Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Here’s the thing, we’re stuck on Planet Earth for the foreseeable future. We aren't going anywhere. Our technology is pretty smart and getting better. Yet it’s some way off granting us the ability to go outside our solar system. For example, the nearest habitable planet we believe is Proxima Centauri B. I say near, its four-light years away. With our current technology, it's going to take 6,300 years to get there. Then what happens when we arrive to find it's not inhabitable. Bugger.
Human recorded history is about 5000 years. That gives you an idea that 6,300 years is a long time when lots can happen. It won’t be easy to make such a trip. In fact, it’s going to be extremely tough.
Why the rush to leave? Well, biologist Erst Mayr's research indicates that most species last 100,000 years before disappearing. Modern humans have been around for between 100,000 to 200,000 years. If Mayr is right, we are overdue extinction. Environmental factors are the prime cause of a species disappearing. Habitat destruction, with food and water all gone or competition wipes you out.
Also, it's not clear that our intelligence will help us through this critical period. It may be that this very intelligence is the cause of our demise. Nuclear weapons, a product of our smart monkey brains, remains a significant threat. An atomic winter taking out the sunlight would push us to starvation. Some think climate change presents a similar risk.
Assuming we could construct a craft for a journey to another planet, other factors come into play. Scientists have calculated to sustain the human race you need as few as 98 people. Although to give a degree of resistance against disease, 500 is a safer number. We know that the human race has recovered from population sizes in the thousands. The genetic record pointed to this when our hold on survival proved tenuous at times of drought and famine. But we came through.
It's possible that most of the spacefarers would be women. To keep the species going a stock of sperm for artificial insemination will be needed. Plus, a few men to undertake specific roles such as getting spiders out the showers. What we don't know is how an imbalance in the sexes could impact the mission. How would the culture change, would this be beneficial or a disaster?
To travel vast distance in space, we’d need certain things. That includes shielding from radiation. Space is not empty. There is a lot of nasty stuff zipping around, radiation being amongst the worse. We evolved on a planet shielded by a magnetic field and an atmosphere to filter or deflect radiation. In space, we’d need similar protection, or the consequences are unthinkable.
The psychological aspects of deep space travel remain unknown. Although, the physical impacts are understood. Without artificial gravity, our bones and muscles weaken. Body fluids don’t move around as physical systems go out of kilter. To counter this at least two hours of intense exercise a day must be undertaken.
How the mind deals with deep-space is a different matter. We don’t know the likely impacts. Isolation for long periods cut-off from society produces depression and pushes up suicide rates. Thus, for success, deep-space travel will need to involve a community aspect with people working together to support each other. Other then that, we are in unchartered territory.
How about going into stasis to wake-up on a new planet? How about seeking to mimic the tardigrades? These creatures can survive in space and other harsh environments. They undergo a series of processes that includes removing all the water from their tiny bodies. Also, tardigrades change their chemical makeup and shape. This gives them protection from heat, cold, pressure and radiation. Then when conditions are right, they reanimate from their death-like sleep.
Tests have shown that tardigrades can survive radiation doses like those found in space. Although, extreme doses will kill them off. Suggesting some shielding will be necessary.
We are centuries away from having the technology to adapt the mechanisms of the tardigrade to humans. And, in any case, is it a desirable option? I’m not sure. The tardigrades are not handsome creature, as shown above.
Even if we went to space in the search for a new home, in the long-term, it's a time-limited option for the human race. Space is expanding. All the galaxies are rushing away from each other. Eventually, they are so far apart that travel between them is impossible. Even at 10% of lightspeed, it would take the entire period of civilisation to get to anywhere.
Our species die out unless we can harness knowledge to bend the rules of space/time. For all we know, we are the only shot the universe has at intelligent self-organisation. And thus protecting that demands our utmost attention.
On a positive note, human population numbers are levelling off. By 2100, the population should stabilise and then fall. That may ease the burden on the biosphere depending on our habits. Looking ahead energy is not an issue because the universe is full of it. It’s everywhere.
We have a massive fusion reactor sitting close at hand that can provide all our needs. It has 5 billion years of hydrogen to fuse into helium. That should keep us going. The challenge is harnessing the Sun in a useful and harmless way to our purposes.
Long-term, and I’m talking centuries, we may venture out there. In the meantime, we’d better look after this place.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.