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Deep Space and Human Motivations

If you charted the appearance of certain stars in books through the last two centuries, which ones would get the most hits? It’s an interesting question that Greg Laughlin (UC-Santa Cruz) ponders on his systemic site, using Google’s Ngram viewer as his tool. Ngram lets you plug in the terms of your choice and chart their appearance, using the vast collection scanned into Google Books. When Laughlin plugged in Alpha Centauri, it seemed a safe term to use. The closest star(s) to our own are always going to get a fair amount of attention. He added Proxima Centauri, Beta Pictoris, 51 Pegasi and 61 Cygni.

The chart (shown below) is a bit startling when you realize that the blue spike at its left represents not Alpha Centauri but 61 Cygni, but everything becomes clear when you add in the fact that 61 Cygni was the first star other than the Sun to have its distance measured, making it a major player in 19th Century astronomical references. Greg also reminds us of the Scottish polymath Thomas Henderson, a lawyer and cartoonist who wound up putting his interest in science to good use when his work on measuring longitudes caught the eye of the Royal Navy. He would soon find himself at the Cape of Good Hope, working on parallax measurements of Alpha Centauri.

Henderson pegged the distance to the bright southern star at 3.25 light years, not bad for an early parallax measurement, but he was concerned about the accuracy of his finding and held back long enough for Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel to publish his own parallax measurements of 61 Cygni, which Bessel worked out to be 10.4 light years away (about ten percent less than the true figure). Henderson would publish his work in 1839 but forever lost his chance to be the first to measure the distance to another star. Laughlin’s graph shows the continuing prominence of 61 Cygni in the 19th Century, but Alpha Centauri then moves past it to claim first place.

As to the others, it’s obvious from the chart that 51 Pegasi is a late player, and just as obvious why: It was in 1995, when 51 Pegasi begins to turn up in these references, that Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the star. The duo were working with radial velocity methods at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence, and they had found the first exoplanet around a main sequence star. You can see how useful Google’s Ngram can be at measuring the currency of ideas (and for those of us interested in literary studies, you can see how helpful it is to bring a quantitative analysis tool to the field — see the reference at the end for more on this).

Now 61 Cygni has been on my mind in recent days because one of the books I’m reading is Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, a novel in which the planetary system around this star figures as a destination in one of the sub-plots of the book. Reynolds is much taken with ‘generation ships,’ the enormous vessels Les Shepherd talked about in his famous 1952 paper on getting humans to the stars. But the novel also includes later technologies called ‘lighthuggers’ that close to within a small percentage of the speed of light. Here his protagonist looks out on a cluster of starships gathered in the Epsilon Eridani system:

There was something heartbreakingly beautiful about the lights of distant ships… It was something that touched both on human achievement and the vastness against which those achievements seemed so frail. It was the same thing whether the lights belonged to caravels battling the swell on a stormy horizon or a diamond-hulled starship which had just sliced its way through interstellar space.

Caravels? The reference to the technology of Henry the Navigator confirms my suspicion that Reynolds had been reading that wonderful volume Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience before he wrote the book. This collection of essays is the proceedings of the Conference on Interstellar Migration that was held at Los Alamos in 1983, a gathering that was unusually multidisciplinary — biologists came, as did physicists, humanists, philosophers. It remains a classic text that should be on the shelf of anyone following interstellar studies.

Henry, although he did no navigating himself, was obsessed with extending the early journeys of Portuguese sailors further and further down the African coast, financing expeditions and bringing astronomers and cartographers together to work out ways to further the explorations. After Henry’s death in 1460, his successors sponsored still more journeys, using a technology that combined sturdy, ocean-going hulls with lateen sails and a sternpost rudder, a mixture of ship design that drew on northern Europe as well as the methods of Mediterranean sailors. Thus the caravela, which offered a way to beat back home against predominately northerly winds.

Anthropologist Ben Finney presented his thoughts on the caravel at the conference, and went on to speak about the motivational factors that drove visionary explorers in that era:

Without the contributions from the developing scientific and technological movement of the day, Europe could never have resolved its crises through overseas expansion. Exploration and science were intimately linked from the beginning. In fact, the recruitment by Portugal of mathematicians, astronomers and other scientists to help seamen navigate uncharted waters was one of the first, if not the first, major instance in which science was applied systematically to solve a practical problem. Clearly, the technological attitude then developing in the West, with its extreme readiness to apply scientific findings to anything from navigation to gunnery, combined with the search for new sources of wealth to produce European overseas expansion. (p. 204)

Reynolds, whose science fiction offers up star-faring cultures enmeshed in the vast tapestry of space opera, is relating a still medieval technology, one that fed into a renaissance of exploration, to a far future scenario in which humans have crossed gulfs immeasurably greater than those that faced Henry. The question of how to get the thinking of society from here to there is what propels Finney’s analysis. How do we motivate and tune technology to open up such opportunities? Will we be able to make it happen in space?

Having a desirable destination is part of all this. On that score, it’s interesting to return to Laughlin’s analysis. After finishing with Ngram, he goes on to use Google Trends to look at the things we search for online and the volume of news references to those terms. Alpha Centauri shows steady traffic, but Gliese 581 continues to spike. It’s done so three times in the last three years, its spikes aligned with the various claims for habitable planets around the star. The question will face us soon: Exactly how will the public react to the confirmed discovery of a truly Earth-like planet? Will it awaken a new era in exploration that pushes our technologies into interstellar space?

On Ngram and its possibilities, see Michel et al., “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” published online in Science, 16 December 2010 (abstract). Adrian Berry tells Thomas Henderson’s story in The Giant Leap: Mankind Heads for the Stars (Tor, 2002). For the conference proceedings, see Finney and Jones, Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, University of California Press, 1985.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Scott G January 3, 2011, 12:54

    The discovery of a second Earth definitely provides an opportunity for us to pursue advanced space travel technologies. But whether or not we do so surely depends on the political and economic climates at the time.

    My hope is that, following such a discovery, there would be a strong push to develop the technology to map the planet — via a mission out to the Sun’s gravitational focus — in a manner similar to how we a Google Earth map of our own planet. How exciting would that be?

    As for other events that have the potential to excite us about space travel — I think landing humans on Mars ranks up there, as well as an ice-penetrating mission to Europa, or certainly the discovery of microbial extraterrestrial life within our own solar system.

  • Istvan January 3, 2011, 15:24

    My feeling is that an interesting target also must be coupled with proximity for it to generate the groundswell of support we enthusiasts hope for. I’m deeply concerned that our mutual culture is literally too lazy to step up and be excited if the target seems too far away.

    Something within ten light-years may still be close enough to inspire people, and make them believe that their grandchildren should have reason to care. I fear even something as distant as Gleise 581 (c. 20 ly?) may be so far away as to generate only momentary interest from the public.

    I’m extremely interested to see results of future studies that can give us some solid data on perhaps the twenty nearest stars, and of course I’m even more eager to hear results from the teams now working specifically on aCen (with WISE and nearer brown dwarfs a “dark horse”), in the hope that these results will give us the target we hope will inspire fresh political will toward space technology advances.

  • Tarmen January 3, 2011, 16:49

    With the discovery of a ‘New Earth’ (or similar to Earth), we are looking at a migration question. I just read a history about various migrations. At first rumor drives tiny groups. Usually of single men, or single families. Some will die. Soon, some better more complete information will find its way back home. Then some larger or appropriate-sized groups will follow the first trail breakers. At last, after a ‘ new home under the Sun’ is established, whole populations will seek to move there.
    By then the earliest movers will find that their new world is getting uncomfortably crowded, and a few sons will move on still farther, carrying on the migration tradition by now established.
    In fact, I think this is what we in the New World are now doing, in our small ways.

  • Randy McDonald January 3, 2011, 16:55

    This is ingenious research!

    The nearest stars will get most attention, but it’s going to be the nearest stars with established non-cataloguish name recognition–not just Alpha Centauri and 61 Cygni, but Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti and 40 Eridani–that’ll be most important.

  • andy January 3, 2011, 18:05

    Reynolds is much taken with ‘generation ships,’ the enormous vessels Les Shepherd talked about in his famous 1952 paper on getting humans to the stars.

    The comment I remember most from the Revelation Space series about generation ships went something along the lines of “Sky’s Edge was the only planet settled by generation ship. There are some mistakes you don’t make twice.”

  • Michael Spencer January 4, 2011, 9:37


    Reynolds is one of my favorites, and I offer this: be prepared to read each of his many very dense and long novels. At least twice. Try to read them in order.

    Then, after a reprieve with Jack McDevitt, dive into Peter Hamilton…

  • Paul Gilster January 4, 2011, 10:53

    Michael, I’m reading Reynolds in sequence, so I’ve just begun. Have already read about half the McDevitt’s, but no Peter Hamilton books yet. Much to look forward to, and I’ve received many good tips from readers like you.

  • kurt9 January 17, 2011, 17:59

    I bought the “interstellar Migration” book through Amazon (for a whopping $2 plus shipping!!) and am currently reading it. What it makes very clear is that effective interstellar settlement requires the development of the kind of self-replicating manufacturing technology based on 3-D fabbers, electronics, displays, and MEMS made from self-assembly chemical processes such that you don’t need the football field sized $3 billion fab, and other manufacturing technologies so that you can actually settle a new planet in style and not have to go back to an 1850’s life style in order to make it. I guess drexlerian nanotechnology is the extreme version of this manufacturing capability, although it may not be possible.

    The development of this capability, whether it be nanotechnology or not, is going to take another 2-3 decades to develop no matter what. So, early development of breakthrough propulsion physics is not going to be of much help anyways (although it would create a greater incentive to develop the manufacturing capability that otherwise).

  • ljk March 27, 2011, 3:07

    A poster giving audiences in 1918 an idea of just how big the Universe really is: