Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
DEAL: For $25 - Add A Second Phone Number To Your Smartphone for life! Use promo code SLASHDOT25. Also, Slashdot's Facebook page has a chat bot now. Message it for stories and more. Check out the new SourceForge HTML5 internet speed test! ×
Space Sci-Fi Science

The Impossibility of Colonizing the Galaxy 979

OriginalArlen writes "The science fiction writer Charlie Stross has written an excellent and comprehensive explanation of why, thousands of SF books, movies, and games notwithstanding, human colonization of other star systems is impossible. Although interstellar colonization seems common-sensical to many, Charlie makes a clear-headed and unarguable case, so far as I can see, that it ain't gonna happen without a 'magic wand' or two. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see reasoned responses from the community who believe that colonization is not merely possible, but inevitable — and even, as Hawking has said, vital for the survival of the species. So, who's right — Hawking or Stross?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Impossibility of Colonizing the Galaxy

Comments Filter:
  • Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by king-manic ( 409855 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:16PM (#19542453)
    Well it may be physically impossible but also essential for our survival. Thus int he end we're really screwed.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:16PM (#19542455)
    You are comparing some sci fi writer with Hawking? C'mon.

  • Impossible...? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by alexjohnc3 ( 915701 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:17PM (#19542461) Homepage
    human colonization of other star systems is impossible

    Look how far humans have come in the past 10,000 or even 100 years. We went from primitive wheels to an International Space Station in that time alone. Give humans another 10,000 years and I doubt this will not have been accomplished (if we don't blow ourselves up first).
  • Re:No shit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:25PM (#19542521)
    It never ceases to amaze me at the perpetual and unwavering defeatist attitude expressed by people during every generation.

    It is mere physics obstacles that need to be overcome, that includes dimensional hopping or more likely controlled black-holes or worm holes, to colonize the galaxy.

    We will overcome the hurdles eventually, including the radiation, the vital resources, and spacial 'deserts'.

    To even say it is impossible or requires a 'magic wand' is absurd.

    author needs to revistit history and the countless times that silly notion was postured.
  • Clarke's first law (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zarhan ( 415465 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:25PM (#19542529)
    When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

    Generation ships. Suspended animation. Bussard Ramjets.

    Baby steps throughout Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

  • by HEbGb ( 6544 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:26PM (#19542533)
    This article is incredibly short-sighted and unreasonably pessimistic. He's using current technology, economics, and incentive to make specific conclusions about something that will most likely happen in the next few hundred years. Just consider how much science and technology has changed in the last 100 years - can you possibly imagine what will be possible 100 years from now, much less draw conclusions about feasibility?

    I think that technology's march is not only inevitable, but accelerating. To outright dismiss these possibilities is completely unreasonable and irrational.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:27PM (#19542545)
    It ain't like "discovering" the Americas. For that, all that was required was some ships to get over there and some hard work when you arrived. What you needed to survive is available, get to work.

    It's vastly different with "space colonisation". First of all, you gotta get off this planet. Not a trivial task. We barely get payload into orbit, and to leave the gravity of earth, you even need a bit more thrust. Then there's the distance. We're not talking weeks or months on the ocean, we're talking years and decades in interstellar travel. Air is limited and gravity isn't, problems that don't exist when "colonizing" on a planet.

    And when you arrive, your chances to actually get a hospitable planet are slim to nil. You will have to bring air, food, water and so on along. At best you'll have energy in the form of solar energy at your hands, and that's all you got.

    Colonizing the galaxy is possible. And I side with Hawking in the opinion that it is our destiny, if we want to survive as a species. But I wouldn't bet my money on a Star Trek like progress, where in merely 200 years we'll have colonies all over the galaxy. First of all we have to find a solution to the light speed problem. Until then, generation ships sound like the only way of colonisation, and that is for sure no way to create what we would consider today colonies. We could not keep in touch with them.
  • Re:Impossible...? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:29PM (#19542553) Homepage Journal
    Currently laughable != Impossible

    My money is on Hawking.
  • Magic Wands (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Zedrick ( 764028 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:31PM (#19542563)
    I didn't read TFA, but (from the summary):

    Charlie makes a clear-headed and unarguable case, so far as I can see, that it ain't gonna happen without a 'magic wand' or two

    So, what's the problem? Science has given us dozens of "magic wands" the last century, why would it stop now? In 50 years will will probably have lots of amazing thingamajings that we can't even begin to imagine now, like perhaps some StarTrekish warp-drive.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Original Replica ( 908688 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:31PM (#19542567) Journal
    His arguement is sound if you want to talk about space colonies in the next 50 to 100 years, but of course the advanced tech we will have in 100-150 years will look like magic from our prospective. Almost every technology we have today would get you burned for witchcraft in 1857. Automated factories, mobile phones, television, airplanes, nukes ... all the magic from a pre-industrial revolution viewpoint. Add to that the increaseing pace of progress (singularity or not) and I fully expect there will be some "magic wands" before the end of the century. And as of the times when he brings up economic reasons: What does "cost effective" matter if humanity starts to agree vicerally with Hawkins, that colonization is necessary for the susvival of the species?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:37PM (#19542623)
    ...we should protect the environment of the planet we already have!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:40PM (#19542653)
    We can't colonize other planets now. However, given his fondness for analogies....

    If you collapsed the whole of human history down to a single day, we were wandering hunter-gatherers for 11 hours and 56 minutes. Only in the final four minutes before midnight have we been farming for a living, and in those four minutes our scientific knowledge (and achievements) have increased exponentially.

    In the last four minutes we went from spears and loincloths to long range missiles and synthetic fabrics. We are now the only species on the planet that can survive organ transplants, travel at hundreds of miles per hour, walk on the moon, and communicate instantly from opposite sides of the planet. All of this we gained in the last four minutes of our first day of existence as humans.

    The kind of scientific momentum we have going right now is mind-boggling. Things that our ancestors couldn't even imagine are now common reality. Imagine what kinds of "magic wands" our scientists will make for us tomorrow.

    I am not saying that interstellar colonization will be possible, I am just saying that a quick review of the history of science robs us of any grounds upon which to form an opinion of "it will never be possible."

  • Hawking (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:41PM (#19542667)
    Forget even what we can do in the next 100 or 1000 years.

    There's not a "hypothetical" end of the planet as he suggests, it will happen with certainty, but not for a very, very long time. So... what will we be able to do in 1,000,000 years or so? Usually I'm not for this kind of "the future will be amazing beyond our wildest dreams" stuff, but when you're talking that sort of timescale, I really don't see how you can use the word "impossible."
  • by ArbitraryConstant ( 763964 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:46PM (#19542721) Homepage
    The requirements to colonize other worlds are prohibitive for the time being, I don't think anyone denies that. But throwing out numbers as though they negate the possibility doesn't make sense.

    We're doing things now that would have been impossible a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago they could do the math and decide that, say, flying into orbit, or building an electronic computer might be possible, but the gap that remained to be filled was the expertise it took to do everything involved sufficiently well. Right now, we have the same proof of concept for possible propulsion technologies (eg Orion), or space elevator technologies (eg carbon nanotubes) that they had back then for manned flight, but we can't do them sufficiently well, on a sufficiently large scale for economic space travel.

    That's fine. The relevant technologies will advance without the need for any specific focus on space travel. The technology of space travel will be the synthesis of many different technologies that are going to happen anyway. So, if it's too hard to do immediately, fine. That doesn't discredit the idea. It just means we can't do it now.
  • That's funny... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:53PM (#19542777) Journal
    ...I recently finished reading a treatise on how mankind could slowly but surely adapt to living in outer space itself. Given enough time and tech, I suspect that we won't even need terrestrial extra-solar planets in order to move beyond our own solar system. As long as there are Kuiper-Belt objects and asteroids which contain the compounds we need to sustain and grow ourselves, waiting for us when we get there, we'll have everything we need.

    The rest is a matter of supplying enough non-solar power and enough of the non-recyclable material for the trip.


  • Magic? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Barkmullz ( 594479 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:58PM (#19542819)

    that it ain't gonna happen without a 'magic wand' or two

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    - Arthur C. Clarke

    'nuff said.

  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by psykocrime ( 61037 ) <mindcrime@NOsPaM.cpphacker.co.uk> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:00PM (#19542853) Homepage Journal
    Thus int he end we're really screwed.

    I don't see any way that we aren't screwed anyway. Unless everything we think we know about
    cosmology and physics is wrong, the Universe is going to eventually experience one of two things: Heat Death [wikipedia.org] or collapsing into a Singularity [wikipedia.org]. Neither of those
    scenarios seems to leave much hope for the continued existence of human life.

    Assuming the cosmological theories are sound; the only way to even theorize about human life continuing perpetually requires going back to "magic wands" like dimension-hopping or something.

    Bottom line, IMO, is that human life has a hard-coded expiration date, and in the end we're all dead and the universe is just a cold, dead, empty wasteland.
  • Same story (Score:2, Insightful)

    by larryau ( 983008 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:06PM (#19542897)
    Some scientist always come out and says this or that is impossible and we have reached the end. Just 50 or so years ago the same minded scientist were declaring everything had been discovered with the four forces and they were made up of protons, neutrons, ...ect. We just needed to tidy up some ends. Everything had been discovered. Low and behold we find out that our universe is far more complex. The universe is made up of even smaller subatomic particles all the way to string theory.

    The point is or lesson. The universe is not absolute. There is always a way. And no matter how improbably it may be at the moment someone somewhere will find a way. We will eventually make it out there. Provided we don't destroy ourselves first.
  • by Fulcrum of Evil ( 560260 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:12PM (#19542941)
    Well, you get close to c, but never actually get there. Problem is, how do you pack enough juice to accelerate at 1g for a year?
  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:13PM (#19542951) Homepage Journal
    but of course the advanced tech we will have in 100-150 years will look like magic from our prospective.

    Are you sure about that? We're pretty blase about technology today compared to the eager visions of an earlier age.

    Then there's the fact that finding new tricks is getting harder and harder.

    Look at 1907 - The automobile, while not a standard item, was at least known. Trains were in extensive use, as were power tools. Automatic looms, various mechanical processes.

    If you took an educated man from 1907 and brought him to 2007, he'd be able to understand just about everything we have except for our computational devices. They even understood a bit about nuclear energy.

    What we've done is expanded our awareness and moved these items from the realm of theory to practicality.

    The problem is, while we have many ideas; they get shot down left and right. I don't see a new source of energy orders of magnitude above previous ones, like what nuclear power provided. Sure, antimatter would work, but it's like non-nuclear hydrogen - it's only a storage method, not a generation method.

    We're still advancing, but nowaday's it's hard, very hard.

    Still, even with this, I remain optimistic - after all, we have thousands of years to reach the stars, if not millions.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tiffany98121 ( 1094419 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:14PM (#19542957)
    Forget that. What about the technology that humans will have in a MILLION years from now. How about a BILLION years from now? If we are talking about the survival of our species (or survival of the only sentient species that we know of) then we will need to find a way to do this. There is a good chance that artificial intelligence will be possible in the future, and that we won't even need to send humans at all. We could send intelligent machines to other parts of the solar system and have them cultivate intelligent organic life once they get to the other planets.
  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:15PM (#19542963)
    Cos just over the last 10,000 years we've evolved to be able to metabolise cow milk, over the last 100,000 or so we've evolved white skins in cool regions to improve production of vitamin D, our limbs have shortened in proportion to the rest of the body and become more muscular to aid with heat retention etc etc etc etc etc.

    And that's all in the blink of an eye... On interstellar and galactic timescales... You're going to have to tell me what a human being is.

  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mattcasters ( 67972 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:20PM (#19542981) Homepage
    I wonder if that's really true. History has many examples of scientific facts being disproven.

    http://www.answers.com/topic/failed-predictions [answers.com]

    The thing is: scientific development will continue. Just like you wouldn't be able to tell in the year 1900 I would be writing this post on a laptop with built-in multimedia capabilites, wireless communitaction and massive computing power, you can't predict what kind of funny effects you can create with space and time when given virtually unlimted amounts of energy. (from our 2007 perspective)
  • by mfterman ( 2719 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:22PM (#19543015)
    was not that we can't colonize space, but more that the classic SF view of people setting up space stations orbiting the sun, domed or underground colonies on the Moon and other planets, and space freighters setting up some sort of interplanetary trade (space pirates optional), much less interstellar freighters shipping people and goods between star systems ain't gonna happen barring a miracle that breaks the laws of physics as we know them. Which is not to say it can't happen but there are interesting consequences to such feats.

    A lot of the focus in the essay was on human beings settling off Earth. If we go with robots, heavily altered human beings and various other forms of transcended beings, then colonization of other worlds is perfectly possible, as long as we adapt the people for harsh climes. But that's not the point of the essay. Humanity for the most part was evolved to live on Earth and getting us to survive anywhere else is next to impossible or of dubious effort at best.

    And then there is the fact that for the energy/time cost of manufacturing widgets on one planet in our system and shipping it to another part, it would be a lot cheaper/faster to simply send the schematic by electromagnetic transmission and then have some manufacturing facility on the destination planet build it there. Moving matter is expensive. Moving information is a lot cheaper. Space freighters, whether interplanetary or interstellar, don't make any sense. Just because it worked for sea ships doesn't mean it works for space ships.

    Does Charlie Stross think we couldn't send sentient robots to Mars to build a colony of sentient robots? I doubt it, but that wasn't the point of the essay. The question is whether humans could settle Mars, and he's rightfully skeptical of that. So am I. If anything from this world settles Mars and forms a viable self-sustaining colony there, it won't be human as we conceive of it.
  • by spineboy ( 22918 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:30PM (#19543103) Journal
    But we now know that it's not true. There is a class G star (like our own Suns class) only 5 light years away - a mere 50 years traveling at 10% C (it'll take about 34 days accelerating at a constant 1 G to reach 10% C).

    There are 50 star systems (66 stars because of several binary systems) within 16 light years of earth. 50 of these stars are M class or red in color - about 80% of these are red dwarfs - probably not a great place to look for habitable planets.

    It should be a fairly attainable goal to send out 20 ships to the 10 most likely close habitable stars, and expect to see a result in 60 or so years (50 years travelling + 10 years for radio message to be sent back)
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LordKronos ( 470910 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:31PM (#19543119)

    Yeah, but none of those magic wands of the past went directly against the principles of sound scientific knowledge at the time. I feel the speed of light barrier is going to keep us from reaching Star Trek, ever.

    Yeah, but wasn't it pretty well accepted belief back then that you could never break the sound barrier?

    As far as "sound scientific principles"....remember Newtons laws of motion? They were well accepted as "sound scientific principles" back then, and they held their ground for a couple of centuries. Then we started figuring out that they aren't exactly accurate in some scenarios. Who's to say that in the next century or two we won't start figuring out scenarios in which our current scientific understanding isn't exactly applicable.
  • by mrbooze ( 49713 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:54PM (#19543331)

    In the last four minutes we went from spears and loincloths to long range missiles and synthetic fabrics. We are now the only species on the planet that can survive organ transplants, travel at hundreds of miles per hour, walk on the moon, and communicate instantly from opposite sides of the planet. All of this we gained in the last four minutes of our first day of existence as humans.

    Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results.

    Also, ask yourself, what have we done in the last minute, compared to the two before that? Our rate of advancement seems to have slowed considerably. Just look at what sort of things were predicted for us in the 50s and 60s that we're still no closer to seeing. Even Arthur C Clarke though we would have moonbases in 1999.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JimDaGeek ( 983925 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:59PM (#19543375)
    100 years is nothing on a cosmic scale. Even 1,000 years is a blink of the eye. If you brought a man from 1,000 years ago to present day, he would indeed be blown away. How about a man from 5,000 years? Or 10,000?

    I don't like articles like TFA. The writer is looking at the world through a narrow straw. Where will we be technologically in 5,000 - 10,000 years?

    If you go back in history far enough, man couldn't travel around the world because the Earth was flat. We now know that is not true. I am willing to bet that in 1,000 years our science of today will look as basic as the state of science from 1,000 years ago. I think man will be able to go faster than the speed of light one day. It is just that our current science doesn't understand how.
  • by FLAGGR ( 800770 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:02PM (#19543393)
    Of course it seems slower to you. It's a pretty quick job to read a history book, at least faster than waiting for more history to happen.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by packeteer ( 566398 ) <packeteer@subdim ... minus physicist> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:11PM (#19543479)
    Who says we have to send humans? Most likely we will send automated robots, nanobots would be even better. Sending maybe a dozen nanobots for redundancy would work just fine. When they arrive at a new system the use the carbon there to reproduce. They can terreform the planet.

    A benefit to sending nano bots is that will very little energy we can send them close to the speed of light. Something that has a mass of maybe a few hundred atoms won't require huge resources to propel.
  • (Yeah, and 30mph was considered moving so fast, no one could _breathe_ at that speed, until someone figured out the windshield.) :>

    But what's so important about saving the human race? Why now? There's no impending doom that perhaps _hundreds_ of generations from now will know, other than the usual 'madmen with guns' problem we've always had.

    At every turn, mankind finds a way to deal with the challenges. And we occupy a tiny space on this planet; 3/4 of it's water (with various kinds of fish, etc) and a huge part is unused farmland. The Democratic National Committee aside, why does everyone respond to the Chicken Little call?

    Even so...when the 20-30 people are away to the other planet...how would it change us? Our parents send a message to them in their children's name, and before the children die they hear "Hello?"

    Sure, it'd be ****COOL***** to follow our technological fantasies. It's just not going to happen any time soon. Live now, make the best choices we can and let's all get along, aye?
  • by wegstar ( 888789 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:19PM (#19543549)
    I believe the capability to traverse and colonize the universe is quite within our capability. As stated, it is "impossible" at this point, because, we don't have enough interest and resources dedicated to the cause, not to mention religious/social/political barriers impeding progress. The solution is simple: World War III. Seriously, consider the fact that Charles Lindbergh gave his autograph for one of Apollo 11's crew. Within a period of only about forty-two years, man had moved from having difficulty crossing the Atlantic ocean by a primitive airplane in 1927 to landing on the moon on sophisticated spacecraft in 1969. What lay between are these two events: WWII and the Cold War. These wars caused nations to practically transform overnight into industrial, scientific nations with one mindset: progress. Nations competed in science and technology, and as a result, devoted massive funds and national interest to progress in that respect. This competition resulted in many breakthroughs and wondrous achievements in science and technology. Given this, many lament that mankind would lose morals and other basic human traits in the midst of such competition and progress. True, man has touched upon many new technologies which he has had difficulty to tame and to foresee of its consequences. But the evidence that rational thinking prevails through such times our forefathers went through, is the fact that our we are well and alive today, not in a nuclear shelter with fifty feet of snow above our heads. With WWIII would come a second space and technological race, one which would see much progress through competition. When the period of euphoria comes after the conflict, hopefully the world's problems would have been resolved, and people would enjoy the new technologies developed through the conflict. Is WWIII really necessary? Well, yes, considering the inefficient leadership, mismanagement, and the huge amount of bitching and inaction we see in the world today. War would mobilize everyone, solve problems, and put gears into action. Afterwards, people would come to appreciate the progress. Hopefully, any of us here would see the first rocket, or should I say utility to traverse the universe, take off. Due to time dilation, I don't think any of us would live to hear the news of arrival and colonization, but then again, progress may see the extenuation of the human life. Who knows? Anything is possible.
  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:21PM (#19543569)
    It's just your standard naive extrapolation of an apparently exponential function. It never actually happens in real life, there's always a physical limit which levels off the function. In this case I suspect heat and particularly, energy production.

    Then there's the fact that people are cheaper.
    http://www.slate.com/id/1918 [slate.com]

  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:29PM (#19543617) Homepage
    If you took an educated man from 1907 and brought him to 2007, he'd be able to understand just about everything we have except for our computational devices. They even understood a bit about nuclear energy.

    Which is to say that what we have today is by and large based off learning from 100 years ago. Except for Liquid Crystal displays. And programming. Data mining. Most of the advanced materials science we take for granted. The amazing science that goes into modern bad food. Instantaneous worldwide communication VIA satellite networks. Cloning. MagLev regulation. Angioplasty.

    To say that we haven't made huge strides in the past 100 years is ridiculous. 100 years ago, a trip from New York to Japan would take months and be considerd a culmination of a life's work. Today it can be undertaken for a month's salary and a half-day in a plane.

    The problem is, while we have many ideas; they get shot down left and right. I don't see a new source of energy orders of magnitude above previous ones, like what nuclear power provided.

    Fusion? Something involving quantum or String, once that mess gets sorted out? Fission has a rough energy conversion of about one thousandth the available energy. Fusion has a current rough energy conversion of about 3 thousandths. That leaves 99.9% of the available energy on the table, if we can figure out how to unlock it.

    The edge of physics is still raw, and still amazing. Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to describe to the average person these days... I've visited the laboratory of a Professor friend of mine, and never cease to be amazed by how difficult it is to describe even low-energy waveform interactions without delving into either highly forced metaphors or obscure mathematical modeling.

    We're still advancing, but nowaday's it's hard, very hard.

    It has always been hard. We've been working on Quantum computing for something like 20 years now, but we were working on regular digital computing for longer than that before it was useful... and we understood electricity pretty well by then.

    Cars took a while, then planes took a while, now we're seeing a nanoscent space travel industry opening up.

    If you were in a small village in Greece where you had to walk everywhere by foot, the next village over would be a long way away. The village four villages over would be a tremendous distance. A whole country over would be a gigantic distance, and going to France, for example, would be way out of your league. Traveling to eastern Asia, the Americas, or Australia would look like a pipe dream.

    Well, we've got a long time to get there. And we've got a lot of little steps on the road to galactic civilization, including permanent space stations, profitable manufacturing, colonization of nearby planets, colonization of planets further our in the solar system, etc. 100 years to galactic expansion is ridiculous... after 100 years, we'd be lucky if we've got a buzzing little colony on the moon, let alone Mars or other solar systems.

  • how boring (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dickbot ( 1116661 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:35PM (#19543657)
    The whole "that would be like a magic wand" line is basically a self-invalidating argument, especially when it comes to the energy involved in sending usefull ammounts of manpower and material to other planets/star systems. The overall energy used by mankind since the early roman empire has increased from 0.25 x 10-e8 to 0.17 x 10-e13 W, roughly a 75.000-fold increase as we tapped into wind and water power, fossil fuels (=> chemical rockets) and nuclear fission (=> inevitable fission powered spaceflight). I would like to remind this gentleman (the one from the article) that the considered time-period, roughly 2000 years, only ammounts to 1/20.000 of the total career of Homo Sapiens, whose overall existence has been defined by an ever-increasing ammount of usable energy. There is NO indication whatsoever that this trend is about to end, with still pentifull coal and oil desposits (there is even an entirely virgin continent left to exploit), quickly spreading fission technology and probable fusion power in the next 50 years. What i am trying to say (i'm a bit drunk though) is that weither or not we're going to the outer planets and to the stars is only a matter of how much a fraction of our overall energy production such a trip would cost : early transatlantic ships would have been impossible without a convenient way to use wind power, flight relied on internal combustion and fossil fuels, similarily practical spaceflight is gonna require more advanced energy sources that are not only probable, but providing we don't go extinct, inevitable. We can't do it now, but we soon will. From that perspective an upcoming "magic wand" (which wouldn't be magic at all but only the logical replacement of our present energy-harnessing techniques) is not 'highly unlikly' but rather 'highly probable'. Practical fusion power, space-based solar energy, giant tidal generator, thermoclinal conductors, cheap antimater production, you name it, the only question about them is "when", not "how". just look at the curves, we're getting there, saying that RIGHT NOW we couldn't do it is irrelevant, it's all a matter of how much energy we find ourselves able and willing to invest. Seems to me this guy is just trying to upset his fans (havn't read his work though).
  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Deadplant ( 212273 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:37PM (#19543675)
    I'm not sure i agree with you about the technological wonders of 2007.

    Look at 1907 - The automobile, while not a standard item, was at least known. Trains were in extensive use, as were power tools. Automatic looms, various mechanical processes.
    So in 100 years we advanced from basic forms of mechanical locomotion with speeds of maybe 40kph (i'm totally guessing) and ranges in the hundreds of kilometers to vessels with interplanetary range and speeds in excess of 60,000kph (Voyageur 1).
    The Aussies recently tested their new scramjet engine in our atmosphere at mach 10.
    Also, 180kph automobiles with 400+km ranges are available to teenagers.

    If you took an educated man from 1907 and brought him to 2007, he'd be able to understand just about everything we have except for our computational devices. They even understood a bit about nuclear energy.
    They (a few people) understood a bit about nuclear energy. Now we have the power the literally obliterate the entire habitable surface area of the planet. We have ships the size of small towns that can run for 25 years without refueling while putting out more electricity every day than all of civilization had done up until 1907.

    Then there is the whole computerization thing... that is kinda a hard one to dismiss.
    The advances in Information Technology are probably THE most significant advance during that century.

    Then there is the revolution in biotech.
    This one is arguably more significant than computerization.
    We have gone from categorizing life forms by their colours and shapes to a basic understanding of DNA and proteins and for the first time beginning to understand what life IS and to control/create it.
    We now have a basic understanding of the mechanics of biological systems. When this progresses to 'a mastery' of the mechanics of biological systems we will have what could easily be described as god-like powers to design and create life.

    What else.... um, how about all the cyborgs walking around these days?
    Sure, an open-minded person in 1907 could conceive of an artificial heart or lung but we've got 'em and we can fit you with one if your heart stops working. (sometimes)
    Of course we can also make your boobs bigger or your penis harder... You can even have someone else carry your baby to term if there is a problem with your uterus.

    What else... um, the majority of people in the western world can sit down at their desk on whim and look down on any part of the planet from space.

    Actually physically leaving the planet is a vacation option for the rich. (this one would have to blow the mind of a 1907'er)

    I think we're blase not because our advances are meager but because our advances have been so frequent and mind-blowing that we've come to expect new tech that is twice as good as the old tech every few years.
  • by giampy ( 592646 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:44PM (#19543739) Homepage
    Agreed on b) and c), but ideology, partecipating in a project bigger than oneself, could still be a big motivation, provided it does not interfere with other motivations, that is, povided it does not cost too much.

    So, the way i see it, there is only one solution, which is to dilate the time scale as well.

    But, imagine space elevators will be common in 500 years, then some no-profit organization initiates an open-source design of a huge generation ship, something the size of los angeles or bigger, for example, that carries enough mass to shield from radiation, and it is big enough to generate some gravity by centrifual force, without rotating too fast. Eventually it could host lakes, trees, houses, ... you get the idea.

    So, what do you do to keep the cost down ? you go slow, so the design takes perhaps 500 to 1000 years, then the construction begins, so either materials are sent into space, like one kilogram is sent each week, but this is tough, or we hijack a small size asteroid to build it, or both.

    How long will it take, 10000 years ? so be it ! Assume perhaps other 10000 years to build the thing, and let's throw in other 30000 for debugging, testing, and because shit happens ...

    then the ship sails, it goes one AU per year, maybe, but so what ?

    The issue is not to get somewhere fast, is not to be there when the next civilization scale disaster strikes the earth ...

    So, even if it takes 50000 years we can still send out 80000 ships within the next 4 bllion years before the sun wipes out the face of the earth ...

    80000 it's not too bad, but hey, i'd be even happy with a thousands ships,
    which gives roughly 4 million years to build each one.

    I know, i am assuming a LOT, especially on the capabilities of human beings of caying out projects with such a bigger time scale, but, all things considered, why rule it out ??

  • by iluvcapra ( 782887 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:50PM (#19543787)

    Also, ask yourself, what have we done in the last minute, compared to the two before that? Our rate of advancement seems to have slowed considerably. Just look at what sort of things were predicted for us in the 50s and 60s that we're still no closer to seeing. Even Arthur C Clarke though we would have moonbases in 1999.

    Well, if you watched something like a Captain Video short, which nominally depicted 500 years into the future, people would travel around in their flying cars, but when they wanted to talk to someone on the other side of town, they generally had to land the flying car, get out, go into their hover-house, and turn on a very large radio-transmitter looking device.

    Most predicitons of the FUTURE in the case of fiction are driven by the dramatic needs of the story. No scientist will comment on the viability of a matter transporter, but it sure kept the average Star Trek episode budget down. Arthur C. Clarke had moonbases on the moon in 1999 because he wanted his readers to feel like they could relate in human terms with the characters and still put the TMA-1 far enough away from Earth so that it's "recent discovery" is believable in context. In the case of 2001, Clark wanted to make the point that society and governments still had not changed, and that the events still were occurring in the same historical epoch as the readers.

    When the people doing the predicting are the government, or Bell Labs, it's still storytelling, and the better you like the story, the more likely you'll part with your grant money.

  • Re:Magic Wands (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Christianson ( 1036710 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:51PM (#19543797)
    Science has given us dozens of "magic wands" the last century, why would it stop now?

    Good question. Ask your government (whoever they might be) why they are progressively less interested in funding science in general, let alone highly speculative basic research. We won't find any "magic wands" if people aren't looking.

    People get very smug, I note, about the "power of science." This is a new thing. The first three quarters of Anno Domini had next to no scientific progress at all, because people didn't care to look at the world. When we made study of the world a priority, we got results. Now, increasingly, when we care about research at all, we tend to ask the question, "how will this help me tomorrow?" Just like everything in the world, you get out of science what you put into it.

  • Re:No shit (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:51PM (#19543799) Homepage
    You can also visit history and see the immense resources squandered on dead-ends, misconceptions, and wishful thinking: everything from alchemy to Stalinism. Having voices say "this is not nearly is viable a path as you think it is" can be very helpful when it comes to allocating resources and making choices for immediate research. Other voices that chime in, later, "maybe this is more possible than we thought in the past" are also helpful. I don't think it's possible to have a field of thought populated just by the "happy medium," either: the adversarial relationship between skeptics and dreamers might be far more productive.
  • by DamnStupidElf ( 649844 ) <Fingolfin@linuxmail.org> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:27PM (#19544165)
    Space colonization will be hard for current humans. Not for robots, and not for AI. Information can travel at light speed, so there's no need to pack humans into heavy life support systems when you can just ship a trillion tiny nanoassembly factories out at 50% light speed and let statistics handle the reassembly at the other end of the trip. Once the factories are running, send the information for whatever it is we want to travel at light speed and let them assemble it, whether it's the newest robot model or schematics for a reconstructed human.

    I see the economics for space travel coming sometime after the singularity. Once we have the ability to build huge AIs that can control nano-machines to build even bigger AIs, we will run out of resources in the solar system. At that point, it will be logical to spread to any other star system that can be used as a resource to build more hardware to run our software. Even if it's horribly inefficient, it will still be more than what will be available to us in this solar system. We can also explore the universe right here with much better sensors. The universe has been sending tons of information about itself to us at light speed for the last 15 billion years, we just have to collect and interpret it properly. Then we (humans and our varied descendants) can explore the resulting datasets. There's no reason we can't have swashbuckling space adventure faster than the speed of light in a future MMORPG.
  • Re:That's funny... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by smaddox ( 928261 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:38PM (#19544261)
    This is exactly my view of the situation.

    Our biggest problem is finding a power source.

    Currently, all our power sources are based off of something found in nature, but this doesn't necessarily have to be so. If we can find a fundamental particle reaction which is exothermic, and find out how to apply it to any material around us, we could convert currently useless material into a source for energy.

    With a limitless energy supply, everything is just a matter of time and man power.
  • While I agree with both of your points, that the universe doesn't care, and that ignorant project managers/engineering supervisors need to have a clue about basic raw physics when dictating project goals, you still havn't addressed the basic questions:

    Is is possible that mankind can get to the stars?

    I agree that physics is a significant issue here, and unless somebody can prove Einstein flat out wrong or at least introduce a new subset of mathematics to the laws of motion that refine Einstein's laws of relativity that allow superluminal velocities under some sort of extreme condition not recognized by Einstein previously, I don't see the classical "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" hyperspatial/warp drive ships ever becoming a reality. The USPTO notwithstanding (and the patents they have approved which supposedly claim this ability).

    Still, there is much that can be done within the realm of current scientific knowledge that would suggest that travel to nearby stars is at least possible within a human lifetime. That it is right on the edge of the potential of what we understand about physics seems like an interesting proposition, and with many other very rich worlds begging for human exploration within our Solar System that are easily within the range of travel using today's technology that would be comparable to the ocean crossing voyages of the 17th Century, I don't see any pressing desire or even necessity to consider going to another star first. If mankind is already a well established multi-planet species who is well established on the Moon, Mars, Europa, and the Earth, not to mention O'Neill colonies and other such fanciful ideas and concepts; I don't see that it would be too much of a problem digging up the resources to consider going to other solar systems beside our own. But as a proposition to a society that debates if Virgin Galactic is even going to get out of the Earth's atmosphere at all, the question seems a fanciful academic exercise that is generations away from even being realistically asked in the first place.

    This question is like asking King James I of England if descendants of his new colony at Plymouth is going to make a laptop computer cheap enough for 3rd world countries of Africa. Or if some of those same people are going to make it to the Moon. The question is premature and we simply don't know right now, nor is there any reason for going in the first place when there are so many inviting places to go at the moment that are much more accessible.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by QuantumG ( 50515 ) <qg@biodome.org> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:47PM (#19544321) Homepage Journal

    Then there's the fact that finding new tricks is getting harder and harder.
    Uhhh.. we haven't even discovered the Higgs yet.

    Talking about propulsion like we know what we're talking about, when we don't even understand where inertia comes from, is pretty stupid.

  • missing the point (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jeremy_Bee ( 1064620 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:57PM (#19544413)
    To those (many) people who are interpreting this as a battle between Hawking and Stross... your really just not paying attention.

    Hawking merely states the obvious, which is that eventually, in the fullness of time, if we cannot survive without the Earth, then we shall certainly perish with it or because of some earth-bound, environmental/social calamity. This is self-evident, but does not equate to a belief that we will one day "colonise the galaxy." The chief variables in regards whether that happens or not are actually social or historical, not technological (as Stross rightly points out at the beginning of his article). The hope of galactic colonisation is perhaps built on the the same realisation that Hawking so aptly describes, but the two arguments are completely separate entities.

    To those who's answer to Stross (and this seems to take care of most of the rest of the posts), is merely the invocation of some further "magic" technology... aside from the fact that this is just side-stepping the issues Stross brought up, it ignores one final fact about interstellar colonisation (sci-fi style), that Stross failed to mention, and that is the inherant biological limitations.

    As biological entities on Earth, we must eat to survive, and the proteins and amino acids we eat are derived from the environment around us. We are symbiotic with our environment as a whole and inseparable from it. Even if we found an "earth-like" planet, and even if panspermia turns out to be as accurate a hypothesis as it seems to be lately, divergent evolution would mean that a "space-potato" from another planetary system would never be consumable by an earth person. Despite whatever nutritive properties the space potato had for the local fauna, our intrepid astronauts would starve to death. The amino acids would simply not fit. This applies to every plant or animal in that particular environment. The concept of interstellar trade in foodstuffs especially is nonsensical and things like "Romulan Ale" are fictions that can never be.

    From the biological perspective, colonisation would mean either bringing the totality of our environment with us (terraforming all worlds with earth biology and destroying entire planetary ecosystems wherever we go), or transforming ourselves through genetics to "fit" the environments we find. Even then, such altered individuals would be as bound to their new world as we are to the old. Using Mars, (a local and rather famous example), we could not live there without turning it into a second Earth, or by turning ourselves into "Martians." Didn't anyone ever read "The Martian Chronicles"? ;-)

    Thus no matter what, even with "magic" technology that eliminates all the gravity, time, energy and FTL problems, individuals from earth would still never be able to colonise other planets as they do in most sci-fi stories.

    As many have long suspected, the concept of "colonising the galaxy" probably has more to do with the territorial ambitions of empire than with any logical view of a possible future, and will likely be as humorous to those very future generations as Medieval opinions about the "superlative" nature of their medical technology are to us today.

  • Re:No shit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @06:02PM (#19544457) Homepage
    I considered this when I chose the example. Alchemy included a lot of wasted effort. It 'became' chemistry as a kind of by-product. A lot of wasteful research generates useful by-products of knowledge, and I suspect that if we devoted a massive percentage of our resources and effort to a failed attempt to colonize another system, we would probably still get some useful inventions and discoveries on the side. It probably wouldn't be the best use of our resources.

    The author is a science fiction writer. Many people ascribe their choices of careers and fields of research to the science fiction they've read. The result of his essay may be this: someone is discouraged from a career in space exploration, and instead chooses one in nanotechnology or the bio-sciences, which could offer significant benefits now and later. The cost of not have a certain amount of naysaying would have been a huge opportunity cost: instead, this skepticism gives us a bright mind directed toward more promising lines of research. I don't think that's a bad thing.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @06:06PM (#19544487)
    Consider that our population continues to grow (and the Earth+human technology can support more billions of humans). Consider that in the future we may have the ability to extend our lifetimes significantly, including perpetual youth, greatly extending our 'best work' periods as well as keeping experts around for longer. We may develop A.I. capable of making human-understandable discoveries (and beyond). We may learn new ways of sharing information, such as directly downloading the information a la many science fiction worlds. We may be able to improve our own intelligence and storage facilities. The possibilities are endless.

    It seems very unlikely that ww will not be able to move along at least as fast as we are today for the foreseeable future. The only real assumption we need to make is that our civilization won't collapse in the meantime.
  • Again, missing the point: it's farmland, it's just not *used* as farmland. The central plaines of America, for example- scrubland. A little irrigation and it's farmland.

    There's plenty of organic space on this planet for LOTS more people here. And, as civilizations develop, their growth rate slows...in some cases, reverses. Japan, for example, has a tiny amount of young people to care for the very old people- that's part of why so many robots are coming from there.

    There's a prevailing misunderstanding about capitalism and industry: it _starts_ messy, and naturally keeps getting cleaner. China's going through this right now....very similar to America when the Industrial Revolution kicked in. They have no OSHA; a lot of people are maimed on the job. No EPA, and they still think it's OK to throw broken car batteries into the same river from which people drink. It's crazy. But every engine, literal or figurative, puts off much 'smoke' when starting.

    Remember the "London Fog"? It was actually smog; back on those days there were hundreds-of-thousands of coal-powered fires, heating houses and powering early factories. It was so bad gardening requird _dusting_ a couple of times a day. It sounds romantic in the Sherlok Holmes novels, but it was a nightmare.

    See "1900" from...I think it was the Discovery Channel...to get a good idea of the conditions.

    It's not intuitive, but it's the way it works. Production improves over time, not continually gets worse. And capitalism is the best engine for all this, this world has seen.

    It's fair, too: if you work, you get fed/clothed/etc. Work more, get more. And since this creates extra production, there's money to care for the disabled, the insane, and the elderly, etc.
  • That's great, but what happens when we realise we are about to smack into a huge lump of rock at 10% C?

    You add a 50 meter per second side thrust and in 20 seconds you're a kilometre to one side of it.

    What, spacegoing ships won't have a radar for 20 seconds worth of advanced warning of rocks?
  • Man from 1907 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara,hudson&barbara-hudson,com> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @06:22PM (#19544617) Journal

    "If you took an educated man from 1907 and brought him to 2007, he'd be able to understand just about everything we have except for our computational devices. They even understood a bit about nuclear energy. "

    He'd freak out. Too much social change along with technological change.

    Flat-screen TVs. Gay, lesbian and transsexual rights. Cell phones (with mp3 and video), even for kids. A speed limit of over 30 mph!!! Airplanes that can fly faster than the speed of sound, faster than a speeding bullet. Permanent press fabrics. Microwave cooking. Fast food. Tofu. Sushi. Light beer.

    Genetic screening. Debit cards. Credit cards. Routine heart transplants. Smoking banned in most places. Abortion on demand. "God is dead." Televangelists. No-fault divorce. Divorce on demand. Mickey Rooney and Liz Taylor (8 marriages each). Britney Spears and pop-tarts in general.

    Photocopiers. Samizdat. Color printers. Glossy advertising printed so cheaply that it is literally thrown out. Remote controls of all sorts. VCR. DVD. USB fobs with the space for 1000 copies of The Bible. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, David Bowie.

    Playboy centerfolds. Hustler. Downloadable porn. AIDS. China being the biggest exporter of consumer goods. "Average" houses worth 250,000 to 1 million. Tanning booths.

    No spitting on the sidewalk. Poop and scoop. Deodorants. Ballpoint pens. Nylons. Artificial fabrics of all types. Polyester (okay - NOBODY understands polyester). Rap music. Parking restrictions. Jaywalking being illegal. State lotteries.

    T Shirts. Jeans, capri pants and slacks for women. "Casual business attire." Disposable watches, calculators. The near-death of pencils and erasors. Surgery as fashion statement. Michael Jackson. Boy George. Madonna.

    "You can't hit your wife." "You can't hit your kid." "You can't beat your animals." "You can't threaten someone." You CAN burn the flag. You CAN call the President an idiot to an audience - and you'll even get laughs.

    Black and latino movie stars being the big box office draws, and a black woman - Oprah - being the #1 entertainer. "The Joy of Sex" This guy [goatsc.cz]. Try explaining him to anyone in 2007 ...

    He'd think either the world went crazy, or he did.

  • My guess (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TopSpin ( 753 ) * on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:18PM (#19544975) Journal
    The first interstellar humans will arrive at the next star in the form of embryos (or their virtual equivalents) to a pre-built space colony constructed by machines. It will take thousands of years. Today we can only begin to speculate about some the technology involved. Several hundred years from now our decedents will have more than speculation to work with.

    Charlie Stross is correct within the narrow confines of his self imposed conditions. Physics tells us that the mass and energy involved in sending live people to nearby stars within a lifetime simply does not compute. Now, and perhaps never. Enormous generation ships have rather obvious problems also, the most intractable (after the flight actually begins, some time after the vessel is somehow built) would appear to be the inevitability of multiple in-flight, and possibly fatal, dark ages.

    Given our very recent enlightenment about the frequency of extrasolar planets, it's rather likely that most brown/yellow dwarfs have, in addition to large planets, a vast collection of debris. This debris happens to be made of rather useful stuff including ice (water; hydrogen and oxygen,) carbon and metals (silicon, iron, etc.) in effectively unlimited quantities. The stuff is conveniently parked in stable orbits in condensed form with mass low enough to obviate concerns about atmospheres or escape velocity.

    We already interact with space debris with fair competence. We fire bullets into comets [1] and skitter around on asteroids [2] with so little collective effort that most people are oblivious to it. Scaling that up a few hundred times may be within the grasp of humans today, never mind what we'll be capable of in 2507.

    We know how to collect energy from stars [3]. We've even figured out how to beam it around with reasonable efficiency [4]. Given long enough intervals our ability to gather sufficient energy to refine arbitrary amounts of matter is assured.

    Automation is a big missing piece at the moment. We can not yet build machines with enough intellect to operate unassisted in a complex environment. We have a long way to go on this one. However, I nurture a bit of faith on this. It's based on the possibility that we're not as smart as we think and, therefore, the challenge isn't a great as we assume.

    Humans operate on the power obtained from plants, bits of meat and common gasses. The mass of the entire human nervous system is measured in tens kilograms and requires only a part of the available energy. The billions of years evolution has had to refine these resources into a competent system has produced complexity that we have only begun to fathom. Yet we progress at an astonishing pace. Contemporary machines can recognize speech, walk, fly, drive, swim, navigate and play games. The computational capacity to do these things must often be mobile and, therefore, small and low power. We are figuring out natures algorithms and I think that eventually we'll be able to produce low mass machines capable of orbital navigation, self-repair and refining operations all driven by enough goal seeking intellect to build habitats without human assistance.

    My hypothetical mission profile looks something like this:

    At some point during the next few centuries there will exist enough wealth, technical knowledge and stability to permit the building, in solar orbit, of a flotilla of moderately sized unmanned interstellar ships. This moment need not be particularly lengthy in duration or broadly coordinated; an important point given the volatility of our species. Once under way, the mission will not be subject to the fate of humans around the native star.

    The flotilla will be launched in the direction of some likely star, powered by low thrust high delta-v engines and require centuries or millennia to arrive. Along the way some fraction of the machines will fail and require in-transit repair or recycling on arrival. The remainder will be sufficient. The builders will have high confidence in these devices b
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CptPicard ( 680154 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:20PM (#19544989)
    I would say scientific facts haven't really been "disproven" since Enlightenment established our basic knowledge of the world -- there's just improvement. The classic example is of course that Newton was correct enough for his time but Einstein was even more correct and complete.

    Although our advances in technology have relied in a more refined understanding of nature, it's more difficult to find examples that rely on applications of something brand new that would have been just blatantly wrong and impossible based on earlier knowledge. I find relativity's light speed barrier to seem to be of such a fundamental nature that we'd be in absolutely deep doo-doo theoretically and even philosophically if it were ever discovered it can be broken... and without FTL, our colonization of space becomes a slow affair...
  • Re:Both right? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SageMusings ( 463344 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:48PM (#19545155) Journal
    I believe what the Author was conveying was there had to be a compelling, economic reason for colonizing the Gobi and the North Atlantic. Sure, it can be done but it is not done. Since colonizing interplanetary space is much harder, there must be a proportionally compelling reason to do so. Arguments like "The existence of the Human species depends on it" are not very convincing or even important to the majority of people. Most of us want to get "more than the next guy"; altruistic feelings for the species is kinda of a fantasy at this point.

    My personal opinion is we need to concentrate on having LESS people in the Universe rather than spreading out. We could solve a lot of social and economic problems with curbing population and make a lot of people happier rather than pour much of the planet's wealth into colonizing the nearest star. Yes, I am curious and like the idea of exploration. But I don't believe we are ever going to the Stars in large numbers, if at all. Just being real guys. I more than anyone would like future developments in physics to render the Author's arguments moot.
  • by Master of Transhuman ( 597628 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @08:53PM (#19545521) Homepage
    I would have expected Stross to be a bit more imaginative, given some of his stories emphasizing Transhuman societies such as Accelerando. However, lack of imagination is just as prevalent among sci-fi writers as it is in the general population. I've seen enough stupid sci-fi writer essays to be assured of that.

    Humans per se aren't going anywhere. Within this century, the human body and brain will be made obsolete. Transhumans will have the intelligence to solve technological problems unimagined by humans. But even if interstellar movement remains non-feasible, Transhumans have no particular need to worry, since the only things a Transhuman needs to survive are an energy source, matter, nanomass, computing power, and knowledgebases.

    And to a Transhuman, the survival of the human species is the last thing to be concerned about. The only thing of interest to a Transhuman is how do we get to that state without having to waste a lot of time and energy killing humans trying to prevent us from getting there.

    Humans aren't going to colonize the universe or even the Solar System - that seems clear. Transhumans will.

    Which makes Stross's analysis a waste of time. Considering that he admits he had a cold when developing this and thus couldn't think straight, I'd say that pretty much sums up the value of this piece.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @09:07PM (#19545603)
    It isn't actually the water expanding that causes the cell to burst. Cells have reasonably stretchy membranes and the change in volume during the water to ice transition isn't that big. The real cause is that when ice forms it is extremely pure and any impurities in the liquid in the cell will become concentrated in the remaining liquid. Osmosis will cause more water to enter the cell and this continues indefinitely. Eventually the limit of the membrane will be reached and the cell will burst.

    We could take a leaf out of nature and use the method employed by the northern wood frog http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_Frog [wikipedia.org] . The frog uses nucleants to encourage ice crystals to form outside cells and in a reverse of the above process the cell is actually dehydrated and forms a sugary glass which allows the frog to survive the winter. My lecturer was a little hazy on how the frogs brain copes with this process but maybe something like this could one day be adapted to humans.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by naoursla ( 99850 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @09:51PM (#19545871) Homepage Journal
    If faster than light travel were possible then some things in the universe would have done so. If one of those things is capable of self replication then everything in existence would be copies of that thing. Maybe humans will be the first, but I find it more likely (however statistically improper that believe is) that FTL travel is impossible.

    There has to be some limit to how quickly things can move or else there would be no such thing as locality.
  • by turing_m ( 1030530 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @10:31PM (#19546121)
    "The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern."

    A very quaint notion straight out of the 1960s. So why have children, or grandchildren? Why care about them? (Other than the bazillion years of natural selection forcing us to, that is.)

    If Stross has children, perhaps he'd agree to rig up bombs to them that would be activated on the cessation of his heart. Since strictly speaking, whether they live or die should be of no personal concern. The survival of colonies of the entire human species is only an extension of that concept.
  • by ulatekh ( 775985 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @10:38PM (#19546181) Homepage Journal

    In the Star Trek mythos, as soon as we invented a suitably advanced technology (warp drive), the aliens started paying attention to us and showed us how to do far more advanced things. That'd certainly jump-start our own efforts to colonize space.

    Besides, there are severe limitations in our current understanding of physics. Who says we can't easily take a 4th-dimensional shortcut through 3-dimensional space? Or dilate time so that we effectively go much faster than the speed of light?

    Perhaps our understanding that matter cannot travel the speed of light is based on an enormous experimental error; if the magnetic waves in a particle accelerator travel the speed of light, then it can't accelerate anything past the speed of light, and any attempts to do so will consume more and more energy with no apparent increase in speed. Hence our misunderstanding about "relativistic mass". Hey, I'm just saying that such an enormous error is totally possible! And others [thefinaltheory.com] have pointed that one out too!

    There are far too many comments on this article for mine to ever be seen, but what the heck, I figured I'd post it anyway. It may be as futile as, say, trying to colonize interstellar space, but I posted it anyway.

  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lhbtubajon ( 469284 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @10:44PM (#19546231)

    My personal opinion is we need to concentrate on having LESS people in the Universe rather than spreading out.
    This goes against every biological imperative ever experienced by any life form on earth. And for good reason. The way species improve themselves is to expand until they fill their available space to the limit, and beyond, of sustainability. Once that is reached, a die-off culls the weak and strengthens the remaining gene pool for further adaptation and expansion. This is species survival, and humans are just as good at it as any other life form. Once we fill this planet to the breaking point (which we will), we'll either die off, improving the "herd", or we'll send parts of us away to seed nearby star systems. Death, life, freedom, poverty, and exploration are all the reasons we need, just like our forefathers who struck out across oceans to find new land for colonization. I'm afraid this notion of "fewer humans on earth" is fundamentally nonsense. Biology demands that we expand and multiply, or die trying.
  • Re:Man from 1907 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @10:58PM (#19546335) Homepage Journal
    I think he would freak out, simply because it's too much change in a short time. But I don't know if it would be too much different than an average culture shock of some villager walking into the big capital city 1,000 years ago. But a lot of what you list, from new technologies to various cultures practices, have been found all throughout history. Here's just a few:

    Gay, lesbian and transsexual rights.

    Various cultures have had gay rights, or even elevated positions for gays or transgendered persons. Examples: Ancient Greeks, Sacred Hermaphrodites and transgendereds in Hindusism, Berdache shamans in Apache culture.

    Smoking banned in most places.

    Smoking was considered unhealhy, devilish, and lower-class stuff when tabacco first found it's way into Europe. It was also considered a medicine and health promoter in certain circles.

    and Abortion on demand

    Abortion and infanticide has long been practices in tribal societies and non-Monotheistic, Godess-worshipping cultures.

    "God is dead."

    Hereticism and atheism is nothing new. Greeks.

    No-fault divorce. Divorce on demand

    Practiced in various tribes and in Muslim countries, and places where men and women had more equal rights.

    Photocopiers. Samizdat. Color printers.

    Rapid printing presses.

    Glossy advertising printed so cheaply that it is literally thrown out.

    Colorful decorations that were thrown out and flowers that wilted for days-long religious ceremonies are old practices.

    The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, David Bowie.

    Music is nothing new. Other people's music is always weird.

    Playboy centerfolds. Hustler. Downloadable porn.

    Porn? As old as the cavemen. How about being suprised by the lack of whorehouses and streetwalkers?


    In the olden says, you would find people with open sores dying in the streets. Obivious, disgusting disease was everywhere. AIDS is a relative benign fatal affliction. One of the diseases from the 1800s, I forget which one, would cause a seemingly healthy man to collapse in the street, dead a few hours later.

    "Average" houses worth 250,000 to 1 million.

    Mansions and palaces are nothing new. He would be surprised by our amount of wealth.

    No spitting on the sidewalk.

    A function of wealth and our sewer/plumbing system. Plumbing and sewers go back to the oldest cities.

    Artificial fabrics of all types.

    On the surface, not distinguishable from an unfamiliar natural fabric.

    Rap music.

    White people have been freak out by blacks with drums (i.e. African culture) for a long time.

    State lotteries.

    Gambling and games of chance, even state-sponsored - Very old.

    T Shirts. Jeans, capri pants and slacks for women.

    Other people always dress weird. Indians in the jungle are running around naked! Women have their breasts exposed!

    "You can't hit your wife." "You can't hit your kid." "You can't beat your animals."

    This is pretty new. But you find a lot of non-violent, pacifist religions all throught history and the world. Case in point - Judaism (don't abuse your domestic animals, slaughter them humanely), Early Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism.

    "You can't threaten someone."

    BIG offense in oral cultures. Likely a capital crime.

    You CAN burn the flag.

    Political protest is nothing new. Greek rulers worried about it all the time.

    You CAN call the President an idiot to an audience - and you'll even get laughs.

    Who doesn't make fun of their boss or political leader? The only place you couldn't do this was in facist, tightly controlled Kingdoms. Ever heard of the court Jester? It was more a problem for upper-class ind

  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jeff4747 ( 256583 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @11:58PM (#19546695)

    The classic example is of course that Newton was correct enough for his time but Einstein was even more correct and complete.

    There's no reason to believe that in 100 years someone like you won't be saying, "Newton and Einstein were correct enough for their times, but [future genius] was even more correct and complete". [future genius]'s work will indeed shake up the scientific community, just like Einstein's work. But there's no philosophical reason to reject the possibility of [future genius]'s work.

  • by Estanislao Martínez ( 203477 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @12:55AM (#19546995) Homepage

    This goes against every biological imperative ever experienced by any life form on earth.

    Science is descriptive, not normative. However convenient it may be to picture whatever biological facts as an "imperative," you still can't derive an ought from an is.

    The way species improve themselves is to expand until they fill their available space to the limit, and beyond, of sustainability. Once that is reached, a die-off culls the weak and strengthens the remaining gene pool for further adaptation and expansion.

    Oh my god. Where do I start?

    1. Natural selection does not "improve" species in any evaluative sense, only in a trivial, tautological sense that the types that reproduced more successfully will tend to be more frequent in the succeeding generation. If you think these organisms are "better," you are guilty of overlaying a value judgement on a valueless matter.
    2. The "weak" can only be identified in retrospect; they turned out not to be adapted for those circumstances, but they could in principle have been adapted to others. But by the same token, natural selection does not "strenghten the remaining gene pool," because there is no guarantee that yesterday's adaptations will actually help in tomorrow's environment.
    3. In fact, too much of a purging of genetic diversity, by excessive disappearance of "weak" genes, may weaken the species' chances of survival in the case of a change of environment.

    Once we fill this planet to the breaking point (which we will), we'll either die off, improving the "herd", or we'll send parts of us away to seed nearby star systems. Death, life, freedom, poverty, and exploration are all the reasons we need, just like our forefathers who struck out across oceans to find new land for colonization. I'm afraid this notion of "fewer humans on earth" is fundamentally nonsense. Biology demands that we expand and multiply, or die trying.

    No, biology does not demand anything, you silly. Stop wishfully thinking that science justifies your sick cosmological fantasies, and engage biology seriously if you do so. (And for that matter, engage seriously the actual history of European colonialism, that you're glorifying there.)

  • Well, for starters, the title is hardly correct.
    It shouldn't say "The Impossibility of Colonizing the Galaxy", it shoud actually say "The Economic Unfeasability of Colonizing the Galaxy, and the added Sociological Difficulties in Colonizing our Solarsystem".
    That being said, I rest my case, because, well, I just said everything that needed to be said.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 18, 2007 @04:31AM (#19548059)
    You are forgetting that most of the exponential stuff we observe ends up being a S-curve instead.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CptPicard ( 680154 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @06:38AM (#19548665)

    This theme has been repeated ad nauseam in responses to my original post as I've been branded defeatist; I'll just refer you to this brilliant response [slashdot.org] as it took care of responding to all of you ;-)

    There is a huge difference between just having a hunch that there won't be a way to accomplish something and not being able to give a scientific basis for why exactly not... and having the actual, well-reasoned weight of our physical knowledge giving us a hard limit that you just won't be moving anything past the speed of light. All appeals to a future theory that contradicts our current theory sound extremely unlikely at best, as relativity's relationship to the consistency of our reality is of such fundamental nature.

  • by Lord Bitman ( 95493 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @07:05AM (#19548807) Homepage
    The question then becomes: are artificially-grown (not quite our biology) artificially-taught (not quite our culture) things "human" enough to be compatible with our urge to reproduce and spread? If it's not human, what's the point of sending it into space anyway? Life will evolve somewhere else eventually, the whole point is we want to continue our species.
  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @08:39AM (#19549417) Journal

    (And for that matter, engage seriously the actual history of European colonialism, that you're glorifying there.)

    And what exactly was wrong with European colonialism? Looked at from a biological/evolutionary/whatever-the-hell-you-wann a-call-it standpoint and not from a morality standpoint, what exactly was the problem? One group of organisms moved into the area of another group of organisms. One group was able to adapt, expand and survive. The other group wasn't. In case you missed it, that's how nature works.

    And don't even try to make the morality argument either. It's a mistake to judge past cultures by modern standards of what is right and wrong. That's one of the first lessons of anthropology.

    For all the flaws of European/Western civilization, I for one am sick of feeling like we have to apologize for it. Witness the recent flap in Iran over the movie 300. Ignore the fact that Hollywood completely screwed it up and stereotyped the Persians (ask any Native American how well Hollywood has treated them....) I actually heard some less informed overly PC people suggesting that we should apologize for the Battle of Thermopylae! That battle quite possibly represents the birthplace of Western civilization -- the first time that the Greek city states united against a common enemy. And we should feel sorry for it? Do these morons even realize that it was the Persians invading Greece and not the other way around? Do they realize the historical implications of that battle and campaign?

    Ugh! It drives me up the wall to hear people rant about Western civilization. It's not my fault that your ancestors couldn't adapt in time to avoid being assimilated/conquered/whatever by my ancestors. And don't even try and play the technological card either. Had they the means to cross the ocean, the Romans would have steamrolled over the native cultures of the New World just as easily as the Europeans did later.

  • by lhbtubajon ( 469284 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @08:45AM (#19549459)
    Where do you start? You basically repeated the same point three times:

    If you think these organisms are "better," you are guilty of overlaying a value judgement on a valueless matter. Natural selection does not "strenghten the remaining gene pool," because there is no guarantee that yesterday's adaptations will actually help in tomorrow's environment.
    Tell that to the countless species that have existed that don't now because an offshoot of their species evolved past them. You're point is logically "correct," but manages to completely deny reality. It's like saying that adapting to earth's gravity isn't necessarily "better" because the earth could be blown up by an asteroid and its gravity field distributed across the solar system. Given the tendency of environmental conditions to change gradually, often on geological scales, "culling of the weak" is indeed a practical and effective tool for making a species "better" within its current environment, which is ALL that matters.

    No, biology does not demand anything, you silly. Stop wishfully thinking that science justifies your sick cosmological fantasies, and engage biology seriously if you do so. (And for that matter, engage seriously the actual history of European colonialism, that you're glorifying there.)
    As you should well know, "biology" is simply a code word for "survival." Survival does indeed demand many things, and if a very large rock is currently speeding toward this very large rock, then our species (read: our "biology") absolutely demands that we spread our genetic code beyond it. As for the rest of that statement, you seem to have some lingering issues about colonialism, which is fine. Some of your ancestors must have been on the "losing" end of a colonial expedition, which is also fine. You seem to think that there was a "moral" component missing from them, which is fine too. However, the reality is that humans have the same need to challenge each other for resources as other animals do. Some of your ancestors challenged some of your other ancestors for resources, the losers lost, and now you're morally uppity about it. I know you WANT to believe that strong/weak designations don't exist, but the reality is that they do, and they matter.
  • Re:Man from 1907 (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 18, 2007 @09:29AM (#19549843)
    A lot of your points are somewhat invalid because this olde-worlde guy probably wouldn't have known much about history, either. Unless he was an actual historian, anyway. It's not like today when any mid-size social gathering will probably include someone with a history degree. And that's a pretty good change to add to the list - mandatory education to mid-teens and a large minority of the population who do nothing but get educated until their mid-twenties.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mdwh2 ( 535323 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @09:57AM (#19550141) Journal
    Moreover, Einstein claimed the speed of light is a constant, and as IBM's experiments earlier this year have proven, the speed of light is actually a variable.

    They have? Link? Showing that Einstein was wrong would be big news.

    By scientific consensus, we believed the Earth was flat, until we were told it wasn't.

    No we didn't. There was never a scientific consensus or theory that stated the world was flat. Even in ancient times, we knew the Earth was round - the idea that people believed the world was flat is a common myth.
  • by CptPicard ( 680154 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @11:43AM (#19551469)

    No you wouldn't. I'm not a quantum mechanic, but if I understood my Penrose correctly, information still cannot travel FTL.

    The idea is that you can say that two particles are in the same state (or more accurately, wavefunction will collapse into the same state) -- you do not know which one -- and then when you observe the other, you know that the other particle will also be in this same state.

    The funny thing is, you can't actively "flip" these entangled particles in any way to actually send a signal. You could imagine you and your friend manufacture two entangled particles, put them in black boxes and then transport the other box below lightspeed somewhere else, having agreed that you take some action at some particular observed state (and then you'd still be essentially doing things at random, yet according to the same state). You could also seek to verify that indeed you are seeing the same state post-observation, but this communication would also be below light speed. In no situation you get to really affect the state the other guy gets in his particle.

  • Science is descriptive, not normative. However convenient it may be to picture whatever biological facts as an "imperative," you still can't derive an ought from an is.

    A self-replicating assembly like DNA is an end-in-itself. Its 'ought' is inseparable form its 'is', in that it exists in order to exist.

    It grows a human in order to accomplish this end, and that makes things more complicated, but from the point of view of the DNA, the imperative is inherent in its structure.

    Meanwhile the human can also strongly marry 'is' to 'ought' by realizing that the choice of life versus non-life is not a choice at all, because non-life isn't. As long as life on a human level is practicable, it is also imperative, because non-life is not a thing that can be compared to it.

But it does move! -- Galileo Galilei