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Silver Coin Rabbit

Silver Coin, Year of Rabbit - lessons from Qld. floods

Interstellar Exploration: Boldly Going

"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise: its five year [ongoing] mission; to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man [no one] has gone before."

 

Who can forget those immortal words from the TV shows Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation? But, will humans somehow ‘make it so' in a Star Trek envisioned universe? I suggest it's unlikely at best; more likely near impossible.

 

The whole premise for the exploration and colonization of space, in the Star Trek universe, rests on warp drive – faster than light (superluminal) travel. Without that, all that boldly going at faster-than-light velocities, comes pretty much down to a rate that molasses flows in Antarctica. Unfortunately, Einstein and generations of physicists after him all sing the same song. Superluminal travel is a big no-no. Also a big no-no for the sake of this essay are the common sci-fi ‘cheats' of travel through wormholes and other hyperspace scenarios. While they have some theoretical underpinning; the obstacles for practical use are so high that I don't see them as viable interstellar travel options. I also rule out velocities close to the speed of light because the energy required propelling an object ever faster and faster and closer and closer to near light speeds increases even faster. It does you little good to go from 90% light speed to 91% the speed of light if your energy requirements double or triple! And light speed itself is unobtainable because you'd need an infinite amount of energy to achieve it, and no starship can carry an infinite supply of energy on board.

 

However, it's amazing what even sub-light speeds can achieve relative not to a human lifespan, but say to the too date lifespan of the human species. I other words, think thousands to tens-of-thousands, even hundreds-of-thousands of years duration. Is that thinking way too long term? Not when compared to the age of our own solar system, far less the age of our Milky Way galaxy!  Humans could, molasses style, explore and colonise the galaxy, with interstellar velocities physicists would be able to coexist with, in roughly the same order-of-magnitude time frame as it took humans to explore and colonize the Earth.

 

Faster-than-light (superluminal) propulsion is one of the main things glossed over in the various sci-fi space operas that have been on display, of which Star Trek is an obvious, but only one of many, examples. Where the spaceship's gravity comes from is obviously another. You see all these Hollywood, etc. spaceships zipping around obviously providing artificial gravity for the occupants, but the ‘how' is never really adequately explained. The relevant physics is probably even more glossed over that superluminal propulsion. The only way we know to provide a sense of gravity is to rotate your vessel or space station. 2001: A Space Odyssey got that bit spot-on, but it was the exception to the rule. Have you seen the Starship Enterprise rotate? Why don't Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest of the Enterprise crew float around the ship? Of course it might be possible to bioengineer humans to withstand zero-G for decades on end and then land on a high gravity planet or in a high gravity environment none the worse for wear, but that's a pretty big ask.  

 

Propulsion or gravity aside, that's not to say humans won't ever boldly go, it's just not likely to resemble anything seen on our TV screens (or the silver screen either, for that matter).

 

Why boldly go at all? There might be some economic benefit to be had in exploiting the resources (mineral and/or energy) of our solar system, maybe settling on the Moon, Mars, or some other real estate in the solar system, maybe just establishing space stations as colonies within a reasonable radius of the Sun. There's enough real estate and/or space, to keep us confined to the solar system for millennia to come – and then some. There are little economic cost-benefits to be had by exploiting the resources of extra-solar solar systems. If you live in Sydney, why journey to New York for your food shopping when there's a supermarket across the street!

 

As for seeking out new civilizations, well that's what terrestrial SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is trying to do. SETI is a heck of a lot easier and cheaper than fuelling up the Starship Enterprise!

 

As a kick-off point, let me suggest three apexes of a triangle than will propel us to eventually boldly go.

 

Exploration and colonization is in our genes. It's what we do.

 

Reproduction is even more in our genes – it's what we have to do.

 

Survival, the third apex of this triangle, is also in our genes and collectively is something we must do and must do well (even if all individuals eventually fail to survive and go kaput). Collectively, it's unwise to put all ones survival eggs in just one real estate basket (Planet Earth). Bad things can happen and if they do you'd better be out of harms way. That one real estate basket also eventually includes our entire solar system, for Mr. Sun isn't going to last forever. When Mr. Sun goes kaput, we go kaput.

 

So exploration/colonization, reproduction and survival are linked. Since one can reproduce more individuals per unit of time than die, to avoid ultimate crowding, there's a need to find new virgin real estate territory. How do you do that? Exploration! The more spread out you are, the less likely something bad is going to cause a mass extinction of a species. Survival! So boldly going is ultimately more about reproduction, and spreading out and colonization, than pure exploration just for the sake of exploring. We're not going to boldly go and just explore for the hell of it.

 

So how do we boldly go without faster-than-light Star Trek warp drives? Well, we do it the molasses-in-Antarctica way. Slowly! By slowly I mean somewhere between 1% and 10% light speed (which obviously is a tad faster than the flow of actual molasses in Antarctica).

 

One way to reproduce and survive is to send our ancestors to the stars, meaning our microbial ancestors, who are still around. If you're going to boldly go, it's unlikely that cost will be no object. Size and weight matter when it comes to boldly going. Microbes are small and light. Send out rocket after rocket after rocket filled with microbes that lie dormant in the cold of space (no life support needed). Send them towards the stars. Like the seeds of a plant, 99.9% fall by the wayside. But, every now and again one, eventually, will find a suitable extraterrestrial home; then another and another. We're seeding other worlds, the shotgun hit or miss method. By the way, the ethics of this need not concern us, any more than a plant seedling has scruples about sprouting and out-competing other plants already established where it lands and takes root. Sending microbes to the stars would distribute and reproduce life-as-we-know-it, but that strategy wouldn't of necessity end up producing clones of the human species.

 

A second way is to attach a bit of intelligence to what you send out, yet still keeping things small and light. Nanotechnology and miniaturisation of not carbon, but silicon is an option. It's artificial intelligence in mankind's image. So, we send out to the stars, molasses fashion, intelligent probes; the sort of probes that can make decisions about ultimate planetary destinations when they reach those stars. They chose real estate where they can land, use local resources to make copies of them, and boldly go onto another destination. These are known as Von Neumann probes. Note that again, no expenditure of life support resources is required. The drawback here is that Von Neumann probes spread out and colonize what amounts to our intelligence, but not our biology. Whether of not Von Neumann machines would evolve on their own would I guess depend on what sort of artificial intelligence they were programmed with initially.

 

The one huge drawback to boldly going by proxy, whether microbial or Von Neumann probes is that you get to stay at home. You don't want to do that. You too want to boldly go. The only real incentive for starting out on a journey is to be there at the finish – journey's end – even if the journey is fairly lengthy and time consuming like travel was back in the days of sailing ships and covered wagons. Still, you were there at the finish line. That's why the idea of multi-generation space colony starships, the sort where migrations from one stellar system to another that takes hundreds to thousands of years, just doesn't strike a responsive chord. You don't finish what you start. The exception would be if the survival of mankind was in immediate jeopardy, say like the Sun going nova within a hundred years. If there's no other option, it's escape that matters, not the destination. You just gotta get out of Dodge by sundown, or else.

 

The alternative is hibernation for those hundreds to thousands of years the journey takes. Hibernation is akin to an eight hour overnight sleep. Sleep is like a sort of time travel where you journey to the future instantaneously. One minute it's 11 pm; the next it's 7 am! The problems here are 1) perfecting the required hibernation technology; 2) you still need minimal life support infrastructure; 3) you still got to expend energy to transport that near worthless big toe of yours. The only part of you that really needs to get from point A to point B is your mind. 

 

Okay, so you want to boldly go. The problem is, you're not small and you're not light and you require life support like oxygen and water and food and a bed and artificial gravity and things to keep you occupied and psychologically sound and healthy over hundreds to thousands of years spent travelling. But, again, on reflection, ultimately the only part of you that actually needs to boldly go is your mind. Why bother taking your big toe along for the journey, or your wisdom teeth or for that matter the rest of the biological you along for the ride? All those body parts are just going to age and create health issues and complicate things. They get in the way of efficiently boldly going. You can see where this is leading I'm sure!

 

If you want to boldly go, without all that additional biological baggage, just download the contents of you mind into your spaceship's computer. Because that's not quite feasible today, I'm assuming that this takes place in the future, albeit not that distant future relative to human history – say just 200 to 300 years distant. You and associated spaceship – call it the Enterprise is you wish to – boldly go, molasses style, into the cosmos, seeking out – well new worlds, even if not new life and new civilizations. You get to explore and colonize new extraterrestrial real estate. 

 

Of course for the sake of the reproduction apex, you'd need to have low weight, small sized; no real life support needed, eggs and sperm on board. Under your guidance, you get to play stepmother and father and raise a new generation, which, ultimately, in turn, will download and boldly go!

 

Throwing around the idea of transferring the contents of your mind from brain to computer needs a bit of rationalization and explanation. It just seems to me that if you can build a machine (a computer say) and give it artificial intelligence (AI), then you can build a machine (perhaps a futuristic quantum computer) and give it an existing human intelligence (the mind – same difference) by downloading it directly from brain to machine.

 

So, let's compare and contrast your ‘mind in machine' vs. your ‘mind in the brain' options with respect to boldly going.

 

Mind in the brain: Your brain has a fixed/limited capacity. Your brain is subject to aging, disease and injury. Your brain is not replaceable. Your brain is one copy only.  Your brain has in coming to terms with sensory input a rather limited range (you can't see ultraviolet (UV) or infrared (IR) for example and thus that range is denied to your brain and thus mind). Your brain needs to sleep, or at least rest a bit. Your brain has a lifespan of about three score and ten years.

