Archive for November, 2010

Failsafe: An Entry Test for The Starfarers’ Guild.

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010


To drive a motorised land vehicle in public you need to have passed a test of some sort.  To take to the air in control of airborne transport you first need a private pilot’s licence, for which the tests are even more demanding. To launch out into the seaways of the world you need no qualifications whatsoever; anyone who can get hold of a boat is free to plough straight into busy harbours, estuaries, even the major marine traffic lanes, without any training or certification to their name.

So what’s the situation ‘out there’, in the deep dark reaches of interstellar space?  Is there any form of regulation that requires a would-be Buck Rogers or Captain Kirk to achieve some specific level of proficiency before they can ‘boldly go’?  Does the Final Frontier have frontier guards who can pull you in and check your credentials as you negotiate that hyperspace bypass or cruise down Galactic Route 66?

At first sight it would seem not.  It appears that anyone – at least, any major government or corporate body with the necessary financial clout – can blast off into space for any distant twinkling destination, without a by-your-leave or authorisation of any sort.

But maybe that’s an illusion – we don’t seem to be out there, do we? And with all our techno-wizardry we don’t seem to have any plans to be out there any time soon. Of course we can offer all sorts of reasons why that’s so; perhaps those reasons are themselves the test that we have yet to pass …

Ground Rules

This post explores the possibility that, just like Stephen Hawking’s Chronology Protection Conjecture (see previous post), the universe has some form of Cosmic Aptitude Test built into it that ensures that any species blazing the space-trails first understands certain basic principles. That’s not so unlikely as it might sound – very plausible, in fact. And we can see the necessary aptitude training going on around us right now.

 Let’s sneak a look in on Lecture Hall B …

“Today, class, we’re going to revisit Young’s two-slit experiment. You’ll recall that this is where individual photons of light pass through two slits simultaneously as waves distributed in space, then land on a screen as localised particles. You’ll also recall that the late great Nobel physicist Richard Feynman told us that everything we need to know about quantum mechanics can be learned from the two-slit experiment.”

“So Professor, does the two-slit experiment tell us how a widely-distributed wave becomes a localised particle?”

“Son, wave-particle duality is just one of life’s great mysteries that you have to learn to live with. We get along just fine if we think of light either as a wave or as a particle, but never as both at once.”

“But Professor, if Feynman was right, surely that duality is telling us something really important …”

And in Lecture Hall C …

“Ok class, now remember that if two electrons are ‘entangled’, this means that they can be many miles apart but if we tweak one then the other one will respond immediately – faster than the speed of light. This tells us that there are connections between particles of matter that we don’t understand at all – and those connections aren’t subject to the usual rules of time and space.”

And in Lecture Hall D …

“Einstein taught us that gravity isn’t a force of attraction between two objects. Rather, it’s one massive object – say, the earth – causing a distortion, a dent, in spacetime and another object – say, the moon – following the curves of that distorted spacetime. That’s what keeps the moon in its orbit around the earth, like a marble rolling round inside a bowl.”

“Professor, what does it mean that ‘spacetime is curved’? What is spacetime made of, that it can be shaped? And what is it about the makeup of matter, like the particles in our planet, that causes it to shape spacetime? What is matter made of, that makes it do that? How can an atom in my sweatshirt be contributing to curvature of space that attracts another galaxy from billions of light years away?”

“So many questions, Lucy. ‘Spacetime is curved’ means exactly what it says: it has dents in it, so that objects like the moon roll round like a marble in a bowl. That’s all we need to know. And there’s nothing special about your sweatshirt – every atom in our galaxy is adding to that curvature.”

“Exactly – but how? How can we claim to understand gravity if we don’t even know what causes it? And how could we ever find better ways of crossing space if we’ve not got the least idea what it actually is?”

“So many questions, Lucy …”

Graduate School

So what are the take-home lessons from this module on ‘New Science’ (i.e. ideas that have been around for the past 100 years)? What do we, as a species, need to take on board to qualify as fully-fledged (think about that term) travellers on the galactic superhighway?

First, we need to recognise the interconnectedness of objects spatially far apart, in a way that transcends space and time. In fact, we need to recognise that everything is interconnected, both by gravitation and by more subtle bonds.

It’s a short step from that to ‘Everything is a single undivided whole’ – a view strongly endorsed by visionary Nobel physics nominee David Bohm.

Second, we need to see beyond the paradox of wave-particle duality to what that paradox is actually saying – that at a deeper level there are no particles, that everything is distributed, non-local (or more properly, alocal: i.e.the concept of here/there is something we’ve dreamed up to keep the perceptual books in order). There are clues all around us, if we could just take the blinkers off.

