Nick Nielsen’s latest invokes the thinking of Carl Sagan, who explored the possibilities of interstellar ramjets traveling at close to the speed of light in the 1960’s. What would the consequences be for the civilization that developed such technologies, and how would such starships affect their thinking about communicating with other intelligent species? Sagan’s speculations took humans not just to the galactic core but to M31, journeys made possible within a human lifetime by time dilation. Nielsen, an author and contributing analyst with strategic consulting firm Wikistrat, ponders how capabilities like that would change our views of culture and identity. Fast forward to the stars, after all, means you can’t go home again.

by Nick Nielsen


In my previous Centauri Dreams post, I discussed some of the possible explanations of what Paul Davies has called the “eerie silence” – the fact that we hear no signs of alien civilizations when we listen for them – in connection with existential risk. Could the eerie silence be a sign that older civilizations than ours have been risk averse to the point of plunging the galaxy into silence, perhaps even silencing others (making use of the Rezabek maneuver)? It is a question worth considering.

For one answer is that we are alone, or very nearly alone, in our galaxy, and probably also in our local cluster of galaxies, and perhaps also alone even in our local supercluster of galaxies. I think this may be the case partly due to the eerie silence when we listen, but also due to what may be called our cosmic loneliness. Not only are our efforts to listen for other intelligences greeted with silence, but also the attempts to demonstrate any alien visitation of our planet or our solar system have turned up nothing. When we listen, we hear only silence, and when we look, we find nothing.

The question, “Are we alone?” has come to take on a scientific poignancy that few other questions hold for us, and we ask this question because of our cosmic loneliness. We are beginning to understand the Copernican revolution not only on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral level, and for many who experience this visceral understanding the result is what psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl called the existential vacuum; the whole cosmos now appears as an existential vacuum devoid of meaning, and that is why we ask, “Are we alone?” We ask the question out of need.


Image credit: TM-1970, Russia (via Dark Roasted Blend).

While talk of alien visitation is usually dominated by discussions of UFOs (and merely by mentioning the theme I risk being dismissed as a crackpot), due to the delay involved in EM spectrum communications, it is at least arguable that communication is less likely than travel and visitation. That being said, I do not find any of the claimed accounts of extraterrestrial visitation to be credible, and I will not discuss them, but I will try to show why visitation is more likely than communication via electromagnetic means.

An organic life form having established an industrial-technological civilization on its homeworld – rational beings that we might think of as peer species – would, like us, have risen from biological deep time, possessing frail and fragile bodies as we do, subject to aging and deterioration. An advanced technological civilization could greatly extend the lives of organic beings, but how long such lives could be extended (without being fully transformed into non-organic beings, i.e., without becoming post-biological) is unknown at present.

For EM spectrum communications across galactic distances, even the most long-lived organic being would be limited in communications to only a small portion of its home galaxy. If civilizations are a rarity within the galaxy, the likelihood of living long enough to engage in even a single exchange is quite low. In fact, we can precisely map the possible sphere of communication of a being with a finite life span within our galaxy (or any given galaxy) based on the longevity of that life form. Even an extraordinarily long-lived and patient ETI would not wish to wait thousands of years between messages, especially in view of the quickening pace of civilization that comes about with the advent of telecommunications.

It could be argued that non-organic life forms take up where organic life forms leave off, and for machines to take over our civilization would mean that length of life becomes much less relevant, but the relative merits and desirability of mechanistic vs. organic bearers of industrial-technological civilization (not to speak of being bearers of consciousness) is a point that needs to be argued separately, so I will not enter into this at present. But whether ETI is biological or post-biological, no advanced intellect is going to send out a signal and wait a thousand years for a response, since in that same thousand year period it would be possible to invent the technologies that would allow for travel to the same object of your communication in a few years’ time (i.e, a few years in terms of elapsed shipboard time).

Our perfect ETI match as a peer civilization in the Milky Way will have already realized that electromagnetic communications mean waiting too long to talk to planetary systems that can be visited directly. If they are a hundred years ahead of us, they may already have started out and may find us soon. If they are a hundred years behind us, they will not yet even have the science to conceive of these possibilities as realizable technological aims. But what is the likelihood, in the universe in which intelligent life is rare (and we know by now that there are no “super-civilizations” nearby us in cosmic terms – cf. my Searching the Sky), that in all the vast space and time of the universe, a peer civilization should arise within a hundred years’ development of our own civilization? Not very likely.

The further we push out the temporal parameters of this observation, the more likely there is another civilization within these temporal parameters, but the further such a civilization is from being a peer civilization. Take a species a thousand years behind us or a thousand years ahead of us: the former cannot form a conception of the universe now known to observational cosmology; the latter will have technological abilities so far beyond ours (having had an industrial-technological civilization that has been in existence five times longer than ours) that we would not be in any sense their peer. And they would have already visited us. If we set the parameters of temporal radius from the present at ten thousand years, or a hundred thousand years, we are much more likely to find life on other worlds, but the further from our present level of development, the less likely any life found would be recognizable as a peer civilization.

How would we visit other worlds directly? With the breakthrough technology of a 1G starship (i.e., a starship than can accelerate or decelerate at a constant of one gravity) [2], all of the waiting to discover the universe and what lies beyond virtually disappears for those willing to make the journey. And while I have called this 1G starship a “breakthrough technology,” it is not likely to happen all at once in a breakthrough, but will probably take decades (if not centuries) of development. Our first interstellar probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, are already headed to the stars [3]. It would take tens of thousands of years for the Voyager probes to arrive at another solar system, should they survive so long. Incremental improvements even in known propulsion technologies will yield gradually more efficient and effective interstellar travel (and will not require any violations of the laws of physics). While we don’t yet have full breakeven in inertial confinement fusion [4], we can in fact achieve inertial confinement fusion at an energy loss, meaning that an inertial confinement fusion starship drive is nearly within the capability of present technology. All of this leaves aside the possibility of breakthrough technologies that would be game-changers (such as the Alcubierre drive).

If we assume that a peer species would emerge from an Earth twin, we can assume that such a peer species would be subject to roughly similar gravitational limitations, so that an ETI 1G starship would be something similar in terms of velocity. Human beings or a peer ETI species, while unable to engage in any but the most limited EM spectrum communications over galactic distances, would find the galaxy opened up to them by a 1G starship, able to explore the farthest reaches of the universe within the ordinary biological lifetime of intelligent life forms even as we know such life forms today (i.e., ourselves), limited to a mere three score and ten, or maybe a bit more.

I have mentioned inertial confinement fusion above as a possible starship propulsion system, but this example is not necessary to my argument. If there existed only a single propulsion proposal for interstellar travel, and all our hopes for such travel rested on an unknown science and an unknown technology, we would have good reason to be skeptical that interstellar travel would ever be possible under any circumstances. This, however, is not the case. There are a wide variety of potential interstellar propulsion technologies, including inertial confinement fusion, matter-antimatter, quantum vacuum thrusters, and other even more exotic ideas. As long as industrial-technological civilization continues its development, some advanced propulsion idea is likely to prove successful, if only marginally so, but marginally will be enough for the first pioneers who are willing to sacrifice all for the chance at a new world.

It is humbling that we know so little about these technologies and the science that underlies them that we are not today in a position to say which among these might prove to be robust and durable drives for a starship, but the very fact that we know so little implies that we have much to learn and we cannot yet exclude any of these exotic starship drive possibilities, much less dismiss them as impossible. While no one has yet produced a proof of concept of any of these proposed forms of propulsion, it is also the case that no one has yet falsified the science upon which they are based.

Even the most successful of the drives mentioned above (with the exception of the Alcubierre drive) will involve time dilation as a condition of interstellar travel. There has been a tendency to view time dilation as a cosmic “fun spoiler” that prevents us seeing the universe on our own terms, since the elapsed time on one’s home world means that no one can return to the world that they left. We need to get beyond this limiting idea and come to see time dilation as a resource that will allow us to travel throughout the galaxy. It is true that time dilation is a limitation, but it is also an opportunity. As Carl Sagan noted:

“Relativity does set limits on what humans can ultimately do. But the universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition. Special relativity removes from our grasp one way of reaching the stars, the ship that can go faster than light. Tantalizingly, it suggests another and quite unexpected method.” [5]

Human ambition, as Sagan suggests, wants interstellar travel without the price exacted by time dilation, but the universe is not going to accommodate this particular ambition. We have had to reconcile ourselves with the fact that historical transmission is a unidirectional process. We can read Shakespeare, but we cannot talk to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s contemporary Queen Elizabeth could make it known that she wanted to see Falstaff in love, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” resulted, but we cannot approach the Bard to write the perfect comedy of manners in which smart phones and text messages figure in the plot.

Just so, we are all unidirectional time travelers, and the eventual development of travel at relativistic velocities will not give us the ability to travel backward in time, nor will it allow us to travel to the stars without giving thought to the inertial frame of reference of our homeworld, but it will give us more alternatives for going forward in time. We will have the opportunity to choose between an inertial framework at rest (presumably relative to our homeworld), and some accelerated inertial framework in which time passes more slowly, allowing us to travel farther and, incidentally, to see more of the universe. Even if we can never go back, we can always go forward. Relativistic interstellar travel will mean that we have a choice as to how rapidly we move forward in time. The possibility of always going farther forward in time has consequences for existential risk mitigation that I will discuss in my next Centauri Dreams post.


[1] Cf. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

[2] Carl Sagan discussed the 1G starship in his Cosmos, Chapter VIII, “Travels in Space and Time”; I quote from this same chapter below.

[3] As of this writing, Voyager 1 has passed into interstellar space, while Voyager 2 has not yet emerged from the heliosheath and into interstellar space.

[4] A near breakeven in inertial confinement fusion was recently achieved, in which produced more energy that was absorbed by the fuel for the reaction, but this is not the same as producing as much energy from the fusion reaction as was pumped into the lasers making the reaction happen. (Cf. Nuclear fusion milestone passed at US lab.)

[5] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter VIII, “Travels in Space and Time” (cf. note [2] above)