FLT Methods Part 3 – Just get there!


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This is 3rd in the series. The first part, which explains our premise, can be found here.


The same Star Wars graphic everyone else uses…

If what follows seems less scientifically documented, that’s because it is.  We start scraping against fantasy past here.
Hyperspace Shunt


Many FTL schemes envision an alternate dimension within or adjacent to our own through which vehicles might pass through to arrive somewhere else in the universe in a much shorter time. This is your classic hyperspace. This is how ships move about in Star Wars and Traveler.

There is, to my understanding, no functional difference between Hyperspace and the Ethereal Plane of Dungeons and Dragons and all its derivatives. So Star Finder GM’s take note.

Hyperspace from a Liberal Arts perspective


The Hyperdrive (or Jump Drive or whatever) is whatever gizmo you use to port your shiny ship into Hyperspace. It may or may not be integral with your regular propulsion. Once in Hyperspace, how long you stay may be a function of how far you plan to travel, or a function of the plot.

The RPG Traveler takes the position that you always spend the same amount of time in “Jumpspace”  – 150 hours – regardless of how far you jump. This seems like a compromise decision made by a committee in order to move on to the next thing.


How to enter the Ethereal Plane with “science”

The functional difference between hyperspace and Wormholes is mobility. The ships effectively make their own entrances and exits as they go. If they have to travel to fixed and charted jump-points you have wormhole with different architecture.

Like Warp Bubbles, you are either in the universe or you are outside of it. In my version of this, the big difference between hyperspace and simple extra-dimensional shunting is the possibility of encounters; strange and dangerous encounters.

Unlike instantaneous jump drives (which we get to below) there is some travel time to be idled away on character development or whatever within hyperspace. This – for me – is what defines the approach.

Time spent in hyperspace in most fiction or  generally tracks along with the passage of time in the regular universe. Meaning 150 hours ship time is 150 hours regular universe time. This does not need to be the case, however. You could still roll two sets of dice: one for subjective time in Hyperspace and one for objective time that passed in the actual universe.

The random time approach is as much in line with known physics as anything else about hyperspace – meaning none of it. It has as much scientific validity as the Ethereal Plane.


Inertialess Drive

Among the many tropes that E.E. “Doc” Smith concocted for his Lensmen series was the Inertialess Drive. (Reasonably good summary of its first appearance here]. Applied gravitics cancel out the inertia quality of the mass. Then , assuming you start outside of a gravity well, there is nothing that will affect the speed of the mass except friction, which is negligible in outer space.


If you’re so advanced, how come your spaceship looks like a used Russian submarine?

By wiping out inertia and gravity you can ignore Einstein’s speed limit and go as fast as you can project yourself with your hand-wavium projector. You can’t use a thruster- or anything like that. Those rely on inertia.

You can make a case that you ignore the time-dilation effects as well, but many authors have had good fun claiming the opposite.

This assumes technological control of Gravitics, afterwards this is the next big leap.

If you want a ship that goes really fast (Doc Smith wrote about parsecs per hour) but stays in the universe, this is it.




Jump Drives

As I wrote in an earlier post:


Every point in space/time resonates at a certain, distinct frequency. No – stop. If you argue this will take forever. Just accept for a while until we get to the bottom of the blog. Physical time travel, then, can be accomplished by changing the frequency of an object to match the frequency of a different point in space/time.


Jump Drives use this theory, or something equally absurd, to effectively teleport the ship, instantaneously, to another part of the universe.

[Maybe I should note hear that the Traveler “Jump drive” is a hypserspace drive as we discussed above. Nothing in the canon Traveler universe does anything like this.]


[Image from here.]

There is often some exotic resource required, some range limitations, and some time required to start (or spool -up as the new Battlestar Galactica would say) the jump. But the transport itself is instantaneous.

In my fiction, you have to find a way to change the vibrations of every single particle in the mass to be moved. Moving in just space, that resonance change can be permanent, assuming you do not collide with existing mass upon arrival.  If you add time to the space equation, (or space to the time equation) the resonance shift is inherently unstable, and you will eventually snap back to your original harmonics.

How long will that take? Let me roll some dice…


With the three methods above, there are no choke points to concentrate your defenses on; an enemy could pop out of nowhere at any time. (OK – you might see Inertialess Drive coming – as they slow down). You can bop around the galaxy or even farther in the time it takes to clear the shipping dock.

That makes a coherent, centralized galactic empire almost inevitable.

