Paul Gilster has Centauri Dreams

Another in a continuing series of "five question" email interviews - most recently with prodigious savant, author of "Born on a Blue Day" and speaker at IdeaFestival 2010, Daniel Tammet - the latest exchange features the expansive thinker Paul Gilster, the man behind the popular web site Centauri Dreams. Paul graciously provided the IdeaFestival with the following answers to its questions.

Read on to find out how he would write the first line of a story describing the discovery of a "second Earth."

Paul, could you briefly describe your interests and work?

I started thinking about an interstellar probe back in the 1980s, while watching Voyager 1 and 2 explore the outer planets. There was a speed-of-light delay involved in communications that fascinated me, and I soon asked myself what it would be like to be working on a mission where the delay time was in years rather than in hours. Proxima Centauri is 260,000 times farther from us than our own Sun, after all -- how would be manage such a mission, how would we send it updates, software fixes, and so on?

Then Dan Goldin started talking about an interstellar probe at NASA (this was in the late '90's), and for a brief time we had serious discussions of the idea among people within the agency. Goldin said "We have to set goals so tough it hurts -- that it drives technology -- in semiconductors, materials, simulation, propulsion." My Centauri Dreams book grew out of that, and the subsequent Web site is an attempt to keep track of these technologies and the exoplanet investigations that are ongoing as well. I want to highlight both the extent of the problem, in terms of distance and time, and to emphasize the case that we'll one day manage to make such a journey, even though it might be centuries before we're ready to go. So just as I write and talk about interstellar journeying, I also think a lot about long-term approaches to science, and the need to focus on small goals that can one day pay off in a major breakthrough. Thus my favorite quote, from Lao Tzu: "You achieve the great thing through a series of small acts."


Bob Berman - Time and space "a turtle shell"

Science popularizer and the "Strange Universe" columnist for Astronomy magazine, Bob Berman spoke on "biocentrism" at the 2009 IdeaFestival.

He explains in this brief interview following his presentation that "time and space are tools of animal perception," and that any unified and complete physical theory will need to incorporate the observer.

Referencing the discovery that either the position, or velocity of a particle - but not both - can be known, astrophysicist and professor at CalPoly Pomona, Suketu Bhavsar disagreed on video with Berman, suggesting that the strange phenomenon seen, for example, in the double slit expermiment has a rather more mundane explanation.

Uploaded to the IFTV channel on YouTube, the latest "IF Conversations" may also be accessed via the web site in the right hand column.

In 2010, theoretical physicist and author of the book "From Eternity to Here," Sean Carroll, will present his thoughts on the ever popular subject of time. Don't miss it!


Alice Gray Stites: "Art an insurance policy"

While described by Stefan Sagmeister as something, compared to design, that doesn't have to work, art often does, and in surprising ways. Jonah Lehrer, who spoke at the IdeaFestival shortly after the publication of Proust was Neuroscientist, illustrated a number of ways, for example, that artists had anticipated discoveries later made by science.

Art and the brain are made for each other.

The nature of the discovery is different, of course. Proust, were he alive today, wouldn't synthesize the next miracle drug, but like all lasting art, his work offered something even more vital - insight into the human condition, the not-quite-the-sum-of-its-chemistry first-person experience we all share.

Art may not offer one-size answers, but, well done, it will inevitably raise meaningful questions.

Think about that as you read the following quote from Alice Gray Stites, director, artwithoutwalls, who spoke on the this spring in Stockholm at a TEDx event in the U.S. embassy, and had this to say about how contemporary art functions:

Embracing visionary contemporary art is like taking out an insurance policy against a fear of the future.


Dom Sagolla: "I'm always learning how to be an entrepreneur"

Don Sagolla, one of the co-creators of Twitter and a presenter at IdeaFestival 2010, says "he's always learning how to be an entrepreneur" in this brief interview from the BBC. His advice: "The simpler you make your idea, the easier it is... to understand the market and get it out there".

Along with many other accomplished and talented people like "Born on a Blue Day" author and prodigious savant Daniel Tammet, "Push" author Sapphire (see the video in the post below), theoretical physicist and author of "From Eternity to Here" Sean Carroll and co-producer of such movies as Titanic and Avatar, Jon Landau - Sagolla will be at IdeaFestival 2010. "Insider Passes" are on sale through tomorrow. On July 9, the price for an all-access pass will increase.


Lost? Good.

Mathematicians deploy a spare language not unlike that used in the best of poetry and painting.

Through it, worlds are created.

Simon McBurney has made a career of taking difficult concepts to the theater stage, and his latest, "The Disappearing Number," is no different, according to a review in the theater section of the New York Times. Beginning with a discussion of the concept of infinity, against which mathematics has made some paradoxical headway, the play doesn't dumb down McBurney's chosen metaphor, but uses it instead to make points about the nature of discovery and human relationships, which, like the most works in progress, require a patient flexibility and suppleness in thought and practice, and can end - or begin again - in complete surprise. 

'People expect the math to be simplified, but I want to surprise them right from the start,' Mr. McBurney said, speaking by telephone from London. 'When the brain gets lost, it doesn’t stop working. It tries to makes sense of things. It begins to speculate and guess, and that’s when things open up. That’s exciting.'

Lately, we don't do "lost" very well. As thinking, feeling organisms, we're far less interested in the world as it is than in a world that makes sense. While being adrift can bring anxiety, it can also be an important mechanism for change and creativity when "speculation and guess" are put to productive use. It's that mathematical quality that appeals to me. With so many people retreating to informational ghettos, differences haven't of late become just the benign order-of-things in a world incomprehensibly vast, but a sign for the faithless something has gone terribly wrong. And so the potential for discovery is willingly put aside. This judiciously worded answer from McBurney about a different way offers a useful contrast.

...when asked how the discussion of infinity at the beginning of the show relates to modern-day relationships, [McBurney] paused before slowly building a formulation.

'Infinity is a way to describe the incomprehensible to the human mind,' he said. 'In a way it notates a mystery. That kind of mystery exists in relationships. A lifetime is not enough to know someone else. It provides a brief glimpse.'

The surprise shouldn't be, then, that talented people, like the brilliant mathematicians in McBurney's work, and like Philippe Petite, Sean Carroll, Jon Landau, Sapphire or Daniel Tammet, who will be at the IdeaFestival in 2010, bring abstraction to life through their science or art or entrepreneurial efforts or experimentation, but, having become lost, that anyone would willingly turn the here and now into a comfortable abstraction and go full stop. Infinity is just the beginning.


Image: Pip Wilson


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