 

Mind in the machine: The machine has a near unlimited capacity – there's lots of room for your mind to keep on absorbing things. The machine will experience no loss of essential sensory input (audio and visual), and in fact be able to accommodate an expanded range of same (detect UV and IR for example). The machine can be hooked up to other machinery that will provide mobility. The machine is less subject to aging and injury and in any event it is easier to repair and replace as necessary. The mind in machine option means there can be more than one copy of your mind in existence (and let's leave the ethics of that aside for future philosophers). If you wish to reproduce, your biological eggs or sperm could be separately stored for use on a rainy day (not that you have rainy days in space) – if you wish – but you don't get unlimited reproduction out of that of course, but then again you don't have that option in a biological body either in the here and now. The mind in the machine has no need of sleep, but you'd have the option of an ‘off' switch if you wanted. The mind in the machine may not provide you with immortality, but certainly something a lot longer than three score and ten, and probably long enough to boldly go for hundreds to thousands of years.   

 

Assuming this scenario actually happens, we note that at this point humanity has split into two ‘species' – the biological composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON), and the artificial of iron and silicon. Actually, what I suspect might eventuate is that you start off with eggs and sperm, flesh and blood, until your inevitable biological termination nears – then you download your mind into your iron/silicon equivalent and live to think and do another day.

 

An interesting scenario is that those initially boldly go, be they flesh-and-blood or mind-in-machine or a combination of the two – half-flesh and half artificial parts like bioengineered cybernetic organisms of which current humans are already bona fide examples  - well might these ‘humans', when they get to their destination, be greeted by their great, great, great, great grandchildren? It's possible, indeed probable, that advances in propulsion technology might increase the initial molasses-in-Antarctica style of boldly going astronautics to a more water-in-the-tropics rate of flow. If initial velocities are some 1% to 10% light speed, then 200 years later 20% plus the speed of light becomes achievable, then despite the original boldly goers having a long head start, later generations could overtake their slower ancestors and arrive first!

 

 

Let's now turn the tables around – flip the coin. Will aliens boldly go, and in the manner I've outlined for humans? Actually, given that we're the new boys on the block, that's actually ‘have aliens already boldly gone'?

 

Aliens could have seeded Earth, either via remote probes with microbial payloads, or perhaps in a more up-close-and-personal manner all those billions of terrestrial years ago. There's no way we could really ever know, but it can't be ruled out that our ancestry might be traceable back before our solar system even existed.

 

Extraterrestrial equivalents of our Von Neumann probes might be in our solar system right now, mining say asteroids and reproducing like mechanical rabbits. They wouldn't be large enough to be detectable out there. An interesting question, might they be programmed to ‘seek out new life forms and new civilizations' at a distance, say by monitoring planetary atmospheres for telltale signatures like the presence of oxygen or methane, or in fact be scanning the solar system for, say radio or microwave electromagnetic radiation of an artificial nature. They could transmit their findings back to home base. Maybe that might result in an eventual visitation and first contact by the parents of extraterrestrial Von Neumann machines. It would be a relatively inexpensive way of exploring the galaxy for life.

 

Maybe, apart from Von Neumann machines, the aliens are here – here being in our solar system, including not only the near Earth environment, but Earth itself.

 

Let me ask this, could the UFO itself actually be the alien?

 

In the very early days of the UFO (nee Flying Saucer) phenomena, one suggestion was that UFOs were alive – space critters that inhabited our solar system but now and again entered our atmosphere. These critters weren't an intelligence, just an alien animal type organism.

 

Apart from the contactees, claiming to meet with purely human appearing extraterrestrials, all blonde and blue-eyed hunks and beauty-queens, the actual flesh-and-blood aliens are fairly rare in the UFO literature – with one exception. Before we get to that, only a relatively few UFO close encounters feature occupants – like for example the Lonnie Zamora, Socorro, New Mexico (1964) encounter, and the second to third hand reports of bodies, in say the Roswell (1947) incident.

 

The main reports of actual alien beings rest mainly with the alleged UFO adduction phenomena, which should not be dismissed out of hand without due research and investigation. If abduction reports are taken at face value, then there's little doubt that these extraterrestrials have boldly gone in the flesh-and-blood. Well, the very fact that they are here, or could be here, suggests that they must, of necessity, be technologically superior to ourselves, and thus have achieved interstellar travel at somewhat better than the 1% to 10% light speed velocities I've postulated. Of course we can't judge an alien's lifespan based on our own. For all we know, a journey of dozens to hundreds of light years, at molasses-in-Antarctica velocities, could be to them a big yawn.

 

Of course we haven't actually dissected an extraterrestrial being (Roswell perhaps an exception) so we really don't actually know if these alien beings are really flesh-and-blood. Appearances can be deceiving, or, you can't always judge a book by its cover. Perhaps they are robotic with realistic skin covering (androids) or cybernetic beings.

 

Anyway, if UFOs are extraterrestrial sorties into our environment, there's no evidence to rule out the possibility that they are under the guidance of, what I've suggested above, an iron and silicon housed intelligence, which may, or may not, have been CHON initially.

 

The UFO ETH (ExtraTerrestrial Hypothesis) is controversial at best, so perhaps extrapolating to what the exact nature of the potential alien's boldly going is, is best left to the imagination – for now.

About the Author

Science librarian; retired.

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