Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress Day 3
17 August 2013
Day 3 – Interstellar Future (50 years +) | Saturday August 17th, 2013
Day 3 of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress began with Harold “Sonny” White discussing recent attempts to scientifically test the ideas behind the Alcubierre drive, which would be a form of spacecraft mobility (one can’t quite call it propulsion) that would have the effect of superluminal velocity. The proposed drive does not violate general relativity because space itself can expand or contract faster than the speed of light, even if no physical body can travel at the speed of light. The Alcubierre drive, and other concepts that have followed, involve distorting space around a spacecraft while the spacecraft itself, and its occupants, never exceed the speed of light. White also discussed Q-thrusters (quantum vacuum plasma thruster), which would thrust against quantum vacuum fluctuations. This would not yield the kind of science fiction-like travel of the Alcubierre drive, but it sounded closer to being in reach. On his last slide he showed a figure of 29.9 years to make it to Proxima Centauri with Q-thrusters, which require a lot of energy but don’t require fuel. With this in mind, I note that we can pretty readily (today) manufacture a nuclear reactor that can be fueled upon construction and run continuously for 30 years without refueling (as with the compact nuclear reactors on submarines and aircraft carriers). If we could build Q-thrusters, we could also supply them for long enough to get to the nearest star, and that is an impressive thought.
This was followed by Eric Davis presenting “Faster-Than-Light Space Warps: What’s It All About?” which was a wonderfully clear and intuitive presentation of faster than light possibilities. Mr. Davis suggested that one may someday, “design spacetime to your specifications,” and returned to this theme of engineering spacetime. Next was Hal Puthoff with “Engineering the Spacetime Metric for Interstellar Flight,” which the speaker characterized as “general relativity for engineers.” The speaker presented an alternative formulation of general relativity in terms of the dielectric constant, which should make many problems in general relativity more tractable for engineers. Marc Millis presented “From Sci-Fi to Sci-Method — Space Drives,” which, continuing the exposition of interstellar flight in relation to general relativity, emphasized the remaining theoretical ellipses of general relativity, specifically, that general relativity did not decisively resolve the problem of inertial frames of reference. He had some interesting things to say about Mach’s principle (a topic of some interest to me, which I have been intending to study more closely). Next were two quite technical talks, Jeff Lee on “Singularity Propulsion — Acceleration of a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz Starship” and Gerald Cleaver on “The Quirks of Quark Engines.”
Then came Lance Williams on the “Rise of the Scalar Field, and its Implications for Interstellar Travel.” Williams offered, “the promise of gravitational control,” and ended with the statement that, “Electromagnetic control of gravity is necessary for human control of gravity.” This was very much in the same spirit of the earlier lectures today which emphasized the human ability to engineer spacetime itself. And, certainly, if Alcubierre drives or artificial gravity become a reality we will have a world that is everything that science fiction authors have imagined, and more besides. In the question and answer session following Williams’ talk, in response to a question Williams emphasized that his use of a 5-manifold in his exposition (following Kaluza of Kaluza-Klein fame) was of a fifth macroscopic dimension, and he drew a clear distinction between the compactified dimensions of string theory and macroscopic dimensions in physical theory (which, I might add, warmed my heart). A string theorist in attendance had earlier assured him that string theory had all the dimensional resources his approach could need, but Williams ended by saying that physics had been “locked in” to string theory and QED gravitation for the past century, with the clear implication that this had gone on long enough.
After this the Congress broke for lunch, but instead of eating I went back to my room for a nap. I overslept and returned only for the last few minutes of Rachel Armstrong’s presentation, which was a disappointment for me since I had recently written on my other blog about some of Armstrong’s ideas on urbanism.
Ken Roy then presented “Shell Worlds: an Approach to Terraforming Small Rocky Worlds,” which proposed that smaller worlds (like about the size of Mars) could be completely contained within a structure holding in the atmosphere built somewhere between 2 and 20 kilometers up from the surface. This he contrasted to “traditional” terraforming, and he maintained that shell worlds had certain advantages, as, for example, the ability to construct “designer biospheres,” to have the same time zone all around a planet (since all lighting would have to be artificial, and so forth. Roy also mentioned “paraterraforming,” which term I had not previously heard, and said that it also involved a contained atmosphere, but he didn’t go into much detail on what exactly constitutes paraterraforming.
Next was a joint presentation by a filmmaker and a social scientist, “Odyssey: Global Personality Test for Crewing a Generation-Starship,” which is both a social science project and a film project. Odyssey takes as its presupposition a generational starship and asks how a crew would be selected for this mission. Starship crew questions can be a lot like “lifeboat” exercises in asking who one would include and who one would leave to die, and this exercise in starship crewing certainly had this feel for me. The robust assumptions made by those who designed the project, and the forcefulness with which they asserted these assumptions — Are you prepared to leave everything and everyone you have ever known forever? — were a good splash of cold water for those contemplating generational starships. I think that they must have chosen quite intentionally to tightly constrain the exercise in order to inject some sense of discipline into this question, often raised among interstellar advocates. For me personally, this presentation of a generational starship in which the individual is systematically subordinated to the good of the mission was a kind of dystopian vision of regulation that constitutes the antithesis of the vision of freedom through space travel that attracts me.