Third, we need to see that everything that we refer to as ‘matter’ is in fact spun out of waveform electromagnetic energy – swirls of energy, just like the ghostly forms that are conjured up by the mist on a late autumn day.

This then immediately raises the question: “How, and by whom or what, are those energy patterns created?” The issue of consciousness, evident in different ways in numerous quantum mechanics experiments and attested to by at least one Nobel laureate, has to be taken into consideration.

Certificate of Spaceworthiness

These aren’t airy-fairy New Agey concepts, they’re serious science – 21st Century science. And it’s a fair bet that key issues of interstellar travel won’t be cracked until we – at least, a critical mass of our species – have got our heads round these concepts as practical considerations, not just philosophical discussion points. In other words, we don’t get to leave home before we’re reasonably street-wise.

This looks very much to yours truly like some sort of aptitude test, a guarantee that no species is let loose on the galactic community without at least a working knowledge of the ground rules. Those rules don’t guarantee responsible behaviour, of course – but they do ensure an awareness of the true nature of things.

Enlightened self-interest applied to such concepts as: ‘everything is interconnected’ and ‘all material form – including us – is spun from energy flows directed by consciousness’ doesn’t necessarily ensure universal peace and harmony. But no-one can then claim “I didn’t know that what goes around comes around”. Individual/group responsibility steps up a notch when we go galactic, and the failsafe of higher physics ensures that we’re well aware of that.

To Sum Up ..

To introduce a radically new form of computer communications not covered by the TCP/IP protocol, we have to go to the layer below that. To introduce a radically new form of travel and communications – FTL (Faster Than Light) – we have to get to grips with the layer of reality that underlies our space-time model of how things work. In doing that we’re brought face to face with deeper truths regarding the nature of the universe.

How we respond to that is up to us, individually and as a species – but we can’t say we didn’t know. We qualify as galactic travellers by truly recognising and implicitly accepting that higher understanding. That’s part and parcel of the process that we refer to as ‘evolution’.

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For further information on this subject, see this website.
Credits for space photos:
Earth and Moon: NASA & NSSDC
Dust Cloud by Merope (Pleiades): NASA
Spiral Galaxy NGC4414: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

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Superluminal: Myths and Realities of Interstellar Travel

Friday, November 12th, 2010

“Oh my god … It’s full of stars!”
Dr David Bowman, in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Arthur C. Clarke)


Many millions of years ago environmental pressures drove our very earliest ‘ancestors’ to break through the surface tension (both physical and metaphorical) of the oceans and set up home on land. It was a seminal moment for life on this planet.

Now, again, we are at just such a moment. Resources are getting scarcer, environmental pressures are reaching extreme levels, tensions both between and within nations are reaching breaking point. A number of public figures have said that there are way too many of us, that the earth’s population needs to be drastically reduced.

There’s only one option that’s in any way thinkable. Evolution doesn’t pull any punches.

At the same time a leading scientist is saying that we shouldn’t be keeping all our eggs in one basket – earth. A major global disaster, man-made or natural, could signal the end of the human race: one strike (e.g. by a rogue asteroid) and we’re out.

Eagle Nebula (detail)

STSci/NASA/Hubble Heritage Team

What a time, then, for astronomers to announce that an estimated one in twenty of the stars in our galaxy has a planet orbiting it with gravity and temperature similar to our earth

That’s around ten billion earth-like planets. Quite a lot to choose from – hopefully even without stepping on any alien toes (or whatever pass for toes).

But there’s a snag. And according to conventional science it’s a ‘forever’ snag – there’s no way of making it go away, ever.

But strong (and mounting) scientific evidence says conventional science has misread the tealeaves in respect of one very significant detail. That detail could make a world of difference – or even several worlds, come to that.

Time to check out those spaceways …


Where do we go from here?

Up until a couple of centuries ago those who found living conditions cramped, or uncomfortable in other ways, could get on a boat and head off for pastures new. In almost every direction there were wide open spaces for the hardy and adventurous to find new living-space for themselves (without them actually having to oppress those who already lived there, that was an unnecessary side-effect).

Not any more. Every bit of land on this planet now has ‘No Vacancies’ signs and conditions in far too many places are more reminiscent of an overcrowded rats’ cage than the Garden of Eden. Or, looking at it another way, the world is like a seed-pod about to burst – but with nowhere for the seeds to go.

Or is there?

We now have it on good authority that there are almost certainly billions of planets in our galaxy with gravity and temperature not dissimilar to the one we now live on. Even if only one in a million has a breathable atmosphere, that still gives us thousands to choose from.

