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Why we are unlikely to ever leave the solar system. (antipope.org)
302 points by shalmanese on June 10, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 179 comments

A little over 100 years ago the humanity just learned how to overfly one football field.

In space, today, we're in pre-aviation days: we're still using hot air balloons for transportation. We make them lighter than air (i.e. shoot them up in space) and let the wind (i.e gravity) to carry them places.

Imagine the most educated human 120 years ago is being told about planes heavier than air, air transportation over oceans, jet-powered planes, autopilots and fly-by-wire, not to mention people on the moon. He would say it's impossible, due to energy constraints. Today a daily JFK-NRT flight uses more energy than all the horses which lived two centuries ago would be able to produce in their lifetimes, combined (my math may be off by one order of magnitude: it's late here). Today we're this person. Educated enough to have valid arguments against it, but utterly incorrect.

A very valid anti-Darwinian argument was that if the sun was made out of something similar to coal (densest known energy source at the time) evolution would not have had the time to take place. Far to many generations are required. They even allowed a two or three orders of magnitude to account for possible unknowns (maybe the sun has super coal) and still were didn't have enough time to make rats into cats, nevermind lizards into birds.

The argment was valid argument till when" The Curies? Einstein?

100 years is a long time to figure stuff out. Thinking in millenia is impossible for us. "What would William the Norman have thought of all this?" is a pretty ridiculous thought and that's not even a whole thousand years ago. Nine year old crack babies today are more literate than most of his learned advisors and better technology meant sharper swords, less leaky boats and smoked bread. Their objections to the idea would have involved Loki chasing you around in a canoe.

Lets not get too cocky.

Nine year old crack babies today are more literate than most of his learned advisors [...]

Lets not get too cocky.

Well, make up your mind. :)

not a bad point

"The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead": I thought one of the implications of evolution was that we have a vested interest in protecting our genes, rather than acting solely on individual-level self-interest.

Edit: What on earth would cause you to downvote this?

Edit2: Thanks. I would still appreciate a comment if I'm 'doing it wrong.'

+1. Indeed, the entire post seems to glibly sidestep the question of what rational humans would do.

The author implies that we only have a rational interest in what happens during our lifespan. But many of us, through childbearing or other means, try to leave something of value behind us.

Irrational? Perhaps. But there's no reason pure hedonism should be any less irrational.

It also sidesteps the issue of people who plan/want to live indefinitely through advances in biotech, cryonics, mind uploading, etc. At the risk of distorting 'rational', if one personally cares at all about the future of humanity rather than just oneself in the present and immediate future it's easy to see why a course of action that helps humanity survive rather than hinders is a better, 'rational' course given that person's beliefs. Insert "moral dilemma" of the same flavor as being asked a preference on dying now, with everyone else living on, or living 5 more years then everyone including you dies.

Evolution is perfectly "happy" to sacrifice the interests of the species for those of the individual organism or gene.

That said, we're not slaves to evolution and can make our own choices for our own reasons.

A gene is happy to sacrifice the genes of other individuals - it is not happy to sacrifice copies of itself, no matter where they are found. Hence we tend to protect mammals more than reptiles, apes more than other mammals, humans more than other apes, our own countrymen rather than those from other countries, and our family more than others from our country.

But when it comes to the vexed question of getting those genes to survive beyond our own mortal shell, the correct genetic strategy seems to be to protect our offspring, even at the expense of ourselves, so we commonly see parents sacrificing themselves for children, in many different species.

And that is of course the flow in Stross's argument about there not being any reason not to colonise. Sure, you can't be on multiple planets, but your offspring certainly can be, so if one of those planets goes up in smoke, your genes will continue on through your children on other planets...

Only if that individual or gene is robust enough to found a new species or transfer to a new species. I mean, evolution will end up attempting it anyway, because that's how it works, but the aggregate effect of all the individuals & genes competing only helps the species more.

The survival of your species after your death is not a vested interest (a "special interest in protecting or promoting that which is to one's own personal advantage"). It affects you nil, by definition: you will be dead by then.

What affects you is having children before you retire, because then you'll be fed and survive a lot more than otherwise. Evolution is a conclusion of that, not the other way around.

The citizen takes personal responsibility for the security of the body politic, defending it with his life. The civilian does not.

As impossible as the physics seems I think the social problems are bigger. Scientists are currently unable to convince people to act against the potential catastrophe of global warming. Humans are too stupid to organize a planet wide self preservation effort that requires any significant amount of resources. I think the more likely scenario for humanity over the next 10 thousand years is several cycles of civilization and population collapses with a constant degradation of the environment and fewer and fewer available resources. This century might be the zenith of human achievement. It might take a smarter species a few million years from now to escape this rock.

Humans are too smart to let a bunch of bureaucrats with their pseudo-scientific rationalizations destroy the economy in the pursuit of more power for the bureaucracies.

And this is exactly the type of short-sighted thinking that dooms us. The vast majority of scientists have come to a consensus yet you don't like it so label them bureaucrats with some sinister motive of destroying the economy behind it.

Just because we know there is a problem doesn't really mean anything. That's just the beginning. Ask yourself these questions:

How much does/will the problem cost us? IS there a solution? How much will the solution cost?

Then you do cost benefit analysis and decide the best course of action. THEN you try to talk everybody else into it.

I'm happy to concede global warming is happening and will only get worse. Hell, I was one of the first people I know to understand and accept that. I just haven't seen the follow up yet. It's always "Yep, got yourself a problem there", but no solution offered other than "buy a Prius".

Climate shift implies a necessary change to infrastructure: cities that once did not have to deal with flash floods will, for example. Municipal trees will die. Areas that grow colder will have non-insulated water pipes burst. There is no need to form greater bureaucratic nightmares to adapt for such problems, only a general willingness to remake our urban environments before it becomes dreadfully expensive. Note the work Chicago is doing, as a function of it's normal maintenance; anticipating a hotter and wetter climate alleys and sidewalks become water permeable, tree species are changed.

> Then you do cost benefit analysis and decide the best course of action. THEN you try to talk everybody else into it.

This is overly simplistic. Who is the decision maker? Democracies function as distributed consensus makers--very little _can_ or _should_ be dictated by some benevolent cabal. Moreover, for the rather complex problem of adapting _human civilization itself_ it is hard, if not impossible, to perform a cost benefit analysis. Where do you even get the possible solutions from if:

  * no one but a few know about the problem and
  * domain experts you consult with might have implicit
    biases against the problem without significant
    preparation and
  * the hypothetical cabal is composes of like minded
    (hence like-blinded) individuals?
> Hell, I was one of the first people I know to understand and accept that. I just haven't seen the follow up yet. It's always "Yep, got yourself a problem there",

It's entirely possible we've gone past the point of short-term return. Still, the follow up, as you put it, has been to reduce or eliminate the primary sources of the problem:

  * decrease the reliance of Heavy and Light industries on coal/oil
  * decrease and reverse global deforestation
  * decrease and reverse water vapor production from urban areas
Each one of these points has large cultural and economic implications. It is, however, very difficult to discuss them when so many deny the premise, or have a vested interest in convincing others of the invalidity of the premise. It is entirely wrong to assert that the follow up, as you put it, has been absent from the discussion; mostly it's drowned out. Communicating complex ideas is difficult in a culture with strong debate traditions; God have mercy on us for our Shouting Heads.

> but no solution offered other than "buy a Prius".

