Did Amtrak just find the answer to Space/Time travel?

I was as blown away as anyone by the speed of Amtrak’s response in creating its writer residency program. The quick turn of events, from a quick retweet to a full-blown shot in the arm for the image and relevance of the ailing service, was yet another example of how powerful the internet and social media truly is.

However, that story is well-told and, frankly, boring.

What is interesting about the Amtrak story is that it has allowed the company to take what has typically been seen as a drawback to its service (namely the time required to travel from one place to the next) and turn it into a benefit. It has enabled writers to drop out, plug in, enjoy the scenery – and go to work. And that, for the right person, can be a powerful thing.

Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I immediately thought of the next step – the possible implications for space travel. Space is vast, as has often been said as well, and we are typically used to regarding this as a massive drawback. And, truth be told, it very likely is an obstacle that we may never learn to overcome.

But, just for a second, imagine a universe in which we do travel between the stars. In this world, science fiction has typically employed one of two conceits to overcome the time gap: the first, faster-than-light travel, decreases the time between two points though wormholes, warp drives, or other bending of space. The second, cryostasis, requires freezing the human body in time to offset the aging process as the vessel travels within the constraints of current ability and physics.

But perhaps, inspired by Amtrak, there is a third option: maybe it is possible that, instead of avoiding or attempting to overcome the time barrier of the journey, humanity instead embraces and celebrates it? In the aftermath of digital age, where artistic, scientific, or any other works might not require massive storage, or heavy materials for their creation, might not the long voyages in space offer potential to think, to collaborate, to produce and to refine? Might we not achieve our greatest masterworks while in limbo, waiting to begin our future on a foreign world?

Maybe, as Amtrak is currently suggesting, a little extra time between points isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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Why SciFi Matters (#1): Bringing Science Home

Statistics are tricky things, in particular statistics based on survey interpretations, and without meaning to jump too hard onto this bandwagon, I have to admit I was floored and embarrassed by the recent finding that suggests 25% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth.

This is pathetic, not just because it suggests that a quarter of the country is scientifically stuck in the time of Galileo (or before it), but also because of the sheer, willful ignorance that is required to support this view. You would literally have to be blind to avoid the various depictions of our solar system with the sun at its center these days. You would have to studiously avoid all manner of educational websites, textbooks, science texts, or even cartoon illustrations to believe otherwise.

On the one hand, I want to believe this was confusion, a rigged survey, a wording issue, but even that is hard to defend, because this isn’t a tricky question (not something like ‘How many moons does Saturn have?’ or ‘Why is Pluto not considered a planet?’). This is a basic, fundamental concept, a logical extension of gravity, and a building block for vital, larger ideas such as galaxies, space exploration, and the potential for life on other planets. It is perhaps the fundamental relationship that dictates how we view the universe and our place in it. And 25% of Americans, a country that likes to consider itself at the forefront of research and development (although we have, for essentially our entire existence, imported science and tech advancement instead of growing it at home), have this basic, critical concept embarrassingly wrong. In other words, as far as space is concerned, they don’t even make it past page 1.

Even worse, despite the checkered history of scientific concepts in media (from Journey to the Center of the Earth to Armageddon to The Core to 2012, with dozens of issues in between), this is not a question it has gotten wrong. Anyone who has watched Danny Boyle’s 2/3 brilliant movie Sunshine will not be in any doubt as to where the sun belongs in our system. Nor do any of the planets in Halo, or Star Wars, or Star Trek (as far as I know) have suns revolving around them. Even Doctor Who, a show often noted for its fantastical elements or departures from scientific accuracy, does not violate this principle.

I suspect this phenomenon is a growing one, in America in particular, and is a function of a whole generation of students who have managed to pick up only a modicum of science, perhaps even actively avoiding it in their university studies, and have then coasted on into the warm embrace of sitcoms and Sportscenter (not that there is anything particularly wrong with either, but you’re not going to hear about gravity or space in a meaningful way on them).

And yet, this is exactly why science fiction matters: because it allows people who would never otherwise consider scientific principles to encounter, absorb, and digest them. And willingly, at that! Granted, scifi is not always accurate (Sunshine has a whole host of problems, as do all of the above-mentioned films), but in general, the more extravagant the departure from reality, the more likely the audience leaves the theater googling ‘Can the sun really go out?’ (or if phasers are technologically possible, or lightsabers, or sonic screwdrivers). And that, in itself, is no bad thing.

