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Philosophy of the Starship: A Report

Stephen Ashworth’s April essay at Astronautical Evolution deals with a question of considerable scientific interest: When will Voyager 1 leave the Solar System? But writer, researcher and jazz saxophonist Ashworth also has a philosophical streak, writing articles so far this year on the prospects for a technological singularity, the role of space in a society threatened with ecological disruption, and the business model best suited for manned spaceflight. In this essay, Stephen brings us a report from a recent seminar that mixes philosophy and starships, with consequential questions about autonomous technology, the role of discovery in combating intellectual stagnation, and the geopolitics of deep space exploration.

by Stephen Ashworth

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The Institute for Interstellar Studies plans to run a symposium annually at the British Interplanetary Society’s headquarters in London. The first of these events took place on 29 May, dedicated to the philosophy of the starship, and was organized by Kelvin Long and Rob Swinney. It follows several interstellar meetings at the BIS in the past few years, including one on warp drive concepts, one in which the Icarus project was formally launched, and in 2011 a reopening of the case for worldships [see Colonizing the Galaxy Using World Ships].

The title of Wednesday’s meeting, the “philosophy” of the starship, was left as broad as possible, I think deliberately, in order to encourage a variety of different angles, which worked well. Long’s own talk focused on Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance polymath and artist (1452-1519). Not normally regarded as an astronautical pioneer, his significance was that he developed ideas which were centuries ahead of their time, including designs for flying machines. We now find ourselves facing a similar leap into the future of imagination-driven technology, and Long sketched out possible technology roadmaps towards that future.

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Image: Underway at the BIS. This and the other images in this essay courtesy of Stephen Ashworth and Kelvin Long.

Keith Cooper discussed how self-replicating Von Neumann probes spreading through the Galaxy might fit into a philosophy for interstellar exploration [see Robotic Replicators for more of Keith’s ideas on the subject] . He pointed out that autonomous probes, based on nanotechnology, 3D printing and artificial intelligence, would be very useful for creating industrial infrastructure in space. But their autonomy could lead to unpredictable evolutionary changes in their behaviour, and could also sour a first contact scenario with extraterrestrials if those probes trespassed on the aliens’ own resources.

Cooper linked this topic with Fermi’s infamous question, or paradox, about which everybody has strong views but minimal supporting observational evidence. The Fermi question inevitably captured the resulting debate. I quietly suggested that future symposia ought to have a ground rule that the words “Fermi” and “paradox” should not be allowed to appear in the same sentence, in order to avoid these fruitless arguments which have been going on for half a century now, but this did not strike the organisers as a very good idea.

Bob Parkinson, one of the original Daedalus team, revisited several of his papers from the 1974-1975 period. He described how social and technological conditions had changed in the four decades since Daedalus. One person was now able to do the work which then had required a large team, thanks to the power of the Internet, and to the calculating power of specialised software.

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Image: Daedalus designer Bob Parkinson speaks, looking back on an earlier paper in which he examined starships as part of a continuum that began with Renaissance voyages of discovery.

While this may seem to be all to the good, I had a discussion with Richard Osborne about the prospects for the further global application of increasingly capable machines to routine work currently performed by people. Driving road vehicles is a case in point: a massive source of employment at present, yet crying out for automation, with cars, buses and trucks already increasingly computerised. The danger is of large-scale unemployment leading to social unrest. This problem has of course been seen before, but is set to become increasingly acute as computers running expert systems become able to take over intellectual work, such as that performed by the medical profession.

This question ought to be of increasing interest in interstellar research. One is prone to forget that the very technologies which we assume will be available for interstellar spaceflight imply massive social and economic changes, and these will need to be managed successfully if society is to continue to be able to advance further out into space.

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Image: A break for lunch and discussion at the BIS.

After lunch, Ian Crawford discussed interstellar discovery as an antidote to intellectual stagnation, drawing on an article of his published in a special issue of JBIS entitled “The Impact of Space on Culture” (Nov. 1993). He was in fact responding to Francis Fukuyama’s notorious “end of history” thesis, in which the end of ideological conflict also entails an end to human creativity and achievement.

Crawford referred also to John Locke, who in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding argued that we cannot imagine genuinely new things, but must discover them. In order to avoid the fate which Fukuyama predicted, we therefore need to keep pressing outwards and discovering new things. But this was disputed by Martin Ciupa, who rejected Locke’s view. Quite a debate resulted on the relation between physical reality and the human mind.

In his own presentation, Martin Ciupa focused on science fictional representations of contact between humans and intelligent aliens. A selection of posters from 1950s movies demonstrated the obsession at the time with aliens carrying off our womenfolk. The theme of using interstellar travel to illustrate our unconscious fears in the present was continued in Forbidden Planet. Ciupa then considered the Star Trek Prime Directive, representing what some would now regard as an ethical approach to managing our relations with aliens, and contrasted it with the interventionism shown by the Monolith in 2001, and by Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

This ethical choice is no theoretical abstraction, but a future version of a choice which is with us today: should the developed countries of the world intervene in cases such as the civil war in Syria?

Frederik Ceyssens offered his thoughts on geopolitical scenarios relevant to deep space exploration. Three broad futures were sketched out: one in which world governments tended to integrate into a unified global governing institution, one in which the current situation of several major power blocs continued, and one where political institutions were eclipsed by non-state actors such as multinational corporations, and the implications of these alternative scenarios were discussed.

As it would entail less short term competition and conflict, the former scenario was seen as more beneficial for government backing of long-term visionary projects such as launching an interstellar probe, but could also entail stagnation and complacency. The other scenarios would entail a more dynamic world, in which there could be actors sponsoring such projects albeit with a lower amount of resources. In any case, advocacy of a scientifically credible project was seen as important.

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Image: Stephen Ashworth, standing at right, addresses the symposium.

My own contribution during the morning session took a broader philosophical approach: what are the key features of a social philosophy conducive to large-scale civil space engineering up to and including starships? I demonstrated that in every case, a philosophical stance which the interstellar community regards as true or virtuous is regarded by other groups in society as false or damaging. Even within the sphere of interstellar thought, there are several points of fundamental disagreement (the answer to Fermi’s question being a case in point).

Three years ago the BIS was in fact treated to a debate with two Marxist academic sociologists who rejected the propositions that space exploration as currently practised was beneficial or that it ought to be accelerated. I believe that we need to keep in mind views that contrast strongly with our own, and engage with them where possible.

The day wound up with a discussion, led by Kelvin Long, of possible ways to demonstrate laser-sail propulsion in space on a low budget. It is planned to pursue this further under the title Project Dragonfly, intended to complement the existing work (Project Forward) being led by James Benford into microwave beam-sail propulsion.

In the best BIS tradition, many of the 30 participants afterwards adjourned to a local pub to continue discussions over a pint or two.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk June 7, 2013, 11:35

    I am so glad to see that someone was at an important meeting on interstellar travel discussing the philosophical and political implications of getting a mission to another star system. Of course the literal nuts and bolts of a starship or star probe have to be taken care of or the whole project is moot, but to ignore the rest of the situation as it were is only inviting delay and cancellation. Or at the other end, a mission that fails to achieve its objectives properly and causes death and destruction in the process both here and in the target system.

    To delve into the article now…

    Stephen Ashworth said:

    “But their [the star probe’s] autonomy could lead to unpredictable evolutionary changes in their behaviour, and could also sour a first contact scenario with extraterrestrials if those probes trespassed on the aliens’ own resources.”

    Very glad to see that was brought up and considered. Folks here and elsewhere can declare up and down the street that it does not look like we have any alien neighbors relatively nearby or at all at least in this galaxy, but it is way too early to be certain. That is why we are attempting to explore the interstellar realm in the first place, to find out who and what is and is not out there.

    We already have five robot probes and most of their final rocket stages on their way into the wider Milky Way, where in a matter of a few decades they will all be inactive and completely out of our control. Those space technicians and scientists who think that they will never run into anybody or anything in their conservatively estimated one billion year existences better hope they are right. Those who think and hope our first interstellar ambassadors will be found, understood, and appreciated by starfaring ETI also better be right.

    Stephen Ashworth then said:

    “I quietly suggested that future symposia ought to have a ground rule that the words “Fermi” and “paradox” should not be allowed to appear in the same sentence, in order to avoid these fruitless arguments which have been going on for half a century now, but this did not strike the organisers as a very good idea.”

    I tend to agree with you in that situation. Fermi specifically wanted to know why ETI had not come here to Earth yet and made themselves known to us. This completely ignores beings that do not have or want space travel or conduct space colonization. Plus the presumption that we and Earth are high on the places in the Milky Way to check out. It assumes humanlike behavior qualities of alien beings. Plus it is one of those ideas that gets brought up so often in SETI debates and discussions that it get frankly tiresome and one wishes that someone would try to take a new angle on figuring out if alien life exists. I wonder and doubt that Fermi even bothered with the topic after bringing it up that one time at lunch, yet he is now one of the icons of the extraterrestrial life debate. He already has enough fame as a big-time physicist.

    Stephen Ashworth then said:

    “This question ought to be of increasing interest in interstellar research. One is prone to forget that the very technologies which we assume will be available for interstellar spaceflight imply massive social and economic changes, and these will need to be managed successfully if society is to continue to be able to advance further out into space.”

    Thank you yet again for not ignoring the societal aspects of interstellar vessel building. Many in the field apparently like to pretend that space exploration and utilization somehow works in a vacuum independent of what goes on in the rest of human civilization, or ignore the reality altogether.

    The fact that we have not sent humans back to the Moon since 1972 or anyone to Mars yet after decades of plans and promises should have been evidence enough. Perhaps the fact that we do not seem to be receiving alien visitors every other week should also be taken into account. The literally universal challenges in moving between the stars may be more cultural than technical.

    Ironically, the future of automation was supposed to bring about a utopia where machines did all the work and dangerous tasks, including exploring, and we humans were going to sit back to spend more time thinking and playing. It is pretty clear that economic and cultural/educational attitudes have yet to catch up with such a concept, if ever.

    Stephen Ashworth then said:

    “This ethical choice is no theoretical abstraction, but a future version of a choice which is with us today: should the developed countries of the world intervene in cases such as the civil war in Syria?”

    The alternative is to allow this kind of antiquated behavior (totalitarian dictatorships) to spread and infect the rest of the civilized world. We now know we are on a finite planet with limited space and resources. As we have yet to establish anything resembling a space colony, the answer is that there is either a level of mutual cooperation and toleration across this planet, or we can expect the results of those with medieval thinking acting with modern weaponry. You can then say goodbye to the stars and much nearer space altogether.

    Stephen Ashworth then said:

    “Three years ago the BIS was in fact treated to a debate with two Marxist academic sociologists who rejected the propositions that space exploration as currently practised was beneficial or that it ought to be accelerated. I believe that we need to keep in mind views that contrast strongly with our own, and engage with them where possible.”

    Let us hope for the sake of space exploration and society in general that the words and ideas of these two characters went back with them to their cozy little ivory towers of academia and stayed there.

