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watch it: Neill Blomkamp talks about alien life

The District 9 corwriter and director discusses the possibility of ET:

(via Movie City Indie)


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  • Keith

    District 9 “features some bizarre aliens.” Like who would ever say, “my sci-fi film features some ordinary aliens.” You know the kind you see on every street corner or hiding under your bed.

    The middle part is all very optimistic, theoretical stuff (that assumes we keep progressing forward). I do agree with what he is hinting at near the end. In order to advance, we will have to survive the coming “period of technological adolescence.” Here we are as likely to do something stupid and knock ourselves back to the Stone Age (or worse) and start over, or give rise to some alternative/superior form of “life” that replaces us. Either way, one significantly wrong move and the human race as we know it is toast.

  • Bluejay

    Sagan spoke constantly and eloquently about our technological adolescence. “If we do not destroy ourselves, we will someday venture to the stars.” That’s a big “if.”

    The Type 3 scenario scares me a little. And I’m not sure how it would work. Artificial intelligence remaking the planet, and then eventually the rest of the universe, into its own image? How would it sustain itself, if it keeps converting planets and stars and other potential energy sources into–well, itself? Wouldn’t it eventually starve itself to death?

    I’m also reminded of something I read about SETI: The prevailing belief used to be that aliens would use radio waves to communicate; we’ve detected no such radio signals, hence there are probably no (technologically advanced) aliens. But it’s been pointed out that as WE advance technologically, we’ve been getting quieter; as we switch over to digital means of communication, we’re “leaking” fewer and fewer waste signals into space. Aliens trying to detect us now would have a harder time than they would have a few decades ago. So who’s to say that, for instance, aliens haven’t found a way to make their versions of Dyson spheres more efficient and less detectable?

    Another thought: What if dark matter–which scientists say comprises ninety-five percent of the cosmos–actually IS the Type 3 sentient super-entity that Blomkamp talks about? What if our observable five percent, the known universe, is the “nature preserve”?

    Lastly–I read or heard a comedian say that the surest evidence that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is that they haven’t attempted to contact us. :-)

  • JoshDM

    Saving this vid for later, but the static pic for the video makes him look wasted.

  • Keith

    Ooo, like Bluejay’s thought about the dark matter and nature preserve. What if some other species makes (has made) it to Type 3 first and we end up being the ones assimilated/converted into raw building materials. Occurred to me the Type 3 stuff sounds something like a galactic “genesis wave” (why stop with just a planet). Or like the Dalek’s Z-neutrino bomb, only set to “convert” instead of “annihilate” (though Spock does have a point that it is easier to destroy than create). The universe appears to be so vast, and our perspective so limited, anything is possible. Who knows what the true nature of our place in the universe?

    Good point about the Dyson Spheres possibly being stealthy, too. Any race advanced enough to build one could be capable of just about anything: absorbing background radiation on that scale, nullifying the gravitational effect on other stars in the area, etc. If they don’t want to be found, they probably won’t.

    It’s only arrogance to think we can’t wipe ourselves out. The greater the arrogance, the greater the chance we will do just that. “I’m invincible!..You’re a loony.”

  • Bluejay

    It’s only arrogance to think we can’t wipe ourselves out.

    Absolutely. Which is why I wish we’d hurry up and get serious about colonizing other planets already–or at least establishing permanent settlements on space stations, asteroids, etc. Better to have our eggs in more than one basket.

    I thought the planned return to the Moon–with the eventual goal of using it as a launching pad to send people to Mars–was a great idea, and I think cancelling it is a mistake.

  • Brian

    @Bluejay: The source of that comment about intelligent life not contacting us is Bill Watterson, via Calvin.

    Also: You rock, Bluejay. Just wanted to say that. You’re one of those rare people I encounter in the online world that I’d love to chat with “in real life.” :-) That goes for lots of the smart, interesting people around this site, but your comments always stand out.

  • Bluejay

    What a really nice thing to say, Brian! You’re too kind. I enjoy reading your comments too, and I’m really grateful to MaryAnn for providing the space for these conversations to happen.

  • JoshB

    Why haven’t we found evidence of alien life? He ignores the most obvious answer: The speed of light vs. the size (and age) of the universe. Even our oldest radio transmissions have traveled a tiny fraction of the breadth of our galaxy, which is itself an incomprehensibly small spec within the universe. If we could create a ship that traveled at 99% the speed of light it would take roughly 76000 years (15 times the span of recorded human civilization) of straight line travel to reach the far edge of our galaxy. And that says nothing of exploring the full volume of the galaxy.

    Even if we did pick up alien radio transmissions it’s possible that the alien species would have died off or even evolved into a different species in the time it took their signals to reach us. And the same amount of time would pass before we could respond (although they would pick up our old radio broadcasts decades before our actual answer.) It would take many such back-and-forth signals before we could establish meaningful communication (learning each others’ language, etc.)

