Monday, October 3, 2011

100 Year Starship Conference

I like to think of myself as a pretty intelligent person. However, this past weekend I spent my time with hundreds of people who made me feel like a complete moron.

Yep, I attended one day of the 100 Year Starship Conference.

What is it, you may ask?

Sadly, I'm not entirely sure. The basic premise seemed to be that scientists from a variety of backgrounds would come together to present their ideas on what it would take to create and support an interstellar exploration mission within the next hundred years.

I poked my head into several different lectures going on throughout the conference, covering topics in a range from societal views on why mankind should take to the stars, to potential propulsion systems, to estimated costs of creating an interstellar capable vehicle. Cool, right?

Well, it would have been, if I could have understood half of what they were saying.

And, perhaps, I didn't understand much because the conference wasn't intended for me. Most of the attendees were scientists. But it was free and open to the public, which would seem to imply that the public should be able to understand the discussions--that, perhaps, the presenters should be presenting in terms that the above-averagely educated public should understand, and not only those with doctorates.

Now, to be entirely fair, I spoke to other attendees who told me that not all the presentations were incomprehensible to someone without a physics degree. Some, I hear, were quite entertaining, thought-provoking, and creative. I just happened into the one where the screen at the front was displaying complex formulas for achieving near-light speeds, and another where the presenter kept her head down the entire time, reading straight from her notes.

Interstellar travel is a concept that excites me, that fires my imagination as a writer of science fiction. If achieved, it opens all sorts of possibilities for the future of mankind. I feel guilty for complaining about a free conference. After all, no one made me attend. And the concept is fantastic. But organizations like this one are going to need the people like me for support, funding, a positive public opinion, political backing. So, we need to better understand what they are working on.

They did make some strides towards that goal. They brought in a number of successful writers of science fiction to present panels on their views of interstellar travel. I attended one of these, featuring one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bear. During the panel presentation, the authors helped make some connections between those working in the scientific fields, and those who loved the concepts but may have lacked the science backgrounds. They brought up the human factor of interstellar travel, what it would be like from a psychological standpoint, how it would affect the evolution of the human race. I came away with several great ideas for future stories.

So, no, the conference was not a waste of time. What I understood, I enjoyed. I just wish my brochure had come with a Universal Translator.


Lora R. Rivera said...

Oh no! That's too bad, Lisa. I'm glad I didn't travel across the U.S. to attend, though it is something I'm interested in too. Sounds like I would have been in the same boat, though, with most of the lectures going over my head.

It would have been helpful for the conference to have spent some time putting together a brochure with warnings for attendees about expected levels of science knowledge for each lecture.

You're absolutely right: to make interstellar travel a reality, the scientific community will need the backing of regular people like us. I wonder if they could use feedback like this...

Will you try to get in touch with the conference facilitators? I'm sure they'd appreciate hearing from you about accessibility.

Thanks so much for sharing! And so sorry it didn't quite meet your expectations.

All best,

DL Morrese said...

Hi, Lisa. Many of the talks at the 100YSS were accessible to us non-scientists. I attended several in the 'philosophy' and 'communications' tracks and, of course, both of the science fiction writers panels. What I came away with after those three days was a greater desire to make my next book more specifically about pursuing scientific discovery and space exploration. We who write books for young adults can help achieve this vision.
I did a blog post myself on this. It's here if you'd like to see it.

Lisa Iriarte said...

Hey there. I'm glad to hear that some of the presentations were more accessible, as I suspected they might have been. Apparently, I stumbled into some of the most scientific and mathematical of the discussions, and a couple of the less-practiced presenters.