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Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience

Centauri Dreams returns to its normal schedule on Monday, following a week devoted to the emergence of the Tau Zero Foundation. Next week will be a busy one, with a new and significant study of Proxima Centauri, a more detailed than ever look at the complicated happenings around Beta Pictoris, and a paper presenting a fast, beamed propulsion mission to Alpha Centauri serving as the highlights.

Thanks to all who wrote asking for further information about the Tau Zero Foundation and its plans to support research practitioners in work that may one day lead to interstellar flight. I’ll continue to follow Foundation news here as the group works towards the launch of its own Web site. It’s heartening to see the spirit of exploration embraced by readers and advocated on the Net, as noted, for example, in this post on Brian Wang’s Advanced Nanotechnology site. A snippet:

If we had the will we would mount a D-Day scale invasion of space. The current space effort, as noble as it has been, was to send a handful of people out with car batteries and camping generators. This is not enough. We need to send out thousands with gigawatt powerplants and equipment to build industries. It should be about a historically large and grand vision, that will invigorate America and civilized nations. It will give a powerful reason for children to engage in math and science.

Interstellar Migration book

As we contemplate moving forward in interstellar research, it’s important to emphasize where exploration fits into the broad pattern of human history. A book that anyone serious about interstellar issues should have on the shelves is Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, edited by Ben R. Finney and Eric M. Jones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). This volume is made up of the proceedings of the Conference on Interstellar Migration held at Los Alamos in May of 1983, an event attended by practitioners in a wide spectrum of sciences, from astrophysics to anthropology. Its insights into societal migration, emerging technologies and our evolving human future frame a debate that will engage us throughout this century and beyond.

Here, from an essay by Ben Finney titled “Voyagers into Ocean Space,” a comparison of our push into space with the experience of ancient generations:

The whole history of Hominidae has been one of expansion from an East African homeland over the globe and of developing technological means to spread into habitats for which we are not biologically adapted. Various peoples in successive epochs have taken the lead in this expansion, among them the Polynesians and their ancestors. During successive bursts lasting a few hundred years, punctuated by long pauses of a thousand or more years, these seafarers seem to have become intoxicated with the discovery of new lands, with using a voyaging technology they alone possessed to sail where no one had ever been before.

Once their attempts to cope with the rising sea levels of the Holocene committed them to sea, the first pioneers of this lineage of seafarers had good reasons to keep going. The continental mind set of their distant ancestors would have faded as successive generations pushed father and farther east, to be eventually replaced by the more accurate view that the world was covered with water through which bits of land were scattered. They therefore knew that in pushing into the open ocean they were entering not a vast empty region but one teeming with islands. What is more, after leaving the Bismarck Archipelago and outdistancing their less sea-adapted rivals, they would have realized that before them lay an ocean of islands accessible to themselves alone. What more invitation did they need?

These Stone Age voyagers may be our closest analogue to future interstellar travelers. Finney believes that the early pioneers who push into the Solar System will have so thoroughly adapted to the space environment that they — and not those who have remained behind on Earth — will be the ones likely to move on out into the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, and eventually to nearby stars. It’s an incisive and insightful comparison. Like the ancient Polynesians, we stand on the shore of a limitless ocean, and the belief here is that interstellar travel is hard-wired into our genes, no more stoppable than the tide.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Armchair Anarchist July 2, 2006, 13:14

    I concur with the pioneering comparisons completely. It might serve to draw an analogy with de Gama and Columbus here, in that explorers of their ilk were willing to go against the superstitions and assumptions that the vast majority of their societies held. They went on out into unmapped territories that were believed to be replete with dangers – and indeed they were, though not with the monsters etc. that people expected to find, but with challenges which, although more mundane, stretched their courage, strength and will to near breaking point.

    The colonisation of space will be the same, I think – only the dreamers, the visionaries and the desparate will go at first. Once the trail has been broken, the others will follow. But by then the pioneers will have moved further out. Unlike this beautiful but finite planet we live on, there is no perceivable end to the untamed wilderness that awaits us beyond the gravity well. Let’s get moving, before it’s too late.

  • Administrator July 2, 2006, 13:26

    That’s one of the more beautiful phrases I’ve run into recently — “the untamed wilderness that awaits us beyond the gravity well.” Nicely put!

  • Adam Crowl July 3, 2006, 6:15

    My State Library has a copy of that book – I’m sure I’ve flicked through it years ago. Will have to put in a request via a lending library.

    As for interstellar destiny, the emergence of intelligence and a species destined to fill the Hubble Sphere is required by Frank Tipler’s Omega Point theory – in all possible Universes with the Omega Point end of time such species MUST arise for the laws of physics themselves to work. If physics is for us, who can stand against us?

  • Robert Bradbury July 3, 2006, 13:56

    Statements such as “Finney believes that the early pioneers … will have so thoroughly adapted to the space environment” make sense only once you realize that the only “thoroughly adapted” pioneers will be pure information (i.e. artificial intelligences or mind uploaded humans) because only they can have sufficient redundancy that they will be able to tolerate the hazards that space imposes and exist there with minimal costs in terms of matter and energy.