    Regarding Dyson spheres…No. Even a mediocre star like our Sun puts out enough energy to vaporize our entire planet like swatting a fly. It could power a solar systems’ worth of planet computers with a fraction of its output.

    Regarding planet computers…Interesting, but here the speed of light rears its nasty little head again. A current generation computer chip thinks at a speed of 3Ghz, or 3 billionths of a second. That’s enough time for light to travel roughly 10 centimeters. What that means is that the farther apart you separate computer components the less effectively they can “think” together. Expand that to planetary (or Type 3 galactic) computers and you run into a bit of an issue.

    The Type 3 scenario scares me a little. And I’m not sure how it would work. Artificial intelligence remaking the planet, and then eventually the rest of the universe, into its own image…Wouldn’t it eventually starve itself to death?

    If you think that’s scary then try this.

  • Keith

    JoshB, you’re talking in terms limits based on science as we understand it today. Things we do and have now would seem like magic to people in the past. Remember, people used to think if you sailed over the horizon, you’d fall off the edge of the world. Our knowledge has grown so we know that is rediculous now, but it didn’t seem that way to our ancestors. Who knows what we will find if he advance science and our understanding of the universe enough?

    We may find that many things aren’t what we thought at all. I bet the Wright brothers hadn’t even conceived of a sound barrier when they set about trying to just get off the ground. As far as we’ve come, there is still so much we don’t yet know (or have even dreamed).

  • CB

    @Bluejay

    Absolutely. Which is why I wish we’d hurry up and get serious about colonizing other planets already–or at least establishing permanent settlements on space stations, asteroids, etc. Better to have our eggs in more than one basket.

    I disagree. The amount of effort it takes to sustain life outside of earth’s atmosphere is absolutely ridiculous. Whereas the resilience of the earth’s biosphere is equally ridiculous. There’s practically nothing that could happen to the earth that would make it less habitable than the moon or Mars, outside of things on this list that destroy the earth utterly.

    We could engage in full scale Global Thermonuclear War, get hit by an asteroid ten times the size of what wiped out the dinosaurs, and then deliberately poison every ecosystem we could and earth would still be a thousand times more conducive to human existence than any other body in the solar system.

    We could make an off-world colony in case of a disaster so severe that earth itself became as inhospitable as the place the colony is. All that would mean is a slow and painful extinction as the colony fails due to requiring the support of earth. Actual self-sustaining colonies completely independent from our homeworld are a pipe dream, at best centuries away. The pyramid of technology that makes the ISS possible is ridiculously huge.

    In the long LONG term off-world colonies are a great idea, but as an immediate goal? Useless. We’ll be much better off learning how to do other space-exploration related activities.

    It’s not arrogance, thinking that we can’t wipe ourselves out. It’s humble, practical reality: If we can’t keep earth suitable for human life, we sure as shit can’t make the moon suitable.

    I thought the planned return to the Moon–with the eventual goal of using it as a launching pad to send people to Mars–was a great idea, and I think cancelling it is a mistake.

    Again I disagree. Having a plan where we go to the moon, then to Mars, as the end goals isn’t a stepping stone to colonies. It’s a repeat of Apollo. A one-off feel-good trip.

    The new path, where NASA is doing R&D into new propulsion technologies and new capabilities like in-orbit refueling and in-orbit assembly is vastly more likely to get us what we need to make off-world bases. Hell, it’s more likely to actually get us the feel-good “footprints on Mars” trip as a side effect than the Constellation program would have with that as its main goal.

    @JoshB

    Why haven’t we found evidence of alien life? He ignores the most obvious answer: The speed of light vs. the size (and age) of the universe.

    Indeed, that’s the most obvious answer. The universe is big. There could be life, even intelligent life, all over the place and it’d still be hard for us to find, much less communicate with it.

    As Bluejay noted it isn’t obvious that alien races will necessarily be broadcasting a ton of radio signals. And we’re only just barely beginning to be able to look at planets around the nearest of stars and figure out what they’re made of — forget about telling if they’re living biospheres like ours.

    Acting like the failure to find life yet means it must not exist is extremely premature.

    If you think that’s scary then try this.

    Or try Aasimov’s take on resource consumption and entropy in The Last Question.

  • CB

    JoshB, you’re talking in terms limits based on science as we understand it today. Things we do and have now would seem like magic to people in the past. Remember, people used to think if you sailed over the horizon, you’d fall off the edge of the world. Our knowledge has grown so we know that is rediculous now, but it didn’t seem that way to our ancestors. Who knows what we will find if he advance science and our understanding of the universe enough?

    And after people thought it was flat, they thought it was a sphere, and were also wrong. But when they were wrong, it didn’t turn out that the earth was a donut.

    As usual, Aasimov says it better than I ever could.

    Yes, it’s possible that Einstein was wrong and c isn’t the universal speed limit. But his theory that was entirely derived from the assumption that it is has demonstrated incredible accuracy.

    There is plenty we don’t know about the universe. However we do know some things, and as we accumulate knowledge and correct misconceptions the tendency is towards more accuracy and precision, not complete reversals. Einstein refined Newton’s Laws, he didn’t reverse them. He didn’t undo Conservation of Momentum, he simply showed that momentum is different at extreme velocities or masses.

    I guess what I’m saying is — anything’s possible, but there’s no reason to think Faster Than Light is probable other than how depressing it would be if it wasn’t.

  • marshall

    So, it’s entirely possible to reach that ‘singularity’ before reaching full type 1 status… Then you have BSG & Terminator (without the time travel) scenarios.

    Outside that kinda funny situation, I consider the type 1, type 2, type 3 theory to be a possability among many.

  • Bluejay

    @JoshB: Good points. Yeah, I thought of the speed of light limitations too. And yes, the notion of the eventual heat death of the universe depresses me too. The astronomer who conducted the Virtual Universe Tour that I attended at the Hayden Planetarium described this as well; not my favorite part of the lecture. :-(

    Some article I read pointed out that, somewhere along that timeline, when the galaxies have been flung so far apart and have dispersed into scattered stars themselves–if humans are still around at that time, they won’t know the night sky as we know it. No stars besides the sun; nothing for telescopes to see. They’ll look at our astronomy books as chronicles of a mythical past; or worse, if they’ve somehow lost that knowledge, they’ll never be able to figure out what the universe was once really like. Which also makes me sad.

    Has anyone here read Eifelheim by Michael Flynn? It’s a fascinating novel, and Blomkamp’s video and this discussion are really reminding me strongly of it. Like District 9, it has a non-invasion first contact scenario with grasshopper-like aliens. The difference is, it happens in medieval Germany. The aliens make contact with a very nerdy scholar-priest (via an alien machine that analyzes the local dialect and enables translation) and they have lots of amazing discussions about religion and technology and astronomy, but through the filter of medieval German language and religious imagery. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, these two scientist-scholars are trying to figure out what the deal is with these ancient German documents talking about a town infested with “demons” who broke their “cart” and who keep pointing at the stars and talking about going home…

    And the way the aliens wind up on Earth is really interesting, to me. As the 21st-century characters figure out, it has something to do with the “polyverse,” with extra dimensions inherent in everything, that can somehow be manipulated so that you can travel “away from all directions” or “travel inward” and arrive someplace that would otherwise be unimaginably far away. There was also something about the speed of light actually slowing down over time, because the space that light travels through is expanding and doing wonky things… I know scientists are actually discussing some of these ideas and I’m not sure how much of it Flynn made up; I can’t seem to get my head completely wrapped around it.

  • CB

    Has anyone here read Eifelheim by Michael Flynn?

    No, but it sounds awesome. =D

  • Bluejay

    @CB:

    In the long LONG term off-world colonies are a great idea, but as an immediate goal? Useless. We’ll be much better off learning how to do other space-exploration related activities.

    Sure. My comment about “hurrying up” was more an expression of my own impatience; I wish we were there already. I recognize that there’s no way that could be in our near future.

    Re: NASA’s new plans: I hope you’re right.

    And, funny–I recently referred to the same Asimov essay in an online forum elsewhere, in an argument about whether science “gets it wrong.” It’s a good one.

  • Bluejay

    CB, love your link to the Earth-destroying guide. Duly bookmarked. :-D

  • CB

    Re: NASA’s new plans: I hope you’re right.

    Me too. :/

    And, funny–I recently referred to the same Asimov essay in an online forum elsewhere, in an argument about whether science “gets it wrong.” It’s a good one.

    Yeah. I especially like it in the context of someone who argues “Well scientific theories are often found to be wrong, ergo whatever BS I make up off the top of my head is probably right!” Um… no?

    Asimov is one smart cookie (and I just realized I spelled his name wrong twice! T_T).

    CB, love your link to the Earth-destroying guide. Duly bookmarked. :-D

    Uh-oh. I think we have an evil genius on our hands.

    But yeah, it’s pretty great. I love the statement of purpose: “This is not a guide for wusses whose aim is merely to wipe out humanity.”

  • Bluejay

    Having a plan where we go to the moon, then to Mars, as the end goals isn’t a stepping stone to colonies. It’s a repeat of Apollo. A one-off feel-good trip.

    But what do you think of one-way, do-or-die trips to Mars, with the goal of paving the way for settlements, and no intention of returning? Politically impossible right now, I know, but intriguing. Here’s Lawrence Krauss:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/opinion/01krauss.html

    Buzz Aldrin is on board with the idea:

    “We really need to understand the human purpose there. It shouldn’t be one-two-three missions, the way we did with Apollo. I think the reason to go to Mars is to establish a permanent colony. If we’re not willing to do that then we need to defer—which I don’t think is acceptable—and do things with robots until we are ready to send people there and not bring them back right away. The more you think about that, the more economical, the more psychological, the more purposeful the whole endeavor becomes. You’re there to establish a foothold.”

    “The most important decision we’ll have to make about space travel is whether to commit to a permanent human presence on Mars. Without it, we’ll never be a true space-faring people.”

    http://buzzaldrin.com/space-vision/advocacy/americas-space-program/

  • CB

    Um, are you sure Buzz is advocating one-way missions? He’s talking about establishing a permanent presence on Mars, but I don’t think that means nobody ever comes back. We have a “permanent” presence in LEO in the ISS, but astronauts can come back and be replaced with others. “Not bring them back right away” is quite a bit different than “not bring them back ever”. :P

    In any case, I don’t like the idea of one-way missions for Mars. I find it implausible that we could keep the astronauts on Mars supplied for an extended period of time, yet not be able to send a return vessel for them. Krauss talks about the cost of sending a return vessel and its fuel on the ship the astronauts take to get to Mars. Well hell, what about the habitats and food that will be necessary? For us to actually establish a foothold on Mars like Buzz wants, I’m thinking we should have already sent habitats and supplies there in advance so they’ll be there waiting for them. We should do the same with a return capsule.

    Basically, if designing a return mission is infeasible, then establishing a permanent colony is infeasible, and we should wait and do things with robots.

    For missions where a two-way trip may truly be infeasible, like a sub-light journey to another star system, then that’s a different critter. But Mars is our next door neighbor.

  • Bluejay

    “Not bring them back right away” is quite a bit different than “not bring them back ever”. :P

    LOL! You’re right. I was too hasty in reading Buzz.

  • CB

    Yeah I think he’s just saying it’s not worth it to do an Apollo-style mission where we land on the planet, plant a flag, tool around in a buggy, then lift off again.

  • MaryAnn

    The universe is big. There could be life, even intelligent life, all over the place and it’d still be hard for us to find, much less communicate with it.

    If intelligent life is all over the place, then it means that we are ordinary. And it means that the “we’re boringly average” theory is right, and that we should be able to see *some* evidence of intelligent life elsewhere. And we’re not seeing it.

    For me, the second scariest thing is that we’re the first intelligent life to evolve, and there’s just no one else out there, though there may be eventually. The scariest thing ever, period, is that we’re it: whatever sparked life is so exceedingly rare that it has only happened once and is unlikely to ever happen again. I mean, how *lonely* would that be for us?

  • CB

    If intelligent life is all over the place, then it means that we are ordinary. And it means that the “we’re boringly average” theory is right, and that we should be able to see *some* evidence of intelligent life elsewhere. And we’re not seeing it.

    Except it’s not clear that we would be able to see evidence of life even if it was there.

    Only in the last few years have we even been able to find planets around other stars at all. And we found them by watching the star’s wobble and inferring the existence of a planet, so what we found were gas giants extremely close to stars.

    Only last year were we able to identify our first rocky exoplanet, and we were only able to find it because it’s 23 times closer to its star than Mercury is to Sol. And we only think it’s rocky because we were able to calculate its density by measuring its star’s wobble and measuring the radius as it transited in front of its star.

    Actual spectroscopy of exoplanets is in its absolute infancy. And simply knowing that there is oxygen and carbon on a planet (as we’ve seen in at least one gas giant) is a long way from saying whether or not there’s life.

    So we’re quite a ways from actually even having the capability of detecting life simply by looking at a planet in our telescopes. Much less actually finding candidate planets. We still can’t find planets that are earth-like both in mass/composition and in orbital distance.

    Remember, “ordinary” in an astronomical sense can be very different. If one out of a million star systems held sentient life, that’d mean there are over 10,000 such civilizations in our galaxy. Yet the odds still aren’t great of there being one within a thousand light years of us.

    The universe is big. So don’t give up hope yet! “If there was life out there we would have found it by now” is completely premature. Check again in 50 years! ;)

  • Bluejay

    Jill Tarter, the current director of SETI (and the basis for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact), has said that what we’ve done so far in terms of searching for extraterrestrial life is equivalent to scooping up a glassful of water out of the ocean in the hopes of finding fish. Seeing no fish in your glass is not sufficient justification for concluding that fish do not exist.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_tarter_s_call_to_join_the_seti_search.html

    There’s more to do. I think there’s reason to hope.

    And if it turns out we are alone? That’s a useful and powerful thing to know too. It makes it even more imperative for us all to cherish what we have.

  • CB

    And if it turns out we are alone? That’s a useful and powerful thing to know too. It makes it even more imperative for us all to cherish what we have.

    Yeah, but I do think it’d be very sad if it was the case.

