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Notes & Queries 11/2/11

Tau Zero in Second Life

I have almost no experience with online virtual worlds like Second Life, but I do want to mention that Marc Millis will appear later today (Nov. 2) on the ‘Virtually Speaking’ talk show program, which can be accessed here as well as in Second Life. The focus of the interview is to be on prospects for interstellar travel, what a program like the 100-Year Starship can do, and what Tau Zero and other efforts (such as Project Icarus) are all about. The show begins at 9 PM Eastern time (0200 UTC) this evening, and may wind up being audio-only if the Second Life bit doesn’t work out.

I’m sure it will, but Marc is as new to Second Life as I am, and my last experience with the medium had me wandering around in an enormous virtual house trying to find someone with whom I was supposed to be doing an online interview, and I remember being alternately intrigued and baffled by the options available to me. Old time Second Lifers will find this bizarre, I’m sure, but some of us haven’t yet gotten up to speed with meetings held in virtual worlds, alas.

A Conference on Olaf Stapledon

Be aware of Starmaker: The Philosophy of Olaf Stapledon, a conference to be held at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society at 27/29 South Lambeth Road, London on November 23. Born in 1886, Williams Olaf Stapledon was a philosopher by training and a writer by choice, the author of two classics that have had a powerful impact on many scientists now working in aerospace and interstellar studies: Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). You may also have heard of Odd John (1935), although it should be noted that Stapledon was prolific at both fiction and non-fiction.

Image: Stapledon lecturing at the British Interplanetary Society, to which he had been invited by Arthur C. Clarke in 1948.

The complete program is online, and among the presentations I note in particular Richard Osborne’s talk on Stapledon and Dyson spheres. Freeman Dyson is on record as saying that it was Stapledon’s futuristic vision in Star Maker that brought about the concept of Dyson spheres, hardly the first instance of this author’s influence. When Stapledon lectured at the BIS, his topic was ‘Interplanetary Man,’ but his vision reached far deeper into the cosmos than our own Solar System, dealing with themes of consciousness and the survival of intelligence in an evolving universe.

The Alpha Centauri Prize

Project Icarus founder Kelvin Long has gone online with a proposal for an international competition to promote research on the design of a star probe. Long is thinking in terms not dissimilar from the X Prize, though the Alpha Centauri Prize he advocates would be considered an extension of the existing Project Icarus and long-term in nature.

Over time, the concept would be worked upon by future generations and ultimately lead to a direct design blue print for an interstellar probe after several decades of running. Like Project Icarus, it is the hope that other teams around the world would be assembled to work on specific proposals investigated historically such as NERVA, Starwisp, Vista, Longshot, AIMStar, Orion or one of the many others. This way, the technological maturity of different propulsion schemes can be improved over time and the case could be better made for precursor missions to the outer solar system and one day to the nearest stars.

Long envisions teams competing for a cash prize every two to three years in an academic competition run by a non-profit organization. Over time, engineering design ideas for a probe to another star would evolve. The process is a gradual one that may not settle upon a single optimum propulsion method:

… we may find that what may emerge is not a single choice for going to the stars in the coming centuries, but instead a realization that it is a combination of approaches with highly optimized engineering designs that will be the way to go. This may suggest hybrid propulsion schemes and could for example be along the lines of a fusion-based drive with anti-proton catalyzed reactions but using a nuclear electric engine for supplementary power and perhaps a solar sail and MagSail for solar system escape or upon arrival. From the two decades of research will develop reliable engineering studies, practical progress of the technology and several clear front runner designs to focus initially divergent research options towards the proper investment into the clear front runner designs by a process of gradual down select.

Can an Alpha Centauri Prize be a serious incentive for research and an enabler for new technologies, as well as a driver for inspiring students and educating the public? More on the idea in The Alpha Centauri Prize: Taking Volunteer Research To A New Level.

Propulsion Conference Abstract Deadline

On 30 July to 1 August, 2012 the 48th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit takes place in Atlanta. The focus is broad, as the AIAA comments on its site:

The objective for JPC 2012 is to identify and highlight how innovative aerospace propulsion technologies powering both new and evolving systems are being designed, tested, and flown. Flight applications include next generation commercial aircraft, regional, and business jets, military applications, supersonic/hypersonic high speed propulsion applications, commercial and government-sponsored launch systems, orbital insertion, satellite, and interstellar propulsion.

Next summer seems a long way off as the weather changes toward late fall in the northern hemisphere, but I mention this now because abstracts for the conference are due by November 21. You can view the call for papers here.