I have a bookshelf full of RPG’s many of them space-opera. I sometimes imagine a sprawling space opera setting where all of the above are possible, depending on where you go, and who you go with. Because none of these schemes actually prohibit the other schemes. There is a (fictional) universe where they are all viable.

That’s a whole different series of posts though. Watch this space.


FTL Survey part 2 Warped Drives


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This is part Two. Part one is here.

FTL methods explored in approximate order of plausibility.

Warp Bubble

Not copyrighted by Paramount.

Better known as the Alcubierre Drive, because Paramount can’t sue you for that. This gets a lot of press because there is some experimental, and a lot of mathematical validity to it, and because it seems a lot like Star Trek.

It’s not Star Trek Warp Drive, but that is a deep deep nerd discussion beyond this article. It has the same practical effect.

The Alcubbierre Drive creates a bubble around the vehicle that slips through space-time at hyper-luminal velocities from the point of view of a stationary observer. The ship doesn’t move; the bubble does all the moving.

Seriously, there is real math behind this.

Like the wormholes, creating such a bubble requires “exotic matter” in this case matter possessing negative energy density. There is a measurable quantum dynamic in a vacuum between two plates called the Casimir effect that demonstrates the distant possibility of such matter. But there’s a lot of steps between weird measurements in a lab, and a bubble of space-time around your shiny spaceship.

There are, actually, a lot of variants on this theme.

The Tau Zero Foundation keeps track of such things:

Warp drive and wormholes are two examples which rely on known solutions to the equations of General Relativity, but other concepts have been proposed that are much more speculative. A short list – Diametric, Bias, Disjunction and Pitch Drives, all of which involve creating a gradient in space-time that is mobile.


Anyway, You make a magic bubble around the ship – somehow- and it moves, and the ship rides along inside of it. And because this bubble isn’t really part of the regular universe, it can go FTL without making Einstein cringe.

Can you engage the rest of the universe while inside your warped bubble? This happened all the time in early Star Trek – but that gets into the deeper nerd-hole that we don’t have time for.

Most plausibly – no. You are either in the bubble or out of the bubble – just like more recent Star Trek offerings would suggest.

But you don’t need no stinking gate. You don’t really even need a propulsion system (though you likely have one for when you turn the bubble off. You plot a course and make it so.


The Gravitic Lens

Vengeance in flight

A starship I made up using a drive I made up.

Full disclosure, I made this up for my own fiction, and it is not based at all on popular or plausible FTL methods. The Tau Zero folks might call this a Bias Drive.

Using a configuration of powerful gravitic forces such as singularities (at the primitive stages) to gravitic generators, space/time is condensed or “warped” to the fore of the vehicle and left to expand to “normal” shape to the aft of the vehicle. The effect is a multiple of the vehicles regular velocity that is unrestricted by the lightspeed barrier.

Artificial singularities, kept in stasis fields, anchored to the side of the ship. What could go wrong?

This is not an Alcubierre Drive. That method is less insane.

The ship requires some propulsion other than the gravitic lens, which distorts spacetime around the ship, but does not, by itself, move or cause movement.

Using the gravity lens technique keeps the vehicle in “normal” space, and can therefore collide with other objects, so using it inside areas with substantial mass densities (such as star systems) is suicidal. The vehicle is further subject to any time dilation associated with high velocity travel. Also, any malfunction could cause the gravitic lens to collapse in on itself, imploding the ship down to the subatomic level.

You must plot straight lines. You cannot turn these things.

Humans are the only race known to employ this method beyond the experimental level. All other races consider it far too dangerous, not just for the users, but it appears to scar spacetime itself.

When They stopped us, they said, “We are not certain which frightens us more: that fact that you thought of this, or the fact that you used it.”

Even after it was outlawed, humans kept a few of these around, because of course we did.

Because development was halted early, and perhaps because of real technical barriers, Humans never gained any speed faster than 240% lightspeed with this method. That’s still more almost two years to the nearest star.

Next: Hyperspace


FTL Drives – a Survey


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There are three questions you have to answer to satisfaction in order to work out the future:

  1.       What is the answer to Fermi’s paradox?
  2.       How do we resolve the inevitable Robot Uprising?
  3.       Is it possible to go Faster than Light?

This is about question #3.


The same Star Wars image every other site uses

What this is not going to be is a deep discussion of the physics of pushing some poor dumb object faster than the absolute speed limit of the universe. Nor is this going to be about the various sub-light propulsion systems that exist in practice and theory.

