The Long Result

by Paul Gilster on February 11, 2013

I conceived an early love for Tennyson, but it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I ran into his “Locksley Hall,” which contains lines many science fiction fans are familiar with:

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time;

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:

When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—

and so on. The poem is the lament of a soldier returning to the places of his boyhood and eventually turning his thoughts, and his resolve, on the future. When I read the line ‘the long result of time,’ I realized that it was here that I found resonance with the poet. The idea of a remote futurity and the need to build its foundations now was a powerful motivator.

Building Structures That Last

A sense of that futurity pervaded our recent sessions at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Huntsville. Several speakers alluded to instances in human history where people looked well beyond their own generation, a natural thought for a conference discussing technologies that might take decades if not centuries to achieve. We talked about a solar power project that might take 35 years, or perhaps 50 (much more about this in coming days).

chartres2

The theme became explicit when educator and blogger Mike Mongo talked about getting interstellar issues across to the public, referring to vast projects like the pyramids and the great cathedrals of Europe. Cathedrals are a fascinating study in their own right, and it’s worth pausing on them as we ponder long-term notions. Although they’re often considered classic instances of people building for a remote future, some cathedrals were built surprisingly quickly. Anyone who has stood in awe at the magnificent lines of Chartres southwest of Paris is surprised to learn that it came together in less than 60 years (the main structure in a scant 26), though keep in mind that this was partly a reconstruction of an earlier structure that dated back to 1145.

Image: The great cathedral at Chartres.

With unstinting public support, such things could happen even with the engineering of the day, creating what historians now view as the high point of French Gothic art. Each cathedral, of course, tells its own tale. Salisbury Cathedral was completed except for its spire in 45 years. Other cathedrals took longer. Notre Dame in Paris was the work of a century, as was Lincoln Cathedral, while the record for cathedral construction surely belongs to Cologne, where the foundation stone was laid in 1248. By the time of the Reformation 300 years later, the roof was still unfinished, and later turmoil pushed the completion of the cathedral all the way into the 19th Century, with many stops and starts along the way.

Remember, too, that the cathedral builders lived at a time when the average lifespan was in the 30s. The 15-year old boy who started working on the foundation of a cathedral might have hoped to see its consecration but he surely knew the odds didn’t favor it. Humans are remarkably good at this kind of thing, even if the frenetic pace and short-term focus of our times makes us forget it. Robert Kennedy pointed out to me at the conference that the Dutch dike system has been maintained for over 500 years, and can actually be traced back as far as the 9th Century. The idea of technology-building across generations is hardly something new to our civilization.

The ‘long result’ context is an interesting one in which to place our interstellar thinking. Naturally we’d like to make things happen faster than the 4000-year plus journeys I talked about on Friday with worldships, though my guess is that as the species becomes truly spacefaring and begins to differentiate, we’ll see colonies aboard O’Neill-class cylinders holding thousands, many of the colonists being people who will spend less and less time on a planetary surface. At some point, it would be entirely natural to see one of these groups decide to head into the interstellar deep. They would be, after all, taking their world with them, a world that was already home.

Evolutionary Change in Space

Gerald Driggers is a retired engineer and current science fiction author who worked with Gerald O’Neill in the 1970s. I see him as worldship material because he has chosen for the last seventeen years to live on a boat, saying “It was the closest thing I could get to a space ship.” Driggers believes we can begin our interstellar work by getting humans to Mars, where they will be faced with many of the challenges that will attend much longer-term missions. We must, after all, build a system-wide infrastructure, mastering the complexities of power generation and resource extraction on entirely new scales, before we can truly hope to go interstellar.

And what happens to humans as they begin working in extreme environments? Evolution doesn’t stop when we leave the planet, as Freeman Dyson is so fond of pointing out. These are changes that should be beneficial, says Driggers. “Evolutionary steps toward becoming interstellar voyagers reduce the chances for human failures on these journeys. We’re going to change, and we will continue to change as we look toward longer voyages. The first humans to arrive around another star system probably won’t be like anybody in the audience today.” Responding to evolutionary change, Martians may make the best designers and builders of interstellar craft.

driggers_hsv

Image: Gerald Driggers discussing a near-term infrastructure that will one day support interstellar missions.

Get it right on Mars, in other words, and we get it right elsewhere and learn the basics of infrastructure building all the way to the Kuiper Belt, with active lunar settlements and plentiful activity among the asteroids. Along the way we adapt, we change. Driggers’ worst-case scenario has Martian settlements delayed until the mid-22nd Century, but he is hopeful that the date can be moved up and the infrastructure begun.

All of which brings me back to something Mike Mongo talked about. We are not going to the stars ourselves, but we can inspire and train people who will solve many of the technical problems going forward, just as they train the next generation. One of these generations will one day train the crew of the first human interstellar mission, or if we settle on robotics, the controllers who will manage our first probes. Placing ourselves in the context of the long result acknowledges our obligation to future generations as we begin putting foundation stones in place.

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{ 22 comments }

ljk February 11, 2013 at 11:44

Richard Obousy’s report on the TVIW 2013, including mention of some guy named Paul Gilster:

http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/tviw-2013/

James D. Stilwell February 11, 2013 at 14:11

The Tennyson poem ‘works’ inside the novel….it’s going in now….Thanx….

A. A. Jackson February 11, 2013 at 14:27

“Life like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley –

Mike February 11, 2013 at 16:07

Within the next 50 years I expect to see life-extension therapies coming online – advances in regenerative medicine and gene therapy may target both germline and somatic cells. If this does occur, then I imagine a significant extension in life expectancy will naturally lead to a longer-term outlook for the human race. If you have a 100s of years of life to look forward to, then you can afford to work on decade-long projects and undertake some “deep” planning.

As for biological evolution in space, I am not so sure. We are getting very good at keeping babies with all sorts of pathologies alive. Since (natural) selection by definition, selects those most suited for the immediate environment, we’re not really giving it a chance to operate. In this context, I think any genetic adaptation of humans to space will have to come from human technologies.

NS February 11, 2013 at 17:08

“…the average lifespan was in the 30s. The 15-year old boy who started working…”

Actually it was high infant/childhood mortality that made the average lifespan so short. If you survived to age 15 your chances of living to an advanced age were fairly good. Admittedly not medieval times, but I had ancestors in the 16/1700s who lived into their 70s and 80s.

Many of the examples you cite of long-term projects had short to medium-term paybacks with the added gravy of long-term usefulness. I remain skeptical that we can or should build things that MAY be useful in the future but give no present (i.e. within our own lifetimes) return. The best way to build for the future is to build for the present and pass along as many tools/resources as possible to our descendants so they can do the same. Sadly we don’t even seem to be doing that much.

Paul Gilster February 11, 2013 at 18:11

I’ll have to disagree, NS. If you survived to 15 in 13th Century Britain, your chances of hitting 40 were probably OK, but I doubt the same could be said for 70. The 15-year old in a world like that, where some buildings took many decades to construct, wouldn’t have assumed he’d necessarily live to see the final result, assuming he was joining the project in the beginning. Of course, some did. Would love to see data on this, though — it’s not something I ever got into when I was doing medieval studies (and that was a long time ago, too!)

I take your point, though, about short- to medium-term paybacks.

NS February 11, 2013 at 18:31

Well, here’s some stats:

http://apps.business.ualberta.ca/rfield/lifeexpectancy.htm

They suggest that (other than during the Black Death) a male who survived to 21 could expect to live into his 60s or even early 70s. Calling that an advanced age was pushing it (I don’t feel it is from the perspective of 56!) but it’s not young either.

Alex Tolley February 11, 2013 at 18:42

What would be the equivalent socio-economic system to the pyramid and cathedral builders that could be mapped to star ship building and flight? Our current system which is primarily capitalistic tends not to have long time horizons. “Maximizing value over the long term” usually means for no more than a 5-10 year horizon, often much less. Does it need a powerful institution like the Catholic church as a patron, to shield it from the turmoil of the commercial world?

While the idea of star flight is analogous to the dream of flight, I suspect that it will evolve naturally as a result of our solar system civilization as the capability becomes available and affordable.

