100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 2

14 September 2012


What happened to Day 1?

Yesterday I arrived too late to Houston to be present at the Thursday night opening reception for the 2012 100YSS symposium, though I already met one of the symposium participants in the van I took from the airport. So I went through my presentation of couple of times and went to bed with my alarm set for 7:00 am local time, which is 5:00 am Pacific time, which is about the time I usually go to bed. So the symposium is not being operated on my schedule (and, of course, I didn’t expect it to be).

Day 2 begins

The day began with a plenary session with everyone present in one room and several short talks, primarily by Mae Jemison, whose foundation entered the running for last year’s RFP (that’s a government term for “request for proposal”) from DARPA to start a 100YSS foundation, and they won. If memory serves, DARPA set aside a million dollars, using half of it for the 2011 100YSS symposium, and then granted the other half of it as “seed money” for the successful RFP entrant who would initiate an ongoing foundation to pursue the idea of human extrasolar travel within a hundred years.

Jemison’s talked emphasized inclusiveness, and, as a corollary to this, Dr. Jemison and others at the event said, “people didn’t lose interest, they were left out.” This is a noble sentiment, but I think that the opposite of what is implied by this is the case: people know all too well what space travel is about, but the spectacular success of Apollo was a tough act to follow, and people wanted further spectacles. Lacking this, and knowing what was possible, people became bored with the modesty of the space program and the somewhat work-a-day business of launching satellites, however profoundly these satellites have changed our life here on earth.

Becoming an interstellar civilization

Last year the symposium was divided into “tracks” and I spoke in the “religious and philosophical” track. This year there is no religious and philosophical track, but I submitted my proposal for a presentation to the “becoming an interstellar civilization” track, so I headed directly to this track room after the plenary session as I was scheduled for the first batch of talks there.

Before me there were three presentations, two of which were given by individuals who were involved with DARPA 100YSS RFPs that did not win, these by Marc Cohen of Astrotecture and Keith Taggart of Spec Innovations. Marc Cohen made the interesting observation that cosmology is the basis of all belief systems, and if he is right, that bodes well for some future naturalistic civilization in which scientific cosmology has pride of place and we no longer labor under the sacred canopy of ecclesiastical civilization. After Keith Taggart’s presentation there was an interesting exchange about whether associating space flight with the idea of a “lifeboat” for humanity was perceived negatively or not. There was also an interesting presentation by Kent Nebergall of Day Five LLC on “Becoming an Interdisciplinary and Interstellar Culture” that emphasized the importance of “enterprise architecture” in planning a project like 100YSS.

The talks that preceded me were very practical, as befit those who would submitting RFPs to DARPA, so I began by warning my audience that my talk would be rather less practical and more theoretical. When I finished, the room was quite quiet, and I feared that the dead space in the room would be filled by a question asked out of pity merely to break the silence, but eventually I was asked a few interesting questions — interesting enough that I returned to think about them over dinner. More on this later.

After I spoke, Thomas W. Hair of Florida Gulf Coast University spoke on “Spatial distribution of interstellar civilization,” which, like my talk, was more theoretical, and which touched on the Fermi paradox, which I also briefly addressed. Professor Hair drew strong conclusions from his mathematical model of the distribution of civilization throughout the galaxy propagated at a very slow rate. I asked if this still didn’t leave lots of room for peer civilizations on the opposite side of the galaxy, several thousand years ahead of us or behind us (which I consider to be not only a peer but a “contemporary” on cosmological time scales — cf. The Law of Trichotomy for Exocivilizations), and he acknowledged that this remained a possibility.

Marsal Gifra’s presentation included this entertaining although imaginary Wall Street Journal headline.

After lunch, the session resumed and I returned to the same room to listen to several more presentations. There was an especially good presentation by Marsal Gifra, “Creating an Interstellar Space Program, A Legacy for Mankind,” which seamlessly passed over into another presentation by others with whom Mr. Gifra was apparently associated. Mr. Gifra seems to have a background in business development, and he gave a compelling presentation of the economics of commercializing a starship initiative.

In the evening there was another plenary session where Nichelle Nichols of the original Star Trek television series discussed her work for NASA recruiting women and minorities as astronauts, as well as several other guests from the space program past and present.

What is an engineering problem?

After the last plenary session of the day, when others went on to the ballroom event, I went walking in Houston, searching for some authentic Texas barbecue. I didn’t find barbecue, but I did have some good Tex-Mex, and over dinner I thought about some of the questions that were asked of me.

One fellow in particular, whose name I do not recall, took exception to my far future scenarios involving travel closely approximating the speed of light and therefore experiencing significant time dilation. He said that I was suggesting something that went beyond contemporary science. I thought that I had been rather careful to stay within the limits of known science, even if I posited technology far in advance of what we have today. I said that I was suggesting the use of very high energy levels, but nothing breaking the known laws of physics. He was not persuaded. So I thought about this.

When I hear objections like this, I assume that problems like the energy and radiation levels that would be generated by relativistic velocities and acceleration that would liquify a human body, are “merely” engineering problems. If science says that travel at the speed of light is not possible, but one can approximate the speed of light (although this involves time dilation, contraction, and an increase in mass which in turn requires even more energy for further acceleration), what this says to me is that technology and engineering ware likely to eventually find a solution, or, if not a solution, an alternative. The question that I received today has made me question this assumption.

In the escalating feedback loop that is of the essence of industrial-technological civilization, we can run into limitations at any point in the cycle of science and technology and engineering that usually feeds back into itself and overcomes the limitations of earlier cycles of escalating technological progress. Is any one limit — scientific limitations, technological limitations, or engineering limitations — inherently more limiting than any other? I tend to think of the scientific limits as incorrigible while while the technological and engineering limits are more flexible. This is probably a mistake, or, at least, my presumptive emphasis upon the incorrigibility of science is probably mistaken.

As I noted above, even if the present cycle of industrial-technological progress cannot solve some particular technological problem, it can sometimes find away around them, and some of our most surprising innovations have been unexpected ways of gaining information from limited data. This is the case, for example, with exoplanets. At one time it would have been thought impossible to know anything about other planetary systems before we have visited them, but now we are routinely finding exoplanets, and we will probably in the coming decades, with even more powerful instrumentation, be able to detect the atmospheres of small, rocky exoplanets (in contradistinction to “hot Jupiters”).

In saying this, I am thinking of some of the clever ways that technology might find a way of getting around the limitations of the human body in terms of interstellar flight. The human body is vulnerable to high acceleration, to radiation, to age, and to the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to. With the limits of the human body we run into the limits of biological engineering. But if human beings were “reconstituted” at the far end of an interstellar flight, bodies would not need to be subject to acceleration, radiation, or long flight times. But there are limits, given our present state of knowledge, of how much radiation even a starship and its essential systems could bear. Is this an engineering limit, or a technological limit, or a scientific limit? It would probably be artificial to try to classify it as any single limitation. We could say that a problem is “beyond physics” or “beyond our knowledge” and these would be right — such formulations in terms of physics or knowledge also bring out the ambiguity or conventionality of distinctions among science, technology, and engineering.

That being said — and I will continue to think about this, and try to determine if I need to revise my formulations of industrial-technological civilization in terms of constraints — I think that the ability of the same resources of industrial-technological civilization to approach problems indirectly, in contradistinction to a direct frontal attack, will eventually find ways around what now seem like insuperable limitations of physics or knowledge.

The same artificiality of an incorrigible distinction science, technology, and engineering means that an innovative solution to any one limitation can address the other limitations indirectly.

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The downtown business district where the 2012 100YSS symposium is being held at the Hyatt.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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