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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.

Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

22 Responses to “Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri”

  1. Askiyume says:

    That algal bloom photo is amazing.

    the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters.

    The impatience is something I see all the time when people try to solve real and difficult problems. Hence the jokes about needing a montage scene. One montage scene later, and you are at Proxima!

  2. Zarpaulus says:

    What exactly did they say about Dune’s politics? Because I’m pretty sure Herbert intended to deconstruct feudalistic romanticism and show how messing with the environment can have unforeseen consequences.

  3. Athena says:

    Oddly enough, the warp drive is exactly that: fold space (montage) and you’re at Proxima! Of course, you’d take a long time to get there even then, because if you deployed this anywhere near a star system you’d destroy it.

  4. Athena says:

    You can follow the link and see for yourself, Paul. I think Herbert started with the idea of deconstructing some things (nb: sexism was not one of them; like Buddhahood, you had to be XY to become the Kwisatz Haderach) but he fell in love with Paul and the critical view disappeared (although he initially shows that Paul is aware of what will happen and does it anyway, because he MUST fulfill his messianic destiny). The sequels of course are unreadable.

  5. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Interesting article, Athena!! This is a very real problem- whenever a new, potentially fascinating discovery pops up, everyone jumps straight into the pseudoscience- and a large number of people seem to be unable to differentiate between what they see in SF stories and reality. Whats more, they want to jump to the fun stuff without doing any of the hard work that lays the foundation for it.

    On Alpha Centauri B’s planet- I noticed that even the Centauri Dreams blogpost did not explicitly make clear that this planet has not been definitely confirmed to exist yet. Assuming it does, such a scorched Mercury-analogue is by no means an enticing destination. The focus should be on continuing our current remote-sensing of exoplanets, not on traveling to Alpha Centauri. We need to discover and study interesting exoplanets telescopically before we can select interesting destinations for future probes and colony ships. This is a vital step that we are beginning to take right now, but we could just slip back if we aren’t careful.

    But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.

    This perfectly sums up the connection and differences between SF and actual science- they’re linked by a shared dream, but you have to know the difference between a story and real life. I place my interest in interstellar propulsion in a separate, tangential category from my interest in playing with, sketching, and pretending to have spaceships, although the same basic wish motivates both. 🙂

    I notice that a lot of interstellar propulsion proposals are trying to do away with the need to carry vast quantities of fuel/propellent, like the various beam-pushed sails and ramjets. More likely is the proposal to pre-seed a starship’s trajectory with fusion fuel pellets, so it does not have to carry fuel during the boost phase- with such a ship, we could have the advantages of the ramjet, as long as we don’t stray off the trail of fuel!! Then, of course, you coast, and coast, and coast some more- the crew had better be patient. Even a trip lasting a few decades would be trying indeed…

  6. Athena says:

    None of the planets from any of these searches is directly confirmed — we lack powerful enough optics. It’s all strong but circumstantial evidence.

    Pre-seeding means that for each such trip something has to go slowly first to place the pellets before the second ship comes by to use them. It also means no gallivanting on tangents — you’re tethered to that path. And if one pellet has moved for whatever reason, that’s it for the journey.

  7. Zarpaulus says:

    Well, anyways “Post-Scarcity” seems like a modernized version of the Luddite Fallacy. “Replicators/3-d printers/utility fog will reduce need for labor so much those evil corporations will collapse and everyone will be able to print off everything they need on their desk.” At the very least someone needs to collect and distribute the raw materials.

    And I think it likely that by the time an affordable desktop printer can make something like a smartphone most of the stuff they can print off will be like the plastic tchotchkes a current $1000 MakerBot can make in comparison to modern consumer goods.

  8. Christopher Phoenix says:

    That’s true, Athena, and this is a problem with many non-rocket proposals- if the laser beam wanders off target or you don’t keep right on the fusion fuel pellet trail, you are left drifting helplessly. I’m not sure that a slow spacecraft has to lay the pellets, however- the proposals I have read suggest lobbing the fuel with electromagnetic launchers.

    Perhaps the care packages of fuel can use similar technologies as the “smart rocks” from SDI- the smart rocks were to position themselves as to collide with Soviet missiles, why not have the fuel packets similarly adjust their position to be gathered into the starship’s engines? Of course, not all the packets of fuel will necessarily arrive at the ship, so we may have to include a surplus to ensure we get enough. Still, that particular problem is probably quite solvable. The pellet trail idea does limit the craft to one tangent- there is no way around that, short of dragging all the fuel with you and facing the penalties of the rocket equation.

    SF authors have known the solution all along, however- just say the spaceship has an “inertialess drive”, which does away with messy rockets throwing remass out of their tails, and you are all good to go!! 😀 Too bad that idea doesn’t work outside of the SF stories, at least yet…

  9. Your wrote: “A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction….”

    While I do think it is true that much of SF has become inward-gazing and science-illiterate, I believe the cause is a different one than that put forward previously. I believe the cause is found in the pressures of marketing seeking a larger (and therefore less educated) audience.

  10. Athena says:

    I don’t think past readers of SF were better educated, and physicists or computer gurus writing SF routinely mangle/d many things — for example, biology. Leaden Era SF was “hard” only in its own imagination; also, the quality of the writing was appalling, although today’s workshop-101 stories aren’t much better. More on this: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

  11. Caliban says:

    The SF market, especially magazines including online ‘zines, has shrunk dramatically. So if SF tried to expand its market by dumbing down, it didn’t work.

    But I agree with Athena–that’s not the cause. Rather I think the cause is twofold. First, mass markets, such as TV and movies, have adopted in a shallow way some of the tropes and images of SF. This media is dumbed down, but it’s a side effect. Second, though perhaps not unrelated, fantasy has taken over the SF/F field. I’m not against fantasy by any means, but I do see fantasy dominating to such an extent that many readers and many influential editors and magazines have become allergic to science in their science fiction. “There’s too much science in your science fiction” is an all too common refrain.

  12. […] Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri […]

  13. Walden2 says:

    It has been recently pointed out by Adam Crowl that the Orion method of interstellar travel won’t get us to Alpha Centauri for several thousand years at best. The Freeman Dyson version that supposedly could have gotten a manned crew to our nearest interstellar neighbors in just 125 years was overly optimistic. Orion could still work for Sol system travel, at least, as it was originally intended.

    If Orion, which we could build now if need be, is not much faster than many other methods considered for reaching the stars, I worry about the whole enterprise (pun intended). Fusion even as a means of powering our society is still elusive. Beamed propulsion suffers from finding some organization that would be able to build a giant laser in space and then having most of humanity fret that it could be turned into a weapon.

    Antimatter is produced in too small amounts and is ridiculously expensive. The other methods are practically fantasy: So long as the promoters of warp drive keep saying the main ingredient required is “exotic matter”, they might as well be talking about dilithium crystals for such a vessel.

    Tell me I am wrong, tell me I am just being too pessimistic and akin to the people who said the Wright Brother were wasting their time. However, the more I look at the interstellar propulsion situation in the light of reality, the more I think we either better learn to be very patient or hope some ETI comes along and reveals the secrets of FTL travel.

  14. Walden2 says:

    As for hard science fiction’s hard times, I blame the Star Wars franchise for diluting the genre and the reimaged Battlestar Galactica for barely being SF.

    And now we learn that Disney has bought LucasFilms for $4.05 billion and will release Star Wars VII in 2015. They may improve on the franchise or not, but we will now be stuck with it for ages to come.

    Star Wars has even taken away Star Trek’s once prominent position. I know a number of people, including my two sons, who care for SW far more than ST because that is what they grew up with. I was deeply unimpressed with the reimaged ST film released in 2009 and wonder if the elements that made the original ST work along with the era it appeared in make it nearly impossible for any such series to have the influence nowadays.

    Have you seen the film Idiocracy? I keep thinking it has the most accurate picture of our future of any SF story to date.

  15. Athena says:

    Flying on Earth versus traveling between stars is a very different proposition if you want to have crewed journeys. The Wright brothers analogy is trotted out like a reflex in such discussions, but it’s invalid. They were neither the only nor the first ones to fly successfully — and there was the obvious precedent of bats, birds, etc. that suggested the enterprise was inherently feasible.

    You know my views on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, so I won’t elaborate further. I did see Idiocracy. I still laugh at the memory of the background scene of the car driving off a half-finished bridge, to fall on top of other cars piled up at the base.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath for FTL-bearing ETI. We have to figure this one out for ourselves, or dwindle back to whence we sprang from.

  16. Walden2 says:

    I got a kick out of the fact that the only news service to survive 500 years into the future of Idiocracy was of course Fox News. Their entertainment television programs (One title: “Ow! My Balls!”) have certainly become a reality much sooner than predicted.

    I was being somewhat facetious about aliens generously giving us FTL (either that or we shoot down their ship and take the propulsion unit – don’t tell me the military wouldn’t do that in a second if they could, that’s why they investigated UFOs for so long). I would be more than a little suspicious of any aliens who show up and declare they want to “help” us. Or Carl Sagan’s idea that advanced altruistic ETI are beaming all their knowledge across the galaxy in order to enlighten and uplift the lesser species. You don’t give guns and bombs to your potential enemies, or possibly turn them into such with such a method. Unless these ETI are really powerful and really confident. Or they are dying and they want their culture to be preserved in some fashion ala The Listeners by Gunn.

    In any event I don’t see that deliberately happening, ever. We will have to sink or swim on our own, which is a good thing overall. Besides, we will learn a lot of new and unexpected bonuses along the way that we might never find out if such things as FTL were just handed to us.

  17. James Davis Nicoll says:

    One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”)

    Pamela Sargent did it before KSR, although her Venus series seems to have fallen into obscurity. Like KSR she had to introduce narrative-friendly short-cuts, from compressing the time scale involved to invoking handwavium that could spin the planet up without side issues of “where’s the energy for this coming from” and “why haven’t the inefficiencies inherent in most processes led to the planet getting melted while being spun up.”

    I don’t off-hand know of an SF story that accepts the time scales implied by the work of people like Fogg (although there are one or two where the other problem, the unlikelihood that we will get it right the first time, is embraced): a century or more to create an anoxic Precambrian, and millennia more before you can walk around without a space suit. Taking on a project that will span millennia is epic and yet underexploited in SF to my knowledge.

  18. Athena says:

    I think one reason Sargent’s series may have fallen into obscurity (besides the obvious) is that Venus is now known to be so hostile that it cannot be terraformed by “mild” means. Neither does it have the siren call of possible past or even extant life.

  19. James Davis Nicoll says:

    I think she picked Venus *because* it was so hard.

    As far as extant life goes, it’s at least worth a look to see what’s going on in the clouds at the 50km. Life or not life, either is an interesting answer. You’d think someone would have done this by now, given how many probes have gone to Venus.

    (I expect if there is life on Mars and/or Venus, it’ll turn out that thanks to interplanetary transfer of material all three sets of life (Earth, Mars and Venus) share common ancestors)

  20. Athena says:

    Mars colonization stories have more of the sciency pseudo-authenticity so beloved of “hard” SF practitioners. On the side of science, life in Venusian clouds (or Jovian ones, at that) is a possibility. However, if such life has evolved from the precursors that have now totally vanished on Earth, and if they’re different enough (example: quartz antecedents) they may not register as common ancestors. Not that it matters; it will be fascinating either way.

  21. James Davis Nicoll says:

    Actually, for suggestive results and cloud life, both Neptune and Uranus have excesses of methane in their atmospheres; as far as I know Jupiter and Saturn do not. Methane has a short life span under the conditions of those worlds so something is supplying new methane. Probably it’s nothing biological but still, worth a look.

    (also, Titan)

    My issue with Mars or an issue with Mars is when I look at Martian regolith chemistry, I don’t see stuff people would benefit from extended exposure to, even in trace amounts. Ditto for the Moon; if lunar regolith shreds space suits, what does it do to lungs?