Big Questions

The Beginning    Credit: Universe Today
Yesterday I heard of an upcoming series of public lectures by three scientists including Prof. Brian Schmidt, recent Nobel Prize winner. Thanks Geoff.
It’s customary to call for questions at these lectures, and that tallies with some things I’ve been thinking a lot about for years:
  • is there not a fundamental limit, the speed of light, on what we can know and do? That little c sets an absolute limit on our range of communication. No matter what we do, sending a message further than say, 50 light years will be a waste of time, because we will not be alive to get an answer.
    Unless something changes, we will never be able to travel to another star or planet. Isn’t this part of some grand plan? We are not meant to know, we are too frail as we are, unless and until we can overcome this barrier. Isn’t this a kind of protection for humans?
  • as an engineering person, I laugh at the idea that we should try to build a spacecraft with a 100 year mission. The pace of technology means it would be obsolete only 20 years out. The rate of decay and failure means it would not last more than 30 years. How would it be repaired? How would you carry enough spares and technology? How would they cope, 50 years out, with, “Er, gentlemen, the high gain antenna and your guidance computer have been completely superseded and are no longer functional – we have a new method of communication now.” Or even  more devastating, “Earth has changed. We no longer need you. We can no longer support you. Good luck and goodbye.”
    It’s ludicrous to think of long term space travel unless technology reaches some limit. So what do we do?
  • we think entirely in anthropomorphic terms. An ant can never imagine the universe. Why do we confine ourselves to human concepts? We talk all the time of light-years, but a year to us is a long time. A year to another intelligence could be a mere instant.
    We think in terms of astronomical units. But to some other beings, an a.u. could be a mere puddle hop.
    We must re-orient our thinking. Advancement can render all our thinking obsolete in short order. People in the 19th century had never heard of electronics. Now it rules our lives. The next breakthrough could occur next year. What will it be? How can we stop limiting our thinking?
  • the development of computing, networking and the web mean that the web is growing and developing just as human child’s brain does. Neural connections are being made, thousands of times daily all over the world. Our web brain is growing just as a human brain does. Our web intelligence is increasing by leaps and bounds. Do you see this analogy and do you see the web becoming more intelligent than we realise it can be? How will we deal with it?
  • the development of electronics and its offshoot, computing, has been a true revolution, yet it was not even imagined just over 100 years ago. Do you foresee any other truly revolutionary developments? I don’t mean nano-tech or DNA synthesis or e-books. These have already been thought of and are under development now. Someone, (Arthur Clarke?) said, “anything man can imagine, he can achieve.” What is it that we have not yet even imagined? I mean something as epoch making as the realisation that electrons in wires can be controlled and made to convey information.
  • on what kind of time scale will the fruits of the SKA become available? I’m 65. I have the impression that I won’t live long enough to see any results. Am I too pessimistic?
  • do you foresee the SKA being able to discover SETI messages? And are we ready to receive a real message? Could we handle it, politically and socially? Or would it tear us apart?

This is an ongoing list. I’m not finished.

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