    Apparently these two never studied history and the results of Communist rule: 35 million dead at the hands of Stalin in the Soviet Union (he ruined and killed more of his own people than Hitler did during World War Two), over 70 million dead in China at the hands and policies of Mao, and then there is the living nightmare of North Korea, whose full actions have yet to be disclosed but from what we already know would make any truly intelligent being from another world avoid this planet like the plague – or destroy it for the sake of the rest of the galaxy.

    Communism is a great system – so long as its practitioners have either no emotions or complete control over them, are not hierarchical social creatures by nature, have no sense of self-identity or worth, and can fully trust the small group of people who are put in charge to maintain the system fairly for everyone else. I believe such beings are called nonsentient machines.

    As for those of all stripes who say that space exploration costs too much or that we should wait to reach the stars until all human problems on Earth are fixed… I have nothing good to say to such selfish ignorance.

    However, I unfortunately have to agree with Stephen here that it needs to be addressed nevertheless. Otherwise the sheep will win and we will spend the next few centuries conducting more meetings about interstellar travel and presenting more white papers on the subject and keep on wondering why the rest of humanity isn’t as thrilled as we are about getting to Alpha Centauri.

    And finally Stephen Ashworth concluded with:

    “In the best BIS tradition, many of the 30 participants afterwards adjourned to a local pub to continue discussions over a pint or two.”

    Some of the most revolutionary events in human history got their start at a local pub, so good call! Any transcripts of what was said, which I bet might have been even more interesting and informative than the formal meetings, thought it sounds like that would have been tough to achieve.

  • Richard June 7, 2013, 19:35

    It’s a shame that space exploration seems to need constant justification. I was incensed at two news readers recently who, after a report on Curiosity, decided to have some casual banter and one of them said: “billions for that” and shook their head. Yet they would never question defense spending or a dozen other huge spends. As I think Goldin pointed out many years ago, more is spent on cornchips than space exploration.

    In my mind there is nothing greater or more noble, or more likely to unite people. A rather melodramatic version of this is at the end (1hr-33min-30sec) of the 1936 movie “The Shape of Things To Come”.

    http://youtu.be/CCFgXSAUTNw?t=1h33m29s

    “But for man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet and its winds and waves. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him. And at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.”

  • John I Davies June 8, 2013, 9:23

    Penrose Replicators video: At some point during Keith Coopers excellent piece on Von Neumann probes, somebody, maybe Keith himself, mentioned a video of Penrose type replicators [see the ancient Scientific American article for the basics of this]
    Having hunted for half an hour I have failed to find the video. It might just be very handy in my STEMnet outreach work in UK schools. Can anyone point me toward it or similar material?
    Thanks to our our organisers, our presenters and my fellow participants for one of the most inspiring and enlightening days I have spent in years!

  • Doug M. June 8, 2013, 16:00

    I can’t help but notice that we’re looking at yet another starship conference that’s 100% white dudes. All of the speakers, and — based on the photographs — all of the audience as well.

    Over half of all recent astronomy PhDs and about a third of all recent physics PhDs are either minorities or women. So it’s not like these people don’t exist.

    Doug M.

  • Keith Cooper June 9, 2013, 7:37

    Hi John,

    Here is the link to the video: http://vimeo.com/10297756

    Kind regards,

    Keith

  • James D. Stilwell June 9, 2013, 8:39

    Richard:
    In my mind there is nothing greater or more noble, or more likely to unite people. A rather melodramatic version of this is at the end (1hr-33min-30sec) of the 1936 movie “The Shape of Things To Come”.

    Richard: Ayn Rand’s entire writing career revolved around this one movie…and the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows….Believe…

  • Michael June 9, 2013, 14:53

    @Doug M

    ‘I can’t help but notice that we’re looking at yet another starship conference that’s 100% white dudes. All of the speakers, and — based on the photographs — all of the audience as well.’

    ‘Over half of all recent astronomy PhDs and about a third of all recent physics PhDs are either minorities or women. So it’s not like these people don’t exist.

    Doug M.’

    I am sure that they are all welcome Doug. I have been trying to get my love too attend a meeting for ages but it is like a little light goes out in her eyes, no matter how hard I say ‘Interstellar travel is going to be very hip one day’. What I am trying to say is not everyone would like to go to these meetings, sad I know.

    Regards Michael (a dude),

  • Kelvin F. Long June 10, 2013, 2:40

    Doug M. June 8, 2013 at 16:00

    I can’t help but notice that we’re looking at yet another starship conference that’s 100% white dudes. All of the speakers, and — based on the photographs — all of the audience as well.

    Over half of all recent astronomy PhDs and about a third of all recent physics PhDs are either minorities or women. So it’s not like these people don’t exist.

    Doug M.
    ==============================
    Doug M.
    I find your comment an odd one I must say.
    The BIS was the host of the meeting. I4IS were the organisers of the meeting. The meeting was advertised in JBIS, Spaceflight magazine, BIS web site, I4IS web site, CD blog, various twitter accounts. Anyone who was interested in attending the meeting was most welcome to do so. It was a case of whoever registered first got the seat. Neither the BIS or I4IS chooses people based upon their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, personal philosophy or any other criteria. In fact, I am very proud of both organisations which promote vigorous debate and a diversity of views. This is also the case for most interstellar organisations that I know of.
    To give you an example of this, the BIS recently hosted a Man versus Machine debate (and before you point out the ‘man’ in the title, I didn’t choose it), in reference to humans or space probes, to hear both sides of the argument. To give you another example, as indicated by the Stephen Ashworth article, the BIS last year invited two Marxist socialists to give a lecture and to present their arguments for why humans should not be going into space. They were made extremely welcome and allowed plenty of time to share their points of view, this is despite the fact that the majority of people in the room vigorously disagreed with their position.

    I find it intriguing that you focussed on this. Was this motivated by anything in particular? If you feel that more should be done to invite people from a diversity of backgrounds, then perhaps you can tell us what you are specifically doing to promote cultural diversity in space?

    Personally, I do not believe that we should be choosing quotas of different racial or sexual type. We simply treat people as equals and people move forward based on merit alone. If it is felt that there are definite barriers to accessing knowledge or participating, then that should be addressed. But on the occasion of this meeting in London, and all the other interstellar meetings I am aware of, no such barriers exist.

    I think your comments were unhelpful and disappointing. Perhaps you might spell out your full name for transparency, as I do.

    Best wishes
    Kelvin F.Long
    Executive Director I4IS

  • Gregory Benford June 10, 2013, 18:40

    WELL SAID, KELVIN.

    Jim & I got the same criticism from “Doug M.” plus comments on the AGE of the speakers, about the Starship Century Symposium. If there’s some young person with the insights of Dyson, I’d love to have the name!

  • johnq June 10, 2013, 22:31

    Regarding Doug M.: I got the same criticism at the conference I ran some 25 years ago so the line is old and does not improve with age. When confronted, I explained with impeccable manners and good taste to the complainer that I had done everything I could to get the word out about the conference. Volunteers put posters all over the university. I even went out and interviewed a nun at one point. Anything for as wide a range of people as possible. I was desperate. But to this particular individual I might as well have shown up wearing a white sheet (with eye holes).

    Afterward, I came to the conclusion that frankly, it was stupid to care who showed or didn’t. If the minorities and women are so accomplished, then they can come to the conferences and show us all how it’s done. Shouldn’t be hard. All that is necessary is that they have (as Kevin stated) the interest. The point is, if the interest is not there, it’s not anybody’s problem but theirs.

    However, I’m not so sanguine about this: ” . . . as indicated by the Stephen Ashworth article, the BIS last year invited two Marxist socialists to give a lecture and to present their arguments for why humans should not be going into space. They were made extremely welcome . . . ” I’m sure they were but would it have killed the organizers to have made a search for a real economist or two? The comments of ljk above stand. Those interested in the grisly details of the wages of Marx are welcome to read The Black Book of Communism: http://www.amazon.com/Black-Book-Communism-Crimes-Repression/dp/0674076087/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370914214&sr=1-1&keywords=the+black+book+of+communism

    Yes, the corpse count for the 20th century bone yard is indeed on the order of 100,ooo,ooo. The world had never witnessed such a thing but there it was and what keeps me awake at night is that surely if we don’t learn from that, we never will.

    Recently, I came across the following quote from the great writer Vladimir Nabokov that I found bracing: “… there is in every child the essentially human urge to reshape the earth, to act upon a friable environment (unless he is a born Marxist or a corpse and meekly waits for the environment to fashion him).” So I have to ask: which side are we on?

    Nevertheless and to be fair our Marxists friends may indeed be able to shed light on the Fermi Paradox (mentioned in passing), as possible solutions, based on the history of the 20th century, they may be so inclined to share. That should be enough of a contribution.

    I don’t get it. That organizers of the conference stride forth seeking a diversity of view points . . . and bring in not one but two Marxists. Why two? Wouldn’t one have been sufficient get the job done? Or were there worries the attendees wouldn’t get it after just one speaker? Look, if one is not aware of Marxism and what it has meant, and history is a bit of a bore, then for heaven’s find someone who does. History provides the only data points we have; it is our most reliable guide. If you have something better, let me know. We need to make use of history. Interstellar flight if it does happen will take place in a cultural context. We have to understand that as much as we understand the mechanics of advanced nuclear propulsion. Perhaps even more so.

    Finally, there is this from James Stillwell: “Richard: Ayn Rand’s entire writing career revolved around this one movie…and the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows….Believe…”

    Sadly, I don’t believe. The statement is in error. The whole of Ayn Rand’s writings were devoted to one essential notion — the business of living on the earth (reality) and making a living while doing so. Nothing more. Some individuals were obviously better at it than others and that did have implications but that aspect was irrelevant to the ethics of her philosophy. Yes, she had her grand sentiments (the odes to the creators, intellectuals, industrialists and so forth, people who really were good at making a living) but such were only the background music.

    In fact, it is clear she was succumbing to despair near the end of her life and though she would have hated to admit it, I believe she was much closer to the constrained vision in the end than she was the unconstrained one. I can certainly empathize.

  • NS June 11, 2013, 1:44

    Sadly until quite recently women and people of color were deliberately excluded from those areas of society that allow great speculations. And as for young people, my college graduate nephew has spent the last two years working at a pizza place, since there are no jobs in his chosen profession. It’s not a matter of solving every human problem before we attempt interstellar travel. But we had better deal with the ones that waste the ability of so many people, or those starships will never exist.

  • Michael June 11, 2013, 3:20

    ‘Doug M. May 10, 2013 at 5:16
    “The program includes Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Peter Schwartz, Geoffrey Landis, Ian Crawford, James Benford and John Cramer. Science fiction writers included are Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman and David Brin. Other writers attending are Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge.”

    Does anyone else notice something a little funny about that list?

    Freeman Dyson, bless his heart, is *90* years old. Paul Davies is 67. Robert Zubrin is 61. Peter Schwartz is 67. Geoff Landis is a relative stripling at 58. John Cramer is 79.

    Greg Benford is 72. Allen Steele is a sprightly lad of 55, while Neal Stephenson is barely out of short pants at 54. Joe Haldeman is 70. David Brin is 63. Pournelle is 80. Niven is 75. Vernor Vinge is 69.

    The average age on that list is 68, median is 69.

    Doug M.’

    I will tell you this Doug M I hope I am as active and as clever as they are when I am at their at their ages, well done lads keep up the good work.

