Let's say aliens arrive on Earth and demonstrate that Fusion is possible and leave (and don't tell us how).

Would we develop Fusion technology faster without being told about how it works by the aliens?

EDIT: This is about any technology in general (whether it be Fusion, FTL, Planet Destroyers etc) not specifically about FTL

marked as duplicate by Samuel, JDługosz, SRM, Frostfyre, Azuaron Jan 5 '17 at 18:37

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    Just like the haunted houses, I'm still waiting for a quantum computer spirit to possess my Ti-84... – user6760 Jan 4 '17 at 8:14
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    Answered after 3 hours??? You might want to leave the question open for a few days to give people a chance at answering, before you pick the definite answer. – Innovine Jan 4 '17 at 13:16
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    @Devsman They didn't tell their enemies exactly how to make them, but the mere existence of the guns told their enemies "these guys are aren't geniuses, they just did some relatively mundane things and the result actually worked." If you have 100 ideas of your own that might work, and somebody inadvertently tells you one of them actually does work, they just saved you a lot of time and money! – alephzero Jan 4 '17 at 16:28
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    "able to" develop it faster, maybe. Likely to develop it faster, definitely. – RBarryYoung Jan 4 '17 at 18:04
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    One of the hardest parts of research and invention is that you don't know if what you are trying is even possible, or what general shape it might take to make it work, or what method is particularly promising. The first working example, especially if you can see it and gather some information (like "hey, we aren't being roasted in gamma radiation and it doesn't have a huge thermal signature, that narrows it down..."), is incredibly valuable. – BrianH Jan 4 '17 at 21:30

12 Answers 12

up vote 68 down vote accepted

I would think so. Innovation is probably the hardest bit and duplication is much easier. We see it with computers all the time now. Some small company comes up with a new idea that is "obvious" and then suddenly everyone else can duplicate it. The same is with other STEM fields, the knowledge that it exists (and ideally something to experiment with) helps reduce the false starts because you know where to go.

This idea applies to even the most basic ideas. Before some guy decided to have each of his family members do one step of making a needle, the factory method didn't really exist. As soon as it was understood, it spread out everywhere.

With the FTL example, having an example would tell us what not to waste time. So if we knew it was a junction point with a gate, then we'd drop all technology in independent drives, slingshots, or hyper-acceleration while focusing purely on paired gates. If we know we need a certain isotope, then we would focus on how to get that isotope instead of trying to get all isotopes and see if one of them works without knowing how to connect them. The same with power requirements, material requirements, or even navigation technology.

Knowing which paths not to go can save a lot of effort.

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    I especially agree with the last sentence. Simply knowing it's possible will allow people to invest into it without being afraid that it's a waste. – Parrotmaster Jan 4 '17 at 8:56
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    The only ammendment I'd make to this is that it would stop us wasting our time initially. It's the nature of humans that once we understand something, we look for other ways to go about it. Once we've spent a few years meeting the aliens FTL technology, we'll look for ways to supersede it. What you're effectively doing is giving the middle ages the industrial revolution. – SGR Jan 4 '17 at 9:11
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    About the last sentence, learning why something does not work can be valuable too. This idea might develop faster, but (e.g.) we would have less knowledge about other isotopes, which might slow down other innovations. – Martijn Jan 4 '17 at 9:48
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    This doesn't make any sense because the asker stated that the aliens didn't explain anything about it to us, but you are just assuming we know things just by seeing it happen. For simple processes that might work, but for FTL travel, I don't think we would know anything we didn't already know just by looking at it (whatever it looks like). – Zack Jan 4 '17 at 16:31
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    I think we're pretty good at inferring a lot from even relatively small amounts of information. But if we had aliens pop up and then wander off, I would suspect that we would be throwing every sensor and detector we had in the area to pick for data collection. That information might be enough to give us a hint of where to start looking. @Zack: A bit of both. Seeing something working focuses direction, stealing parts of it help crack its implementation. – dmoonfire Jan 4 '17 at 16:49

Let's take the title as the real question. Instead of being simply told FTL is possible, this answer shall assume that the aliens demonstrate FTL is possible. Their spaceship(s) arrive and depart at FTL velocities. This is observed and records are taken.

There is one obvious example. Nuclear weapons. There was a lot of bouhaha about spies passing on nuclear weapons secrets to the Russians. In fact, it is considered the only piece of information the Soviet Union's scientists only needed to know the bombs worked. The big problems that Tubular Alloys and the Manhattan Project had in developing the first nuclear bomb was they didn't know whether it would work. After the Trinity test, and the leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no doubt nuclear weapons worked.

Of course, the scientists who worked on nuclear bombs had an idea that nuclear fission was involved. Our ability to develop FTL travel after seeing aliens use it depends on whether we have any scientific concept that is the basis for the aliens' technology.

For example, the concepts our science has, currently, that is linked to FTL phenomena include wormholes, Krashnikov tubes, the Alcubierre drive, quantum entanglement, and tachyons. Now if the aliens' FTL has no connection with any of these scientific hypotheses, then our capacity to achieve FTL will be severely limited -- in the short term.

Once we have the inspiration that FTL technology exists then will be an ongoing program of research to discover any scientific basis for FTL travel.

If this leads to humans developing FTL travel several centuries earlier than otherwise might have happened. In that case, it could be said that knowing a technology existing, it can be developed faster.

However, if the technological gap between us and the aliens was equivalent to that between the 21st century and the Ancient Greeks. If we could demonstrate jet aircraft to ancient Athens, the likelihood they would develop jet aircraft earlier than the twentieth century is almost certainly zero.

We might learn something from observations and records of the alien technology. This might lead to the early development of FTL technology, but there are no guarantees. Ultimately, it may depend on the nature of the FTL technology itself. If the technology is millennia ahead of us, then it will be no go. If the technology is mere decades more advanced, then this is feasible.

The answer is it may be possible and it may be impossible. There are too many imponderables.

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    I do not think so - if we took ancient greek scientists to todays airport for a while, they will realize, that flying machines ARE possible, but that we do not use individual devices with bat-like wings, nor bird-like wings, that our wings are metal, straight and not moving, the engines does a lot of roar and generate a lot of heat (vawing air at their ends) and that we use fast velocities, even whet in need extra long runways. And the desing is more like spear. It say a lot. It would cast of man-powered crafts or moving wings. – gilhad Jan 4 '17 at 8:27
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    Creating woden models which looks a like could reveal a lot about aerodynamic, they would try to use steam engines first (which is not enought powered), but then they may try rockets, which could work. They would try to steer it with flaps on end of wings. They would be able to create something like Lumiers craft, even if thrown with some kind of balista to the air and fly only on inertia at first. the jet engine itself would be hard part and maybe would not occure, but it would provoke developing all kinds of engines. – gilhad Jan 4 '17 at 8:34
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    I think, that they would be able to fly in like 100-200 years, not 1.800 so it would really accelerate the developement of flying, even if they would not reach our level because of material restrictions. I think it would speed up thinks a lot of 100 years - if they would try go this way and concentrate on it. But given the politic developement, maybe all the research could be lost in middle age era, like was a lot of their advancement, like hygyene, aquaducts, anatomy and such. But it is other story ... – gilhad Jan 4 '17 at 8:39
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    @gilhad But at the same time, that might lead them astray. The first flying machines we made were much different than modern airplanes, and they were much easier to develop. They were made mostly of light wood and canvas, the engines were completely different, the whole shape was considerably different... you're already looking at this with hindsight, but how do you know which alternatives are simpler and workable, and which just don't work? How do you know flapping wings weren't one of the early airplanes we built? Technology builds on technology - there are no leaps. – Luaan Jan 4 '17 at 9:51
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    @gilhad And would you really invest 100-200 years of work with no payoff whatsoever on the promise that maybe you'd get a working airplane at the end (which, mind you, would be just a toy for the greeks)? And you don't even know it's going to take 100 years. In reality, a lot of advances were necessary to produce useable airplanes - some can be skipped (e.g. wood & canvas instead of aluminium), some can't (advanced metallurgy to form the engine blocks). It would just be one more thing for greek philosophers to argue about, nothing practical :) – Luaan Jan 4 '17 at 9:53

Yes it does. And there are plenty of examples in human development. A real treasure trove for this sort of thing is Jared Diamond's Guns, germs and steel. He calls it idea diffusion (as opposed to blueprint copying, where you get not just evidence of the technology, but also some idea of how it's achieved).

Couple of examples:

  • Several non-literate cultures developing their own writing system after seeing examples of other writing systems (eg. the Cherokee writing system)
  • European invention of porcelain, after seeing Chinese examples.
  • The Russian atom bomb project accelerating massively after seeing demonstrations of the technology in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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    Surely they didn't just learn these things by "seeing" alone. – Zack Jan 4 '17 at 16:36
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    The Soviet bomb project was started by September 1942, after the Soviets found their western allies had already started their own projects. It was accelerated after Hiroshima. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_atomic_bomb_project – jaxad0127 Jan 4 '17 at 16:57
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    @jaxad0127 Fair enough, but then there was pottery in Europe before porcelain was re-invented. Just like there is research into FTL today. Yet if we saw evidence of it, the research effort would be massively ramped up. – Peter Jan 4 '17 at 18:54
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    The Soviets also had quite a few spies in the US project. Even if they didn't provide complete blueprints, it's enormously helpful just to know what directions to look. – jamesqf Jan 4 '17 at 18:56
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    The bit about the Cherokee writing system was a revelation to me. I thought it was just someone literate in English making their own system, but it wasn't that at all. Sequoia could not read or write English. He just saw white men doing it, and proceeded to personally go through all the developmental steps from logograms to a full-blown syllabaly all by himself in a few years. It took the human species thousands of years to figure that out de-novo, but one guy a few years when he knew what the end-result should look like. – T.E.D. Jan 5 '17 at 1:56

Besides dmoonfire's answer about knowing which paths not to go can save a lot of effort, I want to offer an additional look.

Knowing something is possible gives us more motivation to do it. Spending millions of dollars into research on something that is maybe possible, is way riskier than spending millions of dollars into research on something that is definitely possible.

Example: if my neighbor shows me he can fly without any tools, just a technique of swinging his arms which I don’t understand, I will try every day to fly because I know it is possible. If I didn’t know this, my motivation to learn to fly with swinging my arms is way less.

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    ... and after years of trying, you'll find out the neighbour cheated and used a pulley system of some sort. And even if he didn't, you would find that a much more likely explanation than him actually being able to fly by flapping his arms. Just because something is definitely possible doesn't mean that the approach you're trying is the way to get there - and that's something people encounter every day. "How do we get smarter people?" "By educating them more!" And then you try to cram textbooks in children's heads, and are surprised that the result isn't a smart person :) – Luaan Jan 4 '17 at 9:58
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    However, as Borsunho implies, seeing that it is possible would get a large number of people to stop saying it isn't possible and instead trying to accomplish it. – WGroleau Jan 5 '17 at 4:45

Yes, most definitely, particularly for technology like FTL.

Research on advanced physics takes a lot of money. Right now, no substantial funds are directed into research of FTL, as it is seen as impossible.

Seeing an example of working FTL would obviously change this situation, making governments and investors direct more research funds into this field.

  • Alchemists have "researched" turning lead to gold for centuries, and never got any closer. And would never have, no matter how much funding they got, because they were looking the wrong place. Unless watching the aliens gave us "hints" on how FTL might work, our research would be equally pointless. That's why nobody's funding it. – nikie Jan 5 '17 at 8:56
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    @nikie: We can turn lead into gold; we just use atomic reactions rather than the chemical (and spiritual) reactions alchemists tried to use. And with more funding, people, and resources, I imagine that lead into gold via atomic power would have been accomplished sooner. Maybe not a lot sooner, but sooner. Many of their contemporaries probably considered alchemists nutcases. given proof it was possible would affect both the effort expended and time to discovery. – Mark Ripley Jan 5 '17 at 9:22
  • @MarkRipley: But we know how to turn lead to gold because we stopped looking for ways to turn lead to gold and instead developed a decent atomic theory. Which (for centuries) said that changing elements was impossible. If we kept looking for lead-gold-transformation technology instead, we would have been stuck with pre-atomic theories for much longer. – nikie Jan 5 '17 at 10:31
  • @nikie not because we stopped, but because we heavily invested into technological development, science development. Efforts and finances of those alchemists are minuscule compared to what was invested in 18 century alone. Their mixing could have some degree of success if they had proper stuff to mix - "Gold was synthesized from mercury by neutron bombardment in 1941" - they played with mercury a lot, so they needed good neutron source (although they would probably not notice the gold creation - now we know they philosophical stone was neutron emitter) – MolbOrg Jan 5 '17 at 16:19
  • @MolbOrg: Seriously? Do you actually believe that alchemists might have synthesized gold one day by accidentally mixing stuff without a better understanding of what's going on inside an atom (or actually, that matter is made up of atoms)? – nikie Jan 5 '17 at 16:42

This depends on who they tell.


Right now, if you try to tell the public and government that FTL is possible in the scenario above, people and governments will have an incentive to work hard and try to figure something out. Right now, all of our current theories say that FTL is impossible and so therefore it becomes a waste of time. But if we have incentive, it has a higher probability of happening. But, be careful, because this isn't always the case. You could think of the fact that the "aliens" never gave us proof of FTL technology, so it could be dismissed as "fraud."


If you tell an individual, this is basically impossible. First of all, they wouldn't have the means, no matter how powerful they are, and second, if they try to get someone to help them, no one will because of how absurd the theory sounds.

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    "if they try to get someone to help them, no one will because of how absurd the theory sounds" - Unless they tell mr. Elon :) – PTwr Jan 4 '17 at 8:18
  • In theory, as long as the aliens give you proper schematics (rather than just telling you, because human memory is fragile as all hell and would likely be unable to contain the entire working knowledge of what would physically be one of the most impossible things), you simply write up a paper with a proof of concept and get it published somewhere, anywhere. Someone will read it, try to replicate the results, and boom, you've got NASA begging at your feet to see the originals. – SGR Jan 4 '17 at 9:13
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    @SGR, the problem there is that the question assumes that aliens leave without explaining how FTL works, so I don't think the aliens would give you schematics. – Arturo Torres Sánchez Jan 4 '17 at 14:51
  • @ArturoTorresSánchez I agree with you, it seems like every answer ignores the fact that the question asker stated that the aliens did not reveal anything to anyone, other than the fact that they showed up, and left, using FTL technology. That's literally all we would have to go off of. – Zack Jan 4 '17 at 16:49

The main driving force which accelerates research is money. Having demonstrated that something is possible drastically helps in procuring money for research.

Let's say you are a billionaire venture capitalist. A team of scientists approaches you and says they want to do research on FTL travel. They promise you all the patent rights, if you just give them a budget of a few million dollar a month.

Would you do it?

You don't know if there even is a profitable method of FTL travel. You don't even know if it will be practicable (like manned space exploration beyond Earth orbit. All the rage in the 70s, now we know robots are way cheaper). Heck, you don't even know if the laws of physics in our universe even permit FTL travel (spoiler: general consensus among physicists is that they don't). The risk that your investment won't have any return at all is huge.

But what if the aliens have already demonstrated that FTL travel is not just physically possible but so feasible that they can use it just to give us a casual surprise visit?

You now know that there is a realistic chance that what those scientists are up to might work. Your risk is drastically reduced. The prospect of being the first to bring FTL technology to market has become tangible.

The same logic doesn't just apply to private investors but also to government investors.

  • This is roughly what I was going to say; I had a slightly different take that I'll mention here: It's not just monetary investment; it has an awful lot to do with the fixed idea that something is impossible, which blocks scientists who might otherwise be smart enough to figure out some answers from even thinking about the area. The same is actually true in the humanities; an unfortunate number of people assume that war is inevitable, or that criminal behavior is inevitable, or any number of other fatalistic ideas. The basic idea that something can be done about it is very powerful. – Wildcard Jan 5 '17 at 0:11
  • This should be the accepted answer. It is always about money. Basic research is basically a money sink with no expected outcome. Knowing something is possible makes it much easier to solicit research funds. – Euphoric Jan 5 '17 at 7:07

I think we can compare this to something we all know:

We know "Vision" exists, and it helped us replicate it

The ability to see with our eyes, detect patterns and interpret the world around us.

We know it's possible. We understand how an eye works optically. We know how to use it pretty well. We even have an intuition as to the process of how we recognize things, but we don't know the details of how it works. So there's a limit to the amount of reverse-engineering that's possible.

At this point we replicated an eye with a good degree of success in the form of digital camera, outputting information that can be processed by a computer.

But I'm willing to bet that we wouldn't have spend so much money, time, brainpower and energy to make computer vision happen if we didn't know intrinsically that "vision" was even possible. Imagine we were born without eyes; we wouldn't even have entertained the idea.

So, yeah, I think knowing something exists helps us replicate it, but the amount of details available about the implementation determines how easy it is.

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    But we had real world existing examples we could copy, where the question states that we have nothing to go off of other than the knowledge that "FTL travel is possible". – Zack Jan 4 '17 at 16:51
  • Except the physical optics (and even then), there's not much we can directly replicate from an eye to build a working vision system, is there? – Kevin Bouchard Jan 10 '17 at 17:05

I would agree that in general, knowing something works can significantly speed up your own development effort, but I would like to point out that it by no means guaranteed. For example, imagine you are living in a world without birds or bats, but your science and tech developed enough for you to start pondering the unthinkable: the flight. And then you see aliens who are birds and they fly so effortlessly and gracefully flapping their wings. So you suddenly might waste tons of resources and time and effort trying to recreate what you know works, instead of exploring technologically simpler way of doing this, that you would likely try if you never saw those flapping wings.

Yes. Prior to being introduced to horses, indigenous peoples of the Americas maybe domesticated a few animals. Once they were introduced to horses, horses quickly became integrated into their cultures.

When the Wright brothers showed that powered flight was possible, other inventors quickly learned and developed their own airplanes, even if they only had a simple understanding of the Wright flyer. In fact, many invented airplanes that were vastly superior to the Wright flyer.

Once we are shown something is possible, it hardens our resolve to accomplish that possibility, because we know we are not chasing a pipedream. Edison pursued the lightbulb because he saw it was possible from an early experiment.

It will speed up the process of development, yes, but by how much? Will it be like 103 years into 3 years? Or 890 years into 860 years? Hard to say when we don't know what makes a working FTL drive, thus, as writers, we would need to make something up. Maybe, there already is a possible inventor of FTL drive playing with lasers in his university lab, that may be able to teleport a photon across his lab as a proof of concept within a week, but without aliens showing will never believe in the possibility and will just continue engraving emoticons into tin cans with university's lasers.


For the simple reason that it will now be monumentally easier to get funding for research. One of the biggest hurdles to making breakthroughs is finding the funding in order to hire the minds that can work on the issue. By seeing an FTL in action, governments and investors now know with certainty that not only is FTL theoretically possible, its been implemented.

Now, governments, universities, and private companies alike will be willing to pump incredible amounts of money into research, because whatever government gets their hands on it first will have a huge advantage in space travel and whatever company discovers it first will become incredibly rich and powerful overnight

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