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Wild Card 004 "Improbable-Probable Futures, Limits, Blah, Blah, Blah!"

Posted by Rick Shaffer   07/05/2004 07:00AM

[Note to the Reader: I wrote a version of this in 1993 or 1994 for a SciFi mag over in Smoggeville. Before it could be published, and definitely before I could get paid for it, the mag went belly-up. It’s never been published. So I decided to use it as “Wild Card 004”. (After all, this column is supposed to be about a lot of different subjects, so….?)

Then I realized that I didn’t have any idea where the original column was. While I searched my “files” for it, I was listening to NPR on my local Flagstaff station. A show called “Wait, Wait! Don’t Tell Me!” came on. It was a show about “current events from the past”. It meshed so well with the original piece that I decided to rewrite it. What you’re reading now is the result. Hope you like this latest example of serendipity….]

I’m a sucker for maps. If you have a map laying around gathering dust, and you don’t want it, I’ll likely take it. I have shoe boxes full of old “National Geo” maps. And I have fun giving them away to kids, at least the doubles….

So, it probably won’t surprise you that I have a lot of maps hanging on the walls of my house. One of my favorites hangs on one wall of my bedroom. It’s one of those maps that you’d see in old-time classrooms. You know, the ones that hang from the top of the blackboard like an old-fashioned window shade. I have a few of them, and I love them all.

This particular map is titled “Polar Aeronautical World”. It was published late in WWII and edited by a professor of geography at a major Midwestern university. It purported to show “the probable development of postwar aviation, especially over the north polar areas, and the short time required for air transportation between distant terminals.”

The routes our “geographer” put together are a real hoot! What I suppose is the least probable is Detroit to Murmansk, Russia! Yeah, sure! There’s a lot of call for THAT route. Others on “Your Hit Parade of Improbable-Probable Routes” are Minneapolis-Bombay, Chicago-Sverdlovsk, and New York to some place called Igakarka inside the Arctic Circle in Siberia!

What’s just as interesting is what was left off the map. There are only two routes to that sleepy little town known as Los Angeles. One goes to-from Honolulu, and the other goes to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands and continues on to Tokyo. There are only three routes in-out of China, none of which goes to Hong Kong (which isn’t even labeled on the map!)!

OK. This isn’t “Bash a Geographer Week”. I’m pointing out this obvious failure to predict the future to point out that it’s really, really, really hard to predict the future!

Still unconvinced? Here’s another example: The radio show I mentioned previously had a marvelous quote from “Popular Mechanics” magazine in 1949. It was used as a question. It was something like “In 10-years we believe we can get one down to maybe a ton-and-a-half.” The contestant was asked to identify what device would shrink to a weight of 3K-lbs. The answer? THE COMPUTER! In defense of the “expert” who made that statement, the host of the show, Peter Sagel, hastened to point out that this was said only a few months after the announcement of the invention of the transistor. At the time, all computer circuits used vacuum tubes.

Still unconvinced? Well then, I likely won’t be able to convince you. I’ll just state that predicting the future is not just really, really, really hard, it’s DAMN hard!

Readers of SciFi often point out that “our” writers are in the business of predicting the future. And some aspects of our present techno-industrial society seem to have been foreseen by our SciFi writers.

For example, Larry Niven is fond of pointing out that he wrote his first short story about the possible consequences of our ability to transplant human organs on the very morning that he heard on the radio that Dr. Christian Barnard had performed the first human heart transplant. He speculated that capital punishment would be the penalty for more and more crimes in the future if the bodies of those executed could be the source of human organs for transplant to law-abiding citizens who need them. Niven also invented the term “organlegging” to describe the stealing of human organs for transplant.

Well, it’s happening, and pretty much the way Larry Niven imagined it. There appear to have been documented cases of human beings being, literally, robbed of a kidney or some other organ. But the real story appears to be from mainland China, where executions are on the rise, and the organs of the condemned are being harvested for use by others.

I’ll leave all this to the medical ethicists to sort out. It’s just one of many examples of the way SciFi writers use their craft to speculate on the ramifications of technological development. In fact, the late Robert A. Heinlein once tried to get SciFi relabeled “spec-fic” on the grounds that it really was “speculative fiction”. Didn’t work, probably because SciFi just sound better.

But the SciFi writers have really been wrong about as often as they’ve been right. For example, many writers had computers being huge monoliths controlling almost every aspect of our lives. I know of no SciFi writers that predicted the broad distribution of a huge number of microcomputers.

An example of both getting it partially wrong and getting it right enough to get in trouble is Heinlein’s 1942 novella “Solution Unsatisfactory”, in which he wrote a future history of how WWII would end. He posited a secret project to develop atomic energy. The result of the project was the development of radioactive “dust” that was so toxic that merely dumping it from a bomber upwind of your enemy’s capitol city would be enough to kill every living thing in the city.

I’ll not spoil the rest of the story for you if you haven’t read it. But, I will tell you that, when the story was published later in WWII, Heinlein had some serious discussions with various security folks. He had worked out the possible consequences of developments in modern Physics. He hadn’t gotten nuclear fission. But he certainly got most of the rest! He just had to convince the “spooks” that he knew nothing of what was REALLY going on!

And Now for a Little Left Turn:

From the snoring I’m hearing, I’ve already succeeded in curing the insomnia of at least some of you. (Just check your mail for the bill….) So, I’ll stop giving examples of successful (or not) efforts to predict the future. Instead, I’d like to present a list of some of the things I believe won’t happen:

0. I won’t be elected dogcatcher, much less president of the United States. (Sorry. I had to get that one out of the way as a matter of procedure.)

1. We won’t figure out how to break the speed of light. Not now. Not ever.

2. Only a tiny fraction of humanity will ever leave the surface of this planet and travel in space. For that reason, it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever colonize space.

3. There won’t ever be anything like the “United Federation of Planets”, the “Empire of Man”, or any of the other wonderful constructs of the various SciFi writers.

Let’s take these one by one, starting at 1. (Item 0 should be obvious.)

1. I can’t prove that we won’t ever break the speed of light. But, from my training in Physics and from what I’ve read and discussed with a wide variety of folks a LOT smarter than I am, there doesn’t seem to be a shred of hope that we’ll figure out a way of physically exceeding 2.99*10^8 cm/sec in this Universe. Will we be able to jump into other continua in order to “speed”. Who knows. If we can, I suspect that it’ll be a long time before we perfect a way to do it.

What’s ironic is that there appears to be an “operating system” to our Universe (that isn’t nearly so “buggy” as Windows!). It appears from some experiments designed to explore the particle-wave-duality that photons “find out” instantaneously that the conditions of an experiment have changed, and that said photons CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR instantaneously to conform to the new conditions of the experiment. So, photons blasting along behaving as particles suddenly sense that the experiment is now configured to detect wave behavior, so they adopt THAT behavior. Sounds like a psych experiment. But who’s experimenting one whom?

I suspect, that, just as the Universe’s OS allows “the rules” to be instantaneously changed in mid-experiment, which implies communication at super-luminal velocities, the hard-and-fast rules for really big particles (that would be us!) prohibit super-luminal travel. Looks like we’re stuck in the “slow lane”.

A consequence of this is that we won’t be embarrassed by the spectacle of Captain Kirk being told by Mr. Spock that “we’re being followed” by a vehicle while both the Enterprise and the bad guys’ spacecraft are warping along at five. If everybody’s exceeding the speed of light, in what way could “the guys in the black hats” be seen?

2. Something like 30-40 years ago, an astronomer named Sebastian von Horner wrote a seminal paper entitled "The Likelihood of Interstellar Colonization, and the Absence of Its Evidence”. I’ve lost my copy, but I’ve just found a post in an amateur astronomy forum that tells me that it is now available reprinted in a book entitled “Extra-Terrestrials: Where Are They”, 2d edition, by Zuckerman and Hart. I’ll certainly be obtaining a copy.

I’ve read my (lost) copy of the paper enough to know that Von Horner does an admirable job of the arithmetic of interstellar colonization. He points out that the energy required to do what would be necessary to move large enough numbers of humans into space to actually colonize is so large that no known source could provide it.

Alas, I believe Sebastian von Horner, even as I curse him for holding up one of the most cherished ideas of my youth to the cold light of logic and reason. I suspect that we won’t be a true spacefaring species.

There’s a glimmer of hope, though. In just the last week, the head of the Space Elevator Project at the Institute for Scientific Research in Fairmont, WV, stated that he believes that we can make a “beanstalk”, an elevator tethered to the Earth at the Equator that extends to geosynchronous orbit. Is Bradley Edwards nuts? I don’t think so. Is he just a bit premature? Maybe.

A strong advocate of the space elevator is the Manager of the Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) Technology and Commercialization Initiative (HTCI), John Mankins. He’ll be a keynote speaker at at the third conference on space elevators that begins today, 05Jul2004, in Washington, DC. I’d be pretty skeptical of Edwards’ claims except for one catch. I worked with John Mankins in the 80s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. He’s high on the list of the most thoughtful, intelligent people it’s been my good fortune to know. If John Mankins believes that we can make a space elevator, I think the money that Edwards has been given to study its prospects is well spent. We just might succeed in making one. And that would mean that it would be easier to overcome the "surly bonds of Earth" and get people and materiel into space than it is now.

But how much easier? The capacity of the projected space elevator is only about 13-tons, which is about half the average payload of the Space Shuttle. If such a device could be made to carry that payload into orbit, say, once a week, it would be the equivalent of being able to launch 26 shuttles each year. In the 23-years since we began launching them, we’ve only launched 113, two of which failed. So, we’ve launched an average of only 4.9 shuttles each year. So, the space elevator would have about 5-times the capacity of the current “Space Transportation System”.

It would appear that such a system would be safer than the Shuttle, once it was built. So, it might be expected to be much more reliable than the Shuttle. But, having the ability to carry only 5-times what the Shuttle has carried into space doesn’t seem to me to be a capability that will make us forget what Sebastian von Horner had to say….

3. Everything I know about the history of the Colonial Era suggests that the various empires the great European powers built up crumbled because they became too complex for their managers to understand. If their behavior wasn’t capable of being understood, its future behavior couldn’t be predicted, and the managers couldn’t make reasonable plans for managing it.

The above "vicious circle" is really just a restatement of the central theme of Chaos Theory: That the behavior of very large systems cannot be predicted for any reasonable length of time. This goes back to some seminal research done by an MTI meteorologist named Edward Lorenz, who discovered that making even small changes in the initial conditions of a mathematical model of a weather system resulted in radical differences between the progress of Trial A vs. the progress of Trial B after only a short time.

Over the years since Lorenz made his discoveries in the 60s, there has been a lot of controversy about Chaos Mathematics. It was, for instance, invoked to demonstrate that very large computer systems, such as the one that would be required to do true continental missile defense, would be too complex to be understood, and would thus be unreliable.

It’s unlikely that Chaos Mathematics is quite the “second coming” that some folks believe it is. But, it isn’t going away. And it really does appear to place limits on the size of a system from the standpoint of really understanding and managing it.

What that says to me is that the future won’t be one of centralized anything. (And, for the sake of completeness, I’ll mention that we’ve just buried that bastion of centralized planning, the USSR!)

If that’s the case, then maybe our SciFi writers need to write more about “manageable futures”, sort of “SciFi boutique”, rather than the grand epics of the past, all of which I just loved. But, we all have to grow up, despite the fact that I’ve been trying to avoid that for the last 58-years.

This column has been about limits: on speed, on human travel in space, on complexity. I wonder if any other intelligent species have tried to break these limits and failed. Did this realization lead “them” to mature as a species/society and begin to treat their planet as if they really were stuck on it “for the duration”? Will we?

RICK SHAFFER is an astronomer, writer, teacher, and designer/builder of telescopes and museum exhibits. He lives and works in Sedona, AZ, where he studiously avoids centralized planning of his life….