I think that's willfully cynical of you, or uninformed. Even ignoring the obvious vested interest car manufactures have in misinforming us that a _different_ kind of car is a viable solution, the perverse effects a Car Culture has on an Urban environment--heavily paved, strongly lateral development--is likely unsustainable in the long-term.

But how much will forcing those infrastructure and cultural and societal changes cost NOW, versus letting them happen naturally and gradually the same way we switched from wood to coal to petroleum and from muscle to steam to electricity?

Extremely simple illustration: Do you think people in Florida will be living 10 feet under water in 100 years? No, they will move before then. But they don't have to move now, so why force them?

Similarly, do you think we'll all be driving gas-guzzling SUVs in 100 years? Hell no. Oil just won't last that long, and our car culture will have died or switched to electric (or nuclear, or secret ooze) long before then anyway.

So why force the issue? I guess I'm just not seeing the urgency here. And whatever urgency there is, doesn't seem to be fixable in the short term. Ocean levels will rise. They already have. So let's focus on mitigation rather than the already failed task of prevention.

...to coal to petroleum

The fact that you think humans have by any means made the technological "leap" from coal to petroleum (or anywhere really) makes you look wildly ignorant on this issue.

> But how much will forcing those infrastructure and cultural and societal changes cost NOW, versus letting them happen naturally and gradually the same way we switched from wood to coal to petroleum and from muscle to steam to electricity?

I believe you might profitably examine your implicit assumptions about what constitutes "natural" and "gradual" adaptation of industry. As has been pointed out by another commenter, the progression has not been as linear as you have proposed: many industries in the world _still_ use wood as fuel, hence my prior deforestation comment. (Note that farmed wood promotes a monoculture ecosystem, effectively declaring creatures dependent on the prior heterogeneous environment unimportant.) Western countries have tended, historically speaking, to incentivise new industrial developments. Often this was done at the precipice of a disaster and done at great cost: much less money and life might have been spent had the work been gradual.

> Extremely simple illustration: Do you think people in Florida will be living 10 feet under water in 100 years? No, they will move before then. But they don't have to move now, so why force them?

Consider the crushing burden of mass migration, the vast human cost. There have been several such in this century already; you may go to visit them and learn why _gradual_ migration is vastly preferable. Further, do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating that all residents of Florida move at one time; this change should happen gradually as a part of a prepared plan. Such plans are difficult to construct when individuals such as yourself are content to kick the can down the road and let the future sort it out. Human civilizations adapt necessarily to their surroundings; done consciously such adaptations need not be the source of untellable human suffering.

> Similarly, do you think we'll all be driving gas-guzzling SUVs in 100 years? Hell no. Oil just won't last that long, and our car culture will have died or switched to electric (or nuclear, or secret ooze) long before then anyway.

Consider the economic implications of "running dry". So much of the United State's infrastructure carries the implicit assumption of cheap gasoline and diesel that to suddenly (meaning the sudden increased cost over the span of a decade, say) go without would cause significant harm to our economy and world standing, relative to those nations that are preparing. Again, I stress _gradual_ change, but such change must be sustained by a willingness to tackle the problem directly and _not_ simply be willing to let the future work things out. Surely they will, but at greater expense than we who now decide the course of the world can manage.

> So why force the issue?

I hope I have made myself clear. If not: the necessary adaptations of human civilization in many areas will be extensive, expensive and time consuming. We can mitigate the second concern by performing those adaptations _before_ they are vital. Consider that the upgrade of infrastructure as a part of regular maintenance cycles is more tenable than sudden overhaul. We need only come to an agreement on the way in which we will upgrade; this is impossible when influential individuals deny the basic premise or assert that the future will somehow more efficiently solve our problems though they be exacerbated by the passage of time.

> I guess I'm just not seeing the urgency here.

I believe the urgency is largely manufactured by a news media predicated on the spread of unease, over zealous Chicken Littles and anti-reactionary misinformation. We have a problem _now_. Our technological sophistication is such that we can prepare ourselves for this problem without the death or displacement of billions. What little urgency does actually exist at this point does so because the changes that must be made cannot be made fifteen years out; a period of fifty to seventy-five years, depending on global economy, is more reasonable. Cuts in significantly to your hypothetical one-hundred years, no?

> And whatever urgency there is, doesn't seem to be fixable in the short term.

No, it is not. This is why it is preferable to begin the process of adaptation before it is a matter of dire consequence.

> Ocean levels will rise. They already have. So let's focus on mitigation rather than the already failed task of prevention.

I believe you read my original statement with a biased eye. We must necessarily adapt--by the time we began to notice the effect our habits had on the global climate it was likely too late to reverse the process. That said, we would do well to live up to our self-given taxonomic title and not exacerbate the problem. It looks like we will continue, especially as developing countries fire up their own furnaces.

If the scientists are all in a giant evil conspiracy we're doomed anyway, my point still stands, humans are too stupid to save ourselves if needed.

I like the ambiguity of your response.

I dislike the word "never". As individuals and as a species we are addicted to short term gratification measured in years or decades. We also have a narrow view of the concept of "self" and what constitutes consciousness and experience.

If we could stand building for the future and experiencing by proxy, a few more options become available:

e.g. We could transport a set of human "blanks" or a "blank" creating machine to a distant star at 10% of c. It would take a few hundred years. When it arrives and deploys, we upload our consciousness at the speed of light with no acceleration and deceleration into a "blank" human.

Copies of ourselves could be regularly transported to and from a distant star over a few decades.

A few technological breakthroughs would be required to make this a reality:

* True Artificial Intelligence. A machine that is capable of self-awareness and analysis.

* A complete understanding of the human brain and how to replicate the organism and it's contents.

* A complete understanding of the human body, the life support mechanism for the brain - and how to duplicate it.

* How to turn nuclear fission or fusion into propulsion at a high level of efficiency.

* How to build factories that can stay dormant for a thousand years, wake up and operate as well as the day they were built. This probably will be solved as a result of AI and the ability to create self-repairing and self-improving machines.

Many of these problems are in the CS and Biotech fields. That's what we do. Now get to work!

Okay. You just wave 5 or 6 magic wands and then it works out. Isn’t that precisely what the essay claimed?

I suspect most people have not read the full essay, so they never saw this paragraph:

The long and the short of what I'm trying to get across is quite simply that, in the absence of technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, furthermore, does things that from today's perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics — interstellar travel for human beings is near-as-dammit a non-starter. And while I won't rule out the possibility of such seemingly-magical technology appearing at some time in the future, the conclusion I draw as a science fiction writer is that if interstellar colonization ever happens, it will not follow the pattern of historical colonization drives that are followed by mass emigration and trade between the colonies and the old home soil.

Many people here are arguing for "magic tech that ... does things that from today's perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics." I suspect that many of the people doing this either don't realize they are, and/or don't really understand physical laws as we currently understand them.

Yeah, but give it another 200 years and those magic wands may be possible.

I'm not holding my breath as neither me nor my children or grandchildren are leaving this planet, but look at the progress in technology we've made since the industrial revolution happened.

Indeed. Two hundred years ago it seemed impossible to cross the Atlantik in less than a week, now we can send people to the Moon and back in that time.

How unlikely would the iPhone in my pocket have seemed 80 years ago?

Magic wands? 1-computing, 2-wireless data transmission, 3-display (television), 4-rechargeable batteries, 5-touch interface, 6-price drops.

His point is that exactly every single notable achievement in the history of mankind has been preceeded by people saying things just like these - skeptics who keep saying "it can't be done" up until the very last second before "it" is done.

It was said about crossing the seas. It was said about colonizing the surface of the planet. It was said about diving deep into the seas and it was said about taking off ground. It was said about leaving the atmosphere. It was said about reaching out into space. It is currently being said by some about colonizing our solar system, and most people currently feel that the thought of us not colonizing our solar system is ridiculous, and in time the thought of us not leaving this solar system to go on to the next one will be considered just as ridiculous. "Scientists" like these often suffer from the common problem of never being able to see farther than their own nose; they constantly forget that we grow, and grow, and grow. Without meaning to sound pretentious and cheesy, here's a nice quote from a certain sci-fi series that came to mind: "It's our destiny to walk among the stars", and you can be damned sure that we will, providing we won't kill ourselves on the way.

E.g. nuclear pulse fission/fusion is literally 1960s tech. See the Orion project (or NERVA).

There are other proposals, which haven't gotten much funding.

The whole field of propulsion research has been underfunded since the 1970s, probably because NASA didn't want to risk creating competition for their big job program -- the Shuttle...

I agree with this pretty well, in that it's likely that flesh-and-blood humans will never physically travel to other planets en masse without some fundamental discoveries in physics. You'll note, though, that he explicitly disregards both starwisps and strong AI, and there's a reason for that: putting human-descended AI out into the universe is a much, much more feasible endeavor, and one that I personally believe we'll eventually accomplish.

I would go so far as to question whether the first "person" to set foot on mars will be recognizable to us as human. We are simply too fragile.

Getting to Mars is actually not so difficult. I'm fairly confident that we'll have at least the token human on Mars in my lifetime.

He's already allowed for nanofactories and artificial wombs, so why send humans at all? Send frozen sperm and eggs and have the robots make the people once they get there. Now, all of a sudden, the length of the journey doesn't matter. Fling probes off willy-nilly at nearby and distant stars. If they get there, great. If not, you've only lost cash.

Edit: The cool thing about this is that, assuming these technologies come to fruition, the entire project could likely be financed privately by a group of wealthy backers. You wouldn't need the massive bureaucracy of NASA or their dependency on Congress. You'd simply develop, test, then manufacture the (likely quite small) probes, then send them up and out on commercial rockets.

If you can build robots smart enough to keep babies alive and raise them not to end up stone-age level feral children, you could probably save some effort, skip the human part entirely, and just send the robots to do colonist stuff.

Not if the "colonist stuff" is "fork the human race".

That would not preserve our species, should planet Earth become inhabitable.

If you have robots that can raise babies into grown-up humans, the robots need to be pretty much the same as humans themselves at that point.

Not at all. You need sufficiently advanced AI, but the purpose is to preserve humanity. It's a one-way trip. You aren't doing anything on another planet that will affect Earth, just spreading the seed.

The sufficiently advanced AI is going to have to be able to do pretty much the same things humans can do for the thing to work, so it'd be a game-changer in itself, not something that gets waved off as an aside.

Re. the preservation thing, the question is exactly what counts as humanity. If you have limited resources and can only pick one, would you choose a planet colonized by biological humans who have lost all of the present civilization and language, and are reduced to stone-age conditions (assuming for the moment that the alien environment wouldn't kill them instantly), or synthetic beings with the sufficiently advanced AI with all human cultural knowledge and skills they'd need to survive on an alien planet and a cognitive and psychological makeup very close to actual humans they'd need to be able to raise babies into sane adults, and the ability to build more of themselves?

Basically, is humanity more about a culture or about being made of the correct chemicals?

Desperate times may require desperate measures. Robotic parents won't have to be close to human parents, just good enough to teach language and reading. The result may be psychologically unstable or mentally deficient children, but that may be corrected in a few generations.

>but that may be corrected in a few generations.

Or not, as the case may be. That's why you send out many such probes. You would have to assume that most attempts would fail. You are, after all, attempting to transplant human life with no human oversight.

Either way, it's merely prolonging the inevitable. The Sun has about 5 billion years of fuel left, which is coincidentally about the time the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda, ruining everyone's day. The Sun would be far too hot to support life on Earth long before that, but let's assume we've moved to a more gentrified suburb. Even were humanity to somehow escape the Milky Way in the next 5 billion years, we'll still just be building sandcastle walls in an attempt to hold back the tide. I'm reminded here of Asimov's The Last Question, an excellent short story:


That scenario is impossible in an expanding universe. Regions of space eventually become disconnected from each other. There wouldn't be one computational entity overall, although there may be little dominant AIs inside these disconnected space bubbles.

It's a science fiction story written in 1956.

Agree its posible. Robots don't need to teach kids alot. The ship could have a HD with the hole human knowlage on it. Like wikipedia on speed. Everything with videos (or directly to the brain?) from basic english to quantum phisiks. The robots have to feed them and stuff like that. Sperm and eggs are small enough that the can send them in big numbers.

Desing whan ship that can do that for 20 people and then just keep sending them.

Those would be some f-ed up children.

(Just to be clear, my practical argument isn't "just send robots", it's "you're not going to know how to build good enough robots for the in-vitro thing to work".)

Preserving the AI that we created is close enough in my books. Genes are an archaic way to transfer information.

Right, that's the whole point. It's not an economic venture, it's a backup plan.

There is no economic value in funding this backup plan by the private sector (which is defined by profits). Its not like they will "own" the new colony - unless, of course, if they actually do. I.e., if the corps are allowed to use those colonists raised as slaves for the corp's gains, then there would be economic value and hence, the private sector will attempt to do this.

Though i doubt that is ever going to pass, so the only alternative for this "backup" plan is gov't funded expeditions.

If you send probes off with the intent of "birthing" and raising children in some far-off unknownhostile environment away from all of civilisation as an experiment, expect to be on trial for cruel and unusual treatment, or similar.

That is what plenty of earth life forms are already doing. The civilization seed could be conceived to minimize the hazard of the environment.

My thought too, when reading this. Next thought - That's going to be some seriously messed up people that comes out of that.

Oh, the ego, what a marvelous thing!

Believing that what we currently know is applicable to humans in the future, that our current limits are immutable.

We know all the laws of physics, right? We know if the universe is finite or infinite(because we had traveled there and seen the limits), we know what creates gravity and exactly how electromagnetic attraction really works... the same way the people Socrates asked 2500 years ago knew it all, and Socrates himself did not knew anything(in his own words).

The same way people already knew everything about the small things before microscope invention(in their own words it was unnecessary because "why we want to see what we already know smaller?").

That someone develops better ways to control active fission(atom by atom) and fusion reactions, that someone discovers something new about the universe,that someone discovers how to create antigravity because understands what gravity really is, that someone discover the way to crack the code on aging on our DNA, that someone discovers why the light limit on vacuum is what it is and some way of going faster, all of this impossible, because we know it all.

Making predictions grounded in supremely well-tested physics is not egotistical. Making specific predictions about the content of as-yet undiscovered science without any evidence is egotistical. http://lesswrong.com/lw/gq/the_proper_use_of_humility/

Who's making the specific predictions here?

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."


We actually know what gravity really is (basically, curving of space due to mass), and we know why the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe (it's necessarily true because space is continuous and you can't teleport). These come from general relativity, which is an extremely well test theory. Whatever we find out about gravity and light in the future must at least reduce to general relativity.

What I find curious is that it's the people who don't know what we know who think we'll overturn what we know. Perhaps that's because it's easier to say "Oh, someone will overturn that" when you don't actually know what "that" is.

