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McPhersonSentinel - McPherson, KS
  • Lecture explores space travel, alien encounters

  • There is nothing that annoys Mike Mitchell more than when science fiction ignores science fact.
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  • There is nothing that annoys Mike Mitchell more than when science fiction ignores science fact.
    Mitchell, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Bethany College and an author who is soon to publish his first book of science fiction, is giving a series of lectures at the McPherson Museum on how science fiction and science fact intersect.
    Mitchell presented his first lecture titled "Star Travel — Relativity or Close Encounters" at the museum Saturday.
    During this lecture, Mitchell explored how humans might encounter alien life.
    First, Mitchell considered the question: Is there alien life in the universe?
    To address this question, Mitchell asked his audience to consider the vastness of our Universe. The Milky Way contains 300 billion stars. The Universe contains 100 billion galaxies.
    Astronomers have found stony planets in the star systems they have been able to analyze. One of those planets is both in the habitual zone in relation to its star and is believed to have water.
    "Life should have evolved elsewhere, as well as here," he said.
    Mitchell then asked, "So where are they?"
    Carla Barber, Museum director and audience member, suggested alien life in our galaxy could be evolving under the same time line humans are and have not made significant enough scientific developments to make contact.
    Mitchell also proffered alien life could be more advanced, and these creatures are choosing to stay hidden.
    Mitchell remains an optimist, and said he thought humans would benefit from alien contact.
    "Humanity will not be in a good situation if we are the only creatures in the Universe," Mitchell said.
    If aliens are going to come to us or if we are going to go to them, humans must grasp and overcome enormous distances.
    Light can travel around the Earth 15 times in a second. Light takes eight minutes to travel to the Earth and one day to travel to Neptune. To find the nearest inhabited planet, humans may have to travel 25 to 100 light years.
    Humans don't have the answer yet, but we do know rockets are terribly ineffective, Mitchell said. They must carry a lot of fuel to carry a relativity small amount of payload.
    One possibility is a generation ship. These ships would be populated with several generations of humans. The astronauts great-grandchildren would be the first to meet our alien neighbors.
    Humans might master the science of suspended animation. The astronauts bodily functions would be lowered to near death, and they would "sleep" for a couple hundred years while their ship is traveling through space.
    This still leaves the issue of the ship. One possibility is the Bussard ramjet. This spaceship uses magnetic fields to push itself through space.
    NASA is exploring the light sail. A light source, such as a laser, pushes the craft through the vacuum of space.
    Page 2 of 2 - However, the light sail would require social and economic stability on Earth as the laser would have to be maintained for 80 to 100 years. The light sail is further limited to a straight out and back journey. It can't move sideway.
    "We are not going to go to war with the aliens with this," Mitchell said.
    An O'Neil cylinder is an example of a generation ship. The large cylinder would spin to create an alternate gravity. Astronauts could farm and build homes within the cylinder.
    Traveling at the speed of light has its draw backs, however. Space is not a complete void, and even small particles could lead to damage to a spaceship over time.
    Einstein's Theory of Relativity added new dimensions to human's prospects of space travel. It states space and time vary with the relative motion of the observer. This means a person on Earth would theoretically age at a different rate than the space traveler moving at the speed of light.
    "There is a lot of deep water here, and we are just touching the surface," Mitchell said.
    The lecture series continues on Nov. 9 with "Virtual Pumpkins and Quantum Coaches," on Jan. 11 with "Artificial Intelligence and You," and on Feb. 8 with "Eternal Youth? For Whom?"
    Admission is $5, $3 for museum members, which includes a chili lunch. For more information, contact the museum at 620-241-8464.

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