A few weeks ago I discussed when we should leave for the stars. Some recent discussion on related topics (are speeds of travel continuing to increase?):
Kevin Kelly at The Technium: Plateau of Progress: “This slide from a presentation by George Whitesides the CEO of Virgin Galactic, plots the log of the top speed of human vehicle by year. For the past couple of centuries, the top speed was increasing steadily, at a Kurzweilian rate. But in the last few decades, the top speed of a human vehicle (a space probe traveling at 14,000 miles per hour) has plateaued. But, notes Whitesides, if we could resume ten fold increases in speed (like we have in computers!) we could reach the speed of light by 2060 (the vertical red line on the right). That would make interstellar travel feasible (and Virgin Galactic very happy!)”
Reihan Salam writes about Peter Theil and the end of the future: “In his National Review article, Thiel takes this “end of the future” in a number of interesting directions. Early on, he discusses the slowdown in energy innovation”:
When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.
The official explanation for the slowdown in travel centers on the high cost of fuel, which points to the much larger failure in energy innovation. Real oil prices today exceed those of the Carter catastrophe of 1979–80. Nixon’s 1974 call for full energy independence by 1980 has given way to Obama’s 2011 call for one-third oil independence by 2020. Even before Fukushima, the nuclear industry and its 1954 promise of “electrical energy too cheap to meter” had long since been defeated by environmentalism and nuclear-proliferation concerns. One cannot in good conscience encourage an undergraduate in 2011 to study nuclear engineering as a career. “Clean tech” has become a euphemism for “energy too expensive to afford,” and in Silicon Valley it has also become an increasingly toxic term for near-certain ways to lose money. Without dramatic breakthroughs, the alternative to more-expensive oil may turn out to be not cleaner and much-more-expensive wind, algae, or solar, but rather less-expensive and dirtier coal.
Warren Buffett massively capitalized on both of these trends with his $44 billion investment, most made in late 2009, in BNSF Railway — making it the largest non-financial company in the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio. Understandably, the Oracle of Omaha proclaimed “an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States” and downplayed any doubts he might have harbored. For present purposes, it suffices to note that 40 percent of railroad freight involves the transport of coal, and that railroads will do especially well if the travel and energy consumption patterns of the 21st century involve a regression to the past.
In the past decade, the unresolved energy challenges of the 1970s have broadened into a more general commodity shock, which has been greater in magnitude than the price spikes of the two world wars and has undone the price improvements of the previous century. In the case of agriculture, at least, technological famine may lead to real old-fashioned famine. The fading of the true Green Revolution — which increased grain yields by 126 percent from 1950 to 1980, but has improved them by only 47 percent in the years since, barely keeping pace with global population growth — has encouraged another, more highly publicized “green revolution” of a more political and less certain character. We may embellish the 2011 Arab Spring as the hopeful by-product of the information age, but we should not downplay the primary role of runaway food prices and of the many desperate people who became more hungry than scared. [Emphasis added]