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A Radium Age Take on the ‘Wait Equation’

If you’ll check Project Gutenberg, you’ll find Bernhard Kellermann’s novel The Tunnel. Published in 1913 by the German house S. Fischer Verlag and available on Gutenberg only in its native tongue (finding it in English is a bit more problematic, although I’ve seen it on offer from online booksellers occasionally), the novel comes from an era when the ‘scientific romance’ was yielding to an engineering-fueled uneasiness with what technology was doing to social norms.

Kellermann was a poet and novelist whose improbable literary hit in 1913, one of several in his career, was a science fiction tale about a tunnel so long and deep that it linked the United States with Europe. It was written at a time when his name was well established among readers throughout central Europe. His 1908 novel Ingeborg saw 131 printings in its first thirty years, so this was a man often discussed in the coffee houses of Berlin and Vienna.

Image: Author Bernhard Kellermann, author of The Tunnel and other popular novels as well as poetry and journalistic essays. Credit: Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library / State and University Library Dresden (SLUB).

The Tunnel sold 10,000 copies in its first four weeks, and by six months later had hit 100,000, becoming the biggest bestseller in Germany in 1913. It would eventually appear in 25 languages and sell over a million copies. By way of comparison – and a note about the vagaries of fame and fortune – Thoman Mann’s Death in Venice, also published that year, sold 18,000 copies for the whole year, and needed until the 1930s to reach the 100,000 mark. Short-term advantage: Kellermann.

I mention this now obscure novel for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s science fiction in an era before popular magazines filled with the stuff had begun to emerge to fuel the public imagination. This is the so-called ‘radium age,’ recently designated as such by Joshua Glenn, whose series for MIT press reprints works from the period.

We might define an earlier era of science fiction, one beginning with the work of, say, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and on through H. G. Wells, and a later one maybe dating from Hugo Gernsback’s creation of Amazing Stories in 1926 (Glenn prefers to start the later period at 1934, which is a few years before the beginning of the Campbell era at Astounding, where Heinlein, Asimov and others would find a home), but in between is the radium age. Here’s Glenn, from a 2012 article in Nature:

[Radium age novels] depict a human condition subverted or perverted by science and technology, not improved or redeemed. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World, with its devastating satire on corporate tyranny, behavioral conditioning and the advancement of biotechnology, is far from unique. Radium-age sci-fi tends towards the prophetic and uncanny, reflecting an era that saw the rise of nuclear physics and the revelation that the familiar — matter itself — is strange, even alien. The 1896 discovery of radioactivity, which led to the early twentieth-century insight that the atom is, at least in part, a state of energy, constantly in movement, is the perfect metaphor for an era in which life itself seemed out of control.

All of which is interesting to those of us of a historical bent, but The Tunnel struck me forcibly because of the year in which it was published. Radiotelegraphy, as it was then called, had just been deployed across the Atlantic on the run from New York to Germany, a distance (reported in Telefunken Zeitschrift in April of that year) of about 6,500 kilometers. Communicating across oceans was beginning to happen, and it is in this milieu that The Tunnel emerged to give us a century-old take on what we in the interstellar flight field often call the ‘wait equation.’

How long do we wait to launch a mission given that new technology may become available in the future? Kellermann’s plot involved the construction of the tunnel, a tale peppered with social criticism and what German author Florian Illies calls ‘wearily apocalyptic fantasy.’ Illies is, in fact, where I encountered Kellermann, for his 2013 title 1913: The Year Before the Storm, now available in a deft new translation, delves among many other things into the literary and artistic scene of that fraught year before the guns of August. This is a time of Marcel Duchamp, of Picasso, of Robert Musil. The Illies book is a spritely read that I can’t recommend too highly if you like this sort of thing (I do).

In The Tunnel, it takes Kellermann’s crews 24 years of agonizing labor, but eventually the twin teams boring through the seafloor manage to link up under the Atlantic, and two years later the first train makes the journey. It’s a 24 hour trip instead of the week-long crossing of the average ocean liner, a miracle of technology. But it soon becomes apparent that nobody wants to take it. For even as work on the tunnel has proceeded, aircraft have accelerated their development and people now fly between New York and Berlin in less than a day.

The ‘wait equation’ is hardly new, and Kellermann uses it to bring all his skepticism about technological change to the fore. Here’s how Florian Illies describes the novel:

…Kellermann succeeds in creating a great novel – he understands the passion for progress that characterizes the era he lives in, the faith in the technically feasible, and at the same time, with delicate irony and a sense for what is really possible, he has it all come to nothing. An immense utopian project that is actually realized – but then becomes nothing but a source of ridicule for the public, who end up ordering their tomato juice from the stewardess many thousand meters not under but over the Atlantic. According to Kellermann’s wise message, we would be wise not to put our utopian dreams to the test.

Here I’ll take issue with Illies, and I suppose Kellermann himself. Is the real message that utopian dreams come to nothing? If so, then a great many worthwhile projects from our past and our future are abandoned in service of a judgment call based on human attitudes toward time and generational change. I wonder how we go about making that ‘wait equation’ decision. Not long ago, Jeff Greason told Bruce Dorminey that it would be easier to produce a mission to the nearest star that took 20 years than to figure out how to fund, much less to build, a mission that would take 200 years.

He’s got a point. Those of us who advocate long-term approaches to deep space also have an obligation to reckon with the hard practicalities of mission support over time, which is not only a technical but a sociological issue that makes us ask who will see the mission home. But I think we can also see philosophical purpose in a different class of missions that our species may one day choose to deploy. Missions like these:

1) Advanced AI will at some point negate the question of how long to wait if we assume spacecraft that can seamlessly acquire knowledge and return it to a network of growing information, a nascent Encyclopedia Galactica of our own devising that is not reliant on Earth. Ever moving outward, it would produce a wavefront of knowledge that theoretically would be useful not just to ourselves but whatever species come after us.

2) Human missions intended as generational, with no prospect of return to the home world, also operate without lingering connections to controllers left behind. Their purpose may be colonization of exoplanets, or perhaps simple exploration, with no intention of returning to planetary surfaces at all. Indeed, some may choose to exploit resources, as in the Oort Cloud, far from inner systems, separating from Earth in the service of particular research themes or ideologies.

3) Missions designed to spread life have no necessary connection with Earth once launched. If life is rare in the galaxy, it may be within our power to spread simple organisms or even revive/assemble complex beings, a melding of human and robotics. An AI crewed ship that raises human embryos on a distant world would be an example, or a far simpler fleet of craft carrying a cargo of microorganisms. Such journeys might take millennia to reach their varied targets and still achieve their purpose. I make no statement here about the wisdom of doing this, only noting it as a possibility.

In such cases, creating a ‘wait equation’ to figure out when to launch loses force, for the times involved do not matter. We are not waiting for data in our lifetimes but are acting through an imperative that operates on geological timeframes. That is to say, we are creating conditions that will outlast us and perhaps our civilizations, that will operate over stellar eras to realize an ambition that transcends humankind. I’m just brainstorming here, and readers may want to wrangle over other mission types that fit this description.

But we can’t yet launch missions like these, and until we can, I would want any mission to have the strongest possible support, financial and political, here on the home world if we are talking about many decades for data return. It’s hard to forget the scene in Robert Forward’s Rocheworld where at least one political faction actively debates turning off the laser array that the crew of a starship approaching Barnard’s Star will use to brake into the planetary system there. Political or social change on the home world has to be reckoned into the equation when we are discussing projects that demand human participation from future generations.

These things can’t be guaranteed, but they can be projected to the best of our ability, and concepts chosen that will maintain scientific and public interest for the duration needed. You can see why mission design is also partly a selling job to the relevant entities as well as to the public, something the team working on a probe beyond the heliopause at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab knows all too well.

Back to Bernhard Kellermann, who would soon begin to run afoul of the Nazis (his novel The Ninth November was publicly burned in Germany). He would later be locked out of the West German book trade because of his close ties with the East German government and his pro-Soviet views. He died in Potsdam in 1951.

Image: A movie poster showing Richard Dix and C. Aubrey Smith discussing plans for the gigantic project in Transatlantic Tunnel (1935). Credit: IMDB.

The Tunnel became a curiosity, and spawned an even more curious British movie by the same name (although sometimes found with the title Transatlantic Tunnel) starring Richard Dix and Leslie Banks. In the 1935 film, which is readily available on YouTube or various streaming platforms, the emphasis is on a turgid romance, pulp-style dangers overcome and international cooperation, with little reflection, if any, on the value of technology and how it can be superseded.

The interstellar ‘wait equation’ could use a movie of its own. I for one would like to see a director do something with van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus,” the epitome of the idea.

The Glenn paper is “Science Fiction: The Radium Age,” Nature 489 (2012), 204-205 (full text).

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{ 39 comments… add one }
  • Michael C Fidler May 31, 2022, 10:07

    I think number 3 would be the most common, for civilizations that can not figure out how to breach the light barrier. This is something we could easily do in the next ten to 15 years, put embryonic human cells in deep freeze and the rest of the lifeforms for an ecosystem. Bury it deep in a comet with a robotic lab and AI to do surveys and add some ion engines that use the comets gases and send it off to the nearest stars. I’m sure the first 1/2 billion years of this universe someone somewhere did this and voilà they have created Adam and Eve! It would be nice to populate the galaxy with our own kind, after all we still need someone to fight with… ;-}

  • Andrew Palfreyman May 31, 2022, 10:27

    Bravo, Paul. We are fortunate indeed to have someone like you who so expertly straddles the worlds of art and science!

    • Paul Gilster May 31, 2022, 12:05

      What a kind thing to say, Andrew. Thank you!

  • Alex Tolley May 31, 2022, 10:50

    Although the issue of the “wait equation” doesn’t arise in the movie F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer(1932) in reality, the idea of a mid-Atlantic floating Aerodrome to facilitate refueling of trans-Atlantic aircraft was overtaken by technology. The LZ127 Graf Zeppelin was making trans-Atlantic flights by 1929, but with the same 4-day duration as passenger liners. Aircraft had proven that they could make the flight, but it was 6 years later, in 1938, that the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was made by a Lufthansa Focke-Wulf FW 200 “Condor”, flying between Charlotte, NC, and Berlin, almost mimicking the flight in F.P.1 starting from Berlin, but not needing a mid-Atlantic refueling point.

    Time is not always to constraint for travel. Despite frequent, but expensive flights between Britain and France (and the cheaper ferries), the cross-Channel tunnel was built allowing rail travel from London to Paris. After delays, it was opened in 1994.

    Building tunnels is enormously expensive. It is a wonder that Kellermann conceived the trans-Atlantic tunnel to be built in 24 years, given the time it took just to build tunnels under rivers. The problem of the air pressure on the crew would have dwarfed that of those building the Hudson River rail tunnel during the Gilded Age. Today, that seems as unlikely as building large fusion rocket interstellar ships, possibly fueling around Jupiter. A century after Kellermann, we still wouldn’t even contemplate building a trans-Atlantic tunnel even if there was some urgent need to do so. Only less unlikely is Musk’s idea to construct tunnels under and between cities with his Boring Company.

    I would add that a Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909), a short story whose scenario has the population living underground and isolated from each other and communicating electronically, was a good example of the potential problems of technology, one we are seeing ever more clearly today.

    • Savoy IL June 1, 2022, 13:44

      They didn’t know about Seafloor Spreading back when they conceived the Transatlantic Tunnel movie so it would have been extremely difficult to bridge the mid Atlantic ridge seismically active volcanic zone. Amazingly the theory of Plate Tectonics was not accepted until the 60s. The bedrock of modern geology, earth science doesn’t really make sense without it and it is very recent. Amazing how some key things can be recently unknown. I hope that the JW space telescope may provide new revolutionary insight in the same way in the very near future.

  • John walker May 31, 2022, 13:18

    A most EXCELLENT blog today. I enjoyed it thoroughly, Paul. Very well written. Excellent contextualizing. And re Kellermann, I speak fluent German so will also be looking to read this work.

    • Paul Gilster May 31, 2022, 15:52

      Would love to hear your thoughts on the book, John, when you’ve finished. Please keep in touch on this.

  • Antonio May 31, 2022, 14:37

    I think we will achieve basically indefinite lifespans before the first probe bound for another star is launched, so many of these discussions will be moot.

    • Alex Tolley June 1, 2022, 11:03

      Indefinite lifespans might well stagnate society preventing the very desire to think about some developments. Those at the top of the political and wealth pyramid will try to stifle change that could reduce their position. While such a development might be attractive to individuals, it could be very problematic for the future of humankind. Monarchs only change after their deaths. What happens if they do not die?