Paul Gilster February 11, 2013 at 18:56

NS, thanks for the link. I dug around a bit and came up with another one, from which this quote:

“The estimates of life expectancy at the age of 25 years for tenants who were and who were probably not affected by the black death differ by just a couple of years and the confidence intervals overlap; we cannot conclude that the black death shortened the length of life of tenants-in-chief. Russell (1948) estimated the life expectancy at the age of 25 years for tenants who reached 25 years of age between 1301 and 1325 and between 1326 and 1350 as 23.5 and 21.4 years respectively. His estimates differ by a couple of years from ours.”

This is from Jonker, “Estimation of life expectancy in the Middle Ages”:

http://www.few.vu.nl/~majonker/publications/IPM.pdf

It’s so hard to get a read on all this, and I see estimates all over the place. What I like about Jonker’s study is that he used data on land-holders, where the information is preserved — his results are skewed toward longer lifespans because of the economic benefits these people enjoyed and he notes that he is computing the lifespans of “…the higher ranks of English society.” The data come from land-holder records in the reign of Henry III and focus on ‘tenants-in-chief’ (landholders owning land from the Crown). So at least we have some additional data to work with, though the lifespans of poorer classes must have been shorter.

Paul Gilster February 11, 2013 at 20:21

Al Jackson quotes Shelley:

“Life like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.”

Once again, my friend, I am struck by how much we have in common! Hope to see you in Dallas.

jkittle February 11, 2013 at 22:01

the 1.1% solution
I would like to get some feedback on a long view proposal. I would lke to start a petition at the whitehouse .gov site to 1) fund Nasa ast a modest 1.1% of the goverment budget and 2) prioritize exploration of Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a colony there. 3) A third goal of expanding human knowledge and presence outward toward the stars.
Can anyone help craft language? this is the long view…

NS February 11, 2013 at 22:53

Yes, it looks like the info I found was at the high end of a range of estimates. The table was based on a rather small number of records, and apparently only for aristocrats (a quick glance at the source shows it was derived from books of peerages and baronetcies, with the information being gathered in the mid-19th century). The same writer estimated that agricultural workers had HIGHER life expectancies (!), which he accounted for by their doing physical labor outdoors and being unable to afford to be as self-indulgent. Dunno about that.

Jaap February 12, 2013 at 9:26

A good book about building a cathedral is The Pillars of the Earth from Ken Follett.

Greg February 12, 2013 at 10:41

Alex said, “Our current system which is primarily capitalistic tends not to have long time horizons.”

I don’t believe that being ‘capitalistic’ as the biggest reason for short returns on investment. I do believe that societies expectations for ‘immediate gratification’ may have more to do with it. Which is typically driven by the rapidly advancing knowledge base we’ve been in the past 100 years or so.

johnq February 12, 2013 at 12:29

I had recently finished “How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is dying too)” by David P. Goldman when I got to thinking about humanity and religion and perhaps yet another resolution to the Fermi Paradox. There is no question that religion can have survival value, as a tonic for despair if nothing else. Moreover, some religions are more conducive to survival than others. It’s hard to imagine how the colonization (in the early centuries anyway) of the Americas could have taken place outside of the context of religion. This is no doubt controversial, but religion is subject to cultural evolution just like so much of what we take for granted in the human world. We ignore it at our peril. People may not like that fact, I’m not too pleased with it myself, but we have to deal with humanity as it is constituted. And what if we are replaced by robots? Can we be confident that they will have our wanderlust, when precious few of ourselves have it? Without human intentionality, would our descendants go anywhere? Do anything?

One thing we do know is that attempts to find replacements for religion, state and tribe idolatry being the most popular, have had historically disastrous consequences. There is no reason to believe that will change in the future.

So here is the problem. To do any star travel/exploration/colonization program (we’re talking centuries here, the assumption being it will take place at an average rate of expansion ~= .1c) is going to require a huge industrial base and that means lots of productive people dedicated to a project with a high uncertainty of return.

Now, the whole “capitalism” thing doesn’t float a lot of people’s boats, but to create the capital base for a interstellar civilization, there is no other way. The alternatives have been given a thorough trail period about a century now and the results are just hideous. So hopefully, we won’t continue to go there. It gets worse. Collapsing birth rates are making the extinction of the human race in a few centuries (at most) altogether likely.

