Book review: “Spaceships of the Mind” by Nigel Calder

Picked this up on impulse during a recent used bookstore crawl. Turns out it’s actually the companion book to a Beeb TV special that I haven’t seen, but it stands on its own just fine.

The material is a little dated but not too much. The author relates the results of interviewing a selection of space travel visionaries and comparing their statements against known science. The general theme seems to be cautious optimism: space travel is really expensive (but dirt cheap compared to, say, any small war) and really difficult, but there is hope in the future, at least for interplanetary travel.

The point is repeatedly made that space is actually abundantly rich with the energy and materials needed to support us; we just need a minimum level of life support and automation to get us to the point where we can capitalize on them. He mentions how a simple solar-powered or nuclear-powered machine can separate raw ore from the moon or any asteroid into its component elements, which a suitably advanced robot factory could then assemble into habitats and spacecraft for us. That part still needs some work, but we’re on it. Materials and manufacturing have come a long way in the last few decades.

He also covers a variety of propulsion methods that can be used to toss canned monkeys around in space. Heavy bias away from chemical reaction engines and towards solar sails, laser launchers, ion engines and fission and fusion explosion drives, which is all good. Even so the conclusion is that moving canned monkeys around even within the solar system is very hard because of our ridiculous life support needs, and interstellar travel is out of the question until we can fabricate habitats large enough to support life self-sufficiently for decades in interstellar space and figure out how to maintain a balanced, closed ecosystem for that length of time.

He also touches on the politics of moving into space, and while he doesn’t dig into it much this is where things get really pessimistic; he hints towards making a case that we have political motivations not to go into space. While establishing industry in space would be good for bringing material and energy resources to Earth, conditions will likely be harsh with Earth-based corporations and governments pulling the strings; there will be a strong motivation for any humans working in space to secede and form their own government. That’s a loss for Earth in terms of trade, capital investment and military safety that will tend to override any initial desire to invest in space industry, or at least will prevent space industry from reaching the necessary population and self-sufficiency levels to become independent. So we need to figure out an inarguable way to motivate ourselves to do this thing, or else we’ll never get off this rock.

So while the book is a little dated, it does still constitute a good discussion of the practical challenges still facing us in our attempt to move outward.

The bad kind of forcing function

This really irritates me:


The version I have works fine, and since I generally don’t trust Apple I really don’t want a new version. But the “Do not ask me again” checkbox only takes effect if you perform the “accept” action on the dialog, and the only way to do that is to download the new version. And I assume if I do that, in future it will always grab new versions without asking me since I told it not to ask me again.

The “Do not ask” checkbox has no effect if you press Cancel or close the dialog, which means I’ll be irritated by this thing on a regular basis. It’s an evil plot to try to exhaust non-upgrading people into submission! I very much doubt this is a design accident; Apple has a significant interest in getting people to take new versions since it’s how they impose new rights restrictions on their users.

A responsible afterlife

(I’ve had some ruminations of a philosophical bent rattling around in my head for a while. I’ve been trying to tie them together into a unified theme so as to write them down as a single essay, but they’re not jelling. So for now I’ll document them piecewise here and see what emerges.)

Given: There is no hard evidence to support the existence of any sort of afterlife. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but it does mean I must conduct my life based on the assumption that there is no existence after death.

Why? Firstly, if I assume there is an afterlife, then I have an excuse for not leading a fulfilling life. If there’s something I don’t get done in this life, then I can excuse it to myself by imagining that I’ll get to do it in the next one. If I assume there is no afterlife, that provides motivation to enjoy this life and do fulfilling things with it.

Secondly, the assumption of an afterlife can lead one into dangerous situations. A lot of people have been coerced into an early death or have rationalized potentially fatal risks on the promise of an eternal reward. It would really suck to find out you decided to die violently in your youth based on false promises.

Thirdly (and this is a corollary of the above point), believing our dead have gone on to another existence dulls the horror of death, and while I understand the need for some people to shy away from that horror, I really feel this is a problem because it cheapens life and also prevents us from devoting serious effort to the conquest of death – a problem I think is solvable or at least can be significantly pushed back.

Fourthly, assuming there is no afterlife is the safer bet. If I turn out to be wrong and there is an afterlife, it’s pure bonus.

I can see two possible holes in this argument:

One, if you assume there is an afterlife and there is not, you actually won’t be disappointed because you won’t exist. You need to exist to feel disappointed. This truth is not sufficient to justify belief in my opinion.

Two, suppose that (ignoring all my other sins) the act of assuming there is no afterlife is the critical sin that will condemn me to the bad kind of afterlife. I admit my response to this is emotional and not rational: if this is true, then the deity making that judgement is an asshole not deserving of my respect anyway. So again my choice unchanged.

So I’ve established that I feel I must proceed on the assumption that there is no afterlife. Contemplating the non-extistence of an afterlife turns out to be horrifying, and I can understand why people shy away from it; if there is no afterlife, then this life is all you get and there is nothingness after you die. You do not carry on in an eternal sleep. You are not reunited with lost loved ones. You do not get reincarnated as anyone or anything. You do not become a ghost. You have no awareness. Furthermore, it means that all your loved ones who have already passed away are not in a better place; they do not exist at all anymore. Your memories of them are all that remain.

All of that is pretty unpleasant to face, especially if you have lost loved ones. It’s also difficult because the human mind seems inherently unsuited to grasp the idea of not existing; I’ve pondered it quite a bit but it still tends to be a slippery concept – I can reason about the state of nonexistence but not really grok it intuitively.

But none of this changes my choice to disbelieve in an afterlife because I consider belief in one to be irresponsible; it fosters laziness with respect to managing our own lives, it encourages acceptance of impositions and restrictions on our lives, it cheapens life by masking the horror of death, and it is used as an inducement to throw away lives on causes that often look silly and insignificant if you put them in perspective against the finality of death.

One last thing: if you find the idea of dead loved ones being completely nonexistent distressing, consider that in that state they can’t feel remorse or grief, nor can they begrudge any feelings you may have on the matter. All emotion associated with their condition is yours, and you can choose to change it. I find this comforting.