This final post is a summary on how the workshop worked out and what the actual intentions and thinking behind it were. Over the last half a dozen years there has been many excellent conferences in the interstellar community. But upon examining these it was found there were several elements that were not necessarily conducive towards scientific progress. This included:
- Heavy presence of the media which would moderate any scientific scrutiny where it is needed.
- Multiple distractions such as tours and other events taking people off-site or de-focussing them from the discussions.
- Short speaking time, to the point where speakers were rushed resulting in a reduction in quality of the output.
- Intense, often non-relaxed dawn to dusk schedules, that resulted in exhausted participants with little energy for further technical interactions.
- Many top level overview presentations, which whilst useful, did not make any specific progress on any subjects themselves.
- Large numbers of participants, typically to help cover organisational overheads, but which reduced one on one interaction potential typical of a smaller group difficult.
- Entrance criteria being given equal weight to technical merit of ideas, which in the well intentioned interest of attracting diversity, actually resulted in exclusion and the creation of community tensions where none existed before. Politics, deserves no place at a scientific meeting.
The Foundations of Interstellar Studied workshops had been designed to address these specific issues. In particular, media were not encourage to attend for on-site reporting so that scientists felt they could scrutinise each others work freely. No external tours were organized, keeping participants together as long as possible. All speakers were given 40 minutes and there was also overflow time during the twice daily workshop discussion periods. Coffee breaks and lunch were made longer than usual so that people felt relaxed. In general, top level presentations were not encouraged, and the organizing committee attempted a policy of 'no solutions no presentation' rule, which was effective about 2/3rds of the time, but overall resulted in a richer, newer, more innovative content than is usually seen at such meetings - we favoured quality over quantity. The number of participants was capped to around ~50 deliberately. No entrance criteria was stated for participation, only that you have a love of the universe. But there is more, in terms of the inspiration behind much of the model that fed into this workshop....
At the end of the last century the idea of interstellar travel was considered one only of science fiction. In recent times that has changed. Interstellar flight has received much interest in recent years. This is particularly since the discovery of many planets outside of our Solar System around other stars. However, there are still several problems that the ‘interstellar community’ faces towards the fruition of its ideas:
- The field is made up of a mix of professional academics and enthusiastic amateurs. This is good since this permits for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and with different disciplines. Often, the amateurs will also make huge contributions to the literature which help to move the field forward. But this also means you can have a range of quality in terms of output. There is a need therefore to raise the academic standard in the quality of publications that are published in the field.
- Many academics still do not consider interstellar flight a bonafide field of study, because of their view it is at least centuries into the future, if it were to ever happen. This is an incorrect conclusion, given the existence of programs like the Breakthrough Initiative Starshot which has already announced $100 million in sponsorship funding. There is a need therefore to educate academics as to the actual progress that has been made in the literature over past decades and create a sea change in perspectives.
Essentially, the ‘Foundations of Interstellar Studies’ workshop is designed to address these two issues and the goal is to both raise the standard of published papers by emphasis on academic rigour, but also to facilitate further contributions from academic communities towards solving what are very interesting problems that need to be addressed. Indeed, there is a desire to re-paint interstellar flight as a set of GRAND CHALLENGE PHYSICS PROBLEMS.
At the end of World War II there was a set of outstanding physics meetings that took place in North America. These were the famous Shelter Island conference on the foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1947), and Pocono Conference (1948) and Oldstone Conference (1949). The typical delegates for these meetings are listed below. These meetings were known for their informal conversations. To illustrate the structure of these conferences here is one report from a delegate: “It has been found that much of value may be accomplished in two or three days of close association by key workers, who are frequently widely scattered geographically. Concentration on a given topic, the absence of distracting interests and the opportunity of free intimate discussions which is made possible by a small group, are particularly helpful.”
In the early part of the last century the famous Solvay conferences on physics took place, devoted to outstanding preeminent open problems in physics (and chemistry). These were attended by the likes of Albert Einstein, Hendrik Lorentz, Ernest Rutherford, Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heinsenberg and many others. The Solvay conferences still take place today, the most recent being one in 2014 on Astrophysics and Cosmology. The first such meeting was in 1911 and is illustrated in the table below.
It was proposed (by Kelvin F. Long) that elements of these earlier successful meetings, should be reflected in the Foundations of Interstellar Studies Workshop, as much as was possible. It was the intention to create an ‘interstellar focussed’ version, run jointly between the Institute/Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) and the City University New York (CUNY). Such a workshop would be run perhaps every 12-18 months if successful. The idea of this workshop was to do something that nobody has done before in the interstellar community. It was to provide a forum for problem solving on theoretical physics problems focussed on interstellar flight. The aim was to get researchers together and to maximum the social interaction time for idea swapping and information exchange and it was expected that the ideas and discussions should continue into the evening social sessions. It was the intention to make this one of the most successful scientific meetings relating to interstellar flight that has ever been organised. By all accounts, this appears to have been largely achieved.
An important aspect of this meeting was facilitating maximum discussions and social interactions among the participants. This means that the hotel should be a short distance from the main meeting venue. In addition, opportunities should be sought to create social networking opportunities during the evening to continue any discussions, and hopefully calculations. To host a technical physics workshop that addresses some of the fundamental problems associated with interstellar flight and facilitating an opportunity to present acting (working progress) solutions. The secondary goals were to raise the standard of academic rigour in published work, and also invite further participation from academic institutions. Presentations at the workshop and the proceedings will be submitted for a special issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.
Now we are on the other side of the workshop, it can be reported as a good success and all participants reported positive feedback to the organizers. Sure, there are lessons to be learned and room for improvement, which will be put into the next iteration. But this was an exciting meeting, with speakers feeling they had plenty of time to discuss their ideas, and in a relaxed setting. Indeed, during the discussion sessions the chairman picked two of the topical conversations to discuss and this proved highly successful and with good scrutiny of some of the presentations and ideas for further work and calculations. On one of the days, Tuesday, where a speaker had pulled out at the last moment, that was also turned into a discussion session and all the participants discussed the issue of pursing one favoured propulsion system or many. It was a discussion designed to provoke disagreements, so that we could bend and stretch the arguments towards some logical consensus, which we achieved - all options should be pursued with vigour and there was no front runner propulsion candidate that catered for all mission scenarios. Possibly, the only mistake was New York in June, which was a bit warm....but still....it was awesome hosting an interstellar meeting in the Big Apple.
The UK Initiative for Interstellar Studies and the US Institute for Interstellar Studies would like to thank the various sponsors that helped make this event happen and in particular by financial sponsorship. In addition to the City University New York, which was the co-organizer for the 2017 meeting, this included:
- Stellar Engines Ltd: http://www.sel.space/
- Breakthrough Initiatives: http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/
- British Interplanetary Society: http://www.bis-space.com/
Work has already began on the Second Foundations of Interstellar Studies workshop. Stay tuned to find out more about this in the coming months. But for now, we wish New York Goodbye, and we look forward to returning there soon.