Aliens and FTL/interstellar travel

Two major themes or ideas that have permeated science fiction for decades are aliens and developing the mysterious technology that will allow humanity to travel between star systems with ease. Funnily enough, as a small kid I always imagined it was simply a matter of time before these things would become a reality. Aliens would of course one day visit us and we would shake their hands and have parties. Obviously FTL drives would then be invented and we could go on interstellar holidays. As you get older though and you learn more about the universe and how vast it is you begin to realize that these things are rather unlikely, which is putting it mildly. Many people postulate the idea the existence of aliens in some form is likely given the size of the universe. Others cling to obscure mathematical models that don’t technically conflict with the laws of physics (as we understand them) to keep their dreams of travelling to other stars, with flight times of less than a century, alive. Are such things possible? And if they are, will they have any impact on humanity in any practical way or will these ideas be doomed to remain as the subject of our dreams?

Aliens

“Pull my finger.”

While I am not a astrophysicist, rocket scientist, or a xenobiologist, I still enjoy discussing such things and am doing so for nothing more than fun and to hear other peoples points of view. Feel free to correct me if I have made a mistake as I fumble about in ignorance of the truth. In all fairness though, even the forefront of science knows relatively little about such things which is why it is still fun to talk about!

Read more: Part one – technological utopias and post scarcity societies

I think it is always important to preface this discussion with a rough outline of what we are dealing with. Firstly, I fully understand that interstellar travel and FTL are two distinct subjects. I am talking about practical interstellar travel here, not starting out on a journey so that your great grandchildren might get to see some dead planets around a star. We could send some people out on slow ship with the idea that a few generations down the line will be alive when the ship reaches the destination. I think this introduces too many moral/ethical dilemmas for it to be considered. How can we doom generations of people not yet alive to live on a ship and not see their home planet? We also force them to take part in an incredibly dangerous mission they never signed up for. For that reason, I am linking the two ideas as FTL or near light speed travel are essential for practical interstellar travel. There is also preservation of the body while travelling, but you would still need to travel quickly. I don’t consider it very practical when centuries have passed while you have taken your holiday. Secondly, we need to appreciate that the universe is incomprehensibly massive and that the distance between our sun and even the closest star is vast when compared to the distances our brains are used to thinking about. Proxima Centauri (the nearest star and exoplanet) is approximately 9,000 times more distant to us than Neptune. When you consider that there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the universe your brain starts to do somersaults.

Now we can begin!

Aliens

There are great thinkers out there who postulate that given the size of the universe, alien life is highly likely. This makes sense to us from a statistical point of view whereby something is likely to occur again given a large number of trials or events. The easiest thing to compare this to is the lottery. While it is extremely unlikely that you will win the lottery, it is still highly likely that someone will given the number of people that have purchased a ticket. The extremely unlikely event of an individual person winning will also happen again and again for the same reason. This logic coupled with the ideas that Earth itself does not occupy a unique position in the universe, and that life here is not special, could mean that there are countless worlds with alien life out there. The trouble is, we don’t fully understand the probabilities involved as we don’t yet fully understand how life came to be, or how likely life is to occur with differing conditions. We therefore do not understand how rare life actually is.

Milky way

So many shiny dots! How many of them have planets with alien life?

Assuming this way of thinking is fundamentally correct in its application, which is a rather major assumption as there are many things about the nature of the universe we do not understand, I still don’t think it really matters. Intelligent life is likely to be much much rarer meaning that in most cases you would be encountering microbial life. And then even if there is a small scattering of intelligent life out there, we will never meet. Why? Well because we can’t reach them. We not only need to meet them in space, but also in time as well. Consider that intelligent life on Earth has only existed for a micro-fraction of the total time that life has been on Earth. If aliens were to have visited our planet, it is more likely they will have introduced themselves to dinosaurs rather than humans. Hmmmmm how did the dinosaurs die out exactly? Haha only joking …although that might be an awesome idea for a book! Blowing apart dinosaurs with laser beams!

FTL/interstellar travel

In order to take interstellar holidays and visit our alien friends we need some fancy starships equipped with buzzy-whizz-bang things that either make you go very fast or bend and manipulate the fabric of the universe. Unfortunately it’s not a simple matter of jamming enough fireworks onto the back of a skateboard. Even exploding atomic bombs to propel you through space isn’t enough! The sad thing is physics tells us that going faster than the speed of light is impossible and that going close to the speed of light requires an absolutely ridiculous amount of energy.

