Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Warp Drive Development - Introduction

Everyone familiar with the distances involved in astronomy, space science, and the search for intelligent life in the universe knows that even if we could travel in a conventional spacecraft at the impossible speed of light, significant human exploration of a tiny nearby fraction of our galaxy would not be plausible.  No sensible person, government, business, or other organization would fund it and among enthusiasts impatient for progress, a taboo topic remains unspoken: the voyage would certainly be a suicide mission – a concrete fact which would seem to block any path to realizing one of our oldest, most beautiful dreams: to sail the stars and meet other civilizations which are probably there.  Distance and time are the core constraints on achieving this goal.

Einstein’s Relativity, an exemplar of modern scientific genius and revolutionary ideas in physics, mathematically describes space and time as an integrated “continuum”, similar to a stretched rubber sheet that warps up and down.  Relativity explains and predicts observations of fundamental quantities in physics with respect to each other.  These fundamental quantities include time, distance, mass, temperature, etc., and one of the consequences of relativity is that nothing can be observed to move faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.  More than a century later, Einstein’s model continues to drive cutting edge research into unresolved problems, contradictions, and mysterious observations that don’t seem to make sense.

Despite the most impressive machinery, greatest amount of money, manpower, and dedication ever committed to an investigation, we still can’t give a consistent explanation of exactly what happens when a candle flame converts a tiny portion of mass into heat and light.  What does this persistent inability mean?  It depends on one’s point of view.  From within the physics community, it suggests the need for new principles to be discovered, most likely involving the kind of discoveries characteristic of physics progress during the past 100 years: new particles, interactions, and dimensions.  Unfortunately, this has led to an explosion in complexity and increasingly intractable problems with the math, where all sorts of infinities appear and cause the math to break down, in contrast with nature, which seems to work just fine.  It is openly acknowledged that “A New Copernican Revolution” is needed.

Despite important differences, our current state in cosmology is very much like the pre-Copernican era, from a history of science perspective.  At that time, modeling the circles of motion resulting from heavenly spheres required calculations which were so long, complex, and expensive, that merely getting 2 astrologers to agree on the current date was proving impossible.  When better measurements were taken, they indicated that systems of circles within circles of truly byzantine complexity were required to accurately account for the observations.  Thomas Kuhn described this state of affairs as a pre-revolutionary crisis phase, where anomalies create a critical mass that cannot be addressed by evolutionary modification to the prevailing paradigm. 

Today, modeling dynamics of space, matter, and time are proving so long, complex, and esoteric that decades of study are needed just to understand part of the generally-accepted standard model.  As data pour in from astronomy and particle physics, elaborating physical models of greater complexity and unusual properties is perceived as the proper course, as it is thought they will eventually accommodate all the observations, make clear predictions, and resolve apparent contradictions.

From an information management perspective, if we’ve been unable to convert lots of related data into usable knowledge on how to proceed, we either aren’t using sufficient resources or our approach is flawed, built on incorrect assumptions.  We plainly see that now regarding the pre-Copernican approach.  To no longer take for granted assumptions that have served us well and seem obviously correct is profoundly difficult.  If we have a lifetime career invested in frameworks based on those assumptions, it is all but impossible to identify and question them.  The process of applying this knowledge to ourselves in a crisis phase can be helped by documenting our foundations.  Therefore, let us assume: (1) there is a reality that exists which is distinct and separate from what we can perceive with our common senses, (2) we are smart enough and have enough clues to figure out generally what’s going on, and (3) our inability to consistently explain everything we can observe so far is due to errors in some of those assumptions. 

Despite the difficulty in conceptualizing a future model which will conflict with current beliefs, we can extrapolate a few characteristics that the New Copernican Model (NCM) will almost certainly possess relative to the Current Standard Model (CSM), based on distinguishing features of scientific concepts which qualify them as revolutionary.  In general, we can be fairly certain that the NCM will: 
  • Replace at least one underlying CSM concept 
  • Remove an observer-centric bias
  • Refer to “observations of X”, where “X” is a fundamental quantity in CSM
  • Explain why measurements appear the way they do 
  • Utilize simpler processes (relative to CSM) 
  •  Reframe human observations as a consequence of these processes

Revolutionary new models are like any model, initially proposed in a poorly elaborated, immature form, and often by people in separate, but related fields.  These people notably have practical applications in mind.  A technical or engineering challenge provides invaluable tools for theoretical development, perhaps the most important of these being criteria for distinguishing ideas that actually work in real-world practice.  Integrating work between research scientists and development engineers accelerates experiments in ways unsuitable for most R&D projects, but are invaluable where they can be used.  Drastic reductions in the time it takes to identify promising avenues of research are realized, mistakes are discovered sooner thus avoiding waste, and the likelihood that pursued research will be successful improves.  The Apollo Program is a dramatic illustration of how such focused and practical efforts can yield a flood of new ideas, practices, and technologies.  

In significant respects, the beginning of the Copernican Revolution can be traced to the need of the Catholic Church for a reliable, standard calendar to which everyone under its auspices would adhere.  Today, similar practical needs are developing in government, industry, and academia; Globalization will rapidly assist the convergence of needs and goals in mutually supporting efforts.  We will briefly examine the most relevant government actions which will help drive creation of an NCM.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) envision an organization dedicated to developing a starship which needs a revolutionary new cosmological model enabling interstellar flight.  Because of relativistic limits we must find a way to get from point A to point B without crossing the intervening distance and incurring the inherent casualties and costs.  Fundamentally, what is this “intervening distance”?  It is something we observe that is so intrinsic to our current conceptualization that we cannot describe it in simpler units than as something we might measure with a ruler.  In other words: our knowledge of distance has advanced little since before the Pyramids of Giza were built.

There are excellent reasons to treat distance and time with some skepticism, despite our common-sense perceptions and CSM categorization as “fundamental quantities”.  From a cognitive science perspective, their fundamental reality would require humans’ sense organs and nervous system to just happen to be located at, constructed within, and sensitive to the foundational dimensions of the universe.  This seems a suspicious coincidence, and not merely because it is exactly the kind of observer-centric biased assumption refuted by theories of Thales, Copernicus and Darwin.  Experimental results suggest humans are not sensitive to important domains of reality beyond what relates fairly directly to molecules.  This narrow spectrum of perception holds initial plausibility, since molecules are the defining constituents of life and living.   Such an approach appears more reasonable and dimensionally neutral for explaining why distance and time seem as real as the sun’s illusory motion across the sky, and it shares the advantage of linking our observational conditions to our conceptualizations. 

Provisionally adopting this view, how might we go about formulating a NCM?  The context of the research to creating faster than light (FTL) technology for interstellar flight shows significant potential for a number of reasons: it is practical, exciting, well understood, massively popular, and offers unparalleled potential for advancing human understanding, technical capabilities, inspiration, business opportunity, military and industrial application, and the grand adventures of discovery and exploration of the stars.  Required resources can be obtained much better when the objective of the scientific research is clear.  In short: creating an NCM driven by starship technology development presents a highly unusual, perhaps even unique opportunity. 

Considering development of an NCM and a starship, we know the organized effort will be temporary (i.e.: have a definite start and end), and deliver something unique: theoretical constructs and technical artifacts which are new, arising within a knowledge and physical environment that is changing.  We also expect future scientific research and starship-related operations to proceed in an ongoing manner, without expectations of a specific end date.  The domains concerned with ensuring these types of efforts achieve their goals are program and project management.  Of most immediate interest is that they offer good recommendations on project assessment so we can plan appropriately for the kind of project we are undertaking. 

In following segments, we will apply the tools and techniques of program and project management to developing a New Copernican Model and faster than light technology for a starship.  Selecting appropriate tools and techniques to apply depends on the type of project we are administering or managing.

Developing the best assessment possible of this project is the focus of our next installment of Warp Drive Development: Project Typology Assessment.