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Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability Essay Contest
December 24, 2019 - April 24, 2020
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What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
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How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
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Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
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How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
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It From Bit or Bit From It
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Janko Kokosar: on 5/29/14 at 17:10pm UTC, wrote Dear Mr John Hartley Earth is overpopulated and in the course of time we...

James Hoover: on 5/27/14 at 20:13pm UTC, wrote John, You have an idea, a rather complete plan, and a catchy phrase to...

Peter Jackson: on 5/26/14 at 15:33pm UTC, wrote John, Great essay, a pleasant and inspiring read. Underrated, but a little...

Michael muteru: on 5/16/14 at 14:08pm UTC, wrote Dr hartleby A very imaginative in a milion.We should come to...

Aaron Feeney: on 5/10/14 at 4:17am UTC, wrote P.S., I will use the following rating scale to rate the essays of authors...

John Hartley: on 5/8/14 at 2:48am UTC, wrote Tihamer, Thank you for your comments. I"ll reply by the numbers to match...

George Gantz: on 5/8/14 at 0:30am UTC, wrote John - I like the simple concept of starting a Starship Culture "movement"....

Joe Fisher: on 5/5/14 at 16:06pm UTC, wrote Dear Dr. Hartley, Your hyper-imaginative essay was one of the most...


Lorraine Ford: "Hi Stefan, I hope that a good leader, and a good political party, is..." in The Present State of...

Lorraine Ford: "We live in an age of computing. But physics, mathematics and philosophy,..." in The Present State of...

Georgina Woodward: "I've copied the comment to the thread where it belongs. This orphan can be..." in The Room in the Elephant:...

Georgina Woodward: "Invalid because what M.I sees first, as a novel being, does not qualify as..." in The Room in the Elephant:...

Georgina Woodward: "Perhaps the idea of consciousness causing collapse is being overthought? ..." in Consciousness and the...

Georgina Woodward: "Thank you John. What did you think about the questioning whether altitude..." in The Nature of Time

John Cox: "Sorry, Georgina, I have had a busy summer and am racing the change of..." in The Nature of Time

Jim Snowdon: "If the Earth did not have it`s rotational motion, the apparent time of day..." in The Quantum Clock-Maker...

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The Quantum Engineer: Q&A with Alexia Auffèves
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The Quantum Clock-Maker Investigating COVID-19, Causality, and the Trouble with AI
Sally Shrapnel, a quantum physicist and medical practitioner, on her experiments into cause-and-effect that could help us understand time’s arrow—and build better healthcare algorithms.

Connect the Quantum Dots for a New Kind of Fuel
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Can Choices Curve Spacetime?
Two teams are developing ways to detect quantum-gravitational effects in the lab.

September 27, 2021

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: Starship Culture as a Guiding Principle for Human Development by John G Hartley [refresh]
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Author John G Hartley wrote on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 13:18 GMT
Essay Abstract

One might imagine a point somewhere in the future where the Galaxy is teeming with life descended from present day Earth. Today the human race is exposed to a variety of existential risks, many of which cease to matter as humanity becomes a multi-planet and multi-star species. The means by which this Diaspora into the Galaxy takes place will be by means of the Starship, an idea popularized by over a century of fiction and studied rigorously by a small cadre of visionary scientists. When considering a future where humanity has colonized the Galaxy, it is natural to look back and consider what path or pathways connect our present day to that future epoch. In this essay we propose to connect present day society to this future vision through the concept of a “Starship Culture”.

Author Bio

John G. Hartley is Professor and Head of the Nanoengineering Constellation at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), State University of New York. He is the head of the Advanced Lithography Group specializing in electron beam lithography tool system architecture and applications. Prior to joining the faculty at CNSE in 2003 he worked at IBM, East Fishkill in the electron optics systems group where he specialized in system integration and engineering. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin

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Mark Avrum Gubrud wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 08:58 GMT
Nice speculative essay about far-future colonization of the universe, though it is not clear what would be doing the colonizing, or why. The essay talks about challenges to humanity and proposes setting a goal of colonization in part as a way to motivate us to get our sh*t together. Isn't this a big part of what national and international space programs, starting with the 1960s, were supposed to be about? I note that the essay does not contain the string "star trek." Hopeful science fiction dreams can replace or supplement religion, nationalism, personal greed, etc. It's not clear how this solves immediate problems, but it's certainly better than the war of all against all.

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Anonymous replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 19:51 GMT

Thanks for the comments. The omission of exactly what would be doing the colonization was deliberate. What our descendents will be when the capability to reach the stars is attained is difficult to say. Biological or cybernetic or some hybrid? The important point is that setting forth on that journey today has the real potential to improve our life now which partially addresses the "why". In formulating this essay, I assumed that survival is preferable to extinction and that growth is preferable to stasis. Extinction may be inevitable but the premise of the Starship Culture buys us time. Humanity can likely survive in some form for a very long time confined to the solar system. Perhaps we can develop a physically static but intellectually robust future capable of dealing with the existential threats that we face. Facing the future from the Starship Culture point of view does not preclude our descendents from remaining here if they so choose. In the meantime it sets a framework for tackling many of the same issues that need to be faced for long term survival.

The space programs of today are a subset of a Starship Culture. They speak to many of the early technical challenges but not to the societal ones. The vast majority of humanity sits on the sidelines of the space programs of today. In the broader context envisioned in this essay, you are participating whenever you work for peace, for protecting the environment, for better health, for gender equality... In this broader context, virtually no one sits on the sidelines.



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Anonymous wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 22:36 GMT

Thank you for your inspiring essay! I think that your concept of Starship Culture has a lot of promise. In my essay, "To Steer Well We Need to See Clearly: the Need for a Worldwide Futurocentric Education Initiative", I propose that we should work hard to put together a "futurocentric" curriculum aimed at schools but also at lifelong education, with the goal to raise the level of...

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Member Marc Séguin replied on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 22:39 GMT
I am the author of the previous post... (Does this board log you off automatically without telling you?)

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Author John G Hartley replied on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 02:23 GMT

Thank you for your positive feedback. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to the motivational power of NASA in his congressional testimony of 7 March 2012 Testimony. It takes more than having a quality STEM education available, it also needs to be desirable as well. Good paying career opportunities help to bring people into the STEM fields but the sense that your career is part of something much larger certainly motivates! In choosing the Starship Culture as the theme for the essay, I had in mind Kennedy's "We choose to go to the moon ... and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard". I could have cast this essay in the context of colonizing the moon or Mars but chose not to because we know it can be done if we can find the will to do it. The starship on the other hand, holds forth so many technical and social challenges that it dares us to find a solution. I thought about what education at all levels would look like in the context of a Starship Culture. There are so many problems to be solved that many (all?) aspects of education could be touched by the Futurocentric Education Initiative.

Welcome aboard!,


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Robin Hanson wrote on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 00:54 GMT
You say it would be good if lots of people went around mumbling "sure would be great if we had starships someday." Your reasons are that this will make people not want to waste resources that could be used to make starships, and that this will make people not want civilization to be destroyed before starships are possible. It seems to me that these reasons make starship culture better than cultures where people mumble "everyone must die!", but they don't obviously make it better than lots of other possible cultures. What about cultures where people mumble "it would be great if lots of happy people were to exist" or "It would be great if we could understand everything eventually"?

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Mark Avrum Gubrud replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 09:36 GMT
I take it you want to maximize the number of happy people, and of understanding everything. So, I gather you would convert the available mass and energy of the universe into computronium, some optimal balance of which would be divided between simulated happy people and science AI. What would that optimal ratio be?

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Author John G Hartley replied on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 03:01 GMT

Thanks for reading! I'm not sure mumbling is a prerequisite for a culture (I'm imagining everyone in a democracy walking around mumbling "free speech, free speech..."). I picked one possible long term state for civilization and built the essay around that. I think the Starship Culture's long term outlook accomplishes several things. One is that by working against a backdrop of long term survival, it buys us time to find the utopian solution. Once civilization is spread out over multiple star systems, we reduce the risk of a cultural experiment gone wrong. I don't think starting now on the Starship Culture precludes civilization from moving to a different culture in the future but returns some near term benefits as we tackle the challenges.


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Member Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 17:10 GMT
Dear John,

in your essay I appreciate the balance between detail and abstraction of discourse, which, I believe, yields a perfectly appropriate style for this type of Contest, and a very readable text, which I value quite a lot. Your message is clear - something that is not so easily found in the other essays. Talking about humanity moving to the stars, one runs the risk of being weak in...

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Jayakar Johnson Joseph wrote on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 06:23 GMT
Dear John,

As we are in favor of, "Take care of the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself", I think the Unification of the fundamental forces of nature is the core to be accomplished before we thinking of colonizing out of Earth. In relevant with this we consider the matters of universe in a string-matter continuum scenario, rather than in Corpuscularianism to resolve this fundamental constrain to improve Observational science.

With best wishes,


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Tihamer T. Toth-Fejel wrote on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 02:15 GMT
That was a wonderful and inspiring essay!

Just a few nit-picks (otherwise I would have given you a 10):

1. As another reader noted, you were sketchy on details. Yes, I know, we only had 9 pages. Given that it's already been 45 years since we first landed on the Moon, and that it was accomplished by a bunch of geeks whose average age was 26, building a Space-Faring civilization is not that difficult. Leveraging the economics is the difficult part -- how do we make humanity's expansion into Space financially self-supporting? Otherwise, like the Chinese with Zheng He and the Americans with Apollo, a few stupid politicians can cut the purse-strings and the exploration screeches to a halt.

2. You mentioned applying Moore's Law in electronics and biology, but you didn't think of applying it to material science and to nanomanufacturing--and advances in these latter areas will make possible much better and cheaper spacecraft.

3. You attributed terrorism to injustice. That is somewhat true, but there are some people (actually about a million of them on Earth) who will gladly kill you simply because you are a heretic. They believe that faith is much more important than reason, so you (and I) are hopelessly screwed if we think we can reason with them. I wish I was wrong about that. Hence we will be at war for a long time. Alas, this is a fallen world, and if we're not careful, I fear that maybe even the artificial minds we might build will suffer from similar flaws.

4. The New World was not settled by everyone in Europe. Only the risk-takers and desperate left their homes. They came because the opportunity outweighed the risks. I don't see how anyone living a comfortable life on Earth would want to risk death by leaving; in fact, many environmentalists oppose putting any resources into such a project. Space will be settled by the descendants of a small minority.

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Member Marc Séguin replied on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 06:24 GMT
The way I see it, even if space is ultimately settled by the descendants of a small minority, or even by half-humans cyborgs or the fully post-biological "Mind Children" of humanity, the mindset of what John G. Hartley calls Starship Culture is a positive force for the future of humanity. It gives us a challenging long-term goal, and by working towards it, we will certainly discover new technologies and new modes of thinking that will benefit all of humanity, on Earth and throughout our expanding sphere of influence. By the way, this is pretty much the idea behind Mae Jemison's 100 Year Starship project (

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Author John G Hartley replied on May. 8, 2014 @ 02:48 GMT

Thank you for your comments. I"ll reply by the numbers to match your points...

1. By treating this as a cultural paradigm rather than a program, I intentionally decouple starship development from top down government programs. As the cultural meme of the starship takes root society begins to rise to the challenge and encourages effort towards the hard things that need to...

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Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 13:30 GMT
Hello John, May I offer a short, but sincere critique of your essay? I would ask you to return the favour. Here's my policy on that. - Mike

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James Dunn wrote on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 16:14 GMT
My problem with a Starship culture is the rate at which technology evolves. What is the point of building a starship that travels at 1/25th the speed of light, if we are able to view the destination with a quantum camera before the starship arrives? Or succeeding versions of starships are built that arrive before the original starships.

There are extremely few resources between star systems, at least as we can presently detect.

Therefore, the focus would need to be on manipulating space-time to support a starship culture.

Is this along the lines of what you are proposing?

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Author John G Hartley replied on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 02:04 GMT

Thank you for your comments. A decision on when to launch will always involve some sort of technology forecast over the projected travel time. You obviously wouldn't launch on a 100 year journey if waiting 10 more years would reduce that to 50. At some point you reach diminishing returns and decide it's time to go. The Starship Culture seeks to establish a climate where humanity is asking the questions, setting priorities and solving the problems to get us to the launch point. The Starship Culture isn't focused on any particular solution but will obviously seek out the best solution permitted by the laws of physics.


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Joe Fisher wrote on May. 5, 2014 @ 16:06 GMT
Dear Dr. Hartley,

Your hyper-imaginative essay was one of the most entertaining essays so far published at this site. I do hope you do not mind me expressing a minor quibble.

Based on my observation, I have concluded that all of the stars, all of the planets, all of the asteroids, all of the comets, all of the meteors, all of the specks of astral dust and all real things have one and only one thing in common. Each real thing has a material surface and an attached material sub-surface. A surface can be interior or exterior. All material surfaces must travel at a constant speed. All material sub-surfaces must travel at an inconsistent speed that has to be less than the constant speed the surface travels at.

If your abstract starship ever got a real surface, it would still only be able to travel at the constant speed that every other surface is already traveling at.

With regards,

Joe Fisher

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George Gantz wrote on May. 8, 2014 @ 00:30 GMT
John - I like the simple concept of starting a Starship Culture "movement". Coincidentally, I just returned from a vacation to Italy. Walking through the many fortified hilltop towns (all built by hand - some dating back 3,000 years) I was struck by the fact that these enterprises represented shared goals spanning across generations - with sufficient incentives to motivate the backbreaking and tedious physical labor that was involved. The motivator in that case was survive against marauding invaders (and perhaps beasts). How might we identify and communicate that level of incentivization for the Starship Culture?

Notably, every one of the towns had at least one (and sometimes several) remarkable cathedrals - again representing incredible commitment of labor, resources and creative/artistic passion spanning the generations. Beyond mere survival, the motivation here is more complex - participating in something greater than oneself, something that extends to infinity and to the hopes of a better life (in this case, the afterlife). Where do we look now to find that kind of model for Starship Culture?

Thanks - George Gantz (author: The Tip of the Spear)

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Michael muteru wrote on May. 16, 2014 @ 14:08 GMT
Dr hartleby

A very imaginative in a milion.We should come to the reality that our planet is a spaceship,whose immense capabilities we ignore as i put in the essay LIVING IN THE SHADOWS OF THE SUN: REALITIES, PERILS ESCAPADES MAN, PLANET AND KARDASHEV SCALE.MAKING THE GREAT TRANSITION by Michael muteru here, rate/review.Thanks All the best

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Peter Jackson wrote on May. 26, 2014 @ 15:33 GMT

Great essay, a pleasant and inspiring read. Underrated, but a little less so in a moment. Thank you and well done.

However I feel Oscar Wilde may well have referred the the theoretical 'rut' as much as the 'gutter' we're in. If we're ever to escape Earth I've suggested we need to escape Earth-bound thinking. I hope you'll like my own essay showing the way to achieve that and your own vision; convergence of disparate and incoherent physics.

Best wishes.


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James Lee Hoover wrote on May. 27, 2014 @ 20:13 GMT

You have an idea, a rather complete plan, and a catchy phrase to hang on it -- Starship Culture. These are ingredients for success in our culture.

I like your germ of starship development and then the culture to sustain it, while you pose the difficulties of sustained space travel. Your cheerleading for the idea at the end is also the championing we need, much like Kennedy's pledge to get us to the Moon.

High marks for your plan and your challenge to get us in the right direction.

My essay speaks of "Looking beyond" scientific orthodoxy and "within" the mind, which Einstein compares to the universe. I call it the neural universe.


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Janko Kokosar wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 17:10 GMT
Dear Mr John Hartley

Earth is overpopulated and in the course of time we should go also to the universe. The problem is that our population growth so fast that it is a question if the migration into the space will happen fast enough.

Preparation for space migration demands also preparation for space problems also on earth. For instance, it can be built up one self-sustained building...

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