May 20, 2002
The Truth is Out There
Joe Firmage, founder of US Web and Silicon Valley's Fox Mulder, spoke at Silicon Forum today. His latest effort is Motion Sciences, dedicated to "the advancement of humanity's scientific and ethical appreciation of the physics of Nature, the discovery of new technologies enabling clean and abundant energy generation, combustion-free transportation, and sustainable material infrastructure, the wise use of resulting knowledge and tools for the egalitarian well-being of all life, and to the guidance of all such missions by an Oath for Peaceful Use of Science."
Huh? Basically, Firmage thinks he's figured out how gravity works (or at least has a beat on it) and wants to harness that knowledge to do a whole bunch of neat things.
The theory is intriguing. Turns out, while we know how gravity behaves (attraction between any two objects proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to their distance) we don't know how it works. The dominant theory is that there is a force pulling things together, but Firmage believes that the opposite is true-- that in fact objects are pushed together by a field that surrounds everything. Firmage was inspired by Professor Bernard Haisch when he was a scientist at Lockheed Martin and claims that the theory works in the sense that you can derive basic physics rules (F=MA, etc.) from it. He also claims that 30% of the scientific community that focus on gravity believes in the push theory -- though many of them are "underground" -- too ashamed to discuss their real views for fear of scientific scorn. It is certainly controversial -- the "push" theory, Firmage contends, proves that the Big Bang theory is "Ptolemaic nonsense" as are things like time travel.
Let's stipulate for the moment that this is true. The implications would be astounding. If we could figure out how gravity worked, and could harness it in energy-efficient ways, then the technology revolution that resulted would make all prior industrial and information revolutions seem like the Stone Age. Imagine energy generation without fuel, vehicles that perpetually hovered, buildings without walls.
If gravity is in fact a push, and could be manipulated easily by those who knew how, then, Firmage claims, interstellar travel could be revolutionized. Ships could be built that diminished energy fields in front of them while increasing the fields behind them and thus scoot through space without the use of a glorified "firecracker" rocket engine (think of Steve McQueen in the Great Escape's plan to tunnel his way out by just taking the dirt in front of him and putting it behind him.) As Firmage put it, if you get the fields working properly you could go to Alpha Centauri (the closest star to the sun, about 4.35 light years away, and a potential candidate for intelligent life) for lunch and be back to earth by dinner. Cool.
But turn it around. In a universe as vast as ours, there are bound to be other planets with intelligent life, and there are bound to be some of those who have figured out how to travel through space using this technology, and there are bound to be some of those who decide to visit us here on earth. Joe believes in UFOs.
He believes we have been visited. He believes the government probably knows about it (since the 1940s, in fact). He believes they have kept it a secret, except perhaps to give their military and the IT industry a boost from time to time (Firmage has more faith in the abilities of the federal government than I have.) He believes that the energy and transportation industry will do (and perhaps have done) everything they can to keep these technologies from coming to light, because they threaten their very existence.
Some of this is very reasonable. IF the government had these technologies, they better damn well keep them a secret -- just imagine what Al Qaeda would do if they could transport a la Star Trek to anywhere they wanted. And IF this technology existed, why would the energy and transportation companies combat them any less vigorously than the music cartel has fought little ol' Napster?
So is the greatest technological advance in the history of man just around the corner? I don't know (I would love to hear from those with the physics background to comment) but I have a couple of questions. First, from all I know about physics, interstellar travel is hugely energy and time intensive and there is little hope to avoid those problems. Maybe Firmage's view of physics is right, but he didn't present any compelling evidence at the lunch to show how the majority of physicists have got this wrong. Second, while I believe is it highly likely that intelligent life exists out there; I'm skeptical that we have been visited. I've never seen any compelling proof -- though there has been a sea of nonsense -- and I think real proof would be hard to conceal (even by the government.) I also question the plausibility of some of the encounter stories (this is putting it mildly.)
Firmage referenced "Fire in the Sky," a book made into a movie about a "real" encounter. I saw that movie (who has time to read that book?) and seem to remember a scene in which the victim is subjected to a horrifying series of tests by the aliens who were poking and prodding him with barbaric instruments right our of the middle ages (or Pulp Fiction). I don't understand how an alien species can develop the incredibly advanced technology required to traverse the stars but somehow never stumble on the concept of an x-ray machine or MRI. Can't these guys "scan"? Do you mean they got all the way here without radar? Come on.
After Firmage's talk I had a brief conversation with Tim Draper who joined in the fun. His perspective was that we have to invest in interstellar travel for a very pragmatic reason: we need to diversify. Anyone caught with his or her life savings in Enron knows that you can't put all your eggs in one basket, and all our eggs are in the earth. Firmage worries about the growing "footprint" humans are creating. (I have fewer concerns about sustainability but this is a topic for another blog.) We know from the movies that an asteroid could hit us any day now. Global warming would be uncomfortable but probably nothing compared to the next ice age, which could hit us any moment. The earth's magnetic field could switch, as it tends to do. Giant solar flares could make earth inhabitable. A rouge black hole could gobble us up. Etc, etc (Thanks for some of these ideas to Steve Petranek from Discover magazine who gave an interesting presentation at TED 12 about the 10 ways the world could end tomorrow.)
So Tim's point is -- let's get on with it. Firmage may be right, he may be wrong. We should figure out which and move on.
Firmage recommended several books including "The UFO Evidence" by Richard Hall with painstaking analysis of UPO sightings and "UFO & the National Security State," by Richard Dolan which analyzes the national security side of things. Travis Walton wrote, "Fire in the Sky."