    ‘It is better to be silent and be thought dumb, than to speak and remove all doubt!”.

    Listen and you may learn something!

    Regards Michael,

  • ljk June 11, 2013, 9:22

    Richard said on June 7, 2013 at 19:35:

    “It’s a shame that space exploration seems to need constant justification. I was incensed at two news readers recently who, after a report on Curiosity, decided to have some casual banter and one of them said: “billions for that” and shook their head. Yet they would never question defense spending or a dozen other huge spends. As I think Goldin pointed out many years ago, more is spent on cornchips than space exploration.”

    Richard, did you contact the television station where these news people are and complain to the management about their rude and ignorant attitudes? Otherwise they will just continue unabated and spreading their views to those who watch them for information. What passes for journalism these days is a sad joke.

    Stephen Ashworth brought up a lot of interesting and valuable points about interstellar voyaging. Many of them are often ignored in the relevant literature and conferences, or at least they were.

    I have given my two cents on the subjects he discussed. I hope others here will join in so we can make sure they are addressed by the time we are ready to send something real to Alpha Centauri or wherever we end up targeting first.

  • Kelvin F. Long June 11, 2013, 12:07

    johnq,
    I believe the two Marxists invited to the BIS were co-authors of a pending book arguing why space flight should not be pursued. That is why the two of them were together. Although I did not attend the event, I can assure you there were more than enough people in the room to give the opposite position during the Q & A.

    I do think there is still much inequality and injustice in the world and I will personally stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who oppose it. But if anything, the many interstellar organisations and people are associated with them are the least prejudice in the world in my personal opinion. Most people interested in the problem of interstellar flight are also interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the Universe. We all fully understand that people from different gravitational wells, different biospheres, different chemical make-ups, may look and act entirely different to humans – yet we are interested in meeting them and learning about their origins and culture. Look how Star Trek pioneered the way here by the way. It gave a glimpse into a future where such prejudice did not exist. Creating quotas and making statistics is not the solution to ending inequality, it is education. To advance someone on the basis of a statistic is an offence to the integrity of that individual in my view and denies them the personal opportunity to grow and achieve their aspirations. In times past that was not so of course, but in the modern era where the first African-American President is elected in history, we have moved on and became a more nobler people.

    I recently read a most wonderful book by Carl Sagan which I strongly recommend to anyone. It is called “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”. It was Sagan’s final contribution before departing this life. I refer people to Chapter 21 “The Path to Freedom” and the story of Frederick Bailey. He understood that literacy was the way out of his nightmare. So, for the population of the world, raising education standards and empowering people to act on that knowledge is the path to harmonisation of human beings. Because knowledge, defeats ignorance in all its horrible forms.

    Yes, the interstellar community are completely open for everyone of every origin, background, gender, ethnicity, philosophy….we are all brothers and sisters. And those who choose to differentiate us based on what part of the planet we were born on are misguided. Those who choose to make it an issue when it isn’t one, are merely creating disharmony and discord where it is not necessary. Instead, let us live by the William Hartmann golden rule which by implications solves many of these problems:

    “Space exploration should be carried out in a way so as to reduce, not aggravate, tensions in human society”.

    And for the record, at the recent London meeting there were several non-white females in attendance, they were just not in those randomly selected photographs. We advertised for speakers and registrations, and both were allocated on (1) first come first served and (2) merit of subject, basis only. That is the way that it should be. If anything needs to be addressed, it is why many people from different cultural backgrounds are not attending the event in the first place. They have access to the same advertising as everyone else, but yet the participation is low. This is something that needs to be addressed as we strive to reach all of humanity and communicate the vision of the stars.

    Thanks for reading. The above views expressed are my own only and do not represent any organisation.

    Thank you
    Kelvin F.Long

  • Doug M. June 11, 2013, 17:43

    Okay, working through these in order.

    Kelvin Long: “Anyone who was interested in attending the meeting was most welcome to do so. ” — That’s great, Kelvin. You didn’t seek to exclude women or minorities. Well done.

    But I can’t help but notice that all the speakers were white dudes.

    “Neither the BIS or I4IS chooses people based upon their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, personal philosophy or any other criteria. ”

    Well, let’s check that. Icarus Interstellar, which IIUC is the interstellar arm of the BIS, has a Board of Directors. That Board consists of… six white dudes. No women, no nonwhites.

    Icarus Interstellar also has an advisory board. That has four people: three male, one female. All white.

    http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/team/

    I4IS also has a Board of Directors. Eight people: seven men, one woman. All white.

    http://i4is.org/people_directors.html

    I4IS Advisory council: eight white dudes. No minorities, no women.

    http://i4is.org/people_council.html

    And, just for the heck of it, here is the page for I4IS consultants. There are 15 of them. All male, all white.

    http://i4is.org/people_consultants.html

    So, let’s review. The governing bodies of these two organizations — Board of Directors plus Advisory Boards — consist of 26 people. All 26 of those people are white and 24 of them are male.

    So when you say that “Neither the BIS or I4IS chooses people based upon their ethnicity [or] gender… We simply treat people as equals and people move forward based on merit alone”… well, perhaps. But whatever the selection process is for these boards, it seems to be producing particular outcomes pretty consistently. The people who have “moved forward” to actually run these organizations are all of a particular type; somehow, “merit alone” seems to have given you an outcome that’s 93% male and 100% white.

    Doug M.

  • Doug M. June 11, 2013, 17:54

    Look, I’m not trying to be a troll here. But in round numbers, about a third of currently practicing astronomers are women, and about a fifth are nonwhite. The numbers are lower for physicists, but still significant.

    You’re not reaching those people. They’re not coming to your conferences. And that is /bad/. It’s bad for your enterprise. It’s bad for interstellar studies and interstellar travel.

    I’m raising this issue because I think the work is important and should draw more people in. And that’s not happening. The people who run the bodies, who invite speakers to conferences, who make speeches at conferences… they’re pretty much all white dudes.

    Also, they’re mostly middle aged and older white dudes. You’re not reaching young people very well, which is a separate problem. But probably related, because young scientists — under 35, let’s say — are much more likely to be female or nonwhite.

    I’m not trying to mock you or provoke you. All I’m saying is, it looks like there’s a problem here.

    Doug M.

  • Doug M. June 11, 2013, 18:11

    “Jim & I got the same criticism from “Doug M.” plus comments on the AGE of the speakers, about the Starship Century Symposium. If there’s some young person with the insights of Dyson, I’d love to have the name!”

    That was the conference where the median age of the speakers on the program was 69. (And almost all white dudes, but let that bide for now.)

    You’re holding a conference to talk about the future. Your future, our future, humanity’s future. That’s great! I’m all down with that. But you’re doing it with *no young people*. Not few; none. Doesn’t that seem a little odd?

    Actuarially speaking, how many of those people are going to be around 10 years from now? 20? Not trying to be offensive, but think about it. If what you’re doing is just getting together with friends to discuss a fun hobby, then super — the age thing doesn’t matter. But if you really believe that this is *important*, that it is a matter of interest to all mankind, and that the work must be carried forward — then a gathering of old friends, however pleasant, is not what you should be about.

    Doug M.

  • Doug M. June 11, 2013, 20:26

    Just for the hell of it, here are some numbers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The figures are for Civil Service positions in the GSFC’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate, requiring either a PhD or a Masters (or equivalent experience). These are the people who are actually *doing science for NASA*, as full-time career professionals. Here are the 2012 numbers, from broken down by science division:

    Solar System — 75 male, 28 female
    Earth Science — 108 male, 37 female
    Astrophysics — 57 male, 15 female
    Heliophysics — 43 male, 8 female

    Total: 283/88, which works out to 76% male, 24% female. Again: these are NASA’s space scientists. They’re astronomers and physicists and engineers who are doing space science every day, right now. The field is about one quarter female already, and that number is only going to grow.

    (And Goddard’s leadership? It consists of one Director and five Deputy Directors. Four of the five Deputies are women. )

    Guys: it’s not 1987 any more. The field is leaving you behind.

    Doug M.

  • Richard Osborne June 12, 2013, 11:50

    Doug M. says:
    > Look, I’m not trying to be a troll here. But in round numbers,
    > about a third of currently practicing astronomers are women,
    > and about a fifth are nonwhite. The numbers are lower for
    > physicists, but still significant.
    >
    > You’re not reaching those people. They’re not coming to your
    > conferences.

    And in your last sentence, you nail it. You are making the wrong argument. It is not to do with excluding any members of the human race, although from reading your posts, I get the impression you think it is.

    The fundamental point that you are overlooking with the discussions of reaching a wider demographic, is that the science community in general are not so good at marketing as they are at science. Frequently, those with an interest don’t even know events are going on. That isn’t some grand plot, it is just the marketing and publicity skills of the science community have traditionally been fairly lacklustre. So if you see an event that contains mainly older men, maybe, instead of castigating them, maybe it is worth considering that this might show, that an event of that demographic are possibly not good at marketing their event, rather than being deliberately exclusionary.

    However, instead of pointing out the deficiencies, it would be more productive to look at ways that more people could be encouraged to attend.

    One of the issues is all these events cost. Whether travel, accommodation, registration etc. Younger people, earlier in their careers may not have the financial resources to attend, which is why the demographic gets skewed. I am not convinced subsidising large swathes of people to attend is a viable business solution there either.

    It would be interesting to hear your suggestions for solutions to the problems you see.

    Oh, and not all the attendees at that event you mentioned were old white dudes.

    Richard

  • Kelvin F. Long June 12, 2013, 13:13

    Dear Doug M,

    Minor correction to facts quoted above, Icarus Interstellar and the BIS are two separate organisations in law. II is a US registered non-profit 501c(3). BIS is a UK registered charity. The technical study, Project Icarus, is a joint venture between them both, and II was a spin-off from the team doing Project Icarus. Just so that’s clear.

    I’m perfectly prepared to continue this discussion with you and in a public forum. However, I can’t do so when you won’t reveal your proper name. To not do so is non-transparent, unreasonable and denies me equality of a level playing field in debating these important issues with you.
    What have you got to hide?
    So until then, thanks for the conversation.
    Best wishes
    Kelvin F.Long

  • Dr. Eric W. Davis June 12, 2013, 14:44

    Doug M.’s observations are a non sequitur and lack impartiality. And he’s sounding like a broken record with his repeated charges of racism which have no place here.

    I already explained to him in comments that I posted (in reply to his very same charges) in an earlier Centauri Dreams article to the effect that the STEM Ph.D. degree/professional demographics in the English speaking countries show that racial minorities are not well represented because of the social-cultural issues that pervade their access to STEM education and career mentoring starting in Kindergarten. However, it is a well documented fact that Asians and Middle Easterners (foreigners, not citizens) are very well represented in STEM degree programs or professions when they are foreigners attending universities and/or work in STEM professions in English speaking countries.

    The professional physics societies are working with the UN to establish or grow college-level physics education in Africa where it was nearly nonexistent prior to just several years ago.

    But the REAL key point here is that the subject of interstellar flight science IS A VERY SMALL NICHE in STEM education and profession; therefore, the subject of interstellar flight science is NOT THAT WELL KNOWN among racial minorities interested in STEM subjects and careers, and it is not even well known among the non-minority professional STEM population. Interstellar flight science is an emergent field of educational and professional study, so it will take a long, long, LONG time to gain enough traction, attention, interest, and stable permanent financial support before its appeal broadens far enough and wide enough to capture both racial minority and non-minority demographics.

