Cordial Deconstruction

Observations from our shared single objective reality in a materialistic, naturalistic, & macro-deterministic universe.

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Archive for the ‘Stephen Hawking’ Category

Space Post Page Added

Posted by Karl Withakay on October 6, 2010

I now have a page with links to all my space themed posts.  I know you can use the space tag, but that returns full posts instead of just post titles and links.  Also, many of my posts that are not primarily space themed have space tags, and I wanted to provide a place to go to that lists the collection of posts which are exclusively dedicated to space topics.

Space Posts:  http://blog.cordialdeconstruction.com/space-posts/

Posted in Science, Space, Stephen Hawking, This Blog | Leave a Comment »

Where Does Stephen Hawking Think We Can Go?

Posted by Karl Withakay on August 11, 2010

Stephen Hawking thinks we need to start looking for another home- not necessarily a replacement, but a summer home, perhaps.  He says our existence is fragile enough that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket and that we need to hedge our bets by spreading humanity to other worlds, just in case something happens here.

I admit that we face all sorts of threats, both from ourselves flirting with disaster and from the universe potentially trying to kill us as well.  Hawking cites climate change, and nuclear or biologic war as man made threats to humanity.  We also face threats we have little power to influence, such as an asteroid impact or a gamma ray burst aimed right at us.

Hawking says “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million”.  So what are our options, really?  I’ve already covered the relative implausibility and impracticality of interstellar space travel in a previous series of posts (here, here, and here), and we’re not talking about a little exploration scout ship here, we’re talking about an big, massive ark.  It’s arguably questionable whether we would ever have the resources to reseed ourselves on a planet orbiting a distant star if we somehow managed to find one suitable enough to relocate to.  Certainly in the 200 year time frame, we have to think more locally.  We’re talking Mars or one the large moons of the solar system.  Saturn and its moons are a long way out, and the amount of sunlight that reaches Saturn is about 1% of what reaches Earth; that’s not exactly a good setup for a self sustained civilization with no support from the potentially destroyed Earth.  Jupiter is a little closer, but the Jovian system still gets only 4% the solar energy Earth does and 3 of the 4 large moons are bathed in high levels of radiation due to Jupiter’s magnetic field to boot.  As Mercury is too close to the sun, and Venus is pretty much worse than we could hope to make Earth by ourselves, this leaves the Moon or Mars as the most likely candidates.  Mars gets about 44% the solar energy Earth does, and that’s likely enough to use to provide energy and grow crops, plus it has water and a (very) thin atmosphere.  It has no magnetic field to protect against cosmic rays , but we’ve got to work with what we have.

But, how practical is creating a reservoir of humanity on mars or the moon?  We’re not talking about a base or an outpost, we’re talking about a fully self sustained, independent colony here that has to be able to survive on its own.  It has to support a large enough population to provide sufficient genetic diversity to allow our species to survive, at least 1000 people, and it probably needs to be able to grow.  Sure Mars has water and solar energy, and with those two things, you can also have oxygen, but how independently habitable can you make it within 200 years?  How bad would the devastation to the Earth have to be before Mars was more survivable than Earth?  You either have to terraform Mars to make it earthlike enough to support an agrarian civilization , or build an entire self contained infrastructure capable of supporting itself without any support or resources from Earth.  Frankly, if an extinction level asteroid hits the Earth in the next 200 years, my money is on the people who stay behind on Earth; they’ve got a lot more to work with.  A devastated Earth is probably a safer bet than Mars.  If we had the resources and technology to terraform Mars enough to make it habitable independent of technology (technology requires infrastructure over the long term to keep it going), we’d probably be able to neutralize global warming and clean up all the pollution to boot here at home.

Any refuge inside the solar system only works for Earth specific disasters anyway.  Everything in Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies after chapter one would be just as bad for any other location in the Solar System as it would be for the earth, and I’ve previously covered that I don’t consider interstellar travel particularly likely or practical.

