The Black Hole Engine — Take Two

The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) has now awarded first prize in its annual essay contest to Louis Crane for Stardrives and Spinoza. This is a follow-up to Are Black Hole Starships Possible? by Crane and Shawn Westmoreland, which I have already commented on below.

The theme of this year’s contest is “What is ultimately possible in Physics?” I am always interested in everything in the essay — the limits of science indeed, the future of technology and the possibility of interstellar travel, and the theological questions that Crane brings up at the end of his essay.

Some things about the essay make me rather uneasy. I truly do not know what to make of Lee Smolin’s idea that to create a black hole, even a small one, is to create an entire new Big Bang and subsequent new universe. My uneasiness arises from the fact that I am not at all comfortable with the idea of being, as a black hole engineer, the likely creator and destroyer of a very large number of civilizations. Either this goes way above my pay grade, or it shows me that I am a drastically larger creature than I thought I was, or it shows me that no sentient being can avoid these dizzying and dismayingly unpredictable responsibilities.

It also makes me uneasy that Professor Crane avowedly sees this project as fusing scientific and religious motives. I prefer to keep them separate. I believe that my God is rather taller than even the most ancient of black hole engineers. While I am attracted to the idea of divinization up to a point, I feel that to identify the human (or the transhuman) and the divine, even as the limit of a sequence as Crane implies, is, in the end, nothing more than self-idolatry.

Setting aside the potential for human beings to assume apparently God-like powers, I regard Louis Crane’s line of thought as being of the first importance. One of his most striking points is that an artificial black hole could be an experiment to decide between theories of quantum gravity, by measuring alternative predictions for the phenomenology of Hawking radiation near the Planck scale in the real world.

But, of course, for me personally, the most exciting thing is a practical proposal, or at least a not obviously impractical proposal, for starships and a starship-based civilization and economy. Among other things, this turns the heat way up on Fermi’s old question, “Where are they?”

Also, the essay proceeds in good Gödelian style by reasoning in a mathematical and scientific way about a foundational question that has well-defined meanings both operationally and philosophically. In this way, it is possible to make theological inferences based on matters of fact, or at least, to clarify dilemmas and meanings.

Despite my theological reservations, I applaud Professor Crane, and I consider the essay to have the potential for influencing the future of human civilization. If it does, it may submerge and resurface in accordance with the spirits of the ages and their technical powers.

In his conclusion, Professor Crane writes:

We have outlined a plausible future where a central project for the whole
world gives us an almost infinite extension of our range as a result of an immense
collective effort. Depending on subtle points of interpretation of general relativity,
this could come with a new understanding of our place in the universe,
in which we play a role in its cycle of creation.

Again prescinding from the theological implications, I quite agree that such collective projects are highly desirable. I even fear that without them, we may well either not survive ourselves, or become a good deal nastier than we already are.

Note to science fiction writers: I’m sure Crane is quite correct that no more efficient engine can be made, but it seems clear that making such an engine is beyond the efforts of any individual or small group, at least until such time as one person can successfully direct the work of an entire large army of robotic spacecraft. The levels of difficulty in technology, and in the evolution of civilizations, are real.

Can we get down now? Can we get going?

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