Never trust an astronomer with a sinister goatee
Okay! So! This post has been sitting around in my Drafts folder for like four months or something. It is all outdated planetary news by now. What I really want to talk about is TYCHE!!! 'cause OMG TYCHE!!!
But Gliese 581g still matters too, so here it is, the report on the previous go-round of the planetary enthusiasm/disillustionment/enthusiasm carousel:
You know, nowadays I consider myself mostly kind of an eye-rolling jaded sophisticate as far as interstellar settlement goes. While I'm moderately bullish on humans making some interesting use of the rest of our own solar system someday -- God willing -- I scoff at FTL drives and galactic empires, and even managing a quick trip (by biological humans) to Proxima Centauri seems honestly like it's going to be a matter of several millennia from now at best.
I'm not really talking about engineering, here; we know perfectly well how to build something that could push a small craft a few light-years, and do it in under a century. I'm talking economics, and sociology, and technological history, and ecology. (If you want to know my exact reasons for thinking this, you can read the massive essay below, after the cut. I moved it there because that wasn't really going to be the point of this post.) I think that, in all likelihood, we are stuck living in and around Earth for a long while. And we are stuck in this solar system for a long, long while after that.
So we're not going anywhere; and Wittgenstein's Lion says that even if there is someone very complexly made out there, they are unlikely to be broadcasting prime numbers, never mind schemata for cold fusion reactors, on radio frequencies in our direction. Very likely there is somebody out there, for sufficiently broad values of "somebody" -- and very likely those values are so broad that we will have, essentially, nothing to say to each other.
So the issue of life on other worlds is, in the end, a matter of pure academic curiosity. Right?
But [a few months ago, when I originally wrote this blog post], when I read in a news headline that they'd found an earthlike planet, I burst out crying.
Given my jaded sophistication and all, this was quite a surprise.
It turns out I've been waiting my whole life to read those words: earthlike planet found.
And despite all my sophistication, despite my general environmentalist attitude of "let's tidy up here a bit first, shall we?", my first overwhelming thought was: we have to go. Now. We have to go now. I found myself desperately calculating: 20 years, maybe, to build a tiny probe with a massive solar sail and a big laser at L5 to push it? -- or else one of those doohickeys driven by exploding nuclear bombs against a plate? Could we get it up quickly to, what, half the speed of light, and have it do a flyby? That's another 40 years, maybe, and 20 years for the signal to return -- eighty years from now I'll be 121 -- that's doable, right? I could hang on until word came. That we are not alone. That this fragile globe is not our only shot.
(Now, some months later, they are finding so many bushels of extrasolar planets in the right zone, that it is already a little hard to remember how shocking that headline was; which is one reason to blog it now, and mark that historical moment...)
The putative planet, Gliese 581g, is a Goldilocks planet -- the right distance and size from its star for liquid water. We already know there's some water on the Moon, Mars and -- our best bet for finding life larger than a microbe in this solar system -- Europa. Also, with a little patience, Kepler is likely to find earthlike planets actually traversing the surfaces of their stars from our perspective, allowing us to actually look at their atmospheres' spectroscopy for signatures of life. So it's not like Gliese 581g is our only chance. But still.
So it was with consternation that I read a href="https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1320539/Gliese-581g-exist.html">the news that a team in Geneva was unable to find the planet, analyzing (most of) the same data. When I read the article aloud to Noah Sunday morning, I could not help reading the comments of the Swiss team's leader (who does have a sinister goatee) in a leering and menacing Swiss-French supervillain's accent, peppered with scare quotes, italics and ellipses. (Try reading it yourself that way, it's very convincing.)
Come on, Gliese 581g. Hang in there. Exist!
Interstellar-exploraton skepticism after the cut:
The science fiction I grew up reading tended to see interstellar exploration by analogy to humans exploring distant parts of Earth -- mostly through imperialistic colonization (either imagining ourselves as colonizers -- benevolent or malevolent -- or as the colonized); sometimes via the settling of actually empty lands; sometimes as cross-cultural encounter, trade, syncretism.
Human voyages of exploration -- other than the one to our Moon, and to some extent the poles and Himalayan peaks -- have always been predicated on the notion that you'd would at some point get somewhere that was exploitable, where things were rather like they were at home. There would be something to eat, at least, and probably someone to talk to (who, however culturally different, would have the identical hardwired neurology -- would see, hear, taste, smell, laugh, cry, look surprised, look angry, look confused, point to things -- all of which you'd need to bootstrap a common language). If you were lucky, these someones would have aggregated a bunch of recognizable stored value, which you could trade for or pillage to pay back the investors back home (worst case, you could kidnap the someones themselves as trophies or labor).
You could also pretty much count on there being air.
Applied to human space travel, that analogy -- the "somewhere exploitable to get to" analogy -- is, for the foreseeable future, totally false and misleading. What do I mean by "for the foreseeable future?" Well, first, until we are at a point where we can say "molecules already assembled into complex carbohydrates and amino acids and vitamins and so on? Nah, that's okay -- just give me the raw elements and some light energy and I'll put it together, and flawlessly, and not just at research-prototype or even industrial-application levels but at rock-solid-bet-your-life-on-it levels of reliability, and not for just most of the things I need but for all of them, even if something goes really wrong." At that point the Kuiper belt is as hospitable a home as Earth, and at that point we are also probably not anything like recognizably human anymore.
Now, this doesn't mean we won't get to the point where we have some folks living on Mars or the asteroid belt, even beyond tourists, explorers, and scientists. There may be some actually economically viable niche there, mining or constructing something in the rest of the solar system, sometime this century.
We don't just do things because they are technically possible. Here's an example:
It would have been technically possible for a substantial proportion of Europeans at the time of Periclean Athens to have left the land, and lived permanently in floating raft settlements in the Mediterranean, never touching the coast, living from fish, cultivating floating gardens, using dried seaweed for fuel, figuring out how to survive storms and fend off pirates, trading dried fish and pearls for bronze vessels to boil and desalinate water (Archimedes could totally have solved the desalination problem, I bet). I feel like that's about as technically feasible as twenty-first or twenty-second century humans building massive orbital habitations and Lunar and Martian cities.
But it didn't happen because it would have made no Zeus-damned sense. Iron Age Europe had plenty of sailors, and some individuals who even lived for years at sea without touching down on land. But a city on the sea?
Imagine Athenian philosophers or politicians advancing this argument: "but we need to get a bunch of humans away from the land and onto the sea, so that if some horrible calamity like plague, war or mega-earthquake destroys everything on land, humans will survive somewhere!"
Surely the two sensible responses would have been: