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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?"
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The Impossibility of Colonizing the Galaxy

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:25PM (#19542525)
    in 5 billion years or so, the sun will burn out, expand, and then collapse. Although it was originally believed that the expansion would reach the earth, the loss of mass in the sun will weaken the gravitational pull and the earth's orbit (as with all other planets) will be expanded. Jupiter will most likely consume Saturn (and possibly Neptune). and will become the new barycenter of our solar system. The earth will orbit Jupiter. With nuclear power, life on earth will still be possible, though quite different.
  • Re:Impossible...? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:25PM (#19542531) Journal
    Colonizing the galaxy is something that will take millions of years. Obviously such a plan is so far beyond our scope at the moment that it's laughable. Mind you, going from Australia to Los Angeles in less than a day was so far beyond our scope ten thousand years ago that it's laughable.

    The key question won't be the technology (whether it's generation ships, ships that can move near the speed of the light or faster-than-light vessels), but rather the motivation. At the moment, we can scarcely get most people to see the point of returning to the Moon, or of going to Mars. Where there's a military motivation (China's long-term space plans seem to have twigged the West) there's always a way, but unfortunately something as far removed from us in time and so egalitarian as Hawking's notion of saving the species as sending manned missions to other stars just doesn't get many beyond the dreamers heated up.

    We've been sending stuff to space for half a century, and sending humans for less than that. It's so ridiculously premature to start judging whether or not humanity will reach the stars that I can't see the point of such an article. It's one thing to raise the technical difficulties (which are insurmountable with our current technology), but grand proclamations like this usually fall into two categories; blowhards who like to shock and disappoint or people trying inept forms of reverse psychology.
  • by QuietLagoon ( 813062 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:30PM (#19542557)
    For a science fiction writer, he certainly seems to have limited his vision. In 1870, people would say we could not get to the moon because horses would not survive in the vacuum of space. Yet a short hundred years later, man was walking on the moon.

    He needs to envision new technologies and sciences to free us from this solar system. Who knows what will be invented and discovered in the next two or three hundred years? He certainly does not.

  • by BrandonBlizard ( 1007055 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:30PM (#19542559)
    The technology is within our grasp now. If tomorrow the entire human race decide to commit the entire gross planetary product to build a space ship capable of sustaining 10,000 people indefinitely, It would certainly be possible. Robots and raw materials could be launched into orbit by rail guns. Large Hydroponic farms would be built in space. Geo-domes are already proven to work. All we really need is to do is find a suitable planet. Even if it cost 10 trillion dollars and took 4000 years to get there. Its more about our motivation than our ability.
  • Impossible .... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BuR4N ( 512430 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:30PM (#19542561) Homepage Journal
    I wonder how many inventors etc that have heard that proclamation during the centuries, if we acknowledge this as the truth, the game is over even before it starts.
  • by gumpish ( 682245 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:36PM (#19542609) Journal
    The Singularity will hit us before any of the problems he describes would become tractable.

    And when it does, the question of how do you launch a meatbag in a life-support coffin to go X distance in Y time will be meaningless.
  • by Creepy Crawler ( 680178 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:37PM (#19542625)
    Well, of course we will. But we wont have our bodies.

    The first big tech is a brain/silicon bridge. Hawking is very correct on this. If we do create reconstructing nanobots and high-AI, we need good interfaces. In fact, we would at first need a device described in the Story of Manna [marshallbrain.com], in which a glucose fuel cell, a computer hooked up to nerves, and a wireless link are installed on C2-C4 of the vertebrae.

    Once we can maintain body computers, we can focus on yet even more miniaturization and also focus on near-Earth travel (Moon and Mars). However, it will come time that our bodies will die, yet our brains will live. That will usher in the time we have "Brains in a Jar".

    And yet, our tech will not be yet complete for star travel. We will need to be able to completely pattern a brain for all information and encode it so a certain computer can run it... a human brain image. Only when we can completely digitize our brains can we even cope with any stresses of space travel.

    However, when we are pure data, we can travel rather rapidly: we can spread nanobot spores that create factories (mini factories) on different planets and asteroids and can copy to the nanites what is received by maser or any other transmission method. When we can convert our brains to pure information, then we can transmit and travel at C.

    Then again, who knows what the real physics laws are... It'd be fun to see how far physics comes in 20000 years.
  • Energy requirements (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:38PM (#19542637)

    He states that to get a Mercury Capsule sized vessel to 0.1c takes about the energy consumption of the planet for 5 days. OK, sounds about right. He then states that this makes it impossible (accounting for inefficiencies). I'm less willing to buy that.

    First reason: rockets are power hungry, yet we've done them before. When the Saturn V launched, instantaneous energy consumption in the US went up 6%. Sure, it's many orders of magnitude smaller, but the idea is the same: you store up the energy over a long period (antimatter, say), and then take it out in a hurry.

    Second reason: energy consumption of the world is climbing, and will continue to do so. It may get briefly more expensive as we have oil problems, but renewable and nuclear sources will counteract that (if they don't, space colonization is pretty much a moot point). Wait a hundred years, and the energy requirement will merely read like the largest project humanity has ever undertaken, not something entirely ridiculous.

    The basic error he's making is that he's arguing we can't do it with today's technology. Yup, I agree, but that's not the interesting question. I'll leave the question of whether things like generation ships can work from a social standpoint to others more qualified, but I'm confident they can *eventually* work from a technical one.

  • Dark City (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DigitalCrackPipe ( 626884 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:44PM (#19542691)
    The article make great points as for how colonization cannot happen, but that doesn't mean there aren't other ways yet to be discovered.

    One area he didn't discuss: move a mini-planet through space ala 'Dark City'. Or for a more obscure reference, read 'Wolfbane' where the entire planet is moved across the galaxy and sustained by an artificial sun orbiting Earth (ok, so there were complications with the alien race who kidnapped Earth...). However, these are all scifi ideas in and of themselves, not a setup for a future colonization setting.

    He is right about colonizing the rest of Earth though. Or maybe even finishing exploring it.
  • Re:No shit (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:46PM (#19542717)
    Your faith that we will carry you heavy, stupid bags of meat with us to the edges of the universe is endearing. Perhaps we will reconstitute your patterns on a distant, Earth-like world as a form of sentimental art.
  • Quantum mechanics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by archnerd ( 450052 ) <nonce+slashdot.org@dfran k e .us> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @02:48PM (#19542735) Homepage
    I'd say wait on judging such a thing to be impossible until a well-established Grand Unified Theory comes together. Quantum mechanics could still be hiding plenty of "magic wands" that we don't know about yet. Interstellar travel certainly seems more plausible today than an atomic bomb must have seemed to Isaac Newton.
  • Not worth reading. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:00PM (#19542849) Journal
    His argument in a nut shell.

    It's really far away and it would take a long time to get there.
    We don't need to save humans, if the humans on earth die then who cares about anyone else.
    It would cost Earth a lot of money and wouldn't bring back a return on the investment soon.

    Basically, he has an Earth centric view that outright dismisses the survival or our species and places money before the advancement of man in the bigger picture.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by CptPicard ( 680154 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:07PM (#19542909)
    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. It's unlikely there be new physics that is both consistent with our current knowledge and allows FTL travel without truly weird consequences...
  • by canuck57 ( 662392 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:11PM (#19542933)

    For a science fiction writer, he certainly seems to have limited his vision. In 1870, people would say we could not get to the moon because horses would not survive in the vacuum of space. Yet a short hundred years later, man was walking on the moon.

    While true, he did accurately cover the issues. Going to the moon is a very small proposition in scale that even the nearest star. And I thought realistically so, the introduction of biology into it, something 99.999% of sci-fi total skirts. When you get there your not just going to go into a field and pick some crops for food... the local bugs will kill you. Not from their sting or bite, but from the micro-organisms mankind has never seen before. It works the other way too. Taking just a 1 cc mix of earth diseases, sending them to another planet would wreak havoc for years in the local environment. Even if most died, just one introduces a whole new disease not including mutations. In fact, "Aliens invading earth..." is a farce. They would be suit bound for their entire visit.

    If man were to populate a planet, assuming we solve a lot of the logistical problems, we would need to setup a hermetically sealed station for many years of operation, likely the lifetime of it's initial occupants. Those occupants would have to work for the rest of their lives to adapt, genetically alter and sculpt a human that could live with the local biological hazards. A non-trivial task.

    Which makes me wonder, what we have sent already out there, is it biologically safe inside and out? Maybe 20 cells of skin inside a battery casing? Would not take much. Most native North American Indians were not shot or killed, they died of European diseases....and many European ships never made it home for the same reason. And we live on the same planet.

    Now what if some species has sent us a container of bios mass...and it just hasn't arrived yet? Or perhaps they did some 750,000 years ago...

  • by way2trivial ( 601132 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:16PM (#19542969) Homepage Journal
    actually, it will only require one.. a method for freezing water that doesn't cause it to expand.
    the biggest problem with cold storage of humans is ice expands when it freezes, bursting cells.
    the whole basis of ice-9 was finding a new arrangement of h20 so that it wanted to become a solid when it touched other cells.. but it was a different 'stack' of molecules.

    what if you could either 1-find a way to stack h20 so it stayed the same size (most things shrink when they freeze, water is an exception) or 2- find a substitute molecule that could replace the water in a human corpus... one that also doesn't expand when frozen....

  • by robogun ( 466062 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:17PM (#19542975)
    You just touched on the real reason why this is a blessing in disguise.

    The human race is simply too immature to be spawning across the galaxy.

    Our reptilian sub-brain has to be nullified somehow before this is permitted. Until the tendency to believe in superstition is bred out of the race, there is no chance that any such thing could possibly succeed. I'm not just talking about Scientology, but Islamic medievalism and the identically reactionary fundamentalist Christianity, which refuses to believe the most blindingly obvious facts.

