On Tuesday, Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announced Starshot, a $100 million dollar research initiative. The goal is to lay the groundwork for a very ambitious, but surprisingly plausible project: sending probes to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. Their idea is to have hundreds of ultra-light probes, each with a reflective sail a few meters in diameter. By aiming an extremely powerful laser at these sails, it should be possible to accelerate the probes up to around a fifth of the speed of light, enough to make the trip in twenty years. Here’s the most complete article I’ve found on the topic.
I can’t comment on the engineering side of the project. The impression I get is that nothing they’re proposing is known to be impossible, but there are a lot of “ifs” along the way that might scupper things. What I can comment on is the story.
Milner and Hawking have both put quite a bit of effort recently into what essentially amounts to telling stories. Milner’s Breakthrough Prizes involve giving awards of $3 million to prominent theoretical physicists (and, more recently, mathematicians). Quite a few of my fellow theorists have criticized these prizes, arguing that the money would be better spent in a grant program like that of the Simons Foundation. While that would likely be better for science, the Breakthrough Prize isn’t really about that. Instead, it’s about telling a story: a story in which progress in theoretical physics is exalted in a public, Nobel-sized way.
Similarly, Hawking’s occasional pronouncements about aliens or AI aren’t science per se, and the media has a tendency to talk about his contributions to ongoing scientific debates out of proportion to their importance. Both of these things, though, contribute to the story of Hawking: a mascot for physics, someone to carry Einstein’s role of the most recognizable genius in the world. Hawking Inc. is about a role as much as it is about a man.
In calling Hawking and Milner’s activity “stories”, I’m not dismissing them. Stories can be important. And the story told by Starshot is a particularly important one.
Cosmology isn’t just a scientific subject, it contributes to how people see themselves. Here I don’t just mean cosmology the field, but cosmology in the broader sense of our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
A while back, I read a book called The View from the Center of the Universe. The book starts by describing the worldviews of the ancients, cosmologies in which they really did think of themselves as the center of the universe. It then suggests that this played an important role: that this kind of view of the world, in which humans have a place in the cosmos, is important to how we view ourselves. The rest of the book then attempts to construct this sort of mythological understanding out of the modern cosmological picture, with some success.
One thing the book doesn’t discuss very much, though, is the future. We care about our place in the universe not just because we want to know where we came from, but because we want to have some idea of where we’re going. We want to contribute to a greater goal, to see ourselves making progress towards something important and vast and different. That’s why so many religions have not just cosmologies, but eschatologies, why people envision armageddons and raptures.
Starshot places the future in our sight in a way that few other things do. Humanity’s spread among the stars seems like something so far distant that nothing we do now could matter to it. What Starshot does is give us something concrete, a conceptual stepping-stone that can link people in to the broader narrative. Right now, people can work on advanced laser technology and optics, work on making smaller chips and lighter materials, work that would be useful and worth funding regardless of whether it was going to lead to Alpha Centauri. But because of Starshot, we can view that work as the near-term embodiment of humanity’s interstellar destiny.
That combination, bridging the gap between the distant future and our concrete present, is the kind of story people need right now. And so for once, I think Milner’s storytelling is doing exactly what it should.