If we want humanity to survive really long term, we better hope we do find a way to get humanity to the stars.  Even if we get lucky and dodge all the bullets we and the universe have aimed at us, the sun’s out to get us.  In a billion years, the Earth will definitely be uninhabitable, and nine or so billion years after that, the sun will be a burned out white dwarf providing very little energy to whatever is left orbiting it at that time.  However, even if we manage practical interstellar travel, we’d only be delaying our inevitable doom.  One way or another, there will be an end to the universe as we know it.  Whether it’s a heat death where all stars are burned out and everything in the universe is in thermal equilibrium making work or energy transfer impossible, a big rip, a big crunch, or the decay of ever proton in the universe, eventually there won’t be any place in the universe for humanity to survive.  Sure, we should do what we can to stay alive, but maybe what’s really important is how we live while we are around.  After all, that’s all we really can control.  In the words of Phil Plait at TAM8, “Don’t be a dick.”

EDIT 8-12-10:  Stephen Hawking also has expressed the thought that the possibility that we might be invaded and killed by extraterrestrials is another reason why our existence here on Earth is tenuous, but I’ve already addressed why we shouldn’t worry about being invaded by ET in the posts I cited above. (here, here, and here)

EDIT II 8-12-10:  Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks colonizing other world is prohibitively impracticable.  PZ Meyers has an interesting post this morning where he discusses a post by Charlie Stross that discuses the same idea of how it is  just so absurdly impracticable that it is essentially impossible.

Posted in Criticism, Science, Space, Stephen Hawking | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Final Follow-Up on the Probability of an Alien Invasion

Posted by Karl Withakay on June 3, 2010

This post is part 3 of my Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking’s comments about contact with alien intelligences being risky.  Part one was a general overview of why alien visitation/invasion is highly unlikely.  Part two involved some rough numbers regarding the energy requirements for interstellar space travel at the near light speed velocities required to get anywhere in a remotely reasonable time frame.

In this post I will address the hypothetical “what if” scenario where some advanced alien intelligence has made a fundamental advance/ breakthrough in physics and engineering that allows interstellar or even intergalactic travel at effective speeds far in excess of the speed of light at a relatively low energy cost.

So, what if it is possible?  What if the laws of physics as we know them need to be rewritten or at least get greatly expanded, and it turns out it is possible to travel interstellar distances in practical time frames instead of decades, centuries, or longer?  Further, what if it is possible to do so with a relatively low energy cost instead of needing energy equivalent to tens of thousands of thermonuclear weapons or the yearly outputs of thousands of nuclear reactors?

Well, in short, in that case we’re probably screwed, and there’s still no reason to worry about it because there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Any alien civilization that advanced would probably be so far beyond us technologically that we probably couldn’t hope to resist their invasion or even evade detection by them.  We’ve been making radio transmissions for well over 100 years, and during that time, our transmissions have been leaking into space to worlds more than 100 light years distant.  I think it’s reasonable to speculate that any civilization capable of effectively superluminal travel is likely to have an equally advanced ability to detect and locate other intelligent civilizations or suitable worlds.  If such a super advanced civilization is out there, and they are bent on conquest, they probably already have thousands or even millions of probes scattered throughout the galaxy looking for worlds to plunder in addition to their super advanced observation/ search techniques they will be using from their home world.  Basically, if they are reasonably capable of getting here, they are probably capable of finding us whether we want them to or not.

Certainly, if they are capable of getting here, there can be little question of their ability to conquer us with little difficulty, as long as they’re not to worried about our welfare.  Some might point to US and Soviet difficulties in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as reasons to think we could have some hope of resisting a technologically superior invader, but I would disagree.  First of all, the difference in technology would be closer to trying to fend off A-10’s with paper airplanes, the Ethiopians fighting off the Italian Army in 1935, or the Aboriginal Americans fighting off European invaders, settlers, or colonists.  The Soviets did pretty well in Afghanistan until we started supplying the other side with modern military equipment.  Our problems in Vietnam have been well documented and much debated, but I think it’s at least safe to say we weren’t engaged in an unrestricted attempt to eliminate North Vietnam’s military capability, and they had some help from the Soviets to boot.  Likewise, we’re not attempting to eliminate the populations of either Afghanistan or Iraq.  I’m pretty sure we could do that if we wanted to and we didn’t care about preserving the infrastructure.  Independence Day may have been a fun movie, but it was delusional in regards to our ability to fight off an alien invasion.  We very probably have little chance against a super advanced alien invasion force unless we can find some equally advanced alien allies or a fifth column to help us.

Additionally, Stephen Hawking seems to be implying that if we just stay silent, ET may not find us.  This super advanced ET probably doesn’t need our help to find us.  Irrespective of all the radio transmissions we’ve been leaking into space for over a hundred years, ET would probably be able to detect our rich blue and green world on their own without our help.  We are already are able to detect planets only a few times more massive than the Earth orbiting other stars and detect elemental composition of stars with what would be extremely primitive techniques and technologies compare to what any superluminal civilization would have at its disposal.  It seems likely that ET would be able to find our rich, garden world whether we were here to transmit to them or not.

In summary:  If extraterrestrial aliens have the ability to get here in a reasonably short period of time without bankrupting their planetary economy, then they can probably find us, come here, and kick our butts if they want to.

Frankly, the fact that we haven’t yet been conquered by ET is a hint that maybe either ET isn’t interested in or capable of coming here and conquering us.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Followup, Science, Skepticism, Space, Stephen Hawking | 3 Comments »

Follow-Up: Energy Requirements of Interstellar Travel

Posted by Karl Withakay on May 2, 2010

This is a follow-up to my recent post, Cordial Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking? (Am I So Bold?) where I discussed the likelihood that an alien intelligence would bother crossing the universe or galaxy to plunder the resources of the planter Earth.

In this post, I will discuss the energy requirements of interstellar travel.  Before I begin, I want to explain that I’m not going to show the math involved in the numbers, both because many people won’t be interested in the equations, and because this post is going to be long enough without showing all the calculations and equations involved.  I’ve also ignored the time dilation factor which would reduce the relative travel time of the journey for the passengers of a spacecraft traveling close to the speed of light, but it only makes a significant difference at speeds that are energetically prohibitive anyway.

First, a discussion of the distances involved when discussing interstellar travel.  To quote Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

A typical galaxy is about 30,000 light years in diameter, the Milky Way being about 100,000 light years across.  The distances between galaxies is even more mind bogglingly huge; the typical distance between galaxies is about 3 million light years.  The visible universe is about 93 billion light years in diameter.  (This is the current, commoving distance, not the distance at the time the light from the furthest visible stars was emitted.)  So, to start, lets rule out intergalactic travel and focus on interstellar travel from within the Milky Way galaxy to see how practical that would be.

The nearest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri at a distance of about 4.2 light years, but Proxima Centauri is not a great candidate for habitual planets, for several reason.  It’s a red dwarf, and that could pose numerous problems.  It’s also variable, which almost closes the door on Proxima Centauri as a candidate for our hostile ET to come from.  Moving on, there are 64 known stars within about 16 light years of the Earth, so let’s just say ET is coming from our back yard, say 10 light years away, though the aliens probably wouldn’t be so local unless life is very common in the universe.

So let’s look at how much energy it would take ET to get here from an unspecified plant 10 light years away.  If we assume ET doesn’t want to spend 200 or more years making a round trip to Earth, they’re going to need to travel fast, really fast.  Even 10% of the speed of light isn’t going to cut it.  Let’s shoot for 90% of the speed of light (c).  At .90 c, it’s going to take about 11 years to make the trip from ET world to earth, if ET can accelerate and decelerate nearly instantaneously.

So now we have our target speed, but we need to know the mass of ET’s vehicle.  An object the size of the space shuttle (~110,000 kg for the orbiter by itself or around 2,000,000 kg for the whole system with boosters and fuel) seems a little physically small for an 11 year journey, so let’s try something a little bigger.  A Virginia class submarine is about 8,000,000 kg and is a craft designed for long term endurance travel; let’s assume ET’s craft is the same mass.

The amount of energy needed to accelerate an object of a mass of 8,000,000kg to.90 c is 7.45 9.32 * 10^23 Joules, which is about 180 million megatons of energy.  This is the equivalent of 3.6 ~4.5 million Tsar Bombas, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated.  It would take more than four five million kg of antimatter annihilating with the same amount of matter to produce this much energy.  It’s worse than it looks, because the ETs need to slow down to a relative stop when  they get here, which will take the same amount of energy as the acceleration, so we’re talking about 360 ~450 million megatons of energy just  for a one way trip.  But it’s even worse than that.  We are ignoring the mass of the energy source and any propellant used in for ET’s spacecraft, and we are assuming 100% efficiency in the conversion of the energy source into vehicle velocity, which isn’t going to happen in the real universe.  All things considered, without going into the increasingly complicated math (which would require us to start using calculus since the mass of the vehicle now decreases as we consume reactant & propellant), we probably need to increase our estimate of the energy requirements by an order of magnitude or so.

So, bottom line, at the end of our rudimentary estimate of the energy requirements to travel at .90 c, we’re talking about an energy requirement in the order of a billion megatons or so.

OK, what if ET is a little more patient and is willing to endure a 200 year round trip at .10 c?  The energy requirements drop to ~17,000 ~870,000 Megatons of energy (or 17,000 Tsar Bombas) for a one way trip. (It’s not a linear decrease because we’re talking relativistic mechanics here.)

(For reference, doing a little math, I calculate the Callaway Nuclear Generating Station in Missouri generates about 8 megatons of energy a year.)

So, in summary, the energy requirements are massive for velocities even 10% of the speed of light, and absurdly huge for speeds 90% of c, and even at those speeds, we are limited to about 10 light years of distance for any reasonable length journey.  Why would any ET, no matter how conquest driven they were, bother expending such energy resources to plunder the resources of another world, assuming they could even find a suitable planet to plunder in their local stellar neighborhood?

I think we can sleep soundly at night, never having to worry about Stephen Hawking’s ETs ever attacking the Earth ID4 style.

In regards to the energy requirements of some mythological faster than light propulsion system, who can really say what those would be?  I can speculate that they would be much greater than those of traveling at velocities at “significant” percentages of the speed of light, and someone else can say that as long as we are speculating about faster than light travel, why can’t we speculate about some relatively low energy process to achieve those speeds?  It’s all wild speculation if not outright fantasy at that point, so there’s really no numbers to talk about.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Followup, Science, Skepticism, Space, Stephen Hawking | 12 Comments »

Cordial Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking? (Am I So Bold?)

Posted by Karl Withakay on April 26, 2010

Would you drive to Alaska to buy gasoline?  Stephen Hawking seems to think you might if your local gas station ran out.

Here’s my take on the ID4/ hostile aliens thing:

(And here is where I dare to Cordially Deconstruct the position of someone who is much, much, much smarter than I am)

There’s something on the order of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, and there’s something on the order of 100 billion stars in each of those galaxies.  We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of figuring out how many of those stars might contain planets and how many of those planets or their moons might be remotely habitable by life as we know it.  I think it would be wise to assume that some forms of extremophiles could survive on worlds more hostile than what we conservatively call habitable.  And although we don’t really have any reasonable clue for estimating the probability of life arising on a suitable world, let alone the odds of intelligent life developing, 10,000 billion, billion stars is a lot of stars (10^20), and that’s a lot of spins on the roulette wheel of life to hit the jackpot only once.  In the absence of actual data, it seems reasonable to speculate that there’s life elsewhere in the universe, and some of it is probably more advanced than we are.

That being said, it also seems likely to me that inter-galactic space travel isn’t particularly likely, and we don’t have to worry about whether ET is friendly or not.

You may think this is modern arrogance, but despite mysteries like dark energy and dark matter, we have a pretty good idea of how the universe works, and it looks like the universal speed limit (can not obtain) for things with mass is the speed of light.  The practical effect of this limit is that inter-galactic travel would take an incredibly long time to get anywhere not in you own star system.  Intergalactic travel would also take an impractically large amount of energy if you wanted to travel at any velocity approaching a significant percentage of the speed of light.  Even if we speculate the discovery of some way to travel faster than the speed of light, it seems reasonable to also speculate it would extremely (prohibitively) energy intensive.

So what might we have here in an ultra-advanced, space faring, alien species?  We have ETs that have no motivation to travel to other stars for anything other than esoteric knowledge gathering that probably won’t be of any use to the folks back home anyway, since they’ll likely all be long dead by the time the explorers got back.  Listen, if you have the energy resources to travel across the galaxy (either at sub-light or superluminal velocity), you don’t need to plunder the resources of other worlds; you’ve got resources coming out of your ying tang, and you’ve got the technology to do whatever you need  with those resources.  You’d be better off just terraforming some reletively nearby world rather than traveling across the galaxy to plunder a distant Earth-like planet.

Traveling across the galaxy to plunder the Earth’s resources would be like me driving to Alaska from Missouri to buy gas if my local filling station ran out.  Why bother if I already have the resources to get there?

5-2-10:  See the followup post here:  Followup: Energy Requirements of Interstellar Travel

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Science, Skepticism, Space, Stephen Hawking | 7 Comments »

 
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