Yet Another Reason

As you’re all aware, I’m a big proponent of getting humanity off this planet and establishing a presence, at least for now, on some of the other bodies here in our Solar System. As much as I want it to be otherwise, our grasp of technology currently precludes any meaningful level of interstellar travel. Yes, I know about some of the workarounds: the “generational” vessel, where the children (or grandchildren) of the original crew will be the ones who actually arrive at the destination, or the cryogenic plan, where the crew is basically frozen and then thawed out upon arrival. Both of these seem like they’ll work, but let me remind you of a fact of life during the colonization of North America: one out of every six ships that set sail for here never made it. You might think that an 83% chance of getting there are acceptable odds; but I’d ask you to put yourself in the place of the folks on that sixth ship.

I’ve harped on the point that inventing nuclear weapons was an act of genius; getting them to the state they are now is engineering. That is, anyone with a firm grasp of the essentials can produce a nuke. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: if you don’t care about the whole dying-horribly-from-radiation-poisoning thing, you can make a Hiroshima style nuke at your kitchen table or workbench. Not much of a deterrent if you’re convinced that there are 72 virgins awaiting you on the other side.

There’s another factor that I haven’t really considered, and as I’ll point out later, I should have: Earth herself:

Our planet Earth has extinguished large portions of its inhabitants several times since the dawn of animals. And if science tells us anything, it will surely try to kill us all again. Working in the 19th century, paleontology pioneer Georges Cuvier saw dramatic turnovers of life in the fossil record and likened them to the French Revolution, then still fresh in his memory.

Today, we refer to such events as “mass extinctions,” incidents in which many species of animals and plants died out in a geological instant. They are so profound and have such global reach that geological time itself is sliced up into periods—Permian, Triassic, Cretaceous—that are often defined by these mass extinctions.

Debate over what caused these factory resets of life has raged ever since Cuvier’s time. He considered them to be caused by environmental catastrophes that rearranged the oceans and continents. Since then, a host of explanations have been proposed, including diseases, galactic gamma rays, dark matter, and even methane from microbes. But since the 1970s, most scientists have considered the likely root cause to be either asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or a combination of both.

I have reading habits that can be described as “eclectic” (the polite form of “weird”), and one of the subjects that I have probably spent too much time on is paleontology. Since I’ve been nine or ten years old I’ve been asking some questions: Who Are We? Why Are We The Way We Are? and How Did We Get Here? See, three million years ago there were these creatures named Australopithecines and by two million years ago, the Australopithecines were gone, replaced by the earliest members of Homo, that is, us. How did this happen? Well, nobody knows for sure, but one thing we do know is that during that period of time, the climate went crazy in that part of East Africa: dry-wet-dry-wet, over and over again, not unlike a little kid playing with a light switch. One of the consequences of that instability is that “we” went from vegetarians who occasionally scavenged meat (not unlike modern chimpanzees) to the omnivores that we are today. This might not seem important, but without that adaptation, we wouldn’t be here. Fat, despite what the idjits in DC claim, is a vital nutrient for a species with a giant brain as we have: some 20% of what we eat is used just to keep our brains functioning, and a purely vegetarian diet won’t supply nearly enough calories to do that. Stone tools date from 2.6 mya (million years ago) and controlling fire came a bit later, 2 to 1.9 mya, which is an indirect indicator of the change in diet and hunting patterns that supported the growth and importance of the brain. Not only that, but the niche we occupied in the savannah was already occupied by hyenas, so not only did we have to figure out a way to successfully hunt (the ability to run and sweat glands play a vital role in this), but we also had to compete against a creature who had evolved to exploit the very same food sources that we were trying to use. In light of that, Wahid and Achmed screaming “Death To America” begins to assume a different perspective, doesn’t it?

In closing, let me once again hammer something that I’ve been saying for years: we need to get off this rock. Yes, this might be some pro-human arrogance in play, but I’d like to think that we’ve done a few things and made a couple of works of art that are worthy of preservation.

One Response to “Yet Another Reason”

  1. Dan says:

    Moving to a different “rock” in the solar system addresses TEOTWAWKI events on Rock #3 such as massive asteroids etc. It doesn’t solve the problem of other risks such as massive gamma ray bursts etc. that could sterilize the entire system or solar instability etc. Current theory says that
    FTL Travel might, just maybe perhaps be possible…..but the energy cost is beyond staggering. Unless a major theoretical breakthrough happens there won’t be a ‘hyperdrive’ or a ‘warp drive’ to take us to other places. What we could do however is acquire asteroids of reasonable size….mine the interior to make room for internal cities and use them as ‘generation ships’. This solves a lot of issues and while travel wouldn’t be fast it would be relatively safer than using a human designed ship. The rock itself would be an effective insulator against many risks that a manmade hull could not manage.

    The biggest risk to ‘generation ships’ would be the risk of losing competence by subsequent generations, as in the generation that left in the ship knew how to make it go and fix it but a few generations later the inhabitants may not be able to figure out how to use toilet paper. But yes….we need to get off Earth sooner or later or we WILL become a footnote in galactic history. And I suspect many “intelligent species” were eradicated by something before they figured out a way to colonize multiple stars. Intelligent life in the universe may be common over billions of years…..doesn’t mean it has to occur concurrently with other species being intelligent.