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Musings on Imperfection (and an Update)

by Marc Millis

It occurred to me, after I wrote the post on impartiality and read the resulting comments , that a few other perspectives need to be shared. These encompass the necessity of inspiring visions, playfulness, complimentary contrasts, and tolerance for imperfection. And following that, I realized it was about time for another status update on Tau Zero.

Perfectionism is a neurosis that runs in my family. My dad had it. I have it. My wife and her mom had it. And now my daughters are dealing with it. I see it in many colleagues too. Perfectionism is when striving for ultimate quality exceeds striving for utility. It occurs most when we succumb to rhetoric about ‘excellence’ instead of utility and creativity. At NASA, the term “gold brick” was used to describe this.

I mention this because I’ve been making those same mistakes again while trying to convert Tau Zero from a volunteer, donation-based network into a fully functioning nonprofit corporation. Many of you have noticed the lack of updates on our public Tau Zero web pages (www.tauzero.aero). We have also not yet succeeded in bringing in sufficient funds to implement our next-step plans. While some of this is due to external circumstances and my learning curve of transitioning from a government worker into an entrepreneur, some of these shortcomings are due to my own perfectionism. I’ve been focusing too much on getting our next-steps “just right” to the point where I have not gotten things done. My apologies to our supporters. With this posting, changes are underway.

While lamenting on our shortcomings, I took comfort in seeing that Tau Zero is not alone in dealing with such issues. The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society has fallen about a year behind schedule and is still catching up. SETI failed to plan for operational funds for their telescope array, even though they succeeded in getting funds to build the array. The Planetary Society did not succeed at launching their first solar sail mission. And then there is Congress’, the President’s, and NASA’s failing to devise a sustainable space program. This also brings back memories from NASA of meetings where more resources were spent trying to eliminate waste than the amount being wasted (comparing labor cost of those meetings to the topic’s dollars).

Such striving for increased efficiency is more prudent and attainable when producing the same product, over and over (Cola?), than it is in these other types of organizations where each are attempting something that has never been done before. Pioneering work and perfectionism are not a healthy combination.

Bottom line, such imperfections are common. I’ll even go so far as to assert that they are an unavoidable consequence of human endeavors, especially those that are charting new ground. That said, it is a part of our human condition that I am still trying to accept in myself. And with that, I appreciate your patience as I bring Tau Zero into a new, more active era.

Where Tau Zero is Today

Here now is a list of activities of Tau Zero and their status.

(1) GRADUATE STUDENT PROJECTS: One of the recent set of comments on Centauri Dreams was about whether to create an “Interstellar Institute.” Since Tau Zero is not yet bringing in the degree of resources needed to create an institute, and because such an entity might not be the most effective way to spur wide-spread progress, an intermediate, alternative tactic is being implemented. Rather than creating one institute, we are looking to encourage graduate students everywhere to take on some of the unsolved, next-step issues of star flight as their thesis and dissertation topics (covering, “What’s out there?” “How to get there?” and “What does this mean for humanity?”). The first such thesis is already underway, at the USAF Institute of Technology.

Finding interested students is easy. Defining suitable thesis topics to consider and then getting my practitioners lined up to help get the students started, is challenging. Establishing working relations with the universities (their advisor must agree to the thesis topic) is even harder. I’ve started establishing working relations with other universities so that we can jointly apply for grants both for the student and to help pay for the services of our assisting practitioners. It is slow going, but things look promising. I feel this tactic will spur greater progress and broaden opportunities overall and for less cost and effort than creating a Interstellar Institute. I know a lot of students have asked about this. Bear with me as we work through the gory details of making it happen.

(2) MEMBERSHIPS: We are preparing to shift Tau Zero from a ‘Donation-only’ forum to one with annual memberships (est $55). This is to help both with revenue generation and to spur a more productively interactive community. Preparations are underway to: Set up the automatic database required for such actions, include volunteer coordination with that information, and create member benefits (newsletter, free downloads of practitioner presentations, and discounts on Tau Zero emblazoned merchandise).

(3) TAU ZERO STORE: In part to offer member goodies, and for revenue generation, and because we’ve been asked over and over again to offer t-shirts, mugs, and patches, we are setting up a store and designing products. We are also working to prepare “special reports” for sale that translate the journal papers that our practitioners publish into more accessible and readable documents for the non-specialist (this is NOT easy).

(4) REVAMPING TZF WEB: The glitch that blocked editing-access to our public website has been fixed, but creating new content is taking longer than expected. Producing content is easy. Producing digestible, meaningful content that is well organized is harder. We have created a private workspace where our practitioners can jointly prepare content in a wiki-style manner for later posting.

(5) ADVANCING THE STATE OF ART: Many of our practitioners keep making progress on interstellar challenges in their day jobs and on their own time. When they publish, Paul Gilster writes about their work, here, on Centauri Dreams. Related to that, we are asking several of the chapter authors from Frontiers of Propulsion Science to submit Centauri Dreams articles about those chapters and any follow-on work. This includes me writing about space drives.

(6) NETWORKING: Although Tau Zero has an abundant collection of space propulsion and power professionals, we are weak in areas of the humanities, and colony ship technology. I hope to meet more people in these disciplines at the 100-Year Starship Symposium. We are also weak regarding simple administrative support, but have recently made some headway there.

Here now is our current list of practitioners. For Tau Zero purposes, the word practitioner has a specific meaning. Practitioners of TZF work together to support the primary mission to pursue advances beyond the focus of other space organizations, using the challenge of interstellar flight as the driver for revolutionary progress. It is desired that practitioners follow their own instincts and make progress in their respective disciplines. When more than one practitioner shares the same interest/discipline, we urge collaboration to avoid duplication of effort. Better still, we suggest pooling of resources to make more of an impact.

ALSO – here is the opportunity to mix disciplines. For example, to convey complex sci-tech to the public in a responsible manner (factual, non-sensationalist, and absent hype or disdain), the journalists and artists on this list are willing to help the scientists and engineers. Reciprocally, the journalists want better content for their work and can call upon the scientists and engineers here for trustworthy content. Eventually, the suite of practitioners will cover the full gamut of topics pertinent to starflight, yet at present we are underrepresented in many key disciplines, such as colony ship requirements / technologies, the humanities, finance).

Tau Zero Practitioners

  • Karen Anderson: Humanities, science fiction community networking (widow of Poul Anderson, author of Tau Zero)
  • Dana Andrews: Technology, system level engineering and trend analysis
  • Greg Bear: Humanities, science fiction writer
  • James Benford: Technology, power beaming
  • David Brin: Humanities, science fiction writer, provocateur
  • Jean-Luc Cambier: Physics
  • Brice N. Cassenti: Mathematics and engineering
  • Adam Crowl: Mathematics and engineering
  • Eric W. Davis: Physics with specialties in FTL, general relativity and the quantum vacuum
  • Walter de Brouwer: Board member, fundraising, networking
  • Kathryn Denning: Humanities, anthropology
  • Robert H. Frisbee: Technology, comparative assessments
  • Pat Galea: Project Icarus IT support
  • Paul Gilster: Board member, Lead Journalist, and humanities, public education
  • George Hathaway: Experimentalist
  • Steven D. Howe: Technology, nuclear propulsion & power
  • Jonathan Hujsak: Admin assistance, lead IT for Tau Zero
  • Gerald P. Jackson: Physics, antimatter & nuclear
  • Les Johnson: Technology, sails and advanced propulsion, and humanities, writing books for public education
  • Jordin Kare: Technology, system level analyst
  • Larry Klaes: Humanities, journalism & social networking (TZF Facebook fan site maintenance)
  • Geoff Landis: Physics, and humanities, science fiction author
  • Michael R. LaPointe: Technology and physics, specialty in electromagnetics
  • Tim Lawrence: Liaison & assistance, USAF networking
  • Kelvin Long: Project Icarus founder, liaison British Interplanetary Society
  • Claudio Maccone: Mathematics (specialty in transforms & statistics), and project on statistical Fermi-Drake estimations as well as FOCAL mission studies
  • Jordan Maclay : Physics, specialty in quantum vacuum and Casimir experiments
  • Geoff Marcy: Astronomy, specialty in exoplanet hunt
  • Gregory Matloff: Technology, specialty in interstellar probes, and humanities, writing books for public education
  • William V. Meyer: Physics, experimental, small scale
  • Marc G. Millis: Board, founder and Executive Director, and physics, specialty in space drives
  • Frank P. Nagorney: Board, legal issues
  • Robert J. Noble: Technology, secondary propulsion
  • Richard Obousy: Project Icarus, physics
  • Tibor Pacher: Humanities, social networking, Faces from Earth project
  • Bob Romanofsky: Technology, specialty in sensors
  • Aldo Spadoni: Humanities, technology, art and documentaries
  • Alexandre Szames: Humanities, Lead Artist for Tau Zero, history, journalism
  • Martin Tajmar: Physics and advanced propulsion
  • Andreas Tziolas: Project Icarus, physics
  • Edward Zampino: Physics and mathematics

(7) FUND RAISING: The first solicitations to seek philanthropical support went out in 2010 and lessons were learned in that process. Changes are being applied now for future solicitations. I am new to this process and the learning curve is an uphill struggle.

(8) ETC: And lastly, we are responding to all the unexpected things that have come up, like the 100 Year Starship study, the reemergence of NIAC, various conferences, etc. More news on all these things will follow.

Stay with us — we plan to be here for the long haul.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Timothy Huber August 5, 2011, 9:56


    The key ingredient that seems to be missing in your transition from gov work to functional, growing non-profit is any type of marketing or PR roles within the organization. In order to grow, any organization has to compete for attention, and even the best content has to be publicized to get the eyeballs.

    Once you have the public’s attention, the fundraising message needs to be constantly repeated. It is annoying, but if the content is sufficiently interesting, your “audience” will tolerate the fundraising activities.

    My 2 cents…

  • Alex McLin August 5, 2011, 9:59

    Thank you for a frank and honest assessment, Marc. It’s never easy to do a self-analysis but then everything about Tau Zero’s endeavors aren’t easy. It’s truly a grand project that has never been done before.

    I understand how you feel about striving for perfectionism and getting things right the first time. And how it clashes with the reality that we’re charting unknown territory. But it’s an exciting time in history for everybody, both the public and the practitioners, and my own feeling is that I’m content with the idea that one day, the humanity will understand enough to be able to make perfectionism and efficiency an actual possible realistic goal.

    It takes years and years and experience for professionals to get good at their craftsmanship. It’s only natural that the same applies to the humanity as a whole when learning how to do interstellar travel and develop a viable space-faring civilization.

    I am excited to see what will be happening at Tau Zero!

  • kurt9 August 5, 2011, 13:18

    I would suggest an on-line library that consists of relevant papers and research being done in this area.

  • The Cosmist August 5, 2011, 14:46

    That’s an impressive list of practitioners. Maybe what is most needed, though this probably won’t be a popular idea, is inspirational, quasi-religious leadership. I’ve long had the idea that space exploration is a kind of missionary work, a long-term program that is motivated by a cosmic religious sense more than by practical concerns. A spiritual leader with a genius for marketing may be exactly what you need. Scientists often don’t get this, but the ability to inspire is more powerful than any technical idea.

    Also, an Interstellar Institute seems like a great idea. I threw up “Cosmos University” a while back but I don’t have the resources or the time to do it in a serious way. But I do have many ideas for marketing that you may find helpful. Think about symbols, slogans, uniforms, conventions – the whole nine yards. A loose collection of researchers is a start, but successful organizations need much more structure to be successful, methinks.

  • Athena Andreadis August 5, 2011, 14:51

    Remember the engineer’s motto, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    A less abysmal gender ratio would help, too.

  • Emily Condit August 5, 2011, 18:43

    I don’t know much about fundraising but I think I agree with the comment that The Cosmist made regarding a quasi-religious leadership only I wouldn’t call it that. I would say what you need is a charismatic leader, someone who fascinates the public, in order to draw attention to the cause.

    And frankly, Marc, I think it has to be you. This is your passion and your life’s work.

