Will We Go to the Stars, or Go Extinct?

We’ve discussed humanity’s eventual expansion into the galaxy a few times before — see What Are We Learning from SETI?, where we said:

Assume we could travel at, say, around one-third of lightspeed, so that a large shipload of settlers could travel to a nearby star in about a dozen years. … Then assume that stars with habitable planets are, on average, not more than about 5 light years away from each other, so we can gradually expand our domain without encountering any impossible distance barriers. And then assume that each new settlement — if educated and well-equipped — could develop itself sufficiently so that in, say, about three generations (less than a century) it would be able to launch some of its own people to settle the next habitable system. Population growth will be the biggest constraint to such rapid expansion, but once a new world is settled more ships will arrive, so population shouldn’t be a problem.

If those assumptions are reasonable — and we’ll all be dead before anyone really knows — then the domain of human-occupied space can expand every century at a rate of roughly 5 light years in every direction. That’s a sphere which grows 10 light years in diameter every 100 years. In a thousand years the sphere of human-occupied space will be 100 light years across. That’s nice, but it’s no big deal. There could be several isolated pockets like that here and there in the galaxy, but they’re so far away that we’ve never noticed them. However, it doesn’t stop there.

Multiply our expansion time by 1,000, and conservatively assume no technological improvements over all that time. You get a sphere of human space that’s 100,000 light years across in only a million years. Think about that. The Milky Way galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across.

In Evolution and the Conquest of the Galaxy we discussed the evolutionary consequences of humanity moving out in different directions, unable to breed with their distant cousins elsewhere in the galaxy. And in Humanity’s Next Adventure — Trek Three, we discussed humanity’s expansion out of Africa to all the habitable places on Earth, which undoubtedly protected us from extinction. By living everywhere they could, humans were immune from being wiped out by a local geological disaster.

Going to the stars is the same thing as migrating out of Africa, but on a bigger scale. Expansion throughout the galaxy is essential to assure our survival. When humans are living on several different planets orbiting other stars, we can’t be exterminated by a local planetary disaster like the dinosaurs were, or by the eventual death of the Sun.

In this essay we’re not going to adopt the argument of Stephen Hawking, that if we don’t go soon we’ll destroy ourselves. Instead, we’ll discuss the possibility that — despite the technological possibility of doing it — we won’t expand to the stars. Why wouldn’t we? Religion could be the reason, but this isn’t an argument for atheism.

If the dominant belief of Earth’s population is that science is evil and man is a sinful, unworthy creature, then: (1) we won’t think ourselves worthy of surviving beyond the time allotted to us on Earth; and (2) we won’t develop the technology to go to the stars. All of humanity’s efforts will be directed to seeking divine help and forgiveness.

That would be the ultimate disaster. If we remain a one-planet species, we’re doomed to extinction. If an asteroid collision doesn’t get us, maybe a bunch of supervolcano eruptions will, or another ice age, or a plague. Our planet has known mass extinctions before, and there’s no reason there won’t be more in the future. Even if there are none, the Sun’s lifespan is limited. It’s going to run out of fuel and die about 5 billion years from now, so our time on Earth is limited.

Then there’s the possibility of intelligent aliens out there. If we can dream of occupying all the the galaxy’s habitable planets in “only” a million years, so can they. Maybe some have already begun their expansion, but they’re still far enough away that we haven’t noticed them yet — but we will. What would it be like, being a one-planet species in someone else’s galaxy? It’s not the future your Curmudgeon hopes for, but it’s not very far from the way some religious sects think things are right now — and they accept it.

Will we go to the stars and occupy the galaxy, or will we cringe in fear here on Earth? Some might ask: “Are we worthy of being a galactic species?” What determines worthiness? If we do it, we’ll survive, and by definition we’ll be worthy. But if humanity is in the grip of a sect that teaches we are essentially unworthy, then we’re not going anywhere. In that case, you can add one more possible cause for our eventual extinction — death by religion. Humanity has some decisions to make.

Copyright © 2017. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “Will We Go to the Stars, or Go Extinct?

  1. docbill1351

    Extinct or, at best, evolved into something else. It makes no sense to send biology into space. No sense at all. What does make sense is to send intelligent robots who require only a current gradient and who could repair themselves thus “living” forever. Let the robots explore the universe.

    There is no indication whatsoever that an alien planet would be “habitable,” as we define Earth as habitable, and for most of Earth’s history our planet was uninhabitable to our now forms. (lack of oxygen, etc) Wherever we go we will have to take our biochemistry with us – our water, our air, our nutrients. Nope, we’re stuck here for as long as we can hold out.

    There is every indication that our collective stupidity will wreck the planet we are currently on. Who seriously thinks moving to the Moon or Mars is a remedy for that? Agent Smith was correct, we are a virus, a disease.

  2. Any one here have the math to figure out how long it would take “The Starship Curmy-prise” to achieve .33 lightspeed at 1G acceleration?

  3. Remember that expansion into space is into 3 dimensions, unlike the 2-dimensional expansion on the surface of the Earth. And star-hopping would be more like the population of the Pacific than like Eurasia or the Americas – in 3 dimensions.

  4. docbill, you stick around here while the rest of us go to the stars.

    “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way.”

  5. “Going to the stars is the same thing as migrating out of Africa.”
    Not exactly and for two reasons that have a lot to do with each other.
    1. Homo Sapiens, when going out of Africa, could take his/her time to gradually adapt to new environments. That won’t be possible when colonizing other planets.
    2. Homo Sapiens is adapted to one specific planet, not to other ones. The probability of finding a planet Homo Sapiens is capable of adapting to and nearby enough seems pretty low to me.

    Better make sure we will be able to survive right here.

    “If we do it, we’ll survive.”
    Non-sequitur. Going to the stars is rather the same thing as migrating to Antarctica.

    However not all hope is lost. The ones that will survive when Homo Sapiens tries to conquer the stars are the tardigrades and some other species way stronger than us.

  6. @Coyote – please send a selfie of your deep space frozen corpse and sightless eyes. I’ll mount it on a stake in my garden to frighten away the crows.

  7. LOL at the naysayers. Ever is a very long time. We’ve only had space travel for a couple of generations. But weaklings are gonna give up.

  8. p.s. the internet is a cesspool of fat neurotic trash, Curmie. Asking for frank discussion about this here is inadvisable.

  9. Steve Gerrard

    “Any one here have the math to figure out how long it would take “The Starship Curmy-prise” to achieve .33 lightspeed at 1G acceleration?”

    c = 3 * 10^8 m/s
    goal = c/3 = 1 * 10^8 m/s
    1 G = 9.8 m/s/s
    t * 9.8 m/s/s = 10^8 m/s (time * acceleration = velocity)
    t = 10^8 m/s / (9.8 m/s/s)
    t = 1.02 * 10^7 secs = 2834 hours = 118 days

  10. Ceteris Paribus

    @ Steve:
    Great work – but it discloses that the real problem which Curmy is trying to puzzle out is not “time”, but the “energy” required to accelerate “mass”.
    No, I’m afraid that the solution to Curmie’s conjecture is made out of the same cloth which the earlier cosmologists used in trying to prove their religious foundations of a three layered heaven — “It’s turtles, all the way down!”

  11. Our Curmudgeon invites us to consider

    the possibility that — despite the technological possibility of doing it — we won’t expand to the stars. Why wouldn’t we? Religion could be the reason–

    –and even more so could our primitive politics, particularly when mixed with the kind of zealotry one finds in religion. We might be clever enough to solve the technological challenge of traveling to the stars, but wise enough to abandon our archaic political thinking? Not so much.