One or two of the nearest of those could maybe even be reached in a few decades of travel, by tolerable acceleration up to a decent fraction of the speed of light then deceleration at the same rate for the other half of the trip.

But, as always, there’s a catch (quite apart from the power source – we’ll assume that can be dealt with). The able-bodied colonists will, of course, not be those that left earth as adults, they’ll be their offspring a couple of generations down the line. That’s ok – if there’s a workable planet at the other end.

If not, you don’t get a second shot. To start the process again – and again, and again – with leaders more and more generations removed from the mother planet raises a host of problems that don’t bear thinking about.

We can only infer even the existence of planets around other stars by variations we can see in the emissions from those stars. We certainly can’t tell whether those planets – if they exist – will be suitable for colonisation. A high level of wastage may be ok for dandelion seeds or coconuts, but not for ships full of pioneering humans. And even a status message home, at light speed, could take a decade or more. Not ideal for planning further trips.

Warp Factor 5, Mr Sulu …??

So chugging around the galaxy at sub-luminal speeds looking for a new home isn’t really a goer.

But according to conventional science neither is the alternative, superluminal (faster-than-light) travel. Not now, not in a hundred years, not in a million years. Not ever.

Copyright statement (fair use) – applies here.

Because that could bring the wrath of the gods down on our heads, playing havoc with the universal principle of causality, or cause and effect, and plunging the whole cosmos into chaos.

Relativity theory says that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. In view of recent scientific findings that makes perfect sense. But that same theory says that if we could find some way of getting round that and moving from A to B faster than light can (such as some form of hyper-dimensional travel or wormholes in space) we’d then be able to travel backwards in time.

So we could change the course of history by stopping Archduke Ferdinand or JFK from being shot, or even accidentally kill our own grandmother – so setting up an ‘I exist – no I don’t – yes I do – no I don’t’ paradox that would rattle on forever without ever being resolved.

You can probably think of some far better examples. But the long and short of it is that nothing in the whole of creation could ever be relied upon, not even your own existence, if we started scooting around the galaxy faster than the speed of light – no matter how we achieved it.

Quite a few scientists have written about this, and about the associated idea of ‘closed timelike curves’ (closed loops in time) which are a possibility according to General Relativity. The noted physicist Stephen Hawking published a scientific paper some time ago on his Chronology Protection Conjecture which proposes that something would intervene to prevent such mayhem.

The word ‘conjecture’ gives you an idea of how certain (or not) he is about that. There’s a distinct impression that scientists are holding back a bit with regard to things superluminal, for fear of nudging open this Pandora’s Box.

And of course there’s the question of “How could it be done, anyway?”

An alternative perspective

What if there wasn’t this risk of cosmic chaos? What if there was a ‘wormhole’ through Relativity Theory that explained all of the effects without bringing in a threat of dire consequences from superluminal travel? And what if that same ‘wormhole’ gave some real insights into the nature of space and time that opened up research possibilities for making that superluminal travel a reality? With a changed mindset on the hazards, and the impossibility, of faster-than-light-ness, who knows what might be possible?

Fast rewind now, nearly a century, to the first physics doctoral thesis that won its author a Nobel prize. In that thesis Count Louis de Broglie put forward the idea of matter having wavelike properties. That concept went on to become Quantum Mechanics, the most firmly established scientific model of reality ever. The conventional interpretation of that wavelike quality says it’s just a statistical description – but both de Broglie and Einstein were convinced it was more than that.

Practical experiments and theoretical research are both increasingly giving weight to the idea that particles of matter are formed from photons – light and non-visible higher frequencies. This idea in turn leads naturally to all the tried and tested principles of Special Relativity without the risk of causality being upset by faster-than-light travel, as described here.

It also gives a completely new perspective on the nature of time and space, a perspective offering possibilities that don’t even exist in the conventional model of reality. [As an aside, the Alcubierre drive, as adopted by Star Trek, depends on warping space locally. Nice idea (in the most unlikely event that it’s possible) - but before you could warp space you’d have to know what space is.]

A slight shift in perspective can turn a vertical stack of cubes (black tops) into a sideways stack of cubes (white tops). An equally small shift in understanding can turn the insurmountable barriers of the conventional scientific view into a mountain pass (or a wormhole) that humankind could move through to reach previously unimaginable goals, both in outer space and in deeper awareness.

Stephen Hawking is certainly right that we shouldn’t be entrusting all our eggs to one basket. It seems he could also be right with his Chronology Protection Conjecture – though that protection may come in a form that he hadn’t quite expected.

Next stop, Alpha Centauri?

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