Tuesday


In yesterday’s post on China’s Military Aviation Ambitions I discussed some of the early difficulties in jet propulsion, and how the most advanced jet engines of our time continue to be a technical and engineering challenge. China, as I mentioned, buys its most advanced jet engines from Russia and the Ukraine, who apparently possess industrial plant tooling and technical expertise superior to what the Chinese are currently capable of matching.

I expect that this technological hurdle will continue for some time, since despite the fact that jet propulsion technology is older that the technology of nuclear weapons (which I have elsewhere called a mature technology), there is still a great deal of technological and engineering work to go on jet propulsion.

In the past few decades jet propulsion technological research has focused on higher efficiencies, and this research has resulted in passenger jet service that uses significantly less fuel than the first Jet Age when, in the 1960s, passengers jets first began to routinely offer international travel. But I have also noted that the then-expected transition to supersonic jet travel didn’t happen; supersonic jets were loud and expensive and used a lot of fuel. The time saved by supersonic travel was not at that time, and has not up to this time, been enough to offset the disproportionate costs of supersonic passenger travel (although supersonic military jets are now entirely routine, with the newest fighter jets possessing supercruise ability).

But that isn’t the only thing that slowed down the advent of the age of supersonic jet travel. Supersonic jets are a difficult technology to master, and require substantial engineering and technological resources. We still have a long way to go (and therefore many opportunities yet in the future — even the near future) in terms of routine and cost-effective supersonic travel. Since supersonic jet travel has been stalled for some time, it is beginning to feel like fusion power — an engineering challenge just beyond our current reach — always another thirty years in the future.

On my other blog I wrote about tests this past spring on the essential systems of the REL SABRE engine (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine — an illustration of which is pictured above), which is of the greatest interest for future jet propulsion technologies. This is an engine that can take us into space, and is therefore the future and an important technological milestone. The SABRE engine (you can see an animation of its operation both on the REL website and at Vimeo) is designed for SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) and HOTOL (HOrizontal Take Off and Landing) operation — in other words, this is the engine for the kind of spaceships that you see in the movies, that take off from the ground under their own power, like an airplane, and are able to keep accelerating all the way through the atmosphere and then into space.

Maybe I sound like a booster for REL — their website calls the SABRE engine, “a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide” — but it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this propulsion technology, not just for the business of space launch, and not just for any particular industry, but for the human species. If we stay on the earth, we are doomed; we will only propagate our civilization if we become a spacefaring civilization, and an SSTO spacecraft is an essential element in becoming a spacefaring civilization.

When I was reading about the SABRE engine I was surprised that the crucial technology was simply a cooling system. Air traveling at hypersonic speeds gets very hot, and it needs to be cooled down to very low temperatures even while continuing to flow at very high speeds. Also, the moisture has to be extracted from the air, since ice coming into a hypersonic jet could cause serious problems. These are the problems that REL has so far been tackling successfully.

The REL SABRE engine is one solution for an engine that runs as a jet through the atmosphere and then turns itself into a rocket for extra-atmospheric flight. I assume that there are other possible solutions to this technological and engineering challenge, but as far as I know, REL is the only enterprise at present engaged in this kind of research and development. Of course their are always rumors that such things are being developed for the military in “black” programs of which the public knows nothing. It seems to me that if the Skunk Works could build the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s, by now they certainly ought to be able to build an air cooler that can aspirate a jet engine to the edge of the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Certainly I hope that such research is taking place, since the future of civilization is at stake.

There would be very obvious military advantages to a SSTO fighter, which would also be the first space fighter. Because of the ascendancy of the drone industry in recent years, several military hardware commentators have ventured that the current crop of fifth generation fighters (and 5.5 generation fighters) will be the last of the manned combat jets. I think it is much more likely the the F-22, and F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA and the J-20 will be the last generation of atmospheric-only military fighter craft, as the next obvious step is a fighter that takes off from the runway on the ground and flies directly into space, there to defend space-based military assets and to attack and disable the space-based assets of rival military powers.

It is hard to imagine that such developments are not taking place far from the eyes of the public. Hopefully my friends over at Open Source GEOINT will spot something like this soon.

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Friday


It has been widely reported that the China National Space Administration has released a white paper, China’s Space Activities in 2011, detailing China’s plans for space exploration in the coming years. Today’s Financial Times carried this as the front page story, complete with a color picture of a Chinese rocket blasting off. The most detailed story was on Xinhua’s English language service, China to launch Shenzhou-9, Shenzhou-10 spacecraft next year.

In section III of the paper, “Major Tasks for the Next Five Years,” there are three short paragraphs on human spaceflight:

China will push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight.

It will launch the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spaceships and achieve unmanned or manned rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit Tiangong-1 vehicle.

China will launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.

China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.

It has become a commonplace of political commentary that the “Space Race” of the 1960s was primarily driven by Cold War competition between the US and the USSR — a response to a perception to maintain national prestige requirements — and was not a disinterested quest for knowledge or a visionary undertaking for the future of humanity. Bertrand Russell responded to the Space Race in precisely this way, dismissing all space exploration on this basis, and in so doing demonstrating that even great men have their blind spots.

But competition between nation-states, and the incentive and spur to action that comes from competition, can be as essential to social and political life as it is to economic life. Isolated political entities not spurred on by competition can fall into an introspective languor that becomes a malaise, and all their promise is lost as they disappear from history simply because they lacked the interest to achieve anything. The world is covered by the remains of lost civilizations that grew, flourished, and then died, mostly without any kind of robust contact with other socio-political entities.

The transportation infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization has ended the possibility of a civilization completing an entire life cycle without being in contact with other civilizations. This has placed nation-state against nation-state and civilization against civilization and made our crowded world a dangerous place. This has changed the conditions under which civilizations exist. The challenge and response mechanism that Toynbee thought accounted for the emergence of civilization is now a mechanism that accounts for the growth and perpetuation of civilization, because civilizations are in competition primarily with each other, rather than with the natural environment.

Competition means selection, and we are now on the cusp of experiencing selection on a cosmological level. What we do now in terms of space exploration truly matters for the long term future of humanity. A selection event almost always involves competition, and competition can get ugly. Also, competition apparently lacks those elevated and high-minded features that we might most admire in humanity when they make their brief appearance among the baseness and squalor or our ordinary lives. We want ourselves to be better, but we know that we are mostly no better than our worst moments — and sometimes competition brings out the worst in us.

Competition gives rise to an unpleasant milieu of, “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels…” as John Stuart Mill put it (Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VI, 1), and which led Mill to speak kindly of the “stationary state” in his work on political economy. Russell belongs to this tradition, and we must see this tradition in historical perspective to understand that there will be future representatives of this tradition who will urge us to be content with what we have and not to strive for more.

If some (or even most) nation-states decide that space travel is not worth the time, expense and effort, and this particular aspect of human endeavor now falls to the Chinese, what civilization do you think will represent humanity to the universe at large? To the rest of the universe, we will be known as the Chinese planet, and China will literally fulfill its historical destiny of being the “Middle Kingdom” halfway between heaven and earth.

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Friday


Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?


I think that it is not at all usual that when one reads a book early in one’s intellectual development, that the author’s ideas, and even his voice and his style, can become so interwoven in one’s own thoughts it can be difficult to recall exactly what was one’s own idea and what one borrowed from this ur-text. One must go back to the text itself to remind oneself how much one read and how much one read into what one read. My experience in this vein is wrapped up with Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I began reading philosophy my mother gave me a copy of Russell’s book for Christmas. I still have this copy, though it is now in many pieces.

I found myself thinking of Russell again at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, where several of the presentations touched upon the need for humility in exploration. In Russell’s chapter in his A History of Western Philosophy on the American pragmatist philosophy John Dewey, he has a long aside on what he calls “cosmic impiety” with a certain dread as to unspoken but potentially ruinous consequences:

“The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was largely undone by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But modern technique, while not altogether favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the sense of the collective power of human communities. Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God. The Italian pragmatist Papini urges us to substitute the ‘Imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 737

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

“In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time…”

In so saying Russell was echoing his own earlier writings regarding the humility of scientific knowledge. I quoted several of these passages in Epistemic Hubris. I can imagine that what Russell formulated in terms of science and philosophy he would also have advocated in the case of technology: technological hubris is a danger, and we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility in our technological thought and activity.

While I don’t think that Russell explicitly formulated a principle of technological humility, it is implicit in what he wrote, and I furthermore think that this principle sums up much contemporary cautionary thought. The pervasive sentiment, common at least since the introduction of nuclear weapons, is that humanity’s technological development has outrun its moral development, and this places us in a position of existential danger. The prevalent apocalyptic narratives of our time largely draw upon this sentiment of looming danger from having harnessed forces ultimately beyond our control.

The idea of creating a spacefaring civilization and even constructing vessels to take us to the stars might well be taken as a paradigm case of technological hubris. Perhaps we have no moral right to such ambition. I mentioned in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 that at least a couple of participants in the symposium voiced the need for humanity to “clean up its act” before it takes its problems with it into the wider universe. This is essentially an objection to metaphysical pride, presumably made in deference to metaphysical modesty.

I don’t think that there is much to be concerned with here, though I think that the moral issues must be taken seriously. I don’t think that the metaphysical pride and metaphysical ambition of extraterrestrialization should be a worry because of an analogy I would make between the precarious position of humanity as a planet-bound civilization today. Despite our enormous technological achievements, and the claim that humanity now lives in the geological era of the anthropocene due to the degree to which we have transformed our own planet, we are still very much at the mercy of earthquakes, storms, severe weather, and all manner of natural disasters. Our dominance of the planet and our technological achievements have not insulated us from the depredations of nature.

Analogously, I think that if we should create a spacefaring civilization and the extraterrestrialization of humanity proceeds apace, that we will find that we continue to be subject to the depredations of nature, though nature on a wider scale and not confined to potential planetary natural disasters. An extraterrestrialized civilization would face natural disasters on the level of galactic ecology, with the dangers at each stage in the growth of civilization roughly proportional to the extent of that civilization. That is to say, both metaphysical pride and metaphysical modesty are subject to metaphysical danger.

W. R. Kramer of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies made humility central to his presentation, titled, “To Humbly Go… Breaking Previous Patterns of Colonization.” Mr. Kramer discussed the dangers of employing the language and images and concepts of past colonial efforts, and certainly when we look back on the record of colonialism there is a rich record of perfidy defended as ideals. This is not a pattern we would want to repeat.

But how exactly could a spacefaring civilization be humble? The very project, as I implied above, can be seen as the height of hubris — hubris on a cosmic scale. Of course, even if the project of extraterrestrialization is hubris, that doesn’t mean that individuals involved in such an enterprise couldn’t adopt a proper spirit of humility and modesty, although, as I said above in regard to metaphysical dangers, I don’t think that humanity will have all that difficult a time in retaining its humility once it has experienced a few hard knocks from the universe on a grand scale.

One specific proposal made by W. R. Kramer in the interest of going humbly into the cosmos was that human efforts in colonizing other planets, should other planets harboring life be found, should focus not on terraforming other worlds, but on adapting human physiology to alien worlds. I found this an interesting proposal. I don’t doubt that by the time a spacefaring civilization reaches other worlds we would have the technology to engineer descendants who could live in an alien biosphere. Just this scenario has been featured in some science fiction novels (in my dated experience of reading science fiction novels, I remember this from Ben Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy).

There is definitely something of Stalinist gigantism in the very idea of terraforming a planet, and I can easily imagine someone identifying such an engineering enterprise as a paradigm case of cosmic impiety à la Russell. But notice that it is an engineering challenge. In this sense, finding an alien planet with a biosphere and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present us with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over.

W. R. Kramer apparently thinks that engineering human beings to live in an alien biosphere is morally preferable to terraforming. I neither agree nor disagree, but it must be pointed out that there are many people who regard genetically tampering with our species with moral horror. One need only read up a little on the reaction to transhumanism to find the things that have been said about purposefully altering human beings. For such a practice would also certainly result in speciation, and it might result in beings that had a problematic relationship at best to the unaltered remainder of the species.