    Doug M.’s posts are clearly indicative of his single agenda to create unnecessary discord, distraction, and diversion by falsely claiming that BIS, I4IS, Icarus Interstellar, Tau Zero Foundation, etc., are all “white dude” clubs that exclude women and minorities. They do not. They are all inclusive and they embrace all races, sexual orientations, religious persuasions, handicaps, and nationalities. If you are from another planet, we will embrace you. Caveat: Science, and interstellar flight science, is not political; therefore, political views are not acceptable nor will discussion on such be tolerated here.

    Interstellar flight science is the same as ALL science in that it is INCLUSIVE OF EVERYONE who wants to participate in STEM education and careers, especially the subject of interstellar flight science. Discrimination of any kind is not tolerated in science or in the field of interstellar flight science.

    The several interstellar flight organizations each have varying degrees of particiapation by women and racial minorities, which reflects the interest level that women and minorities have in this subject. If the interest level were much higher, than each of these organizations will have much larger visibility of women and minorities in their activities. There is a NON-ZERO membership of women and minorities and their foreign counterparts in each of these organizations. Just because you don’t see the women and racial minority members of these organizations participating at one venue or another via posted photos doesn’t mean that they weren’t there or that they weren’t invited to attend. It means that they could not attend for work or personal reasons or that not enough of them were in attendance to be captured in the photos.

    Nobody needs to explain anything to you anymore, Doug M. Centauri Dreams is not a venue for you to promote your distorted thinking and false claims. Centauri Dreams is a venue dedicate to the promotion of positive, impartial, and sometimes rigorous, discussions on the subject of and activities involved with interstellar flight science. It is a popular (non-professional) blog venue dedicated to accepting and embracing the views of ALL readers and consumers of the interstellar flight subjects that interest them. NO ONE is discriminated against.

  • Dr. Eric W. Davis June 12, 2013, 14:55

    Doug M.:

    Your comments on the age and gender of conference speakers and other participants, including the table on the male-to-female ratios at NASA, are non sequiturs and totally inappropriate for Centauri Dreams. Please stop because none of the issues you raise are relevant to the mission of Centauri Dreams. Centauri Dreams’ mission is to communicate the science of interstellar flight, and not to communicate the sociological/economic/cultural/age/race/gender deficiencies in STEM education and professions. That type of discussion is only relevant to political scientists and cultural-sociologists and anthropologists that are professionally trained to handle that type of academic discussion, and is also best left to their professional and popular blog publications to communicate to the public.

    If you are serious about your gripes, then stop reading Centauri Dreams and start reading blogs that are more relevant and appropriate to addressing your complaints.

  • Doug M. June 12, 2013, 16:08

    @Richard, “scientists are bad at marketing” isn’t a completely daft argument, but it’s not a very strong one either. How bad at marketing do you have to be to ignore between a quarter and a third of the people in the relevant professions? Marketing is likely part of it, but it goes beyond marketing.

    I suspect there are also network effects. Interstellar enthusiasts are a small group, so conferences tend to be friends, acquaintances, and friends-of-acquaintances. (The recent Benford conference was an extreme example of this.) So, while passive invitations do get posted, it’s a lot harder for people to actually join the network.

    Travel costs may be an issue, but are probably not what’s driving it; young-ish people do manage to get to conferences in other fields, after all. I dropped by a medieval history conference a while back and was mildly surprised to see that the median age was under 40 and the participants were about 25% female. Naturally, most were academics on a conference travel budget. Still: while likely an issue, it’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most interested parties.

    Doug M.

  • Keith Cooper June 12, 2013, 16:13

    I was going to write a long reply to Doug M but Richard, Kelvin and Eric have pretty much said what I was going to say. I’d just like to make the point that complaining about age at the Starship Century conference is completely missing the point. Yes, some of those speaking at that conference have been thinking about interstellar flight longer than I have been alive, but that’s exactly why it is important that we here from them, because their knowledge is irreplaceable. So when they speak I’m going to shut up and listen to them, and to dismiss them because of their age is folly and discriminative. And for full disclosure, I’m 33 – hardly an old dude. But there is a younger generation coming through: looking at the leadership of the likes of I4IS and Icarus Interstellar you will see there are a lot of younger people there.

    Of course, there are demographics that are currently under-represented in the community and it would be wrong to deny that and it is something that we would like to improve, but that doesn’t mean they are not there at all and it does not mean the community is sexist or racist. Remember, as a community with many new organisations, we’ve barely had time to grow. At the moment there’s a lot of overlap between organisations, because as Eric said it’s a small niche community but for it to survive in the long run it has to grow and expand and embrace a new generation, irrespective of ethnicity or creed – and it will, just give it chance. Rather than complaining about it, I would politely ask instead if you could offer some constructive suggestions about how we can reach out better to women and people of differing ethnicities and nationalities (is there an interstellar community in Japan, or China, or Africa? I have no idea but I’d love to find out and team up with them). That’s not to say I don’t have my own ideas about how to reach out to a wider demographic, but as a director at I4Is I would whole-heartedly welcome any positive suggestions.

    Keith Cooper

  • Doug M. June 12, 2013, 16:15

    @Kelvin, you’ve been on the internet for years, and suddenly you’re upset by pseudonymity? Do you usually refuse to engage with people who are pseudonymous?

    No offense, but I gotta say this is coming across as “This person is pointing out a problem. I will ignore him! Problem solved.”

    Doug M.

  • Doug M. June 12, 2013, 16:36

    @Eric, what “repeated charges of racism”? I’ve never once used the terms “racism”, “racist”, or even “discrimination”. Those are your terms, not mine.

    All I’ve done is point out that all the speakers at these conferences are white guys, and that the leadership of the relevant organizations is all white and mostly guys. Those are facts. The “whys” behind those facts… well, that’s open to discussion.

    As to STEM education: yes, women and minorities are underrepresented. But they’re not *that* underrepresented. As noted, about 25% of active astronomers are women, as are about 25% of the space scientists at Goddard. The American Astronomical Society reported 10% minority membership in 2009, up from 8% in 2003; given the demographic trends in the field, it’s undoubtedly a bit higher today.

    Finally, you say that “degrees of particiapation by women and racial minorities [reflect] the interest level that women and minorities have in this subject. ” So, there aren’t a lot of women and minorities joining interstellar organizations or going to interstellar conferences because they are, on average, just not very interested? Am I understanding you correctly?

    Doug M.

  • Doug M. June 13, 2013, 3:50

    @Eric, I don’t know if you read that old thread, but I was neither “complaining about” their age nor “dismissing them because of their age. I was *noticing* their age. Twenty or so presenters, the median age is 69, only one guy under 50; isn’t that noteworthy? Does it mean something?

    The responses I got consisted basically of “How dare you! Freeman Dyson!” Well, okay.

    As to constructive suggestions, I gave it a first shot in the other thread. I’ll note that you’re the fourth member of an interstellar community to ask me — a random, pseudonymous guy on the internet — for suggestions. Nobody on either thread has yet said “Yeah, we do skew male and white, and that’s a problem. Here’s what we’re doing about it.”

    Let me turn the question around. What /are/ people doing about it? Is there any sort of outreach? Is anyone even saying, hey, this is an issue? Or is it simply not discussed?

    Doug M.

  • Richard Osborne June 13, 2013, 13:52

    @Doug M.
    > Let me turn the question around. What /are/ people doing about it?
    > Is there any sort of outreach? Is anyone even saying, hey, this is an issue?
    > Or is it simply not discussed?

    I notice you avoid answering my previous question. Rather than avoid the question by turning it around, why don’t “you” answer the question. I asked you what “your” solution was? After all, it is you who have come to these comments and tried to politicise what is largely a very open community.

    You are the one who has come to this thread of comments and made a number of charged points, so surely if you have anything productive to add, it would be of benefit to all for you to share your insights here, rather than throwing it back at people who were undoubtedly trying their best .

    As for your comment on marketing not being a major issue, I will have to disagree with you on that. I think it is a major issue, and rather than any other reasons, it is in fact bad marketing that results in the subject not being communicated better, and to be honest, it is not a surprise. We are a community of scientists. We do not working in marketing or PR, so for anyone to expect us to be experts at a field as different as that would be unreasonable.

    I would venture that you are essentially having a go at people on the basis of a skill they can’t be expected to have necessarily, and then attributing that lack of skill to a political context, which can only ever be divisive.

    Richard

  • Paul Gilster June 13, 2013, 15:55

    All this being said, it’s time to get back on topic, which in this case is an excellent seminar on the philosophy of the starship, many of whose ideas we haven’t been discussing because of the side-journey into multiculturalism. We’ve also seen a second thread, that one on using Kickstarter and public resources to create income for worthy projects, diverted in a direction it wasn’t intended for. Although many good points have been raised, it’s time to move on. Those who do want to keep the multicultural ideas going can feel free to do so on our Facebook group:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/tauzerofoundation/

  • Martin Ciupa June 17, 2013, 11:24

    Thanks for this very good summary.

  • Bernd Jendrissek June 26, 2013, 3:09

    With respect, I think what Paul calls the “side-journey into multiculturalism” is at the very core of “starship philosophy”. If you go by John Locke, a cultural monoculture (an interstellar studies network consisting almost exclusively of people exhibiting attributes X Y and Z) cannot imagine certain philosophies because it cannot discover them, having (through no active intent) cut itself off from them by representing only a subset of humanity. How about some examples?

    “The danger is of large-scale unemployment leading to social unrest.” – The very term “social unrest”, to me, is a cultural marker for establishment people. It’s a value-laden term: “social unrest” is bad, and it’s bad because any sort of unrest threatens the status quo which gives us our daily bread.

    “As it would entail less short term competition and conflict, the former scenario [unified global government] was seen as more beneficial for government backing of long-term visionary projects such as launching an interstellar probe, but could also entail stagnation and complacency.” – Again, that’s exactly the sort of axiom I’d expect a group to accept if its members earn(ed) their living from big government-funded programmes, whether that be space programmes or universities. The bigger the government, the better, obviously.

    And maybe not so much an example but more of a challenge to introspect: “I demonstrated that in every case, a philosophical stance which the interstellar community regards as true or virtuous is regarded by other groups in society as false or damaging.” When I find almost everybody disagrees with me about something, I start seriously wondering whether I might, in fact, be wrong. I think space stuff is cool just like the rest of you probably do, but have you considered what it might mean that almost everyone but the interstellar community finds some idea false or damaging? Maybe alien cultures faced this same problem. Maybe that’s where they are, to answer Fermi’s question. They’re *not* doing what their interstellar community would like them to do, which is presumably to explore and colonize space.

    When you’re talking about light sails and Alcubierre drives, I’m more eager to agree that it doesn’t matter that women, or black people, or youngsters, or the colour-blind are doing the math. Bad math doesn’t insinuate itself into a group the way bad philosophy does. If you don’t think it matters to be unable to imagine the totality of potential human culture: if you can’t even imagine the totality of human culture, how would one hope to imagine much at all about an alien culture?