    Before one attempts to even wildly guess at what the world might be like a thousand years into the future, it’s worth taking a moment to imagine what William the Conqueror might have come up with as his wild guess, a thousand years ago, about our world. He could never have imagined airlines, or smart phones, or nuclear weapons, or the internet, or Walmart and McDonald’s. But he would probably have assumed—and correctly—that the world would be organised tribally (though we speak of ‘nations’ rather than ‘kingdoms’), with society divided into classes. His imagined future world would also assume periodic armed conflict over abstract theological arguments and conflicting national interests, palace intrigues, huge imbalances in the distribution of wealth, and the intractability of poverty. He would not have imagined anything like ‘democracy’, of course, but the notion of states headed up by the likes of a Kim Jong, Vladimir Putin or even a Donald Trump would have been assumed.

    IOW: our amazing technology—and by jingo, it is impressive!—is an inadequate measure of our ‘progress’. It is a splendid achievement to put smartphones into the hands of 44% of the world’s population of 7.1 billion humans; it is appalling that 842 million—nearly 12% of that population—is chronically malnourished, with some 9 million dying annually thereby. We have yet to develop the political framework to fully use our technology to solve some of our enduring ills, and there is no guarantee we will ever do so.

    So when we speculate about the future, it’s not enough to guess at the possible advances in technology, one needs to guess, either optimistically or pessimistically, at our ability to develop our political structures. It’s a safe bet that our technology, in the coming decades leave alone centuries, will radically alter our notions of what constitutes ‘work’, and thereby our measure of ‘wealth’ and the global distribution of resources; this will be disruptive, certainly, with both beneficial and destructive outcomes possible.
    Personally, I find it hard to imagine that we can overcome the aggressive tribalism that has doubtless served us well in our evolutionary history but which now renders us so dangerous to our own long term survival; it’s rather like our taste for sweetness, which evolved in primates to aid in foraging for ripe fruit but now renders us prone to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and death.

    Can one really suppose that there could be, a thousand years from now, a world possessed of technology vastly more powerful than we can even begin to imagine but still divided up into rival nation states? A world in which 44% of the world has personal teleporters for vacationing on Mars (at the luxurious Trump Dynasty Martian Towers) while 12% remain hungry? Either we make some serious progress in our political organisation to match our technology, or we won’t be here.

    Or if we are here, I don’t agree with Curmy that

    Going to the stars is the same thing as migrating out of Africa, but on a bigger scale.

    As we are currently constituted, it would be far more like the same thing as 19th century Europe going into Africa…

  12. “t = 1.02 * 10^7 secs = 2834 hours = 118 days”

    That computation ignores relativistic effects, which are significant at C/3. However, that is insignificant relative to the real problem of how do you maintain 1G of acceleration for over 100 days when transporting any significant mass?

    So continuing to ignore any relativistic effects, continuously accelerating 1 kg of mass at 1G for a distance of 1LY would require 1 kg of antimatter reacting with normal matter. In other words, your spacecraft and everything in it would need to react with an equivalent amount of antimatter, to get enough energy, but that would not leave any matter at the destination 1 ly away. A more useful acceleration profile would have you accelerating for the first portion of the trip and decelerating for the last portion, with zero or more time spent coasting in the middle portion.

    For the problem as posed the acceleration distance would be far less, and keeping with the 118 day estimate “only” about 31% of your 1 kg of mass would need to react with antimatter. But then there is still that deceleration part ahead …

    The bottom line being that traveling to even the second nearest star in a reasonable amount of times for humans, is *way* too expensive, energy wise. Approximately half of your starting mass would need to react with an equivalent amount of antimatter to generate the required energy. Where you are going to find that much antimatter is an exercise left for the reader. Note that you can’t carry it with you since that would increase your mass!

  13. Aside from technological issues, which I optimistically assume will one day be resolved, I was expecting negativity only from those who think we should: (1) stay right here where we were created; (2) stop thinking about things that man wasn’t meant to know; and (3) hope for a better deal in the hereafter. In other words, I wasn’t expecting any negativity from our regular readers. But y’all have surprised me.

    docbill1351 thinks flesh is unworthy, and the galaxy will belong to intelligent can-openers. mnb0 agrees with him, but thinks the galaxy might eventually belong to the tardigrades. Megalonyx thinks we’re unworthy because of economic inequality. No problem, guys. Stay on Earth, if you like. I don’t foresee anyone forcing you to leave.

  14. All of the above ignores three related problems, none of them technological.

    (1) who will be willing to colonize planets around other stars, knowing that return will be essentially impossible and even communication will be impractical due to the huge energies and long time lags involved?

    (2) Who will front the money–huge amounts of money–to send even one colony ship?

    (3) what are the political obstacles involved? there are likely to be a number of them, from environmental ons involving “contamination” of pristine environments to opposition to spending the money an materials needed to fulminations from crank fundamentalists with influence in the government (there are quite a few of those now) about how “man was not meant” to go to the stars. (I can remember when such people said the same about the moon; fortunately, their objections fell on deaf ears back then due to the Cold War politics driving Apollo.)

    On the other hand, the technical objections regarding the use of antimatter might be irrelevant, say, five hundred years from now if in the interim we find a way of converting mater directly to energy with 100%, or close to 100%, efficiency without it. I don’t know whether this is possible, but 100 years ago even Albert Einstein doubted that nuclear energy would ever be harnessed in any practical way by humans–and respected physicists continued to hold that view through most of the 1930s.

  15. Our Curmudgeon mistakes my point:

    Megalonyx thinks we’re unworthy because of economic inequality.

    “Unworthy” is a value judgement I did not–would not–make.

    Rather, I argued: the mismatch between our technological and political progress seems to be significantly more pronounced now than in our past, and the gap is likely to grow if the progress of our technology continues to accelerate, as seems likely. And I tend to doubt that our antiquated political structures will be equal to the task of managing ever greater technology for exclusive beneficial rather than terminally destructive ends–but I earnestly hope that my pessimism will be proved wrong.

    But I admit, it’s fun to let ones thoughts loose, from time to time, to explore utopian visions, however impossible. Imagine what our current world would become if, by some overnight miracle, everyone woke up tomorrow with no superstitious beliefs in oogity-boogity and not a trace of nationalistic identity. All the resources which we currently are obliged to spend on defence would be at once freed for actually enhancing the quality of life for the whole of humanity.

    But that won’t happen…

  16. Holding the Line in Florida

    @ Megalonyx: Sounds like John Lennon’s Imagine. Ah if it were only so. We might be able to do things. Being a realist, however, I feel that Adm Hyman Rickover was more accurate when asked by Sen. Proxmire , “What do you think is the prospect, then, of nuclear war?” The response, “I think we will probably destroy ourselves, so what difference will it make? Some new species will come up that might be wiser.” C’est la vie! Whether it is caused by some religious wing nut, or some accidental “Oops!” or a bunch of play ground “you’re a poopy head” name calling is irrelevant, the end result is the same.

  17. Wow lots of pessimist opinions. Seems certain that probes will go first. My bet is that at least one probe will manage to contaminate the world being explored.
    If the capacity for a potential colony to self sustain during the trip exists, I bet there will then be people willing to make the trip even if it takes multiple generations. Some combination of private and public funding.
    Although most likely our bacteria will be the only legacy we leave scattered across the Milky Way.

  18. Mark Germano

    I think that if we do what this distinguished pilot says, we’ll make it of our star system.

  19. “On the other hand, the technical objections regarding the use of antimatter might be irrelevant, say, five hundred years from now if in the interim we find a way of converting mater directly to energy with 100%, or close to 100%, efficiency without it.”

    You appear to have missed my point, so perhaps I did not explain it well. Every kg of mass that you are transporting requires the total conversion of 1 kg of mass into energy in the first scenario (accelerating at 1G for 1 year).

    In the second scenario the mass conversion to energy is less, but still very high, and the travel time could easily be multigenerational. At the velocities reached impacting even something with only the mass of a baseball (145 gm) would be like a nuclear bomb going off (about 3MT of TNT). Then there is the problem of having a valid destination in mind, which I would agree might be much more feasible within your assumed 500 year time span (barring potential DJ Trump activities).

    Unfortunately, “whataboutism” never seems to work out well in science. Anti-gravity drives are no more realistic now than they were during the stone age, but you can still find true believers proclaiming all of its advantages.

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