Upcoming Interstellar Workshop

Finally, be aware of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, running November 28 & 29, 2011 in Oak Ridge, TN at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel. Here’s the agenda for Tuesday the 29th, following an opening reception the night before:

8:00 Welcome and Opening Remarks (Les Johnson)

8:15 Sun Focus Comes First; Interstellar Comes Second (Dr. Claudio Maccone)

9:00 Interstellar Travel: Realistic Ideas and Fanciful Dreams (Les Johnson)

9:30 Human and Institutional Barriers to Large Scale Scale Geoengineering and Interstellar Spaceflight (Dr. Kent Williams)

10:00 Coffee Break and Group Picture

10:30 Power and Propulsion: An Informal Survey of Opportunities Within Particle Physics (Dr. Jim Woosely)

11:00 Project Icarus (Dr. Richard Obousy)

11:30 Antimatter Propulsion (Harold Gerrish)

12:00 Lunch

1:00 Interstellar Light Sails (Dr. Gregory Matloff)

1:30 TBD (Dr. Conley Powell)

2:00 Jovian Tesla Radio (Dr. David Fields)

2:30 Lasers Revisited: Their Superior Utility for Interstellar Beacons, Communications and Travel (Dr. John Rather)

3:00 Interstellar Exploration Through Art (C Bangs)

3:30 Humanity in the Outlands: Anthropological and Sociological Concerns in the Face of Touching the Universe (Dr. Robert C. Lightfoot)

4:00 Shell Worlds (Robert Kennedy)

4:30 Sublight Colonization of the Galaxy (Ken Roy)

5:00 The Fermi Paradox: A Roundtable Discussion (Stephanie Osborn)

6:00 Dinner

8:00 Public Forum (Robert Kennedy)


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JohnHunt November 2, 2011, 10:22

    I really like the Alpha Centauri Prize concept. It may provide a practical way to advance the field by focusing attention and work on specific missions and methods.

    I think that the choice of challenges should aim towards making progress towards the FIRST true interstellar flight. Exactly what form that first flight would take is understably open to debate. But we should focus upon the question of which of the short and medium-term technologies are sufficiently advanced (TRL levels) or likely could be advanced given modest funding and would those technologies be able to result in a mission that would be functional upon reaching A.C. and would adequately address the faster-later problem?

    My guess is that our first true interstellar missions will logically involve small payloads and beamed energy which will require at least a basic lunar infrastructure. This would be the least expensive and hence the earliest true interstellar mission.

    My hope is that the A.C. challenges will facilitate the interstellar community to compete missions and methods against each other such that some consensus will emerge about what the first true interstellar mission will look like.

  • Istvan November 2, 2011, 12:49

    On the subject of the Alpha Centauri Prize, there is a well-documented history of success for such prizes as incentives for building incremental aeronautical capability in the early 20th century. The Ansari X-Prize has lately been touted as a factor catalyzing the new era of commercial spaceflight companies. However, the Google X-Prize, offered in 2007 for moon missions, has already seen its deadline extended, suggesting that the verve it was supposed to have generated is less strong then hoped. In my opinion, the jury remains out on whether these prizes will succeed in pushing our capabilities, or whether entrepreneurs such as Bezos, Bigelow, and Musk will simply strive forward despite them. I think it’s a pretty fragile hope to expect a continuing line of well-funded, and also competent, visionaries like those I’ve just mentioned, thus there needs to be some success and some financial return seen in order to sustain efforts such as theirs, but the typical incentive prizes are thus far not up to the task of really covering the extreme costs of modern aerospace. The Ansari prize did not in any way pay for Scaled Composites’ work, though it did provide excellent publicity. I suppose that, rather than direct financing, is where the value of these incentive prizes lies.

    My conclusion must be, then, that if there is a funding source available for the Alpha Centauri Prize, Long’s concept is probably well worth it. If knowledge of the competitions and prizes excites and inspires more students toward engineering, and especially toward astronautics and the related fields we need for long-distance missions, that can only be a good thing.

  • Tony P November 2, 2011, 13:07

    Appreciate the run down. I noticed, for the 48th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit, you have to taking place on July 30 to August 1, 2011. Should be 2012.

    I’m excited about the Interstellar workshop at the end of this month. Looks like there will be some very interesting topics being discussed.

  • Paul Gilster November 2, 2011, 13:19

    Thanks for noticing the typo, Tony. I’ve fixed it in the entry.

  • A. A. Jackson November 2, 2011, 18:32

    I had noticed the BIS conference about Olaf Stapledon.
    His first four novels:
    Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930)
    Last Men in London (1932)
    Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest
    Star Maker (1937)
    …had a profound effect on Arthur C. Clarke and a whole generation of of modern science fiction authors.
    I think Clarke the most. Stapledon’s novels are somewhat turgid to read, but bursting with ideas. H.G. Wells may have been the grand daddy of all BIG THINKS science fiction, but Stapledon was the great expander and elaborator.
    Clarke was a better fiction writer and two novels came of his being a fan (almost a disciple of Stapledon). CITY AND THE STARS and that remarkable unique novel CHILDHOODS END. (One sees an influence of Stapledon in Clarke’s other works, especially Clarke’s remarkable RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA.)
    Even though 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a Clarke/Kubrick creation, one wonders if that that SF film to trump all SF films would have come to fruition had not Stapledon inspired Clarke so profoundly. 2001 has strong echos of CHILDHOODS END and Clarke’s ‘Indistinguishable from magic’ embedded in it. I think I will never see such a sophisticated SF ideas presented on film again.
    (One notes that Stanisław Lem’s Solaris made , both as good films, the earlier better than the recent. Lem’s was influenced by Stapledon also.)
    Alas, Stapledon is a bit of a faded figure in the galaxy of fine modern science fiction writers and thinkers.

  • Tiffany Frierson November 3, 2011, 10:27

    I am definitely going to be at the JPC in 2012 whether I get to present a paper or not. I live just an hour north of Atlanta and my future career plans are in interstellar propulsion, so there’s no excuse for me not to! See you guys there!

  • kelvin November 4, 2011, 5:00

    The BIS Stapledon event will be a most interesting affair. I don’t think Stapledon gets enough credit or coverage for his astounding achievements. Starmaker is one of my favourite SF stories, also an exposition into Philosophyical Cosmology. You are correct to point out the enormous influence Stapledon had on Clarke. ‘The City and the Stars’ and ‘Childhoods End’ are two of my favourite Clarke novels.
    I think though to be fair, much of the strangeness of 2001, the movie, has to be placed at the door of the genius that was Stanley Kubrick. I think it was that mix of Clarke/Kubrick, both brilliant in their own way, that made 2001 what it was. I recall reading an interesting story in “The Lost Worlds of 2001” where they couldn’t decide how to depict the ETs. To my memory, Kubrick argued for humonoid-type ETs, but Clarke argued they should be very different. In the book, there are various chapters showing the different ETs they considered. They couldn’t decide, and Carl Sagan happened to be in town, so they invited him up to the hotel room to discuss it. I believe it was Carl Sagan who suggested, don’t show the ETs and leave that for the imagination of the viewers. Boy that would have been a neat hotel room to visit that evening, Clarke, Kubrick and Sagan, all in one room.

    Regarding the Stapledon event, the exciting agenda is shaping up and below shows the latest version, last minute addition from the wonderful Greg Matloff.
    Preliminary Agenda

    09:00 Registration

    09:30 Welcome by Kelvin F Long

    Session 1: Stapledonian Vision (Chair Kelvin F Long)

    09:40 Talk 1 Thought’s on the Concept of Universal Mentality, Kelvin F.Long, Physicist & Aerospace Engineer

    10:10 Talk 2 The Future & Stapledon’s Visions, Andy Sawyer, Science & Science Fiction Librarian Special Collections & Archive University of Liverpool

    10:50 Coffee

    11:05 Talk 3 The Earth is My Footstool: Wells, Stapledon, and the Idea of the Post-Human, Patrick Parrinder, Professor of English at the School of English & American Literature, University of Reading

    11:45 Talk 4 Star Consciousness: An Alternative to Dark Matter, Greg Matloff, Emeritus Associate Professor and Adjunct Associate Professor, New York City College of Technology

    12:25 Lunch & Additional Activities

    Session 2: Stapledonian Technology & Extraterrestrial Life (Chair Richard Osborne)

    14:00 Talk 5 Dyson Spheres, Richard Osborne, Physicist & Rocket Engineer

    14:40 Talk 6 Where Was Everybody? Olaf Stapledon & The Fermi Paradox, Stephen Baxter, Science & Science Fiction Writer

    15:20 Coffee

    15:30 Talk 7 Stapledon’s Interplanetary Man: A ‘Commonwealth of Worlds’ & The Ultimate Purpose of Space Colonisation, Ian Crawford, Reader in Planetary Science & Astrobiology, Birkbeck College London

    16:10 Discussion Session Led by Richard Osborne

    16:30 End of Symposium

  • Christopher Phoenix November 4, 2011, 5:05

    @Tiffany Frierson

    I intend on working on interstellar propulsion and spaceflight technologies too!! I’m especially interested in edgier concepts like wormholes, warp drives, and space drives- the kinds of breakthroughs that would allow rapid travel to faraway stars. The idea of a non-rocket “star drive” became ingrained in my imagination as a result of James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels and various other SF works.