This is about Faster Than Light schemes that we (mostly) made up, and how they influence your space opera or other science fictional universe.

Before we get to all of that, let us pause to consider the answer “No – it is NOT possible to exceed the speed of light in a vacuum either actually or practically.” If that is your answer, you are concocting what is called “Hard” science fiction. The answer “no” to question #3 informally defines the category.

You are in line with known physics, and there is, in truth, a lot of drama just in our own solar system and immediate stellar neighborhood. Enjoy.

But we are off to the ridiculously far horizon, and we are done with you now.

The stars you see in the sky are not the stars that are there now, but the light from stars from tens or hundreds or thousands or millions of years ago. As fast as light is [299 792 458 meters / second, just shy of 300k kilometers / second] it is still too slow to get around our vast cosmic neighborhood in any reasonable amount of time.

Not that you could anyway. By conventional known-physics propulsion, speeds nearing light speed require exponentially more energy. 

Naw, if you want to get anywhere within your own lifetime, you are going to have to cheat.

It is – theoretically – possible to sneak around the light speed barrier, but you you have to hand wave over some accepted physics, and trust in some mad notions which are totally unproven.

Because the secret purpose of this article is to work out some canon for a loosely planned space opera RPG campaign, I have ordered these in easiest to most difficult for a GM to organize galactic empires around.


Fold a piece of paper and stick a pencil through it. Just that easy.


Wormholes in space top a lot of lists because they are a real things that exist. By wormhole we don’t mean Black Holes – which are totally real, along with their  soul-crushing gravity that will stretch your already irradiated corpse out like an infinite noodle. By the time you have the tech to fly through one of those, you won’t need to.

Instead, a  natural or artificially induced wormhole, an extra-dimensional tunnel connecting two otherwise distant locations in the universe, is utilized for transport. Forming the wormholes is a complex, resource-intensive endeavor generally beyond that of any individual vehicle. Because they can be stabilized, however, they are normally constructed as permanent facilities. Once in place, any vehicle is capable of using them.

To stabilize the wormhole at any reasonable size you need “exotic matter” which is theoretically possible in some versions of physics, but has not been shown to actually exist.  Scientific American explains:


That’s right: mass, but negative. A ring of negative-mass material could be used to construct a fully functional and useful wormhole. Since the exotic nature of negative mass warps spacetime in a unique way, it “inflates” the entrance to the wormhole outside the boundary of the event horizon, and stabilizes the throat of the wormhole against instabilities. It’s not an intuitive result but the math checks out.


Contrary to the depictions in fiction (including mine) These things are likely spherical and would glow with a halo of radiation (which I did get right).


I drew a glowy doughnut

Also, there is the problem of location.

Does the wormhole move with the rest of the galaxy? There is no reason to assume that it would. (We have given this matter some thought.) Eventually I decided that the mechanism holding the gate open was subject to local gravitational forces, and moved with the system.

The other question is how long are you in the wormhole? Sure, it looks like it has length in the illustrations, but those are illustrations. The distance you actually travel from Actual Point A to actual Point B may be zero, or a percentage of the objective distance, or random.

Instantaneous, zero distance is the coward’s way out, but supported by the math – of simplicity. Space divided by time might equal zero.

A percentage of the distance, say 1% is likewise easy to manage, but probably not real at all.

I tend towards random. One of the supposed methods of creating a wormhole is expanding and directing of the naturally occurring ones in the quantum foam. The quantum foam is the Platonic ideal of chaos. So I’d roll two sets of dice: one for how long they spent making the journey by objective universe time, and one for how long they spent on the journey by the ship’s clock.

Consider how this screws up more than GM accounting. Bad enough trying to manage shipping logistics with this sort of chaos; try coordinating an invasion. Not only is your target going to have all their guns pointed at the gate all the time, but there is zero guarantee that any of your ships will arrive together.

Maybe the more civilized portions of the galaxy have wormholes with regular durations.



Next: Warped Drivers

Scars in Time


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If too many time travelers try to go to the same place at the same time – how do you manage that? You know, besides a big special with a bunch of aging actors reprising roles they swore they’d never play again? This is head-canon, but I think you scar up time – and nobody goes there at all.


“We’re here! Wait .. What?” Photo by Luka Siemionov on Pexels.com


In my mind, where there are several fictional projects involving time travel swirling around, time travelers have a hard time meeting each other. Because too many time travelers cause a scar in time, and then those coordinates are unreachable for anyone outside of that natural timeline.