    When I first read The Cosmist’s comment, I was instantly reminded of Aubrey de Grey. He is a scientist in Great Britain who is convinced that mankind can stop the aging process. He has advanced degrees in his areas of study but his theories are highly controversial. I happen to have met him and he is making waves and even appearing on such sites as msnbc.com and other well-established media outlets. The man quite literally sounds insane when he talks about the dream that is near and dear to his heart and he looks like Jesus.

    I’m not saying you should grow your hair out and grow a 10 inch beard, but I think when you approach people in non-scientific circles, which I think is where you may find the most support for your research, you need to approach it more like a child trying to make their dreams come true than as a refined scientist.

    Think of Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s an astrophysicist who hosts Nova specials and frequently appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. He wears vests and ties with planets and stars on them. He makes science fun and he’s the go-to guy for educating the public about new research in the field of astrophysics. You can tell when he talks that he just loves what he does and he does a great job of capturing the public’s child-like fascination with the stars. So many people have dreamed of visiting the stars but no one thinks it’s possible. They go on with their day-to-day lives never knowing that there is anyone out there trying to make it happen.

    But you are, Marc. And I know you have it in you to make this topic fun and accessible to a wide audience. You inspired me when I spent the summer with you as your intern. You can be a whacky dude. You’ve got a miniature race track in your basement. You’ve got a great sense of humor. I still tell stories about those ridiculous contraptions people sent you made out of aluminum and cardboard that were supposedly warp-drive devices. I remember polaroids of fuzzy light blobs taken in someone’s garage that were supposed to be of a homegrown wormhole. You kept all those things because you have an appreciation for the absurd. In a building full of engineers, you were the one that laughed and followed your dreams. YOU are fascinating as well as your work. Most people are inspired by other people, not by cold, hard science.

    My advice would be to capture our imaginations with who you are and what you do. Tap into the layman’s world because there’s a lot of money and exposure to be had there. Be a kid and don’t be afraid to express your joy about what you do. I know you want to be taken seriously as a scientist but you’re in this because the kid in you wants it.

    I would try to get on the Colbert Report if you can. It’s a show on comedy central if you don’t know. Colbert often has guests on who talk about science and he will plug your organization if you can get on. That would mean exposure of your organization to millions of people. But it’s got to be about visiting other worlds. Finding other planets we can live on. That’s what people understand. I watched a science program that talked about a world that had been discovered that scientists think is made of solid water. Not ice but water that is so densely packed due to the planet’s size and gravitational pull that you could walk on it if you could withstand the gravitational pull yourself! That blows my mind. I don’t know how they found that planet or if it’s truly what they think it is but the possibility that it exists is enormously interesting. The science behind it isn’t as interesting even though I love science.

    Anyway, that’s probably more than two cents but I want to see you on my TV set. You’ve got a dream that a lot of people probably share and would be interested in hearing about. Tell them in their terms that you can make that dream come true with their help.

    I’ll always be a fan of you and your work. I hope that all of your effort pays off in spades.

  • Astronist August 5, 2011, 21:26

    Emily, I have to disagree with you quite strongly about finding other planets we can live on, for several reasons. Firstly, if some of our descendants do indeed travel to the stars in person, then by that stage a large fraction of humanity will be living, not on planetary surfaces, but on orbiting space colonies. O’Neill was right: that is where industrial civilisation is heading. That is also where almost all the room for growth within our own Solar System is. And without that transition from a planetary to a space-based species, interstellar flight is unlikely to happen: the experience is necessary to allow a ship to be built that can support people for decades, much more probably centuries, of flight. In addition, a space-based mode of life opens up virtually all planetary systems as potential targets, whereas searching for the nearest Earth-analogue will certainly require a very much longer journey.

    Secondly, the idea of colonising an Earth-like exoplanet is suspect in itself. If it’s really Earth-like, then it’ll have its own biosphere. The biological research necessary to confirm that humans can live successfully in that biological environment will take a sufficiently long time (requiring landers to make in-situ observations) that space-based colonisation (which only needs raw asteroidal resources) will proceed earlier. By the time the planet is pronounced fit for human habitation, it will be superfluous. If the planet does not have a biosphere, then it’s not Earth-like, it’s Mars-like, and will not be much more ready to occupy than pure space colonies.

    Basically, planets are not a good bet for colonisation because almost all the growth opportunities for industrial civilisation are in space, not on planetary surfaces. Plus, what at least some of the public worries about is that we’re “destroying the planet” and we must be stopped from going out into space and wrecking other worlds (no matter that this is nonsensical, it’s what a lot of people believe). I should like to reassure them that if and when we find an Earth-analogue exoplanet, its interest for non-invasive scientific examination will be vastly greater than any use it may have as a resource for industrial construction, so they can rest easy that we’re not going out there to ruin any of the Galaxy’s beauty spots!

    Hope this helps.

    Oxford, UK

  • kalish August 6, 2011, 10:21

    All this discussion about funds, and the obvious lack of any real ideas around here just disappoint me from my first hope. It is finally becoming just a small profit for one ex scientist organization, like the ones, more esoteric, that use retired scientist to talk about UFOS.

  • kalish August 6, 2011, 10:23

    I meant less talk more equations and plans, and it would be different.

  • Athena Andreadis August 6, 2011, 13:40

    Emily, I know de Grey’s “work” intimately and he has zero qualifications for biology — neither degrees nor, more crucially, any original ideas whatsoever. The stuff he peddles as radical has been in biology textbooks since the sixties and seventies.

    I think it would do wonders for both morale and credibility of the TZF if posts like this followed (rather than preceded) concrete achievements — even modest ones, like updating the web site, which has been on the “to do” list how long now, five years?

  • Marc G Millis August 6, 2011, 14:00

    Thank you all for your comments!
    Emily, strong thanks for your compliments and encouraging the wacky side of me to incite more excitement. Yes, I have restrained myself so as to be taken seriously in professional circles. Although I am in touch with my “inner child,” and yes this has a lot to do with my wonder and motivation for discovering new knowledge, that kid is a bit shy. It will be a challenge for me to learn how to feel comfortable playing in public. I agree that Tyson has good charisma and can bring sane science to the public. I doubt I have such charisma when I see my past TV appearances where, as one put it, I had “the charisma of broccoli.” I will try, but in the end, I am only what I am. I’ll have to make the most out of just that.

