Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Thinking is the Best Way to Travel

A recent science article reported that the first earthlike extrasolar planet has been found. An exoplanet is one that orbits a star other than our sun. All exoplanets found up to now have been giant gas balls like Jupiter. This new one, Gliese 436b, is rocky, like earth, and could possibly have water, like earth. Those two criteria make it “earthlike” under an extremely generous interpretation.

We need to identify earthlike planets rather soon, since it will become necessary for us to find a new planet if the species is to survive. Current plans call for us to colonize the moon, then Mars. But those are extremely harsh environments, not likely to be long-term bolt-holes for our species. Wouldn’t it be nice to find another planet, rather like Earth, where you did not have to wear a pressurized radiation suit and could play baseball outdoors? Gliese could be the “New Earth.”

The trouble is, Gliese is 20 light years away. If we could travel at the speed of light, some 386,000 miles each second, it would take 20 years to get there. Unfortunately we can travel only about 5 miles a second in spacecraft like the Shuttle (18,000 mph). So it would take us over 200,000 years at top speed to reach Gliese.

Even allowing for improvements in transportation technology, it seems doubtful that humans will ever travel at a speed sufficient to reach the extrasolar stars. It would be great if someone could just command, “Warp factor five, Mr. Sulu,” but there is no warp factor.

How frustrating it is, to be facing our demise on this planet, to discover an Earth-like planet where we could be comfortable, and yet have no way to cross the great ocean of space!

I thought of four ways to attempt the journey.

1. The Colony
One way would be to go in a flying colony like the space station, only much larger. During the voyage, everyone who left earth would die, but their children would continue the voyage, and after many thousands of generations, the distant descendants of the original crew would land on Gliese.

The constancy of the spacecraft would prevent natural selection from morphing the travelers into some other kind of animal. Inbreeding would become severe however, so there would have to be enough genetic technology on board to maintain the genetic mix and to tamp down harmful mutations.

But psychology is a bigger problem. In order for each generation of voyagers to grow up with a normal human mind, they would need the social infrastructure necessary for socialization, from teachers to police, from doctors and farmers to entertainers and politicians. It would never work. It’s just barely working now, on our spaceship planet of 6 billion people. It is unimaginable that a band of twenty, or even a few hundred space travelers could survive in a metal can for a hundred thousand generations.

A possible fix for the psychology problem would be to plug everyone into virtual reality environments for all that time. We do not know exactly what would be needed for the virtual reality, but maybe someday we will. However, body functions would still have to be bodily, not virtual, especially reproduction, birth and death. It would be complicated.

2. Cryogenics
The second idea is cryogenics. Could the travelers simply be put into suspended animation for the duration of the trip? That is not possible today, but it is a conceivable technology. However, from what we know of modern technology, the probability that an autonomous life support system would function properly for a continuous quarter of a billion years is essentially nil. So forget that idea.

3. Robots
What about robots? If we could make robots that could survive a journey of 200,000 years, that would be quite an achievement, but what would be the reward for us? We’d all be dead long before any robot got even a fraction of the way to Gliese. If global warming or nuclear war didn’t get us, then reversal of the magnetosphere surely would. Surviving cockroaches, if they eventually evolved the intelligence to think of it, would not even know we had ever sent robots. There would be no mental connection between the robotic voyagers and any humans. The robots might survive, but who would care? Not the robots.

4. Return-Only Travel
The limiting factor in space travel is the human body; its mortality and its frailty. There is no way to overcome those limitations for the very great times and distances required, so don’t even try. The only way to travel those vast distances is without any sort of body, robotic or biologic. We have to broaden what it means “to travel.” It must involve something other than moving meat through space.

We could think our way to Gliese. We would need a new mode of cognition for that, one in which we recede from the intellect and the imagination to a primordial consciousness prior to individual personality, call it Groupcon-1

Our bodies make us individuals because no two physical things can be in the same place at the same time. That guarantees psychological individuality. But Groupcon-1 is not an individual consciousness, so it requires no body. Death becomes irrelevant, as does life, because those are biological concepts. In Groupcon-1 you exist in a state prior to biology. You are immortal, but you don’t know that, since you have no individual consciousness.

Is there actually such a mental state as Groupcon-1? There might be. In normal consciousness we are aware of phenomena like deep empathy, in which we temporarily lose our individual consciousness while we inhabit another’s. Something similar happens while watching a movie or reading a good novel. You temporarily forget yourself, lose yourself and your body, inhabit some fictional world and fictional characters created by the author. During those moments, the reality of your physical body and the physical world around you are temporarily nonexistent, from your own point of view.

So the trick is to understand the state of Groupcon-1 until it can be sustained for long periods of time. There are mental techniques for doing that now but they work only for a few hours. Still, it is not inconceivable that Groupcon-1 could become one’s main state of consciousness rather than just a mental curiosity. Anyone who could do it would be free of the body and physical distances.

But how would Groupcon-1 get us to Gliese? It wouldn’t, because when you are in Groupcon-1, you are located exactly nowhere because you have no body and no individual mind. It would be necessary to become skilled at moving between Groupcon-1 and individual, embodied consciousness in order to enjoy the benefits of being located in space and time with an individual consciousness. Since we are coming from nothing and nowhere, into somewhere, we would be free, in principle, to specify the somewhere into which we arrive.

So let the specification of the new somewhere be Gliese 436b, modified as necessary to be compatible with our individual bodies and lifestyles. In essence then, one never travels to Gliese, but rather, one only returns to Gliese as if one had been away. We return to Gliese from Groupcon-1.

So that is how we will get to Gliese, not in a spaceship, not through a wormhole, not with a warp drive engine, but by return-only travel.