In short: science matters, basic scientific facts matter, and scientific advancement matters – for us, for how we see ourselves, for how we approach our world, and yes, for our long-term survival potential. However, the rise (or persistence) of willful, apathetic ignorance creates a real barrier to social advancement. Science fiction offers a very powerful tool for smashing through that barrier, and we should embrace it as such.

Taking the Fiction out of SciFi: Potentially Habitable Super-Earths are ‘Plentiful’

Not long ago now, there was great excitement when we began to discover signs of potentially Earth-like planets in the theoretically habitable zones around their stars. A number of first followed each other in quick succession, each both more impressive and more fanciful than the last, each revising our estimation on the likelihood of life elsewhere in the Universe.

The trend is only continuing: recent discoveries suggest not only that potentially habitable planets exist in a number of places, but that they may in fact be “plentiful.” Thus, little by little, the odds are improving for the potential of life out there, which, to a degree, is an exciting thing (as long as you ignore the corollary implications for threats, either via other life or in terms of extinction barriers, as has been discussed at length elsewhere).

But perhaps most interesting of all of this is that it’s now very clear that we have been, at best, a curious bystander shining a narrow beam around a very large and dark room: we have barely begun to understand the limits of what surrounds us, or the things which we may encounter there. With each improvement in technology, we discover more, see farther, deeper, or measure better, and so it seems only inevitable that, in the very near future, the odds of life will improve again.

 

Things that are surprisingly SciFi (but don’t get credit for it) Part 4: Recycling

The 1960s – and 2001 – made a strong case for future materials and space age manufacturing, what with their gleaming grey, smooth megastructures and match-cut-level sleek designs. Manufacturing, then, was the future – the ability to take organic, wood, oil, and metal inputs and come out with a self-evidently artificial, unnaturally aerodynamic, custom-built (and single-purpose) products.
This, of course, was the appeal of the space age: that we could make anything we needed to, cheaply and to order, and that we should feel no shame about waste as a result.
But plastics, at least the first generation, were not limitless: they were brittle, they were inflexible, they were very susceptible to heat or cold, and they did not decompose productively, once they had failed in their primary (and only) use.
Recycling is the unsexy child of that first wave of innovation; the undesired progeny of the excesses of synthetics production. Recycling was (and in the US, generally speaking remains) the unwanted, uncool patch job on the torn jeans, the obvious darning on the dress – it was, at best, an acknowledgment of scarcity. At worst, it was an expensive, inefficient method for pointing out how imperfect and unsustainable the space age really was.
But recycling is underrated.
Even now, recycling does not solve the issue of limited resources completely (indeed, it is likely that nothing can), but it re-awakens the potential in these items, and points the way forwards for material mining and usage. Recycling is not universally cheaper than mining new materials, but it generally does require less expenditure of energy to repurpose a material already converted into plastic, or aluminum, or other alloy, than it does to produce a fresh batch. Both through advancement of technology and through the accelerating scarcity of key materials, the recycling process has come a long way since its days as the lead nerd in the after-school specials.
And, dare I say it, recycling is pretty damn SciFi.
No, really. Consider the simple case of a spaceship made of single-use plastic and metal and sent to the stars to seek a new home. Sleek and sexy? Certainly, but also, almost certainly doomed to failure. Once broken, individual pieces of the vessel would be hard or impossible to replace, and would be dead weight once broken. Carrying spare parts would be theoretically possible, but between the need to use the space for food and life-support machinery, and the prohibitive cost of excess weight during lift-off, having significant stock of duplicates would essentially be a non-starter.
Only recycling – by which I mean the modern process of recycling, including separation, refinement, and production of new material – would allow such broken items to be used again.
And think past the flight itself: once landed on a foreign moon, settlers would have little use for their former cargo bays, thrusters, or even most navigation equipment (assuming, of course, this colonization is a one-way trip). Stripping material from the spacecraft and bending or welding it into place might be a temporary solution, but in the long term, the creation of a stable, inhabitable colony would require more stable building materials. As a result, a colonization ship would need to include a recycling unit as a core piece of equipment, both for mid-flight maintenance and in order to reuse the components of its spaceflight for the purpose of colonization.
Recycling isn’t flawless, it’s not cheap in terms of energy expended, and it may be a stopgap measure for a runaway consumerist society, but it is very SciFi.

On space exploration, Apollo 13 and the need for off-world urgency

Early in Apollo 13, when a reporter asks Jim Lovell (i.e. Tom Hanks) why the Apollo program should continue on after ‘One small step…’, Tom’s answer is (loosely paraphrased) ‘Imagine if Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and no one followed in his footsteps.’ At the time, it seems a strong response, and the reporter at least acts as if his question has been answered.

This line struck me immediately and instantly as oddly flippant and insufficient, partially due to the fact that we now know that someone (i.e. the Vikings) actually reached America nearly 500 years before Columbus and that for those five centuries, no one did follow, and partially because it reflects the degree to which Hanks’ character in the film (not necessarily Jim Lovell in real life) has become removed from the real world realities that govern his world.

The first issue is of course one of hindsight. Lovell likely did not know at the time that the Vikings had reached North America, or at the very least would not have considered it a confirmed fact. However, to someone in our present situation, this knowledge is significant as it provides both a precedent and a cautionary tale. The precedent is that of outliers, of concerted efforts and overachievement that extend past the boundaries sustainable by societal structures. The cautionary tale is the flipside of that equation, and concerns what happens when we overextend: failure, suffering, and – in the case of the Greenland settlers – starvation and ultimately extinction.

This dovetails nicely with my second issue with the response – namely, that it reflected the idealistic fervor of a true believer. To Hanks/’Lovell’, it is inconceivable that we would not continue to fly to the moon, to mine its secrets and perhaps the moon itself, whether that made economic sense or not. But of course, in the 1970s, it made absolutely no economic sense to colonize the moon – reaching it had been a primarily political achievement, a proof that the strongest nation in the free world, through a combination of concerted efforts and supported by the free market, could achieve more, and more quickly, than a totalitarian state. Once this political end was achieved, there was little left on the moon that was of interest to society as a whole.

Nor has this absence of interplanetary purpose been overcome since. The probes to Mars and Venus, and across the rest of the solar system, only served to reinforce this: outside of the spectacular announcement of life on another planet, there has been little of interest off-world to a society that has developed none of the cultural or technological structures to support an extraplanetary presence. Even now, the ISS is little more than an ultra-high-altitude observation balloon, conducting scientific experiments whose primary cultural function is to exist and occasionally upload cool zero-gravity (or more precisely, low-gravity) clips on YouTube.

More broadly, the question of whether space exploration has reached a near-term apex is one that bears serious thought. Despite plans to launch to Mars by 2030, despite various plans (including the aforementioned Mars One reality TV concept) to extend the reach of human space exploration, and despite the work that the various Mars rovers are doing, the merit/relevance of space exploration is not yet proven in the cultural psyche. For better or for worse, and James Cameron’s half-baked idea of mining asteroids notwithstanding, space exploration is a big ‘so what?’ at present, one that is somewhat hard to answer. Let’s not forget that, while the Viking expeditions to North America were the result of petty individual one-upsmanship and fortune-making, the Columbian expedition was one fueled by a global arms race for riches and dominance. In other words, despite some evidence that the Americas existed prior to Columbus’ expedition, there was no need to follow up on this information before the factors that launched Columbus in the first place made the new lands relevant. We may, unfortunately, need significantly higher pressures on Earth to overcome a similar hump in our space exploration.

Finally, there is a third, nagging question regarding the above question: “What if no one had followed in Columbus’ footsteps?” Why then, millions of Native Americans might have survived and thrived, the Incan culture might have reached new heights, and the eventual global confluence might have had a very different power dynamic. That the outcome was what it was is partially due to the factors that created the demand for exploration in the first place: an exploration born out of a thirst for power and riches is not likely to be a benign one. If our space exploration is likewise fueled by greed for wealth and power, as it inevitably will be if we wait for the large-scale cultural factors  supporting permanent settlements off-world to be in place, then it can be expected we will meet similar disasters. This, then, to me, is a healthy portion of my reason for writing near-Earth science fiction: to make real the potential, to consider the present possibilities, and to light a fire under our cultural backside and make it happen – before the economic and political imperatives kick in.

The most exciting scientific advancements of April 2013 (so far)!

This week has seen me genuinely excited by science news much more than I usually am. Some jadedness is only natural given the various life/not-life announcements coming out of NASA’s Mars missions lately, and I’m still pretty hesitant to get on the bandwagon given that the press so frequently distorts, overhypes, or plain misunderstands the science aspect of things.

However, this week has been hugely exciting. To recap:

Two Earth-like planets were discovered in Goldilocks zones

Potential vacuum- and radiation-insulating nano shields were accidentally discovered in the lab (with long-term space exploration applications)

Fingerprints of the solar system parent supernova were found in meteorites

Plus the usual assortment of little things. As an sci-fi/space enthusiast, it’s pretty awesome to have more or less direct evidence of what came before us still visible (if we know where to look), but more importantly the combination of other Earths – and maybe the means with which to protect ourselves on the way there – is incredibly exciting.

Now to get NASA some funding…