New and important: practicable space exploration



Yuri Milner, a Russian zillionaire, is proposing to spend $100 million on light sail driven space probes that could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years. He has recruited Stephen Hawking to shill for him and has enlisted Mark Zuckerberg for his board of directors.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star to us, at 4 light-years. The light sails are expected to be accelerated to 1/5th C, the speed of light, by a powerful laser.

At noon [yesterday, in fact] today, Yuri Milner, the Russian tech billionaire, will join Stephen Hawking atop Manhattan’s Freedom Tower, where the pair will announce Starshot, a $100 million dollar research program, the latest of Milner’s “Breakthrough Initiatives.” (Mark Zuckerberg will serve on Starshot’s board, alongside Milner and Hawking.) With the money, Milner hopes to prove that a probe could make the journey to Alpha Centauri in only 20 years.

It was great to hear some hopeful news for a change.

On reflection, it is obvious that our own planet’s system might well have been mapped by tiny invisible cameras carried by light sails from another star system in any age past. Going further afield from our mechanistic 21st century headspace, we might allow ourselves to consider the view held by Terence McKenna. He held that the most practical way to get to distant stars is by spores travelling through the depths of cold, foodless, and irradiated space. His view – or, according to what the psychedelic mushrooms told him – their story, was that the mushrooms he ingested travelled as spores between star systems, and can colonize any carbon based system, and communicate with the minds of those that happen to eat them.

If you think this method of interstellar travel and communication is weirder than micron-thin lightsails being sent by lasers, that is merely a local and chronic (centred on our own time) prejudice. Expand the range of allowed possibilities. There is no reason to consider current human technologies, and human-only communications, as the only ways to get around this galaxy.

McKenna’s True Hallucinations is well worth a read. And if a taste for psychedelics makes me a bad conservative…I offer no apologies. The same taste made me immune to all materialistic doctrines: marxism, materialism, reductionism, freudianism, and any of the nonsense so well described in Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands.