Interstellar Space Flight

Interstellar Space Flight is not impossible. I was up thinking about it last night. Dreamt about it. The hindrances are: some engineering problems that are solvable, motivation, pulling national governments together for a cooperative effort, and resources.

We are an adaptable species that moves easily into a wide range of habitats and uses are abilities to problem solve to create situations and solutions that enable our expansion into new territories. We are more likely to move into space than we are to stop over-populating the earth. The issue becomes one of cost and benefit. What benefits are there to moving into space that make the cost one worth the risk?

New technologies?
What other resources?

Why set up a moon base? Orbital space cities? Communications that are more reliable, alterable, and repairable than satellites? Defense? Scientific or manufacturing reasons?

Still thinking. Still imagining.

Anybody know of resources that I should look at for further development of thoughts on interstellar space flight?

Multi-Generational Space Travel

This morning I participated in a critique of a story that included in its premise the idea of multi-generational interstellar space travel. This caused me to think about the circumstance of multi-generational space flight. And the idea of interstellar space flight.

A group of people aboard an interstellar ship would be like a band of nomads. A particular culture would evolve as the group traveled. Traditions, rituals, and holidays would be created, normalized, and made part of the calendar. Imagine what the significance of Earth Day would be upon an interstellar flight. Imagine how social norms might be re-configured depending on circumstance. How would day and night be re-conceived? Or would they? Basic conceptions of time would be altered and no longer anchored to the the spinning earth as it moves about the sun. It would be based on a reality created by the minds of humans designing their own reality.

What considerations would go into who might be selected for the voyage and to become one of the interstellar nomads?

What possible reasons would compel a group to finance a voyage to another star system?

What advance knowledge would make the risk worth taking of removing humans who have adapted specifically to the habitats of earth and sending them into the cold vastness of space?

How would you keep the descendants of the original chosen voyagers committed to the mission?

What skills would you cultivate on board ship?

How would you acclimate people to their eventual destination? Would you force a breeding program to develop adaptive traits? Use genetic modification? Use some advanced nanotechnology or cybernetic technology?

Would your people want to leave the ship? How would you ensure that they did? How would you make life possible both on and off the ship?

Much to think about. Tomorrow– the hope of interstellar flight.

What if… there was genetic manipulation that allowed the changing of any characteristic

This morning I began to think about different ideas. Ideas of a future that is not utopian or necessarily dystopian. A future world where ordinary people are carrying on the species as we have done for thousands of generations. I have occupied the afternoon while unpacking clothing just speculating and letting my thoughts and imagination meander.

I have barely scratched the surface of possibility.

For this post I am only going to isolate one idea and play with it. I am going to take the idea of medical technology making huge breakthroughs and for a price it is possible to alter one’s appearance and shape to anything desirable.

Take this idea and let it sink into your brain. Imagine if you could look like anyone or anything you wanted to and the gene therapy was available to re-sequence your DNA to achieve this.

What if you could excel in any sport by simply altering your physical self through genetic manipulation?

What if you could be as strong as you wanted? Swim underwater with gills? Withstand immense gravity?

What if your employer could require adaptations to make you more suitable for a job? Greater synaptic responses with accompanying neurological damage? The ability to go without sleep and be more aware so you could work longer hours? A slower metabolism to conserve nutritional resources? The ability to interface telepathically with a bio-engineered computing system organized on the same model as the brain but with an accompanying loss of privacy? What would you be willing to alter about yourself to be employed? What salary would make it worthwhile?

What if you could choose your physical appearance and appearance became just another form of fashion statement? What would this do to notions of race? Notions of discrimination? On what basis would a hierarchy of social power and distribution of resources fall upon?

What if with an alterations of genetic material new limbs could be regrown? What if all disabilities could be done away with? What if diversity was solely by choice? Provided you could afford it.

What if aging was stopped and reversed? What if humans could choose to die?

Think about all of these and what they would do to society. How would society change? Would it change? Could we still maintain ourselves in some form of post-industrial revolution/semi-democratic/free trade economy when our sense of our physical selves could be so radically altered?

And what would this do to the individual psyche? What types of identity disorder may be cured by the alterations of the physical self? What new ones may arise?

Scent of Anxiety and the Arousal of Empathy

I was reading New Scientist earlier today and two different articles caught my attention. The first was an article about the development of gadgets that could read human emotions either by interpreting facial cues, monitoring the quality and speed of voices, or by interpreting things like heart and breathing rate. The article is called Emotional robots: Will we love them or hate them? The article goes on to talk about car alarms that jolt sleepy drivers, monitors that diagnose depression, and a computerized tutor that could monitor student frustration and slow down instruction.

Then the article talks about how computers can be programmed to read facial expressions accurately enough to recognize six basic emotions nine times out of ten. The computers can recognize disgust, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise. To read emotions even more accurately computers will need extra cues such as head motion and upper body position. Already facial tracking technology as it is called has analyzed the differences between real smiles and fake smiles and facial expression software is more accurate than actual humans at determining if someone is in pain. The computer software could detect if someone was really in pain or not 88 percent of the time. The untrained volunteers asked to participate in the study were right only 49 percent of the time.

Another article that I read was about how the scent of anxiety has an effect on the human brain and lights up areas that process social and emotional signals and are thought to be involved with empathy. The study was done on students taking exams.

As I was reading these two articles I began to think. Emotion sensing software has the possibility of frightening applications and the computers will not have the benefit of empathy. What if the reason that the untrained volunteers who were wrong about guessing if someone was in pain or not chose to assume that the person was in pain so that they could procure treatment for them? What if they were attempting to alleviate suffering by going with the safer bet and saying the person was in pain so they could get help? The study doesn’t give the details of how this was posed.

Further, the computer will be able to report to whoever wants the information a person’s emotional state. What if this technology were used in airports under the guise of stopping terrorism? What if this technology were installed in classrooms to ensure that another Columbine or Virginia Tech type of massacre did not happen? Would having this technology in place be beneficial? Or would it violate the idea of someone being innocent until proven guilty? Do we want not only to be spied upon but to have our emotions read without the benefit of empathy or context? What use for this technology could not be justified? Stores could have it installed to prevent shoplifting. Workplaces to ensure productivity. Homes under the guise of protecting our health and mental well being. And as that information would be collected– where would it go?

Our ability to smell another person’s anxiety makes us empathetic to their situation and possibly evolved as a way for one person to subtly cue others to the possibility of danger. It was a type of complex mechanism that very well might have come about to bring humans closer together and ensure our survival. How will we ensure that the application and the development of computers that can read our emotions and relay this information will have similar benefits?

Roving Science: Destiny or Hubris

So this week I have been doing my usual cruising around the internet in search of new and interesting science news. A friend of mine was reading the February 2009 issue of Sky and Telescope the other night as he hung out with me while I reviewed Calculus. (I get math anxious sometimes and just need someone to hang out with me while I do math until I get up to speed and feel assured that I really can do the math.) He showed me a photograph in the ‘gallery’ section that was taken in Marlette, Michigan that is entitled “strange clouds”. The clouds are indeed strange looking. Somewhat saucer shaped with a central dividing line. I did a search on Google of ‘strange clouds Marlette Michigan’ to see if I could find a jpeg or a link to post, but nothing was available without a subscription to Sky and Telescope. During the search I discovered that Marlette, Michigan has had more than its share of reported UFO sightings.

Another article in Sky and Telescope was “Living Dangerously” by David Grinspoon. In the article he writes about the dynamic interaction between the atmosphere and earth and how because of things like hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and the like life has actually been possible on the earth. He points out that volcanoes replenish nutrients in the soil, storms water the earth, lightning causes fires that clear out overgrown forests and make them healthier, etc. He makes a case that the things that we consider to be natural disasters actually foster life. In contrast there is peaceful Mars with its sparse atmosphere, dry and windswept surface, and too thick for movement and heat transfer crust. Mars is most likely a dead planet that certainly at one point had a water cycle and, if not life, the potential for life. The article proposed that in looking for life that we consider looking for planets with a similar dynamic interaction between its core, crust, and atmosphere.

I googled David Grinspoon and found an interesting article on terraforming at:

The article is entitled “Terraforming: Human Destiny or Hubris” and it is by Dave Brody. In the article he talks about the dialog between different camps who argue either that humans should or should not terraform other planets. Mars is the planet that is focused on primarily. Grinspoon is quoted and gives a pretty good reason for humans to achieve interstellar travel:

“If you’ve got an endangered species, you don’t want to have just one little plot of it someplace,’ says David Grinspoon. “All life on Earth is that endangered species. If we get to that stage where we’ll be moving from one celestial body to another, we’ll have a pretty good crack at outliving the Sun. We may be manning the lifeboats, but in those lifeboats there will be all the species of Earth coming with us (well, maybe not the mosquitoes).”

While this does presume that we will as a species outlive the Sun and avoid a whole host of other extinction causing things, it is a pretty good reason to shoot for interstellar travel and to gain some knowledge of how to do terraforming. I mean even if the Sun were to stop producing energy today, it would take 50,000,000 years for significant effects to be felt at Earth, but still…. However, that’s an ambitious amount of time for a species to survive I think, but, we humans, we can be ambitious on the whole scale of being alive in the galaxy. I mean it is good to have goals.

In his article Brody kind of questions the assumption of human chutzpah when it comes to the notion of terraforming, he rhetorically asks:
“Given our track record of modifying Earthly environments, can we safely conclude that Nature has pre-destined — or at least deputized — Homo sapiens to be the agent of its spread to the stars?”

He then provides a quote from Bob Zubrin:

“Human beings in bringing life to Mars will be, in a very real sense, continuing the work of Creation. We will not be playing God but engaging in that activity that God gets the most credit for doing. By so doing, we will show the divine nature of the human species and, therefore, the precious nature of every member of it. No one will be able to look at a terraformed Mars and not be prouder to be human.”

I have to ask a few questions at this point. Does anyone else think that we haven’t changed our attitudes since the days when Spain, Portugal, England, France and the rest of the European monarchies set out to garner resources, convert the natives, and establish dominion over what was the world they knew?

Further, is this an okay attitude or not? Just cause we can go trouncing over the galaxy, does that make it okay? Are we entitled because of our mastery of the technology? Is that our prize?

Also, are we naively heading out into the galaxy and just setting ourselves up for the mega-smackdown of the epoch? Think of what could go wrong.

Ooooo. Actually don’t. I can spin science fiction plots off of this for the next decade.

Instead, think of what could go right. Seems to me that this is a shorter list.

Another question. Just because so much could go wrong, should we not try to figure out how to terra form or how to go to the stars?

More questions. If we did find microbial life on Mars, should we terraform Mars to encourage that life to bloom? And would that be ‘terra-forming’? Or should we wipe the microbes out and then selfishly proceed? Also, is it ethical to transform a moon or planet to an earthlike state for our own purposes if it has life? Or even if it doesn’t have life? Consider the resources necessary and that we would be experimenting on PLANETARY levels. Also, what if we botch it? What if another alien species could have done it better?

Hmmm…..Maybe Venus and Mars have already been terraformed and botched. Maybe the earth was some kind of home chemistry kit that surprisingly overflowed the chintzy plastic petri dish and junior dumped it in the trash so mom wouldn’t find out. Maybe we are some alien race’s horror movie.


I tutor students on Mondays this semester and there is sometimes time between students to sit and think or read. I have been thinking about a concept for an alien species that occurred to me over the weekend and I have been speculating about the nature of the beast– this particular beast that has come up out of my imagination.

I originally envisioned a kind of creature that was in fact many smaller parts that composed a whole. I e-mailed a friend about this idea and he expanded on it a bit. At this point I am imagining a creature that is composed of several different types of components and all the components make up a whole. The creature lives on an ocean world.

The story scenario that I created for this creature is one in which the creature acts on its instincts and kills and consumes someone who is an off world being. The composite creature cannot digest the alien DNA and is severally injured and suffers a kind of death/amputation of some its parts.

I have been looking for a story line to put this creature and this incident into and have been speculating on the ecology of this water world and its place within the greater political arena of the galaxy I am creating. My thoughts at this point are that the ocean world is part of a trade federation, that the composite creature is an endangered species, and that unauthorized travel to this ocean world is restricted because it is frankly dangerous for both the off worlders and the inhabitants. The restriction is in place to reduce the likelihood of an inciting incident that could strain relations all the way around.

Okay, so I have this weird dilemma that probably arises from my own lack of an imagination at the moment.

I want there to be an intelligent species on this planet that are intelligent in a way that we as humans would recognize, but I am trying to stay within realistic boundaries of what adaptation and evolution might produce upon an ocean world. An intelligent species would not be humanoid shaped and their communication system would be vastly different than our own. Legs are of no use in the water. A powerful tail and fins move through the water. Our vocal chords and mouth structure use air to produce sounds via vibrating vocal chords, air moving over the structures of the mouth to produce sound because of obstructions, and modulating the sounds by changing the shape of the mouth and lips. An intelligent species on a water world would use wave sounds that could vary in frequency and pattern to move through the water. And then there is the issue of what would these intelligent creatures use to get off their world, how would that come about, and how would their technology evolve. Hands that produce and use tools are also useful for picking up food, but in a water environment the food could be simply snagged with the mouth. If these creatures have no use for hands to feed themselves, what other biological imperative would there be for them to have some kind of appendage that could manipulate materials and create tools? What might this look like and how would it function?

So could a species on a water world ever get off their planet? Probably. If we as air breathing creatures who need gravity and an atmosphere could conceive of leaving our bio sphere so could an intelligent water alien leave their biosphere, but how would they do it?

I think I may have to alter the ecology of this world. There needs to be something that spurs the development of tools. I don’t know if in a water environment that that would come about. I don’t want to just create something because I want it to happen like some goddess of print who deems things to be so. Alien is good. Illogical is bad. Creatures like us with fins is something that I don’t think would occur.

Then a whole set of questions sprung up. A Trade Federation of Planets presumes that there is FTL travel. Or does it? What if the trade occurred over millenia? What if we are in the midst of a negotiated trade cycle at the moment and someone is going to turn up with goods and want payment that the Romans negotiated? How does first contact really happen on the galactic frontier? We always have these peaceful diplomatic visions that have arisen from a pacifist future where first contact has occurred because of a scientific expedition– what if that isn’t the case? What if it occurs because of venture capitalists? And communication. How does communication happen with no universal translator between beings that may process sensory stimuli in unbelievably different ways? Who may even have senses not conceived of by us?

Could math be used to communicate with another intelligent alien species? Or chemistry? Would they understand the communication if we move forward on the assumption that they want to communicate? What if they don’t really care?

What if they are from a water world that doesn’t really want to trade anything but we want something they have?

Just speculating.