sort of thing a determined minority can carry off. This puts it in harsh contrast with crewed space exploitation at this point in time.

  51. “The more people do something the better they get at it. And the more people you have involved the faster this improvement happens.”

    The first sentence is factual in a general sense. The second sentence has been demonstrated to be false in many technological contexts. Please refer to Brooks’s “The Mythical Man-Month” for a case study.

    “It means improved delivery systems. It means improved ways of handling those systems.”

    What delivery systems? Delivering what? Please provide necessary context or use correct terminology that doesn’t leave cotext in doubt.

    “It means more space stations because having people on location provides advantages you just can’t get from remote.”

    There’s no commercial and very little scientific reason to have manned space stations. Robots work just fine for almost everything we want to do. The human proximity argument only works at interplanetary distances.

    “It means that somebody realizes that while going from the Earth to the moon is difficult and costly, from Earth orbit to the Moon is much easier.”

    Jeepers. You still have to get from the Earth to Earth orbit with anything you want to take to the Moon. Having someplace to stop in between doesn’t change that.

    You simply aren’t educationally equipped to participate in this conversation.

    “And there are more than quite a few valuable resources on the moon.”

    What do you suppose is the mass of the industrial infrastructure that would have to be lifted to the Moon to exploit those resources, what do you think it would cost to put that infrastructure on the Moon, and what (real, not imaginary) markets could be served by the product of that infrastructure?

  52. “Bear in mind the Salem Hypothesis.”

    An interesting observation, but not all engineers — and I would submit not a majority of them — think that way. Also, one needs to be able to do the basic math and understand the underlying physical prinicples before seriously discussing stuff that involves orbital mechanics, whether or not one subscribes to some looney religious theories.

  53. “And then building things like factories (or solar power stations) on the moon and sending them to different parts of the solar system now makes sense because not only do they have the infrastructure to accomplish it, but to profit from it.”

    Same question as above — how much is all this extraterrestrial industrializing going to cost, and where are the markets that will pay the freight? Here’s another reading assignment: “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read. While this article is intended to be a defense of capitalism, it contains a lot of detail about the industrial effort behind the simplest of products. It shouldn’t be too hard for you to extrapolate from the effort involved in making a simple pencil to the effort involved in building an entire industrial infrastructure

    “Sure it’ll take time, but what’s a century or two in the lifetime of the human race?”

    A century or two? I’d be surprised if in a century or two we had more than a few tens of thousands (at the very outside) of people living off of Earth, and most of their effort devoted to subsisting in their environment (probably Mars), with little, if any, surplus for commerce.

  54. “I hate to break it to you Sergeante E but everything I’ve described is already technologically possible.”

    There is a vast amount of difference between technologically possible and industrially practicle.

    “We can already produce antimatter, but it quite literally takes more energy then you get from it to do so.”

    Yep. And it always will, for reasons similar to why the “hydrogen economy” is a fraud — energy storage systems like hydrogen and antimatter aren’t fuels in the context of an overall energy economy.

    You propose to use solar energy to make your antimatter. Fine. I suggest you have no clue how much energy is involved in production of enough antimatter for your starship, nor the amount of energy necessary to maintain the antimatter in storage. You’re talking about an infrastructure cost that would impoverish the Earth and lead to the kinds of choices I outlined in my original response.

  55. “The magsail was invented by Robert Zubrin and Dana Andrews in 1988.”

    I see nobody has explained to you the difference between conceptual design and a finished product. All Zubrin and Andrews have done is work out a mathematical framework, dependent upon the development of several non-existent technologies whose properties are, at the moment, handwaved into existence for the purpose of doing the math. That’s hardly invention.

  56. Consider the Salem hypothesis in the context of be-engineering someone who is already somewhat credulous.

    Re: Anti-matter

    Somewhere I have a paper (sadly in Satan’s format, the pdf) on collecting the minute amounts of antimatter that occur in the Solar System. That has the advantage that nature provides us with the material we want rather than Con Ed and the disadvantage that the best locations for collecting AM are fairly remote from Earth (although some antiprotons do get trapped in Earth’s magnetosphere).

    Actually, now that I go poking, I see that I do not have a copy of “Extraction of Antiparticles Concentrated in Planetary Magnetic Fields.” I have an earlier paper.

  57. “I’m curious Sergeante E, did you write that line with a straight face? ‘Cause I know I had a hard time reading it with one. Life is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to ‘take’ resources from one group and give it to another. You create more resources. If life worked the way you apparently think it does we’d still be hunting with rocks.”

    Where did you get this idea that we could “create” more resources? Do you believe we are gods?

    There is some truth in the idea that we have, over the last several hundred years, learned to use more of our planet’s resources, and learned to use them more effectively. But that has some pretty obvious built-in limits. Assuming that those resource limits can be overcome simply because one wants them to be is pure unscientific silliness.

    So, yes, I offered the question of who pays and how with a straight face. The fact that you sneered at it just demonstrates your ignorance, not mine.

  58. “Not that I think anything I say (or type) is going to have any effect on you Sergeante E,”

    You’re right there — you’re not qualified.

    “you’re the kinda guy who gets his kicks from telling somebody else why they can’t do a thing. Why this or that dream is silly or impossible.”

    I’m not arguing technical impossibility. I’m arguing technical impracticality to the point of political and economic impossibility.

    “Me, I’ve just never found that satisfying. For me trying, even I fail (which I’ve done more times than I can count), is more satisfying.”

    Very cute. But your emotional satisfaction doesn’t answer the practical mail.

  59. “Newtonian Physics was thought to be the only physics at work in the universe for over a hundred years,”

    It’s still the only physics at work for most practical purposes. We go to Mars on Newton’s shoulder’s not Einstein’s.

    “so would like to place your money with those who said that quantum mechanics, and the new physics that it bring with it, were right, and a sure bet? Or should the scientific community and the general public hear what they have to say before anyone says that it can’t be true?”

    Quantum mechanics wasn’t accepted until it was demonstrated to have predictive power. But it was given a chance to be demonstrated, because the math was consistent and logical. Now it is demonstrated every time you turn on your computer.

    “It was to this all too familiar situation that I was referring in my statements about “what science says must be true.” In this day and age of high speed communication, the window between the initial “ney saying” and proof is shrinking, but in the past this window has cost people their lives, and could do so in the future. It most certainly cost Galileo his career as a scientist, and could have cost him his immortal soul. Why? Because the science of the day had proven, mathematically, that the earth was the center of the universe. The Church accepted it, and it had serious implications for Galileo. It was till Copernicus brought a better, mathematically more accurate model that things changed. The math didn’t lie in either case. It was misinterpreted by people.”

    Jeepers. You’re talking about the politics that surround science, not science itself. As for the idea the Copernicus invented heliocentrism, you should really take a look at the Wikipedia article on the subject. All Copernicus did was refine and popularize Kepler’s mathematical formalization of what had been theorized in various places for hundreds of years.

  60. Sergeante E: Resources are not by definition finite, many are indeed renewable and creatable – organic, intellectual, and mutable. Sure if you are taking the assumption that the universe is finite and therefore mater and energy are ultimately limited, you could argue that the resources are indeed finite, but considering the amount of energy and mater, that argument borders on the absurd. But the fact that Earth does have limited resources is, and has been throughout human history, the impetus for colonization. You ask about the cost, I think a better question is: What is the cost to do nothing. How much is the survival of the species worth? On another note, your assertion that only someone with the right letters after his/her name is qualified to intelligently debate the issues is more then a little supercilious. By that argument, unless you hold a degree in economics, you should be talking about the cost.

  61. “But the fact that Earth does have limited resources is, and has been throughout human history, the impetus for colonization.”