Of course, terraforming might also be regarded with moral horror. Thus we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming. One would expect that changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas, but one also expects that the people of that future time will be divided by this choice. Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.

In the case of terraforming sterile but potentially habitable worlds (like Mars, which is close to home and therefore more likely to be a moral dilemma in the nearer-term future), one feels that the moral objection to terraforming would be somewhat less (and therefore possibly less a moral horror than altering human beings), but I can still easily imagine those who would feel a moral horror at the prospect of utterly transforming this sterile but pristine environment for human purposes. It could be argued that no alternation in human physiology could make it possible for human descendants to live on Mars because of its sterility, and this might well be the basis of a future standard in the coming debate over whether to terraform or not to terraform.

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Wednesday


In a previous post (100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1) I mentioned the influence that science fiction had obviously had over the participants at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, and how it had been suggested more than once that science fiction can be understood as a thought experiment with the future. Certainly science fiction had its influence upon me as well, and while I don’t read science fiction any more (although I do view a lot of science fiction films), all the science fiction novels I read once upon a time exercise a continuing influence over my thought.

During my years of reading science fiction I especially enjoyed the works of Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and more especially in the oeuvre of each I enjoyed those vast panoramic views of the future worked out across multiple novels that were sometimes called future histories. No doubt there are authors writing today who are creating their own future histories, and I am simply unaware of it.

There is perhaps something a little tendentious if not pretentious about calling a series of novels a “future history,” though there is also a sense in which it is apt, and is to the future what Balzac’s Comédie humaine was to Balzac’s present. Friedrich Engels said that, “I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.” Similarly, an imaginative science fiction writer might present to us a concrete vision of the future that surpasses all the efforts of the futurists.

In so far as science fiction is future history, it is always revisionary history, since each author always brings his or her vision of the future to the task of creating an imagined world. More and more, history simpliciter is becoming revisionary history as the equally imagined world of the past is disputed by historians who bring a particular vision to the explication and analysis of the past.

This similarity between the imagined worlds of the distant past and the distant future was a theme of one of the presentations at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, “The Inertia of Past Futures” by Dr. Kathryn Denning, Associate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, York University. Dr. Denning also emphasized the abstract character of thought as it is progressively further removed from the concrete realities of the present, so that the distant past and the distant future both share in this abstract quality.

We should welcome the vigorous emergence of revisionary history as a development of contemporary thought that helps to keep us honest. In so far as we uncritically accept the narratives bequeathed to us from the past, we usually accept at the same time the morals these narratives were formulated to support. This was another theme of Dr. Denning’s presentation: that we get “boxed in” by the inertia of past futures. Revisionary history gives us a different vision of the past, and therefore also a different moral.

Not only Dr. Denning, but also Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems who spoke on the third day of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, made an explicitly revisionary treatment of history a central theme of their talks. Dr. Denning began her presentation by asking the audience if they thought that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe, and then went on to point out that Magellan himself was killed halfway through the voyage. Alexander Wong took the Wright brothers as his theme for revisionary history, and pointed out how, once granted a patent, the Wrights used their patent to sue aircraft manufacturers in the US into non-existence, to the point that when the First World War was underway there was no US domestic aircraft industry, with the unintended consequence being that the aircraft that are remembered from the First World War were all European aircraft.

Both Dr. Denning and Alexander Wong more or less explicitly drew the moral that these figures, commonly represented as the great “winners” of history were also in a sense among history’s great losers. Dr. Denning went on to assert that the commonly received principle that the victor writes the history is not only bad for the victims, but is also bad for the victors. So whether or not we’re talking about armed conflict, it would seem that romanticized history written from the perspective of history’s “winners” is as bad for these winners as it is for the excluded and marginalized losers.

