S03E16: The Excelsior Acquisition

Tonight Sheldon wants to ask Stan Lee how the Silver Surfer uses his silver surfboard to accomplish interstellar flight.  As well he should!   Nobody, not even Sheldon, knows how we are going to travel between stars.

The Silver Surfer accomplishes interstellar travel on his silver surfboard. How will we?

Proxima Centauri is our best bet.  It is the closest star to our home orbiting around our own star, Sol.   Proxima Centauri is  an unremarkable red dwarf star named appropriately from the Latin proxima, which is “next to”, as in “proximate”.  It is not so-named because it is close to us, but rather because it is close to the star Alpha Centauri, a star in the constellation Centauri.   Alpha Centauri is the third brightest star in the night sky, but mostly just because it is so close.  We may want try to visit someday.  After all we are neighbors and have yet to bring them so much as a fruit basket.

“Close” is a funny word to use on interstellar distances.   Proxima and Alpha Centauri are so far away it takes light 4.2 years to arrive.  Nothing we know of can allow us to travel faster than light, our ultimate speed limit.  Even the television transmissions of the pilot episode of Big Bang Theory, which have been traveling at the speed of light since late 2007, are only halfway to whoever might inhabit the rocks orbiting those stars.  Not even Hulu.com  in Alpha Centauri has TBBT available yet.  (Life near Alpha Centauri has that in commonwith Earth.)

Alpha Centauri, being so bright, has probably been known to the earliest hominids who bothered to look up.  But Proxima Centauri being so dim was only discovered using powerful telescopes in 1915.  We may not be done yet.  Even dimmer stars known as brown dwarfs may be traveling the galaxy even closer to us than Proxima Centauri.  These stars are so cool, you have to look for them in infrared light.   Finding such nearby stars is one of the key missions of the newly launched WISE satellite.   When I told one of the BBT writers/exec producers we may soon find closer stars than Proxima Centauri he said “The Federation may be closer than we think”.

Proxima Centauri (red star, center) is the closest known star to Earth at 4.2 light years distance. (If you enjoy astronomy pictures such as this one, I highly recommend visiting NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day")

Right now our plate is full just with interplanetary travel within our own solar system.  A trip taking astronauts to Mars, as recently imagined by NASA, even at its closest approach will take over half a year.  Proxima Centauri is 750,000 times farther Mars’s closest approach to Earth.  At the same speed, that would take over a quarter million years to get there.  We must invent something faster.

Suppose our human engineers develop a technology that allows us to travel 1% the speed of light on average to Proxima Centari.  The astronauts only need now to spend 400 years on the spacecraft.   (I’m ignoring the tiny  benefit due to time dilation slowing the astronaut’s lifespan as we discussed earlier for the story of Paolo and Vincenzo.) The astronauts won’t survive to get there, but if they keep having children their 16th generation could make it.  I don’t think the intermediate generations will be particularly happy with their forbears for condemning them to a lonely flight through interstellar space.  If one generation rebels, and refuses to procreate the mission will be a failure.   Even if that 16th generation arrived successfully, they would hardly be Earthlings.

I think we can prove that we humans will never attempt interstellar transit until we know how to travel at least 25% the speed of light.  (The mission to Mars discussed above is only 0.001% the speed of light.)   Suppose a mission really was undertaken to travel to Proxima Centauri with a fantastic new technology that would take us there at 1% the speed of light.  It will take 400 years.  Now suppose anytime in the next 200 years, a new technology is developed to increase that average speed to 2% per year.  Given the rate of technological progress that is not a bad bet.  So the spacecraft that launches later would beat the earlier craft.   So not until a technology reaches some reasonable fraction of the maximum speed limit, the speed of light, would anyone bother to take an early flight.   The speed would have to be as large as 25% the speed of light to nearly guarantee this would not be a problem.  At least then the same generation will arrive as left the Earth.  It may not ever be possible, but the argument shows it is unlikely any such mission would be mounted until that is possible.

These are the stars in your neighborhood. Each white ring is about 1.7 light-years appart.

(If some smarty-pants wants to suggest worm-holes or other space-bending technology, keep in mind that these ideas don’t even work on paper.)

This says nothing of the many other technological hurdles must be met.  Traveling even at 1% the speed of light, the spacecraft would suffer terrible damage from interstellar gas and dust.   The rate of cosmic rays, charged particles flying throughout interstellar space, would likely give fatal cancer to anyone who tried this mission and they would arrive long dead.