I don't disagree with your sentiment - any future theory must hold to current theories at its limit. But I disagree that we know what anything really. To know what gravity is really we must answer. What is mass, space, time, spacetime, inertia? Is the graviton real? Is space continuous or discrete? Also note curving of space is due to more than mass lest how would light beams be gravitationally responsive? Curvature is described by the stress energy tensor.

What we do have are human graspable descriptions of plausible moves based on our observations of chess pieces. We have no coherent theory on the game or why it is played. But that does not matter. A more important issue intertwined with this bias is: are notions of information and entropy more fundamental to how we formulate laws than anything intrinsic to energy and space?

Socrates was wrong.

We are wrong now, as well.

But to say that we are as wrong as Socrates is ridiculous. We are much, much, much closer to the truth now than we have ever been.

I fully agree. Ask the leading scientist a couple of hundred years ago what they thought of going to moon. They too could've demonstrated how preposterous the proposition is by imagining all kinds of sci-fi energy sources and it would still seem impossible to them.

That's not the same as saying that space colonization is going to happen or that it's remotely within reach anytime soon.

"Ever" is a pretty strong word, and I think he's going to look pretty silly in a century or so. For example, here's an estimate of travel costs with boron fusion rockets: http://nextbigfuture.com/2007/11/fusion-propulsion-if-bussar...

If either Bussard's polywell fusion or focus fusion turn out to work, that'll be achievable within a couple decades. As Moore's Law continues and we get better at simulating plasma, it's not that unlikely that some form of fusion will work out.

There are a lot of possibilities for non-rocket launch, including various space-elevator-like schemes, laser launch, and mass drivers. Even without fusion, thorium fission could provide plenty of power.

It'd be pretty expensive and slow to travel to another star with fusion...but eventually, with large solar panels in close orbit around the sun, we'll have an awful lot of energy to play with, and just maybe we'll figure out efficient laser or microwave power transmission sometime in the next thousand years.

On the other hand, maybe we'll just colonize the Oort Cloud and gradually migrate to other stars over the next million years or so without really trying.

(And, not that I'm holding my breath for this one, but if Woodward's right about the Mach effect we'll get to other stars pretty quickly.)

As for the reasons...the resources of the solar system are millions of times what's available on Earth. Once launch is cheap it'll be a no-brainer to start mining the asteroids.

This is exactly right. It is not possible to predict technological advancement. 250 years ago, the idea of traveling between London and New York within a few hours would have seemed ludicrous ... and yet, that technology is easily available to most people today. We may never leave the solar system, but then again, we just might.

This one is gold:

"As Bruce Sterling has put it: "I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live."

I would be very surprised if the Gobi Desert, and Antarctica, and any other inhospitable place you care to name, was not colonized and exploited in the distant future. Right now we aren't doing that because we don't need to, but we could.

As for space colonization, there's enough of a romantic interest in it that I wouldn't think that the fact that it doesn't make economic sense would necessarily be a deal killer. There's also the possibility that some group would want to escape Earth at any expense. It didn't make a lot of economic sense for the Puritans to go to America, but they wanted out of the mother country.

Well, actually, people do live in the Gobi Desert (for example in Erenhot - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erenhot - a city with 16'000 inhabitants).

The significant difference is that we have colonized this planet already. It's in the nature of our species to increase our reach and breadth, and settling in the Gobi Desert simply doesn't pander towards this call. The perspective put forward by Sterling is very naive and narrow-minded, as it entirely disregards this human trait. Remember, we went to the moon, and we want to go to Mars, too, for reasons that we all know can't be fulfilled by a trip to the Gobi Desert.

> It's in the nature of our species to increase our reach and breadth,

It is? Maybe it's in the nature of some individuals, but three boats ain't no rocketship.

Given that several Stross novels deal with uploaded intelligence, I was surprised that no mention of this was made. In Accelerando, for instance, his characters travel three light years in a coke-can sized spaceship powered by a laser stationed around Jupiter.

It seems unlikely at best that we'll ever attempt interstellar travel in our current organic bodies. The idea of taking along an atmosphere, food, water, and enough space to move around just seems ridiculous when you could stuff a human consciousness into a volume that, at worst, is the size of a melon, and at best considerably smaller. You'd also be able to add error correcting and redundancy to make the ship robust from radiation damage.

I suspect that any future spaceship will consist of perhaps 100 tons of computer and memory, designed with considerable redundancy and error correction. Perhaps 200,000 tons of shielding/fuel will be required, sufficient to protect the core computers and memory from interstellar particles, but also from the radiation from the ship's drive. Finally, you'd have a 1 million ton black hole sitting at the tail end of the ship, sufficiently large not to explode, but sufficiently small to have hardly any gravity. This would be fed by taking matter from the shielding to keep the black hole stable.

For further redundancy the ships might travel in small fleets, each acting as a backup store for each of the others. If one ship gets taken out by a stray piece of matter, at least you'd have a few more containing the same colonists.

I too believe we will (unfortunately) never leave the solar system. But for a quite different reason; consumerism. People are much more interested in stuffing burgers into their faces, living comfortably to a very old age while living unhealthy, buying tons of inane crap which they will never use. Downloading ringtones, spending 99% of their working day glued to Facebook, not cooking but ordering in every single day. Having a nicer car and house than the neighbors and getting their education while preferably not spending more than a month a year with their noses in books.

The smart/educated few are not enough to offset the masses and for the masses it's simply not 'comfortable' to work on space travel; why would you, you already have a pool? Maybe poorer countries where people are not comfortable could be of use? Nah; you see around the world; when GDP gets over a certain level, out come the gadgets, mobile phones, ringtones, bentleys and other useless crap.

A very small (fractional) % of humans is busy with the problem of energy and space travel. If it would be a few actual %s of humanity we might stand a chance, unfortunately, the rest of the collective brainpower is spent arguing if the latest X Factor was won fairly.

I don't think we'll ever meet aliens either; after a certain time in the evolution, every race of 'intelligent' beings will invent paid ringtones, after that all chances of interstellar travel are gone.

While the author makes a good point about how humans will never leave the solar system, there are a few possibilities to continue human legacy. Ethics aside, sending seeded capsules to a habitable exoplanet could one day (millions of years) evolve into an intelligent species. Although not human, a DNA signature or some other artifact could be engineered to validate it as a human colonization.

Additionally you could explore the possibilities of fleets of nano sized probes, which over the course of thousands of years, confirm the habitality of an exoplanet, and build a crude nursery for sperm (which could be sent at a later date). This method makes the energy/momentum problems slightly less impossible.

There's two levels of magic wand here.

The first is some breakthrough in physics that makes interstellar travel feasible. Not likely, but a staple of sci-fi.

The second is a series of improvements in nanotechnology making interplanetary colonies feasible (though less necessary).

And the looming confounding factor is that a "singularity" event might make all of this moot.

I agree that humans will likely never leave the solar system. However, I think it's very possible -- even likely -- that human intelligence will.

One interesting thing about sending some future human AI into space is that it could in theory 'power down' higher functions for hundreds or thousands of years as it travels to its destination. Upon reawakening, it would be in a new star system, with the cumulation of human knowledge in memory and enough tech to reproduce and start anew.

That's a good, grounded assessment of the scale of the problem. I too believe that the human colonization of space, even near-space (ie within the orbit of the Moon) is a long way off. The energy costs are simply too high and resources too cheap on the Earth to make it viable (in spite of typical SF fodder of asteroid mining).

This is a problem because with 6.5 billion people we're using up resources. Fast.

Anyway, I see two potential solutions to this problem: one not-so-far-fetched and one incredibly far-fetched.

The not-so-far-fetched version is... hitch-hiking. Our understanding of the Universe is that it is full of mass wandering between stars. IIRC recently a planet-sized body was detected traveling between the stars.

Simple probability dictates that it is only a matter of time before a sufficiently large body travels through the Solar System with sufficient velocity (including direction) to reach somewhere else in sufficient time (but not too fast that we can't perform an orbital intercept) that we can essentially build a colony on it.

The far-fetched version is to use back holes as power sources [1] as this is, as far as I've read anyway, the only remotely viable method of providing propulsion without reaction mass to speak of and reaction mass is the death of any form of interstellar propulsion.

The answer to the Fermi Paradox [2] may simply be that it's too hard to leave our comfortable gravity wells and most (all?) civilizations simply run out of stuff before they get there.

I've also given the thought to "footprints". If you think about, say, a primitive tribesman. What do they need to survive in a sustainable fashion? They need a sufficient sized population (measured in the hundreds or low thousands) to avoid inbreeding and sufficient land area to provide a food source. This is probably measured in the tens or hundreds of square miles.

Imagine all they need as the footprint of a sustainable colony as that then dictates the minimum size of any spaceship.

Now imagine a more advanced society. 1000 modern humans would need an ENORMOUS footprint. Just think about computer chips. On any long voyage they'd break down so you need to be able to make new ones. That means a sufficient lab, technology, materials (or, in reality, the means to get more materials), all that knowledge and so on. Plus the size of the population goes up given required specializations.

This of course assumes that people would do all of these things instead of, say, an AI of some kind (which would actually solve a lot of problems).

That footprint is currently way too large to build any kind of interstellar vessel (IMHO). One of the trends I see in coming centuries is that footprint will reach a point of reducing in size. By 2100 I expect we'll be able to keep the sum of all human knowledge (or a close enough approximation) on an essentially mobile device. Advanced manufacturing techniques and materials may solve many of the footprint problems and so on.

As the footprint goes down, the viability of any isolated colony being able to survive increases.

The hitchhiking idea would also be ideal for the survival of humanity overall. With sufficient isolation, there will be cultural and genetic drift. If we're able to influence each other, that's a recipe for conflict. But a large mass passing through the Solar System is very likely a one-way ticket. There's no way to follow and no way to return (barring astronomically small odds of a repeat or inverse body).

[1]: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0908.1803v1

[2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox

Simple probability dictates that it is only a matter of time before a sufficiently large body travels through the Solar System with sufficient velocity (including direction) to reach somewhere else in sufficient time (but not too fast that we can't perform an orbital intercept) that we can essentially build a colony on it.

Not really. You could also say that "simple probability dictates that it is only a matter of time before all of the air in the room is, at one point, in just one half." And, of course, you'd be wrong. When the odds are so staggering against something, it's more likely it will never happen than it will happen. We don't know how frequent such bodies are. But my guess is so infrequent that most solar systems in the universe will never have one travel through them.

Hmmm... I don't think your analogy is correct. There is a very solid reason that all the air in the room will never only be in one half of that room. It's a matter of pressure, not probability. I don't think the 'rogue' planets are subject to such things, and on a sufficiently long time scale, it could very well be possible for one to travel through our system.

This is false, pressure is the result of atomic collisions with things contained within the gas as the atoms fly around at high velocity. It's extremely unlikely that a large percentage of a large number of oxygen atoms will randomly fly into the same area at once, but it's not completely impossible. It is governed by probability.

Refresher on pressure: http://littleshop.physics.colostate.edu/activities/atmos1/Wh...

Actually, the analogy is rather correct. They both describe highly improbable events.

The gas molecules in the air don't know anything about the room's overall pressure, and don't individually obey any "pneumatic" laws. Pressure, in essence, is just a huge amount of molecules bouncing off a surface.

The air in a room is usually very evenly distributed, because it would be extremely unlikely that all the molecules happened to be in the same half.

Here's a link that might explain it better: http://webs.morningside.edu/slaven/physics/entropy/entropy3....

In support of what the others have said, the reason that we say all of the air in a room will end up on one side is the second law of thermodynamics: entropy in a closed system only increases. That is statistical mechanics, which is very much a matter of probability. The probability that the second law of thermodynamics will be violated is so vanishingly small that we say it will never happen.

Why is that your guess?

Not the GP, but, in short, because space is very, very big, and very, very empty.

By way of extremely loose analogy, consider a large pea (1 cm in diameter) hanging by a string in the middle of a football stadium. Let's say that represents our solar system (minus the Oort cloud) and its environs. That's a slightly scaled-down version of Stross' analogy, where the diameter of the solar system (again, minus the Oort cloud) is about an Imperial foot. Now, without aiming, start firing individual molecules around the space. Those molecules are roughly to scale with a rogue planet.

On average, how long do you think you'd have to keep shooting molecules around before one of them passed within an inch of the pea? Within a centimeter? What about actually hitting it?

Even that's stretching the actual probabilities to the point of breaking, because your molecules are already in the neighborhood. For a more realistic example, take our 1cm pea and put it somewhere in some hypothetical space the size of the Milky Way, itself 6.4 * 10^9 AU in average diameter. At our scale of 1cm = 30 AU, the Milky Way would be a little over 200k KM across, or slightly more than half the distance between the earth and the moon. Now start shooting molecules around that space — from random locations, in random directions, again without aiming — and give me a call when one of them hits the pea...

Yes. For more perspective, the average density of the universe is roughly 3-6 hydrogen atoms per cubic meter.

Gathering all the interstellar hydrogen in a swath of space 1x1m wide and 1 light year long (i.e. everything you can collect with a 1-meter scoop from here to ¼ the way to Alpha Centauri) yields 0.01 grams of hydrogen.

A sobering thought regarding the inevitable "interstellar ramjet" suggestion.

Black holes spaceships are the ticket with our current understanding of physics. They can carry a large and heavy cargo in ship form or can push small planets slowly in a desired direction. The travel times for black hole ships are reasonable too, about six years to Proxima Centauri. It beats the other sci-fi concepts like fusion, Orion, anti matter and solar sails.

Funny how solar sails seem like the easier option to build, but for interstellar travel you need enormous lasers near the home star to push the sail as it gets further away. Might as well build black holes with the lasers and solar collectors.

For those of you who, like me, thought a black hole spaceship is a spaceship travelling through black holes, I made an awesome diagram of how it's supposed to work.


How the heck do you hold the black hole in place?

Magnetic fields?

That's what I thought.

How exactly does one build a black hole without obliterating ones host species/planet/solar system?

A black hole doesn't have any more gravitational pull than normal. If you turned the Earth into a black hole by somehow compressing it past the required radius, the moon would still orbit it the same way. From what I understand anyway, I am not a physicist.

Most of their science paper is in layman English http://arxiv.org/pdf/0908.1803v1 and explains such questions.

The black holes they would build are very very tiny, about the size of a proton. They are relatively light, about 600,000 tons. Such a body doesn't have noticeable gravity, it's too light to attract anything and too small to absorb it. The big danger from these are explosions at the end of their life. The explosions are serious if they happened near Earth, but safe at the distance of Earth to Sun. They're built near the host star anyway.

? I thought it was the mass that made a black hole - not the density?

There is a minimum amount of mass necessary for an object to be able to collapse upon itself and form a black hole, such as a large star does when the outward pressure due to the internal fusion reaction stalls.

However, any amount of mass can (in classical theory) be compressed far enough to obtain a Schwarzschild radius, from which light cannot escape. This has only to do with the density, not the total mass: a very small mass can still cause a large curvature of space, though only in a very small region of space.

OK, now that we're already discussing this topic. I just read this quote from Wikipedia:

"""If one accumulates matter at nuclear density (the density of the nucleus of an atom, about 1018 kg/m3; neutron stars also reach this density), such an accumulation would fall within its own Schwarzschild radius at about 3 solar masses and thus would be a stellar black hole."""

I take that to mean that if I wanted to create a black hole of something with less mass than 3 suns, I would have to compress it beyond the density of an atom nucleus? Is this - even in theory - possible to do? Wouldn't you need some kind of "magic wand" (to stick with the articles authors choice of words?)

I have strep throat and may not be at my best right now, but iirc the chandrasekhar limit is 1.5 solar masses - it's enough to form a black hole because not only is there a lot of mass, but it's also falling into the center, compressing everything further. So one of your "magic wand" options is acceleration, I think.

Well, that is why I said 'classical theory' :). I have no clue whether QM allows it and I don't think anyone does: that would amount to knowing the true nature of the 'singularity' inside a black hole.

So you could say that all point masses (e.g. electrons) are black holes?

What happens if you take a large black hole, and you throw a lot of electrons into it? Does it get an electric field measurable from the outside? If not, how come an electron does have this field?

An electron is only a point mass in classical electrodynamics, which leads to all kinds of inconsistencies (the self-energy of its field would be infinite, for example.) In quantum mechanics, there is no such thing as a point mass.

But in any case, the answer to your question is yes. Black holes have 3 quantities: mass, angular momentum, and charge. So, yeah, you can charge up a black hole by dropping charges into it and the charge would be visible to the outside.

No, you just require a sufficient pressure to overcome the repulsive forces between the particles to collapse them to a singularity. That's why people were afraid of the LHC.


Nuclear matter is very stiff. It can make a mass of the order of the Sun's, falling down with a significant fraction of the speed of light, bounce without becoming a black hole. So the pressure you'd need to make a black hole with higher-than-nuclear density would be, well, astronomical.

Ah .. And normally (If that is a word which makes sense in this context), the mass of a giant object (Like a star) would be the way to create this pressure? But theoretically you could do it by other means?

You essentially need to cram a lot of mass into a very small space, which is equivalent to cramming a lot of energy into a very small space.

So, theoretically, you can get a bunch of very, very large lasers, focus them all upon a very small point, and if you pump enough energy into the system you wind up with a black hole.

You need sufficient mass for a black hole to be stable, otherwise it "evaporates". A very small black hole would evaporate so fast that "explodes" would be a better term.

If we can't travel faster than the speed of light (a reasonably safe assumption), maybe we can take intergalactic shortcuts like black holes. So it seems to me that Battlestar Galactica-style "jump" drives (or Borg transwarp conduits) are more likely than Star Trek-style warp drives.

>If we can't travel faster than the speed of light

using existing understanding of Nature - we can. At least the Universe provides the example of galaxies traveling with faster than the speed of light relative to each other. The same machinery is suggested in the


The opponents state that the energy requirement of the drive is higher than the whole Universe's energy. Obviously it is wrong statement as we already have whole galaxies mentioned above and whose faster than light speed obviously takes less than the whole Universe's energy.

Galaxies are not actually moving faster than light. The distance between them is growing at a rate that would suggest FTL speeds because the universe is expanding.

looks like you didn't get it that the drive i linked to is supposed to use the same principle of space expansion and contraction.

Galaxies are not spaceships. Just because the natural expansion of the universe affects galaxies (and everything else) doesn't mean it's possible to artificially expand and contract the universe.

just because God strikes heretics with lightning doesn't mean that it is possible to artificially create and route electrical current

The fact that cats hunt mice doesn't mean we can't have megapixel cameras.

By black holes do you mean wormholes?

I think the main challenge is whether there will actually be any desire to colonize in the first place.

By the time we acquire the means to leave the solar system society will have transformed so completely that it's impossible to predict what our goals will be. Resources and population are not likely to be problems at all though.

Agreed. Once a civilization has acquired enough resources that interstellar travel is feasible, the reasons for doing so become less compelling.

Resources have always been a problem throughout history and prehistory.

This is not under debate. Once upon a time smallpox and polio were serious problems too. Things can and do change.

>Just think about computer chips. On any long voyage they'd break down so you need to be able to make new ones.

Chips are small and light enough that you can bring along a thousand times more chips than you need, at negligible additional cost. PCBs are a bit more trouble, but those are much easier to produce and recycle.

They would still age. Were talking thousands of years here. In space, with all the radiation. In interstellar space.

So you store them in the middle of your water tank. A hundred feet of water will block that radiation quite nicely.

I think a more realistic scenario, at least in the short/medium term (for relative values of "short" and "medium"), will be to limit human population to a sustainable level. It will be ugly, but I think in a few generations' time we'll see it happening, either by explicit means or evolutionary. I'm thinking pandemics brought on by overpopulation, and the evolution of diseases, not our evolution, although that too may bring some solutions albeit on a longer timeframe.

I believe the UN's population models predict the world population will peak at ~9B in around 2050 and then fall. Most developed countries already have negative population growth (from birth rate below replacement levels, ignoring immigration).

That I didn't realize; thanks. Time to go do some more reading!

with 6.5 billion people

Actually 7, in 1 to 3 months.

Actually you just need a few females, and a large store of sperm to provide genetic diversity in further generations. If you used inseminated eggs (so the mother has no genetic relation) you can bring the human race to another planet with only a few people. When you get to the habitable planet, you let the population grow.

Also since a large genetic pool comes with the colonists, it limits genetic drift.

You should run this idea past your female friends. Assuming you still have any...

We may not need as many people as you suggest. We can always use sperm and egg banks to avoid inbreeding till the newly settled colony gets sufficiently big for natural reproduction to occur.

I think you make a good point in the foot print area, but isn't 2100 pretty close in human terms? We already have CNC machines, 3D printers, automated semi-conductor factories, etc. I for one would be very impressed if we could make a fully self replicating colony & factory in the next 90 years.

Also if you were hitchhiking you would need a massively plentiful source of fuel in the target environment because it doesn't have the sun pumping energy into it.

>I for one would be very impressed if we could make a fully self replicating colony & factory in the next 90 years.

He/she never claimed we will. The claim was that we the entire human knowledge will fit on a mobile device.

You'll want to read Alastair Reynold's Pushing Ice, if you haven't already.

I guess i have heard this kind of argument before. In the movie book "Around the world in 80 days". Its not possible or you can't do travel all around the globe in 80 days. Still someone did it, sooner or later someone will do it, and see it takes us nearly 24 hours to make a complete rotation around the earth. Some day we will even reach to Proxima Cetauri.

Indeed. I like the OP as a SF writer, but I have to disagree with him in this case. All you can say for sure is "With our current knowledge of science and level of technological development we will never leave the solar system".

If you would have said a man would walk on the moon 100 years ago, you'd be regarded as crazy.

What happens in the far future is impossible for us to predict right now. 100 years ago we didn't know everything there is to know, and now we don't either. History is full of these kind of closed-minded extrapolations.

Appropriate other post on the frontpage right now: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2639701

Seriously? Who would be dumb enough to try sending proteins to another star in the first place? See you at Proxima, and I don't mean in the flesh.