    The fact is that the Earth is surprisingly rich in a lot of resources we’re interested in. It also comes stocked with natives, which is pretty handy when it comes to exploiting those resources.

    If you’re looking for uranium, for example, Earth is pretty much the best place to start (Mars might be the second best place).

  62. Earth is surprisingly large and there’s no reason to think that with the resources of which we aware and the technologies in hand, we cannot maintain an advanced civilization for millions of years.

    This is actually good for the space fans. There’s no way that space exploitation of anything but information is going to happen in the short run so if we really were going to run out of crucial materials in the next century or so, we’d be screwed. As it is, the only inconvenience of having to wait until we think of better ways to put an otherwise useless universe to human service is that the odds are that most or all of us will be dead of old age before we get past the Admunsen phase of things.

  63. James Davis Nicoll: You may be right, humans may find away to maintain an advanced civilization. My point is limiting it to Earth is well, limiting. Even if technologically we find away to maximize earth resources, it still doesn’t protect Earth and Humanity from the likes of Gamma ray burst from neighboring stars, massive solar flares, etc… You’re still putting all of your eggs in one basket. I don’t think anyone here is arguing that we are likely to see significant colonial earth infrastructure in the near future. But like any journey, if you don’t start, you never arrive. If we wait until we only have limited resources, we are as you put it, screwed…

  64. There are no nearby stars that could produce a gamma ray burst. Our sun is not a superflare star. You didn’t mention it but just to have three items, there’s only been one mass extinction known to have been caused by an impact.

  65. “Resources are not by definition finite, many are indeed renewable and creatable – organic, intellectual, and mutable.”

    Accessible resources are finite. At the most, we only have the resources of the surfaces of the smaller celestial bodies of one solar system. Most of those will not be practically accessible for quite a long time into the future, perhaps for the life of the human race.

    “[R]enewable” resources represent a finite pool of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and trace elements on the surface of one planet. We may in the future add to the total accessible pool by exploiting the available elements in the solar system, but the pool will still be finite. All we do when we “renew” resources is recycle the chemicals in the pool, mostly using the energy from the sun in some form. (The big exception being when we use uranium, which is energy stored in matter by a nearby supernova billions of years ago.)

    “Sure if you are taking the assumption that the universe is finite and therefore mater and energy are ultimately limited, you could argue that the resources are indeed finite, but considering the amount of energy and mater, that argument borders on the absurd.”

    It’s absurd to say that the matter and energy available within the accessible portions of one solar system are not finite. It is somewhat speculative, but not ridiculously so to say that those resopurces may not be enough to achieve interstellar flight through Einsteinian space.

    “But the fact that Earth does have limited resources is, and has been throughout human history, the impetus for colonization. You ask about the cost, I think a better question is: What is the cost to do nothing. How much is the survival of the species worth?”

    Irresponsible and ignorant hyperbole. The survival of the species isn’t at stake, except in the case of a large asteroid collision with the Earth, which can be mitigated by setting up a small but genetically diverse community on Mars, capable of reseeding the Earth. Outside of that, the only thing at jeopardy is the numbers of the speicies and which individuals get left out when the resource squeeze happens.

    “On another note, your assertion that only someone with the right letters after his/her name is qualified to intelligently debate the issues is more then a little supercilious. By that argument, unless you hold a degree in economics, you should be talking about the cost.”

    I didn’t say anything about degrees or letters, I said an “education”, meaning you’ve made yoursefl familiar with the science and technology in question to the point that you can intelligently discuss the issues. For example, I have no formal training in astrodynamics, but I have a copy of Bate and have enough math to understand the principles and follow the examples.

    If I sound supercilious, I really can’t do anything about it. Either you know enough to comment intelligently or you don’t. If you can counter me on scientific and technical knowledge rather than what you feel should be right about the world, have at it. I will gladly acknowledge your superior insight the second you can actually demonstrate it.

  66. James Davis Nicoll: If you could point me to any detailed scientific study that backs up your claim the about the impossibly of a near GRB, I would love to read it. There are a good deal of respectable scientists who believe at least one mass extinction on earth was caused by a GRB. As for massive solar flares, assuming our Sun will maintain its current activity is a leap of faith. In fact some creationists try to argue that the fact that our sun is not as active as other stars of similar mass is evidence of G-ds work. The universe is a dangerous place, the more spread out we are, the more likely we survive.

  67. “Infrastructure and spin-off technologies.”

    This is what Sergeante E Quoted from me and now his first question.

    “Where does the money for the infrastructure (and what infrastructure are we talking about here, anyway) come from?”

    Now here’s all of my paragraph.

    Infrastructure and spin-off technologies. Right now there are companies making insane amounts of money just in Earth orbit. Companies making tons of money tend to expand in those areas that there making money in so they can make more money. Other companies see this and try to get some the action for themselves.

    Which answers the question Sergeante E posed but which for some reason he chose to ignore.

    First in #38 Sergeante E says this “Where does the technology come from to turn idle thoughts based on remote theoretical possibilities into real artifacts based on sound engineering?”

    Then in #64 “There is a vast amount of difference between technologically possible and industrially practicle.”

    Bit of a change in tune I see. But I do wanna say this Sergeante E you’re right, it’s not industrially practicle (Now give the man a moment to enjoy his preening at reading the phrase you know he loves above all others) today. Anymore than it would have been practical to build the entire infrastructure for the industrial revolution in the 1850’s. Yet oddly enough it got built, I wonder how that happened?

    Quoted from me “The magsail was invented by Robert Zubrin and Dana Andrews in 1988.”

    Then Sergeante E’s reponse in #65

    “I see nobody has explained to you the difference between conceptual design and a finished product. All Zubrin and Andrews have done is work out a mathematical framework, dependent upon the development of several non-existent technologies whose properties are, at the moment, handwaved into existence for the purpose of doing the math. That’s hardly invention.”

    The “non-existent technology” that the magsail depends on is a high temperature superconductor. It was invented by Professor Ching Wu (Paul) Chu of the University of Houston in 1987.

    I could go on, but why? You’re summed up by this quote from you in #65 “You simply aren’t educationally equipped to participate in this conversation.”

    If I’m not “educationally equipped” why bother responding to me at all? Simple so you can say “You’re dumb, I’m smart-I’m right, you’re wrong”. Which when you boil down everything you’ve said that’s what it amounts to.

    You haven’t actually added anything to the discussion, you’ve just called everybody else stupid (in polite language, I’ll give you that).

    But as I’ve shown here and in the other comments I actually know what I’m talking about. Which anybody who cares to investigate for themselves will easily discover.

    Btw Corey J Feldman excellent comment on resources.

  68. “The survival of the species isn’t at stake, except in the case of a large asteroid collision with the Earth, which can be mitigated by setting up a small but genetically diverse community on Mars, capable of reseeding the Earth.”

    Back in the 1990s, researchers at the University of Arizona made a fairly good case that we could inventory all of the possible impactors to a degree that would give us about a century’s warning of an impact. Even quite modest rocket technologies can divert most impactors [1] given a hundred years to work in.

    When they wrote Hazards Due to Comets and Asteroids, the average McDonalds had a larger staff than the total number of people on Earth who were looking for possible Earth-impactors.

    1: A large KBO (where large is hundreds of kilometers) couldn’t be diverted but the mean time between impacts for objects that size is estimated at roughly a trillion years for Earth.

    Interesting, the only planet likely ever to have been hit by a large KBO is Jupiter and the energies involved are enough that if it had ever happened, it would have left clear signs on the moons [2]. As far as I know, nobody has ever looked to see if they are there.

    2: Well, if eyes had evolved on Earth by the time the KBO hit Jupiter, animals looking in the wrong direction might have suffered retinal burns. There’s a lot of energy involved when a several hundred kilometer diameter iceball slams into a planet at 60+ km/s.

  69. Sergeante E: “Accessible resources are finite.”

    Hence one reason we need to find more resources

    “At the most, we only have the resources of the surfaces of the smaller celestial bodies of one solar system. Most of those will not be practically accessible for quite a long time into the future, perhaps for the life of the human race.”

    An assumption that we know enough about the universe that we can accurately predict what will be possible in the future

    “It’s absurd to say that the matter and energy available within the accessible portions of one solar system are not finite. It is somewhat speculative, but not ridiculously so to say that those resopurces may not be enough to achieve interstellar flight through Einsteinian space.”

    All of this, both sides is speculation. That has been pretty much my point all along

    “Irresponsible and ignorant hyperbole. The survival of the species isn’t at stake, except in the case of a large asteroid collision with the Earth, which can be mitigated by setting up a small but genetically diverse community on Mars, capable of reseeding the Earth. Outside of that, the only thing at jeopardy is the numbers of the speicies and which individuals get left out when the resource squeeze happens.”

    If you think the only thing that can wipe out humanity is an impact, I am afraid it is your knowledge that is lacking. Just of the top of my head, Gamma Ray Burst, Pandemic Virus (man made or otherwise) massive geological activity, Weapons of mass destruction, and who knows how many unknowable threats.

    “I didn’t say anything about degrees or letters, I said an “education”, meaning you’ve made yoursefl familiar with the science and technology in question to the point that you can intelligently discuss the issues. For example, I have no formal training in astrodynamics, but I have a copy of Bate and have enough math to understand the principles and follow the examples.”

    So basically if someone disagrees with you, even on highly speculative topics, the only logical conclusion is they are uneducated or lacking the intellectual faculties to effectively argue their speculations.

    “If I sound supercilious, I really can’t do anything about it. Either you know enough to comment intelligently or you don’t. If you can counter me on scientific and technical knowledge rather than what you feel should be right about the world, have at it. I will gladly acknowledge your superior insight the second you can actually demonstrate it.”

    My insight is this. Ih humanity spreads, it has a greater chance of long term survival. I can not know what a 100, 1,000, 10,000 100,000 1,000,000 years of scientific discovery will bring. If anyone thinks they can, well I might as well be debating a creationist. They are just worshiping a different alter.

  70. “At the most, we only have the resources of the surfaces of the smaller celestial bodies of one solar system.”

    Only five bodies of the many millions in the solar system are larger than the Earth: the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

  71. “Only five bodies of the many millions in the solar system are larger than the Earth: the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.”

    Excluding the Sun, the vast majority of mass in the solar system is tied up in the gas giants. Using the gas giants for resources might be technically possible, but their gravity wells make it practically unlikely without technology equivalent to magic. Below the gas giants we have a lot of other bodies, most with relatively shallow gravity wells. But many of them are gas giant moons, which means they are far away and expensive to exploit. Even the asteroids would take a lot of energy to exploit, due to their orbital altitudes (above the Sun) and inclinations, compared to those of Earth or even Mars.

  72. Cybersage, I guess I have to start with Darwin, because you recall inaccurately to the point that it’s incorrect.

    Darwin was an heir to the Josiah Wedgwood fortune. The guy who made all that chinaware. Charles Darwin married a cousin, Emma, who was also a Wedgwood heir. The catch was that Darwin’s father didn’t want his son to be one of the “idle rich”–there was no question that Charles Darwin was and would be fabulously wealthy, no chance that he’d be disinherited or that the family money would evaporate–he simply preferred for largely moral reasons that his son have a trade.

    Charles was a bit of a misfit when he went to study religion, and didn’t really have the stomach to be a doctor (the next field he drifted into); the voyage of the Beagle was something of a fallback: the captain wanted someone upper-crust-y and educated to talk to on the trip, Charles had medical training and came of a good family and was recommended to the captain. Charles’ father, however, had to be talked into approving–it seemed like a terrible waste of time to him, and it was largely the intervention of an uncle that secured Charles’ ability to leave with family approval.

    Einstein worked in a patent office, not a post office, after graduation–like many people, he wasn’t immediately able to secure a teaching position, which reflects less on people’s perceptions of him than it does on the scarcity of professorships then (as now). Einstein continued to work on assorted papers, and was able to get them published (he published the four papers that secured his fame in 1905, his “Miracle Year,” while still a patent clerk).

    The fact that Hawking suffers Lou Gehrig’s disease is neither here nor there, and you’re a bit of an ass for implying that his illness is in any way connected to whether he was once a “nobody” or is now a well-regarded theoretical physicist. I realize that this wasn’t what you meant to say, but you might go back and read what you did say. What you did say (as opposed to whatever you intended) was tactless, foolish and stupid.

    The “science” of Galileo’s day hadn’t proven anything “mathematically” about the position of the earth. To the contrary, the math was giving people hell. (Note that “science” is in quotes because the concept of “science” didn’t even exist as we understand it now until the late 19th century: before that, you had students of natural philosophy and similar such “occupations,” often practiced by dilettantes, who were laying the foundation for what we now call science.)

    The obvious observation when you sit down and look at the sky all night and day is that you remain in one place and the whole sky moves around overhead, east-to-west. There’s no “math” to it: it’s a commonplace observation (albeit illusory). And if you don’t pay much attention, you might even think the surface of the firmament above you was fixed.

    The problem is, when you start paying close attention, you discover that many of the things you thought were fixed are, in fact, moving independently of one another. The stars aren’t rising in exactly the same places every night, there are little “wanderers” moving backwards and forwards against those stars. It’s all a bit confusing, and you have to revise the model. Perhaps the shiny things in the sky are embedded in transparent shells, or maybe they orbit the Earth at different rates of speed. And here’s where you might do some math–to predict where these little wanderers will appear on a given night (it helps you determine whether a newborn king will be a good ruler or not, you know).

    But then you have another problem: if you base your math on the assumption that those things are moving around the Earth it gets very complicated very quickly. Because the other planets–those “wanderers”–are independently moving in relation to a moving object (the one we’re riding on), they sometimes appear (from our vantage point) to be going forward and sometimes they go backwards in little backwards loop-de-loops. This retrograde motion was well-known to stargazers back to ancient Greek times, and was incorporated into the “epicycles” of the Ptolemaic system.

    This is where you start getting into Occam’s Razor. You can, in fact, come up with a very, very complicated Earth-centric model of the universe, adding wheels and orbs and layers and shells every time you see something new in the sky that’s moving independently of everything else. But if you nudge the model and put the Sun in the middle of everything, that model gets much, much simpler. And if you go one step further, and get rid of those troublesome perfect circles and replace them with elliptical paths upon which Sun-orbiting objects sweep equal arcs over equal time, you suddenly get a model that can be reduced to three simple laws that just happen to mathematically jibe perfectly with some English mathematician’s studies of attraction between objects. So–Occam’s Razor time–which solution is more likely to be correct: the elaborate wheels-within-wheels version, or the one with three rules? Mind you, they both can be used to explain everything you see in the sky.

    Here’s what Galileo did that got him into trouble with the Church: he looked up and saw a great deal of evidence that supported the observations of a Polish astronomer named Copernicus, and he said so. This seemed perfectly reasonable to a number of naturalists, astronomers, and wacky neo-Platonists (who felt that the Sun should be the center of physical creation as God is the center of spiritual creation). The Catholic Church–without doing a whole lot of math–had commonplace observation (“I’m standing still and the stars are moving–whatchu talkin’ ’bout, ‘Lo?”) and a literal interpretation of Genesis (in which God makes the world then puts a ceiling on it, and fixes stars in the ceiling). In other words, Galileo (a) got called out for supporting someone else’s ideas (good for him, but you keep acting like he was on the bleeding edge) (b) by a small group of powerful men (Church leaders) with no real science to stand on (the science they did have to go on had become so unworkable that it was what got Copernicus going in the first place).

    (Incidentally, Sergeante E, good posts, but you have it slightly backwards re: Copernicus–tho’ not nearly as backwards as Cybersage: Copernicus comes up with a popular heliocentric model. Galileo defends it. Tycho Brahe revises it with a compromise model. Kepler–born 30 years after Copernicus died–uses Brahe’s work to prove Copernicus and fails: the answer, he realizes, is elliptical orbits, not Copernicus’ circular ones; and a heliocentric–“heliofocused” would be more accurate–model, not Brahe’s heliocentic/geocentric hybrid.)

    As for the rest of your post, Cybersage, the Creationists aren’t helping science, and science isn’t a democracy where all ideas are equally valid but one gets chosen above the others by popular acclaim. Science is making observations and predictions; some observations are better than others and some predictions come true while others are falsified. As to the rest, I’m sick, and out of steam, or I’d go into your “complacency” theory of history: I’ll merely say that your views of the Spanish conquest, the American Civil War, and British colonization (and the American Revolution) are woefully uninformed and naive. Sorry. I’m not trying to be mean, and I’m probably coming off like an utter asshole, but the things you cite had nothing to do with “complacent thinking” any more than they had to do with “complacent actions.” In the case of the American Revolution, for instance, the British weren’t willing to do whatever it took, since paying for the war became unpopular in Parliament, it threatened to bloom into a larger conflict with France and Spain (Britain was all but at-war with France as it was), and there was every reason to believe the American experiment would fail and we’d be begging for help as soon as the French turned on us, anyway. It wasn’t complacency in thought or deed–it was a complex set of circumstances that included domestic politics and larger foreign policy concerns. You might as well say “complacency” got us into the present war in Iraq.

    Awright, I’m tired, and I’m sorry I can’t let some things go. I’m not re-reading this before I hit “submit,” so my apologies for any massive errors.

  73. The gas giants’ mass is itself an exploitable resource. Fly-bys and Oberth manuevers can trim a surprising amount off the necessary delta-vee needed to transfer masses around the solar system. As a random example, going from Jupiter’s trojan asteroids to the Earth-Moon L1 directly is about 12 km/s (assuming aerobraking is available). If you go via Jupiter, you can get that down to 4.5 km/s or less.

    If (and it’s a bit if) we ever develop fusion and we can use 3He, the best place to get it from is either one of the gas or ice giants (Probably Uranus) or an as yet undiscovered Mars-massed KBO out in the outer part of the Kuiper.

    If stranglets exist, the only place we’re likely to find them in a recoverable location is in the myriad of small bodies orbiting gas giants.

    The magnetospheres of the gas giants apparently trap antimatter particles.

    In theory, one could turn Amalthea or Metis into gigantic power stations, trading a little orbital altitude (by braking against Jupiter’s magnetic field) for a lot of power. Eventually they would drop low enough to be broken apart by tides (I guess that’s good news for the Jovial Tourist board) or to be aerobraked into Jupiter but a lot of energy would have been extracted first.

  74. “Hence one reason we need to find more resources”

    The resources are all around us. There’s a whole universe out there. The key parameter that you continue to ignore is accessibility. The energy cost in accessing even the stuff in our own inner solar system is expensive beyond our current means and not likely to come down in price any time soon, without unforeseen and essentially magickal technologies.

    “An assumption that we know enough about the universe that we can accurately predict what will be possible in the future”

    The realities of the energies required are not going to change. All you’re advocating is betting the come on future technology being able to harness those energies economically. It’s possible, but not without unforeseen breakthroughs in technologies that right now are only experimental in nature.

    And before you go there, no, there are no guarantees that just because something is in the lab now that it will make it into production.

    “All of this, both sides is speculation. That has been pretty much my point all along”

    It’s not speculation that accessible resources are finite. You can’t change it by refusing to accept it.

    “If you think the only thing that can wipe out humanity is an impact, I am afraid it is your knowledge that is lacking. Just of the top of my head, Gamma Ray Burst,”

    Unlikely and capable of sterilizing the entire solar system. If humanity spreads beyond the solar system, it becomes an issue. Since the point of this discussion is to explore the likelihood of human interstellar travel, we can’t assume interstellar travel as a given.

    “Pandemic Virus (man made or otherwise)”

    Can kill everyone in a solar system, either directly or by rendering uninhabitable the self-sufficient biospheres, making it a matter of time for everyone else. So the same objection as above applies — we can’t assume interstellar travel when analyzing the question.

    “massive geological activity,”

    Absolutely no geological history to support this as a threat to a species that inhabits the entire planet.

    “Weapons of mass destruction,”

    Urban legend. Nukes aren’t as destructive as most people think, and humans take more killing than that.

    “and who knows how many unknowable threats.”

    Special pleading.

    “So basically if someone disagrees with you, even on highly speculative topics, the only logical conclusion is they are uneducated or lacking the intellectual faculties to effectively argue their speculations.”

    Even speculation of the wildest type has to be grounded in physical reality to be discussed intelligently. If you don’t have the proper grounding, you could very well be an intelligent person, but ignorant of the subject at hand.

    “My insight is this. Ih humanity spreads, it has a greater chance of long term survival.”

    In principle, yes. The question is whether humanity can harness the energies necessary to spread very far. You have consistently failed to address this, except by offering:

    “I can not know what a 100, 1,000, 10,000 100,000 1,000,000 years of scientific discovery will bring.”

    Nor can I. The difference between me and you is that I don’t assume significant and unforeseen advances in the production and use of energy simply because it would satisfy my perceived goals.

    “If anyone thinks they can, well I might as well be debating a creationist. They are just worshiping a different alter.”

    Are you even reading what you’re writing? The only person in this discussion that is advocating magickal solutions to real problems is you.

  75. “The gas giants’ mass is itself an exploitable resource…”

    Technically? Maybe, if a lot of stuff that is now conjectural all falls into place. Even then, there is a question of economic practicality.

  76. We exploit gravity now (and by “we” I mean “nations with real space programs and not Canada”) for fly-bys. There’s nothing conjectural about it. In fact, interplanetary space exploration depends on it, since our somewhat dismal propulsion systems aren’t really up to the task of eg: putting an object in orbit around Mercury or moving a space probe around Saturn’s system without an outrageous amount of reaction mass.

  77. Sergeante E: None of your arguments change the basic fact that humanity has a greater chance of survival the more spread out we are. I would go line by but frankly I am tired of the argument. I will just a few things an be on my merry way. At no time did I say interstellar space travel was a given, only that I am not so arrogant to assume humanities grasp on Physics is so complete that I could manage anything more the basic supposition. It is clear that you do not believe that your views on possibility of interstellar travel is colored by your belief that we know enough about physics to actually say what is and is not likely. As for magical thinking, if anything my point is, we have no idea if a future brought by a few thousand more years of technical advance would look as magical to us as we would to a Paleolithic civilization. That is not such much magical thinking as logical extrapolation. And as for your statement that I am accusing you of magical thinking by my inference that you were simply worshiping a different alter. My metaphor wasn’t an accusation of magical thinking, it was a direct comparison to linear thinking individuals whose belief the certainty of their own core concepts blind them to the possibility that they do not know everything.

