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Physicists Surveying the Future

Back in 1968. when I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the gigantic curved screen at the Ambassador Theater in St. Louis, I thought that the timing was a bit optimistic. December of that year would see the first trip around the Moon, a startling and expansive moment, but even with Apollo in the air, I thought a human mission to the moons of Jupiter would take longer than 2001. 2025 seemed more like it. Now, of course, we see that 2025 is out of the question for manned missions, and the best attitude for space futurists is caution.

It’s easy to see how tricky the future is to predict by looking at the past. If you extrapolated from the technology of the Hellenistic Greeks, you would have wound up with a space-going civilization somewhere around 1300, as Carl Sagan once speculated. Bumps happen along the way, civilizations topple, technologies are shelved. Even so, the allure of prognosis keeps us looking ahead, and the truly optimistic among us can easily go over the top. As witness a fascinating study performed by Tom Murphy that is now up on his Do the Math blog. Thanks to Philip Bagust for passing this along.

Attitudes About the Future

Murphy is a physicist at UC-San Diego, now working on General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off the reflectors the Apollo astronauts left on the Moon. Prompted by an unwise comment by a student (“If it can be imagined, it can be done,”) Murphy created a survey to see what people thought was likely in the future by way of technology. He sought comments from academics about ideas ranging from futuristic jet-packs to wormholes, asking physics faculty at a variety of top-20 schools across the US, as based on graduate program rankings drawn from US News and World Report.

But to keep things in perspective, Murphy presented the same survey questions to physics grad students and physics undergraduates, as a way of tracking attitudes according to age, expertise and selected path in life. So, for instance, the survey asked what is the likelihood that humans can carry out the bulk of transportation in personal flying machines rather than being tied to the ground in cars. Respondents could choose from the following:

0. No Opinion
1. likely within 50 years
2. likely within 500 years
3. likely within 5000 years
4. likely to happen for humans eventually
5. unlikely to happen for humans
6. less than 1% likely to ever happen, or impossible

The answers to 20 questions like these are all laid out graphically on Murphy’s blog. It turns out that professors don’t think personal flying cars are likely — in fact, more of them chose ‘unlikely to happen for humans’ than any other answer. Grad and undergrad students, however, opted for choice 2, ‘likely within 500 years,’ perhaps reflecting an optimism divide or simply a lack of knowledge of the problems involved. Murphy, a licensed pilot, says he is with the faculty on that one. After all, flying and driving are two different things: “Unleash the population into 3D space and watch the mayhem!” As a former flyer myself, I can’t help but agree.

Technologies and Skepticism

So you see the method. The range of questions goes from flying cars and jetpacks to up-close study of black holes, permanent Moon colonies, fusion power, terraforming, robots and more. Have a look at Murphy’s site for the complete list. For now, I want to focus on the items most pertinent to the interstellar community. The fusion issue seems timely since early starship designs like Daedalus rely on a form of fusion, and so does the ongoing Project Icarus. Murphy frames the issue this way: “Power our society with fusion, opening up practically inexhaustible supplies of deuterium on the planet (forget about tritium here—imagine D–D reactions)?”

We’re not talking about fusion engines for spacecraft, but it seems clear enough that a breakthrough in fusion on the ground would help us develop options for space travel. The old saw is that fusion is always 50 years in the future, so you might have expected that to be reflected in the survey. But while almost no one said it would never be accomplished, few thought it would be available within decades. In fact, faculty, grad students and undergrads all cluster around choice 2, ‘likely within 500 years.’ Fusion, it seems, may take a while.

Clearly a survey like this has no predictive value of its own, but let’s think about what it does mean. When you’re talking about futuristic ideas, as we so often do in these pages, it’s obviously helpful to get a range of opinion, and that includes especially people who specialize in issues related to the subject at hand. I doubt many of Murphy’s faculty are fusion engineers, but they do work in the discipline of physics and thus understand the issues involved. It’s also useful to see where popular opinion on such matters is, and here we see that while many undergrads think fusion is a long way off, a much larger group of them than faculty think it might happen within 50 years.

A Star Trek Future?

You can see what we’re coming around to. Murphy now asks survey responders what they think of the Star Trek universe, quizzing them on things like warp drive, wormholes and teleportation. The question on warp drive is posed this way:

Come up with a means of interstellar travel that allows round-trips to locales tens of light-years away within years or decades, without having Earth (and its people) age substantially more than the traveler—thus operating outside the normal confines imposed by sub-luminal travel and special relativity (the equivalent of warp drive in Star Trek)?

Choice 6, ‘less than 1% likely to ever happen, or impossible,’ is the overwhelming choice of faculty, with 91 percent finding it essentially impossible. Both grad students and undergrads chose choice 6 more than any other, but a wider range of answers show up among them, including a few who opt for warp drive within 500 years or less. As to wormholes, faculty opinion is almost unanimously in the ‘not likely’ to ‘impossible’ range, while teleportation shows the same faculty skepticism but much broader support for the idea among the undergrad community.

I won’t go through all the items in this survey other than to note that a lunar colony within 500 years is widely accepted — few think it will happen within 50 years. 80 percent of the respondents in each group think it will happen someday, but few peg it within the next five decades. Murphy comments:

Pause for a second to reflect on the fact that 50 years after the space race began, we think it will be at least another 50 before we’re living on the Moon. I’m guessing this is a radical change in attitude compared to prevailing views in the 1960′s. An interesting departure from the expert gradient shows up here: undergrads are more skeptical than grads. This reversal may be due to the termination of the U.S. human spaceflight program during a stage in life (late high school, early college) when world views are forming and fluid. Perhaps this group has been more impacted by the shutdown than grad students whose noses are buried in research.

Two other quick things to note. First, on the question of whether humans will ever open a line of communication with aliens, the answer from the survey seems to be, across the board, ‘someday’ but not within the immediate future. The other interesting point is that Murphy does not ask about interstellar travel using slower methods that do not violate Einsteinian relativity. It would be helpful to see the breakdown there, though I suspect we would see an answer somewhat like the SETI question, with most respondents putting it in the ‘someday’ camp.

Exponential Growth vs. Outlandish Ideas

But among the professional physicists, out of the 20 ideas Murphy covers, only one (auto-pilot cars) is deemed likely to happen within 50 years, and only two (true robots and fusion power) make the 500 year cut. Murphy comments that although we’ve been living in an era when progress felt like an exponential rush, physicists still bet against ‘the more outlandish notions’:

A key element here is that we know a heck of a lot more about fundamental physics now than we did 200 years ago. Undoubtedly we have much yet to learn. But the frontiers 200 years ago pertained to everyday time, length, and energy scales. Today’s frontiers are at 10−18 m scales on one end, and at cosmological scales on the other. Ultra-high energy frontiers are increasingly hard to access, requiring monster machines like the LHC at CERN. The chances that new physics will intercede at human-familiar scales are increasingly slim as the boundaries of our knowledge push out. Most technological developments of the last 50 years have been based on incremental progress in manipulation of matter, rather than on fundamental breakthroughs in physics like electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, or general relativity from roughly a century ago.

Murphy’s survey gives us a sense where professional and popular opinion is on a range of ideas that weave through today’s science fiction. And that’s worth keeping in mind: Science fiction wouldn’t carry the imaginative charge it does unless its ideas pushed us beyond the conventionally expected. How realistically should we take the futures it shows us? When it comes to space, the weight of opinion in this survey is that a future interplanetary, much less interstellar, culture is a long way off if it arrives at all.

Some would find this pessimistic, but I think it’s simple realism based on experience. On the other hand, optimists will say that realism is sometimes overtaken by unexpected events. My own axiom: It is the business of the future to surprise us. There’s historical precedent for that one, too.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • A. A. Jackson November 18, 2012, 8:28

    I have my somewhat shelf-worn copy of Stephen H. Dole’s 1964 Habitable Planets for Man. In 64 I was just about to graduate with my bachelors in math , SETI was in the air , Intelligent Life in the Universe would be out in two more years.
    I organized a little seminar at North Texas University , we met once a month to talk about , mostly SETI.
    I remember I used to haunt the astronomy journals for articles about planetary formation. I found few references to the Habitable Planets for Man simulations. Not that there was hostility towards them, just , well a lack of interest.
    Years and years later I talked to A.G. W. Cameron, about this, (he was one of the real pioneers of solar system formation) and he just said yes Dole’s simulation was interesting , but did not feel most planetary system formation people , and there were not a lot… just did not see enough ‘ground-up’ physics in it.
    Took a long time for that to happen , and just when we thought we were starting to understand the Solar System formation along comes a huge zoo of configurations!
    Lots of work still to do.

  • ljk November 20, 2012, 12:39

    Ah yes, back when you actually had to physically go to a library somewhere and look up references by hand – in printed books!

    I think E. M. Forster’s 1909 SF story “The Machine Stops” appears more on target with each passing month.


    Speaking of relatively early thoughts on planetary system formation, I recall reading about a fellow named David Latham who discovered what we would now call a Super Jupiter (I think there was an early movement not long after 51 Pegasi and the other first exoplanets were found in 1995 to designate such worlds Bellerephons, but I am doing this from memory) back in 1988.

    However, the astronomical community dismissed his finding as a planet because it was really big and WAY too close to its sun.

    Makes you wonder what is being missed when it comes to ETI and other signs of alien life because of our current lack of knowledge and biases on this subject, fifty-plus years after modern SETI and 2,300 years after Metrodorus of Chios said “A single ear of corn in a large field is as strange as a single world in infinite space.”

    I know he meant what we might call another entire universe, but you get the point.

  • ljk December 10, 2012, 10:02


    Black Hole Starships

    by Jeff Lee

    When theoretical physicist John Wheeler coined the term “black hole” during his 1967 talk at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, he probably never expected it to become exceptionally pervasive in popular culture.

    He almost certainly didn’t expect that anyone would soon contemplate creating microscopic black holes, and using them as energy sources for interstellar starships.

    Today, black holes are familiar to many, but understood by few.

  • ljk December 14, 2012, 11:26

    Why we should send uploaded astronauts on interstellar missions

    Giulio Prisco – KurzweilAI

    The awesome 100 Year Starship (100YSS) initiative by DARPA and NASA proposes to send people to the stars by the year 2100 — a huge challenge that will require bold, visionary, out-of-the-box thinking. One possible solution is mind-uploading — what could give rise to highly versatile and resilient software-based astronauts and their e-crews. And at the same time, the development of the requisite technologies could result in important spinoffs in neuroscience, computer science, and longevity — perhaps even including indefinite life extension.

    There are major challenges. “Using current propulsion technology, travel to a nearby star (such as our closest star system, Alpha Centauri, at 4.37 light years from the Sun, which also has a a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting it) would take close to 100,000 years,” according to Icarus Interstellar, which has teamed with the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and the Foundation for Enterprise Development to manage the project.

    “To make the trip on timescales of a human lifetime, the rocket needs to travel much faster than current probes, at least 5% the speed of light. … It’s actually physically impossible to do this using chemical rockets, since you’d need more fuel than exists in the known universe,” Icarus Interstellar points out.

    So the Icarus team has chosen a fusion-based propulsion design for Project Icarus, offering a million times more energy compared to chemical reactions. It would be evolved from their Daedalus design.

    This propulsion technology is not yet well developed, and there are serious problems, such as the need for heavy neutron shields and risks of interstellar dust impacts, equivalent to small nuclear explosions on the craft’s skin, as the Icarus team states.

    Although Einstein’s fundamental speed-of-light limit seems solid, ways to work around it were also proposed by physicists at the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium.

    However, as a reality check, I will assume as a worse case that none of these exotic propulsion breakthroughs will be developed in this century.

    That leaves us with an unmanned craft, but for that, as Icarus Interstellar points out, “one needs a large amount of system autonomy and redundancy. If the craft travels five light years from Earth, for example, it means that any message informing mission control of some kind of system error would take five years to reach the scientists, and another five years for a solution to be received.

    “Ten years is really too long to wait, so the craft needs a highly capable artificial intelligence, so that it can figure out solutions to problems with a high degree of autonomy,” they note.

    If a technological Singularity happens, all bets are off. However, again as a worse case, I assume here that a Singularity does not happen, or fully simulating an astronaut does not happen. So human monitoring and control will still be needed.

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 14, 2013, 10:09

    E=mc2 Not Always Valid?

    University of Arizona physicist Andrei Lebed has stirred the physics community with an intriguing idea yet to be tested experimentally: The world’s most iconic equation, Albert Einstein’s E=mc2, may be correct or not depending on where you are in space.


  • tom February 15, 2013, 16:54

    The necessary steps of ‘incremental progress’ are sometimes sketchy. I have an amateur interesting in looking up ‘old’ proposals for space technology from the 60s,70s,80s & 90s. It turns out you can get really radical results in aerospace engineering with 1 to 10% improvements for concurrent systems.
    The external tank feature of the space shuttle was proposed to evolve into an in situ space station. And this is one sample of a swath of ‘ideas’ abandoned because senior folk have a tendency to not rock the boat. The proprietary nature of our various agencies isn’t as innovative as some people believe.
    I’m not critical of established caution as much as I’m critical that the ‘experts’ really need more candor and really need to find the next step, not solely ‘peer-out’ those who don’t.
    There was good science & engineering in the Wright brothers first test flyer; however, if you had let it be developed by a 1890s engineering school… the results would have been a vehicle model at desk scale with blackboards of chalked equations about air volumes and reciprocating wing forms.
    Best way to get to outer space… hire smart people… work the problem with lots of coffee… build a prototype… succeed or prepare a quick analysis and modify you experiment til you get it right.
    Money & engineering help… but if you don’t have ideas…neither will help.

  • tom February 16, 2013, 16:27

    I think its simple to say that ‘eye witness’ testimony is the worse way to determine ‘evidence’ for a criminal trial. Surveys are stilted the same way. The argument of trends is ‘blaise’; because nobody ‘surveyed’ is working on these subjects. What would have been the response to a question as ‘Does technology raise the standards of health, wealth and freedom of individuals?’
    The idea that ‘only’ University certified technology & science students make significant contributions (which is in severe shortage.) flies in the face from the airplane to the home computer market.
    I frankly don’t know when the list of the proposed items will come to pass; but it takes more than ‘advanced’ skill sets and materials to render wonder.
    Consider we had a fundamental understanding of Universal Gravitation before we had ‘indoor plumbing’ or ‘rain coats’.
    Serendipity, curiosity & obsolescence are just as relevant now as they were 500 years past… and 5000 years in the future, this still should hold true.
    To live in interesting times, that was the Chinese toast… or Curse?