You cannot, for example, go witness the birth of Jesus. Because one time traveling entity wanted to prove the reality of Jesus, while another was using it as a chrono-tourism draw, while a third just wanted to study the first few years of the Roman Empire and it emerged from the Republic, while another was measuring salt levels in the Dead Sea over history. These, and several more ruined it for all of each other.


This will never happen – and not just because of copyrights.

No one can time travel back to the Nativity. No one ever has, and no one ever will because too many will someday try.

Don’t get hung up on my using the Nativity as an example. There are a lot of events that could end up scarred like this.

What follows is the way it works in some of my fiction – most of which has yet to be written. You get to learn about it here, free of cost (or context) as a reward for reading this far into an amateur blog about time travel.

Every point in space/time resonates at a certain, distinct frequency. No – stop. If you argue this will take forever. Just accept for a while until we get to the bottom of the blog. Physical time travel, then, can be accomplished by changing the frequency of an object to match the frequency of a different point in space/time.

One or two such objects can be inserted into the new coordinates without disturbing the existing harmonics. But those harmonics are premised on the objects that were always there. Changing the mass and energy values eventually forces a change in the frequency to accommodate – and that can’t happen.

So past a certain threshold (which varies) (perhaps by plot needs) the existing harmonics reject all new matter and energy trying to integrate into the coordinates.

Even if the time travelers come from disparate times and places themselves, they would all be arriving at the same time in the same place – and thereby would not arrive at all. History cannot abide a big audience.

Under this version – none of the various Flashes and related Speedsters get to Nora Allen. And that’s OK.


Nora Allen always dies – because physics

As I imagine it, this is invariably discovered early in the process when the mad scientists researching time travel (they are inherently mad) discover that it is impossible to do short, experimental hops.

This is because they have been trying to do short experimental hops over the course of several weeks, and assuming the failure was due to some other process. No, Professor Spacetime, you cannot beam your poor bunny across the laboratory to an hour ago because you have been trying to do that very thing for weeks, and the universe rejects multiple simultaneous atemporal versions of Mr. FooFoo.

The time and place a time machine is invented is almost always time scarred. Often the timeline of the inventor is as well. Sometimes on purpose. Time-scarring your own timeline, as well as those of your loved ones discourages awkward conversations with yourself, but also time-traveling rivals taking hostages, or trying to kill you before whenever.

So the key to time travel, the is to find some time and place no other time traveler has gone – and hope that none of them ever – ever- think of going there too. Because then you might never get there.

But if you do – you can be assured that you are the only time traveler present (or at least one of only a few).

So how do you have a convention of time travelers, or a time war?

You’ll have to hand-wave over the unobtanium until you find a make-believe work-around to my make-believe side-effect of completely fictional physics. Let me know how you did that.




Some quick thoughts on the new-new-new Doctor Who


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The 11th season of the the revived Doctor Who changed just about everything, show-runner, cast, and focus. And while it’s more popular than ever (this is true, haters) I still have some problems with it.

But those problems may not be what you think.


We’re halfway through the season and I’m finally forming thoughts about this? Yes. Sometimes it worth it just to shut up and watch. After all, they blew up the old team and rebuilt, and we know they are going to take a few episodes to find a groove.

I just turned off from episode 6, and while some of the things that bothered me from Episode 1 have evaporated, a few remain.  

It is important to remember that I have always liked this show, and I still like it. What follows should be taken as friendly advice.


Talk softly and wave around a sonic screwdriver

I have to turn on Closed Captioning to watch this show.

Let me preface this by noting that I enjoy Jodie Whittaker as an actress, and generally her portrayal of the Doctor so far. A new Doctor always faces into fierce winds, even without the gender issues. But I cannot understand a third of what she says.

Whittaker’s Yorkshire accent is thicker, to American ears, than any of her predecessors. That, however, I could likely acclimate to. Her real problem is volume.

All of her predecessors, except maybe Peter Davidson, had solid baritone voices that could boom through the chaos when required. Whittaker’s thin alto can’t get there, and worse, she tends to mumble when her previous incarnations might have shouted.

She’s not the first Doctor to mumble, but she has yet to shout (other than “Run!” or the like) in a way that commands the room. Maybe that’s not in this incarnation. The 5th was not much of a yeller either, except when he was trying to get the attention of his assorted quarreling companions. Which bring us to…


Aren’t we all so interesting…

As the Days of the the Companions Turn

Friends! They’re called friends now. Because companion has become a loaded word? OK. In truth, the Master was right all along – they are really more like pets. That’s not my problem, though.

The 12th (actually 15th) Doctor has more than two companions for the first time in the modern era. And they are all well portrayed, reasonably fleshed out, real people from Sheffield with different perspectives on life, the universe and travelling with a madwoman in a box.

And let’s be clear, this is an improvement over the different incarnations of Mary Sue [yes – even Jenna Coleman’s Clara] the good Doctor has been not-really-dating over the past ten seasons. Notable that the least Mary-Sue of them, Donna Noble, is easily the most popular companion, especially among women.

Let’s be clear about something else: I generally like all these new companions friends, and the actors who portray them. They come across as real people in a way this series rarely gets.

In establishing these characters – who all knew each other prior to stumbling onto the Doctor in Episode one – the teeters at the edge of sliding into soap-opera about their lives.

It is a mark of the new Who that all the companions have been relatively normal humans from contemporary Earth. And they come home at the end of every story arc and resume their lives in and around their time in the TARDIS.


Typical excitement in Sheffield.

In the old series they came from all over the place, and rarely saw home again until their time-travelling was at an end (usually meaning when the actor quit). I personally see that as kind of a loss.

There are any number of shows that deal with the stress adventuring and the absences it requires puts upon the lives of well meaning people and their families. Namely, every show of any quality that deals with cops or special agents of whatever sort bounces this theme around. That often makes for compelling drama.

But that is not why we watch Doctor Who.

It has been my experience that the less time the Doctor spends in contemporary England, the better the show. The whole point of Doctor Who is getting away from the here and now and playing with possibilities and situations a realistic show about armed agents cannot touch.

We can’t do that if we spend significant parts of the show keeping up with the gang in Sheffield.


I am Tzim-Sha! Totally different than a bush-league Cyberman!

She has yet to face a serious villain

The new show-runners seem determined not to trot out the old rogues gallery of villains. They want their new Doctor to face some new enemies. Good for them.

Thus far, though all the enemies she has faced have either been one-dimensional (trophy hunter from space, racist asshole from the far future) or turned out to be good or neutral parties that have been misunderstood.  

The new Doctor is quieter – and not just her voice. She doesn’t have the trash talking swagger of the boys before her. She doesn’t rely on her legend either. This is not a good woman who goes to war.

This Doctor has mainly defeated her opponents by stealing their equipment and altering it so that it backfires on them. She is a klepto who excels at sabotage.

The softer approach is not the complaint here. It is the softer villains.

Now, the first episode of a new Doctor usually has a disposable villain. But they have yet to top the interstellar trophy hunter [from Ep 1] who sticks teeth in its skin. Seriously, the most menacing foe they faced so far were the racist cops in 1950’s Alabama.


One of these men is an escaped criminal from the far future. The other is actually menacing and dangerous.

[Sidebar: A racist from the future? That’s the best they could do? There were plenty of local racists to make that point for them. The main villain should have had some other unrelated motivation. Future Nazi came across more as lazy and heavy-handed than well-intentioned and relevant.]


So more time at the edge of the universe facing more fearsome foes over higher stakes, and less time worrying about making Nan’s birthday whatever in Sheffield. I suspect I am just going to have to accept the Closed Captioning.

[All images in this post from the BBC]

Time Travel- A History can be considered Canon


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It is a hard thing to write non-fiction about time travel and be taken seriously. And by tackling this subject, James Gleik has given a gift to those of us who obsess over this weird, newish corner of the collective imagination. He has given us Canon, nearly scripture, and a lucid one at that.

Yes, the Time Travel, A History  is that good, not only as lucid non-fiction about science (if which there is always a shortage) but a serious book about time travel itself, which is a rare treasure indeed.


The author stares at a camera and summarizes his premise within a video at Big Think:

“Before the late Victorian era, it was practically impossible to for people to conceive of time travel. And I say it was impossible because they didn’t.”

The problem with time travel as a subject for non-fiction is that it is both new and terribly, mind-meltingly strange. Real scientists can’t touch it, except to briefly dismiss it as fantasy on their way to talk about “serious cosmology”. [We should not here that they are Not Wrong]. Speculating at length about the How of time travel is a fast-track to the crank file, where no grant ever flows.

Consequently, time travel non-fiction has been relegated to a sidebar in a book about time (or worse, a history of time from sundials to the atomic clock, a book that has many forms, all just as interesting), or encyclopedic endeavors by Geeks to list and categorize time travel fiction (which includes this blog).

