Technological Leaps in Perspective

by Paul Gilster on November 30, 2011

Wednesday is a travel day for me, and one with little chance to do any posting here. I’ll leave you, then, with a quotation, and get back to normal posting tomorrow.

Interstellar travel is incredibly difficult, perhaps as difficult to us today as a flight to Mars would have appeared to Christopher Columbus or other would-be transoceanic navigators 500 years ago. Indeed, the ratio of the distance from Earth to Mars compared to Columbus’ voyage from Spain to the Caribbean — 80,000:1 — is roughly the same as the ratio of the distance to Alpha Centauri compared to a trip to Mars. Thus, the key missions required to establish humanity successively as a Type I, Type II, and Type III civilization all stand in similar relation to each other, and if the 500 years since Columbus have sufficed to multiply human capabilities to the point where we now can reach for Mars, so a similar span into the future might be expected to prepare us for the leap to the stars. Actually, it should not take so long, because with its much larger population of inventive minds and better means of communication, the Type II civilization that will spread throughout our solar system over the next several centuries should be able to generate technological progress at a considerably faster rate than was possible by the emerging Type I civilization of our recent past.

I’m all for breakthroughs in physics that will give us capabilities as yet unknown. We may well get them someday. But even without such, methods can already be seen in outline by which currently known physics and greatly developed and refined versions of currently understood engineering can get us to the stars. That development and refinement will occur as part and parcel of the process of maturation of humanity as a Type II species.

Robert Zubrin, Entering Space (2000), pp. 188-189.

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James November 30, 2011 at 19:42

A shame this book is available on Google ebooks to read online.

Tom November 30, 2011 at 21:53

Extrapolating exponentially from the achievements of Christopher Columbus is always going to be a weak argument. In 19th century they predicted that London would be under ten foot of manure with 100 years based on the rate of increase of horse and carts, and that was just a linear prediction.
The author should understand that our earth is fundamental to our existence. We need to learn how to live with the other plants, animals and people that we share the earth with, and stop trying to escape, to a big empty space of poor habitability.
Besides, robots and remote instruments only improve in ability and cost, while human safety concerns and avoidance of risk are only increasing. So I doubt there is any need whatsoever to actually live in space. Mining and exploration will be done from the comfort of earth… if there is enough oil remaining to support such space ventures.

tacitus November 30, 2011 at 23:11

I’m all for breakthroughs in physics that will give us capabilities as yet unknown.

This is where, unfortunately, the analogy of what a flight to Mars would seem like to Christopher Columbus breaks down. In Columbus’s day, science had barely even progressed beyond the discoveries of the ancient Greeks, whereas today, pushing the boundaries of physics entails little more than fiddling around the edges of the already understood — e.g. from Newton to Einstein.

Yes, if scientific progress continues apace I do believe that we will one day make it to the stars, but there will almost certainly be no short cuts. Whereas it now only takes nine months to get to Mars instead of the tens of thousands of years it would take at the speed of a Columbus era sailing ship, there will likely be no equivalent increase in speed as we head into interstellar space.

Thus I think we have to be prepared to accept that while technological innovation may continue to accelerate, absent the equivalent scientific discoveries of Newton, Einstein, et al. alongside, it will still very likely take us another 500 years or more before we’re waking up to the light of another star.

And if and when it does happen, it will be as much because “life” as we know it, will have fundamentally changed — i.e. through post-human transformations (silicon-based), vastly increased longevity, and/or suspended animation. etc.

Interstellar Bill December 1, 2011 at 0:38

Scaling up any of our most costly space probes
to the likes of Project Icarus makes entirely plausible
a scale-up factor of 50,000 or more
over the current U.S. population, to fund one ship.

Thus, once space civilization has a population
exceeding, say, a hundred billion,
with median income $10 million each,
and human senenesce has been cured,
then it’s easy to envisage manned interstellar flight
being underway on a large scale.

We’d best hope so, for Earth’s long-term survival requires it.

Even with ultra-longevity, advanced intelligence, practical fusion, and
vast lunar wealth availabe a hundred years from now, it will take considerable time, at least 500 years of further progress,
to figure everything out when it comes to shielding, suspended animation,
mega-habitats, and high delta-vee, as well as such gigantic infrastructure
as a fleet of terawatt lasers and helium-3 giant-planet mining.

In the meantime there will also be giant space-based accelerators
that can be used in conjuction with the focused output of those lasers
to see if there’s any hope of new physics.

Earthlings will want the space people’s population growth
to stop far, far short of Type II.
Earth will need spacers to devote their resources to emigration
rather than mega-habitat multiplication past the million mark.

Beyond a million mega-habs Earth would count for nothing
and could easily be lost in the Type-II shuffle.
How many literally high-power (as in terawatt) wars would be ongoing
if crowded around the sun (say at dismantled Jupiter’s distance)
there were 100 billion habs with a billion people each?
A hab-swarm blotting out our ancient star-views
with moon-eating space industrialization?
Can you spell ‘stray teraWatts’?
How about ‘ultra-velocity space junk with kiloton impacts’ ?

For the sake of Earth’s surviving the Fourth Millenium
there must be a unifying interstellar religion,
with a holy mission of Galactic Conquest
fueled literally by space-fever, star-lure, glory-hunger,
so that most spacers past a century or two old
will want to build new habs in empty star-systems,
to become….INTERSTELLAR ANCESTORS.
Earth will need this goal to become the ultimate ambition of all spacers.

That way all the Type IIs will be built elsewhere.
Over tens of millenia we’ll lose our stars as they dim out one by one
but we’ll still have our sky.

The entire interstellar-studies field
must hold Earth’s future history ever in mind,
to warn of Fourth-Millenium perils
far more dire than our worst ET nightmares.

John Cody December 1, 2011 at 0:49

Perhaps it is as pointless to devote any serious consideration to interstellar flight as it would have been for Columbus to seriously consider a spacecraft mission to Mars. We need to concentrate on the task in hand – the colonization of our own solar system and the exploitation of its material and energy resources.

Adam December 1, 2011 at 5:05

James, Available or not available as the cause of shame? Or is it out of print and thus on GoogleBooks?

Mike Walker December 1, 2011 at 14:50

Perhaps it is as pointless to devote any serious consideration to interstellar flight as it would have been for Columbus to seriously consider a spacecraft mission to Mars. We need to concentrate on the task in hand – the colonization of our own solar system and the exploitation of its material and energy resources.

I’m not averse to putting our minds to the problems of interstellar travel, and I think that most time, money, and effort will naturally gravitate to problems like creating a cost-effective way to get into orbit and protecting crews from radiation during long term deep space flights anyway.

I just think we have to be realistic about humanity’s chances of seeing interstellar travel any time soon — i.e. probably not within the next 500 years.

James December 1, 2011 at 15:16

Its not available on GoogleBooks to read online.

Duncan Ivry December 1, 2011 at 19:52

tacitus: “pushing the boundaries of physics entails little more than fiddling around the edges of the already understood”

The three physicists who got the physics Nobel prize, showed us, according to the Nobel prize committee, an universe mostly unkown to us.

And, e.g. the unsolved problem of combining the theory of relativity and quantum physics is, as far as I know, still a fundamental problem.

I don’t want to pick especially at you, tacitus, but just now I got a new idea (of course, my humble opinion only) why so many people talk about space travel, exotic propulsion technologies, the next major physics breakthrough ™, etc. … well … just like they do ;-)

Stevo Darkly December 3, 2011 at 2:44

Interstellar Bill, I don’t know whether you’re doing it on purpose or just incidentally, but the combination of your line breaks and your lyrical wording makes your post read like free-verse poetry.

Especially this part, which I think is the core of your argument*:

Earthlings will want the space people’s population growth
to stop far, far short of Type II.
Earth will need spacers to devote their resources to emigration
rather than mega-habitat multiplication past the million mark.

Beyond a million mega-habs Earth would count for nothing
and could easily be lost in the Type-II shuffle.
How many literally high-power (as in terawatt) wars would be ongoing
if crowded around the sun (say at dismantled Jupiter’s distance)
there were 100 billion habs with a billion people each?
A hab-swarm blotting out our ancient star-views
with moon-eating space industrialization?
Can you spell ‘stray teraWatts’?
How about ‘ultra-velocity space junk with kiloton impacts’ ?

For the sake of Earth’s surviving the Fourth Millenium
there must be a unifying interstellar religion,
with a holy mission of Galactic Conquest
fueled literally by space-fever, star-lure, glory-hunger,
so that most spacers past a century or two old
will want to build new habs in empty star-systems,
to become….INTERSTELLAR ANCESTORS.
Earth will need this goal to become the ultimate ambition of all spacers.

That way all the Type IIs will be built elsewhere.
Over tens of millenia we’ll lose our stars as they dim out one by one
but we’ll still have our sky.

Poetry.

* The gist of which, as I understand it is this:

You think there are two ways space development can go:

1) Heavy development of our local solar system with a vast, dense population and industrialization on a colossal scale. In this scenario, Earth, home of humanity, would be constantly imperiled by apocalyptic industrial accidents, “pollution” or war incidents — small on the scale of the entire solar system, but enough to heavily damage or even sterilize the planet. Not to mention spaceborne megastructures blotting out our view of the stars.

2) Earth can encourage the spacefaring population to emigrate to other solar systems and build their high-energy, high-density and high-population Kardashev Type II civilizations there, leaving our home system less densely developed — and less dangerous.

And it’s in Earth’s interest to encourage #2, not #1.

Have I got that right?

It’s an interesting thought. But it was the poetic expression that really got me thinking about it.

tacitus December 3, 2011 at 16:32

The three physicists who got the physics Nobel prize, showed us, according to the Nobel prize committee, an universe mostly unkown to us.

You’re talking about dark energy, which is, of course, and amazing discovery that is revolutionizing cosmology. But, like dark matter, in terms of having a localized effect on the Universe, dark energy is a very diffuse, barely detectable thing. Newton still rules when we’re talking about anything other than extremely small/large/fast.

And, e.g. the unsolved problem of combining the theory of relativity and quantum physics is, as far as I know, still a fundamental problem.

Yes, but again, physicists are looking for the answer in places that are unlikely to be of much practical value unless we can someday harness colossal energies that rival the output of the sun. Maybe one day, but not soon (i.e. within 500 years).

I don’t want to pick especially at you, tacitus, but just now I got a new idea (of course, my humble opinion only) why so many people talk about space travel, exotic propulsion technologies, the next major physics breakthrough ™, etc. … well … just like they do ;-)

Well, of course, and I don’t feel picked on at all. :)

I am all for imaginative and blue-sky thinking — I wouldn’t be subscribed to this blog if I wasn’t — but when the discussion revolves around timelines then I can’t help but be realistic about our chances. I would love nothing more than to witness a scientific breakthrough that make interstellar travel feasible in the short term (or even medium term) but I am sanguine about our chances.

Frankly, our best chance of a short-cut to the stars is making contact with an advanced alien civilization who is willing to share their technology. That doesn’t seem very likely either, but one can always hope.

Assuming the human race doesn’t self-destruct, I am optimistic about our chances of reaching the stars one day, I just don’t see it happening for a very long time.

Eniac December 4, 2011 at 10:46

Yes, if scientific progress continues apace I do believe that we will one day make it to the stars, but there will almost certainly be no short cuts. Whereas it now only takes nine months to get to Mars instead of the tens of thousands of years it would take at the speed of a Columbus era sailing ship, there will likely be no equivalent increase in speed as we head into interstellar space.

While this may be true, it would be a new development. In the past, speed, and many other measures of technology, have increased exponentially or even super-exponentially with time. I have not seen it done, but if you were to plot the speed of human transportation from foot, horseback, boat, car, jet, and rocket vs. time, I think you would see that quite clearly. To suppose that this trend would stop now of all times, well before the light-speed barrier, would be reasonable, but clearly pessimistic.

One breakthrough that I see coming is that of superautomation (A term that I like, but which is getting a bit dated, see here for a view from the last century: http://www.peoplescapitalism.org/book/chapter05.cfm).
Superautomation brought to its final conclusion would lead to self-replicating machines that would leverage exponential growth to enable engineering at ANY scale. Suddenly all those giant lenses, mirrors, solar arrays, lasers, etc. that make beamed energy interstellar travel so mindboggling may be within easy reach. There certainly is enough space in space (and material, too) to build all these things.

Interstellar Bill December 4, 2011 at 13:56

Stevo

Thank you for the kind words and your trenchant summary.
My format is for the rapidity of the busy reader.

The Star Child (end of 2001) must leave the Solar-System nest
before He grows too big.

Duncan Ivry December 4, 2011 at 16:12

tacitus, when you say “I would love nothing more than to witness a scientific breakthrough that make interstellar travel feasible in the short term (or even medium term) but I am sanguine about our chances”, I completely agree.

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