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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Long-term exploration, SETI, space war

Dimming of Starlight

Ch. 1C

Space scientists, who may be generally sympathetic to the main theses of this book, are nevertheless deeply divided on the question of how best to explore space. Some claim that exploring with humans is frightfully expensive and dangerous, that the Space Shuttle has set back the cause of exploration, and that continuing to favor astronauts over robot spacecraft will set it back even further. And they are indeed correct – in the short run. I argue in Chapter 7 that a measured increment of the human presence in space will eventually lead to even greater opportunities for all the space sciences. I also point out how the proposed colonization of other planets, the mining of the asteroids, and the expansion into the outer solar system, and perhaps the galaxy, may secure the survival of the human species. Of course, such fanciful proposals may be little more than far-fetched dreams, but those dreams begin to pull us away from our mother planet, and as they color our perception of space exploration they influence its direction. Even more fanciful, although of special scientific and philosophical interest, are the heated debates about relativistic starships and faster-than-light travel.

Perhaps no aspect of space exploration has been as controversial as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). For some it has been a noble calling, for others the most ridiculous waste of money and effort. The critics won the day in Congress when NASA was forced to drop SETI altogether many years ago, although private donations and platoons of volunteers have kept the search going. As we will see in Chapter 8, many of the arguments for and against the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are based on what Carl Sagan called the “Principle of Mediocrity” (that the Copernican revolution has taught that there is nothing special about the Earth or its place in the universe). But, as I will argue, such a principle does not stand up to criticism. We have no good reasons for optimism or pessimism on this matter: the most reasonable position is agnosticism.

This is not to say that SETI is a worthless enterprise. For example, the problem of how we might communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations, if there are any, teaches us a few things about how we understand the world and ourselves. It is often thought that advanced species will have discovered many of the fundamental laws of physics, chemistry, and so on; otherwise they could not make the attempt to communicate across the vastness of interstellar space. But since the laws of nature are (presumably) the same everywhere, and since they are expressed in mathematics, all advanced species will have things in common that can serve as the basis of communication. According to this conventional wisdom, then, there must be intellectual convergence between highly intelligent species, just as there is convergence of form between fishes and dolphins.

But how can we support this assumption of convergence? Evolutionary history is made up of millions of contingencies. It would be practically impossible for life to evolve in other worlds along the same paths it has followed on Earth. We thus face an unpleasant consequence: a different evolutionary history may produce different brains – different ways, that is, of perceiving the environment and of putting those perceptions together. And those are the brains that will one day develop science. It is thus plausible to suggest that those brains will operate with mental categories different from ours, and that alien science and mathematics may also differ from ours. Discussing the assumption of convergence will thus involve us in the philosophical problem of whether we discover or invent science.

Another idea whose discussion leads to a better understanding of living beings is the suggestion by Freeman Dyson and others that we should use von Neumann self-reproducing machines to colonize the galaxy. I argue, also in Chapter 8, that the very idea of such technology is based on the mistaken metaphor of the genome as a computer program. The speculations by Robert Zubrin that nanotechnology will allow us to get around the overwhelming obstacles to self-reproducing machines do not get very far either, for some of the most fanciful claims made about nanotechnology are also without justification.[i]

Many interesting issues come up in the details of practically all the fields of exploration discussed in this book. In Chapter 4, for example, I note that an argument against the possibility that Venus once had oceans has the same structure as an argument for the end of the world (or more precisely, of humankind) advanced by the philosopher John Leslie and inspired by the physicist Brandon Carter’s account of the anthropic principle. In my opinion, both the objection to Venusian oceans and Leslie’s argument assume an untenable view of probability.

Whatever the benefits of space exploration, it also involves a variety of risks. One danger, in particular, seems to be of great importance: the unavoidable connection between space technology and war. This connection is presumably made quite obvious by the terror inflicted upon London in World War II by Wernher von Braun’s V2 rockets, and strengthened by Ronald Reagan’s proposal for a Star Wars defense against the Soviets’ intercontinental ballistic missiles, themselves strong evidence of the evils men fall prey to when reaching for the heavens. We will see in Chapter 9, however, that the connection between space technology and war is not quite that obvious. Its apparent plausibility comes from popular historical interpretations of the relevant episodes, but a closer look fails to support the claim that the connection is unavoidable. Moreover, space technology may prove to be key to the long-term survival of terrestrial life, as Zubrin and others have claimed.

By Chapter 10, it will be clear that the profound practicality of science, via the serendipity that is its natural consequence, provides an adequate response to the social critics. Our new understanding of science in light of space exploration will also set aside the concerns of the ideological critics. Most ideological criticisms stem from purported insights about the relationship between human beings and the environment of the Earth – insights such as the balance of nature, the wisdom of non-interference with natural processes, and so on. But as we will see, such insights do not withstand scrutiny. Moreover, to offer a strong argument, the ideological critics need a global understanding of the Earth’s environment. But as I explain again in this final chapter, that global understanding requires the assistance of comparative planetology and space technology. To meet their ultimate goals, and our obligation to future generations, they would do well to ally themselves with the “big science” they so often deride.

[i] Robert Zubrin’s seminal ideas about exploration will be discussed in several other chapters, particularly in Chapter 7.

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