There were a couple presentations on SETI efforts, Thomas Hair on “Radio Transients and Base Rate Bias: Bayesian Argument for Conservatism” and Al Jackson on “Extreme SETI.” Hair proposed “the long stare” as a thought experiment in SETI, and gave a Bayesian analysis of the kind of data that would be collected from a concentrated SETI focus on a small part of the sky (think of it something like the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, but for SETI instead of observational astronomy). Hair also suggested that SETI was shifting to a search for “ephemeral leakage,” by which I believe he meant picking up unintended signals from alien civilizations — like what an alien civilization might hear from us at a distance of many lightyears. Al Jackson was difficult to hear, as his speaking voice wasn’t very loud, but he focused on SETI efforts to find mega-engineering projects of highly advanced civilizations, such as detecting starships, gravitational machines, and “surfing” black holes.
The final presentation for this session was Giorgio Gaviraghi, “Code of Ethics for Alien Encounters.” Gaviraghi’s talk yesterday was the most far-reaching and speculative, and he once again put himself out on a limb with a series of hypothetical inmperatives contingent upon the level of development achieved by civilizations potentially in contact. If I had had the chance to ask a question I would have asked if these various hypothetical imperatives could be traced back to any one categorical imperative that was the motivation for the code of ethics he proposed. I had a chance later to speak very briefly to Gaviraghi, but didn’t have enough time to raise this question.
Another panel discussion, like yesterday’s, considered another three questions. This wasn’t as interesting to me as yesterday’s discussion, but in the final question on extraterrestrial contact Kelvin Long said, “ideas can do as much damage as war,” which was a good comment, and Gaviraghi (who replaced Armen Papazian) made a statement that I particularly liked. I didn’t take down his words verbatim, and I may have misunderstood his intent, but what it sounded like to me was that what we can learn about civilization as a result of extraterrestrial contact may tell us something about our own civilization. If this is what Gaviraghi meant, I enthusiastically agree, and it shows another parallelism between biology and civilization, because exactly the same thing is true in biology. As Carl Sagan noted, a single instance of extraterrestrial life would de-provincialize biology.
After the Congress broke for dinner for a couple of hours we assembled again and heard Peter Garretson speak on “Space – A Billion Year Plan for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I agreed with pretty nearly everything that was said here, and I really wanted to ask a question, but there was no question and answer period following his talk. Garretson gave a presentation very indebted tot he vision of Gerard K. O’Neill, involving solar power satellites and O’Neill colonies, and this was much appreciated, as he rightly noted that any space capacity you could want to have would be in place by the time you had built a system of solar power satellites.
After the Congress was over for the day I realized that I often learned more from the question and answer sessions than from the presentations, and it occurred to me that a lot of this material might be better suited to a seminar format rather than a lecture format. A lecture format could be modified to accommodate more questions and answers, but not all talks generate the same level of interest. I think if I were to organize a congress of some sort I might consider making a rule that all presentations had to be made extemporaneously in order to keep them spontaneous, and encourage the audience to raise their hands with a question in the midst of a lecture to keep the exchange going throughout. Slides could be limited to images, graphics, or charts only (in order to generate discussion without being read), and speakers could be asked to finish with a one-sentence “take away” message, perhaps purposefully provocative, once again, to generate discussion.
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Here is the complete program of today’s events:
8:45am Introduction to Day 3
9:00am Keynote: Sonny White, “Warp Field Physics: an Update”
9:45am Presentation 1: Eric Davis, “Faster-Than-Light Space Warps: What’s It All About?”
10:10am Presentation 2: Hal Puthoff, “Engineering the Spacetime Metric for Interstellar Flight”
10:45am Presentation 3: Marc Millis, “Transgalactic Travel Guide” & “From Sci-Fi to Sci-Method – Space Drives”
11:10am Presentation 4: Jeff Lee, “Singularity Propulsion – Acceleration of a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz Starship”
11:35am Presentation 5: Gerald Cleaver, “The Quirks of Quark Engines”
12:00am Presentation 6: Lance Williams, “Rise of the Scalar Field, and its Implications for Interstellar Travel”
1:15pm Keynote: Rachel Armstrong, “Project Persephone”
2:00pm Presentation 7: Ken Roy, “Shell Worlds: an Approach to Terraforming Small Rocky Worlds”
2:25pm Presentation 8: Sheryl Bishop, “Odyssey: Global Personality Test for Crewing a Generation-Starship”
3:00pm Presentation 9: Thomas Hair, “Radio Transients & Base Rate Bias: Bayesian Argument for Conservatism”
3:25pm Presentation 10: Al Jackson, “Extreme SETI”
3:50pm Presentation 11: A. Caminoa & G. Gaviraghi, “Code of Ethics for Alien Encounters”
4:15pm Break | Description of Evening Event
4:30pm STARSHIP CONGRESS: Long-Term Questions
6:00pm Dinner (Individual)
8:00pm Event 3a | Peter Garretson: “Space – A Billion Year Plan for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
8:45pm Event 3b | “Dream of Starships” with Hailey Bright
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