      • David Claughton June 15, 2022, 19:14

        On the other hand, longer lifespans potentially mean massively increased population (assuming such people still desire to procreate). That could result in the pressing need to develop the technologies needed to enable a diaspora from this tiny planet.

  • Gary Wilson May 31, 2022, 17:02

    I say think prudently about a project that might be useful but don’t wait any extended period of time if it makes sense. You never know when we might lose the global technological base that we are building. Nothing lasts forever including civilizations (ask the Mayans, Egyptians, Romans et al.). Plan to do as much as we can as soon as we can to learn the most we can.

    • Antonio June 1, 2022, 2:51

      Huh? Why (and above all, how) will we lose our global technological base? All the examples you give are examples of political change. Technology improved. Soon after the regime change they didn’t have the money and political stability to launch great projects, but in general the technology continued advancing, albeit in different directions.

      • Alex Tolley June 1, 2022, 10:45

        Technology was lost after the collapse of the Western Roman empire. It took a long while to emulate what the Romans were able to build, and Roman concrete remained a lost art long after. European civilization remained less technologically capable for nearly a millennium after Rome fell. Many looked back to Rome as a “golden age” until Europe’s Renaissance. That isn’t to say that some technological developments did not continue. The Caliphate became one region of technology development and China another, bypassing Europe.

        Current technology is so advanced and reliant on so many supply chains that if we lose part of the manufacturing know-how, we could not maintain our technology. I have read that we could just about rebuild 1950s aircraft technology should civilization collapse. Just look at the disruption that the broken supply chain has had on the lack of semiconductor chips, and the deliberate blocking of such chip supply to Russia has been shown to have crippled the effectiveness of their weapons in Ukraine.

        It is exactly the possibility of such technology loss that there are proposals to maintain a repository of knowledge in the case of civilizational collapse to allow a faster restart.

      • Gary Wilson June 1, 2022, 16:15

        If you look carefully at the data concerning climate change you will see the disaster we are already in. Average global temperature is rising as CO2 levels rise. It’s called the Greenhouse Effect and is well established in the climate literature. It will not go away, it will only increase leading to increasing desertification, drought, fire damage, storm damage, and flooding (particularly in populated flood plains such as that around Houston for example). All of these climate effects are increasing in intensity and frequency. Parts of the world are becoming unlivable due to high temperatures such as parts of India and Pakistan. These are threats to global civilization. We released 36.5 billion (that’s with a b) tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2021, a new record. We burn 100 million barrels of oil a day and many tens of millions of tons of coal. Climate change is warming polar regions rapidly including vast areas of tundra containing billions of tons of methane. I think the threat to our civilization and technological base is obvious and profound. We are already in it. This is not some vague future threat.

        • Neil Stahl June 1, 2022, 21:22

          Indeed, Gary. And still people ignore both what will happen barring fast, drastic changes and the droughts and storms and heat waves that are happening and that can be connected to global warming.

        • Michael June 2, 2022, 4:39

          I wonder how tech will fare when the ice returns too Europe as in the past…over reaction IMO. A slower removal of CO2 by reforestation maybe but raises the risk of forest fires of the past.

          • Gary Wilson June 2, 2022, 18:36

            Could you expand on your comment Michael? I don’t understand your point of view. Are you saying there is no existential threat? If so what is your data to support this point of view? Please cite journal articles from established high impact factor journals because what you are asserting would require enormous amounts of data from proper sources such as Nature, Science, PNAS etc. etc. There are many thousands of climate scientists and others who are calling for rapid change with increasing urgency.

          • Alex Tolley June 3, 2022, 10:53

            I take it you are referring to the collapse of the Gulf Stream that will bring on continental cold conditions to Western Europe, not the claim that the ice age is coming soon, rather than a hothouse condition.

            If economies fare badly, tech will fare badly as well. Depending on severity, it may even retreat.

  • Robin May 31, 2022, 19:19

    Today’s post is wide-ranging and thought-provoking. Thank you!

    Even imperceptible changes, when cumulative, can be transformative. An enormous length of time is described in Hinduism or Buddhism (I don’t remember which) as when a a bit of silk cloth carried by a bird brushes a mountain that it flies over once in a hundred years, until the time in which the mountain is flattened. Even a human with a “normal” lifespan changes very markedly: because the contemporaries at the phases of one’s life are different, the changes are less noticeable: life extension could be so markedly transformative that a person would not recognize one’s prior self.

    Human genetic change is at an increasing pace, perhaps in response to the lightning-fast (when compared to the pace of evolutionary change) technological and cultural alterations in milieu. In view of the fact that species have limited lifetimes before transforming into one or more descendant species – or going extinct – we should expect the same of Homo sapiens sapiens. Let’s hope we do not go into history as Homo paucisapiens.

    The biological imperatives of survival, growth and replication may succeed at interstellar, galactic or intergalactic scales. Yet beyond a particular distance, even though we receive galactic light from long ago, with the accelerating expansion of the universe they will outpace today’s light from our galaxy. So expansion in space is limited. With the heat death of the universe persistence in time is also limited. No open-ended opportunity exists, and when the “can is kicked down the road” ample road now does not imply a solution.

    An ecosystem separate from that of the home planet travelling with humans in their support will need to be stable and manipulable over the long term: the ones that have been attempted so far on Earth have not met this criterion.

  • Mike Serfas May 31, 2022, 19:46

    Making a “wait time” decision implies a single purpose or set of values. When there are several, there is no longer just one decision. If you are shipping a hundred tons of steel across the Atlantic, perhaps a tunnel is much better than either a slow ship or a fuel-gulping airplane. If you are building a generation ship to cross between stars, it matters if your colonists are accustomed to life among the Oort cloud and can deal with the challenges of distance and resources effectively. I think that all high level plans will dissolve into the decisions of individual people in the end, just as there was not a single concerted initiative to work from biplanes to intercontinental jets … it just sort of happened, via a series of pioneering precedents.

    • Alex Tolley June 1, 2022, 10:58

      just as there was not a single concerted initiative to work from biplanes to intercontinental jets … it just sort of happened, via a series of pioneering precedents.

      I think there was more push on that front than you imply. There were competitions to build the fastest airplanes. War pushed the development of larger aircraft to carry bombs and troops. The 1930s saw a lot of aircraft development that resulted in larger, long-range aircraft by the time WWII started. These became the basis of air travel, most notably the Douglas DC3 in the Americas. The US in particular, created incentives for aircraft development after WWI, including airmail delivery, and later the development of regional airports to stimulate passenger air travel. Until the late 1950s, Europe was the leader in aero technology development, particularly Britain and Germany, much of which was stimulated by the needs of war, but was being converted to civilian use after each of the 2 World Wars ended.

      I think one could say the same for space technology development, especially rocketry, after WWII and the realization that rockets might become a better delivery option for long-range nuclear weapons. Without the stimulus of the “space race” where would we be with space development today?

      • Mike Serfas June 2, 2022, 11:03

        I’m not disagreeing with your examples, but I perceive them as a series of short-term projects: to shoot down a German fighter plane or provide a passenger service. I suppose I have Ronald Fisher’s geometric model of mutation in the back of my mind: evolution usually occurs by many small changes, because they have the best odds of being productive. Now “hopeful monsters” are more common in evolution than recent decades of geneticists were willing to accept (consider ARHGAP11B), and in technology I can hardly deny there are abrupt steps forward. Still, given a choice of interstellar (or intercontinental) crossings, I would bet on the one with the most stepping stones.

        • Alex Tolley June 2, 2022, 15:55

          Are we reiterating the “creeps” vs “Jerks” of evolutionary argument?

          I think we can compromise with the idea that war resulted in an increased mutation and natural selection rate over the more stable peacetime period. War is like the change in habitat, e.g. a founder population in a new space, or the result of catastrophe clearing out the effect of stable ecosystems. In both cases, there is more opportunity to quickly explore the genetic landscape and evolve new species.

          What you might see as a reduced step number, I see as the same number of steps taken in a shorter time. A troop carrier aircraft needs few steps to convert to the new peacetime ecosystem of passenger travel. Adding row seats and a bright livery seems relatively simple to me. A big step change might be the invention of the jet engine (1930) that was not used in warplanes until late in WWII (Messerschmidt Me 262, Gloucester Meteor), and not in passenger aircraft until the Comet 1 prototype in 1949. Thereafter it rapidly outcompeted the piston-engine and propeller aircraft for most passenger travel, especially long-distance, and its slow, incremental evolution has maintained its dominance today, 70+ years later.

  • Adam Crowl May 31, 2022, 21:33

    Hi Paul

    For anyone wanting to read the Astounding January 1944 issue version of Van Vogt’s yarn: http://www.luminist.org/archives/SF/AST.htm

    The 500 Year starship was six months out from Alpha Centauri when they began radioing to see if anyone was there. The character comments their average speed was 500 miles per second, though perhaps they were slowing down for arrival?

    • Paul Gilster June 1, 2022, 10:10

      Let’s assume they were slowing for arrival. I figure Campbell must have looked at those numbers and approved.

      And thanks for the link. I love to read the originals in their magazine incarnations.

  • Afterthought June 1, 2022, 4:10

    Great essay

    • Paul Gilster June 1, 2022, 20:33

      Thank you!

  • Simon June 1, 2022, 10:17

    Well there are a whole bunch of literature recommendations for me, now that I have rekindled my interest in science-fiction over the last couple years… in no small part thanks to reading this blog.

    Many thanks for posting this!

    • Paul Gilster June 1, 2022, 20:32

      You bet, Simon. Glad it was useful!

  • Alex Tolley June 1, 2022, 10:29

    Watched the Transatlantic Tunnel last night. It was a melodrama, typical of a number of movies at that time transitioning from the silent era to the talkies.

    I didn’t get the date of the setting, but a clue was that the engineer had built the Channel Tunnel in 1940. (What a gift to Nazi Germany that would have been!) As the engineer was still young, the setting could have been anywhere from 1950-1970.

    The radium tunneling technique clearly alluded to the use of nuclear power. There was also a hint that the “tunnel gases” that caused disability might have been radiation poisoning.

    I loved that all communication was by wired/wireless telescreens.

    The near-destruction of the tunnel was due to encountering a volcano. Was the nature of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge known in 1935 beyond its presence from laying telegraph cables?

    The engineer struck me as a prototype Howard Roark of Rand’s The Fountainhead, although that attitude may well have been prevalent amongst engineer-builders at the time. The sub-plot of financial shenanigans was clearly based on Gould’s manipulation of railroad bonds in the prior century, and the financiers who created the bubble that crashed global stock markets less than a decade earlier.

    There was a scene with the engineer in a small airplane communicating with his home, yet clearly, no connection was made with the likely development of air travel by the end of the decade. To be fair, most transoceanic trade in goods today is still by ship.

    Interestingly, at the beginning of the movie in the funding proposal, the arms dealer was happy to suggest that the tunnel would benefit his arms sales. It was ambiguous whether he was implying that they would be used to destroy such a tunnel, an obvious issue. [The Channel Tunnel has protections to prevent such destruction.]

    Naturally, the movie had a happy ending, with the engineer and his wife reuniting despite the tragedy of the death of their son in the tunnel, and the celebrations in Britain and America as the tunnel was completed. Strange how much was made of the common bond between Britain and the USA, when in reality Roosevelt could not come to Churchill’s aid and enter the war in 1939/40 until after the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor as allies of Germany. The 1942 movie “The First of the Few” AKA “Spitfire” about the development of the fighter plane had a lot of history concerning the German rearmament after WWI, much of which was known by 1935. I wonder at the time setting of the movie given what was evident at the time. Why not set the more utopian future of the movie further ahead as Korda did with Well’s “The Shape of Things to Come”?

    • Paul Gilster June 1, 2022, 20:26

      Good questions, Alex! Creaky old movie, but lots of fun, too.

    • Michael T June 7, 2022, 11:09

      I’m so glad to have the chance to see this film, the ending of which I saw years ago on TV, bu8t never the whole thing.

      Some bits were emotional, but I wouldn’t say it was that much of a melodrama.

      There were some nice subtle touches – the brief flash of doubt in the father’s face after his son heads for the drilling area, the uncomfortable scene between 2 former friends in the rail car (nearly said p*d) etc.

      The financial shenenigans are quite reminiscent of certain captains of industry in well known corporations today!

      I think the special effects (as far as I could tell in what seems to be a VHS source) were pretty good. I wonder if the rail-vehicles-in-tunnels scenes were an inspiration for the Krell city in Forbidden Planet?

      The whole use of video calling was great, and the flat screens in Congress and the Parliament. I note also that they seemed to use a video/audio stockmarket info service – no ticker tapes!

      It didn’t seem to me that the gas was radioactive – they rferred to the sickness as being “infectious”. A bit ambiguous.

      I doubt the volcano was a reference to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, whose volcanism wasn’t known till the 1950’s, though the Ridge was discovered in the 1850’s. But it’s interesting. A spreading-centre would make a tunnel traversing it “interesting”. Nowadays there are actually ideas about a hypertube across the Atlantic, which make this film seem plausible by comparison!

  • Michael June 1, 2022, 12:54

    Maybe a slow boat out and if tech improves we apply it to the slow ships going outwards, two birds with one stone.

  • Harold Shaw June 1, 2022, 20:10

    I need to define a utopian project before my comments make sense. Not claiming they will, just establishing a condition. A utopian project seeks to optimize a utility and access to that utility. Kellerman’s tunnel project sought to optimize trans-Atlantic travel times and make travel readily available. The tunnel project became an anti-utopian project the moment airplanes were invented. Super projects are dangerous. Misallocating massive amounts of resources can be lethal.

    The wait equation makes SETI predictions. For sufficiently old space faring peoples, we should not expect optimized access to utility until the utility itself has been optimized. A space faring people will have to learn how to optimize for consciousness and access to the universe. I have no idea what utopia describes for a people who embrace self actualization. Perhaps there are limits to how large a being can become. I would predict they would be mobile. Being mobile would provide swifter access to the universe.

    Perhaps in the short term the best way to advance century projects is to build faith in our space faring institutions and be confident our children will be smarter and better able to allocate resources than us. Building faith includes putting the institutions to the test. Bad engineering is a proven way to damage faith in space faring.

  • Scott Guerin June 2, 2022, 21:35

    Will access to resources matter in a future era of unlimited power? I assume no “loud grabby aliens” will be encountered to hinder our exploitation of the Galaxy. Hence everything will be cathedral building, as in who cares the cost? The energy drawn from an adjacent universe covers it.

    • Harold Shaw June 3, 2022, 12:42

      There is no such thing as unlimited power. The mulitiverse is unscientific, can’t be proven or disproven, and may just be a mathematical fantasy. Time is also a resource which I don’t think unlimited or nearly unlimited power can replenish.

      As our ability to harness resources increases the threat posed by building out too quickly also increases. Technology can be used to push back Malthusian boundaries only if resources are available. A people could paint themselves into a corner by exhausting their resource base prior to fully maturing their technology. What good is converting a star system into a Matryoshka brain if said brain is a second or third rate habitat for consciousness?

  • Harold Shaw June 3, 2022, 12:32

    Every winter I buy oil and wood to heat my home. My family would freeze if I didn’t. My family would be cooked if I didn’t have a way to turn off the heat.

    Human driven climate change is a great example of how dangerous a potentially utopian project can be. I am moved by utilitarian ethical arguments for breaking the glaciation cycle. Ice ages would displace or kill billions and drive many species to extinction. However, without a way to turn off the supply of green house gases, we can call our current efforts utopian, let alone ethical or even rational. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  • Brian Altmeyer June 8, 2022, 3:41

    Not a fan of the concept of a wait equation, myself. It just seems like people making excuses to neither accept the expense of long-term planning nor the risk of futility, when obviously both are necessary.

    Unless you already have a good enough grasp of the unknowns to state with high confidence when you should act on something, then that time is now, period. And the acceptable timeframe is however long the current possibility takes.

    This is how life expands and diversifies. Needing to know before you’ll go is how life stagnates and dies, because the universe is vast and complex beyond imagining, and always will be. Let’s be thankful that’s the case rather than pretending it isn’t for the sake of self-satisfied inaction.

  • David Claughton June 15, 2022, 19:25

    The idea that we might use generation ships with the goal of colonizing another planet is something I sometimes think is a bit odd. Any viable generation ship would have to be equivalent to a complete biosphere in its own right – and one much better suited to its occupants than any exoplanet is likely to be.

    Far more likely, I think, that the human race will simply migrate to such artificial environments as they become feasible. Sure they might visit the odd exoplanet for research or exploration, but by that time they may not have any particular desire to colonize such an environment which will then be alien to them in more ways than one.

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