Sunday, March 17, 2013

To The Editor, Analog Science Fiction

Dear Sir,

I often think of the many SF stories that assume FTL starships. How
sad it would be for our future if the light speed barrier cannot be
broken. To reach the nearest stars at sub-light speeds would take
many years, and we would likely have to travel much further than the
nearest stars to find a habitable planet. To take advantage of time
dilation, ships need to expend prodigious amounts of energy to
accelerate to high fractions of c. What society would bother to build
interstellar ships? Isn’t there a way to spread through the galaxy at
near-light speed, and without building space ships? The solution, I
think, is to avoid sending people or even mass objects through space;
send only information. Send information about our DNA.

We need only to establish contact with a near neighbor species, learn
how to communicate, and then transmit instructions for how to grow a
human in a test tube. Presumably, the other species would
reciprocate, so that we could grow specimens of their species here on
Earth. To be sure, the specimens would have no memory or culture from
their native worlds, but they would have tendencies. I’m sure the
aliens would be very interested in studying these specimens. We could
also send some “I Love Lucy” episodes to teach our expatriate
relatives what it is like to be human.

Hopefully, the neighbor species would eventually find other near
neighbors, and transmit their DNA instructions plus our DNA
instructions to them. In that manner, hop by hop, our DNA would
spread across the galaxy. How fast might it propagate? C/2 is a
believable number. Figure 100,000 years transmit time, plus 100,00
years of those instructions sitting on a shelf waiting for someone to
dare execute them. To be sure, creating alien DNA would have risks,
and many would deem those risks unacceptable. Yet, given the passage
of thousands of years, it is a virtual certainty that someone will be
curious enough (or foolish enough) to do it.

It might be difficult and expensive for aliens to reproduce the
environmental conditions needed for specimens of our species to
survive. Therefore, it would be convenient for them to modify our
genes to create specimens that aren’t 100% human, but which can
survive in the unmodified alien environment. As the DNA instructions
get transmitted and retransmitted to more and more places, the genetic
engineering would become tedious. Therefore, it would be easier for
everybody to use genes capable of surviving in nearly any environment.
In other words, they could settle on a galactic standard gene set.
I imagine something like the genes of a water bear (Tartigrade),
grafted onto the genes that give us intelligence. The result would
not quite be a pan-galactic-species but perhaps a pan-galactic-phylum
of intelligent species, with each world populated by a mixture of all
those species.

Water Bear (Tartdigrade)
Image Credit & Copyright: Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes / Eye of Science / Science Source Images

The whole concept could be viewed as the next phase of evolution. How
long might it take to evolve a galactic phylum? Just plucking a
number out of the air, let us say 100 galactic transversals at and
average speed of c/2, or twenty million years. That is damn fast on
the evolutionary scale.

The sad part would be the havoc it rains on the heads of science
fiction writers. How constraining, if no individual is ever
transported to an alien world. How unsatisfying it would be to never
having culture clash with culture. Instead having them all
semi-independently evolving into a monoculture while never once
meeting face to face, and never once launching an interstellar space

Dick Mills
Sailing Vessel Tarwathie


  1. Interesting subject. I remember having a copy of "Starship and the Canoe" by Kenneth Brower. It had interviews of Freeman Dyson and his theory of a external nuclear engine. Dyson thinks you could get very close to the speed of light, around high 90's percent. Time would slow (at those speeds) to allow humans inside to return to earth after several hundred years later, but only months older. Very interesting physics indeed (I got to attend a lecture of his once- whoa!). Ken

  2. Yes, it is a fun subject.

    Even if you did make a light speed ship, it would take 40,000 years to cross the galaxy, and another 40,000 years to send a signal back, "We found ..."

    Forget the astronauts. What society would spend resources on such a mission? By the time we got an answer, no one would remember having sent the mission. Then if the answer was, " nothing here. Try again." it would take 80,000 years per try.


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