    There will be no “those who have remained behind on Earth” The Earth will have been disassembled. By the time we have the resources to migrate around the galaxy there should be a universal understanding that remaining in a “pre-ultimate-entity” state is pointless. They will most likely have died out having realized that bio-humans were simply an interesting step in evolutionary process (as were bacteria) but ultimately an inefficient use of resources.

    Again, “…move on out into the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud,” makes no sense. They will have been disassembled and used for computronium.

    Finney and almost all authors writing about SETI, interstellar travel, etc. assume an extremely anthrocentric perspective. They do not understand the consequences of molecular nanotechnology, self-replicating systems and intelligence augmentation. They are stuck with a “Mayflower” mind set. Island or continental colonizations do not occur when you must leave a significant fraction of your knowledge base and skill set behind. Interstellar colonizations that must sacrifice 99.999999999…% of what is available to the colonizers makes no sense. [Think of ending up in a new star system with no links to what Google, Wikipedia or the web will have evolved into.]

    The statement “eventually to nearby stars” has to be constrained to a meaning other than the way it is commonly understood. What we currently consider to be “nearby” is not nearly close enough. Interstellar “travel” will wait until the stars pass close enough (probably within parsecs) to allow efficient splitting of the civilization. Advanced civilizations multiply by splitting off a significant fraction of the civilization (as do microorganisms) not by sending out little canoes or ships.

  • Administrator July 3, 2006, 14:42

    For more on Robert Bradbury’s thinking about computronium and its uses, see:


    which contains a discussion of his fascinating, mega-scale Matrioshka Brain concept, and links to numerous articles.

  • Armchair Anarchist July 3, 2006, 16:24

    Ah ha! I’d been wondering where Charles Stross dug up that particular idea from. I sense a late night in front of the TFT coming on…

    Mr. Bradbury, you seem to have some fascinating ideas, and I look forward to reading through them.

  • Brett Holman July 4, 2006, 3:29

    Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience is a unique and fascinating book, which I was very pleased to find in a secondhand bookshop one day, but the conference it grew out of took place nearly 25 years ago. While I don’t think the future course of history is necessarily as certain as the singularitarians make out, clearly it’s time for another look at the topic in the light of nanotech etc. (Interstellar Migration and the Transhuman Experience perhaps …) Maybe a job for the Tau Zero Foundation?

  • Administrator July 4, 2006, 9:46

    An outstanding idea for the Foundation, and I thank you for the thought!

  • Adam Crowl July 5, 2006, 6:54

    One point, in defense of “anthropocentrism”, is that such Brains are at best an extrapolation and not Destiny.

    Also humans each begin as tiny, tiny fractions of the Whole they become. So too interstellar colonisers versus Brain World building. You’re looking at the wrong end of the lifeline.

  • Adam Crowl July 5, 2006, 18:05

    Finally, the limits of computation mean that even fairly simple proteins are beyond perfect emulation by mere computation. Actual physical ‘models’ that replicate them perfectly would be needed – thus not effectively different from the real thing. There will be always something more to learn even for august entities like Matrioshka Brains. Always a role for actual exploration.

    That being said there’s no reason why civilisations that have become Dyson Brains should do more than sending out self-replicating von Neumann probes, which would allow every star in the Galaxy to be continually monitored ‘on location’ within a few million years. There’s enough free mass in our Solar System for a vNM to arrive every thousand years, make a new probe or 3, and then sit and watch. Millions of vNMs could be orbitting in the Kuiper Belt and we’d never know. Especially nanotech versions.

    However considering the degradation of ‘genetic’ information via cosmic rays I’d say any truly long term vNMs (>10,000 years) would need to be macroscopic, using something more durable than molecular media. Some kind of Babbage machine with large/small mechanical memory might be durable over billennia?

  • ljk July 6, 2006, 11:23

    In addition to Robert Bradbury’s paradigm-smashing concepts
    regarding the evolution of intelligent life, here are some other
    ideas on what may happen down the road of existence.

    Dr. Hugo de Garis also considers that the next intelligence
    on and off Earth will be what he calls Artilects. And it may
    not be a clean birth, but it will be necessary if we want life
    on this planet to survive:


    See in particular:


    Milan Cirkovic discusses the possibility that ETI are not
    communicating with us or anyone else because when they
    advance to the point where they have done and seen
    everything they want to do, they just stop. Or what
    we regard as science and technology just becomes
    second nature to them and they essentially “de-evolve”.


    Why aren’t we hearing from ETI? Because it’s a really big
    Universe, we’re pretty darn new on the block, and if they are
    truly advanced beings, why would they talk to us?

    We have to evolve to even have a chance of not only surviving
    but reaching other minds in the Cosmos.

  • ljk January 28, 2008, 11:43

    Man-made Changes Bring About New Epoch In Earth’s History

    ScienceDaily (Jan. 28, 2008) — Geologists from the University
    of Leicester propose that humankind has so altered the Earth
    that it has brought about an end to one epoch of Earth’s history
    and marked the start of a new epoch.

    Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams at the University of Leicester
    and their colleagues on the Stratigraphy Commission of the
    Geological Society of London have presented their research
    in the journal GSA Today.

    In it, they suggest humans have so changed the Earth that on
    the planet the Holocene epoch has ended and we have entered
    a new epoch – the Anthropocene.

    Full article here: