We have a great sense of pride and anthropocentric superiority when we talk about “space exploration”. We have sent few space probes to the vacuum, agreed. One of them (Voyager I) is slowly entering Oort Cloud at the moment, outermost edge of our Solar System, another 2 (Voyager II and New Horizons) are not far behind but we, as humans, have only reached as far as our Moon, 380.000 km from Earth. Even in terms of our Solar System you can hardly call it “exploration”. “Visiting neighborhood” would also be an exaggeration. Technologically we are capable of leaving our atmosphere for a mere 50 years – barely one generation. This is quite a statement considering that known Universe exists for 13.6 billion years, our Sun – 4.6 billion years and distance to the nearest planet – Venus is 42.000.000 km which is over 100 times further than the Moon and to the nearest star: Proxima Centauri (4.24 light years away) – 40.000.000.000.000 km (and it would take Voyager I another 76.000 years to get there). We can definitely call ourselves “mental conquistadors” or “scientific explorers” though. Taking into consideration that 100 years ago we didn’t even know the scale of our Solar System and we were completely oblivious to existence of other galaxies, we’ve have expanded our imagination and knowledge exponentially and this progress is truly impressive and mind boggling. We have traveled in our heads much further than in space (or perhaps it’s the same in the end, as in famous Carl Sagan’s Contact?)
Let’s think about Interstellar travel than, or rather interplanetary enterprise because that’s what would make us go “across the universe”. Closest exoplanet capable of supporting life (or just potentially located in Goldilock’s zone) is so far tau Cet e, 12 light years away from our solar system. Seems not far, right? Well… with warp speed or wormhole technology it would be feasible to get there at some stage (if we ever reach this level of civilization). With current technology and fastest available vehicle (Voyager I still holds a record with average speed of 60.000 km/h) this tiny space jump (considering distances to other stars and size of our galaxy) would take us however… 250.000 years. Yes. It’s longer than homo sapiens exists on Earth … and this applies to unmanned spacecraft without taking into consideration constrains of a vessel capable of supporting life on board (size, artificial gravity, atmosphere, etc.) If we keep pace of our development in the same exponential level it’s possible that we may be able to reduce this time to maybe 10.000 years in the next decade or so, but still… It’s the matter of generations just to get to the nearest habitable planet. Space Magellans would have to hibernate all this time or live, procreate and pass on mission to their space-born offspring. In 10.000 years goals and objectives may slightly go off course however if you look at the history of humankind – are we going to look at ourselves in the same way as we look at hunter gatherers or first settlers of Catal Huyuk at best now?
What if we even created that enormous star ship and set out for a cosmic adventure? Would we be the same specie after few decades in space? Christian Alvart’s “Pandorum” may be a good reference here (not a great movie but interesting concept of interstellar evolution – or genetic degradation rather). Less visually disturbing and serious, but equally striking vision is Axiom in “Wall-E” (one of the first animations based on a real sci-fi even if directed towards family audience) which shows the other side of human evolution far from Earth. How many things would change within this time, how many new discoveries and ideas, how many times science would mock itself and deconstruct its foundations, not even mentioning human factors like greed, ambition or just navigational errors (remember universe is in motion without vantage points and visual reference so you can go really wrong)? If it comes to finding extraterrestrial life or aliens, I think we need to rely on them to be more advanced and have the same urge to announce themselves (if it’s a universal drive on every stage of civilization). We can also continue with Miss Universe contest counting that this arrogance will piss them off enough to send their candidates?
Sci-fi without applying wild theories of wormholes, Einstein-Rosen bridges, multiple dimensions, parallel universes and breaking known physics in other mind-boggling ways is just an optimistic sci-fi. Distance (and time but in space it’s the same) is the main obstacle to discover other civilizations (with second most important being anthropocentrism). They are there, they must be there. Even if intelligent matter is the most unlikely manifestation of energy, with the amount of available resources in the universe (including time) it must have been created multiple times even as a waste product or side effect of other natural processes within 13.6 billion years. Drake’s equation (N = R* · ƒp · ƒe · ƒl · ƒi · ƒc · L) states that there should be between 1000 up to 100.000.000 civilizations in our galaxy alone (depending on the assumptions and current knowledge about star/planet formation but still wildly speculative).
Thinking about scale? One great example (and just local): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zR3Igc3Rhfg
“Interstellar” is being praised (or rather advertised) as scientifically accurate. Nobody can deny that Nolan took extra effort to make his movie look plausible. Gargantua is a masterpiece of design, based on latest achievements of theoretical physics, wormhole is a sphere (and looks amazing – one of the best scenes in a movie in my opinion) and entire venture was supported by Kip Thorne from Caltech who is one of the world’s leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But it´s still a movie, a blockbuster product for mass consumption. There are unforgivable (for sci-fi geeks) flaws like blight destroying entire planet’s crops apart from corn (highly unlikely with Earth’s diversity, GMO and fact that wheat is not essential in human diet anymore – we’re far from Neolithic revolution in that respect. The whole explanation of CO2 emission is even worse). Miller’s planet is so close to the black hole that 1 hour spent on its surface accounts for 7 years on Endurance – if this was the case this planet wouldn’t exist in the first place and such time dilatation is only possible on the verge of event horizon. Even psychological bits are confusing: Cooper deciding to go on a “mission” at the table with undercover NASA members without training or even debriefing? Discussion which planet to “visit” like it’s a joyful adventure? Being more accurate wouldn’t change plot too much so why?
But than, again… it’s a movie. Most people go to the cinema for entertainment. Black hole interior with representation of 5 dimensional string theory and time-space limbo is one of the best in history of cinematography, shots of spacecraft sliding along Saturn’s rings with music of Hans Zimmer are stunning and can only be compared to “Space Odyssey” and “Blade Runner” in terms of impact. Nolan’s attention to details and imagination is spectacular but it’s not a scientific thesis and we should not expect it to be, as it would never pay for itself and probably lose half of the audience and bore the rest. Sci-fi hardcore believers will have to wait for their time but this movie is as close to science as it gets at the moment and it represents a new trend in the cinema – movies that care and try. I’d love it to become standard and people like Nolan can make it happen.