Saturday, October 10, 2020

Colonizing Space: Utopia or bust

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”       --J.R.R. Tolkien

One of about two trillion galaxies in our observable universe. Estimates are that within any such galaxy, there should be roughly 10 to 40 billion Earth-like rocky planets in the 'Goldilocks zone' of their parent star.  In the tradition of Western Civilization's 'Doctrine of Discovery,' all of these planets are fair game for Human colonization. All photos courtesy of NASA.

In my last post I applied some ruthless, dispassionate reasoning to the question of whether man's quick-thinking mental skills deserve a permanent place among the community of Earth's living things, or whether we are simply bullies.  Our bad citizenship could signify that we are an evolutionary dead-end, doomed to quick extinction, or it could, as optimists like to argue, mark a revolutionary change in the way nature operates.  That is the subject of this post.

The problem with humankind's quick-witted choice-making is that it is largely unrestrained by nature's slow, deliberate checks and balances--the evolutionary scale 'intelligence' that DNA has accumulated over four billion years.  We do things because we can, and because they benefit us in the immediate term, even though in the longer-term we are destabilizing the living community out of which we emerged, and we could be stressing the planet toward one or more dangerous 'tipping points'.

So, maybe we're going to need an escape, a safe refuge--a clean break of the kind a colony on another world could provide.  Maybe sooner than we think.

The discussion seems timely, in light of this year's 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower, and marking the 528th anniversary of 'Columbus Day', both of which are milestones in the wave of European 'settlement' that led to so many abominations carried out in the name of 'conversion of the savages' under the nefarious 'Doctrine of Discovery.'

Those of us of 'White Privilege' still largely preserve that mindset, even if we outwardly deny it. The urge to colonize space feels like a safe outlet for our sense of 'Manifest Destiny.'  But is it?

If we could plant a permanent, truly independent settlement on Mars, it could be our second chance--the 'Earth 2.0' that saves us from extinction.  Then, if we could continue to advance technologically, such that some form of interstellar human colonization becomes possible, then we truly begin to open up the realms first imagined when Olaf Stapledon wrote his seminal future histories of mankind, Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937).  Stapledon's visionary ideas influenced most of the great thinkers and early Science fiction writers of the last century including Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clark, Bertrand Russell, and Brian Aldiss.

As I indicated in the caption of the photo at the beginning of the post, our own Milky Way is likely to contain somewhere around ten habitable Earth-like planets for every human couple of child-rearing age alive today.  Ten planets for each of you to be your own true Adam and Eve.  Surely at least one of them will be a Utopia--a Garden of Eden.

If only we could reach them.

And if only there wasn't some sort of indigenous life already there, laying claim to the territory.

One of the great discoveries that awaits us, which I hope will be achieved before I die, is the discovery of life on one of the other worlds in our solar system.  Perhaps deep down in the oceans of Europa, life thrives around geothermal vents.  Perhaps some life lingers on Mars.  Or Venus.  Of course we might find that there is no such life.  But if it does exist, will there be enough similarity in its chemistry to establish a relationship with life on Earth?

Maybe, just maybe, the life we know exists deep in the rocks of Earth, could have been spread across the cosmos by massive meteor impacts such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs.  Maybe, just maybe, life did not originate on Earth, but in the stars.  If so, then we will have found the Alien we've been so avidly seeking all these years, and it is us.

Mars is a few light-minutes away.  The next-nearest star is four light-years away.  Access to all the stars in our galaxy seems such a daunting task, yet there are plenty of ideas regarding future technology that propose to get us there.  One I like, and suggest in my 'Eden's Womb' novel series is a sort of light-speed 'beaming' using quantum entanglement and 1-watt radio beacons linking a network of automated space stations that would be patiently established at key locations across the galaxy by conventional slower-than-light-speed travel.  I call them 'Entanglement Tensor Nodes'.  Once in place, they simply maintain position in space and relay the signals.  Here and there are larger, more elaborate 'stations' either in space or on habitable planets, which are human outposts with the machinery needed to convert signal to material being after the manner of laser printing technology. 

In order for mankind to establish such an intergalactic network using physically realistic technology (no 'warp speed' travel or worm-holes with all their inherent paradoxes), our species would need to be stable and self-sufficient for millions of years.  This was no problem for the dinosaurs.  But then came the Chicxulub Bolide.  Yet many species survived that impact.  Multi-million-year survival has been no problem for the likes of sharks and alligators, cockroaches, birds, termites.  But for humans?  Our species is less than one million years old.  And I don't think there would be many among us who would argue that our 'civilization' has the long-term stability and sustainability that shark civilization or termite civilization has demonstrated.

So we make it to the stars in our neighborhood.  Maybe after millions of years, we establish an Asimov-style galactic empire.  What next?  What about colonizing other galaxies?  Far fetched?  Well, if we're really going to survive long-term, it might be important.  Our nearest galactic neighbor, Andromeda is two and a half million light years away and she's going to collide with the Milky Way around the time our own sun runs out of hydrogen and becomes a red giant.  That's four and a half billion years away, but it's not too soon to start planning and sending out our robotic ships.  If we have our house in order--really have our act together--we will be up for the task.

Our Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has already traveled 14 billion miles.  It will pass the one light year milestone in 17,720 years.  It would reach Andromeda in maybe 35 billion years, though maybe the galaxy's gravitation will speed it up.  It doesn't stretch the imagination to think we could get robotic probes to Andromeda before she gets to us, collides with our Milky Way, and starts agitating the clouds of star-making material, as has happened with the galaxy shown here:

So maybe we can colonize other galaxies.  In 'Eden's Womb' a civilization of humans that had survived trillions of years had colonized every corner of its universe.  And yet that universe was dying, as inevitably everything must.  Perhaps the mysterious Dark Energy is going to rip our universe apart, such that galaxies that are currently visible will start disappearing, accelerating away from us faster than even light can get there.  Whether or not that happens, the simple problem of a finite supply of hydrogen fuel for making new stars will ultimately bring life as we now understand it to a slow, cold end.  

There are ways that thinkers have imagined for modified beings to continue to survive after all the stars have burned out and only slowly evaporating black holes remain, but I'll limit the discussion to our human species or its direct successors, and I'll assume we continue to want nice warm stars to live around.  

Well, again, my novel 'Eden's Womb' suggests a way.  We will need to employ the process of creating child universes--universes in a test tube, for example.  This is not science fiction.  It is a process that is recognized as possible under our known laws of physics.

But it's not enough to simply create new universes, or to know where nature creates them (such as in the vicinity of black holes).  We need a way to escape our dying universe and move into a new baby one.  

It is rank speculation, of course, but 'Eden's Womb' explores this thought-space.  The novel is all about how a human man and woman might 'transcend' into a new universe, becoming the true Adam and Eve of a brave new cosmos.  In the novel, it happens almost accidentally, or so it seems.  But it is theoretically possible for information and physical material to be conveyed to a child universe; and if something is possible, it can be made to happen, and the process can be refined and controlled until it becomes routine.  

So, with our quick-witted brains, and given enough time and creativity, we humans could find ourselves hopping from Earth to Mars, then from Mars to other stars, possibly to other galaxies, and finally to entirely new universes.

Maybe it has already been done.  Not by humans, but by a much more patient, long enduring species.

Remember when I mentioned that deep impact meteors are likely to be able to send rocks containing living microbes out into space to potentially seed other worlds?  Well, one of those rocks could get sent into the quantum tunnel that creates a baby universe.

I argue that it's much more likely that single celled microbes, carrying complex DNA messages, perhaps even containing the DNA of human beings, could be transported into new universes.  Transferring a living Adam and Eve is a much taller order.  If panspermia is indeed possible (that's the word for seeding life across the cosmos), why not take the seeds of life not just to other stars and other galaxies, but to new universes?

'Eden's Womb' explores this possibility too.  Before our Adam and Eve get accidentally sent into a new universe, the little intelligent microbes I call 'Twees' had perfected the process for themselves, and were routinely hopping from one universe to the next, down a chain of inheritance (including mutations caused by quantum fluctuations) that 'fine tuned' the present universe that we find ourselves in to make it wonderfully well-suited for the little Twees to live (and for their clumsy blundering offspring, the human beings, to dodder around too.)

Okay, so back down to Earth for a reality check.

The Milky Way as seen from right here on good old Earth


What do we need to do to successfully get ourselves off this planet, to affirm the value of this experiment we call 'intelligence', and to begin to assure our long-term survival?

Well, first of all, it would help if we worked to keep our own planet as healthy as possible.  That doesn't necessarily mean that nature's 4.1 billion years of DNA 'knowledge' has to be our 'canon'; but that 'book' is by far the oldest and most comprehensive 'bible' in existence, and to ignore it certainly doesn't seem very wise.

Human's have notoriously ignored Mother Nature, tried to override her with genetic engineering, antibiotics, selective breeding, monoculture factory farming and livestock operations, letting species go extinct, and just plain ripping up the landscape, depleting resources, and spewing pollution.  Hasty, quick-witted ideas that have not stood the test of time, many of which have clearly and obviously failed all tests of sustainability.

Establishing a colony on Mars is a sexy idea, but most of the experiments we need to do in order to learn how to establish truly sustainable, self-sufficient 'colonies' or enclaves can be done right here on Earth.  One of the problems we humans have suddenly faced squarely with COVID-19 is that we are a global mono-culture.  Few humans on this planet live naturally in a way that keeps them safe from this virus.  We're just too inter-connected.  That wasn't the case 528 years ago when Christopher Columbus introduced small pox, measles, the flu, etc. to the First Peoples of the Americas.

Diversity is something that Nature values.  The more independent viable options for future offspring that there are, the greater the likelihood that the best of them will survive.  That is exactly why we're trying to colonize space.  Why not start right here at home by establishing real volunteer colonies, centered in scrupulously protected, truly isolated preserves, dedicated to solving the long-term problems of colonization in as many different ways as possible?

What else can we do right here on Earth?  Well, if we're going to achieve successful colonization, we need to respect the value of science, support research, and encourage our children to get involved.

There are lots of potential discoveries that can make our lives right here on Earth more rewarding for future generations, and many more advances that we will be able to use to more effectively reach out to the cosmos.

Isaac Asimov, writing in his visionary novel 'Foundation,' described the planet Trantor as a planet-wide city, capitol of the intergalactic empire.  It was a vision where man completely dominates a planet and all its living things.

Writing in the mid-20th century, Asimov's ideas and those that spawned the other great sci-fi universes such as Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars, were rooted in a social order where the future seemed full of unlimited possibility.  Evil of many kinds had been soundly defeated through dedication and hard work.  The big war had just ended.  The Great Depression had been overcome by FDR's 'New Deal' and by the war effort itself.  It was a world where pollution seemed a tolerable annoyance.  Everybody smoked because nobody yet knew about the link between smoking and cancer.  Antibiotic-resistant bacteria hadn't appeared yet.  Half of those alive had grown up without electricity.  Airline travel was just transitioning to the jet age.  Television was still in its infancy.  Few cars had automatic transmissions.  Technology was making life easier and better at an astonishing pace.

Within twenty years of Asimov's publishing 'Foundation', men were walking on the moon.  Yet it has now been nearly fifty years since any human last set foot on another world.  What happened?

Once the novelty of mankind walking on the moon wore off, there was just no real motivation to stay there.  An International Space Station in close-Earth orbit was a much more affordable 'space base'.  The moon offered no real economic incentive.  Perhaps Mars suffers from the same problem.  Why spend all the money to send men there?

Human civilizations have declined before.  Look at the Ancestral Puebloans of the American southwest.  Look at the Mayan culture.  Look at the Roman Empire.  Is it possible that our culture is already on the decline?  That even if we send somebody to Mars, the novelty will wear off and eventually nobody will go back?

Then there's the question posed as 'Fermi's Paradox'.  If colonizing space is such a good idea, if quick-witted intelligence or any other form of recognizable 'advanced' civilization naturally finds a way to spread to the stars, then why haven't we already run into them, or at least found evidence of them?

There are as many answers to that conundrum as there are people thinking about it.  Maybe we're actually the first advanced civilization to think about reaching to the stars.  That would seem a pretty steep statistical oddity, given the 10 to 40 billion other habitable planets in our galaxy.

But wait.  We have only been sending out radio waves, demonstrating some level of intelligence, for less than a century.  Statistically that's a drop in the bucket compared to the 13.8-billion-year life of the universe.  And what other evidence do we have to offer to some intelligent race searching space for us?  With the exception of tiny probes like Voyager, we haven't actually gone anywhere but our own moon.  We have no burgeoning galactic empire in the making.  No.  Statistically, both in time and space, we are truly a needle in a haystack.  Using our own example as the only data point, what reason do we have to believe anybody else has done more, or even could do more than we have actually accomplished ourselves?

Is colonizing space merely a dreamy-eyed fictional fantasy?  Will it ever amount to anything more?  Aren't we spending a whole lot more money creating fictional experiences like video games and movie worlds like the Marvel and DC comics worlds and the Avatar universe?  Elon Musk seems to have an economic plan for SpaceX that relies on space tourism, rather than on actually extracting any profit from permanently living on Mars.

Certainly bringing stuff back from Mars to sell would be prohibitively expensive.  Even Antarctica doesn't sustain any real economic activity.  The only reason for a Mars or lunar colony to exist permanently is as an attractive place to live, with its own independent, sustainable, viable economy.  

It surely is 'early days' in the human quest to colonize space.  It goes well beyond saying that "the jury is out" as to whether man will succeed in reaching the stars.  The greatest part of the trail has not even begun.



 

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