Conclusion: No people, no stars, nothing.

All of this looks terribly grim, and it is, but Goldman argues however that there is a possible solution, though one you won’t like. I mean you really won’t like it. Okay, the solution is special kind of religion. (I told you, you wouldn’t like it.) This religious form involves a Covenant between God and believer. This is quite new since humankind became aware of death and tried to figure how cope with it. Typically in religions, God is either indifferent or hostile to such an arrangement, a limit placed on God’s presumably infinite powers. For in a covenant, God makes a promise (for eternal life of the believers) — if certain conditions are met. Yeah, there’s always a catch. The covenant binds both parties and historically this kind of religious structure has been a source of sustained, frequently high, birthrates. Religions lacking a covenant are subject to sudden and complete collapse of their birthrate. Too bad for them.

I believe Goldman would concur that for there to be a star-faring civilization (SFC), there has to be a covenant-type religion at its base. Now obviously an SFC would also be highly advanced scientifically and so capitalist you would cry when you think about it. Obviously, I have no idea how to combine a religion of any type, to be blunt, with such an advanced civilization. The polarities are about as antithetical as one can get. Yet in that profound contradiction resides perhaps our only hope. Think of the starship(s) as the cathedrals of the future and maybe I convey the idea properly.

GaryChurch February 12, 2013 at 14:11

“It’s hard to imagine how the colonization (in the early centuries anyway) of the Americas could have taken place outside of the context of religion. This is no doubt controversial, but religion is subject to cultural evolution just like so much of what we take for granted in the human world. We ignore it at our peril.
Think of the starship(s) as the cathedrals of the future and maybe I convey the idea properly.”

I can say I thought about something new today.
Every religion has it’s prophet and I am wondering what kind of person this will be in terms of a “covenant star religion.”

Hubbard started scientology and that is one story but what about just adding on to religions that now exist? This happened with Christianity rising out of Judaism and Buddhism rising out of Hinduism- why not a new religion rising out of a collective of other faiths? The “add-on” to all supernatual belief may be that our destiny is obviously to manage our own immortality. Why is it obvious? Because to have free will and the creativity to achieve this requires the absence of an all-powerful creator. Not only the absence but the invisibility.
We can imagine turning the universe into a time machine that will take us not only back in time to resurrect those that have died but also to take us to a different plane of existence.

GaryChurch February 12, 2013 at 14:43

“I would like to get some feedback on a long view proposal. I would lke to start a petition at the whitehouse .gov site to 1) fund Nasa ast a modest 1.1% of the goverment budget and 2) prioritize exploration of Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a colony there.”

I like the 1.1 percent but not going to Mars. A Moonbase from which to launch nuclear missions is the first priority.

NS February 12, 2013 at 14:56

“I don’t believe that being ‘capitalistic’ as the biggest reason for short returns on investment. I do believe that societies expectations for ‘immediate gratification’ may have more to do with it.”

It’s the creeping separation of investors from what they invest in. Airplane companies are no longer owned by people who love airplanes. Newspapers aren’t run by Charles Foster Kane types who don’t mind losing $1M a year if they can be known as newspaper men. Rate of return has become the only measure of value. This will continue as long as our economy is dominated by an absentee investor class that doesn’t care what it invests in as long as it pays.

Wojciech J February 12, 2013 at 16:25

As others pointed out, cathedrals were built by highly religious people.
Space colonization might(in the longer run) require either highly ideological or religious groups that will be willing to sacrifice their normal lives for something greater. I say in the longer run, since building a worldship, even two-generational one, would require enormous resources of interplanetary civilization.
I know that Mormons were proposed a couple of times as suitable religious group for such an effort(in Leviathan Wakes by: James S.A. Corey, and I think I saw them once in a lecture by renown futurologist Anders Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong about Fermi Paradox). One could also imagine some future organization based on Quiverfull groups being interested in space colonization).

http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2012/02/do-dyson-spheres-and-von-neumann-probes.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiverfull

Wojciech J February 12, 2013 at 18:28

As for long term planning, I would propose something more of interest to those interest in interstellar travel(while interplanetary one is important and would need to happen first, this topic is too detailed to discuss fully here).
I prefer a realistic, general view of goals that should be achieved.The technologies needed should support each other in a feedback-the same technologies we would push for detecting exoplanet would help interplanetary exploration and creating a space based industry and vice versa.In this way nothing is too dependent on each other or competion.
Within 15 years-development and bringing to function telescopes both in space and on ground allowing us to detect exoplanets within 100 light years from Sol System, including Earth-sized planets. This would go in hand with our ability to operate complex systems beyond Earth orbit, have cheaper access to launch vehicles
Within 25 years-development of telescopes allowing us to analyze atmospheres in detected planets with focus on biomarkers. This would require far more complex robotic systems to manage precise maneuvering of space telescopes(hypertelescopes). As such it would help in efforts of asteroid mining, satellite recovery and remote operations.
Within 50 years-telescopes are brought online that are capable of taking images of planets in our near neighborhood, especially those with biomarkers. Such images would allow us to see continents, biosphere cover like forests or plankton filled oceans, change of vegetation during seasons etc(of course provided it exists). Remote(and I mean very, very remote) possibility exists for detection of alien civilizations(although I doubt any are nearer than thousands of light years away if at all). Technologies would require advanced robotics, maintenance and repair operations in space and smart AI
Within 75-100 years-construction of unmanned probe capable of reaching one of the nearer systems. To be cost effective such probe should be capable of more than flyby, and also limited data collection on the ground by landers. Technologies gained would be energy development and construction, near semi-aware AI(although something with termite or ant intelligence could be good as well) and self-repairing artificial systems. And that is for a very small probe, not a grand spaceship.

Rob Henry February 12, 2013 at 19:43

I always thought that those cathedrals were built to display the prowess of a city in technological ability, and that piety was secondary. As such, I thought that they had immediate utility in displaying what they could do now (rather than what their ancestors could do), and both encouraging local investment and local pride. I agree that the end of the Cathedral building period marked a decline in society, but an accompanying decline of religiosity might have been more symptom than cause.

To muddy the waters further, I note that capitalism has its roots in a morality that is peculiar to Christianity. Like many religious men before or since, John the Baptist might have preached “if you have two coats, you should give one away”, but Jesus preached that if you had one you could give it away. There is no concept of fairness in Christian charity, and there is no possibility of third party intervention to decide on a “fair” distribution. Under capitalism, by abolishing monopolies, even the greedy are guided to serve the community, so the catch phrase “greed is good” is a perversion of these principles.

Perhaps then religion is not as important as a common moral code that flows from it. It has often been noted that capitalism has emerged triumphant over all other systems of economic management, so I feel that it is timely to add that encouraging the charity of individuals, the maintenance of the community as a whole, and encouraging private initiatives for long term goals is all part of it.

@johnq, yes attempts to replace old religion with new ideas have generally been a disaster, but surely we can move just far enough from the secular state to promote aspects of the Christian moral code without promoting Christianity. Perhaps that can save Europe. Anyhow, the ability of America to support far more children than Europe, spend a couple of percent more of gdp than them in defending the free world, then still have surpluses for the likes of Apollo and the Marshall Plan, has long fascinated me. Could it all be due to Americans tendency for an arrogant and self-centred belief in their own moral compass? And should the rest of us follow their lead?

Wojciech J February 13, 2013 at 14:23

“Anyhow, the ability of America to support far more children than Europe, spend a couple of percent more of gdp than them in defending the free world, then still have surpluses for the likes of Apollo and the Marshall Plan, has long fascinated me”
It’s not that USA(not America) can support more children, than Europe(which is a continent of many countries and thus not comparable to one single state), but that people are more inclined to have children for various reasons.
In any case it would be a controversial model as it is far behind all other countries of developed world in life expectancy(and even behind countries like Jordan or Bosnia), while having highest homicide rate among Western countries-a topic which is better left undiscussed on the site here.

” Could it all be due to Americans tendency for an arrogant and self-centred belief in their own moral compass? And should the rest of us follow their lead?”
Most world powers have this belief in one form or another, Chinese have their historic legacy, Russians have their Third Rome and historical endurance and so on.
A healthy competition and diversity of cultures is in my opinion a good model of space exploration, I wouldn’t want it centralized under one single worldview.

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