03 September 2017

Stephen Wolfram Blog: “Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work?”

Maybe (as has been popular recently) there’s a much more prosaic way to propel at least a tiny spacecraft, by pushing it at least to nearby stars with radiation pressure from a laser. Or maybe there’s some way to do “black hole engineering” to set up appropriate distortions in spacetime, even in the standard Einsteinian theory of gravity. It’s important to realize that even if (when?) we know the fundamental theory of physics, we still may not immediately be able to determine, for example, whether faster-than-light travel is possible in our universe. Is there some way to set up some configuration of quantum fields and black holes and whatever so that things behave just so? Computational irreducibility (related to undecidability, Gödel’s Theorem, the Halting Problem, etc.) tells one that there’s no upper bound on just how elaborate and difficult-to-set-up the configuration might need to be. And in the end one could use up all the computation that can be done in the history of the universe—and more—trying to invent the structure that’s needed, and never know for sure if it’s impossible.

Stephen Wolfram

Fascinating look behind the scenes at the perspective of a scientist working out the details for a big-budget science-fiction movie. There’s a lot of good ideas in here and many scientific areas to explore.

Arrival 2016 movie poster

Sadly, the movie itself was kind of disappointing for me. Aside from the impressive visual effects depicting the spacecraft and the alien writing, very few of the ideas in the article are apparent in the movie. The aliens seem rather mysterious and cryptic, and, despite the best human efforts, it’s actually the aliens who manage to make contact and convey their message in a rather classic fashion: by planting images in the mind of the protagonist. I know they’re supposed to be millennia more advanced than us, but there’s no drama or gratification when characters are getting the solution handed over to them.

I am also rather weary of plots that can only be resolved by invoking time-travel – or in this case information passed down from your future self. This is implying that the future is somehow set in stone forever, an idea to which I also don’t give much credence. Ultimately, Arrival suffers from the same problem as Interstellar: starting with a story grounded in science, but concluding it by invoking a solution outside the realm of (plausible) science, making the result unsatisfactory and negating the science premise altogether.

My rating: 3.5

Post a Comment