In her presentation, Dr. Denning repeatedly told her audience that the historical theses she was presenting were in no sense exceptional or marginal, but that they represented mainstream views in contemporary academic historiography. While it is more than a little mildly ironic that the authority of a given set of historical theses should be defended on the basis of their mainstream character by an historian who very clearly represents the tradition of “history from the bottom up” which seeks to recover the voices of the excluded and marginalized figures of history, I was even more surprised by the conclusion of her presentation.

Dr. Denning finished her presentation by making the remarkable claim that it was the capital extracted from the New World and sent back to Europe that funded the industrial revolution and made possible all that followed. This is remarkable because it represents the same abstract approach to history that Dr. Denning criticized in other areas of historical thought, but here it has been transplanted into the history of economics, asserted without justification, and set up as a strawman to prove the indebtedness of European industrial development to wealth looted from the peoples of the New World.

There is no question that European colonialists in the New World looted a massive amount of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to Europe. The Spanish were particularly systematic about this, collecting their booty on an annual basis and shipping it back to Spain on a fleet of treasure ships once a year. A few times these treasure fleets were captured and looted in turn by English privateers, but the vast majority of it made it to Spain, and Portugal also extracted a good deal of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to the Old World.

Just as the theses that Dr. Denning defended were unexceptionally mainstream, so in economic historiography it is unexceptionally mainstream to recognize that the massive importation of gold into Spain more or less ruined the Spanish economy through runaway inflation. Until David Hume and Adam Smith there was no theoretical framework available to analyze or understand macro-economic forces, but people certainly at the time knew that something was wrong, though they didn’t know exactly what to do about it. One finds in the writings of contemporaneous economists a struggle to understand what was happening to the Spanish economy.

It has also been argued — though this is less mainstream and more controversial — that the wealth shipped back to Portugal led to a steady diminution of domestic industry that led to the long twilight of the Portuguese economy and made it, as I have written elsewhere, the Bolivia of Western Europe, subject to extreme poverty and repeated political coups.

As I wrote above, English privateers did capture some of the Spanish treasure coming from the New World, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The early English colonies in the New World were not notable for their success or their wealth extraction, but for their repeated financial failures. Certainly the English did what they could to extract wealth from the New World, but they weren’t very successful at it. And after King Philip’s War they were essentially pushed back to a thin strip of land along the coast and lost nearly a century’s worth of progress of expansion into the interior of the continent.

All of this contrasts sharply with the record of the Iberian powers in the New World, with their encomiendas of thousands of native slaves working in plantation conditions and the extraction of enormous gold reserves from the civilizations of South America. Both the Spanish and the English colonial regimes were brutal, but the English mostly lost money from their brutalities, while the Spanish mostly profited. And in one of the notable ironies of history, the Spanish were ruined by their profit while the English were preserved from the “resource curse” of the New World through failed commercial ventures.

The industrial revolution that began in Europe and which therefore initiated industrial-technological civilization in Europe, began not in a Spain awash with gold from the New World, but in England, which had become so frustrated with having to spend money on the defense of its New World colonies that it tried to tax the colonials to pay for said defense. Spain and Portugal remained European backwaters of industrial development well into the twentieth century, isolated from the rest of Europe not only by the Pyrenees, but also by the stranglehold that the Catholic Church maintained over education in the Iberian Peninsula — perpetuated into the second half of the twentieth century by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

The lessons of colonialism both from the traditional narrative celebrating colonization of the New World and from the now-dominant narrative of revisionary history that expresses horror over the colonization of the New World are both of them part of our moral legacy. It does not help to understand matters by adopting an abstract historical method in respect to one while criticizing the same in respect to the other.

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My Spaceflight Utopia

4 October 2011

Tuesday


In my account of the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 I touched on the utopian character of many of the presentations. This utopianism was not limited to those who presented in the philosophical and religious track, but was perhaps most obvious in those discussing the institutional, organizational, and financial aspects of a starship project.

In my own presentation (which I discussed in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2) I explicitly foreswore utopianism, emphasizing that the future of civilization as I saw it was in no sense a utopian endeavor; even if we do not destroy ourselves or suffer a crippling failure of nerve that keeps us from striving toward greater things, the long-term human future as a spacefaring species will be as mixed as the human record on the earth.

After my presentation a fellow approached me and asked what I thought was the best approach to initiating a spacefaring society. I said that open markets, commercial competition, and low barriers to entry are the best bet for our future in space. Some of the earlier speakers had expressed their open suspicion of market-based economies, and when there was an open discussion after the presentations I grabbed the microphone for long enough to say that no planned economy has ever functioned efficiently. Stuart Brand began to take issue with this, and I added that there are, of course degrees of planning. In any case the point is that more planned economies are almost always less efficient than less planned economies, with the result being that unplanned economies almost always overtake planned economies, and this is one reason the plans of utopian communities almost always go awry and the utopia is transformed into a dystopia.

In any case, when I was pressed for more details by the fellow who was asking me questions after my presentation (I’m sorry I didn’t get his name), I responded, “Here’s my own personal utopian vision for human spaceflight.”

I went on to mention the African Space Research Program, that I previously wrote about in An African Space Program, and I suggested that if one of the Persian Gulf oil Sheikdoms such as Qatar or the UAE or Kuwait, looking for a place to put their billions, invested a large amount of money in the ASRP that the latter could afford to buy the equipment that they need and to hire the outside expertise that would make the difference.

Many of the Gulf oil Sheikdoms are awash in money from high oil prices, many of them are looking to invest that money, and many of them spend vast amounts of money on futuristic cities in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. It seems to me like the perfect opportunity to invest in a project with potentially great rewards in the future, to demonstrate one’s forward-thinking by becoming involved in a space program, and to do all this without the bureaucratic, institutional, and regulatory entanglements that threaten to smother the older and more established space programs of the Western world.

It would be a real competitive shot in the arm to the state-sponsored space programs of the US, Europe, Russia and China to be blindsided by the effort like this. Chris Mnamba of the ASRP has shown that he has the vision; the Gulf Sheikdoms have the money; to me it looks like a match made in the heavens. And one would think that at least one of the sheikdoms would like to add a spaceport to their gleaming modern cities.

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Sunday


The third and final day of the 100YSS symposium wound up exactly at noon, but I had incorrectly remembered the starting time as 9:00 am whereas it began in fact at 8:00 am, so I was late for the first panel discussion among the track chairs and missed most of it. The second panel, from 9:00 am to 10:30 am was about organizational considerations, sounded deadly dull but was in fact quite interesting. The third panel from 10:30 am to noon, which comprised the celebrities, was less interesting.

During the second panel there was a lively debate and some disagreement about the proper organizational framework for a 100 year starship project. The initial remarks by Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems received whoops of approval, and throughout the proceedings Mr. Wong repeatedly threw cold water on the contributions of the others. Mr. Wong was very much the hard-headed banker, exemplifying the line from Stendhal that, “Pour être bon philosopher il faut être sec, clair, sans illusion. Un banquier, qui a fait fortune, a une partie du caractère requis pour faire des découvertes en philosophie, c’est-à-dire pour voir clair dans ce qui est.” Mr. Wong urged the participants to, “Talk to investment bankers; they deal with trillions of dollars every day.”

Part of the apparent disagreement (call it a “disconnect” if you like) was really the members of the panel talking at cross-purposes to one another. There was no clarification as to whether the goal was to discuss the creation of a particular organization or institution that would last a hundred years and eventually be instrumental in the building of a starship, or whether what they were ultimately talking about was an overall change in the direction of contemporary civilization that would, in the fullness of time, result in humanity building a starship. These are very different visions and goals.

The opening remarks by James Schalkwyk of the University of Cape Town was a very interesting historical sketch of institutions that have lasted over extended periods of time (more than a hundred years), citing examples as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the General Electric corporation. Throughout the proceedings of the symposium the Catholic Church and religion more generally were cited as paradigmatic long-term institutions toward which any starship project should look for inspiration. But in the many examples cited throughout the symposium I never heard anyone mention the Hanseatic League, which seems to me an altogether better historical parallel than the other examples reviewed. The Hanseatic League had a loose but coherent structure, lasted for hundreds of years, left a permanent imprint on the culture of northern Europe, and was profit- and market-driven.

Throughout the symposium and during the second panel, it was both stated and implied on several occasions that humanity needs to put its own house in order and fix its problems before it sets out for the stars. Tan Huei Ming of the National University of Singapore implied this by saying that if we failed to do so, we would only take our human, all-too-human pollution and political problems out amongst the stars. In a subtle and unstated way this tied in to the utopian character of many of the presentations, as the speakers struggled to define the kind of society that could possibly survive a long-term, long-distance interstellar flight. Obviously, if we are going to wait to undertake interstellar journeys until we have our house in order on earth, these journeys will never happen. Humanity is not about to suddenly turn a corner and mutually participate in some great historical enterprise. Conflict is not going to come to an end. And in so far as competition is a form of conflict, conflict may well be the spur that does eventually put human beings in space for the long term.

Overweening ambition and conflict are virtues when it comes to undertaking grandly visionary projects — that is to say, projects like building a starship when the technology is not yet available to do this. During the European Middle Ages, civic pride together with eschatological hope drove ambitions for worldly achievement.

As I have noted, the building of cathedrals has been mentioned many times at 100YSS as an analogy for an multi-generational project. We would do well to recall that, in the building of these cathedrals, city-states (in fact, though not in name) competed with each other to erect the grandest edifice that would not only edify the local citizenry but which would also swell their hearts with pride to see the works of which they were capable and how this effort outshone that of their neighbors.

Another theme that emerged at least twice (yesterday during the presentations and today during the second panel) was the idea that one influence that may be behind contemporary apathy in relation to space exploration is that people mostly cannot see the stars. I hadn’t before thought of this as an unintended consequence of urbanization, but it certainly can be construed in this way. With the greater part of the species concentrated in cities with pervasive electrification and therefore pervasive lighting, the spectacular display of the heavens simply doesn’t feature in most people’s lives. This changes the human relationship to the stars. Now a rare vision of the heavens is associated with wilderness rather than civilization, because the lights of civilization blot out the stars, and it is only in a wilderness that we see the stars as our ancestors saw them.

While I was listening to the discussion of the organizational second panel I came to realize the potential value that the creation of a concrete and focused particular institution devoted to interstellar travel could have, though the approach I would intuitively favor (of the two implicitly contrasted) is that of guiding a change in contemporary civilization toward a spacefaring society. By adopting an extremely ambitious plan such as building a starship at the earlist possible time, however, certain advantages appear:

1) intermediate goals short of the final goal become routine,
2) intermediate goals short of the final goal become part of the ordinary business of life,
3) the sting is taken out of failures to achieve intermediate goals short of the final goal, because it is understood that continued attempts will be made until the intermediate goal is accomplished, and
4) A distant goal is like an ideal that remains out of human reach even as it seems tantalizingly close to our grasp, and therefore remains as a perpetual motivation.

In the meantime, humanity would build a spacefaring civilization on the way to attaining intermediate goals, and this spacefaring civilization is what would ultimately make the building of a starship practicable. Once in orbit with a sufficient workforce, building large-scale projects could proceed much more rapidly than many people realize. The slow and incremental part is the creation of an industrial infrastructure off the surface of the earth — that is to say, the industrialization of space. It would be difficult to rally public support for the industrialization of space — indeed, the very sound of it would be off-putting — but it might be realistic to rally public support behind something as visionary as a journey to the stars.

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Saturday


Today I had my opportunity to speak at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium. Prior to arriving, nothing was said about the length of individual presentations, or about the number of one’s PowerPoint slides. Upon arrival, my first contact with organization staff consisted of being scolded for the number of slides I had prepared (132). Also, the speakers were held to a close 20 minute time limit, with no appreciable time between speakers.

As a consequence, I had far too much material. I had to talk fast in order to give the better part of my presentation, and I had to skip over a good deal of material. So this was dissatisfying. My sister suggested that I gestured too much with the remote control for the slides, that I didn’t look at the audience enough but rather looked at the screen, and that I said “so” too many times. These constructive criticisms were welcome, as they were valid.

The result was that my talk was less than optimal, but I still managed to get my point across in a few areas. Given my near total lack of experience in public speaking, if I judge myself leniently for my inexperience, I could say that I didn’t do too badly. But it could have been much better. A couple of people approached me after I spoke and expressed an interest in what I had to say, which was rewarding.

Beyond my own presentation, which was the very last of the philosophical and religious talks which were held in one room (which was the poor cousin of the room where technical talks were held, in which latter there was standing room only), there were several other speakers. The most intellectually rigorous presentations were given by two German Protestant theologians, C. Weidemann and M. Waltemathe, both from Ruhr-Universität Bochum, who presented, respectfully, “Did Jesus Die for Klingons Too?” and “A Religious Vision for Interstellar Travel?”

In his exposition of the principle of mediocrity, C. Weidemann made an analogy with a lottery ticket, which was both insightful and a fruitful way to think about mediocrity after the Copernican Revolution (which is something I think about often). He suggested that most holders of a lottery ticket realize that they hold the “average” ticket, which is to say that they don’t win the prize. However, with further investigation you may discover that you have in fact won the prize and that the ticket you hold is an exception to the mediocre rule. This incorporates a perspective of increasing knowledge into the formulation of the principle of mediocrity, which corresponds better to our actual epistemic perspective than an unstated assumption of static knowledge.

In another talk, as well as in remarks following the presentations, K. Denning of York University offered another good example of a highly optimistic estimate of the accuracy of futurist predictions, which is something that I discussed previously in Synchronicities of Futurism. Professor Denning in particular cited H. G. Wells’ 1908 work The War in the Air as preternaturally accurate futurism.

I should emphasize that this was not the focus of Professor Dennning’s talk, but only a comment made in passing, but I think that this is revelatory of a particular conception of history, as I also had in mind when I mentioned this in connection with Michio Kaku and the Tofflers. If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.

A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.

Perhaps it is only when I see this perspective up close that I realize how different it is from my own point of view. When I originally formulated the idea of the political conception of history I saw much of myself in it, but now that I realize that it corresponds to a commitment to the accuracy of futurism, I see in concrete detail why I must reject it except for special cases that are the exception to the rule.

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The political conception of history.

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Friday


I am just back from the first day of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium. The largest conference room used for the keynote address was filled to capacity with what I estimate were several hundred people. The first session and several subsequent sessions were standing room only, so the event is quite well attended.

It is obvious that many of those in attendance have been inspired by science fiction. One theme that came up several different times in different talks was that of science fiction as a thought experiment for the future. I wrote a longish post about science fiction — The Role of Science Fiction in Industrialized Civilization — but did not even consider this theme. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but apparently wasn’t obvious to me previously.

Another theme that occurred throughout the talks to which I listened was the question of the institutional framework that would be needed to take responsibility for a very long term project such as a one hundred year initiative to build a starship. These discussions pose an obvious question: is it only possible to undertake a large-scale, long-term project as an institutional undertaking? What are the alternatives?

Recently in This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere… I contrasted the heroic conception of science with the iterative conception of science, as extensions of my previous discussions of The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. It strikes me now that the idea of planning a starship has something heroic about it, but in so far as it is planned as part of a large-scale institutional undertaking it also falls under the iterative conception.

Comparisons were made between multi-generational projects like building the pyramids or the cathedrals and building a starship. These historical analogies also involve both the heroic conception of the project and the institutional iteration that allows the project to be continued. Probably most great projects in history are like this: an admixture of the heroic and the iterative. Yet to realize that a presupposition is being made obviously suggests the possibility of an alternative, and in so far as science fiction has served as a thought experiment (as mentioned above) this suggests a thought experiment of a large-scale, long-term project that is not conceived or carried out as an institutional undertaking.

There was also a good deal of earnest discussion over how to interest the public and keep the public interested. There were many interesting ideas (things I wouldn’t have thought about, like video games), and lots of proposals were formulated. That makes this symposium a hopeful start.

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