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Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

This month astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an Earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, becauseAlpha Centauri is the closest star system to ours. Many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.
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(Sung to the glam tune of "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys")

This month astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an Earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours, at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration; in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like "in our backyard" and "stone's throw" were used liberally, and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet's existence has been inferred by the primary's wobble rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun, which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary's radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about 80,000 years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one's definition, 80,000 years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of 2 to 10.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the "solutions" of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships... I'm even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year's and this year's Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space... if they could get enough strange matter (as in a few stellar masses' worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the "arsenic bacteria" cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of sci-fi makes people dream -- and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: 1) the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology, and 2) when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for "failing to predict" an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a "businessman" to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance that it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. ("Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?") Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions. Think of Greenspan's belief in Rand's Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour Party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by... implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow. (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard sci-fi and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian.) Commenters added Herbert's Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. ("Banks' Culture does it, why not us?") Just intone "3D printing!" or "Me Messiah!" over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter's wand, and, hey presto, post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won't go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for "virtue," etc.), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that sci-fi has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because... reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course -- writers "must focus on maintaining their online presence," so who has time for background research? -- but the basal argument itself is invalid. There's exactly one domain that's moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I've worked on dementia for more than 20 years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier "common sense" assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques), we have not made any progress toward reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth, that we went to the Moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality, ergo the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin' Luddites who insist on harshing squees (file this under "unclear on concepts" and "perpetual juvenility"). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: It was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the U.S.S.R.; and it was done in an era when the U.S. was flush with power and confidence, the sole actor involved in World War II not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of "war on cancer," "war on drugs" and "war on terrorism" (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex, long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera, I'm incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they're integral to mythic sci-fi). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they're linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person rather than by proxy.

As usual, this article originally appeared on my website.