  78. From Patrick, The Space Lord #90 “Has anyone changed sides yet?”

    Nope.

    “Or do you all still hold the same opinions?”

    Yup. But the purpose of this was never to change someones mind by reasoned debate (really, when have you ever seen that happen?), it’s for people with big mouths to enjoy the sound of their own voice (or perhaps I should say the sight of their own type).

    But it was kinda fun for a minute.

  79. “None of your arguments change the basic fact that humanity has a greater chance of survival the more spread out we are.”

    And nothing you have said has changed the fact that you are still refusing to acknowledge the fact that I am arguing practicality, not theoretical desirability.

    “At no time did I say interstellar space travel was a given, only that I am not so arrogant to assume humanities grasp on Physics is so complete that I could manage anything more the basic supposition.
    It is clear that you do not believe that your views on possibility of interstellar travel is colored by your belief that we know enough about physics to actually say what is and is not likely.”

    I never said we know everything. I’ve only insisted that the discussion remain on the what we can reasonably extrapolate from what is known basis.

    “As for magical thinking, if anything my point is, we have no idea if a future brought by a few thousand more years of technical advance would look as magical to us as we would to a Paleolithic civilization. That is not such much magical thinking as logical extrapolation.”

    Uh-uh. You’re making the same error that Kurzweil and his gaggle of loonies is making — that since the innovation curve has been steepening over the last few hundred years, it’s bound to keep advancing at the same rate. It could just as easily level off. When you’re inside a process, occupying a single point, with only data from the past to go on, it isn’t responsible to behave as if you’re on the outside and can see the entire history.

    IOW, technical advances could just as easily cease as they could continue. In aatronautical engineering, there’s some evidence that this is already the case. The Russians still use R7 launch vehicles, for example, not because they’re just old sticks in the mud, but because the design still represents a good solution in that payload class. They’ve been evolved some, but ol’ Yuri Gagarin, were he alive today, would have no trouble recognizing one as a direct and not very much changed descendant of his ride.

    “And as for your statement that I am accusing you of magical thinking by my inference that you were simply worshiping a different alter. My metaphor wasn’t an accusation of magical thinking, it was a direct comparison to linear thinking individuals whose belief the certainty of their own core concepts blind them to the possibility that they do not know everything.”

    I never said I knew everything. I merely pointed out that some people around here, including yourself, don’t know much about the subject, and that their entire argument relies on the special pleading that significant and unforeseen innovation in the production and use of energy for astronautical projects must necessarily happen. Well, it may not — maybe not soon, maybe not ever.

  80. Patrick “483 words to say “That’s not what I said. Here’s some random semi-related facts. You’re wrong. neener neener.””

    Awesome. I have no idea how I let myself get caught up in this cycle of stupidity.

  81. First of all, let me apologize for my bad sentence structure and sense of historical timing. Copernicus (1543) did present the first mathematically significant model of heliocentrism, Keplar (1630) refined it, and Galileo (1642) paid the price defending it.
    Secondly, If you think that politics both inside and outside scientific circles doesn’t affect the practice of science, you are sadly mistaken. Science does not exist in a bubble. Politics, economics, and the spirit of the age, are all a part of the practice of science. They determine what gets funding, what gets pushed into the spotlight, and who does the work, and when. Not to mention, it is politics that keep us using 60’s and 70’s era rocket tech for space missions to this day.

  82. “Uh-uh. You’re making the same error that Kurzweil and his gaggle of loonies is making — that since the innovation curve has been steepening over the last few hundred years, it’s bound to keep advancing at the same rate. It could just as easily level off. When you’re inside a process, occupying a single point, with only data from the past to go on, it isn’t responsible to behave as if you’re on the outside and can see the entire history.”

    Two things:

    1. Throughout the entire huistory of humanity, we have advanced our technology. It stands to reason that that trend will continue.
    2. If it’s been steeping over the past few hundred years, it has not been going at the same rate as it is. The rate has been changing. The rate of change, seem to me, is now a result of our own increased use of technology in the area. So, unless we just stop our scientific trek, our advances have no choice but to increase at a greater and greater rate.

  83. Sure, politics affects the practice of science. So does the weather. Or what somebody ate for lunch. That’s simply not relevant to anything that’s been discussed in this thread.

    And what the hell does “spirit of the age” mean? I’ll answer my own rhetorical question: it’s a bit of rhetorical puffery that writers engage in when they’re waxing rhapsodic over something. When you get down to it, defining an “age” is hard enough without imbuing it with some mystical presence. Was the “spirit” of the 1930s revolution or fascism, conservatism or liberalism, extroversion or isolationism? The correct answer is that it depends on what year, what country, or who you’re talking about–even more importantly, it depends on the title of your book, paper, lecture, conference, seminar or class is.

    To the extent that the use of “60s and 70s rocket tech” is being used today (I’m granting this for the sake of an argument, not because it’s an accurate assessment), it has a lot less to do with politics than it has to do with cost-effectiveness and availability of alternatives. What politics are you referring to? Whose politics? You don’t really think that any political considerations driving NASA are identical to the ones affecting the ESA, private entrepreneurs, or adventurers like Branson, do you?

    Look, let’s get back to the point: the issue here was the feasibility of space colonization based on scientific and economic considerations extrapolated from the present. And the outlook based on those extrapolations is grim. Now, if someone discovers that Relativity is wrong–an unlikely proposition right now, but possible, then yes, superluminal ships might be possible. If our descendants decide to build epic colony ships regardless of cost for ideological reasons, and damn the expense, then yes, Stross’ political and economic points are irrelevant. And yes, Stross’ political and economic points may also be set aside if some unexpected incentive develops–evacuation, or a new way to exploit a new off-planet resource, whatever. But those considerations also require changing the rules of the scenario: sure, if its somehow cheaper to flee Earth than to divert or destroy an oncoming asteroid, I’m sure the ships will fill.

    These are strange and (right now) unlikely scenarios, but if that’s what you’re proposing for the hypo, you win. Don’t worry, I can play, too: once the Caleban choose to make contact with us, they will make their jumpdoors available to us out of a combination of their natural benevolence and unfathomable agendas. All of Stross’ arguments will be invalidated by the simple fact that we’ll be able to walk to any planet in the universe.

    I win the internet!

  84. “1. Throughout the entire huistory of humanity, we have advanced our technology. It stands to reason that that trend will continue.”

    No doubt — it’s the unfounded assumption that the current rate of innovation will continue or even increase that I’m quetioning.

    “2. If it’s been steeping over the past few hundred years, it has not been going at the same rate as it is. The rate has been changing.”

    My apologies for not expressing myself more clearly. I was of course refering to the rate of increase in the slope of the curve. I thought that would have been obvious in context. Mea culpa.

    “The rate of change, seem to me, is now a result of our own increased use of technology in the area. So, unless we just stop our scientific trek, our advances have no choice but to increase at a greater and greater rate.”

    That is the theory. I see no evidence that it is necessarily the case. Form the evidence, it could be just as likely that what looks parabolic from the inside could actually be logistic, and we’re on the cusp of an inflection. There is, after all, a finite amount of fundamental stuff to know. After that, it’s all just questions of application.

  85. It’s just a cardb–well this thing’ll still look cool as hell in my living room! I just need a backlit Grolsch Beer bar sign and a beanbag chair and my pad will be totally fly! In. Your. FACES!

  86. “Now, if someone discovers that Relativity is wrong–an unlikely proposition right now, but possible, then yes, superluminal ships might be possible.”

    Not necessarily. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume a few things:

    1. An Einsteinian wormhole with both mouths of a subatomic diameter and separated by no more than subatomic distance can be captured and stabilized.

    2. The mouths of the wormhole can be manipulated electromagnetically.

    3. The universe doesn’t care about the relative motion of wormhole mouths.

    4. Wormhole mouths can be reliably enlarged through the careful application of non-ridiculous amounts of energy.

    5. Both wormhole mouths can be manipulated from one end.

    Given the above, to make an interstellar transportation system consistent with relativity, this is what you do:

    1. Capture a wormhole.

    2. Shoot one mouth towards a target star using a particle accelerator.

    3. Over the duration of the trip, enlarge the wormhole mouths to the point that you can deploy a magnetic deceleration device and attach it to the travelling mouth.

    4. Magnetically decelerate the travelling mouth into the target system and put it in orbit around a likely body. (May have to deploy some rodketry through the wormhole to suplement the magnetic parachute, but hey, we’ve already done the hard part.)

    5. Enlarge wormhole mouths to the point that we can send manned spacecraft through.

    6. Repeat as necessary and desirable.

    7. Eventually establishing secondary and tertiary and etc. wormhole capture and launching facilities in colony systems to support exponential expansion.

    There — I’ve just designed an insterstellar civilization that doesn’t violate relativity. And I couldn’t give you a single clue how to accomplish the details, nor even a whiff of an inkling of an idea if it could ever really be done.

    That’s the point Mr. Stross was making. You can imagine anything, even something completely plausible. That doesn’t mean you can actually do it, now or ever.

  87. cybersage, your understanding of history is like a five-minute ad spot: shiny, appealing, doesn’t fit observed reality.

    One thing that jumped out at me:

    “ Life is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to `take’ resources from one group and give it to another. You create more resources. If life worked the way you apparently think it does we’d still be hunting with rocks.”

    The problem with this is that we have reasonably good data (bones) from many culture’s shift from hunting with rocks to agriculture — and in almost all cases, all AFAIK, *most* people were worse off afterwards: worse-nourished and shorter; shorter-lived; more diseased.

    Some of the explanation may be that a successful hunting population can extinguish its prey before becoming good at agriculture; but in a lot of places a few people claimed a chunk of resources and everyone else scrabbled.

    Now, this might be how we get to space; after the rich have arrogated necessary resources, they can do really reckless wasteful things. Usually they think they’re going to profit; often society-as-a-whole benefits from the aftermath. The London subways are an example; so are many of the American colonies — which were subsidized by men well-connected enough to get grants of land from the Crown.

    Finally, saying that because tech now is better than tech long ago is a terrible reason to believe that a particular tech will succeed. If you went back five hundred years, it would be obvious that the alchemical production of gold would eventually succeed. Geniuses worked on it! Profits would have been spectacular!

    And yet, although I myself have turned lead into gold (with probability very close to 1), we don’t base any of our economy or technology on our ability to do so.

  88. Excuse me Mr. clew but cybersage didn’t say

    “ Life is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to `take’ resources from one group and give it to another. You create more resources. If life worked the way you apparently think it does we’d still be hunting with rocks.”

    Unless he was quoting me. There’s a couple things I don’t think you caught in my statement. I was saying that people don’t have to take resources from each other, not that they didn’t. I.E., I don’t have to drink pop (as a matter of fact there’s plenty of good reasons that I shouldn’t), but I want to, so I do. Because I like it.

    People don’t have to take resources from each other to achieve their goals, they just like to. And it’s easier, not quite so much thinking involved.

    The second part is the false idea of a zero-sum game. The idea in a zero-sum game is that there’s only so much to go around and if you want more you have to take it from someone else. The falsity of this can be shown by the fact that there are now currently more than six-billion people on this planet, and yet even a few centuries ago the resources didn’t exist to support anywhere near that many.

    But humankind applied it’s knowledge of how the world worked and created more resources to supply them.

    And I have to take issue with

    “Finally, saying that because tech now is better than tech long ago is a terrible reason to believe that a particular tech will succeed. If you went back five hundred years, it would be obvious that the alchemical production of gold would eventually succeed. Geniuses worked on it! Profits would have been spectacular!”

    Neither alchemy nor it’s modern offspring chemistry are capable of changing lead into gold. To do that you need to affect things on a nuclear scale. Chemical reactions just don’t have that kind of power.

    I don’t know which technologies cybersage was referring to, but if he was talking about the ones I discussed in my first post on this thread (antimatter, solar power stations orbiting the sun, magsails) then they are already known to be capable of producing the effects desired. It’s just that we don’t have the massive space industrial infrastructure we’d need to utilize them on a scale sufficient for interstellar travel. But check back in a century or two and we’ll see.

  89. “People don’t have to take resources from each other to achieve their goals, they just like to. And it’s easier, not quite so much thinking involved.”

    This is the typical ignorant sneer of somebody that’s never fired a gun at another human being, and risked being shot at in return, in order to secure his country’s standard of living. Take it from somebody who knows — it ain’t easy, nor is it a thoughtless enterprise, when done efficiently enough to make it worthwhile.

    “The second part is the false idea of a zero-sum game. The idea in a zero-sum game is that there’s only so much to go around and if you want more you have to take it from someone else. The falsity of this can be shown by the fact that there are now currently more than six-billion people on this planet, and yet even a few centuries ago the resources didn’t exist to support anywhere near that many.

    But humankind applied it’s knowledge of how the world worked and created more resources to supply them.”

    Incorrect. Humankind developed the ability to use more of the available resources. Nobody created a single gram of a new resource.

    Within any given technological toolset, resources are finite. Within any given ecosystem, regardless of toolset, resources are also finite. Humans don’t take resorces from each other because they can, they take resources from each other because they tend to fill up all of the available niche space that their tools find resources for, at which point human loyalty groups start competing with each other to expand their niche spaces at the expense of others.

    “Neither alchemy nor it’s modern offspring chemistry are capable of changing lead into gold. To do that you need to affect things on a nuclear scale. Chemical reactions just don’t have that kind of power.”

    Nobody said they did. But it is a theoretically trivial thing to do with powerful enough particle beams and a sample of lead foil. There is the practical drawback that the amount of energy input necessary to realize more than a few parts per billion conversion is several orders of magnitude more than the energy input necessary to mine the lowest grade gold ore.

    “I don’t know which technologies cybersage was referring to, but if he was talking about the ones I discussed in my first post on this thread (antimatter, solar power stations orbiting the sun, magsails) then they are already known to be capable of producing the effects desired.”

    No such thing is true. Scroll up a few responses and read my blueprint for an insterstellar civilization that doesn’t break any known physical laws, but which can’t be built with any known or reasonably foreseen technology. Same-same for your AM drive starship and fueling facility.

    “It’s just that we don’t have the massive space industrial infrastructure we’d need to utilize them on a scale sufficient for interstellar travel. But check back in a century or two and we’ll see.”

    A total, specail pleading, punt.

  90. Hello Sergeante E, full of shit as always.

    “This is the typical ignorant sneer of somebody that’s never fired a gun at another human being, and risked being shot at in return, in order to secure his country’s standard of living. Take it from somebody who knows — it ain’t easy, nor is it a thoughtless enterprise, when done efficiently enough to make it worthwhile.”

    For your complaint to have any validity her you’d have to maintain that all military service is no more than glorified mugging. Which is such a huge crock a shit my mind boggles at the mere contemplation of it.

    “But humankind applied it’s knowledge of how the world worked and created more resources to supply them.”

    “Incorrect. Humankind developed the ability to use more of the available resources. Nobody created a single gram of a new resource.”

    Give a hungry animal some chickens. The animal eats the chickens until they’re gone and then moves on to find food elsewhere. Give a smart human those same chickens and he realizes if he eats’em all they’ll be gone and he’ll be no better off than he was before.

    But if he protects and cares for those chickens they’ll reproduce so that he’ll be able to eat chickens for years to come. Therefore he has ‘created’ more resources than he started out with.. No doubt you’ll whine and cry that for one reason or another that that doesn’t qualify as creating resources, but to back that up you’ll have to show that protecting creatures from enemies and making sure they have what they need to thrive won’t cause them to increase. Which I think will surprise most farmers.

    There are of course many examples besides the chickens, I’m just trying to keep it simple.

    “Neither alchemy nor it’s modern offspring chemistry are capable of changing lead into gold. To do that you need to affect things on a nuclear scale. Chemical reactions just don’t have that kind of power.”

    Nobody said they did. But it is a theoretically trivial thing to do with powerful enough particle beams and a sample of lead foil. There is the practical drawback that the amount of energy input necessary to realize more than a few parts per billion conversion is several orders of magnitude more than the energy input necessary to mine the lowest grade gold ore.”

    You’re right nobody said they did, which was kind of the point. Which you no doubt would’ve understood if been reading either my post or clew’s with the intent to comprehend, but no; you were merely looking for another opportunity for you’re ‘I’m smart you’re dumb’ song and dance.

    The point clew was making was that despite the enormous amount of interest and desire that existed in making alchemy work, to turn lead into gold, it didn’t. Except for his attempt of course (btw clew since you do have that down pat I was wondering if you could see your way clear to forwarding me a small loan? We’ll talk more later about that).

    My counter was that alchemy was incapable of the task set it so that no matter what effort or genius was put forth it couldn’t do the task. Kind of like trying to fly using a bicycle. No matter how hard you turn that wheel you’re not going to fly (well, no more than short distances off of a ramp anyway).

    But that the technologies I spoke of can accomplish the task (interstellar flight) we set for them. We just can’t afford it yet.

    It’s like me taking a flight on the jet. There’s nothing impossible about it, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. I don’t have the money for a ticket. Yet. But give me some time to work and make some money and there’s no reason in the world I can’t make that trip.

    You know Seargeante E, I’ve heard of living in the moment, but you take it to a ridiculous degree. By your thinking if we can’t do something right this moment, it’s impossible and will never be done. Because after your “scientific” and “economic” arguments are answered (which I did in #53 & #78, and which you still haven’t even tried to deal with straightforwardly. You attempted #53 a little, but you broke up in to several separated posts hoping no one would noticed how’d you’d parsed my words so that it looked like I hadn’t covered this or that aspect when I had.), that’s all you’ve got.

    We can’t do it right now so it can never be done, it will never be done.

    Not too persuasive when all of the pseudo-intellectual posing is stripped away is it?

    Oh, on special pleading, do you have any idea at all what these words mean? Because you sure don’t act like it. Anytime someone fields an argument you can’t handle (which is fairly often) you start squealing ‘special pleading’ like a poor magician saying abracadabra at a rabbit hoping it’ll make it go away.

    Special pleading is when someone tries to violate the principal of relevant difference. This principal says that you can only treat two people differently if there’s a relevant difference between them.

    I can not be special pleading in my arguments, only in how you compare my arguments to someone else’s.

    Here’s an example of what I mean:

    Cybersage (hope you don’t mind being co-opted for my little example), and I (or me, whichever it is, my grammar sucks), are in a contest to see who can come up with the best plan for moving man into interstellar space. The rule is we can’t violate Einstein’s theories. Sergeante E you’re the judge.

    Cybersage goes first and he says he has a warp drive which will accelerate a ship up to and past the speed of light, thus moving man out into space.

    I of course call foul saying that’s breaking all sorts of einsteinian rules. Seargeante E agrees with me (folks that right there is the most unbelievable thing written in this whole thread), and tells me to go next.

    I explain how I’ve come up with a hyperspace drive that will accelerate a ship up to and past the speed of light. Sergeante E of course calls me on it saying I’m violating the same rules Cybersage did.

    And I say sure, but that those rules shouldn’t apply to me because I’m just so much cooler than Cybersage (sorry Cybersage, but you know it’s true).

    Sergeante E says that since this a scientific debate my ‘coolness’ (and is it just me or is there a doubting smirk on his face as he says that) has nothing to do with it. What can I say Sergeante E, that’s you, tough but fair. Me claiming coolness in this context is special pleading.

    Now forgot the contest. I’m coming to Sergeante E with my idea to see if he’ll publish it in his magazine (bet you didn’t know you edited a magazine, huh? Learn something new everyday.) I explain my idea about the hyperspace drive, and you say no, it’s bad science (and I can just hear Sergeante E typing away now-bad science, kinda like you’re posts here huh? Hah-hah, Sergeante E. You are a laugh riot.), it violates Einstein. There’s no special pleading (there’s some actual pleading. I could really use the money I’d get for the article; I’m saving up for some jet setting.)

    But there’s no special pleading as regards the article itself, because that’s only in how the content’s judged, not the content itself.

  91. “For your complaint to have any validity her you’d have to maintain that all military service is no more than glorified mugging. Which is such a huge crock a shit my mind boggles at the mere contemplation of it.”

    War is either a predatory or counter-predatory enterprise, depending on which side you are on. The predators seek to get more stuff, the counter-predators seek to preserve the stuff they already have. That’s not a complaint, it’s a simple fact, devoid of any pathos whatsoever, and entirely validated by thousands of years of history.

    Let me give you some advice, young jedi — you only advertise your own ignorance when you offer opinions about the nature of war and the value of military service. For the sake of your own reputation, please stop, before you make an unfortunate spectacle of yourself.

    “Give a hungry animal some chickens. The animal eats the chickens until they’re gone and then moves on to find food elsewhere. Give a smart human those same chickens and he realizes if he eats’em all they’ll be gone and he’ll be no better off than he was before.

    But if he protects and cares for those chickens they’ll reproduce so that he’ll be able to eat chickens for years to come. Therefore he has ‘created’ more resources than he started out with.. No doubt you’ll whine and cry that for one reason or another that that doesn’t qualify as creating resources, but to back that up you’ll have to show that protecting creatures from enemies and making sure they have what they need to thrive won’t cause them to increase. Which I think will surprise most farmers.

    Nobody’s explained to you the difference between creation and exploitation, have they?

    Creation is when you make something out of nothing. No human has ever done that.

    Exploitation is when you take a resource and turn it to your ends, more or less efficiently. That’s what your example animal husbandman has done with his chickens.

    There are of course many examples besides the chickens, I’m just trying to keep it simple.”

    Actually, your example, though simplistic, is quite sufficient to explain most of my point. Humans take what is available in their environment and adapt it to their uses, improving the efficiency of ther use patern (husband, rather than hunt) when necessary or desirable. All I would add is that humans, as they change their toolkit over time, find new and often more efficient ways to do the same old thing. Thus now we no longer keep a few chickens in a henhouse, but hundreds of thousands on a poultry farm.

    Still, nothing new was created, just different ways of doing the same old thing that expand the carrying capacity of our niche.

    “But that the technologies I spoke of can accomplish the task (interstellar flight) we set for them.”

    Except that you weren’t speaking of real technologies, just conceptual toys. A technology is a defined technique and associated tools that actually exist to do something practical. Antimatter factories do not exist as a technology. Antimatter rockets do not exist as a technology. An extraterrestrial industrial infrastructure is a whole collection of technologies that don’t exist. It’s all just supposition.

  92. “Rigel wins an internet with Kung Fu grip for his coolness.”

    He can have it — the only way he’s going to graduate is to copy other people’s work.

