When Colonizing The Galaxy, Do As The Romans Do

I was going through some old books to find things to take back to the Strand and I came across a book called Where Is Everybody?. It presents a number of different possible reasons why we haven’t found any evidence of alien life even though the universe is so big and so old that other advanced civilizations ought to exist. This is also known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Seeing this book again reminded me that in college I took an astronomy class and our professor asked us to try to come up with a reason to explain Fermi’s Paradox. Although I had entered school as an astronomy major, I was a Latin major by this point and was taking a lot of classes about Roman history. Because of what I was studying at the time I was coming at this from an unusual angle and I remember the professor mentioning to me that he hadn’t heard my explanation before (I can’t remember if the Where Is Everybody? book had this or not).

My basic point was that one of the big assumptions about this topic might be wrong. It is assumed that if alien civilizations have the ability to travel interstellar distances then they will be able to colonize all of the stars in the galaxy in a relatively short period of time. So, some people argue that there can’t be other advanced civilizations out there since we haven’t been colonized yet.

Using Rome as an example though, I think there is reason to think that there is a natural limit to how far any civilization can expand. If you look at a map of the empire at it’s height, it forms a rough circle centered on Rome. The Roman military could have gone into Scotland, Germany or other areas beyond their frontier, but for practical reasons the extent of their empire was fixed by the speed of travel and communication. If an emperor went to fight a campaign and got too far away from Rome, they became vulnerable to a foreign invasion or civil war since it would take so long to hear about it and then get back home to respond.

This same idea could apply to space faring culture as well. I think it is much more likely that advanced civilizations will stay centered in a small area where communications, travel and trade can happen relatively quickly (unless tesseracts or superluminal flight is possible.). It’s certainly appealing to think of a galaxy wide civilization, like Asimov’s Foundation series or Star Wars, but alien life is probably scattered in isolated pockets and separated by huge distances.

Now that the Allen Telescope Array is starting to begin observations, I guess we only have to sit back, install SETI@home on our computers, and wait to see if we can find out where everyone is.

Is There A Whale Constellation?

I just finished reading Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. It covered a range of different space topics and I found it interesting to see how much has changed since the book came out in 1994. He talks about one day landing a probe on Titan, for instance.

At the beginning of each chapter is also a quote pulled from a wide range of different places. I scanned back through after finishing and it seems that more quotes came from Moby Dick than anywhere else. I was forced to read that book in high school and I only remember long digressions about the origin and use of ambergris. It’s one of those books I probably would have enjoyed if I had read it by choice, so I think I might go back and read it again.

For reference, those quotes were:

Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn.

The great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open.

It’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago.

(To somehow bring the space and Melville threads together, I wanted to see if there was a constellation of a whale. Turns out that there is and it is called Cetus.)

There was one other non-whale-related quote that I liked and wanted to include in this post. It is from Rainer Maria Rilke:

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
To give up customs one barely had time to learn.

I think I’m done reading space books for a while. Next up, a collection of essays* by David Foster Wallace.

* The one with the piece about lobsters, not the one with the piece
about cruises

Two Space Links

I like reading about space topics in general, but I’m particularly interested in issues related to open source software and alternative energy. I recently came across information about each of these that I wanted to share.

This article mostly talks about the free and open source software that is used by NASA in its missions and on the ground. There is a little information about NASA contributing bug fixes and features back to the community, but the article explains that this often runs counter to existing government contracting rules.

This blog is part of a National Security Space Office study on the feasibility of space solar power. This concept has been looked at several times in the past, but there are big challenges with the technology. There are big potential payoffs though, so it is certainly something to take seriously. I did some research on this a few years ago and wrote Whatever happened to solar power satellites?

The Open Source Space Software Community

Next week at OSCON, I am going to be giving half of a presentation on The Open Source Space Software Community (Jessy Cowan-Sharp from the NASA Ames Research Center is going to give the other half). The presentation is going to look at some of the specific challenges involved with using open source software in space applications, including export control issues and contributing to open source projects as a civil servant. This is scheduled for Friday, July 27 at 11:35am – 12:20pm, so please stop by if you’re interested.

Update: The slides from the presentation are now available.

One Hundred Years From Now

I just finished reading The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist’s Guide. Since there have now been five space tourists and there will be many more in (probably) a few years, a book describing what you need to look out for while visiting Io doesn’t seem as science fictiony as it would have a few years ago.

This is not a review (go here for that). I did want to talk though about an assumption the book makes that the final space frontiers for this century will be the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter. Even getting out that far seems a bit far fetched today, but in just twelve years in the 20th century we went from launching a small ball into orbit to sending people to the moon. What if we use that pace as a base for predicting the future instead of the more leisurely pace of the space program in the last 40 years?

Although we most likely won’t get anyone to Mars until the 2030s, people could have landed on Mars back in the early 1980s if we had decided to do that. After the first moon landing, NASA pitched a Mars expedition to the White House based on an evolution of the Apollo infrastructure. At that rate, sending people to Saturn by 2001 seems reasonable (that was the destination in the book 2001: A Space Odyssey but not the movie since apparently the prop people couldn’t make rings that looked convincing on film).

So this is all to say that I don’t think the Jovian moons will be the limit of things by the end of the 21st century. Why not assume that there will already by tourists heading toward a small rocky planet orbiting a nearby star in a huge ship that uses some bizarre technology we couldn’t even guess at today? Check back in 93 years and we’ll see where we are.

By the way, I still haven’t finished the book about Rome. I only have about 45 pages left and I’m not going to start reading something else until that is done, so I’ll post about that soon.

Why Pluto Matters

The most interesting class I took in school was called Science, Knowledge and Technology and it covered different theories about how new ideas are created and diffused. I wrote a paper for that class looking at why Pluto’s status as a planet was being challenged and why so much attention was being focused on the subject. This was written last year right at the time that the International Astronomical Union ruled that there were only 8 planets and Pluto was not one of them.

I wanted to try to get the paper published somewhere, but never had the time to devote to it during school. Now that I’ve graduated and have some time, I think the subject might not be so relevant anymore. I would be interested in getting people’s thoughts and comments on what I’ve written though, so I’m posting it here if anyone is interested.

The first half of the paper covers how the number, and even the order, of the planets has changed numerous times before. The last part explains how this scientific issue doesn’t have a scientific solution. Basically, Pluto is whatever astronomers decide to call it and there is no scientific test that can be applied to resolve the dispute.

I started thinking of this paper again recently when I read an article about a new book on Pluto that argued the exact opposite position: the issue is a scientific question, not a matter of public opinion or a decision to be made by NASA or a panel of distinguished astronomers. I clearly don’t agree with this point of view, but what do you think?