What Science is SF Missing?

I’m brazenly stealing this topic from a panel at ArmadilloCon because I thought of something after the panel was already over. The idea was to ask which sciences do we not see very often in science fiction. Some of the suggestions included medicine, neuroscience, and mathematics. The science I didn’t think of until too late was… well, I suppose I should call it communication theory.

I’m talking about the kind of science that studies the problem of communicating with someone over vast time and distance when you don’t necessarily have a language in common. There’s the classic trick of broadcasting prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11…), but what do you do beyond that? What do you put into the signal to give the key to deciphering it?

Contact by Carl Sagan delved into that. The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt touched on it as well, and I remember an old book by James Gunn called The Listeners that played with some pictogram strategies. The most recent of these books is twenty-five years old. Other than that, I haven’t seen anything. (Though obviously, I have not read everything.)

A similar problem would exist if you wanted to leave behind a marker for an evolving race to find in a few million (or billion) years. Apart from some kind of “Kilroy was here” message, what might your monolith attempt to communicate to the poor blokes who dig it up? For that matter, what would you do to help them find it?

And even more mundane (but no less terrifying), how would you preserve our current knowledge for the survivors of some impending catastrophe? That is, if the killer asteroid or genocidal pandemic are underway, how do you leave information for the next civilization that arises from the ashes in thousands (or millions) of years. They very likely won’t share our language. They might not even be our species. If Earth is doomed to become the Planet of the Apes, it would be nice if they knew what the Statue of Liberty was about.

Anyway, I’d like to see more science fiction addressing these kinds of issues. The “Kilroy was here” marker is particularly compelling to me, but I don’t yet have a full story for it.

What sciences do you think SF is missing?

Apollo Made Science Cool

Today is the 43rd anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. There’s nothing magic about the number 43, but it’s the first time it’s rolled around since I started my blog. Apparently, that’s enough for me to get my soapbox out. So, this is me, getting up on that soapbox:

The space race, from Mercury through Apollo, made science cool. It wasn’t all white-coats, beakers, and blackboards. It was fiery rockets going to fantastic places. It was making maps and looking over the horizon. Fill up that extra oxygen tank, Sparky, because we’re heading out in the morning!

Now science seems to be about smaller computers, cosmological models, new materials, and better batteries. Even something as cool as the discovery of the Higgs boson fails to connect with the common man. More to the point, it fails to connect with the common kid.

I was born in 1967, and while I don’t remember it, I’m told I was on my daddy’s knee when Neil Armstrong took that one small step. My older brother remembers more of the space race, but I still grew up knowing that men were going up to the moon and doing stuff there.

I watched the final return from Spacelab on my grandmother’s TV, and I saw the launch of Viking II from the balcony of a Florida motel. And in a curator-curdling act, I stretched my little arm past the velvet rope and touched the Apollo 11 capsule in the Smithsonian. This was not some vague extrapolation of the Standard Model of particle physics. It was something I experienced in a very real and visceral way.

So, of course, I wanted to be an astronaut. At the age of seven, I did not really know what that entailed, but I knew that all this stuff about going into space required scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. So studies of English, social studies, and other soft stuff fell by the wayside as I pushed myself into whatever I could find that was at least a little scientific.

Ultimately, I found my proficiency for math and computer programming, and while I never even tried for a job at NASA, I did end up writing software used to design many of the vehicles that have been launched into space in the last two decades. It was also used to design bridges, houses, planes, and computers, but it was not the notion of writing useful design software that sparked my interest as a kid. It was the bold adventure of heading off into space. Even now, I hold out some tiny hope that I might someday make it at least into orbit on some tourism venture.

People debate about the costs and benefits of the old space race. The cost blew through all estimates, and the quoted benefits are often limited to such mundane things as velcro and tang. A deeper look adds advances to such fields as computers, telecommunications, and material sciences, but even with those we face the argument that we could have achieved those advances with earth-bound research initiatives at a fraction of the cost.

But what people rarely talk about is that going to the moon made science cool to millions of kids like me. My story of spaceflight inspiration is hardly unique in my generation, and while only a fraction of us went on into the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), a lot of us did. I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the actual numbers, but I’ve seen a few graphs to suggest that the percentage of US bachelor degrees in STEM fields peaked in the mid-80’s and has been in decline ever since. In other words, that surge in the percentage of STEM graduates was from that generation of kids who grew up watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

These days, there is a lot of talk about increasing the number of STEM graduates here in the US. We’re told we need it to remain competitive in the global economy. Proposals abound on how to fix this, and they’re all about education reform, industry involvement, and tuition incentives.

Yet I haven’t heard a single proposal about inspiration. No one is talking about lighting that fire to make kids want to explore science in the first place. That’s not a decision we make when graduating high school. It’s not even a decision we make when we’re going into high school. I think that decision is made somewhere deep inside when we’re seven or eight years old. It lights a fuse inside, and it keeps us going until we’re blowing up chemistry labs and crashing mom’s computer.

Meanwhile, humans heading out past Earth’s orbit has become something we talk about with nostalgia. Kids don’t see it happening on TV. It’s in old movies with retro music and in conversations between adults that begin with “Remember when…” The only time politicians talk about renewing manned exploration of the heavens, it’s always an initiative to bear fruit in eight to twelve years, i.e. long after we’ve forgotten the promise and when it has become the next guy’s problem.

So, here’s my idea. Yes, do what we can to make science education better, but do something to spark that fire in little kids. This is not a solution for boosting STEM graduates in ten years. It’s probably won’t even help much in fifteen or twenty years. But if we step up and send people to Mars in ten years, it would produce a generation of scientists that would put my own generation to shame.

If you want more scientists, do something to make science cool again. Go to Mars and do more than leave a boot print.

DARPA’s 100-year Starship Program

I spent the weekend down in Houston for ApolloCon, and the most surprising panel I attended was on a DARPA program to lay down the research necessary to launch an interstellar ship a hundred years from now. To quote from their announcement last year:

In 1865, Jules Verne put forward a seemingly impossible notion in From Earth to the Moon: he wrote about building a giant space gun that would rocket men to the moon. Just over a century later, the impossible became reality when Neil Armstrong took that first step onto the moon’s surface in 1969.

A century can fundamentally change our understanding of our universe and reality. Man’s desire to explore space and achieve the seemingly impossible is at the center of the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA Ames Research Center (serving as execution agent), are working together to convene thought leaders dealing with the practical and fantastic issues man needs to address to achieve interstellar flight one hundred years from now.

They’re not handing out research grants at the moment, but they hosted a symposium last fall to talk about issues from propulsion to philosophy, i.e. not just how to get there, but why we should go. This year, they kicked off the seed funding to create a private organization called the 100 Year Starship. They’re holding another symposium this September in Houston. Given that it’s just a few hours’ drive for me, I’m seriously thinking about it.

I mean, really, this is seriously cranking my geek.  Or… you know, something that sounds maybe a little less disturbing.

Exploring the Final Frontier on a Schedule

In the first two installments of this series, I looked at exploring a new star system and examining a planet from orbit. Depending on the level of detail you want, this could take a few days to a few years… for each planet. With 15,000 star systems to explore within 100 light years from Earth, how are we going to do this in a reasonable amount of time, even with our nifty FTL survey ships?

I think the best solution is to parallelize as much as possible. That is, throw more manpower at it, or in this case, more ship-power. Since it takes some number of orbits around a planet to map it with the desired detail, the best way to speed that up is to do multiple orbits at once by employing satellites rather than simply orbit in the ship.

Such satellites would not need independent launch systems. The ship could assume the desired orbit, lower the satellite out of a cargo bay, and gently move off towards the next desired orbit. That way, something that would have taken a few days could be done in one.

Alternatively, if a particular system has more than one planet (or moon) in need of such mapping, a portion of the satellites could be deployed at one world, left to do their survey, while the ship goes to another world to deploy more of the satellites. In our solar system, this would be the equivalent of populating Earth’s orbit with observation satellites, popping over to Mars in mere moments using your nifty FTL drive to seed it with satellites. You might even dash out to Jupiter to set one around Europa. By the time you had set all that up, it would be time to swing back to Earth to collect your satellites and their data.

In fact, if one world in particular deserved a longer, high-resolution look, then one or more satellites could be left in place while the ship moves on to another star system entirely. It could then come back after a few months and collect a wealth of information. This would be useful if you saw signs of life or hints of artificial constructs on the ground and wanted to get that 1-meter resolution scan, or perhaps even zoom in further on the really interesting spots. I would not propose to attempt reading the New Rigel Times over someone’s shoulder, but you might discover that he did, in fact, have a shoulder to begin with.

How many satellites should the ship carry? All I have is a gut feeling for bringing about a dozen. It would be great to have hundreds, but when you start thinking about the big optical lenses, these satellites are bulky. A dozen should not take up an unreasonable amount of room, and it gives the survey crew enough to check out multiple planets at once as well as a few to leave behind without impairing the rest of the survey mission.

I would also want to carry along a number of communication satellites to be left in key locations. If my FTL communication system requires boosters or relays, it would make sense to leave them near interesting worlds, technology willing. And if the FTL communication is via courier ships, then these message queue satellites should be left at predictable locations, i.e. around promising stars near planets in the habitable zones. Hopefully, these could be of a reasonable size. It would be nice to leave one in every star system visited, but failing that, it would be nice to leave behind five or ten.

So how long will this take? I think with the extra satellites, a star system could get a decent exploration in about five days. For convenience, I’m going to assume an FTL speed of about one light year per day, and say that we can get from one system to the next in an average of five days. Yes, the distance varies from 10 light years for solitary stars to less than one for places like the Pleiades, but we’re into hand-waving territory here. This might take even longer when you considering the problems of efficient routing (i.e. the travelling salesman problem) and the inevitable backtracking to pick up any satellites we left behind, slowing us down just a little more. Then again, there’s nothing to stop me from waving my hands again and saying two light years per day. So let’s stick with five days travel between stars.

So, put those together, and you can explore a new star system every 10 days, and I think that’s pretty optimistic.

But how long will you explore? I’m going to use the U.S. Navy as a guide, and while ship deployment lengths vary, few are longer than six months at a time. Some of this is supplies. Some of it is wear and tear on the equipment (being as sea is kind of rough on things). But I think a lot of it is simply the limits of the human psyche. While visiting Alexandria, Hong Kong, or Rio de Janeiro can ease the stress, the real test would be those guys riding it out alone on the nuclear subs, and I believe their tours are no more than six months.

So is that six months of survey? Well, sure, as long as we’re only exploring the neighborhood right nearby, but as time goes by, we’ll be exploring further and further afield. Even at a light-year per day, we could spend three months getting out to those worlds in the 90-100ly range only to have to turn around and come back home.

So I’m going to assume that as the project progresses, we build up some forward bases. In fact, one of jobs of this survey would be to find good locations for those forward bases. Some of those more interesting worlds could be candidates for terraforming and eventual colonization. Building a meeting place for crews to get a little rest, repairs, and crew rotation would be a decent place to start with such an effort. Welcome to Deepspace-84.

So, I’ll assume that for the duration of the project, the survey area for a particular six month tour is roughly 30 days from a forward base. Furthermore, I’m going to give them two months of downtime back at that base. Ships will need maintenance, resupply, upgrades, and so on. Plus, it gives them some leeway in their schedule if they run a little behind.

After setting aside 60 days to get to and from the survey area, that leaves us with about 120 days to survey, and at ten days per star system, that’s only twelve new star systems. Add in the two months of downtime between survey missions, and that’s twelve new star systems per eight months. Since we’ll certainly be having more than one ship doing this, let’s average it out to only eighteen star systems per ship-year.

Now, how many stars were we talking about? Oh yeah, 15,000 stars within 100 light years. At the survey rate I’ve given, that’s about 830 ship-years worth of survey. If we want to do this in as little as twenty years, that means about 42 survey ships. Maybe even bump that up to fifty for some inevitable problems that we’ll run into along the way.

Considering that the U.S. Navy has varied from 250-600 ocean-going ships over the last century, fifty ships does not seem an unreasonable number of ships to dedicate to such an effort. I’ve been imagining these ships as being fairly lightly crewed by naval standards, requiring probably only forty to one hundred crew each, but that’s still a few thousand crew.

But even 5000 is not that many people, especially considering the number of Earthbound explorers who would be dying for a chance at it. I know I would be eager to put in my resume. Even if I don’t get in on this one, I might still have a shot at the next phase of scoping out the 100,000 stars in the next 100 light years out from there.

Wouldn’t you want to spend a few years of your life on something like this?

Exploring the Final Frontier from Orbit

A couple of weeks back, we set forth in our sparkly new FTL survey ship to explore the 15,000 star systems within 100 light years of Earth. We hopped around a particular system to track down any planets it might have, and now we’re going to take a closer look at them. While it would be fun to zap down to the surface to get hands-on information, our mission really is survey. Let’s find the interesting places and let some other poor schmuck get fitted for a red shirt.

So what can we do from orbit?

In a lot of ways, this is a question for the CIA, or more accurately the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency in charge of the various US spy satellites. Most of us think of spy satellites as peeking in on missile complexes or uranium enrichment plants, but at a lower resolution, they are quite useful for map-making.

And that gets right to the heart of the matter: resolution vs. coverage area. The optical sensor in your orbital platform is of some fixed size. Maybe it’s ten centimeters or a full meter, but the key is that it’s a fixed number of pixels across, perhaps a hundred thousand. If your optical lenses project an image that represents a square kilometer on the ground, your resolution would be one hundred thousandth of a kilometer, i.e. a centimeter.

While centimeter resolution might thrill the NRO, it’s wasted on us for survey purposes, and the Earth would require at least 500 million of those snapshots. If we had that large of a sensor, we would be much better off taking snapshots of 100km by 100km and getting 1 meter resolution.

You can play around with this a little by taking pictures of things not directly beneath you but scanning east to west and patching them together, but doing it quickly (that is, at orbital speeds) could get quite complicated. I don’t know if our current spy satellites can manage that kind of east-west scanning, or if they simply have to pick their targets more carefully.

In addition to visible-light photography, we can take photographs at varying resolutions in the infrared and ultraviolet. Add in a RADAR transmitter, and we can do terrain height mapping as we fly over.

But how long does this take? Let’s assume a planet the size of the Earth. We do our observations from a polar orbit, taking 100km-wide swaths of photographs as we go. We’ll get lots of overlap near the poles, but we have to make enough passes to cover the entire equator in 100km chunks. At 40,000km around, that’s 400 passes. Orbit times depend on the mass of the planet and the height of the orbit, and on earth we see orbits range from 92 minutes (on the International Space Station) to 27 days (the moon).

But the Earth spins, and since that’s helpful, let’s hope our new planet does too. After 92 minutes, the equatorial land we pass over on the day-side is 2500km from the last picture we took. It would be nicer if it had only moved 100km, but we can work with that. If we choose our orbital altitude correctly, we can get our orbital period to line up so that we’re always hitting some multiple of 100km from the last pass, and with the right rhythm, we’ll keep hitting fresh bits of the equator. It’s one of those prime factor things, cycling over 400 swaths by 3’s (or 7’s, 11’s, 13’s, etc.) will keep hitting new swaths.

We may as well photograph things on the night side as well to capture any surprises like city lights, but we’ll mostly want the daylight side. So that’s 400 orbits of 90 minutes or more, which will take at least 25 days. It would take longer if we want higher resolution, or be done quicker if we settle for lower resolution. Notably, that centimeter resolution could take years, while backing off to 10m resolution could get the job done in a few days. Oh, and then there might be weather getting in your way.

See what I mean about the quandary of coverage vs. resolution? When flying over some of the overlapped areas away from the equator, you can squeeze in some zoomed shots of the more interesting bits, but your overall schedule is going to push your towards the lower resolution. With 15,000 star systems to get to, it’s going to be a hard argument to push for something greater than 10m resolution.

But what can we do to fit more into our schedule? I’ll be talking about that next week when I go after some of the logistics to make this survey project more feasible. Or maybe I’ll just see how mammoth it really is. Either way, I’m still wallowing in wish fulfillment, eager to don my Survey uniform.

Exploring the Final Frontier

You’ve just been given the keys to your own FTL explorer ship… what do you do? This is a thought experiment that borders on wish fulfillment, but the kid in me thinks that’s the best kind. For all the flaws of the Star Trek prequel series Enterprise, it at least had some fun playing around with the “explore new worlds” part of the mission, and I really enjoyed those episodes.

So let’s play around with it some ourselves. Assume we’ve reached the level of space technology where we’ve set up a few permanent outposts throughout the solar system, and we’re able to build some reasonable spacecraft for scooting around the neighborhood. Then suddenly, FTL goes from a surprising theoretical possibility to an even more surprising engineering reality.

The NX-01 Enterprise rolls off the line, then the NX-02, and so on. They go off and take snapshots on Rigel-4 and draw lots to see who gets the next red shirt.

Meanwhile, you get a much more boring assignment on the exciting starship Survey-4. While those dashing captains check out the Top 40, you get to fill in the gaps, and there are some pretty big gaps. Within 100 light years, there are about 15,000 stars. Within 500 light years, there are almost two million. So if we’re going to be jetting around at warp 7, then there’s a lot of stuff between here and Rigel. (Approximately 850 light years, in fact.)

So where do you even start on an assignment like this? Let’s assume we got called in early on the project, so we can help lay out the scope of the mission. That is, what are we looking for? What do we need to find it? Where are we going to look? And just how long is this going to take?

We’re probably looking for life or at least places we could live, and from that we can narrow the scope a little bit, since not all stars are likely to support life as we know it. However, we’re probably also looking for useful resources, points of scientific interest, and staging points for further exploration. As such, we probably want to at least stop off at each star and give a quick look around.

What do we want from that quick look around? Personally, I’d want to know if there were any planets, and if so, how many? And if any of them seemed interesting, i.e. in the habitable zone, have big moons, or simply look pretty, I’d want an orbital survey on them.

Finding the inner planets will be easy enough by their reflected light. We found most of the ones in our solar system without even the aid of a telescope, simply because of the motion of planets against the background of otherwise static stars. The actual motion of the planets may not help us here, since waiting for Uranus or Neptune to move an appreciable fraction of their orbits can take a while.

However, the apparent motion of the planets will help us a lot. When an Earth-bound observer sees Saturn move against the stars, some of that motion is truly the motion of Saturn, but some of it is also the motion of Earth. As the Earth bounces back and forth from one side of the sun to the other, the viewing angle to Saturn swivels back and forth. In many cases, it appears as though it has reversed its orbital course, but it’s really just our own movement around the sun causing that motion. (This is what people mean when they say a planet is “in retrograde”, just that the relative motion of Earth and the planet makes it look like it’s going backwards.)

Well, in our nifty FTL survey ship, we should be able to bounce around in much less than the year Earth takes. The idea is to take a high resolution picture of the stellar system with our camera pointed towards a fixed location, like good old Sol, and when I say high-resolution, I’m thinking about stitching together a few thousand telescopic snapshots. Then move over a billion kilometers to the left, aim this camera array towards Sol, and take another picture. The position of the stars should stay more or less the same. Anything that appears, disappears, or moves from one picture to the next is probably local. (Or maybe some distant pulsar is just dicking with you.) If you do this from two or three directions, you should get a pretty good map of the inner planets.

It might not get you some of the outer planets. Neptune and Pluto were not originally discovered by telescope but by their gravitational interactions with Uranus. However, assuming better telescopes, no atmospheric interference, and better image processing than the eyes of early 20th century astronomers, we would probably find anything down to Pluto’s brightness. Whether or not we’d see something like Eris out in the Kuiper belt is more speculation than I’m willing to make right now.

So, what do we do with these planets once we’ve found them? As much as I’d love to send down some red shirts (and maybe even some people in them) to explore, an initial survey such as this should probably limit itself to space-based observations.

Telescopic observations can tell us a fair amount from a distance, but mostly that information can be used to rule out some planets from a more detailed survey. Spectrum absorption lines can tell us a lot about atmospheric makeup, and we can also measure the temperature to some degree. If it’s 200 degrees (or -200), then we’re probably not going to find life or suitable colony locations on it. I think we can also get a moderate idea of the atmospheric depth via telescope, since we knew of Mars’ minimal atmosphere years before we sent probes. (Though I confess, the science for extracting that info is beyond me.)

But if the atmosphere and temperature look appealing, it might be time for a much closer look. Just how much of a look can we actually take from space? I’ll take a stab at that next week.

Anything else you’d want from your initial system survey?

Religion in Science Fiction

Wow, just putting “religion” and “science” in the same sentence seems enough to ignite a firestorm of controversy, but I’ve been thinking lately about the presence (or lack) of religion in science fiction. Religion fares pretty well in fantasy, with the gods often showing up to speak up for themselves, but religion has not fared nearly as well in science fiction.

Much of this is because of the ongoing culture war between science and religion here in America. Proponents of science don’t want to see religion in their science fiction because, after all, it’s SCIENCE fiction, not religious fiction. Also, it’s the future, and I know some proponents of science who assume that in the future, these primitive notions of deities and sacred energies will have been put behind us. Meanwhile, I know a number of religious folks who attribute all manner of evil and malevolence to scientists. Of course, many of them attribute similar attributes to science fiction, so I don’t imagine they’re all that surprised or upset at the rarity of religion within it.

Personally, I don’t have much patience for either side in this particular culture war. I consider myself both a person of faith and a scientist. I see their proper roles in largely non-intersecting spheres of my intellectual life, and I find worldviews that must sacrifice one to promote the other to be close-minded and often point to poor uses of science and/or religion. But that’s not what this particular essay is about.

Instead, I want to talk about the role religions can play in our sci-fi. Rather than assume that such primitive notions will fade with the advancement of technology, I’m going to assume that human nature will remain largely unchanged. (Or at the very least, it’s easier to have sympathetic characters whose human nature has not changed much from ours.) And from the old campfires to modern cathedrals, humans seem to be wired for some kind of supernatural belief. Whether that’s a quirk of evolution or the fingerprints of the divine I leave as an exercise to the reader. But I think that if there are still humans in a thousand years, there will still be believers.

But what will they believe?

Well, I think it’s pretty easy to argue that most of the major religions today will still be around. If nothing else, they’ve already proven their staying power. A faith might be dwindling in one part of the world only to be finding new strength in another. Notably, while Christianity may be faltering in Europe, it is surging in Africa. Also, while I’ve heard some predict the doom of Islam given the violent schisms in that faith, I suspect that it will survive as well as Christianity made it past Luther and Henry VIII. (And yes, I’m watching The Tudors again.)

But you can still have some fun with them. In my upcoming book, Beneath the Sky, I slipped in a little reference to the “Third Reformation” of the Christian church. Third? Whatever happened to the second? This one is somewhat farcical, but I have read of the Reformed Church of Elvis. Reformed, eh? I guess after the great sequin scandal of 2188, something had to be done.

There could also be some entirely new religions, and in the creative arts, that’s a great canvas to spread out on. It could be a new branch of an existing religion, maybe Rama’s Soldiers. Or you could mix and match elements from current or old religions, maybe bringing Mayan beliefs forward to the disenchanted descendants of Mesoamerica.

You can also return to less codified religious beliefs, such as animism or the worship of physical elements such as the sun or sea. You might think these restricted to primitives, but I can imagine them being employed in more advanced philosophies. Animism could be an ethical argument in favor of veganism or at the very least for the better treatment and respect for meat animals. Sun worship, or for that matter ocean worship, tree worship, or whatever, could signify a deeper connection to and respect for the natural world. In this kind of system, the sun need not become the personified Ra to be worshipped. Rather, believers need only develop rituals and practices to express their appreciation for the friendly star and the universe that placed it there.

You can even invent a few things out of whole cloth, like a philosopher who starts a new movement. In my Hudson Confederacy universe, I’ve made oblique references to a Master Shiana and his epic tome “The Path of Fury”. I haven’t figured them out yet, but so far, they don’t look like folks you want to cross. I suspect it’s going to be some kind of machismic refutation of elements of Confusionism or some other reasonably sane or ethical belief system.

But whatever it is that they happen to believe, it’s what they do that makes for interesting stories. Certainly, not every story with religion in it needs to be a holy war, but at the very least, I like to see characters with religious beliefs and see how those beliefs affect their actions. For example, consider a murderer and his punishment. Will the disciple of Master Shiana be vengeful? Will the devout Catholic urge forgiveness? Or will the animist say that it is time to release his spirit back into the Great River?

While it can be fun to steep yourself into one particular monoculture and play with all its little permutations, it’s the intersection between these beliefs that I find most interesting. I already said that not every story has to be a holy war, but to be clear, not every story CAN be a holy war. Muslims will walk past St. Nike’s cathedral on Ganymede. Buddhists will book passage with the Jewish interstellar captain. And yes, even the Martian Reformed Baptist will buy his new regolith concrete mixer from the hedonistic neo-Mayan. He just won’t go swimming with him.

Now, before I go off and leave the impression that religion is entirely absent from SF, I want to toss a few places I’ve seen it:

  • Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai universe had a religious movement called “The Friendlies”. I never got a good feel for their beliefs, and all too often they were mostly presented as trouble-makers.
  • Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow was about a first contact mission between aliens and… the Jesuits.
  • Babylon 5 delved into a number of different religious systems, complete with discussions of souls, reverence for the Book of G’Quon, and even notions of sin and forgiveness.
  • Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series is an excellent mix of religion and science fiction, though the SF elements do not become readily apparent until later in the series. I’m currently working my way through book 4 of 5, so NO SPOILERS!!!
  • And the more recent Battlestar Galactica reboot dealt with some serious pantheistic-monotheistic friction. (But again, my wife has not yet seen them all, so NO SPOILERS!)

Any others that you’ve enjoyed? Any that you’ve detested?

And finally, a little plug. I will be releasing my first novel very soon, hopefully by the end of this week. It deals with a group of neo-Calvinists heading off to found their own colony, but something happens along the way. Stay tuned through the week to find out just what that is.

New Take on the Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox is a classic conundrum both in science and in science fiction. After working with others in 1950 to make a back-of-the-napkin estimate of the number of alien civilizations, Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody?” That is, if alien civilizations are common, why haven’t we found them?

In the original formulation, it was proposed that an alien civilization could send out a wave of interstellar colonization to nearby worlds, and after 10,000 years, those worlds could send out a second wave of colonization, and so on, 10,000 years at a hop. If an alien civilization had even a million year head start on humanity, then this glacial but exponential rate of expansion would have gone through a hundred generations by now, doubling the inhabited worlds each time, resulting in about 1030 colonies, or more stars than there are in the Milky Way galaxy. So again, where is everybody?

Even if you discount the possibility of interstellar colonization – it just might be a LOT harder than it looks – there’s still the matter of radio transmissions. We’ve been listening for a few decades now. Why haven’t we heard anyone?

There are a lot of possible explanations. I read an excellent book once: Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It put forth fifty possible solutions to the paradox. Some were a bit fanciful, but most went after the notion that the universe is teeming with aliens. In fact, most serious attempts at this go after the difficulty of evolving such a technological civilization. In doing so, they are updating the original values of the variables in the famous Drake equation.

Famous Drake Equation?

Well, it’s famous if you were raised on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos like I was.

The Drake equation is an attempt to estimate the number of technological civilizations in our galaxy at present. It deals with estimates of the number of earth-like planets, the probability of starting life on those planets, of evolving intelligence, and so forth. The final term in the equation is the lifespan of these civilizations. If they last for millions of years, then even rare origins would add up to quite a chorus, but if they tend to die off quickly, then they could all be brief cries against a backdrop of silence.

It’s this last term I want to talk about today. How long do we have? Usually debate around this term looks at possible causes of our doom and ways we might hope to escape to live another day, but a couple of years ago, I ran into a different take on it. It proposed that all independent civilizations will eventually collapse, whether it be through random catastrophe, resource depletion, or more likely simple boredom with life, the universe, and everything. The only escape was through the spark of renewed curiosity that would accompany the discovery of another civilization.

A couple of Ukranian fellows, Bezsudnov and Snarskii, put forth what they called the “bonus stimulation” model. The available white paper is an imperfect English translation, so it’s not the easiest read. Still, if you’re geeky enough, give it a shot.  Their basic idea was to look at a system were each civilization got to survive and expand for T0 time, and then it would slowly collapse back in on itself and die. However, if it encountered another civilization before that, it got to expand again for the bonus time Tb. They then set it up as a cellular automata simulation, like the old computer “game of life” some of us remember from the 80’s.

(From their paper, this shows five civilizations, some expanding and intersecting and some declining towards death.)

They played around with various parameters, but it really boiled down to three: the frequency of new civilizations, their initial lifespan of T0, and the amount of bonus time (Tb) they got after encountering another civilization. After running different simulations with lots of different values, what they found was that there are only two kinds of universes: those where everyone is alone forever, and those where intelligent civilizations expand and fill the universe. There was essentially no middle ground.

How can that be?

Well, if there aren’t enough civilizations or their lives are too short even with the occasional added bonus, then everything dies out in relative isolation. If we live in a universe like that, then we’ll never find anyone, or at best, we and the Rigellians will party for a bit before going gently into our mutual good nights.

However, if there are enough civilizations and they last long enough then that bonus time starts building on itself. It gives civilizations enough time to find not just that first other but then time to find more, giving them time to find more and more, expanding as they go. It looks a lot like ice crystals forming and spreading as water makes the transition from liquid to solid.

In fact, these Ukrainian researchers likened it a state change in matter. As those parameters (frequency, T0, and Tb) reached a certain threshold, the simulated universes all switched over, just like water dropping down to the freezing point. Once the conditions are right, it just happens.

But what does that mean for us? If their supposition is true, which kind of universe are we in, the lonely hearts club or the one where we get by with a little help from our friends? Unfortunately, we can’t tell… yet. That’s just it. It’s too early to tell.

On the face of it, there are three possibilities, all of which would look the same to us today.

1. We’re doomed to be the lonely hearts. There simply isn’t anyone else close enough to help us continue forward. We can enjoy the ride while it lasts, but eventually that ten thousandth generation will fail us, and Shakespeare will be gone forever.

2. There are enough civilizations out there that it’s eventually going to be one hell of a party, but we got here too early. The ever-expanding wave of universal (or at least galactic) civilization will come across our ruins and mourn us. They might be able to salvage Shakespeare, but they’ll never be able to hear it in the original Klingon.

3. Again, it’s going to be one hell of a party, but we’re still on our way there. We’ll meet up with some friends along the way, and by the time we get there, we’ll be doing Rigellian reinterpretations of Romeo and Juliet with Carnuth tossed in to make it understandable to those races with three genders.

I am certainly hoping for that third possibility, but there’s no evidence pointing to it.. There’s also not much I can do except promote science and the notion of expansion and survival. Other than that, there’s not much more we can do but hope.

Or can we game the system somehow?

I read this white paper shortly after it was published, and I’ve been mulling it over in my head ever since. If you found your civilization was on the decline, and you were still alone, what could you do? It might be too late to save yourselves, but could you still find some way to affect the final results?

Maybe you could. One way that comes to mind is spread evidence of yourself. If your society has become too bored to continue – as one woman said, “If I have to watch Tosca one more time, I will throw myself into the orchestra pit!” – you might be able to rely on technology to press on for you.

Send out a fleet of self-replicating Von Neumann probes. Make them smart enough to keep at it, but not so smart that you’re launching Saberhagen’s fleet of Berserkers. Have them leave markers behind. Put them in interesting places. Build them to last. They don’t have to do much beyond announcing their alien origin. It might not give as much bonus time as a live encounter with interactive aliens, but it would be something.

If your probes are flexible enough, try having them seed the occasional world with some simple life forms. They don’t have to hover around prodding life towards intelligence and civilization. Just get some simple DNA going or retrieve samples and push them from catalytic feedback systems into fully-blown single-cell organisms. Most of them won’t go anywhere, but a few of those seeds would take root. It might not be much, but it could increase the frequency of civilizations cropping up.

With efforts like that, you just might be able to nudge the parameters of the universe from the lonely hearts club into the phase change of the big party. You’ll never make it yourself, but that shouldn’t stop you from sending out the invitations.

There’s probably a good story in there. Maybe it’s the role we humans are destined to play as our own civlization winds down thousands of years from now.

Or maybe… maybe it’s already happened, and we just haven’t found our invitation yet.

Review: What if the Moon Didn’t Exist?, by Neil Comins

This was an interesting little collection of what-if scenarios, exploring several Earths that never were along with a few Earths that I hope won’t be.

The first chapter explores that very question, i.e. what if the moon didn’t exist? It then goes on to explain the moon’s origins and how the earth would be different without it. This ran from the lower tides to the shorter day and other surprising tidbits.

Later chapters explore Earth with a closer moon, Earth with a 90-degree axis tilt, and an Earth with a larger sun. We also get some lovely disaster scenarios of nearby supernovas, another star passing through our solar system, and my personal favorite, the effect on Earth of the impact of a black hole, both big and small.

I confess there were a few bits that dragged for me, mostly on evolutionary impacts, but the astronomical and geological explanations were great. He’s apparently written a follow-on book to explore some other scenarios, titled What if the Earth Had Two Moons?  I’ve already sent the sample to my Kindle, so we’ll see if it grabs me.