The stirred-up crazy in the comment thread there is almost more interesting than the post itself. I never realized how religion-like this stuff has ended up being for a lot of people before seeing that.

"That's the same as the yield of the entire US Minuteman III ICBM force."

So you're saying there's a chance!

That's what I thought, too. I think the energy examples were supposed to scare me, and if he'd said something like total output of the sun, ever, they would have. But total power output of current civilization for five days garnered more of a "sounds doable" response from me.

Yeah I don't think it's impossible to build a bomb that big, as far as I understand it, no one felt like building bigger bombs than tsar bomba because it becomes useless, if I'm not mistaken after 400 megaton or so, most of the energy will just be sent to space.

From the Tsar Bomba article on wikipedia: "Since 50 Mt is 2.1×1017 joules, the average power produced during the entire fission-fusion process, lasting around 39 nanoseconds[citation needed], was about 5.4×1024 watts or 5.4 yottawatts (5.4 septillion watts). This is equivalent to approximately 1.4% of the power output of the Sun.[8]"

That's a lot of power right there. Now to harness that :)


You wouldn't build one huge bomb, but instead use lots and lots of tiny bombs in an Orion-type spacecraft. That way you get a better utilisation of your energy.

Doesn't that make it even easier? But then again I think 400 megaton isn't enough. Last time I calculated it ( I probably made a ton of mistakes ;p) it was in the the 10s of thousands or something like that.

Accelerating the space shuttle to 0.10c : (2,030 t * (0.10c)(0.10*c))/210 PJ = 8700 (wolfram alpha)

2,030 mass of space shuttle in metric tons 210PJ the energy from tsar bomba.

But then you have to add in the weight of the bombs too. since they are each 27,000kg and then you have to sum it up to get to something that can approach 0.10c (and I don't remmember how I had figured that one out)

And what says once you get to the other planet you can't fill the tank with nuclear materials over there for the return trip?

You might be interested in Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation:


Yeah, it didn't seem like an absolute impossibility to me either (in the distant future). That much energy (9x10^17 Joules) translates to about 400kg of lithium deuteride in a 100% efficient fusion reactor. We're not even close to being able to burn that fuel efficiently at all but it's theoretically possible and I would hesitate to say that we'll never figure it out.

The fact that we've already built equipment capable of delivering that much energy in a short time makes me think, holy crap, there really is.

>Try to get a handle on this: it takes us 2-5 years to travel two inches [in their relative scale - e.g., Voyager probes]

What? No it doesn't. We can do massively better than this, right now. As in, today's technology. No problem.

Why haven't we? It's frickin' expensive.

But the long-range probes we've launched have been pretty damn near coasting their entire trip, with a few course corrections. They were pushed, and now they float until they gain sentience and come back to say "hi". If they had a huge-ass rocket attached to them, such as would likely be on anything interested in going any distance at any kind of speed (ie, human-carrying ships), they'd get where they're going a lot faster.

Next up, to get to proxmia centauri in 42 years with some hand-waving to make things simpler and 100% efficient energy usage:

>To put this figure in perspective, the total conversion of one kilogram of mass into energy yields 9 x 1016 Joules. (Which one of my sources informs me, is about equivalent to 21.6 megatons in thermonuclear explosive yield). So we require the equivalent energy output to 400 megatons of nuclear armageddon ...

Where did 400 megatons come from, if it's equivalent to 21.6? And if 400 is "the same as the yield of the entire US Minuteman III ICBM force", I say that's a miniscule amount of energy, especially once it's divided by 20. Crank it up another 10-fold beyond 400, and we're still talking modern-day terrestrial-level achievable energy without breaking a sweat.

>So it would take our total planetary electricity production for a period of half a million seconds — roughly 5 days — to supply the necessary va-va-voom.

Not bad, really. We're pretty inefficient right now. Make it cost a few times that - we'll be producing that in a week before we can even get a lame v0.1 ship built and in trials.


All in all, an interesting read. But it feels more like a half-accurate rant. We're waving magic wands to get 100% efficiency and 2000kg, but we're not waving magic wands to get away from conventional rockets and today's energy production levels?

I'm entirely on their side that our tech today can't get us to the stars. Totally. I agree, the energy needed is quite literally astronomical, and we're not even close to it. But we keep finding weird things with our science - I'm not writing it off entirely. And I don't see why people seem to imply that we must leave from Earth - why not mine the asteroid belt to provide the fuel at our leisure, and build a truly massive ship? We're not going to aim for the stars on our first go, we'll be living in space for a long time before then.

The 400 megatons comes from the estimate that the trip would require 2e18 joules (which is about 22x the 9e16 joules up there).

And he is getting away from conventional rockets, the 2e18 estimate assumes that the energy required to move the ship is coming from elsewhere, not carried along with the ship.

So he assumes a very small ship and mysterious ways of propelling it in order to sketch an estimate of the minimum amounts of energy involved. Ripping an even bigger hole in physics might throw acceleration and momentum out the window, but assuming 100% efficient transmission of energy across 24 light years already requires something pretty strange to us.

(his comparisons to present day production levels seem more illustrative than pessimistic)

In the 20th century we went from thinking that heavier-than-air flight was impossible to it being a major economic activity and the dominant form of medium-distance travel. We went from conventional explosives to nuclear explosives. We landed people on the Moon. We went from dying of dental caries to antibiotics and (very limited) genetic therapies.

In one short century we published more books and amassed more knowledge than all centuries past. Together. And we built the tools to search it and process it into meaning.

Traveling to another star is a formidable problem and doing it Newton style is not impractical. But if the past century teaches us something, we are a species prone to invent magic wands.

Besides that, we all know how futile is to try to predict the future. We can only see and express it in our own terms. The future is as alien to us as Twitter would be to my grandmother (who would be turning a century if she were alive).

“Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”

James Arthur Baldwin

That being said, I don't disagree with most of the post.

Because we'll fall off the side! Oh, that's why we can't circumnavigate.

Some other things man will never do: http://www.rense.com/general81/dw.htm

I reach for this whenever someone mentions the inevitability of humans colonizing other planets - which I did earlier today. Nice to see others thinking it's worth highlighting.

I agree with the notion that no human society will purposely invest money in a trek to another solar system, but I strongly disagree with the notion that humanity is stuck in this solar system for eternity.

There seem to be two common misconceptions about the colonization of space:

1. People will colonize other planets. The notion that future generations will desire to burrow into other planets is as strange as expecting people to build a new city by digging caves in a cliff wall. Just as we now build apartment blocks and ranch houses, we will someday build custom habitats that aren't continually ravaged by earthquakes, tornados and spring floods.

2. Reaching the next solar system will be momentous. People will populate neighbouring solar systems just as our ancestors moved from Africa to other parts of the world... gradually from one generation to the next, each one drifting a little further into the Oort. One day a habitat that has its own artificial star within will move from the most recent piece of raw material to the next, not realizing that the one orbits our distant sun while the other orbits another star entirely.

Barring catastrophe at home, this future is likely. It's just the same story that's been happening since Lucy's family left the Great Rift Valley.

Note that you didn't actually address his arguments.

Please elaborate.

His arguments are related to interstellar travel as an endeavour that is undertaken as a gravity well to gravity well transit. My argument is that planetary colonization and travel from Earth to the close orbit of Proxima Centauri or any other star is not the only method by which humankind will reach beyond this solar system. Does that not address his arguments?

He makes specific arguments regarding the time and energy requirements of interplanetary and interstellar travel. You don't address those. What you do say is too vague for me to figure out exactly what you mean.

