This is where I found out that I'm not nearly as clever as I thought I was. Well, that's not precisely true; this is where I found out that there are other people at least as clever as I am.
Before we get to that, though:
At the moment, society is limited. Specifically, we are limited to Earth. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the hugest blocks to any kind of off-planet expansion is communication. It's hard to think about in those terms, because, today, we can talk to anyone in the world at speeds that are, basically, instantaneous. The fact that light can travel three times around the Earth in one second may have something to do with that. When we move off-planet, though, the speed of light becomes a limitation. And, right now, light is our fastest mode of communication.
There are two things that much of science fiction takes for granted:
1. the ability to travel at greater than the speed of light (although, there is, usually, some sort of basic explanation (in Star Trek, warp drive; in Star Wars, hyperspace (a theoretical possibility, by the way))
2. the ability to communicate instantaneously across the galaxy (there is usually no explanation given for this (although, Star Trek did, eventually, add in sub-space buoys to enable communication); we just have to accept that it's possible)
Until we solve these two issues, expansion out of the solar system just isn't feasible.
The good news? We may have solved one of these issues. Or, at the very least, be on the way to solving it.
See, communication has long been an issue to expansion. Establishing faster communication has been something that has been being worked on for ages. Think back 400 years ago. Let's say you were on the east coast of the USA (because, really, that's almost for sure where you would have been, and, yes, I know it wasn't the USA 400 years ago), and you wanted to send a letter to someone in... oh, let's just say Moscow. First, you have to write out a letter. By hand. On paper. With a quill of all things and a bottle of ink. This is if you could even write at all, so it may be that you are having to pay someone else to write the letter for you. At any rate, once you have your letter, you have to send it by ship across the ocean. And there were no post offices, so it's not like you just put a stamp on it. Anyway, the letter had to spend weeks travelling across the ocean on a ship, and you had to hope the ship didn't sink. Not that you would find out in any kind of timely manner if it did. Supposing the letter makes it all the way across the ocean to whatever port it's going to, let's say Paris, because that was a pretty busy place, once it gets over to Europe, someone has to take the letter on to Moscow. On a horse. And, unless this was some kind of political thing, there wasn't any kind of official mail carrier, and, since I'm pretty sure I don't have any politicians reading my blog, I'm going to suppose you're just some normal person sending a letter to Moscow, which means that, basically, someone going that direction has to volunteer to take the letter. That means that your letter might sit around in an office for weeks waiting for someone to take it. And then more weeks on horseback to Moscow. And then someone to find the person to whom the letter is going and take it to them. Now, let's suppose further that you're someone that has come to the New World (USA) to establish yourself and, then, you're going to send for your spouse and kids (which would make you in all likelihood a male, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt), which you've done with this letter. Your spouse then sits down and pens a letter back, "we're coming!" Because letters took so long, the spouse might well beat his/her letter back across the ocean and arrive before you knew s/he was even coming. At any rate, all of this would take months and months. And months. And, sometimes, more months. And you were never assured that your letter made it in the first place. So, yeah, faster communication has always been something that we, as a race, have been interested in.
The pony express.
First limited by physical travel times, then limited by the speed of sound (and if you've ever spoken to anyone on another continent over the phone, you'll know what that's like), now, limited by the speed of light. Let me say that again, "Limited by the speed of light." That's like buying a new iGadget and looking at the memory and thinking, "I'll never use all of that," and, then, three months later wondering how you ever used up all of your memory.
As I said, science fiction has long said "phooey" with all that communication nonsense, because you can't have a story out in space where you have to wait, not just years, but hundreds of years to communicate.
And, now, we are on the edge of a breakthrough that could take communication out of the equation of what's holding us on Earth.
Just, by the way, I find what I'm about to tell you fascinating. (And this is also where I found out that scientists are clever fellows, too.)
Some time ago, I read an article about a breakthrough in communication. In fact, I've read several. In my mind, I started calling this communication system "quantum communication." The articles I read, though, never gave this stuff a name; it was just my name for it. I knew from the very beginning of this series of posts that I wanted to cover this, but I had no idea how to look it up. After expressing this, my wife, in her wisdom, said to me just look up "quantum communication" and see what you get. heh As it turns out, "quantum communication" is what this is coming to be known as, and I discovered that I'm not the only one that can think of the obvious name for something and decide to call it that.
But what is quantum communication? I'm going to leave most of the science out of this, because, honestly, it gets a bit complex, so in simple terms:
Subatomic particles (the little bits that make up atoms) have quantum states. If you get a pair of particles in matched quantum states (this is called entangling) what you do to one of them instantly affects the other of them. Basically, the unaffected particle will change its state to match the one that it's paired with. As long as you keep these particles isolated. However, distance doesn't seem to affect this at all. So, hypothetically speaking, you should be able to have a particle on Earth and a particle on, say, Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter and, minimally, 45 minutes away by light communication) and affect a change on one of the particles and have an immediate change of state in the second particle. Basically, through effecting a series of changes by, say, typing out a message on a keyboard, you should be able to receive that message more quickly than talking to someone anywhere on Earth via our current methods of communication.
Of course, it's all a bit more complicated than I've made it sound as it involves photons and quantum mapping and polarization and all sorts of other things, but those are the basics. Einstein actually predicted all of this almost 100 years ago, and even he didn't really believe it. He called it "spooky action at a distance."
And in breaking news, it was announced just a few days ago that the very first prototype quantum network has been established at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany. Not only are they looking at communication over vast distances, but there is talk of a quantum Internet. There is also work being done on quantum computing that uses some of these same ideas and many believe is the next step toward artificial intelligence.
But, you know, science fiction had it first... even if they didn't know how it was done.