Given the crises in physics, could one get further out on a speculative limb than to pronounce limits of our future capabilities? Considering that we lack good definitions, much less reasonable dynamical models for our basic perceptions of reality, (fundamentals in physics: space-time, matter, force, and energy), we ought to avoid the unjustified certainties distinguishing some of the most dangerous and harmful ideological systems in the world - they are antithetical to science.
While billions of dollars and thousands of man-lives are devoted to probing the fundamentals of physical reality, Seth Shostak, in his April 13th, 2009 Op-Ed conveys the widespread view that we already know the basic nature of reality's fundamentals, locality, and other observations. Certain of the nature, absolute limits, and relationships among the fundamentals as proponents of this view often are, there seems no reason not to circumscribe the range of possible technologies that will be capable to transfer matter and energy from one location to another. Underlying this reasoning are beliefs similar to those which were widely held in the late 1800’s: that physics is well-understood and nearly complete. Our ideas only need some minor fleshing-out and a bit of fine tuning.
Speculation on these limits is purchased at the cost of ignoring the 500 year history of scientific advance in general, and the nature of revolutionary paradigm change in particular. The well known consensus within the physics community that revolutionary paradigm change is needed to accomodate the mountains of unexplained, anomalous observations from high energy physics and astronomy communities is considered unrelated, as are the opportunities for advancing science by the pursuit of goals that would require revolutionary advance.
In terms of conceptual justification based on model consistency, ancient claims that anything flying beyond the sky was impossible were more likely to be correct than several of Shostak's claims now. Why? Because the old cosmology possessed crystal spheres obstructing the proposed travel – and their clear definition and operations were backed by centuries of observation and study. Modern cosmology, despite its many advantages, lacks such consistent definitions and models for any fundamental structures or related generative processes that give rise to our observations of space-time, force, matter, and energy. When one lacks a model that meets the minimum requirements for stable scientific concepts, one should avoid pronouncements of what is or is not possible, especially when they place limits on what disciplined research will reveal in a future that will hopefully be a long one, full of new and profound discoveries.
I argue our limited time, money and effort are better invested in recreating approaches in the past that have revolutionized our scientific understanding by carefully avoiding risky assumptions that lead us astray. Lack of progress justifies greater use of more reliable and effective methods, not methods proven to be unsuccessful at accomplishing our goals.
Revolutionary science paradigms evolve indirectly and in a gradual process, contrary to the popular "Eureka Moment" myth. Often, this evolution is within a project environmrnt where a specific objective is sought which requires development of a new cognitive framework or model to acheive. The objective sought must be specific, measurable, and plausible while unattainable under the current paradigm, as well as meeting other criteria. Faster than light (FTL) technology development appears to be a good candidate for such an objective: invaluable in its own right, easily grasped by non-scientists, and requires accurate, testable advances in our fundamental models of reality. Acquiring a solid foundation upon which transformative science can be constructed and developing reliable construction methods may be the most important, effective, and valuable first steps in our species history. We cannot take these steps without an optimism that ultimately, success is possible - that boldly or not, we will go to the stars.