A New Hope for Interstellar Travel?

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.

10 thoughts on “A New Hope for Interstellar Travel?”

  1. jim says:

    Hear, hear!

  2. hob says:

    Perhaps the central problem is that while our understanding of the world around us has grown and a new faith has been created because of it(Science), our economic models still reflect older religious world views, and unfortunately those views do not include space travel or stories about other planets.

    Maybe the new faith needs better prophets/story tellers…

  3. christopher says:

    As a practicing tantric meditator in a Buddhist tradition who rejected science as a practical philosophy due to its excessive dependence on articles of faith, I find this discussion interesting. In response to hob, I can only say that excessive belief in material actuality that (a primarily science-driven delusion) is one of the root problems we have. The "prophets" of science have been too successful: since our happiness is presumed to derive from material sources, we can all just sit back and be stupid while a few scientists ensure our happiness (dumb).

    Personally, I am glad to be able to accept that our material surroundings have no more inherent existence than the heavens and hells of the simple-minded theistic religions. Certainly our apparent surroundings are not productive of happiness, or I would not have met so many depressed rich people and happy poor people.

    Once I've more fully explored and realized the mental awareness that presents the appearance of material surroundings to my conscious mind, I might have more to say about a thread like this. Until then, I can at least be assured of avoiding acting out of the type of naive thinking that had scientists selling us cars as pollution control nearly a century ago.

  4. hob says:

    Er, perhaps I wasn't as clear as I should have been–Christopher, according to your post you feel that the primary goal of humans is happiness. That is not altogether accurate. Like all mamals, homo sapians prime goals are to grow to puberty/adult stage and reproduce. Doing this gives us momentary happiness(the joy of taste, making love etc..) Human social systems on the other hand are designed by a few to take advantage of our biological prime goals and place constructive obstacles in their way ie. the defined family unit, marriage before sex, material sacrifices of percieved worth in honor of god/gods, building temples/churches to reinforce/educate people in god/gods/king/state laws and world views etc, etc . Economic models that serve a percieved purpose to the people that make up the economic model.
    The point I was raising was that the obstacles which exist today are constructive only in the eyes of those whose understanding of the universe and our place in it occured many thousands of years ago, under very different environments/technology levels. Our present understanding of our universe and our place in it have changed, the obstacles on the other hand haven't changed, or not as much as they should have. Thus I was making a point that the people who make up the new church/faith (science) are mostly people who attend the churches of older faiths, perhaps better prophets/story tellers are needed…
    As for your belief that science holds excessive belief in material actuality, I highly recommend quantum physics, many concepts would match with Acharya Nagarjuna's thoughts and assist you in meditation.

  5. christopher says:

    Fair enough, hob, though I think in depth study (and consulting with actual physicists and/or practitioners of meditation) will lead you to understand that there are vast differences between meditative realization of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, the attainment of which is the chief concern of the works of Nagarjuna, and the surface-level merely intellectual musings of scholars that offers no opportunity to mentally experience the actual meaning of what they think they are studying.

    As for happiness, I think that you will find that most people are searching for exactly that. The primary cause for our difference of opinions in this matter is that you accept materiality as the existent unifying field of our activity as humans, while I shun this belief in favor of tentative acceptance of the theory that if there is some such unifying field it consists of consciousness rather than matter. You are welcome to your beliefs. Just don't try to pretend that they are anything but beliefs.

  6. hob says:

    Christopher, your confusing two points. The discussion was why resources are not being funneled to space exploration/travel, not religion vs science.

    Speaking as an Indian, and I don't mean to offend, but your thoughts/views are a very good example of what happens if people who have grown up in a western environment try to apply eastern religion.

    I know this is very hard to accept, but I will be brutally honest with you, the ultimate goal of lord Siddhartha's path is the complete ending to illusion. In the west this is taken as the parts which are not correct/misunderstood. In Indian thought, illusion is the term for everything. Every single thing. Rishi/Monks consider enlightenment a final death, or a true death, others see it as a Recognition of there being no life. An alegory would be a piece of rope in the moonlight being thought of as a snake, but in the harsh sunlight…
    There is no room for happiness, consciousness, humans, any of it in the noble path. And holding onto those things will only trap you into further illusion. Many westerners I fear try to practice buddhism while romanticizing it.
    My recommendation to study Quantum Physics was not to reinforce, as you put it materiality, but to help you see how your rejection of one way of describing reality(science) and acceptance of another way(buddhism) will cause within your mind hierarchy/duality.
    You must accept all of it because there is nun of it.

  7. christopher says:

    You are right that I have in some ways taken this conversation off track. Apologies for that. It is quite possible, I think, to look too deeply in searching for the causes and conditions that lead to the prioritization of funding for scientific research. In short, most of this is due to economics, I would think. Our collective intellegence (or lack thereof) in the area of economics is manifest.

    I see no point going any further into the "religion" debate. Having personally studied with some of the highest meditation masters in a variety of Buddhist lineages, I can assure you that your understanding of the teachings and practices of Buddhism are elementary at best (highly inaccurate and offensive, at worst). Merely the fact that you presume that your ethnicity gives you some native understanding of a system your culture rejected over a millenium ago speaks volumes.

    My recommendation would be to stick to science. If you bother dipping more than a toe into the turbulent waters of the human mind, you might be forced to explore the notion that conventional reality itself transcends the bounds of merely scientific thinking while still lending itself to reasonability.

    By the way, your opinions of what I "must" accept are noted. Enforced acceptance of misunderstood concepts is truly the hallmark of all dogmatic religion. 🙂

  8. hob says:

    that your ethnicity gives you some native understanding of a system your culture rejected over a millenium ago speaks volumes….

    Christopher, how many religions exist in India? How many peoples? How many schools of thought? Do you think you could find Buddhist there who have always been there? Have you read the other schools of thought around the time of lord Siddhartha and if their words and thoughts are so very different from his? Have you ever been to india?

    How does a monk practice meditation if he is not fed? How do the economics work out when the same monk with the same problems takes on students who must also be fed?

    I bring up my ethnicity not to show some magic genetic understanding, but cultural understandings of a place that developed the school of thought and the reasons behind it, the same culture conditions that existed then and today despite your belief that it ended a millenium ago.

    Emperor Asoka did a great thing by spreading Buddhism, but he was the head of an economic system, and the pilgrimages from foreign lands to pray to stupas he built did not hurt the tax collectors, nor the did the increased trade with people swayed to his way of thinking after many wars.

    Having personally studied with some of the highest meditation masters in a variety of Buddhist lineages…

    Christopher ask your teachers when was the last time either they, or someone they knew attained enlightenment, and if they personally believe they haven't what is stopping them? I made a point of saying the ultimate goal of lord Siddhartha's path. Ultimate. There are differences between having developed ways on how one should live their lives from the implications of what lord Siddhartha's thoughts revealed, and the final goal of those thoughts.

    If every one on this planet followed lord Siddhartha's path in ernest and sincerity, how long will humans be on this planet? Would monks have to spend time growing food and not on meditation? Who would have children, those that are not spiritually ready to walk the path?

    By the way, your opinions of what I "must" accept are noted. Enforced acceptance of misunderstood concepts is truly the hallmark of all dogmatic religion. :)…

    I sincerely apologise for having wrote that sentence in a way that made you think I was telling you to accept it (It is actually a mantra about duality badly translated).

    To sum up I have deeply offended you, and you have been polite despite it. I once again apologise. I hope you will try to think about the questions I raised and the general intent behind my words.

    Happy new year, and I wish you well.

  9. christopher says:

    Just for the record, hob, you have not deeply offended me. In my own clumsy way I am merely trying to point out that thinking that you can understand Buddhist practice and thought without experiencing them and accepting the possibility of their efficacy is kind of like pretending to understand science while disbelieving the validity of mathematics.

    As a result, your impression of Buddhism is almost comically Indian in nature. The impression that monks are the only serious practitioners of meditation is a great example of one of the most common misconceptions among South Asians. In fact, the monastic code is the only part of his teachings the historical Buddha explicitly stated could be relaxed over time.

    If everyone practiced healthy meditation, Buddhist or otherwise, we would all think a lot more clearly, in my opinion. While South Asians are quick to say "how would we survive if everyone is a monk?", I've never seen or heard any Buddhist advocate universal monkhood. This kind of criticism is so obviously biased and ill-thought-out it almost makes me wonder why I'm bothering to write this!

    Oh yeah, just to thank you for your apologies, inform you that your interpretation of Nagarjuna was variously disproven within a couple of centuries by the works of the great Indian meditation masters Chandrakirti and Shantarakshita, and to leave this thread behind with unprintable pleasure.

  10. laiam says:

    Something apparent to me is that there is always a new frontier. we are constantly exploring and discovering new depths, of the mind, of our world, in technology, and outward to the stars.

    So as for knowing it all, No I don't believe we will ever know all there is to know in the universe, but the effort is worth it.

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