  93. Kung fu grip! Now that is cool. Thanks Space Lord.

    And Sergeante E (or Sergeant E whichever it is),

    “He can have it — the only way he’s going to graduate is to copy other people’s work.”

    You shouldn’t be such a sore loser, that’s not; well I was about to say that’s not like you, but it is like you, so you go right on being a sore loser.

    Oh, and as for your ‘rebuttal’ in #109 to my post in #108, Semantics is the last refuge of a scoundrel. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde.

    Oh and Sergeante E as for this

    “Let me give you some advice, young jedi — you only advertise your own ignorance when you offer opinions about the nature of war and the value of military service. For the sake of your own reputation, please stop, before you make an unfortunate spectacle of yourself.”

    I want you to know Segeante E your concern for my reputation touches me, deeply. Very deeply. So deeply that if you were a priest I’d have to sue.

  94. Even taking all the money spent (and to be spent) on the Iraq war and using it to buy gas to drive to Proxima Centauri at 35 mpg–you don’t get very far. But it was a fun calculation.

  95. “You shouldn’t be such a sore loser, that’s not; well I was about to say that’s not like you, but it is like you, so you go right on being a sore loser.”

    Nothing to be sore about — I didn’t lose.

    “Semantics is the last refuge of a scoundrel. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde.”

    Semantics are the difference between a reliable system and one that crashes every other time it runs — if it runs at all. So I’ll see you a scoundrel and raise you to a boob. (To make an even more obscure British intellectual reference.)

    “I want you to know Segeante E your concern for my reputation touches me, deeply. Very deeply. So deeply that if you were a priest I’d have to sue.”

    Well, I should be offended, but then I’d have to take time out to actually worry about which priests you allow to touch you.

  96. Rigel Kent, sorry, I should have said out that it was your understanding of history that didn’t hang together. Let me do that again; you call out humanity’s ascent from the Stone Age as evidence that we don’t have to advance by stealing from other people. But everything we know about leaving the Stone Age is evidence the other way, that the — escape velocity, if you will — shoves some other folks deeper into the mud. For instance, the hunter-gatherers who had been healthily returning every five years to the land you have now converted to a chicken-farm; also, historically, your hired hands, who are, historically, the impoverished hunter-gatherers.

    And your saying that our past belief in alchemy is irrelevant to our present hopeful beliefs in… whatever… is arguing from hindsight; you’re assuming that you’re smarter, relevant to our society, than Isaac Newton was to his, which is a bad bet.

    And finally — you wouldn’t want the gold I made, because of course I made it with a nuclear reactor, and it’s in a chunk of radioactive mostly-lead. Literal success at the alchemical transformation; useless in the real world. That’s how most technological attempts work out. Some of the ones that are useful are so because optimists got lucky; others because pessimists fixed a lot of gaps. See you at the finish-line.

  97. 91. Rigel Kent: “Yup. But the purpose of this was never to change someones mind by reasoned debate (really, when have you ever seen that happen?), it’s for people with big mouths to enjoy the sound of their own voice (or perhaps I should say the sight of their own type).”

    I’m reasonably intelligent, I’m completely ignorant, and I’m listening instead of talking. :)

  98. Re: 84 and 99 (An Eric)

    My apologies for my factual inaccuracies, however it was not their scientific ideas that made it to their current prominence on their own merit.

    You’re right to a point. Charles was a disappointment to his father because he was not the accomplished man his father thought he should be, and even the captain of the ship did want Darwin to go despite his incredible credentials. Fitzroy wanted a gentleman companion which, in effect, was nothing more than a job. Darwin did, however, make the best of the situation and officially became the ship Naturalist by default, and later published The Origin of Species all because the Captain’s first choice, Darwin’s buddy Henslow, couldn’t go because his wife said so. He did go to “work” as the captain’s companion because he was the only one who was able to go because he was unemployed. Not necessarily to appease his father (my true inaccuracy), but because his friendship got him the opportunity. None of these facts imply that Darwin alone went out of scientific altruism.

    As for Hawkings, yes he was already accomplished to a certain extent but was not motivated, and I was in no way maligning him for having the disease or saying it was the wheelchair that got his work acknowledged, but rather the opposite. Had it not been for his misfortune, and, no, I would not wish it on anyone for any reason, he might not have focused his life on cosmology, and push himself, his ideas, and through his brilliant work got others to accept his ideas enough to make the contributions he has. He, himself, says something similar on his own website http://www.hawking.org.uk/disable/dindex.html.

    You’re right about Einstein, as well; however it was in his spare time that he did his work which was what later helped him to eventually get his first academic appointment only after it was given to someone else because of politics, and they turned it down. It was after he left the patent office, not only because of his science but politics, that he had the position to publish his Relativity paper which is the one relevant to this discussion.

    All these men worked hard to get their ideas heard. They politicked. It was the adversity in their lives, great character, and willingness to politick in the scientific community that got their work to the forefront, and eventual acceptance. It part of the job. That was my point.

    Stross, himself, brought politics into the discussion with statements like:
    “I’m all in favour of advancing the scientific enterprise. But actual space colonisation is another matter entirely,”

    And

    “Historically, crossing oceans and setting up farmsteads on new lands conveniently stripped of indigenous inhabitants by disease has been a cost-effective proposition. But the scale factor involved in space travel is strongly counter-intuitive.”

    If colonization is not something that can be done strictly for its scientific value, and should be put into an economic/socially relevant context, then what else could it be other than a political issue since, I think we will all agree, for one person, or a small group of people this sort of undertaking would not be feasible. Possible, yes, but not likely.

    I was referring to the politics in general as the:

    “power relationships in specific field: the interrelationships between the people, groups, or organizations in a particular area of life especially insofar as they involve power and influence or conflict” Encarta

    And, no I don’t think they have the same political agendas, or motives. They just happen to be involved in relatively similar situations.

    I’ll concede somewhat on Copernicus’ proof being wholly mathematical, but its foundation was based in mathematics, namely geometry; and, Kepler, in his 3rd Law (P²=a³), did use math as part of his proof.

    I will not concede, however, that the “creationists,” have not been of some help the scientific community. They have just not in the way that they had hoped. Their radically idiotic and outright dismissal of evolution has only made people, both in and out of the scientific community look at the work with more scrutiny. As a result, the existing proof for evolution is itself evolving and getting stronger. I will, however, concede that my assessment of their benefit is a more positive one than most others would grant them. But hey, I like to look at the glass as half full. That’s just me.

    As for the complacency deal, I’ll agree to disagree with you on that one, and not go into it since you’re out of steam, and I’m sure everybody else is probably tired of hearing about it too.

    I agree that the phrase “spirit of the age” is literary in a sense, but not altogether pure puffery. There are prevailing trends in the different areas of thought that do somewhat, loosely I’ll agree, define certain times in history.

    Going back to the feasibility issue, I agree that this subject is something to be dealt with more in the future. However, I think that an assessment of the feasibility of the enterprise should entail the technical, scientific and political aspects of surrounding it.

    Re: 105 (clew)

    I’m flattered that you thought it to, at least, be shiny, and appealing.

    Re: 108 (Rigel Kent)

    Cool, does this mean I’m famous now?

  99. Rats I missed another good one. Three weeks later and nobody will be back to this thread. The argument that the average family will make Gates bucks in the future is weak. Yes they will make Gates bucks in the future but by then that will just be enough to suport a family. Shoot I paid more for my 1993 Ford Ranger than my parents paid for a house on an acre of land in San Diego County in 1967. I want my jetpack damnit! I don’t know how but we will beat FTL. It is called theoretical physics for a reason. If the people at the creation museum can chuck Darwin and every geologst and biologist since out the door I can chuck Einstein out the air lock.

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