Read more: Worlds to Visit

The first thing most people of think of is the Warp Drive, otherwise known as the Alcubierre Drive. The idea is that the ship will contract space in front of it and then expand space behind it. This would allow the ship to effectively travel faster than light without traveling faster than light. Sounds weird right? You are moving slower than light, but because you are locally manipulating the size of the space you are moving through you will reach your destination faster than light will that is travelling through unwarped space. This technology is used widely in science fiction and is the method used by ships in Star Trek. Sadly this tech would require exotic matter that may or may not exist and also appears to conflict with quantum mechanics. Damn it physics! Stop destroying my hopes and dreams!

Warp drive

This shows quite nicely how the Warp Drive would work

Wormholes are also often used in science fiction as a method of interstellar travel. The idea is that a tunnel forms between two points in space-time which you can move through. The two points in space-time could be light years apart which would allow us to move between solar systems with ease and, in a sense, exceed the speed of light. Although wormholes are theoretically possible, it is not known whether they actually exist. That’s a bit of a bummer. I read that wormholes could even extend between different universes. Imagine if your wormhole malfunctioned! “Damn it, wrong universe …um okay, now how do I get back…”

Wormhole

In you go!

Wormholes are used extensively in science fiction. Peter F. Hamilton makes use of wormholes in his Commonwealth Saga and a wormhole also featured in the hit movie InterstellarWormholes also feature heavily in the popular Stargate TV series. Wormholes occur in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman which was written when it was thought they might occur inside black holes.

Read more: Can Science Fiction Be Cool?

There are various other ideas and theories milling around out there; black hole starships, antimatter rockets, ion drives, tachyons, hyperdrives …all are interesting to read about and discuss but are too numerous or detailed for me to take the time to discuss them here. Feel free however to include anything you’ve picked up in the comments section!

Of course there is always the minuscule possibility that we have it all wrong. Aliens are on their way and will be here by noon tomorrow. NASA is going to unleash their starship full of whizz-bangs any day now. It’s fun to think like this. And that is why I still enjoy picking up science fiction books and reading them.

Do you think we will ever meet with aliens? Will we ever hop between the stars? What interesting FTL tech ideas have you read about?

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28 thoughts on “Aliens and FTL/interstellar travel

  1. 1) I don’t think we’ll ever meet aliens.

    2) I don’t think we’ll ever travel between the stars

    3) Timothy Zahn wrote a short story/novella, called Cascade Point which dealt with the whole alternate universe thing/ftl travel. I also seem to remember that some of Arthur Clarke’s short stories dealt with some of that stuff.

    4) As for generation ships. I have to ask. How is that any different than you and your kids? Your kids have a 100% chance of dying the moment you 2 conceived them. They are open to disease, to all sorts of catastrophes. That doesn’t mean I think those kind of ethical questions shouldn’t be asked, but just want it put in perspective.

    5) “the ideas that Earth itself does not occupy a unique position in the universe, and that life here is not special, could mean that there are countless worlds with alien life out there”
    And that I have to disagree with quite hotly 😀 But that delves into theological grounds more than just SF literature.

    6) Mrs B and I both laughed heartily at the “pull my finger” caption. It was SO perfect!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m going to add my two cents.

      Generation ships aren’t so different to the first settlers in NZ. Months spent aboard a ship, very little idea about where you were going and what would be there when you arrived, children born on board or not surviving the journey, and pretty much zero chance of return to your home country. But 150 years later, we can get from NZ to London in 24 hours.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think we will ever meet aliens, but I do believe they exist. With so many planets in the universe it would be arrogant to assume we are the only ones here. I think space technology is advancing a lot, so why not be able to hop through the stars in 1000 years from now. As for FTL technology, that I really would not know if it would ever become a reality. Anything is possible though 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, you never really know eh? That’s why I find it fun to think and speculate even though I won’t know the answer before I leave this world. I agree with your point that with so many planets it seems ridiculous for there not to be other life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Mr & Mrs NW…Everybody,
    believe it or not but Queen the rock band released a song titled (Year of) ’39 which told the story of a group of space travellers who embarked on a one year mission. However due to the time dilation effects when the “sailors” returned generations had passed. One particular line in the song says it all “Your mothers’ eyes, from your eyes call to me” the sailors returned expecting to be reunited with their wives but found their grown daughters, grandchildren etc instead.
    On practical terms, there is also the consideration of fuelling a ship though there are some dubious projects reported using “perpetual fuel” namely the EmDrive engine. NASA have reportedly said it works but they don’t know why. Oh well, sounds like FTL, For Tyeth Lines space tourism is a long way off yet 😀 !

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Hi, you’re welcome. I learnt about the EmDrive from Sophie Aldred (of Dr Who fame). Sophie appears in a Podcast titled “Strangeness in Space” where they mention it!
        I met Sophie at a Comic Con I attended in July. You can check out my post about the experience here:
        https://ftsabersite.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/for-tyeths-first-comic-con-it-was-ace/
        and to check out the Strangeness in Space site and podcast click here:
        http://strangenessinspace.com/

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A very naive and hopeful part of me believes the Stargate stories are real!

    I think technology always takes us places we weren’t expecting to go. I don’t think my generation will see us out of our little Milky Way, but I don’t doubt it will happen one day.

    I also never considered that Aliens may have visited the dinosaurs, or that timing would be such a significant factor! This is fascinating and scary.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, as a teenager I thought that aliens were out there, possibly observing our foolish ways. Then as I got older and understood the huge distances and physical barriers I realised that we’re really, really unlikely to meet an intelligent extraterrestrial species – ever. We might detect them and even have really, really slow conversations with them (each response spanning decades or centuries) but the prospect of ever getting there is incredibly remote.
    SF stories and films made me believe that travelling to other inhabited systems was going to be like 17th century sailors exploring the globe. It’s not. It’s like 17th century sailors trying to explore Mars.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The idea of having a long winded conversation with them is fascinating. They would have to be pretty close to us for a conversation to occur though. If life is rare then they may be on the other side of the galaxy, or in another galaxy altogether. That would mean you would get their message once and that would be all you would ever get.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, anything up to about 100 light years away is theoretically possible, but it would be a very slow conversation. Much easier to transmit information at the speed of light than meet in person!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. hahaha I now have the mental image of aliens blowing apart dinosaurs with laser beams- so thank you for that 😉 I don’t know much about science, but it doesn’t seem highly likely we’ll ever get to meet aliens or travel into space- I guess it’ll continue to make interesting content for sci fi though 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very nice article and I absolutely love this topic.Earlier on I realised that most alien accounts (which usually involve seeing a strange thing in the sky) can likely be confused with;
    Natural object:Fireflies a glowing beetles that can look like large object when swarming.
    Barn owls-Owls that have alien like faces
    Meteorite-falling space rock.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You have a point there. As a kid aliens and space travel used to fascinate me. I even wanted to find an alien and befriend it like in the movies. Anyway now that I have grown up and thought about it from a sensible point of view, my lines of thoughts were very similar to yours. (Although I still kind of want to befriend an alien). Anyway jokes aside, I like thus blog that you both are maintaining. It’s really cool! And I am following it to read more!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The Trekkie and Force-user in me believes that life exists on other worlds. Practically speaking, though, I am not holding out for SETI to make the big announcement! However, I won’t ever cross it off.

    As for FTL travel, this is approached a dozen different ways and more in fiction. Realistically, we really have to make some major breakthroughs to avoid sleeper ships. You raise really good ethical points about those ships, though, but then Bookstooge counters back as well. I’m not super familiar with sleeper ships, but I always assumed that the original crew would just go into stasis and wake up preserved a couple hundred years later 😛 I didn’t think children would be involved…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yeah you’re right, FTL is handled many ways in fiction. Some others I find interesting are the inertia manipulation and conjoiner drives that Alistair Reynolds writes about. I also like the idea of the black hole ships where you create an artificial black hole and use the radiation to power your ship. Pretty cool stuff!

    Generational ships are probably more likely if we want to get to another star anytime soon. To preserve a body for a 100 years is actually quite challenging. A lot of people turn to cryogenics but the trouble is when water freezes the water expands and forms crystals that destroy cell structures. You need to find a way of stopping that from happening 🙂 I think this is possible – research in this area would have multiple benefits as well (organ preservation for transplants etc.)

    Like

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