    Even if we got there, it would probably result in the irrevocable damage to the galaxy, similar to what has been done on Earth.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ShooterNeo ( 555040 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:23PM (#19543039)
    Well, there actually already is an approach that bypasses the "light speed barrier". It's called wormholes. Before you flame, remember I am talking about wormholes as described by Steven Hawking, where time travel is not possible, and you have to wait the usual amount of time to set the wormholes up.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:27PM (#19543085)
    I hope you have a few planets and a perfected direct mass->energy conversion engine to power your ship. You may also need an accurate model of the galaxy if you hope to do more than simply get to the other side. Not to mention the chance that you may find the galaxy already colonized by the time you reach your destination, with the moderate possibility that FTL travel will be perfected while you're away or engineered lifeforms (biological or mechanical) that can survive significantly more acceleration.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by grumbel ( 592662 ) <grumbel+slashdot@gmail.com> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:33PM (#19543131) Homepage
    ### I feel the speed of light barrier is going to keep us from reaching Star Trek, ever.

    Just because you can't travel to another star on a weekend, doesn't mean colonizing other planets is impossible. If things like Project Daedalus [wikipedia.org] are actually doable I would say its quite the opposite, 50 years to the next star sounds like a quite fast ride, not something you want to do twice, but if all you need is to get a few humans to the other side, why not? And who knows what medical advancements we have in the next decades, maybe we will be able to stop or slowdown aging? Maybe we will able to make cryosleep work for 50 years.
  • by jez9999 ( 618189 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:35PM (#19543157) Homepage Journal
    That will usher in the time we have "Brains in a Jar".

    Ah, but how do you know you're not already a brain in a jar? :-)
  • by Xeriar ( 456730 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:39PM (#19543191) Homepage
    He states that to get a Mercury Capsule sized vessel to 0.1c takes about the energy consumption of the planet for 5 days. OK, sounds about right. He then states that this makes it impossible (accounting for inefficiencies). I'm less willing to buy that.

    Case in point, if we built a Dyson Swarm around the Sun, we could construct AU-long coilguns to fire million-tonne vessels towards stars at 86% of c on a per second basis. Combine this with similar infrastructure at your target star, and you have an absolutely massive infrastructure-building potential.

    In fact, if we continue to progress past the next two centuries, such coil arrays would seem almost certain.
  • by Catbeller ( 118204 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:46PM (#19543281) Homepage
    Tiny errors aiming at 4 light years out will give you a big miss on the other end. And we're talking tiny. At speed c minus a whisker of your choice, the stars fore shift violet and the field of view distorts to a point -- the stars aft likewise shift red and distort to a point. And the sensors are frying in high energy x-rays. The problem, you see, isn't aiming when you are accelerating. It's the *deceleration* that's the navigation problem. You spend a year running up to c, then flip tail-to-fore and decelerate at 1 g for a year. For that, you need to know exactly where your're pointing, exactly know your speed relative to the destination. If you are off in your aim, you can miss by light-months. If you can't gauge speed, you can stop light-months short or past your destination. The problem lessens as you slow down, but the bulk of the errors would occur near the midpoint of the journey.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dsanfte ( 443781 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @03:56PM (#19543349) Journal
    Quite frankly I agree, but I want to see a human around at that very last moment, before that singularity crunches or the last hydrogen fuel source is exhausted, fighting it right up to the bitter end. I want it never to be said that we didn't fight for life and living, right up until the end.
  • by JoeGee ( 85189 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:02PM (#19543395)
    Exactly. I've had the idea for a while that humanity is the Earth's attempt at creating spores of its biosphere (Humanity NT, NT = "Nice Try") From the perspective of a gene I believe our purpose as a species is not to spread our species, that's nothing but a human conceit -- our purpose as a species is to spread genes as terrestrial life, a functioning genome from which new species can emerge.

    It's humbling to see ourselves as nothing more than fruiting bodies of an enormous slime mold.

    We would be just as effective in this task by freezing a bolus of protozoa, bacteria, and algae spores and having a small probe disperse them across the atmospheres of non-biotic planets with compatible atmospheres, temperatures, and suns. Add water, atmosphere, and energy. Stir vigorously. Wait three billion years.

  • by aminorex ( 141494 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:06PM (#19543429) Homepage Journal

    Rather than merely throwing one's hands up in the air and saying "it's too expensive, so it won't happen", which I think we all knew, isn't it more interesting to ask when it will no longer be too expensive? What was the cost of producing 2e18 joules in 1000 AD? 1900 AD? 2000 AD? Restricting ourselves to the post-Edison era, from 1882 to date, I observe that one man-year of US per-capita GDP will buy an exponentially increasing amount of energy:

    1882 - 1
    1900 - 2
    1932 - 8
    1941 - 26
    1960 - 114
    1970 - 231
    2005 - 442

    Thus, it requires 1.25 million man-years of economic output to send his "capsule" load to the stars today. But in 100 years, it may take 3000 or less, and in 500 years it should be easily within the entertainment budget of a single household.

    Of course past history is no guarantee of future performance!
  • Re:Both right? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 17, 2007 @04:36PM (#19543669)
    The question wasn't if the sound barrier could be broken, it was can a powered plane do it without breakup from aerodynamic stresses as it neared the sound barrier. They already had observational evidence of objects moving faster then sound.

    This is completely different from the light barrier, as we have no evidence of matter traveling faster then light, every piece of observational evidence agrees with our theoretical ideas that it can't be done.

    Of course you don't need to break the light barrier to get to another star system 'fast', time-dilation will make days seems like hours.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Jazon Bladen ( 938809 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:00PM (#19543887) Homepage

    as we have no evidence of matter traveling faster then light

    Yes, but we have evidence of matter traveling AT the speed of light! Take a guess at what kind of matter that would be that would prove that it is entirely possible.

    The fact is, just because a man is a genius, doesn't automatically make him right. (In regards to the theory of relativity) It takes decades of research into the mathematical equation and many failed real-life attempts to make him right. 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.

    Let me put it this way. By scientific consensus, we believed the Earth was flat, until we were told it wasn't. We attacked the naysayers and tried to have them killed, until it was proven that, oh shit! The Earth IS round! As long as there are people saying that we can't do something, there will always be people telling them to shut the hell up, who will defy the odds and fly like an eagle or reach out into the stars. Don't let typical human apathy take hold of that which is grand. People no longer care about the advancement of society. Both sides, the intellectual elitists who are too busy smelling their own excrement and stroking their own narcissistic egos to do much good to society, and the invalids who sit and let television and the government control their every waking moment.

    If the world only understood the untold riches that lay before them in the depths of space.
  • Very impossible... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SharpFang ( 651121 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:13PM (#19544037) Homepage Journal
    The calculations: 2*10^18 J

    Tzar Bomba - 50MT = 2*10^17 J

    Meaning nuclear power equivalent to ten russian bombs would suffice to reach 0.1c
    Meaning about 100 to reach what would be c if not for Einstein (but which is still between 0.6 and 0.8c and sounds like much nicer speed than 0.1c)

    Releasing the energy gradually, accelerating at comfortable 1g you can reach newtonian equivalent of 1c in about a year. You can continue accelerating to make the trip less boring for the travelers due to time dillatation (for us, their speed won't change, for them - travel time will get much shorter) or drop into cruise speed for another 30 years. Then decelerate at 1g for a year again (or start deceleration halfway, keep the value of 1g all the time and you have the problem of artificial gravity solved). and you're 20 light years away from Earth in less than 30 years.

    Sure nuclear power is just plain energy and you'd need more than a bunch of russian nukes, but the point is the energy is available and the time is not nearly as ridiculous as it would seem (and time dillatation can easily replace hibernation as a method of time compression for the travelers).
  • by Ponny ( 1069036 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:39PM (#19544263)
    Flagrantly stolen from Wikipedia: Arthur C. Clarke formulated the following three "laws" of prediction: 1. 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. 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
  • transatlantic voyages were impossible 1000 years ago. I guess my problem with this guy is that he's using today's technology to prove that something is impossible. If we were constantly doing that we'd just have to admit that everything that hasn't been accomplished is impossible. 40 years ago fantastic search engines that can basically answer any question you ask would have been considered impossible. In that analogy, you could say it took us two years to develop a chip that can execute X instructions per seconds, how can we possibly imagine a computer that can make 1 billion calculations per second? Who knows what kind of capabilities we'll have in 100 years? I don't. Is it possible that we develop some kind of nuclear fusion engine? Or a antimatter engine? I don't know, but I would never say something is impossible. I believe in the saying that when someone says something is 'impossible', they are usually wrong.
  • by lionheart1327 ( 841404 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:42PM (#19544287)
    Exponential growth levels out in nature because it reaches the limit of the resources.

    This will by definition someday happen to human technological progress.

    However, also by definition, we have no idea what the limits of the resources are.
    In this case they are basically the resources constrained only by the physical laws of the universe.

    Before we ever hit that barrier, out civilization could quite possibly reach heights that we today would consider a "Singularity."
  • Quantum technology (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Stephen Ma ( 163056 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @05:46PM (#19544313)
    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.

    Hmmm... how about the technology we have for seeing and manipulating single atoms?

    Could our man of 1907 have foreseen that light could be slowed and even halted?


    Dark energy?

    Bose Einstein Condensates?

    Or even the humble laser, the basis of most of our entertainment these days? Quantum mechanics wasn't around in 1907.

    Now consider some wonders that we could see 100 to 1000 years from now. A mature nanotechnology. Extended lifespan. Gravitational engineering. Nearly unbreakable materials bound together by the strong force. I don't think we have begun to explore the possible.

  • by cytg.net ( 912690 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @06:04PM (#19544473)
    theres an obvious solution to all this.. who says we have to arrive at our detination in our current biological contruct ? .. an ai of sorts could make the trip, and when arrived, if we must, and still is in our current form, we could be grown on spot. this approach takes less miracles than any other way i can think of.
  • Re:No shit (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mr2cents ( 323101 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @06:57PM (#19544847)

    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.


    To even say it is impossible or requires a 'magic wand' is absurd.
    One could argue that "dimensional hopping" or "worm holes" fall under the magical wand category. Of course, if you acquire such technology the story changes completely, but the things you describe are highly speculative, and even if we could create a wormhole, riding it and getting out in one piece is still not guaranteed.

    Also, if you can control a black hole, there are much cooler things you can do, such as time travel [sussex.ac.uk]. Again, I'm not saying it's impossible, as I cannot foresee the future without a time machine, but it does show you what we're talking about here. Yet, time travel causes so many paradoxes that I personally believe it's impossible. I know experiments are being set up to test retrocausality [nwsource.com] , but even the scientists who are running the experiment think it won't work. If it would work, the lottery will be out of business in no time. I'm sure much will be learned from the experiment, but more likely it will be knowledge about why it doesn't work.

    The 2 x 10E18 Joules for an acceleration and deceleration of two tonnes to c/10 is correct - enter 1000kg * (c/10)^2 (E=m/2*v^2) in google and you get the same number, so it would require our knowledge of physics to be wrong to be able to get around that. Highly improbable (again, IMO). Just assume that there is no way around that number, and you would have to completely annihilate 10kg of mass, and turn the resulting energy completely in kinetic energy to get there. The only even remotely probable way to achieve that is to create and contain 5 kg of antimatter. Antimatter can be created, it would cost a lot and would probably require a machine the size of a small planet, but at least it won't require a complete new dimension or a time-travel enabling wormhole to get there.
  • It's not that simple (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:14PM (#19544941) Journal

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

    Was it? I keep hearing such dismissive wisecracks, but I can't actually find any _scientist_ who said that, nor any actual law of physics from back then that said so. To the best of my knowledge, they didn't actually have any such law at any point.

    There have been laymen jumping to such conclusions, and there have been _practical_ problems in getting there. E.g., you wouldn't accelerate a zeppelin (and we still don't) to such speeds because of the drag, and even by the end of WW2 we needed to redesign wings and engines for that. Yes. But that's just saying "it's very hard" or "it's not economical", not "it's impossible."

    What we have here and now is that according to science as we know it, it's outright impossible to get above the speed of light, and there's a _lot_ of experimental confirmation for those principles of relativity. But we'll get to that in a jiffy.

    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.

    Well, the thing is, Newton's laws of motion still apply within the domain they were created for. Relativity didn't come and say, "OMG, Newtonian physics don't apply any more, starting tomorrow apples fall upwards." Relativity just refines it towards one extreme (and quantum mechanics towards the other), but the pre-existing data pretty much still gives the same results with either.

    If you calculate in how many seconds will an apple fall from 2m height, you'll get the same results with both, up to a ludicrious number of decimals.

    As TFA noted, even at 10% of the speed of light, the relativistic corrections are noticeable, but you can still get in the rough ballpark with Newtonian mechanics. At 1% of the speed of light you could pretty much calculate it with newtonian mechanics, and it will only be off in the decimals. At 0.1% you're as good as Newtonian all the way, and that's already a hideously larger domain than what Newton ever measured.

    What I'm getting at is that whatever new theory we'll discover, it will have to fit the measured results of relativity, for pretty much the whole domain we already measured. And that covers a _lot_ of the spectrum. Even if the new theory said you start to get a discount from 99% of the speed of light upwards, getting to 99% of the speed of light would still pretty much go by the existing mechanics, or close enough that the difference is well in the decimals.

    Whatever new thing we discover in even more extreme cases, you first have to clear the already verified relativistic domain, before your situation is extreme enough for the future-tech refinement of it. And that's a heck of a gigantic, humongous and monumental amount of energy to get there.

    Furthermore, let me throw some more cold water on your enthusiasm by saying: unfortunately a lot of the things we discovered lately was a bit more restrictive than before. E.g., newtonian mechanics said that getting to any speed is possible, then Einstein came along and said, basically, "no, you can't." E.g., in the really old days they thought it's possible to go to the moon without a spacesuit or capsule, because noone figured out that the atmosphere thins out to nothing. (See the ancient chinese guy, the name escapes me, who thought he could just go there by strapping rockets to his chair.) Now we know that there's one more problem in the way. E.g., even 50 years ago, noone thought it would be fundamentally harder to get a human to Mars than to get to the moon. Just build a bigger rocket and there you go. Now we kno

  • by shoestring ( 184061 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:20PM (#19544995)
    Yes as the article suggested shipping material is expensive, much more so than information. There are however other reasons than economic to colonize. For example if you believe in the lottery (or VC funding) while it maybe expensive to set up a colony, the reward may very well be ownership of your own eden (just the way you defined it), or ownership of your own planet. How much is that worth? Of course the chances are low you would succeed, but as technology marches on (and others go before you) your chances get better, and probably your costs lower.
      Other reasons can also include access to resources you might not get here.. as an example maybe you do want to make your own kilogram of antimatter (goes with the rockets you want to build...) that would be impossible here (aside from the technical issues, what country would let you make it?) maybe set up solar arrays on mercury, store your energy as antimatter, ship it around the solar system (or out of the system). A few light seconds makes a lot of difference in rule enforcement.
      As an observation, life just doesn't flourish anywhere.. it goes *everywhere* it can reach. If space is now reachable.. I would expect life to find niches there.. even if I can't imagine how exactly it would work economically, or exactly what reasons it wanted to go there. I would expect life would move out there, because it *could*.

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

    by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:22PM (#19545001)
    When my father was in high school in the late 40's his physics teacher "proved" that man could not possibly travel to the moon and back. As I recall, the proof had something to do with the heat from friction at the speeds involved. Personally, I think we need to think about developing colonies on the moon and in orbit. The technologies developed to do that and from that would provide an important jumping off point for developing technologies for interstellar travel/colonization. If interstellar travel/colonization is possible, we are at least two or three generations away and will continue to be until there are people who live most of their lives outside of Earth's atmosphere.
  • by shoestring ( 184061 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @07:35PM (#19545079)
    Here is something else to think about.

      Let say for a second that interstellar travel is too expensive, not worth the gain, and we just stay home and tend our little planet (hopefully making a nice place to live). What might we gain? or lose?
      I guess we don't spend resources (time and effort, since all the rest of the resources are recyclable), however what if another civilization manages to accomplish interstellar travel. It doesn't matter how, perhaps it is only as a robotic seed ship. From history.. the culture that goes visiting always is at an advantage. If for no other reason than the meeting isn't at their home. You can do all sorts of things if you are visiting someone.. and not have to worry about the results back at home.. Especially if the people you are visiting think it is impossible to travel back to you.

      Now ask yourself.. do you want to be the people traveling (or trying) or the people getting the interstellar visitors, who might be very ill mannered.
  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @08:13PM (#19545301)
    Aztec Elder: "Assuming that there even IS another land across the great Eastern Ocean, it will never be reached! Listen as I entrance you with my 3 wise points of wisdom. . .

    "Point 1: The Distances are really huge! If your hut was this sea shell, and the next city down the coast (which as we all know takes a full week to paddle to in our finest grass row-boat), is this pink rock I place one hand span away from the sea shell, then the Land Across the Ocean would be, -wait for it- fifty Aztec miles away! Think about that! It can't be done, durn it!"

    Assembled audience: "ooooh."

    Aztec Elder: "Point 2. Blah blah blah."

    Assembled audience: "aaaah."

    Aztec Elder: "Point 3. Blah blah blah."

    Assembled audience: "Say, what are those huge boat-looking things on the horizon. . ?"

    -FL -Who keeps leaving these circles in my durn field?!

  • Energy is the key (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @08:31PM (#19545391) Homepage
    Right now, our fastest space probes will take about 73000 years to reach the nearest star - and they've been using Jupiter as a slingshot, not really carrying any serious propulsion themselves nor the ability to stop once they get there. People here throw out fractions of c as if that's right around the corner when we've only reached something like 0.00005c, and only by exploiting stellar constellations which won't be any help going faster. Neither fission nor fusion rockets are even close to making a dent in that.

    I don't think for one second that mankind will ever spread through huge ships taking hundreds of generations to move from one solar system to the other - it would require insanely reliable machinery but most of all I don't think people would stand it. Imagine being trapped on a small tin can with a small village-size population, never to walk around outdoors for your whole life. Even if we could forego all that and send frozen embryos or whatever to be raised on arrival, that kind of timeframe just wouldn't appeal to anyone.

    So what do we need? Energy, energy, energy. I'm pretty sure the rokcet will be fueled by matter/anti-matter, which would be insanely efficient and make timely travel plausible but we still need a way to extract that energy and transform it. Right now we got a pretty good idea how much energy is in the ground (coal, oil, gas, uranium etc.) - in a century or three we'll have used it up and we won't be ready for interstellar flight by then. That leaves the renewable energy which we know will stick around for a few billion years. Either huge solar panels covering Earth, or giant solar sails in the sky which we almost certainly will need anyway.

    Also my prediction is, that despite how gloryless it is we won't actually send people. We'll send frozen embryos to be raised by the computer. Why? One, because we don't need all the space, life support, air and water and waste recycling. Two, no humans would be killed if the probe is a failure. Three, it can land a *lot* rougher think Mars Exploration Rover-style, who can have the robots deploy solar panels, gather materials, build a pressure dome or excavate a cave so that we arrive at a ready-made base. Ok, we can technically send a robot probe in advance, but we could get people operating it a lot faster by raising them on site than waiting for confirmation before sending the colonists.
  • Imagine if you will (Score:5, Interesting)

    by briancnorton ( 586947 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @09:32PM (#19545747) Homepage
    Let's pretend that Jules Verne in 1895 was asked about the feasibility of destroying a city with a single bomb. His calculations would invariably conclude that he needed 7 million (?) tons of dynamite, or more dynamite than had been produced since it was invented, and enough to fill the 50 Roman Colosseums, presenting invariable logistic problems requiring 1,000,000 trucks bridges, ships, etc, OR, a "Magic Wand." The next 50 years saw the creation of powered flight, twinkies, and Nuclear weapons. In the following decades, we can now fit something like 100 mt of nuclear power onto an ICBM/bomber. (and the yield estimate he links to has to be way off)Mp>My point is that Magic Wands are the safe bet here.
  • He's wrong (Score:3, Interesting)

    by deblau ( 68023 ) <slashdot.25.flickboy@spamgourmet.com> on Sunday June 17, 2007 @09:35PM (#19545773) Journal
    Never bet against ingenuity.
  • by tyme ( 6621 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @10:18PM (#19546007) Homepage Journal
    The problem with colonizing other planets, even within our own solar system, starts with the simple facts of distance and energy. The distances and energies involved with colonizing the continents of the earth were, pretty much, always within human ken. This is born out by the fact that, whenever europeans 'discovered' a new land, they found people already living there. Even a lone human, travelling on foot at normal walking speed, could circumnavigate the entire planet (given suitable land or ice briges) in a little under 2 years.

    By contrast, humanity has only, in the last 50 years, even come close to controlling the amount of energy necessary to cross the gulfs between planets within our solar system, much less what is needed to travel to the nearest star. Anyone who compares the task of colonizing other planets to the european colonization of the new world, or the U.S. expansion into the west, is displaying the most profound ignorance imaginable.

    The energy involved is important because it directly relates to the cost of the endeavor. The cost of colonizing distant continents was always within human grasp, so it is no surprise that it was done. The cost of travelling to other planets, however, is just barely within the grasp of the wealthiest nations, and there is no good reason to expect it ever to decrease very much.

    The Fermi paradox has been used to imply that there is no intelligent life, other than us, in the galaxy, but there is another, perfectly good interpretation: maybe, even though it is possible to travel between the stars, it's just not economical to do so. Maybe the galaxy is full of intelligent life: life so intelligent, in fact, that it has long since given up the romantic, but entirely impractical, notion of interstellar travel.

    I don't think that it is impossible to travel between the stars. In fact, I think that it is, basically, within human grasp at this very moment. I just think it is too expensive and dangerous to be undertaken by any nation (or similarly wealthy organized group) at this time. Give it a couple hundred years -- time enough to get the whole long-term-artificial-habitat thing, the safely-manage-tera-watt-power-generation thing, and the protect-ourselves-from-the-interstellar-medium thing down -- and I think it may be an option. At the moment, the best we could hope for would be unmanned probes to nearby stars. Even then, I doubt the transit time would be less than a half century.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Sunday June 17, 2007 @10:20PM (#19546035) Homepage Journal

    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.
    I would agree with most everything you said, except for the travel part. It's true that trans-oceanic travel was a pipe dream, but walking long distances, or traveling across continents with pack animals and caravans wasn't as big as ordeal as you make it out to be.

    Just two examples to illustrate my points: In Joe Kane's _Savages_ he says something like "Indians think nothing of traveling 3,000 miles on foot to visit a relative in a distant tribe." ( It may have been Mark Plotkin's _Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice_ or another ethnographic/journalistic account of Amazonian tribes ). Of course, they didn't get their overnight -- it took months to travel, and they relied on their camping/foraging skills, or the ritual obligations of other tribes to host and feed travelers that they know. So they relied on the camping skills and their social networks to provide for themselves along the way.

    Similarly, in tribes and city-based civilizations, people traveled all the time. There were trade caravans running all the time. The Middle East was a crossroads between the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Before Mohammed smashed the idols at Mecca, it was filled with 365 idols. A lot of the pre-Mohammed idols we find can be traced to various Asian, African, and European gods. Mecca was not only a trade center, but a pilgrimage destination, and a caravan coming from Asia would be packed with Asians wanted to pay respect and giving thanks to their gods once they arrived, along with refilling their stocks.

    To us in the modern day, travel may have seemed rare because there were few people who could write, and of those people, less who would record their travelogues. But of course, the average soldier, sailor, or caravan servant/slave, never had the opportunity to make a record of all the places they walked, sailed, or caravaned to.

    If you read histories of western civilization, you will find scholars and religious students traveling to all the major cities to do learning at various temples and libraries. And of course, there were armies marching all over the world. Religious pilgrimages were also a big impetus for long journeys.

    With a critical mind, you might say that the physical evidence of large-scale travel, such as trade goods and cultural items, might have made their way their by exchanging hands. But then we have the travelogues of people who were able to write, and they themselves traveled, and also said they met people who traveled long distances in caravans. In tribal societies, it was common for people to have a practical ability in 6-10 languages. Not that they were fluent, but they could speak well enough to get their needs met and not offend anybody. And cultures that are exposed to large exchanges of people start to develop shared vocabularies for common words. Amongst the North American Plains Indians, there was a common sign language amongst the various tribes. And in Empires, the language of the ruling ethnicity becomes a Lingua Franca. "Take me to your leader" -- because he was the only guy in the village that spoke the official language.

    If you look at the Asian empires, including India, they were *huge* compared Europe. Those civilization sent messengers and administrators all over their kingdoms all the time. There were constantly maintained messenger service, who ran on foot. And promising young men were taken from villages to the capital cities to learn the official laws, customs, and language, then sent back in the country to serve as administrators. Even in the Incan empire, traversing the Andes.

    Man is naturally a wandering, traveling, pilgrimaging creature, walking across whole continents.
  • by vtcodger ( 957785 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @01:20AM (#19547137)
    ***transatlantic voyages were impossible 1000 years ago.***

    They were possible. They probably weren't being made routinely. Iceland -- the half way point more or less -- was colonized by the Norse in the 9th Century. Greenland was colonized from Iceland in the 10th century. The Norse tried to set up a settlement in Labrador at Lanse aux Meadows in 1007.


    I sort of agree that we don't know what future technologies will offer. So I don't think the analysis of colonizing the solar system is worth much other than to emphasize the near impossibility of doing so with today's technology.

    But, it does look like you don't mess with a few basic laws of nature -- the speed of light and conservation of energy in particular. If that's true, then his analysis of the problems of colonizing the galaxy may have some validity.

  • by azhrei_fje ( 968954 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @01:40AM (#19547245)

    A few years ago I read a short blurb in my IEEE Spectrum magazine about quantum communication. Apparently, a quantum particle with a particular spin (there are three pairs: top/bottom, strange/charmed, and up/down (is that last one right?)) has an exactly opposite "anti-particle" (well, DUH! ;)). The interesting thing is that a change in the spin of the first particle causes an instant change in the spin of the other.

    IIRC, one particle was in Chicago somewhere (University lab?) and the other was down-under. The change in spin of the Chicago particle was determined to exactly coincide with the change in the other (well, as "exactly" as the lab instruments could measure).

    If further experiments panned out we would have instantaneous communication across any distance (I'll have to Google for it now and see what happened with it).

  • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Monday June 18, 2007 @01:41AM (#19547251) Homepage Journal
    transatlantic voyages were impossible 1000 years ago.

    Some interesting reading here [wikipedia.org].
  • by Jon Peterson ( 1443 ) <jonNO@SPAMsnowdrift.org> on Monday June 18, 2007 @12:43PM (#19552547) Homepage
    That's a silly analogy and always has been. Here's why:

    Imagine you take the whole of human civilization as a day. For the first 23 hours we were naked. Then for the next 50 minutes we wore one or two pieces of crude clothing. In just the last 10 seconds we have acquired scarves, tights running shorts. Therefore in the future we will all have millions of items of clothing, and perhaps wear up to 10,000 of them at once.

    The fact that for a certain slice of time, there is an exponential curve, just isn't very interesting.

    Take volcanoes. For decades they do nothing. Then over a few days they start to output some heat and smoke, then over a few hours they output vast quantities of heat, and then... then they stop. They don't amazingly continue to output energy at an exponential rate until the planet melts.

    So what if a bunch of little bipeds on a planet somewhere spent ages picking fruit, and then suddenly figured out flatscreen TV and breast implants? Whose to say the normal curve isn't like the volcano? Why not predict that 5,000 years from now, we will be picking fruit again, but this time with a few myths about an ancient pre-cursor race, which in 12,000 years time will be verified when man-made fragments are discovered deep within the unusual mineral deposits we now call cities.
  • Re:Both right? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday June 18, 2007 @02:26PM (#19554233) Homepage Journal

    The ones behing killing people were upholding a religious consensus--even the ancient Greeks knew the world was round.

    OK, I hate to cut into your excellent debunking post, but you're mixing up Columbus and Galileo. And in any case, the whole story that before Columbus most people thought the Earth was flat is a myth invented by the American writer, Washington Irving. The Church (in whose posession most of the Greek manuscripts were) was quite aware that the earth was spherical. Likewise the Portuguese knew quite well the Earth was spherical, but having a much more accurate figure for its radius, figured Columbus would perish before he reached the eastern shores of Asia. Ferdinand and Isabella knew this as well, but (wisely) decided to hedge their bets by supplying some of Columbus' funding, in exchange for a contract that gave them sovereignty over any land discovered on the voyage.

    The church's awareness of the Earth's shape can be readily seen if you read Dante's Divine Commedy. The narrator descends into a Hell from some point presumably in Europe, and emerges at the Antipodes (the exact opposite point on the Earth's sphere from Jerusalem), where Purgatory was located. He did not promptly fall into the sky.

    It is also probably true that the actions of the Church in the Gallileo case are quite different from the way they're usually cast. In a way they're worse. The issue was not that the truth of the heliocentric system, the issue was having paths to the truth outside the approved channels. The Church was hardly the only such organization with this on its agenda. Ferdinand and Isabella (again) were very keen on doctrinal uniformity because they saw state imposed uniformity of thought as a modern and efficient idea.

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich, German theologian and historian