    It was clear to me from an early age that any engine capable of propelling a spacecraft to another star will be far removed from Newtonian-based reaction engines with big exhaust bells spewing sheets of flame. Reaction engines have a severe issue- to propel a spacecraft to nearly the speed of light would require a prohibitive amount of fuel and propellent. Even stretched to the limit of its underlying physics, conventional space technologies are simply inadequate for rapid star travel.

    So, to build a vehicle like the starships in science fiction, we need new propulsion physics- exotic ideas like space warps, transient inertia, space drives, etc. This is a very exciting area of research, one that has only just begun to be explored. I intend on working on such issues- exploring physics with the goal of finding a propulsion breakthrough is fascinating.

  • A. A. Jackson November 4, 2011, 11:16

    The story about Sagan is true. It happened at dinner with Kubrick and Clarke, I think at Trader Vick’s. Kubrick and Clarke could not decide on humanoid and non humanoid aliens. When Sagan hear the civilization was at a minimum of 4 million years old (it’s 3 million in the novel , for some mysterious reason)…. Sagan said something like “how in the world would one portray a being from a civilization millions of years old?” “Just don’t show them.” That stuck with Kubrick , he adopted it. (Sagan did a little different take in CONTACT.)
    (By the by, Clarke and Kubrick were supposed to have lunch with Sagan the next day, Kubrick thought Sagan was brilliant, but could not stand his personality! I think Kubrick asked Sagan to be in the prolog , that Kubrick never used, and Sagan said he would for a percentage of take of the film!
    So Kubrick had Clarke take Sagan to the NY Worlds Fair the next day.)
    Another piece of trivia. I think it’s in Vincent Lobrutto’s biography of Kubrick. Kubrick first thought was to make Childhood’s End, Clarke even has mention in Lost Worlds of Kubrick wanting to incorporate the Overlords in the film, Clarke got him to drop that quickly. I even asked Clarke’s good friend and top SF writer Greg Benford about this and he said yes Kubrick had been originally interested in Childhood’s End as a film. But Kubrick being Kubrick decided something different would be better. Many references credit Clarke’s THE SENTINEL , which was indeed the initial hook, but the novel and screenplay Clarke and Kubrick created in 1965 is hugely more expansive than that short story. The during shooting , using the novel as the backbone, Kubrick rewrote the screenplay, fans of the film notice the differences with the novel. Clarke became frustrated with this , which is why details in the novel differ, Clarke had initial complaints with the finished film, but became reconciled quickly, one notices this in the narrative of 2010.
    You are right, Kubrick did have a wide knowledge of modern prose science fiction, we know this from his wife Christiane. (Kubrick really made three SF films, Dr. Stangelove and Clockwork Orange, but Kubrick was an omnivorous reader.)
    The ending of 2001 is a distant abstract echo of Olaf Stapledon by way of Clarke and Kubrick.

  • Tiffany Frierson November 4, 2011, 13:12

    @Christopher Phoenix

    I feel the exact same way that you do! I’m going to get a PhD in Theoretical Physics then begin my professional work in Breakthrough Propulsion.

    Are you going to be at the AIAA JPC 2012? It’d be great to meet you there! (Even though it seems so far away!)

  • Christopher Phoenix November 4, 2011, 17:32

    @Tiffany Frierson

    I’d love to go to the AIAA JPC 2012, but it’s a pretty long trip from Arizona to Atlanta, and I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. I’ve got a lot of work to do- if I want to go into physics, I need to continue with my advanced mathematics courses. I’d love to meet you sometime, and given that we share the same interests, there is a pretty good chance that we will both be at the same conference sometime in the future.

    I had in interest in breakthrough propulsion even before I heard of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program. There was a series of science books written by Joy Hakim that introduced me to the history of science and encouraged my interest in physics and astrobiology. It was around this time I began to think seriously about exploring physics to try to find a way to stabilize wormholes and circumvent the light speed limit- although I still didn’t have any ideas as to how to get the other end of the wormhole where I wanted it. I also wondered if unifying the four fundamental forces could yield a propulsion breakthrough- Joy Hakim encouraged this sort of speculation by occasionally putting a picture of a starship on a page and noting that if one could travel close to the speed of light, a journey to the nearest star with known planets would not be too difficult. I always entertained notions of bizarre space drives and speculated on how they might work, but when I realized that this was actually a developing area of research, I knew I wanted to study this area of research.

    I can’t help but think the Project Icarus is as far from the actual interstellar cruisers of the future as Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for aircraft are from the supersonic aircraft of today.