For more than a decade, at least some of the more “realistic” or “mundane” among the science fiction crowd — including various proportions of readers, writers, and critics — have been suggesting that the idea of interstellar travel is somewhere between unlikely and totally impossible in a practical sense. So I happened to be very pleased when I read in the November 26th edition of New Scientist that two new approaches to interstellar travel had been trotted out — one of which essentially revisits the idea of the Bussard interstellar ramjet… except the propellant would be dark matter, which is far more plentiful in interstellar space than the comparatively few atoms of hydrogen that made the original Bussard concept unlikely to be successful in significantly reducing travel time to even nearby stars. The other involves the creation of an artificial black hole that radiates Hawking radiation for propulsion.
Coming up with a theoretical model for either approach is, of course, a far cry from even an engineering design, let alone a prototype, especially when the composition of dark matter has not even been determined and when we don’t yet have the engineering know-how to create anything close to a black hole, but these theoretical approaches do bring some hope to the idea that we humans may yet escape the confines of a single solar system in some fashion other than massive asteroid-sized generation ships that no government or corporate entity will ever commit the resources to build.
One of the aspects of interstellar travel that fascinates me, and more than a few others, is the hope that it might at least give a jolt to the political and cultural emphasis on limitations and upon the glorification of the small — from ever-smaller and ever more necessary electronic gadgets that tie people into self-selected and socially and culturally limited peer groups to a lack of understanding about just how immense, wide, wonderful — and awful — the universe is… and how unlikely what lies out there can be conveniently catalogued into neat and small packages designed just for human use and understanding.
Will we ever understand it all?
Who knows? But we certainly won’t if we don’t keep looking outward and striving for more than a way to use science and new knowledge for a quick buck in the next fiscal year… or quarter.
I’d certainly rather have either a black hole starship or a dark-matter-ramjet than the new and improved pocket iPhone and its sure-to-be innumerable successors.