Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Space, The Final Frontier!

“Interstellar” is coming out soon.  The story includes interstellar travel, and, I think, intergalactic travel as well.  My question is this:  why is this kind of enterprise only conceivable in a fictional setting? 

I see scientists on TV frequently talking about space travel, but it all has to do with how much fuel, or what propulsion systems, and how many thousands of years at the speed of light would it take to get anywhere.  They are much more comfortable speaking about travel around our own solar system.   I wonder why they limit their imaginations so? 

Probably it’s because they want to be taken seriously in their own academic communities.  They don’t want to sound like kooks.  Plus, they must speak in the language of their academic communities.  They limit their speculations to linear travel in conventionally propelled vehicles because to do otherwise would require them to resort to the language of science fiction, like warp drives, hyperspace, the folding of space and so forth.  They’re afraid that it would make them sound like game-boys, or a bit deranged.  They are right to worry, I think.  Scientific academia is very unforgiving of eccentricity. 

There are, however, reasonable things to be said about the prospects of intergalactic travel that would not require millennia to get anywhere.

The most important point is that intergalactic travel will finally be achieved by a mechanism that we now know little or nothing about.  Of the two, I think that “nothing” has a better shot of being true.

But maybe it’s more like the stick that we are playing with idly in our cage before the little light goes on:  oh!  I can use this stick to reach that piece of fruit over there! 

Consider the problem of lighting our domiciles.  Up to the Eighteenth Century this was a real challenge.  They don’t call it “midnight” for nothing.  Most people were asleep by eight o’clock and up again at four because they went to bed when it got dark, or shortly thereafter.  Candles were expensive.  It only got a little bit better with gas lighting in what, the Nineteenth Century?  I should look that up.  If you had suggested to anyone at the time that very soon it would be possible to light up every domicile in the world like a Christmas tree for as many hours per day as you chose to do so, they would have thought that you were crazy.  “Impossible!” they’d say, “there’s not enough wax and tallow and whale oil in the world!”  It didn’t require more bees working harder or more whales suddenly becoming available.  All that was required was one Thomas Edison. 

Our Thomas Edison of the infinite void will reveal himself to us in time, if we are still here to receive him.  If science and human society are permitted the luxury of continuing at an even keel for a few more centuries we should have the time to get there.  Whether we will enjoy that luxury appears to be in some doubt these days, but look for the good!  History is as full of bad times, catastrophes and sheer, unadulterated stupidity as the ocean is full of salt water.  We’re still here, aren’t we?  So there’s hope.  

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