Cordial Deconstruction

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

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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 »

Cordial Deconstruction of a Comment Left by natalie898

Posted by Karl Withakay on April 24, 2010

In my recent Deconstruction Review of an Episode of Fringe, I made several spelling mistakes, ignorantly using the word loose in multiple places when I meant the word lose.  Natalie898 was “kind” enough to leave a comment “politely” pointing out my mistakes, and I have now corrected the mistakes.  I am embarrassed to have made the mistakes, somehow reversing the two words in my mind.  I am not, however, embarrassed to have the errors pointed out to me.  (I am embarrassed that someone noticed the mistakes before I did.)  I strive for perfection, and appreciate any assistance in achieving that perfection.  If the error is mine, then the frustration is with myself, not the person who points out the error with the intention of providing constructive criticism.

I can accept that some people have very strong feelings about proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  My Friend Orac would be a lot less respectful than I am being to the type of pedantry natalie898 has presented.

Here is natalie898’s comment followed by my Cordial Deconstruction of that comment:

“If you are going to complain about how the car battery thing doesn’t make sense you should learn to spell first. Loose is not the same as lose no matter the few times it is spelled incorrectly in various places on this page. Loose…really? really?”

Spelling mistakes…really?  really?

Are you disputing my position on the car batteries or simply choosing to be rude in the way you point out my spelling errors for some reason?

I don’t mind if people point out typos and spelling mistakes, but why the hostility?

First of all if you’re going to complain about spelling mistakes rather than make substantive comments or observations, you should be sure to use proper punctuation when you do so.  You are missing a comma between “sense” and “you”.  (If x, then y)  Let him among us who has a clean hand cast the first stone.

Second, how does my incorrect spelling of lose disqualify me from being able to comment on the car battery thing or in any way invalidate my position?  It is a non sequitur to claim that my point is invalid or unworthy of consideration simply because I misspelled the word lose for whatever reason.  It is also effectively an ad hominem attack, in that you are attacking me rather than my position.

If you want to point out a spelling error or my part, please feel free to do so with out the hostility.  If you would like to dispute, correct, or discuss a point in my review in a civilized and constructive manner, I welcome the discussion.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Followup, Fringe, Television | Leave a Comment »

Educate Yourself About Cell Phone Science

Posted by Karl Withakay on December 21, 2009

Maine is considering requiring cancer warnings on cell phones.  I could take the time to write a lengthy deconstruction regarding cell phones and non-ionizing radio frequency radiation, but why bother remaking the wheel when Steven Novella has already done an excellent job addressing the subject?

There’s just no science to support the hypothesis that cell phone use can cause cancer:  There’s no biological science to show a mechanism for cell phone use to cause cancer, and there’s no observational science to show cell phone use correlates to an increased risk of cancer.

What we have instead is an unsupported and mostly  implausible hypothesis that because non-ionizing radio frequency radiation from cell phones causes measurable biological effects and ionizing radiation can cause cancer, that cell phones probably cause cancer.  Give that to a politician who cares more about being seen to act on what is perceived to be (or can be promoted as) an important issue than they do about being genuinely productive (or about taking the time to properly educate themselves on an issue before acting), and you get proposals for new, unneeded, unscientific laws.

Indoor light is non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation with far more energy than the radio frequency radiation of cell phones, and it too produces measurable biological effects, but nobody seems to be proposing cancer warnings on light bulbs.  Oh, snap!  …  Never mind, set your hair on fire and run for the hills.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Heads Up, Media, Medicine / Health, Science, Skepticism, Yahoo Features | Leave a Comment »

Ask a Stupid Question…

Posted by Karl Withakay on October 29, 2009

I like to read skeptic and critical thinking blogs partly because I like to see how others have gone about the process of Deconstructing fallacious logic and bogus claims.  I came across a post today on The Gotham Skeptic, Official blog of NYC Skeptics, titled, “Thank You, Mrs. Walkman: OR How I Won a Drunken Argument with Seventh Grade Logic” about a discussion that the post author, The Quixotic Man got into while in a bar, and while reading it, it occurred to me there was a small problem with the chain of reasoning used in the discussion.

Here’s the part of the post that is the subject of my Deconstruction,

“Let’s say I ask a stupid question,” he says to me. “What do I get?”

I initially fight just falling into a commonly used expression, but eventually I relent.  “A stupid answer,” I say.

“Okay,” responds Mr. Euro-Twit. “So if I ask a smart question…”

He pauses, waiting for me to fill in the rest of the statement. “That’s not mathematically valid,” I reply. This throws him. I continue, “Well…. You’re negating an if->then statement. According to mathematical logic, you need to reverse the terms.” A quizzical look back, “When you negate ‘If you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer’ you get ‘If you get a smart answer, you asked a smart question,’ not vice-versa.”

Quixotic Man’s logic is basically sound, except that he and the other man were both operating from an erroneous assumed premise, that if you ask a stupid question, that you necessarily receive a stupid answer.

It is possible to reply to a stupid question with an intelligent, well thought out answer or response. The online skeptic community routinely answers stupid questions with intelligent answers every day, often ones intentionally designed to illustrate exactly how stupid the question was in the first place.

The assumption that a reply or answer to a stupid question must itself be stupid is false.  From a strictly Boolean perspective,  the possible outcomes from asking a stupid question are:

A.)  You receive a stupid answer

B.)  You do not receive a stupid answer

Both possible outcomes are equally possible and valid.  Possibility B includes a whole subset of potential outcomes including no answer, an intelligent reply, a punch in the face, etc.

I think it’s important when engaging in logical arguments to remember to examine all initial premises and assumptions to ensure they are valid.  If your initial premise is false, all the logic and reasoning in the world after that won’t really matter.

This is not a negative criticism of The Quixotic Man or his post.  I don’t have enough patience to read blogs I don’t enjoy.  The flaw in the discussion detailed caught my eye, and I needed something worthy of Cordially Deconstructing this week since Fringe is not on due to the World Series.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Internet | Leave a Comment »

No Deconstruction Neccessary

Posted by Karl Withakay on August 10, 2009

Gee, I’m almost disappointed.

David B. Caruso of the Associated Press wrote an article, “Immune system cancer found in young 9/11 officers” that immediately raised my guard based on the headline.  I was prepared for a typical, sensationalistic article based on Post Hoc Ergo Prompter Hoc fallacies, anecdotes, and an ignorance of statistics.  Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.

It was a well written article.  It presented the facts objectively, didn’t cherry pick details to support an agenda or skew the story, and made no unsuported conclusions.  Additionally, the conclusions that were drawn were very reserved and reasonable.

Points made in the article:

-Numbers of incidence of multiple myeloma in the sample are tiny.

-Numers of incidence are within predicted parameters, but high for one age group in question.
(8 cases, but 4 under 45: should only be 1 under 45)

-Currently no evidence to support causation.

-Number could be result of increased medical scrutiny the group has been subjected to.  (Will Rogers Effect, see

-Continued, increased  surveillance is advised.

-Timing is in question as research show that not enough time had  passed for multiple myeloma to develope due to environmental exposeure to a carcinogen, suggesting a non-causal relationship to 9/11.

I was even more surprised to learn from Googling his name that David Caruso does not appear to be a dedicated science reporter.  Maybe there’s hope for mainstream science reporting these days after all, even from non science reporters.

I though that Mr. Caruso deserved a Kudo for the kind of quality repoting that is increasingly rare these days:  Way to go David!  🙂

Posted in Critical Thinking, Heads Up, Kudos, Medicine / Health, Science, Skepticism, Yahoo Features | Leave a Comment »

My First Nutjob Commenter

Posted by Karl Withakay on July 17, 2009

I must be doing something right.  I’m not exactly in danger of giving  PZ Meyers a run for his money, but I managed to attract my first nutjob commenter.

  1. davemabus Says:
    July 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm edit

    How we terminated the Randi Paranormal Challenge

I originally flagged the comment as spam, but after doing a little research, I determined it’s not spam, just crazy.

I mark it as a badge of honor that I’ve managed to attract a crazy commenter already, and so I approved the comment.

If this blog ever manages to generate any following outside of people who actually know me, I’m sure I’ll rue the day I got my first nutjob comment, but for now, it’s actually pretty cool!

Posted in Critical Thinking | Leave a Comment »

Off to TAM 7 & SBM Conference

Posted by Karl Withakay on July 8, 2009

I’m off to Las Vegas to attend The Amazing Meeting 7 and the  Science Based Medicine Conference with my friend Scott of Polite Dissent!

Nearly all my favorite bloggers will be there, and the concentration of such blogging talent in one place could cause Las Vegas to collapse into an internet black hole!

I see the high temperatures in Las Vegas are supposed to be between 102F & 107F from today through Sunday.  Whose bright idea was it to hold a conference in Las Vegas in July?  Well, I suppose it will be a dry heat, but then again,  so is an oven.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Medicine / Health, Science, Skepticism | 3 Comments »

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