The problem with this analysis is that it assumes people will only do things that make economic sense, and only if it will benefit themselves or their descendants in a short time frame. In fact, we've done all sorts of useless, expensive things "because it's there," and we spend money on things like radiation shielding for nuclear waste that will last thousands of years.

Granted, space colonization would be much more expensive than any very long-term or symbolic project we do now, but it's not out of the question that future societies would be more inclined to do stuff like that than 21st century anglophones. If so, none of Stross's barriers are necessarily deal-breakers.

For example, I don't think Hitler would have spared any expense to seed another world with Aryans, regardless of whether it made any economic sense (since when do humans only do things that make sense?), and the 420 year time frame wouldn't seem like much to a man who thought he founded a 1000 year Reich.

Phoenicians circa 1000bc:

"We won't make it to america unless we build ships as large as a stadium and can put a thousand slaves with oars in them. But then, where are we going to put all the food to feed them? Well, we let them die and throw them in the ocean, only the stronger will deserve to be called the first american settlers"

We don't know yet what the future may teach us.

It comes down to which side of the human spirit you are betting on. Do you think that no matter how hard and how smart we try in the next 200-300 years we will never overcome some of the fundamental challenges of space and time? Then yes, what Stross says would make sense.

Personally I am an optimist on these things - in 1711 you could not have imagined regular Aircraft - something we take for granted today much less Spacecrafts. Electricity, Computers, Cell-phones, Internet, etc would have been inconceivable. Today we have been to the moon ~40 years ago. Villagers in India use cellphones and electricity and a fifth of humanity is interconnected via the net.

So I have to believe that by 2311 we will have cracked the problems around Interstellar travel and be living around a different Sun than our Sol.

Anything else is just underestimating the Human Spirit.

You're also assuming that this hypothetical Human Spirit is immune to E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis:


(Otherwise it's not just human colonization you're talking about -- it's Terrestrial biosphere colonization, which is a vastly more complex matter than most people seem to be willing to contemplate.)

Thanks for the link. The hypothetical human spirit is the same mindset that drives the likes of this chap http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranulph_Fiennes or the early (American) settlers. So barring an extinction level event there is better than even odds that Humanity will overcome the Gravity well of the sun en-mass to colonize another Solar system.

I had the same conclusion initially and called it the horizont of space reachability principle. There is a limit to the travel distance defined by the energy consumption. Reducing the energy consumption to the minimum would allow to extend this horizont limit. Pushing this reasonning to its limit I noticed that we have plenty of examples on earth of live forms able to extend this limit to infinity by mean of seeds or spores form. In such form the organism is totally passive and consumes no energy. It has a trigger which induces reactivation of life and development that may be activated by external energy and appropriate condition.

So it is possible for a life form, human or extraterrestrial, to build such a civilization seed which contains enough energy reserve and machinery to sustain life activity restoration and live form rebirth. Throw such civilization seed vessel like a bullet toward a distant solar system so that the energy of the target can be used to trigger start of development and we have our space travel capacity.

This is not how we'd naturally imagine interstellar travel, but the important point is that this proves that it is possible without relying on exotic or hazardous hypothesis. We should also keep in mind that there is still the possibility to tap into the dark matter as source of energy. While this is still very uncertain, it should be known and well accepted By now that interstellar travel and space colonization is possible.

I would like to add to this that if human life is a result of a natural process, there is a very high likelyhood that we are not alone in the univers and that other entities are likely to have started colonization already a long time ago. As we can see from earth civilization history a key factor to perserve its liberty and life autodetermination is the mastering of science and technology, intelligence and defense capacity. While there is still a need to protect ourselves from oher humans, in which we spend and waste a lot of ressource, the clock is ticking, and other civilizations may be developping much faster and efficiently than humans. It is no hard to see what it all implies.

Just 5 days ago...

"Kiwi developer Glenn Martin, who has been working on his flying machine for 30 years, intends to make it available on the market in 2012 at a cost of about US$100,000. Last month, the jetpack made its first high-altitude test flight, taking a dummy pilot to 1,500 meters under remote control while Mr Martin watched from a helicopter."

For more, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/8566096/Martin-Jetpack...

Humans will make it to the asteroids, to the rest of the Milky Way, and fill the Universe.

I remember an article here on HN a few days ago about the storage of antimatter for about half an hour.

In a few decades from now, the energy necessary for such a long distance space flight could come from half a ton of anti-hydrogen.

I'm actually okay with humans never leaving the solar system. Our robotics and technology is advancing at a fast enough pace to satisfy my curiosity about what's out there. Look at the amazing stuff we've gotten back from a couple of Mars rovers, without ever having set foot on the surface. Let's just send robots out. It's much cheaper, comparatively easier...and can certainly be done much sooner.

Interestingly, a non-profit [charity] foundation is dedicated to interstellar travel: http://www.tauzero.aero/

Brief article summary: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Breakthrough_...

I can't spot any flaw in the reasoning.

But one could sum up the essay as such:

"A man from the XXIst century said it it's impossible to leave the solar system"

Perhaps we should wait for what the man of the XXIInd century might have to say?

We'll need a couple of magic wands, but we've already built a lot of them.

Remember that in the early XXth century going into space was still science fiction.

>The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.

Nor should the future bankruptcy of your country concern you as long as it happens after you're dead. Even if your descendents have to pay the piper for it.

The Lifeboat Foundation, http://lifeboat.com/ex/main is relevant. They're a (religious?) organization promoting humanity's colonization beyond Earth.

I will take the man at his challenge, become a multi-trillionaire, and start building a domed city in the Gobi and a floating base in the North Atlantic.

Quantum entanglement, zero point energy, just to name a few things. While I agree these technologies might not be viable for a while, saying we are never going to leave the solar system is fairly short sighted. We always find a way :)

I was watching a documentary about the wright brothers recently and right up until they actually did it many bright people doubted it would ever be possible to have powered human flight.

Like it always has, something will come along that will change everything.

There's one great flaw in this article: the gross underestimation of man's potential, drive and constant progress.

Exactly, there will always be naysayers...

the points he made are old and well-known to anyone into space and SF and not too young

Spoilers: his reasoning does not involve Vogons.

don't care. give me a thorium reactor and a holodeck and I'll explore the universe from the safety of cave a mile beneath the earth's surface.

alternatively upload me and I'll put myself in a more suitable interstellar body.

What was that limit on data transmission via copper again? 300baud? Or was it 1400? Nice the way science always ends for idiots like this...

While I think I may agree with your sentiment (though maybe not your tone), I think it's kind of humorous to compare interstellar exploration and colonization with modem speeds.

Edit: Curious about downvotes?

The limits he talks about are fundamental. We would have to be very wrong about much of physics to invalidate his arguments.

It is virtually certain that we are very wrong about much of physics.

Perhaps not in ways that solve these issues. But we're still almost certainly wrong about things we consider very fundamental.

At the same time we are very certain on some issues.

As an example there will not be a theory which says "You can lift yourself up" and suddenly people grabbing their own belts could lift themselves up into the air.

Any future theory will predict exactly the same things as current theories on the cases where current theories have been experimentally verified.

Whatever we find out has to reduce to what we know now in the conditions we've already looked at. That contrains what we will discover in the future.

Yeah, Charles Stross is such an unimaginative backwards thinking Luddite.

Come on, wake up a bit. It's a reasoned essay, explaining his assumptions and exclusions, not just some babbling end-of-scientific-progress scaremongering.

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