So it pays to go back and understand what is special about the Silver Surfer’s surfboard that allows interstellar transport.  Often science fiction writers will come up with an idea before engineers and scientists.   Perhaps with the Silver Surfer there is an idea we’ve missed.  A good place to start with any such questions is James Kakalios’s terrific book “The Physics of Superheroes“.  Yet no explanation of Silver Surfer can be found — maybe it is just because Silver Surfer started out as a super-villain, not super-hero.  Fortunately someone actually asked the Silver Surfer’s creator, Jack Kirby, why he uses a surfboard.  To which he explains:

“Because I’m tired of drawing spaceships.”  -Jack Kirby



17 Responses to “S03E16: The Excelsior Acquisition”

  1. feldfrei Says:

    quote: “This says nothing of the many other technological hurdles must be met. Traveling even at 1% the speed of light, the spacecraft would suffer terrible damage from interstellar gas and dust. The rate of cosmic rays, charged particles flying throughout interstellar space, would likely give fatal cancer to anyone who tried this mission and they would arrive long dead.”

    Indeed, the impact of cosmic rays poses a serious problem for long-term space travel. The situation becomes even more uncomfortable if one desires to take advantage of the time dilatation in order to reach really distant (extragalactic) objects. The more travel at relativistic speed benefits from time dilatation, the more blue-shifted will be the cosmic background microwave radiation due to the relativistic Doppler effect. Combined with the “searchlight effect” due to the Lorentz boost, a relativistic spaceship would see intense jet-like high-frequency electromagnetic radiation in the forward direction. Synchrotron radiation emitted from relativistic electrons in circular accelerators is based on the same principle (just the kinematics is inverted):

    For further reading (and watching movies visualizing relativistic effects) I can recommend the following website:

  2. Ali Says:

    Hi David,

    First of all, I’d like to thank you to give us this opportunity to read behind the physics in this blog.

    Then, with your permission, I’d like to express my disappointment. I really would like to know how a string theorist scientist like Sheldon could say such a line:

    “Although we live in a deterministic universe, each individual has free will.”

    Deterministic? From a theoretical quantum physicist?

    When I first heard this line, I had thought that Sheldon would somehow render it with his classic pranks, bazinga if you will, but no. He went on it.

    I might get it all wrong but please, can you explain it for me?

    Thanks in advance
    Ali from Turkey

    • shellorz Says:

      Quantum theory could have been deterministic (like Einstein wanted it to be) with local hidden variables. Now we know it’s not the case (or at least le hidden variables aren’t local). Still, you can imagine a deterministic universe where everything is already set because time then doesn’t exist as we know it. Just a dimension like another that we experience only going one way (as if we were always being walking westward). In this case, the ever-existing universe may have a begining and an end in time without having to be determined.

    • Steve Says:

      I was a bit taken back myself by Sheldon’s comment.. A few seconds later I realized that I was being extremely critical of the show, and should probably blame it on the wirters not asking David about the line.

      Sometimes I forget that the show isn’t exclusively for science-buffs who would pick up on something like that. I also wonder if I would think the stuff was funny if I didn’t know what the characters were talking about. A lot of people do though…

    • tvvv Says:

      Sheldon mentioned in an earlier episode that he believed in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, so it makes sense that he believes we live in a deterministic universe.

  3. Daniel Says:

    Love the blog. Today’s post reminded me of a book I read last year that mentioned interstellar travel. I’ll recap it here.

    During the ’50s and ’60s there was some talk of nuclear pulse propulsion that involves vending atomic bombs behind a ship, detonating them, and riding their shock wave. It is not unreasonable (having loosely consulted calculations) to expect 0.1c, which puts us at Alpha Centauri in 40 years. I’d go…

    Project Orion (as it was known) was canceled due to a treaty that disallowed the detonation of nuclear bombs in the atmosphere or in outer space (thanks a lot, Cold War), but I think we could potentially arrange something with the rest of the world that would allow continued research thereon. With 50 years progress since then, I can see huge potential for even greater velocities.

  4. Jason Says:

    Funny I came to make the exact same post as Ali. Why would a theoretical quantum physicist make such a blanket statement that we live in a deterministic universe? I think this was a “major” gaffe in the writing this week, but perhaps you have another take. Care to explain? I think it might warrant another blog post.

    • feldfrei Says:

      The statement may sound funny – but the question is how you would define “determinism”. If one considers the entire universe as a whole, there may be even no time at all as I mentioned here:

      Considering a subsystem (which could be observed by someone). the wave function describing this subsystem is deterministic since it follows the (time-dependent) Schrödinger equation (neglecting relativistic effects, otherwise Dirac equation). However, the outcome of any measurement is generally not determined and this outcome has to be described classically (at least if you like the Kopenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics).

      On the other hand (it is a question of the timescale) you can find many “quasideterministic” systems, e. g. the planets’ motion in our solar system which are highly predictable.

      An interesting question is addressed by the second part of Sheldon’s statement: A non-deterministic world is only a necessary condition for “free will” but it is not sufficient. Human beings could be treated as complex machines with some random control and there are brain researchers who deny the existence of free will. However, the concept of free will could be of practical use (like statistical descriptions in classical physics). Max Planck discussed in one of his talks that “free will” could be even meaningful in a deterministic classical world. But this leads now to more philosophical questions 😉

  5. shellorz Says:

    The part with the a ship with newer technologies arriving before the one that has been launched decades before rings a bell to me. Alien or Philip K. Dick (Lies, Inc ?,I can’t tell)

  6. shellorz Says:

    … and the silver surfer is not such a super-villain. He got “redeemed”, right ? He saved the Earth and dicthed Galactus

  7. Mino Says:

    Hey Steve. I had a nice dicussion with my dad a week ago. He said that some guys started to send some kind of morse codes into space many years ago and today people send messages with bether technologies.

    I asked myself if we are still listening to morse code styles of messages.

    I hope you understand my question.

    I mean. Maybe they answer the way we send it but we dont listen to that kind of message anymore and it just disappears in the chaos.

    • shellorz Says:

      I’m not Steve, but I can reply : intelligent messages, morse or other would stand out from the rest of the signals out there. morse is the way it is “coded” not the way it is sent. If any message is sent, then decyphering the code would be another issue but be reassured we’d get the signal… provided we’re looking the right direction. Hell, we’re not monitoring the whole skies. And not necessarily all the frequencies. Bets have been made that an intelligent species would try to use something “commonplace” as a reference, so we’ve been monitoring with SETI along some “particular” frequencies like hydrogen’s oscillation frequency because hydrogen is the most commonplace element in the universe. Well, so we think. Maybe until we know more about dark matter.
      the signals we sent only travel at the speed of light. So you wouldn’t get an answer from anywhere further than 25 light years away (which is nothing). We actually don’t need to send that many messages. All our satellite, TV and other communications are partly sent out to deep space.

      This is actually related to Fermi’s paradox (which is to me as ungrounded as Drake’s law). We think as human beings with our own biased ways of understanding the world. Maybe other intelligent species have been trying to communicate with us through other dimensions (for instance, one of the 7 others dimensions in the superstring theory). Maybe they use worm holes to do that. And we’re here wondering why the hell they’re not responding. But this “are we alone” inquiry is to me mostly a psychological quest. Beyond the anthropic principle, people have realized in the 60s how isolated and alone we are. Finding something else, someone else, even if it might lead us to our demise has become a key to our psychological stability.

  8. Erich Landstrom Says:

    ” Finding such nearby stars is one of the key missions of the newly launched WISE satellite. ”

    That reminds me of when I was teaching Astronomy. I learned of Georgia State University’s RECONS (Research Constorium on Nearby Stars http://www.recons.org/)
    RECONS mission purpose is to understand the nature of the Sun’s nearest stellar neighbors, both individually and as a population. Our primary goals are to discover “missing” members of the stellar sample within 10 parsecs (32.6 light years), and to characterize all stars and their environments within that distance limit.

    As of January 1, 2009, the complete RECONS Census of objects known
    within 10 parsecs included 354 objects in 249 systems:

    singles 171
    doubles 58
    triples 14
    quadruples 5
    quintuples 1

    WDs 18 white dwarfs
    Os 0
    Bs 0
    As 4
    Fs 6
    Gs 21
    Ks 44
    Ms 239 red dwarfs
    Ls 4
    Ts 8
    Ps 10

    1 planet around GJ 144 (epsilon Eri)
    1 planet around GJ 176
    3 planets around GJ 581
    1 planet around GJ 674
    1 planet around GJ 849
    3 planets around GJ 876
    and of course 8 planets around Sol

  9. Chris Shabsin Says:

    Wait a sec… if Jack Kirby invented Silver Surfer, then why was Sheldon going to ask Stan Lee about the surfboard?

    Sheldon should have simply taken the opportunity to ask Kirby himself, as he stood before The King’s own bench.

  10. Tradução: “S03E16: The Excelsior Acquisition (A Aquisição do Excelsior)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita por Hitomi a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 1º de Março de […]

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