Why Bother Thinking About Something We Can’t Build Yet?
posted by Jessica Riley on February 20, 2014
Icarus Interstellar Project XP4 Tackles Far Term Technologies Now.
Jeff Lee has recently been named Project Lead of the Icarus Interstellar X-Physics Propulsion & Power Project. XP4 focuses on potential far term technologies that utilize methods of engineering spacetime itself, some of which may present the possibility of faster-than-light-speed travel. XP4 projects are at a much lower TRL (Technology Readiness Level), and are decades, possibly centuries or millennia away from actual development.
At the Starship Congress in August 2013, I attended Jeff Lee’s talk on Schwarzschild Kugelblitz propulsion systems design. His talk inspired my imagination, but it was tempered with the understanding of the massive timescales involved for such designs to be developed. This issue of near term feasibility is brought up frequently with the underlying notion of, “why bother thinking about something we can’t build yet?” It’s a reasonable question. So I went to the source, and asked Jeff Lee.
Jeff, why bother thinking about technologies that we can’t build in the near term?
Here is what he had to say:
“Theoretical physics forms the foundation of all new technologies, both in the short term and long term. All technologies were once little more than a “theoretical embryo”, which eventually bore fruit as a device. Of course, not all ideas bear such fruit, but it’s impossible to know at the outset which ideas will lead to technological revolutions.
For instance, electromagnetism is the basis for modern electronics, making Maxwell’s Equations among the most commercially important equations. Human beings have done a masterful job at “taming the EM field and making it do our bidding”. Another relevant theoretical idea that bore fruit in our modern world is Quantum Mechanics (QM). As I’ve told freshman high school students, no QM -> no transistors -> no Integrated Circuits -> no computers, no cell phones, etc. A third example is General Relativity (GR), an idea, which outside of Cosmology, was once thought would probably never be applied to anything practical. Then, along came the GPS system, which requires GR for clock synchronization; otherwise, cumulative errors of 10 km/day would ensue.
However, the scientists who studied these fields had no idea of their real world applicability. They were pursuing fundamental research with no concern as to whether texting might someday become a staple of human culture. If the pioneers of the QM and EM revolutions were asked for a likely prognostication of when their ideas could be used for GHz computers and cell phones, their response would probably have been “at least centuries, maybe never”. And yet, less than a century after the 1897 discover of the electron by J.J. Thomson, affordable cell phones were in people’s pockets. We tend to underestimate what we can achieve in the long term. The corollary to that is we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in the short term (e.g. some physics students thinking they can complete challenging, week long assignments in an hour).
Thus, why work on a technology that may take centuries to develop? The blunt answer is two fold. First, we don’t know that fruition will take centuries; it may, and then again, it may not. If we don’t first explore theoretical ideas, then we’ll never develop any technology. Second, our focus of research is on the physics behind ideas, not specific technological designs of those ideas (at least as far as XP4 is concerned). For instance, nobody knows how to produce vast quantities of the negative energy necessary for warp drive. In time, that may come. For now, we’re taking the first baby steps that may lead us to future technologies. Whether fruition takes 2 years, 20 years, or 200 years is actually much less important than the argument that we must begin somewhere.”
In his new role as Project Lead for XP4 Jeff will be overseeing work on a number of different sub-projects, which conduct research into different types of FTL systems. Jeff is overseeing work on warp drive and wormhole physics, as well as pursuing his personal interests in relativistic thermodynamics and Schwarzschild Kugelblitz propulsion systems (wherein a small black hole is generated by a powerful laser, and the Hawking radiation is captured and utilized for thrust).
Find out more about Schwarzschild Kugelblitz engines here.
Watch Jeff’s talk at the Starship Congress here.
Learn more about Jeff Lee’s professional interests here.
Jeff Lee has two papers being published regarding his work in near future:
“The Effect of Hawking Radiation on Fermion Re-inflation of a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz”.
This paper, published in JBIS Vol. 66. No. 12 Pp. 364-376, 2013, deals with the challenges associated with trying to re-inflate a SK, thus prolonging its life and staving off evaporation, by targeting the horizon with a beam of nearly-infinite pseudo-rapidity protons.
“Ultra-relativistic Thermodynamics and Aberrations of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation”.
This paper, also submitted to JBIS, is focused on Jeff’s interest in relativistic thermodynamics.
Be Informed. Stay Connected.
Jeff Lee @jkugelblitz
(Jeff never tweets, so follow me instead @isicalynn. I’ll let you know when the papers are published.)
Icarus Interstellar @icarusinterstel