Celebrated science fiction author Jack McDevitt discusses how we can imagine a universe where human space travel is not limited to the speed of light, and our civilization can explore the galaxy and beyond. This Pulsar podcast is brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at sciencequestions@mos.org.

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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar: a podcast where we answer the most awesome questions we get from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric, and we needed two episodes to tackle the question: what is the fastest thing in the universe? Last week, we found out the answer is light, which is too bad for any civilization, such as our own, that would like to explore the universe in less than a trillion years. Light is super fast on a human scale, but very slow on a cosmic scale. But what if we could bend or break the rule that nothing in the universe can go faster than light speed? What if the fastest thing in the universe could go much, much faster, and carry humans? Now we have found ourselves leaving behind our current capabilities and limitations and entering the realm of science fiction. My guest today is Jack McDevitt, an award-winning author whose works include human civilizations that have broken the speed of light barrier and begun to explore beyond the solar system. Jack, thanks so much for joining me on Pulsar.

JACK: Oh, my pleasure.

ERIC: In your worlds, or I should say universes you've created, light is not the fastest thing. So when you're imagining faster than light space travel, where do you start?

JACK: Basically, with the Star Trek idea. I remember attending a science fiction conference one time, and they had me on a panel. And one of the questions that came up was: how does the star drive work? The couple of the other guys who were there who tried to explain what kind of system they used. And I said, I just push a button. I just push a button and we go, which is basically what they did on Star Trek, they talked about the warp speed. The reality is, of course, everything is so far away. Try to get to Alpha Centauri, which is the closest star, of course. If we could go a million miles an hour, which is considerably better than we could do it. If we go a million miles an hour, it would take us about 3,000 years to get there. Imagine that. The really ironic part of it is: if you go a million miles an hour, you're not going to get there because you're going to hit a rock on the way that's gonna destroy the ship.

ERIC: Right. The universe is mostly empty, but not it's not empty enough.

JACK: No, that's correct. You know, something that's kind of intriguing that I ran into, at one point. The sun could have exploded five minutes ago. And if it did, you and I wouldn't know about it yet. We live in the Milky Way galaxy, which, back in the 1920s, people used to think that was the universe. And, of course, it's just one small galaxy in the middle of a billion of them. I think we lose sight of just how big a galaxy is. The Earth is 28,000 light years from the center of the galaxy, which means that if somebody at the center of the galaxy had a big spotlight, aimed toward where we were going to be, and turned the thing on, that you could go back 2,000 years, and go through the same thing 13 more times before the light would reach you. You know, I mean, that's incredible. That's so beyond anything we can perceive. And it's ridiculous.

ERIC: Yeah, it's beyond anything that we can comprehend. We talked about it last week in our first part of the episode that light speed is not just the speed limit for objects. It's the speed limit for information, where you can't send a signal instantly anywhere in the universe, it has to go only as fast as the speed of light. Doesn't matter for our everyday lives. But it matters when we send a signal out to spacecraft who are taking pictures of Pluto. It will really matter if we're trying to explore the stars. I mean, four year delays, 10 year delays, 100 year delays in sending a signal that says turn left. It just starts to be mind boggling, the distances.

JACK: Yeah, I recently finished a story about an interstellar starship, they were about 30 light years away. And it was run by an artificial intelligence. The problem with it was when when the artificial intelligence sent messages back to us, it took 30 years to get here. You know, there's no way you can give it advice, or talk to it, or direct it, or do anything, just sit and watch.

ERIC: We see that already with the spacecraft that we're sending to the outer part of the solar system. The delay there is hours. But still those spacecraft have to be pretty autonomous. But yeah, if it was 30 light years away, and that communication delay was decades, then it would really have to act on its own.

JACK: Especially if something odd happens out there.

ERIC: Do you often talk with scientists when you're creating a new technology or a new world?

JACK: Yeah, I talk with scientists a good bit to find out whether I may have gotten something wrong, the details of what I'm trying to work out, that's really been a good experience. Because I discovered early on that, you know, I can call a university a lot of times and get to the physics department. And whoever picks up the telephone, I'll say, I'm working on a story, blah, blah, blah, what might we see in a star that would tell us that the star was an artificial object? And then the response I got to that question was, holy cats. You got to be kidding. Let me think about it for a minute, you know. And ultimately, I think we got talking about lithium, I don't remember, but I got the answer to my question. And, you know, I went back and wrote the thing. But that's the kind of question you ask. And in my experience, scientists love it. I have never asked anybody to help with an issue and not got a reasonable response. I've never been turned down, never been laughed at. They're great.

ERIC: So do you have to do calculations for the time it takes to get from point to point to keep the technology consistent within a story?

JACK: Not really, no. I try to stay away from the details as much as I can. I might say, okay, so it's going to take us eight days to get there or something like that. But there's no math involved in it. Because I don't get into how fast the warp speed is, or anything like that.

ERIC: And do you think we'll ever actually achieve faster than light travel in real life?

JACK: I don't think it's ever going to happen, period. You know, Einstein says, that ain't gonna happen. That tells me that it probably won't.

ERIC: Humans exploring the universe in person might be science fiction for a while, but you never know what will come in 1,000 or 100,000 years.

JACK: It's one of the reasons, by the way, I should mention that I am very skeptical about these UFO stories I hear, it's really hard to believe that there's anybody coming here from another star, they don't say hello, or do anything except fly through the sky.

ERIC: Yeah, inventing the technology to get all the way here. And then just kind of hanging out in the clouds and flashing lights doesn't seem very likely, right?

JACK: That's certainly my perspective on it.

ERIC: So finally, what advice do you have for aspiring authors who would like to write stories about a universe where faster than light travel is possible?

JACK: Do something other than simply find aliens that we can fight with. That is, by and large, what I saw in the movies, and it's dull. It's more interesting to look at issues. It's one of the reasons I guess that I wound up with a lot of missing aliens. What we wound up doing was archeology.

ERIC: A lot of civilizations that used to exist but don't exist anymore and just left clues.

JACK: Are gone, yes. And the question is, what happened to them. Mysteries are more fun to solve than just simply fighting with aliens. I would like to believe, again, I have no way of knowing this either. But I would like to believe that advanced civilizations are not going to sweep in and invade us and do all these things that we're being warned about. I would hope highly intelligent beings are going to have compassion for other forms of intelligence.

ERIC: Well, Jack, it's been a thrill to speak with you. Thanks for giving us some insight on imagining spaceships that are the fastest things in the universe.

JACK: Well, it's my pleasure, Eric.

ERIC: If you love sci-fi, sign up for our Science Fiction Book Club for the Curious. You can always check out this month’s selection and meeting time at mos.org. Until next time, keep asking questions.

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