Gleik has written a history of time travel as a concept, a trope, and specific thing we think and imagine about, and has done so with the same readable, cogent, accessible prose that put most of his other work on short lists for the Pulitzer prize.

I exaggerate not; behold his bio.

And he has done so with fewer Doctor Who references than you might think.

Long before the BBC back-benchers slapped together a children’s TV show that got way out of hand, HG Wells wrote the first time travel fiction (of any size or consequence) where the protagonist physically moves through time on purpose.

[ I prefer the 1960 version to any other adaptation, even thought this trailer, product of its time, lays it on thick.]

The success of that work became the embryo for what would become the “scientific novel, and soon after science fiction. The time travel trope would then be expanded upon by Hugo Gernsback (mostly as an editor, but he is the one who first described the “grandfather paradox.”) and later Asimov and Heinlein (whose contributions, Gleik fairly notes, reek of their time and their intended audience) and then a cascading expansion of other authors as science fiction became something adults could read in open daylight.


H.G. Wells staring at you from the past.

Wells did it first, and Gleik argues that is because he was the right writer at the right time. By the mid-19th century, humanity, for the first time, was seeing the world change substantially within their lifetime, and thereby developed a desire, and in fact a need for thinking about the future in a more serious way.

Previous fantasies about people moving into the future, whether by prolonged sleep of wandering amiss inside a fairy mound, would have them emerge to discover only the names had changed.

Looking the opposite direction, the 19th century saw some of the first serious efforts at scientific history, because we had better tools to investigate with. This brought about a new question: “what can we learn from the past to help us better predict the future?”  Previously, those sort of inquiries had been limited to politics – and even then, people rarely listened to the answers.

While Gleik touches on time as the physical force that physicists argue about (you can make a serious case that time does not exist) he spends a good deal of the book examining how we think about time, and how that has evolved. And yes, he also references that one scene from Doctor Who.
In between  Wells expounding on the fourth dimension to Moffat’s madman in a box waving it off as Timey Wimey we now have some sober non-fiction to reference.  Now granted, I am his target audience, but if you are the sort that reads down this far in an amateur blog about time travel, you definitely need to get this book.

It is now Canon.

Fermi’s Paradox Has No Good Answers


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If the universe is so full of life, meaning billions of planets with billions of life forms each, which seems statistically probable, then why haven’t we made contact with any of our interstellar neighbors?

The answer you make up will deeply inform your fictional future. The answer we have yet to discover casts a dark shadow across our actual future.


“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” – Arthur C. Clarke

There are three questions you have to answer to satisfaction in order to work out the future:

  1.       What is the answer to Fermi’s paradox?
  2.       How do we resolve the inevitable Robot Uprising?
  3.       Is it possible to go Faster than Light.

This is about question #1.

Fermi’s paradox is not a formal theorem, and despite “common knowledge”  has never been proven or disproven. It is a question to which we have no answer. Like Why do people still watch Gotham?

It does not spring from any formal scientific paper. Like Murphy’s Law, is is basically folklore. Enrico Fermi and a few colleagues were at lunch. Fermi has the New Yorker open to a cartoon about aliens [the one below – I think]  and he wondered out loud “Where are they?”



This began a long conversation the wandered into speculative mathematical probabilities (The Big Bang Theory stereotypes are based on real people) about the likelihood of aliens, and even before Hubble, the gang concluded that there should or at least could be other alien civilizations, so why haven’t we met any?

[Scientific American has the names and dates if you care]

The farther we creep out into space, both physically and electronically, the more puzzling this becomes.


The answers basically fall into three groups:

  1. Space and time are really vast and we haven’t been looking that far for that long.
  2. Aliens are too weird or too advanced for us to communicate with.
  3. We are alone.

Most people who think and write about this lump group 1&2, dividing the answers into They exist/ They do not exist sub-groups. However, the facts behind the vastness of space vs the puniness of our efforts do not eliminate either possibility.

The Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has only been going on in a serious way since the 1970’s and even then inconsistently funded (it hasn’t seen federal money since 1986). This gives us a less than 50 light year search range, within which we have been selective due to constraints on resources. Pick any star you see in the night sky. Chances are, we haven’t seriously listened to it.


From this article.

At that pace, the answer could remain forever a mystery until flying saucers actually land on our yards.

Let’s dispense quickly with the possible answers that make no sense:

If aliens are already among us, we’d know. The government isn’t that smart of over that long of time. We are not in a damn zoo. There are a host of crackpot websites that go to great length to claim the opposite, and this is not one of them.

If they visited in the prehistoric past, looked around, saw nothing of concern and left, we would never know, so that answer is basically useless – even if true.

In the other category, intelligent life cannot be rare, much less singular across the heavens. Hell, it isn’t even that rare on Earth. Dolphins use language. Octopi use tools. Ravens and apes use both. And that’s one snapshot of four distinct ecosystems across about a billion years of complex lifeforms, any one of which could have created some intelligent species which we have not uncovered.  We’ll come back to this.

If you want a complete rundown of all the possible answers, I refer you to my sources. There are several good summaries, and I don’t mean to repeat them.


For my relatively optimistic space opera fiction I chose Nobody Listens to Radio But Us. More advanced aliens have developed some sort of quantum communication that works instantaneously across distance, and they no longer modulate anything i the EM spectrum because that takes too long. Radio is the galactic equivalent of smoke signals.

We encounter them physically before we ever make remote contact.

(How does the quantum communicator work? You handwave over the unobtanium.)

Several other answers can be made to work just as readily. If you are making up a future history, this is a required chore. Unless you decide there are no aliens, which can fit the facts, but presents an existential darkness problem.


If you read the sources they talk about the Filter, the as-yet-undetermined factor that prevents an explosion of space-faring civilizations. There are two versions: we are one of the rare species to pass it OR we have yet to hit it.

It may be that while life is common, complex life is rare, and us having spines and fingers and the like make us buy far the exception among the stars, and this is why we are lonely. That still fits within known facts, but I don’t buy it.

The human experience has been this: We think we’re unique. We look around to prove we are unique. We find out we are not special. We move the line until we feel special again.

I was told in grade school we are the only species with language and tools. You Tube can tell you differently in one or two search terms. And this requires no space-based observations, just perspective adjustment.


The answer that I am afraid is not fiction is that this barrier is real, and we are upon it. Earth is beginning a Sixth Great Extinction, and the variable is us, and our super-special technology.

Between global warming, the plastic layer, and just our callous regard for sustainability, we have shit in our own nest and set it on fire. You can shake your fist in denial, and I’m going to point to the rest of the world and say “scoreboard”.

It may be that highly-advanced technological civilizations kill ecosystems; that by the time you can scoot out into space, you have already doomed yourselves.

Time and space are vast, our efforts to find the neighbors are feeble, perhaps futile, leaving the answer to Fermi’s lunchtime distraction a long way off. I rather hope we will be around long enough as a species to discover it.

But that’s only a hope.



SETI doc


A lot of folks have given this thought. The first thing they note is that the Fermi Paradox is a remarkably strong argument. You can quibble about the speed of alien spacecraft, and whether they can move at 1 percent of the speed of light or 10 percent of the speed of light. It doesn’t matter. You can argue about how long it would take for a new star colony to spawn colonies of its own. It still doesn’t matter. Any halfway reasonable assumption about how fast colonization could take place still ends up with time scales that are profoundly shorter than the age of the Galaxy. It’s like having a heated discussion about whether Spanish ships of the 16th century could heave along at two knots or twenty. Either way they could speedily colonize the Americas


One possible explanation is that interstellar travel is just too costly. Consider how expensive it would be for us to populate another star system. Imagine sending a small rocket to Alpha Centauri, one that’s the size of the Mayflower (180 tons, with 102 pilgrims on board). Your intention is to get this modest interstellar ark to our nearest stellar neighbor in 50 years, which requires about 150 billion billion joules of energy.

Wait But Why lays it all out with lots of pictures.


Scientific American disbelieves.


University of Oregon takes a deeper dive.


Space.com – good listicle


Sixth Mass Extinction


Eulogy for The Master


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We live in the dystopian universe where Alan Rickman did not get a chance to play The Master in a major motion picture version of Dr Who. This is but one of many, perhaps countless injustices done to one of the Doctor’s best villains, from his first appearance to his supposed demise at the most recent series finale.

Spoilers of course. This is time travel, after all, and the end might meet the beginning right in the middle.


Most villains believe that they are actually the hero at least in their own story. The Master is too smart for that. He knows he’s the villain. That’s the only reason he exists, and the fact that he knows this only makes his arc more tragic.



From the Master’s first appearance (played by Robert Delgado) way back in the Pertwee era, he was conceived to be everything the Doctor was, except evil.  And polite – the Master, in his first (and last) incarnation observed all the social protocols that the Doctor, even the relatively civil 3rd, frequently ignored.

The Doctor through a dark and slightly warped mirror, and this made him the perfect villain. Too perfect, maybe. Because our poor Master, even from the first, seemed to have no other driving motive other than to be a nemesis to his counterpart renegade Timelord.

The Daleks commit terrible crimes for a purpose. They care about winning. When well written, they are not likely to beat themselves.

The Master, in contrast, is prone to self sabotage, particularly to plots so insane they could not possibly succeed even without the Doctor’s opposition. His potential to succeed, though, inevitably forces the Doctor to play his mad game, and that is the true objective.

There are exceptions, of course. This is Doctor Who – there will always be exceptions.  Before we get to that, some brief biography may be in order. For brevity and sanity, we are holding to televised material. Audio plays and novels have made extensive and often contradictory use of the character, and we have enough nonsense with just the TV show. More complete biographies can be found in Sources.

We first meet the Master {Delgado}  in Terror of the Autons, where, by the end of the serial, he abandons his own mad scheme and throws in with the Doctor to oppose the scheme of his former ally the Nestene Consciousness. This would establish the pattern, not only of plotting, but of a relatively sane Master.

That’s right, middle-aged actors sword fighting slowly was considered fine children’s programming in the 1970’s. Now, of you want to see that, you have to watch HBO.

The Master would appear in every episode of that season, and in at least a couple of episodes in every season thereafter.

We learn later that this Master is the 12th incarnation. While clearly a sociopath, he is not the homicidal maniac other incarnations will become. He does not chew the scenery with his evil. He kills people because they are in the way, but he does not (usually) go out of his way to kill people. That would be inefficient and undignified. And then he died.

They had been writing the episode that killed off the Master when the actor himself was killed in a car crash.

And then the Master came back.

The Fourth Doctor faced a badly mangled, half dead master for a couple of adventures, until through convoluted events, a “regenerated” Master (Anthony Ainley) took shape. This Master 12.5 would be the form until the end of the original series.


Ainley had a reputation for chewing scenery long before he wore the Master’s black suits, and no one in Doctor Who would discourage that. This, and a series of poor plots, left this Master little regarded, a manic caricature of his former self, despite a relatively restrained performance in Survival – the last serial of the Old Who – which ended in his capture.


Oh, yes, Doctor, it gets much , much worse. BWAHAHAHAHA!

Eric Roberts as Master 12.7 in the TV Movie was the worst part in a movie with a lot of bad parts. We cheered when he fell into the Eye of Harmony because it got Roberts and his horrific costume off the damn screen.


This is actually my favorite Master. 

Somewhere off screen, during the Time Wars, the Master was given twelve new regenerations. Master 13 (we think) (Derek Jacobi) appeared for half an episode before becoming Master 14 (Sims) who became the batshit crazy nemesis of the 10th Doctor.


“What do you mean there’s no more scenery to chew?!

Some of Ten’s best story arcs involved his renewed nemesis, including a long story arc where the Master’s plan worked, and he became the dog who caught the bus. He didn’t kill the Doctor, of course, but shrunk him and kept him around in a bird cage. Then he kept escalating until finally his own started to turn on him. Because the dog has no idea what to do with the bus – he just feels compelled to chase it.

This Master is young and hip, like the Doctor he torments, but where the 10th Doctor is shackled by regret, this Master is unfettered and unhinged.

While we’re here, let me spout some head-canon: the “sound of drums” is, in my mind, peculiar to the newly regenerated doctor, and the 12th Master of the older series, including his insane zombie antecedents do not hear any such thing. Yes – he said he heard it since childhood – but the memories of sane people are unreliable, much less this guy.

The 11th Doctor managed to wander around for a thousand years or so without encountering his perfect villain. I don’t know why.


A fresh face on a very old joke.

The 12th (who is really the 13th, because reasons) encountered Missy, presumably Master 15.  Missy has been the main villain in two of his four season-long arcs, and appeared outside of those arcs as well. This Master, like the Doctor she torments, is relatively mature, a grown up who might know what to do with the bus, but knows better than to actually catch it. Much closer to the 12th Master.

If you haven’t seen the most recent season finale, go watch it. We’ll wait.

The 13th Master believes his purpose is to destroy the Doctor, but the 14th knows better. The Master cannot be the hero of her own story. She’s too perfect as the villain.

There can be a Doctor without a Master, but there cannot be a Master without a Doctor – at least, not the way the show treats this character. That half-existence, I propose, is the underlying source of all his/her/its madness.

Image credits: the BBC – or sites that lifted them from the BBC.



You tube history of the Master: