Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Transductionist's Intergalactic Survival Guide, Part One: Why We Need Space

Rocket, Ady age 7
 In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams we follow the exploits of earth man Arthur Dent who travels through the universe in his bathrobe after the Earth is destroyed to make way for a bypass; because bypasses have to be built.  If you haven't heard of the book you probably haven't traveled much in the western spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, and if you haven't read it, then you should.  Its a quick read, full of satire, and is at least good for a laugh.  The idea that the Earth could be destroyed for any reason, including to make way for a bypass, is the reason we all strive so hard to figure the universe out.  The unknown is what will eventually kill us.  So while Adams ultimately had a good idea to write a survival guide to the universe, he never really lets us see more than bits and pieces of it.  But in this, the first part of a series, I will try to show how the technologies and know-how collected every day right here on planet Earth, might ultimately serve us well when we abandon this rock.  To begin, I will explain why me must leave the Earth and perhaps convince you that we will.  In future parts, I will address the all important how.

Why Human's Will Leave the Earth

An upcoming Mars rover experiment is set to search for signs of life on Mars.  Why I find the search for habitable planets laudable I will contend that there is a possibility that we are alone in the universe, but the search for habitation is not a bad one.  The late great Carl Sagan, well known for his Cosmos series, suggested that "If we are alone in the universe, it sure seems like a waste of space."  I will contend that the empty space is for human expansion.  Look at the architecture of life.  We are without a doubt proliferating machines.  At every stage of existence the same trend emerges, massive over expansion followed by a systematic pruning until only that which has found a viable niche survives.

Below is my brief tutorial of Evolution 101 for those of you who missed it in school.  Cells are the primary component of life on Earth and each individual cell has its own set of the DNA code for all things an organism can manufacture, but not all cells survive.  Even single celled organisms like bacteria and yeast divide in excess in harsh environments only to have a fraction make it to another division.  This over-production of offspring is replicated in multicellular organisms such as spiders, who can lay hundreds to thousands of eggs, and salmon who likewise lay thousands of eggs, only to have them eaten by predators or infected with disease and pollution.  Even the few salmon that mature from egg into salmon fry have a tough time, due to predation or changes to their habitats.  Only about 30 of the initial several thousand salmon eggs survive. This proliferative expansion occurs not just between organisms, but within organisms as well.  One example is the rapid expansion of the human nervous system during development that is followed by pruning of neurons and neuronal connections to only those that receive growth factor and electrochemical support; part of what is known as the use it or lose it developmental model.  Furthermore, this pruning doesn't end with birth but is continuing to the day we die, suggesting that the proliferative machine is important in learning and may well also be predictive of trends in  human behavior, such as mankind's need to get off this rock.

Additionally, there is no reason to assume that the massive expansion has ended in our brains, and a simple look around you will tell you that there are more of us everyday (See China or India).  Furthermore, many noted scientists have predicted that this population explosion would lead to massive famines, or disasters leading to extreme loss of life.  The most notable example of this pessimism is the work of Thomas Malthus, whose predictions were based on agricultural production and human impact on the environment.  Several models predict the rate and curve of population growth in biological organisms, including humans, and others discuss the limiting factors important for controlling population density.  Numerical predictions to human population limits have proved wrong mostly due to unforeseen advances in technology.  Those technologies, which I will return to in later segments, have allowed us to live on smaller parcels of land and yield more in smaller spaces and in less time.  All good things for our space faring decedents.  However, it has led to a lot of people on Earth.  Or as I like to call them, fodder for the cannon of space (I say we start with the politicians).  Jokes aside, risk is a part of life and many of us, myself included, would be happy to leave the drudgery of the office cubicle for a rocket propelled hot rod to the unknown.  That being said, I wouldn't want to go unprepared. Which is why being a proliferative machine isn't enough to propel us into space, we have to be bright enough to want it too. Below I will discuss three motivations for leaving earth.

We need space:

While humans are very creative in living in smaller and smaller spaces with more economical use of resources, the population of the planet earth is greater that 6.8 billion as of the last official estimate compare that to 50 years ago when the population was less than half that. That was approximately the time that mankind originally took a metal coffee can into space to see what they could see. I think they may have relayed these words back to earth (by telegraph or something), "Holy, chinchillas, I think we need a little more technology to make it up here."  I mean personal computers weren't even a pipe dream at the time, but even with half the population the itch to disembark was still there and fueled fiction and non-fiction alike.  While most individuals might find a niche here on earth, the odds that some enclaves will become dissatisfied with their lot on this earth increase with each generation born.  When this number of individual groups reaches a tipping threshold their pooled resources will push them into space perhaps permanently.  This same motivation can be seen in the human migration out from the African savannah and into more and more extreme habitation zones.
We are curious:

The same motivation that drives our academic institutions to study silt deposits after volcanic eruptions, or to classify the taxonomy of butterflies, has led us to examine the stars.  We really don't like the unknown and wish to understand it in as much detail as technology will allow.  The Mars rover, Curiosity,  I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, is an example of our keen desire to explore and delineate with precision.   It contains more advanced equipment than its predecessors, to examine the surface,  air, and weather of the red planet, but only because some humans were curious.  It is our nature to explore everywhere for resources and environments favorable to human life.  This curiosity will eventually drive us into space, as it did in the 1960's exploration of the moon.  Difficulties pushed us back to the drawing board at the time, but the idea remained in our collective minds.

We like to be the first:

Mankind is replete with adventurers aiming to scale a mountain or fly around the globe, for no other reason than to be the first.  And space is replete with new horizons and challenges for the would-be adventurer.   Being the first comes with risks, but it also comes with fame, power, and respect; all important stimulants that stoke the human ego.  I posit that where there is a thing that hasn't been done there is a human aiming to do it. 

Besides these reasons there are other obvious reasons that I won't discuss in detail, but they include building wealth, venture capitalism, and  ideological freedom (remember the pilgrims).   Each of these motivations are the function of a human biological prerogative to find niches in which to survive, multiple, and indeed thrive.  They are the epitome of the proliferative machine and space is the gateway to an uncountable diversity of new niches with which to explore; feeding our desire to understand and manipulate our environment.  It is from this premise that I suggests that we will venture into Sagan's so-called wasted space and we will colonize it.  Our success in the new frontiers of space will require a compilation of human knowledge and technology ready at our fingertips. 

There are other posts in this series, see them here:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5

1 comment:

  1. I've read that there is not only a much larger human population on Earth but also that there is a greater proportion of human beings living far healthier lives with more nutritious diets than at any time in recorded history. This leads one to question whether or not there is such a thing as a human carying capacity of the earth. Human expansion only seems to be limited by human ingenuity. I'd suggest rejecting a model that suggests overpulation due to mere numbers. What is overpopulation? If we can produce enough to live on, we are not overpopulated-and we can


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