    As far as operational advice:
    To Kalish – the details you seek are in the professional publications we’ve done. Gilster introduces those via Centauri Dreams along with the citations so you can look them up. The web stuff (under repair) includes finding ways to present that information in a digestible, well-organized form. I can attest to the difficulty and divergent ideas encountered in that process. It is hard.
    About library: At least 3 challenges slow down the creation of such a library: (1) Much of the information is copyright protected and cannot be displayed by a third party (us). We can cite the items in a bibliography, perhaps show abstracts, but not the whole text. (2) Rather than list everything that’s been published (enormous quantity), I would prefer instead to help our audience by drawing attention to the fewer, better, and more relevant publications. Our old site does have a recommended reading list as a starting point . (3) Compiling, formatting, and maintaining the posting of this information requires a dedicated, competent volunteer. Right now, we do not have a person for that function.
    About Fund-rasing and PR: If you know of competent people who would be willing to volunteer their time to fund raising, please send me their names. I’ve had several folks offer to help, but they did not deliver. Behind the scenes, efforts are underway, but again, this takes time.
    About gender ratio: I work with who I can corral. Not all female invitees have accepted. I’m not sure if this is a case of a gender bias in interests and professions related to interstellar flight, or a consequence of still being relatively early in our long-range process. I know that when I look, I seek a blend of risk, vision, competence, and being able to collaborate. I don’t really care about gender, race, species, etc. If you know more women – and other life forms – that would make suitable collaborators, please send me their information.

    I hope I have covered all the comments thus far. I appreciate the support.

  • Athena Andreadis August 6, 2011, 14:31

    Marc, the excuse of “I invited two women and neither accepted” has aged badly, given the number of (over-)qualified women in relevant scientific disciplines. Also, you should care about representation if you want Tau Zero to be what you say it is rather than a boys’ treehouse.

  • jkittlejr August 6, 2011, 18:37

    Is there a place on the Centauri home page to JOIN? what are the requirements and qualifications?
    is this a bit like NPR ( public radio) or is it a bit more like a foundation to promote goal oriented research and development? What about corporate sponsors/involvement thinking space X or Boeing here)

    I think most successful organizations like this start with a wealthy patron or as an industry association. You are trying something different.
    lets figure out what might work. The innovation here needs to be in the achieving progress the subject ( building for an interstellar future), not in building a different type of organization.
    Keep up the good work and do not be discouraged. You are making a difference.

  • Marc G Millis August 7, 2011, 11:14

    Thanks for asking for clarification. Here is a short explanation of what it means to be a Tau Zero “member,” “practitioner,” and “volunteer.”

    MEMBERSHIP: As the article stated, Tau Zero is transitioning to where we will be accepting “memberships” this year. Members can be anyone who is willing to pay the annual membership fee (est $55, ?) to support the cause and who will then get access to more information than is provided just in Centauri Dreams and the (revamped) public TZF pages. When we are ready for that step, the member benefits will be specified. Our challenge is to make sure we’ve done enough work ahead of time so that, when we offer memberships, we can sustain a flow of benefits beyond just the non-paying website visitors.

    PRACTITIONERS: Being a “practitioner” is a more selective process. Practitioners are the people who actually advance the prospects for interstellar flight through their pioneering work and include: scientists, engineers, writers, journalists, educators, and artists. Right now I am not actively seeking new practitioners since I must first focus my attention on the web repairs and on funding opportunities. After the public site is revised, we can resume our hunt for practitioners. Here are the key characteristics I look for when hunting for suitable practitioners:
    * They are pioneers or scouts in their respective disciplines.
    * Fortitude to explore visions and take risks beyond their peers.
    * Rigor and competence to make credible progress (peer publications).
    * More interested in promoting their cause, than in promoting themselves.

    Our initial set of practitioners were an offshoot from networking with my “space coupling propulsion” and the “Interstellar Propulsion Society” (which preceded the NASA BBP Project). I found that the most pioneering and productive people had a blend of risk-taking vision, playfulness, analytical rigor, and the impartiality to let the findings guide the way (instead of pushing pet agendas). Also, it is easier to collaborate with those who put the cause of advancing knowledge above promoting themselves. Due to its origins from propulsion networking, we have an imbalance of having too many propulsion and power people, and not enough astronomers and specialists with the wide span of human issues. We are also weak in regards to expertise on colony ships issues. Before we can fix that, however, I must first get the day-to-day business operations rebuilt.

    VOLUNTEERS: Another category that is still a work in progress is having a network of volunteers; people who might not be of the caliber of “practitioner,” but who can contribute meaningfully to the cause with their time. Right now we have only about 1-dozen volunteers who help with scouting for information, admin help, and IT support. The challenge is finding an efficient way to tap into this enthusiasm and talent. When we go live with memberships, there will be the option to volunteer (form). Already we’ve compiled a list of volunteering offers, but I still lack a dedicated coordinator to take the time to sort through those, match them to a to-do list, and then keep track to apply their progress.

    I hope this clarifies where we are at and how we are operating.


  • Johnhunt August 8, 2011, 2:28

    The list of practitioners is lacking in the biology department. I would like to see people who can work on the viability of biological material (e.g. cells or adults) during travel and in the case if embryo space colonization, we need practitioners who can address the issues of ectogenesis and androidal parenting (whether AI or not). Given that an Embryo Space Colonization to Avoid Possible Extinction (ESCAPE) mission need not travel to another star system quickly — it could be launched using a slower (and so earlier) propulsion method. So having biologists and roboticists as practitioners on board might make sense from a first-launched true interstellar mission standpoint. Certainly this would be true in comparison to a world ship.

  • Marc G Millis August 8, 2011, 10:38

    Johnhunt, I agree. I hope to correct that absence in the future. There are so many unmet aspects to figuring out world/colony ship requirements, options and assessments of those options.

  • Kenneth Harmon August 8, 2011, 13:53


    Like you I am completely unimpressed by De Grey’s work, and generally believe it is fantasy–to be charitable. Even in the off chance Humanity achieves most of what De Grey is advocating over the next few Centuries I strongly suspect that where “the real rub” will come for De Grey and for that matter Kurzweil type extreme life extension is in the Human Brain. Yes, we no doubt will be able to create artifical neurons and implant them into the Human Brain, and most diseases and dementia associated with an aging Brain should be curable over the next 50 years. However, one suspects that things will prove to be far more complicated then that and the real limitations on extreme life extension (200 years+) assuming we ever get there will come with inherent problems extending the life of the Human Brain for a couple of Centuries plus, and maintaining the persons original personality in the process. The complexity involved will be “mind boggling” to say the least even with potential technology miracles like Nano-Technology, Genetic Engineering and strong AI

    However, that said, there is a growing number of highly reputable Scientists in places like The Buck Institute who believe that by the end of the 21st Century, if not long before, Human life spans in developed countries will be routinely extended to at least 150 years by both slowing and even partially reversing the aging process. There is also the much more controversial option to fiddle with the Human Germ line to achieve longer and healthier lives, although this of course is much more risky given what we will not know. Many “conservative” Scientists now believe that extending to ~150 years and perhaps even 200 years at the outside is certainly a “doable due” and that when one is talking about average Human life spans of ~150 years even Brain deterioration can be slowed and reversed enough to match a “normal” 150 year Human life span. Needless to say with average Human life spans of ~150 years Space Colonization takes on a whole new meaning.

    I know that you are a firm skeptic for both moral and technical reasons about the prospects of major Human Life extension even out to ~150 years and certainly within the time-frame of the next ~90 years. This is especially the case given the general level of complexity involved. But one has to admit that recent research does seem to clearly indicate that the old rules and assumptions about Human aging may no longer apply and that it may indeed be possible to roughly double the Human life span by the end of the 21st Century to the point that “150 becomes the new 75”.

    Your thoughts would be much appreciated, especially on where you believe Humanity will be with major life extension in Developed Nations circa 2100. Will complexity do it all in or do you believe that the technical problems are surmountable by circa 2100 and we are left with the moral ones to deal with on whether or not this is desirable?

  • kalish August 9, 2011, 4:00

    Well I have been rude but I don’t regret, I tried to contact you directly to expose my ideas about space propulsion, as I am student in physics, (and french) with just my master degree. But now experiments are “close to be on the way” so I should not need your help anymore. Anyway I would have prefer to have the advice of a real scientist than friends of mine, but I am not so confident in a copyrighted organization. At best cavil about protection of your books just help to write a blog, but we are far from travel through space, and this is not only perfectionism that slows. Sorry I really respect who you are and your job, I just want to shake my idol and tell him “don’t fall in a 40′ crisis!!”

  • Michele Renda August 9, 2011, 5:52

    Managing a creative / innovative firm, is different than managing a production firm.
    Basis are different, procedure are opposite: In a normal firm you need to be “perfect”, but in a creative firm you are looking for the “deviance” or “imperfection”.

    In last months I read a very nice book:
    Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation of Bob Sutton.

    It was a very nice lecture :)

  • Jim R. August 9, 2011, 15:41

    I’m in for a membership. Beyond an annual membership, you may want to have a lifetime one too.

  • ljk August 10, 2011, 9:49

    Another consideration I haven’t seen here regarding a worldship/multigenerational ship that will play no small role in the lives of the people onboard is religion.

    Star Trek neatly avoids this issue by pretending that 300 years from now everyone seems to be doing just fine without a personal deity or some kind of spiritual belief. Unless humans are radically changed in the next few centuries, religion is still going to be a major aspect of most people’s lives. Even those who do not believe in any gods or other supernatural beings or practice a religion are affected by it in our society, unless they somehow live in a vacuum. Whatever one may think of religion and deities, it has been a strong and binding force throughout human history and will not be going away once we start reaching for the stars.

    Indeed, we should consider whether this aspect of human society might not be the difference between a successful mission or a failure. Taking decades to accomplish a task, even one as exciting and noble as journeying to another star system, may not be enough incentive or “glue” to keep a society of human beings together over such a long periof time, especially if you are among the ones who will not live to see the final destination. I am assuming here that humans will not be radically altered by then, but that may be foolish as well.

    I recently heard on NPR a segment on the 33 miners from Chile who were trapped underground for three months. Of the group, all but one of them has needed psychological counseling for their isolation ordeal. The one who did not was the priest, whose unyielding faith was among the factors that kept him from having issues in his personal life after the experience.

    There are a lot of factors to deal with when it comes to really long-term space travel. So far we have had a few people spend a year or more aboard space stations, but they were all in Earth orbit and the astronauts and cosmonauts knew they were literally minutes from home should the need arise. We haven’t had to deal with any manned missions past the Moon and even those were only a few days away, plus the explorers could see Home at all times, smaller as it may have been.

    So in addition to the requests for more biologists on the team, we also need to think about having more sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, and even theologians join the group. We are sending a microcosm of humanity to the stars, after all.

  • Ron S August 10, 2011, 12:54

    Maybe they’ll decide on a more modern, democratic religion. Every several years the crew can vote in a new god. If you want to speak with god just schedule an appointment. He/She might even make house (cabin) calls in an emergency. Provided that everyone truly believes, the placebo affect alone will have the desired effect of keeping the crew happy and “sane”.

  • Duncan Ivry August 10, 2011, 18:32

    @ljk regarding religion

    Bad idea. Really bad idea. You should be aware of the destructive forces religions did provoke in history and does provoke nowadays (e.g. look at the partly hateful discussions about “intelligent design” opposing science). If you bring religion to a worldship this may very well end in a desaster. I even tend to say: it *will* end in a desaster. And, yes, indeed, this will be “no small role in the lives of the people onboard”. Do. Not. Do. It.

  • Rob Henry August 10, 2011, 19:16

    Ron S, to me ljk is implying that the service of being uplifted by a belief that humans and their failings are not the sole marker of potential in our universe becomes paramount in claustrophobic settings. He has a point, and perhaps total belief in ourselves is even closer to insanity.

  • Ron S August 10, 2011, 20:05

    Rob, are you implying that the crew be indoctrinated with a belief system? Apart from the ethical unacceptability of it, you cannot actually accomplish the task. If you did somehow do it, expect it to dissipate and fracture. False beliefs are like that, even more than true ones. See Duncan’s comment above for where that is likely to get you.

    I think it’s a good thing that religious belief is in general decline, and note that the decline correlates pretty well with increased comfort and education. Yes there are notable exceptions, but the global trend is what it is. (This is not meant to spark a religious debate so please let’s not go there!)

    My point, though couched in humor and a touch of cynicism in my earlier comment, is that a crew that is not burdened by unsustainable and unrealistic beliefs is superior to one that is. If that isn’t good enough to sustain a world ship I suspect the concept itself is doomed.

  • Rob Henry August 10, 2011, 23:24

    Ron S, I fear that the greater danger is to assume that humanity is as rational as you hope. Over the last few hundred years, every break from religion in a part of the Western world has been resulted in spectacular mortality. The more recent and slower trend is yet to play out, and if we want even pretence of impartiality, we must emphasise that conclusions drawn from it are provisional.

    As to Duncan’s worries, note that biology has tended to be a sanctuary for those who want to be scientists, yet can’t cope with mathematics or logic. Its time to stand up and tell them that “survival of the fittest” is an empty tautology that is only useful to help children first understand modern synthesis. If several can’t understand that its real precept is “that some creatures that survive, do so by dint of possession certain mutable characteristics that are sufficiently stably inherited that enduring advantage can accrue to their line” then they should choice another profession. Why blame ID, when ID is clearly just a natural outgrowth of this current folly.

    Sorry if the need for brevity has made this too harsh and over simplistic.

  • Rob Henry August 11, 2011, 5:01

    I realise that above I did not emphasise that whether religion is useful to a institution charged with the construction of a starship, is a very different issue to that of whether it is a vital tool in promoting social stability within a small crew. Surely we can all agree that by the time a generation-ship is ready we will all be much better placed to decide the latter issue.

    I thought some of Duncan’s worries were misplaced, but he certainly seems to have correctly judged the pattern of most online debates that have a religious component. They inevitably become so dominated by petty point scoring and strewn with inaccuracies that the shorter they continue, the more likely they are to have any value.

  • ljk August 11, 2011, 10:25

    I mentioned religion specifically in regards to an interstellar worldship because it is an integral part of most people’s lives that tends to get ignored or shoved under the table by both engineers and entertainment executives.

    That is why I brought up my observation about Star Trek and how almost no human of the 23rd/24th Centuries seems to have any kind of religious or spiritual belief, which I find about as realistic as to assume that unaltered humans in the next few centuries won’t ever get angry or need to eat food.

    Religion in one form or another has been part of our makeup probably since the day our ancestors could think and wonder. It is not going to go away just because some starship designers might find it inconvenient or uncomfortable to discuss. Most people are part of a religion; even those who do not profess a belief in anything are still affected by it as being part of human culture.

    Does anyone here honestly think a human crew of thousands are all going to be shining, perfect astronauts? Let us not bother sending any people to the stars if those creating the vessels and their environments are not going to address the very real humans who will be spending generations aboard them.

    My thinking is since most people are religious or have a need for some kind of spiritual sustenance and this kind of social organization has been able to keep whole societies together and functioning for centuries, why not learn from this to make a model society aboard the worldship? Fight human nature, try to suppress or oppress people, and you will end up with revolution and worse in a confined place where the crew will literally have nowhere to go.

    This even applies to colonizing our Sol system: Not enough has really been done to see how people will truly live and work in space for years; after decades of living aboard cramped space stations in Earth orbit, the studies still emphasize on human physiology over everything else. Note how squeamish NASA gets whenever a reporter asks about astronauts having S-E-X in space. People spending their whole lives on a space colony are going to act like people, unless we want to send up devout monks and nuns and restock them on a regular basis.

    Ironically, I have a strong suspicion that once access to space is really open to more than governments, various religious groups will be among the first to want to escape the confines of Earth and even the Sol system in order to worship without restrictions. They may even go into the galaxy with the express purpose of “saving souls.” Now THAT will be interesting to see (from a distance), especially if they run into another intelligent species with similar missionary goals, all in the name of their deities.

    While it is assumed that society and people must improve at least in some ways in order for us to have the kind of infrastructure necessary to make interstellar flight a reality, such a venture could also happen due to an impending disaster or a dictatorship wanting to expand its empire. We need to throw off the shining, noble astronaut and Star Trek bias and start building a contained multigenerational world for *real* human beings.

    Otherwise just send robots with AI brains.

  • Ron S August 11, 2011, 20:30

    Rob, I think you misconstrued my point. Sure people will continue to have beliefs, perhaps even irrational ones or ones that are socially organized in some fashion.

    But… you cannot impose a particular belief on people, one that suits *your* objective. They will themselves choose what to believe. You can invent a belief system — call it a religion if you wish — and promote it, and then you can choose a team form those that are successfully infected with the new meme. It still won’t work since beliefs change and, more importantly, their descendants mostly won’t hold those beliefs. Nor can you count on constructing an institution to promulgate the meme since it, too, will change or fail.

    If done on Earth, there is too much societal change and too many competing memes to sustain the project, assuming there is no immediate or imperative factual need for a stellar craft or world ship. If done on the world ship itself, the crew will fracture, with a real possibility of catastrophe.

    The mechanics of the process are different for a long-lived Earth-bound project to build a stellar craft or to crew a world ship, yet the outcome is much the same, eventually.

  • Ron S August 11, 2011, 20:40

    ljk, I agree with your basic premise that people will quite naturally continue to have religion of some fashion. However, that religion cannot be the basis of the *idea* that sustains the crew of the world ship because it isn’t sustainable. That is my point in this discussion.

    Let religion be a personal or family matter that is independent of the reason for the world ship’s existence or mission. That mission should (must) be based on a reality-based belief that sustains the idea of it, and therefore the integrity of the mission, since it will hold up to scrutiny over generations. Crew members’ religious beliefs can wander where they will, provided these do not imperil the ship or crew. However that is typically dealt with as a matter of law and civil order, not by stamping out religion.

  • Rob Henry August 12, 2011, 17:52

    Ron S, I should have taken a step back and addressed the actual concern that lead me to feel that religion had such an important place. Groups of humans have repeatedly shown that when stripped of religion, they rapidly default to the cult of personality, and since these tend to get more extreme with time, stratagems that reduce that risk must be one of the greatest (and most neglected) concerns of all in such voyages. There may be other ways, but what?

  • Ron S August 14, 2011, 14:12

    Rob, I really think you need to rethink what you’re attempting to accomplish. By what right would you try to control the behavior of an entire population? That’s for them to decide, not you or anyone else. It is, perhaps, a bit like raising children. You raise them with a set of values and a good education, then set them loose in the world to make their own lives. If you’ve done your job well and they don’t mess up too much, all works out for the best. The thing is, like a world ship, once you’ve launched them they are entirely on their own. You don’t get to call the shots.

    I would say this will have the best chance of success if the crew is well educated, understands and believes the goals of the mission, and is not saddled with false information or beliefs. The latter is unstable, easily manipulated and ultimately just wrong-headed. It’s also unethical.

    It is particularly important on a world ship since the descendants are well out of your reach. As the young grow and ask questions, it is important that they see that what they’re told is true. Therefore even rebellious youth will, in most cases, develop into stable adults. If what they’re taught is false, well, look out for dire consequences.

    This will also require that shipboard life be fulfilling in its own right. This matters a great deal since a person born on the ship needs to have a purpose in life especially since they did join the crew out of a zeal for the mission and they will not see the destination. Others have made the same point.

    In the end, maybe they’ll fulfill the original mission and maybe you won’t. Accept that you cannot control the outcome or the actions of the world ship’s occupants (may be better than calling them a “crew”). It may be that the best you can do is follow Eniac’s advice and send out multiple ships, somewhat in the manner of buying many lottery tickets to improve the chance of winning.

  • Rob Henry August 14, 2011, 17:18

    Ron S, I do not think that strategy is unethical. There are very few secular philosophers who do not have an equal desire to their religious counterparts to ply us with unfounded beliefs. Unprovable ideas as such as “I think therefore I am” are so useful in helping us interpret the world around us, that we cling to them. Though I have never subscribed to the assuraty of a belief so shallow, even I see their use in facilitating construction of a model of our world for rapid interpretation.

    If man is the pinnacle of achievement, could we really do so wrong as to follow our instincts, whereas if there is something greater we would have a different perspective. I “bags” that that implanted perspective sees us as having some characteristics that no longer suit our cause, and are thus worth resisting.

  • Rob Henry August 14, 2011, 20:00

    Also we should note that there are many different codes of morality that seem equally valid. To have a means of collapsing them into a single common system would greatly reduce the risk for deadly conflict.

  • Ron S August 14, 2011, 21:14

    Rob, I don’t approve of your ethics, however we can set that aside since you haven’t addressed the more fundamental point I raised: you cannot sustain a false belief system in a population group that is out of your control. Go ahead, even using what I’d consider unethical methods, and provide just one example of how you’d go about doing it.

  • Rob Henry August 15, 2011, 18:42

    Ron S, I accept your challenge of beginning the task. We must start with an arbitrary assumption that science ignores due to its lack of provability. To me we have only two options here, either that we live in a simulated world or that there exists a god the creator for it. We pick one of these options and show how much evidence there is for it, simultaneously inculcating the theme of imbued purpose. We then use their Neolithic instincts, and mix it with hard-to-evaluate science concepts like “memes” to trick them into believe them into believing that the wisdom of their ancestors is passed to them, and they are a sacred standard bearer for their great cause. Their cause is made out to be the greatest ever, and this should extend to make them believe that their role is the greatest ever.

    As to the original crew, we simply tell them the truth – that even if their mission succeeds, their immediate descendants will be miserable, unless they adopt the new religion.

    Also good would be if all believed that envy was wrong, and that all crew members are of exactly equal worth. That combination seems unnatural in the absence of religion.

  • Ron S August 15, 2011, 23:39

    Your methods are what I would call evil, yet even so they would not achieve your objective. To begin with, you should also raise a population, from which to select the crew, that is isolated from the surrounding global society. All the better to reduce infection from competing ideas and knowledge.

    That alone is near impossible to execute, but let’s assume you succeed at launching a world ship with a crew that is entirely imbued with the beliefs and values you have cursed upon them. Your project will still fail. The key is in the word “sustain”: the crew, and especially their descendants, will drift to pursue a variety of new values and beliefs, and therefore objectives, of their own unique invention. It’s human nature; you can see it happening all around you right now, today.

    Even in the pockets where it is sustained it typically requires a tyrannical and charismatic authority. Since these personalities cannot be passed to others, or at least not intact (everyone has their own ideas, and their own objectives, usually focused on personal interest), these cults meet a disastrous end. I’m sure you can think of examples without me naming them.

    This is why a reality-based belief system is superior: everyone who doubts can look at the facts and make their own assessment and, usually, reach the same conclusions about the need and importance of the mission. Even if not, if shipboard life is good, they can still be good, productive people even without the belief.

    Of course the trick is in finding a real reason that will sustain that belief. That, too, is a tough one. For example, let’s say we discover a rogue KBO of exceptionally large size that will strike the Earth in the year 2100. It’s too massive to deflect (though we’ll try) so our only chance is to get off Earth. Many will still doubt even though anyone, in principle, can look into a telescope and do the astrometry to calculate the trajectory. Once the world ship is launched in 2099, the crew can look back and watch the Earth go kablooie and thank their lucky stars, and know for certain they are the only humans left alive. Their grandchildren may believe no such thing, despite its truth. Earth is an historical abstraction to them and they have no good way to prove its truth. The world ship is all they know so that, to them, is all the world that matters. They will thus get on with life and make their own plans.

    Beliefs, real or imagined, fail in the face of time and generations. You cannot determine the lives of others, especially generations removed, when you are gone and they are far beyond your reach.

  • Rob Henry August 16, 2011, 16:55

    People always want happiness, yet their subconscious minds always give priority to wealth, power and status. Religion is the most powerful force that drives us back towards happiness. I put it to you that it is not excessively evil to bring us back to the state that our conscious minds most desire.

    Try this one at home… propose to a group that it would be good if people could be taught that even if they see themselves as less valuable than anyone they know, they are still an unimaginably valuable entity. Invariably everyone will protest that some should never think of themselves so low. This implies that they see nothing wrong with everyone believing they have above average status or exactly equal status.

    Ron S, by your definition most people inherently harbours evil, yet if you come to understand my take on delusional states, you will become more forgiving (and happier?).

    PS many religions are incredibly stable.

  • Rob Henry August 16, 2011, 17:05

    I should also have addressed your cults issue. As I have already mentioned that in societies from which religion has been suddenly ripped, personality cults rapidly fill the vacuum. I posit that religions can PREVENT cults forming if they are structured right, and I also believe that cults built around one tyrant would be too unstable to be of any use on such a journey.

  • Ron S August 16, 2011, 19:51

    Rob, two things. First, don’t insult me by putting words in my mouth that I’d never say: that “most people inherently harbours [sic] evil”. Stick to facts instead of foisting strawmen into the conversation. Second, you utterly failed to address my main point about sustainability. Is it because you cannot? I suspect that’s the case, but you tell me.

  • Rob Henry August 16, 2011, 21:14

    Ron S, you clearly implied that promotion of delusional values, no matter how good the ends, deserved the epithet “evil”. This seemed excessive and designed to shorten more informed debate. It also seemed impossible to really believe this (if you ever did), and not see that it implies that evil wells up in almost all humanity.

    As to your second point, the bandwidth that connects the ship to shore must be fairly limited, so much sifting and prioritising of information to be transmitted would be needed anyway. In the first few months of the journey, original crew that were not taking to the new religion might be able to be sent back, depending on logistics. Children like to believe that they have inflated value, even more than adults, so if they can be tricked into believing their extreme value, they are likely to hold that view through adulthood, even against the opposition of others.

    Finally, I would like to point out that those multitudes of scientists who believe the models of their paradigms are real, then they have effectively turned their take on science into a religion also. To those many, science and religion are not sufficiently different that it is fair to label one correct and the other incorrect.

  • Ron S August 17, 2011, 21:59

    Rob: “Ron S, you clearly implied that promotion of delusional values, no matter how good the ends, deserved the epithet “evil”. This seemed excessive and designed to shorten more informed debate.”

    I stated *my* opinion based on *my* values. You think otherwise and you are free to do so. What I said was not “excessive” nor could it “shorten” the debate. If you don’t believe me, just look back at the length of this thread!

    Rob: “It also seemed impossible to really believe this (if you ever did), and not see that it implies that evil wells up in almost all humanity.”

    I don’t understand how you can say this; there is no connection between my attempt to *avert* evil (in my opinion) actions and your claim that this implies that humans are inherently likely to commit evil. It’s a non sequitur.

    As for the rest of your reply, I have nothing left to say that I haven’t already said; we’re starting to go in circles. I think that you and I have stated ourselves clearly and forcefully, and that we will obviously continue to hold disparate views. Others who have stayed with this conversation can come to their own conclusions based on our stated justifications for our respective positions.

  • Rob Henry August 18, 2011, 18:04

    Ron, note how difficult it is to discuss this type of topic without becoming irritable. I believe that is because the issue is far more complex than we like to believe. A fantastic illustration of that is when you introduced the term evil, and I was forced to interpret how you meant it. This has lead to your subsequent belief that I introduced a non sequitur. There are better uses of our time than to re-examine.

  • Allen Taylor August 18, 2011, 21:01


    If you fear that you are not charismatic enough to lead a movement, don’t despair. Charisma can be learned. Join a Toastmasters club and go through their educational program in public speaking. That is what did it for me. I just got back from being guest lecturer on an around the world cruise, talking about astronomy and spaceflight. Day after day I had hundreds of dedicated, engaged audience members. You could learn to do the same thing. Your topic is at least as exciting.

  • Ron S August 18, 2011, 23:22

    Rob: “Ron, note how difficult it is to discuss this type of topic without becoming irritable.”

    I’m not irritable. Are you? In my case I am simply bewildered by your seeming failure to understand what I’m saying.

    Rob: “I believe that is because the issue is far more complex than we like to believe.”

    Yes, the issue is very complex. I do not need to “believe” that it is complex.

    Rob: “A fantastic illustration of that is when you introduced the term evil, and I was forced to interpret how you meant it.”

    Instead of interpreting, just read again, carefully, what I said. I was quite explicit in explaining what I meant by “evil”.

    Rob: “This has lead to your subsequent belief that I introduced a non sequitur.”

    You use the word “belief” a lot when it is not required. You also failed to connect the dots to explain why that was not a non sequitur.

    Rob: “There are better uses of our time than to re-examine.”


  • kalish August 29, 2011, 7:18

    Hello, this is a new version of “atheists have no moral values” by an hidden believer. As we, atheist have no moral value, we have no good behaviors, and we also have no good conviction in what we make, everything is just work to survive for us, this is what you think, am I right. Even if you are not a real believer I guess your suggestion is another version of a self confident point of view by a quite successful man who think the society he worked for and lived into, works perfectly. As a side effect of your society, my beliefs are the jobs you talk about, that is: theologists, psychologists, historians, and so on, exist for a long time, but still did not prove there usefulness and efficiency. Indeed interpretation of history regarding the country where belongs the historian leads to nationalism and several versions of history when in contact with the rest of society. Sometimes it leads to war. Psychologist make also a lot of interpretations of facts regarding their own personality and beliefs. As the results of their diagnoses can be discussed eternally without conclude, it is not a science. Are people in developed countries more happy than elsewhere? Most of the psychologist live in developed countries, are we happy because of them? Theologists have less contact with society than any profession in the world. To travel we need to find a way to travel, the conception of a perfect society, on the earth or anywhere in space, is another topic, mostly insane for me, a toy for politics and people who are bored.
    In contrast if unity exists in science (what I very doubt), it might be because some things are sure and don’t lead to divisions and fights.