  • Bluejay

    And as far as just plain old life–not necessarily the intelligent kind–it could be right in our backyard. Check out the current thinking on Europa; it looks promising. Arthur C. Clarke may yet prove right.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_(moon)

    Finding any kind of life on Europa, or anywhere outside of Earth, increases the likelihood that life is, well, not rare in the universe. And that it might take hold in all sorts of extreme conditions we wouldn’t necessarily consider “ideal.” It’s an encouraging thought.

  • Kenny

    There are more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable (tiny fraction) of the Universe. There are two hundred million stars in our galaxy. Let’s call the Milky Way Mr Average Galaxy…. that gives us 34’000’000’000’000’000’000 stars. In our own little corner of the Universe. This represents both a vast number of chances for life to develop, and a mind bogglingly obscene number of places for us to look for it. (Even in our one little Solar System, it would not be surprising to find microbial life on any one of several planets and moons, and possibly even advanced multicellular life on Europa.)
    In 14+ billion years, the Universe has become vast beyond belief. The thing about a light year is that it takes a year for electromagnetic radiation to cross it. Our galaxy is 100’000 light years from edge to edge. The signals from our noisy little civilisation have crossed not even 0.2% of it. Andromeda is about two and a half million light years away, and it’s the closest galaxy outside of our own.
    Bluejay has quoted a great analogy, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. We’ve barely sampled an eye dropper from the ocean in our search for fish.

  • Victor Plenty

    Plausible interstellar human expansion without faster than light travel was tough for me to visualize, until I read Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

    A plausible means for building a Dyson sphere was tough for me to imagine, until I read Mining the Sky: Untold Riches From the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets by John S. Lewis.

    The possibilities for the cost-effective human settlement of Mars were tough for me to imagine, until I read Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.

    Even though they all disagree with each other on a number of key points, these are still three of my favorite books, and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in the topics Blomkamp’s talk touched upon.

    (As for Kurzweil and others who predict a technological singularity, with hyperintelligent machines devouring the universe, I suspect it will turn out these folks were simply mistaken in the parameters they selected for forecasting future events.)

    Bluejay, I’m in agreement much of what you’ve said above, although I would state it more emphatically. As much as it might sadden us to think so, until evidence proves otherwise, we must assume:

    1. Earth’s life is the only life that ever has or ever will exist. Until we find incontrovertible proof of it, we have no right to assume any other intelligent species exists, or that any other will arise, anywhere in the universe, ever.

    2. In all the cosmos, we are “It.” Not as a source of pride or arrogance, but quite the opposite, as a source of inescapable duty.

    3. This means we have a responsibility to conduct ourselves as the only possible agents capable of preserving life, protecting it from the vast hazards of the universe, and carrying it to new worlds.

    4. Starting right now, this decade, with Mars. :)

  • Kenny

    The other point is that life absolutely infests the Earth. We find it literally everywhere, from high in the atmosphere, to boiling, highly acidic volcanic springs near volcanoes and in the darkest depths of the ocean. We even find lichens growing in ancient ice. If life gets so much as the tiniest toehold, then it will take the whole cake. (That’s enough mixed metaphors for anyone.)

  • Victor Plenty

    Kenny, yes, all excellent reasons for refusing to assume that extraterrestrial life does not or cannot exist. However, none of the points you mention are sufficient for us to conclude such life actually is out there anywhere.

    The only life positively known to exist is the life of Earth, and until proven otherwise, we must treat it as precious beyond measure.

  • JoshB

    I was so bemused by the idea of the Dyson sphere that I decided to bust out my long atrophied math skillz:

    Earth’s average radius is 6371 kilometers, which means that the cross section exposed to the Sun is 127.5 million km squared. Earth’s average distance from the Sun (1 astronomical unit, AU)is 149.6 million km, so a Dyson sphere with a radius of 1 AU would have a surface area of 2.812 * 10^17 km squared. It would take 2.2 billion Earth cross sections to equal one such sphere, ergo the sphere would harvest 2.2 billion times as much energy as Earth.

    Let’s condense all the energy that the Dyson sphere harvests into a ray of sunlight aimed at our planet:

    At 1 AU the energy from the Sun is 1366 joules per second per meter squared. Multiply that by 2.2 billion and you get 3.013 * 10^12 joules/sec/meter squared. Earth is curved, so some of that energy is going to hit at a glancing angle muting its impact. Do the surface area math and we can expect the average energy on the daylight side of the planet to be 1.507 * 10^12 joules/sec/meter squared.

    Let’s convert that into energy units we’re all more familiar with: Megatons of TNT!

    Dyson sphere death ray = 1.507 * 10^12 joules/sec/m^2
    1 kiloton = 4.184 * 10^12 joules
    1.507 / 4.184 = .36 kilotons of TNT per second per meter squared. Since there’s a million square meters in one square kilometer…that’s like detonating a 360 megaton bomb per square kilometer per second on the daylight side of the planet.

    The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, was 50 megatons.

    per Wikipedia a 30 megaton blast produces enough energy to power the United States for 3.27 days.

  • Kenny

    Victor, of course you are correct on this point. I never implied that life definitely exists anywhere beyond our planet. I was simply pointing out how extraordinarily unlikely it is that we are alone.

    We must treat life as precious beyond measure regardless of the existence (or non existence) of any more of it. I should also point out that this is only important in the anthropic sense. The Universe itself doesn’t give a shit.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Frankly, I don’t really buy the whole “Type 1/2/3 civvilization”. I think it rests on some rather shaky assumptions and dogma.

    The assumption of homogeneity for instance, which ignores the fact that monocultures in biology are sure-fire paths to extinction. Not only is diversity the cornerstone of evolution, but it’s nearly impossible to believe that mankind will spread out to different environments and remain completely unchanged regardless of the gravity, atmosphere, pressures, or whatever. It also seems to be a basic tenet of utopian thinkers everywhere, and one I’ve become very wary of in general.

    There imperialistic tones of ‘Spread and conquer” in the type 3 civilization is also more of a human maladaptation. Bacteria in a petri dish grow exponentially, consume their resources, and go extinct when they run out, and we use that as a model for civilization. Stable populations in nature are kept in check by predators, parasites and disease; so that the growth rate is kept neutral in the long run. I get the feeling that mankind will hit the ecological limits of our world long before we reach the technological singularity.

    Which leads to one last major question which is ignored: why? What is the point of turning the entire planet, and by extension, the universe, into a single living thing? It seems to be the worst impulses of our own society given form and justification; that we will one day use every scrap of light, every speck of dust, every molecule in existence to serve us because we’re special, and we must grow, and expand, and never die.

    GAH!

    I get the feeling that there are a lot of possibilities out there that don’t go into the “all-or-nothing” camp of godhood or oblivion. The Type 2/3 civilization assumes that the quantum distances are harder to conquer than the galactic distances. Advanced civilization might stretch themselves across multiple universes of the same planet, or pack civilizations into the spaces between electrons in an atom. Maybe the most “Advanced” civilizations never leave their home planets, instead working to maximize the quality of the lives they lead.

    Now, I don’t want to come across as a luddite or radical greenie here. :) I actually like the idea of manned space travel, especially with the implications of finding better sustainable practices on earth to reduce our ecological footprints. I am a bit concerned that unless we change the way we live to be more in balance with or own planet, what we get when we move to other worlds will just be a sad rehash of human history; little colonies exploited for their economic benefit because of their dependance on Earth, and a willingness to destroy and dominate everything that gets in our way.

  • Victor Plenty

    JoshB, you write:

    Let’s condense all the energy that the Dyson sphere harvests into a ray of sunlight aimed at our planet

    This does not accord with my understanding of the Dyson sphere concept.

    The purpose of a Dyson sphere is not merely to act as a giant power collector for a single planet, as you seem to think. The sphere itself is meant to serve as a very large habitat, entirely independent of any planet.

    Every bit of the solar energy collected by the sphere is thus used at or near the actual point of collection, by people living on or inside that part of the sphere’s structure. The challenges of doing this are roughly the same as those involved with using solar power on Earth. (Obviously, I’m separating the power collection issue from the vast engineering challenges of building such a large structure.)

    In ordinary operation, there would never be any need to condense all that energy into a giant “Dyson sphere death ray”, as you propose.

  • JoshB

    In ordinary operation, there would never be any need to condense all that energy into a giant “Dyson sphere death ray”, as you propose.

    Ah, I admit that I wasn’t aware that it was supposed to be a giant habitat. The way it was presented in the video it sounded like it was supposed to power the type 2 planet computers.

    I wasn’t really saying that they would build a raygun out of it, the post was just to point out what a colossal amount of energy we’re talking about here.

  • Victor Plenty

    Left_Wing_Fox, it appears Blomkamp has condensed a little too much in his efforts to cram a large number of concepts into a very short talk. The way he conflates the Kardashev scale with the notion of a technological singularity seems to create especially severe confusion about both concepts.

    Without rattling on at too much length, I’d just like to point out that in its original form, the Kardashev scale of Type I, Type II, and Type III civilizations contains none of the assumptions of homogeneity you have criticized in Blomkamp’s portrayal of it. In fact it was specifically designed to avoid such assumptions. When trying to detect alien civilizations there is very little we can assume about them — but they would have to make use of energy in some way, if they are any sort of life we would be able to detect.

    For example, a huge variety of extremely different cultures and species, some relatively homogeneous, others embracing vast diversity, could fit within the simple definition of a “Type I” civilization: one which is capable of using all the energy available on a single planet.

    The claim that all technological advancement pushes inevitably toward a Great Singularity has no direct connection to the categories of Type I, Type II, and Type III civilizations.

  • Victor Plenty

    JoshB, I’ve just now corrected a few of my own mistaken ideas by checking out Wikipedia’s Dyson sphere article, which also discusses several variants that are more feasible than the “giant solid structure” concept sometimes portrayed in science fiction.

  • Kenny

    The really interesting thing about Dyson structures is actually in their ability to harvest energy, and not in their suitability as habitats.

    Imagine turning an entire solar system into one giant computer? Assemble all the raw material into disc shapes each ten thousand miles across and a few miles thick. Each one could hold a core of superconducting metallic hydrogen, forming an enormous computer. Billions, possibly even trillions of these objects are created and set in layered orbits around a star. The swarm is networked by something exotic like quantum entanglement or wormholes. The computer absorbs all radiation from the star and re-radiates in the infra-red. With that much processing power, we could ask it anything… it could simulate a Universe in virtual reality.

  • Kenny

    In regards to a comment CB made.. life is the only theorised means I am familiar with that might produce a significant proportion of free oxygen in a planetary atmosphere.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Victor Plenty: Fair enough, but I think the idea that the technology level of a civilization is measured by the amount of resources it consumes is still a flawed assertion of the Kardashev scale. Efficiency is a hallmark of technological advance, after all.

    It might be that civilizations driven to harness ever-increasing amounts of resources simply burn themselves out through ecocide long before they ever reach a true type 1. If that’s the case, the most advanced civilizations may never even need to reach past a type 0 civilization, reaching for a high quality of life in a sustainable way first, then progressing as technology improves and becomes more efficient.

  • CB

    In regards to a comment CB made.. life is the only theorised means I am familiar with that might produce a significant proportion of free oxygen in a planetary atmosphere.

    No, that’s not true. Molecular oxygen is an indicator, a hint, but not proof of life.

    Here’s the exoplanet I was talking about, a gas giant venting carbon and oxygen from its atmosphere.

    Also, Europa has a very tenuous but mostly oxygen atmosphere produced from non-biological sources. It’s also hypothesized that Europa’s oceans may have a similar free oxygen concentration as earth’s.

    And here’s an amazing exoplanet discovered where it may rain molten rock, and computer models suggest an atmosphere with oxygen in it, but as a side effect of rock being vaporized.

    Back on the more general topic of looking for signs of life on other worlds, exoplanet astronomy is very much in its infancy. Here’s a recent article that points out several ways in which this is so. First, notice how the “most earth-like exoplanet” yet discovered is relatively close to us, and is quite close to its parent star. Second, how other planets that have been discovered are better candidates for life, but are either too far away or don’t pass in front of their star from our perspective so we have can’t tell anything more about them than their mass and orbit. Our instruments — even the Hubble! — are simply too weak to give us the information we need to know if there’s life even in our own little corner of the galaxy.

    It is an exciting time, though. Because the fact is that we are looking, and learning a tremendous amount just from the planets we can see and analyze. We now have telescopes in space specifically designed to find exoplanets. The issue is now mostly one of technology, not theoretical capability.

    Very exiting times. :)

  • JoshB

    I think the idea that the technology level of a civilization is measured by the amount of resources it consumes is still a flawed assertion of the Kardashev scale. Efficiency is a hallmark of technological advance, after all.

    Yes and no. More advanced technology would be more energy efficient, but it would also serve a larger population. Much larger. Taking the 1 AU Dyson sphere as an example: it would have a surface area of 2.812 * 10^17 km^2 compared to Earth’s land area of 1.4894 * 10^8 km^2. Simplistically speaking that’s potentially 1.89 billion times as much habitable area. If the sphere had a population density similiar to Earth’s present day it would house roughly 12 quintillion people.

  • CB

    3. This means we have a responsibility to conduct ourselves as the only possible agents capable of preserving life, protecting it from the vast hazards of the universe, and carrying it to new worlds.

    4. Starting right now, this decade, with Mars. :)

    Utterly pointless. We are utterly incapable of creating a “preserve” of life on another planet that would allow life to survive in the event that all life on earth was wiped out. It’s simply not within our capability, nor will it be within our capability in the foreseeable future. Any life we put on other planets will be dependent on supplies and replacement parts from earth.

    I mean I guess we could start spamming extremophile bacteria at Mars and hope for the best. Maybe some would live. Assuming it could survive at all, it’d probably never get past the single-celled organism stage. But it’d be life.

    Personally I’d rather focus on preserving our own rather hardy biosphere, and investigating Mars for signs of past life, before we go contaminating it in the name of being the “protectors” of life in the universe.

  • Bluejay

    It is an exciting time, though. Because the fact is that we are looking, and learning a tremendous amount just from the planets we can see and analyze. We now have telescopes in space specifically designed to find exoplanets.

    Go Kepler!

    I sometimes step back and think how amazing it is that we’re getting all this information from spectroscopy. I mean, basically, we’re just decoding starlight.

    This “science” thing isn’t too shabby.

  • CB

    This “science” thing isn’t too shabby.

    As is often the case, I think an xkcd comic is in order.

  • Victor Plenty

    CB, constructing habitats in which life from Earth could thrive on Mars has been well within our technological capabilities for decades now.

    Will it ever be possible for life from Earth to thrive unprotected on the Martian surface? I would not bet against it, but it’s not really necessary. Viable self-supporting ecosystems can be established in protected habitats, and that will be a huge step beyond the dangerous situation we face now, with all of life’s eggs in the one little basket of our home planet.

    I am certainly not suggesting that we start indiscriminately attempting to seed Mars or any other world with extremophile bacteria from Earth. We are already conducting a planetary scale uncontrolled ecological experiment on our home world. Before we do any such thing on other worlds, we need to learn how to manage smaller scale ecosystems, and get a better grasp of the principles we are going to need in order to repair the damage we have already done here.

  • Kenny

    Colonising Mars wouldn’t be easy… but it would absolutely be possible, and I disagree with the idea that it isn’t an option in the forseeable future. (What does that mean anyway? 50 years? 100?)

    There are a vast number of books dealing with the topic, and hardly any of them run with the idea of firing extremophile bacteria at it and hoping for the best.

    First of all, there is water, oxygen and carbon dioxide to be had.

    Any colonising effort must be made with the rationale that frequent resupply missions will be unlikely. The people going out there would realistically be going for life.
    The key to success is that any colony structure would have to be built from Martian materials. We couldn’t possibly take everything we need out there.
    An inventory of important equipment would probably include;
    -Machinery for making Marscrete from regolith.
    -Smelting equipment for recovering iron from the rocks and soil (which would liberate oxygen).
    -Air harvesters to build of stocks of CO2, liberating carbon to use in steel making and even more oxygen.
    -Drilling equipment to prospect for ice.
    -Pre fabricated bubble domes which can be inflated and used as massive greenhouses.

    The raw materials we need are there on Mars. We can get hydrogen from ice, iron from the ground, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen from the air.

    We can build machines designed to build other machines from local materials when they get to Mars. We could send them and have them build the colony and start things off before a Human even sets foot on the planet.

    Now… as far as bringing Mars to life, first we need a viable atmosphere. Unfortunately, Mars has no magnetosphere, and if we thicken the air up with comet strikes and nukes in the permafrost, the Sun will strip it away soon enough.
    A rather simple solution may be simply to contain any atmosphere under bubble domes. They’d stay up from internal pressure, and could be expanded until, theoretically, they covered the entire surface, anchored to pylons sunk deep into the crust.
    The atmosphere to fill the bubbles would come from the same place as the material used to build them… Mars.

  • CB

    CB, constructing habitats in which life from Earth could thrive on Mars has been well within our technological capabilities for decades now.

    Yes, constructing them on earth and resupplying them from earth and sending replacement parts for things that break from earth is technologically possible.

    Rebuilding the entirety of the infrastructure required to produce those high-tech items without any support from earth is not. We could not possibly sustain our current level of technological development that makes the previous paragraph true without the hospitable environment and rich resources of earth.

    You should really look into the pyramid of technology and infrastructure and resources that is required for making even just the items sitting around you right now. Kenny’s list of equipment and materials doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg. Actually making and repairing the required devices requires technology and resources that are as of right now only practical to have on earth. And when one of the pieces in this vast chain breaks down and is unavailable, it’s not a setback, it’s your imminent death.

    That’s why I say it’s utterly useless to try to create a “self-sustaining” Mars colony in this decade or the next five. We simply cannot boot-strap a complete duplicate of nearly the entirety of our terrestrial technology chain on a foreign body. Not when all we can manage to do is drop a couple rovers on them who barely produce enough solar energy to keep themselves functional and move a few feet a day. Not to knock the amazing rovers, but what they’re tasked to do is vastly easier than create everything necessary to produce the CO2 harvester being described.

    It’s a fools errand, because like I said there is basically no danger of our planet becoming less suitable for life than Mars in the next billion years. If you think it’s even remotely plausible that we could create a self-sustaining colony on Mars, then it’s incalculably more likely that we will be able to survive just fine on earth.

    So let’s worry about more significant problems in space, like how to actually get something from here to Mars economically, before we go worrying about having a “redundant” place for life to continue. It will continue here. In, say, a hundred years when robots capable of assembling entire factories in reasonable time frames is more than just an “it could happen!” thought exercise, then we can talk.

  • CB

    with all of life’s eggs in the one little basket of our home planet.

    Except earth is anything but a little basket. Life has survived numerous calamities on earth and kept right on chugging.

    If you’re worried about having all your eggs in one basket, you don’t hang some of your eggs by tiny threads off the basket and tell yourself you’re now safe.

  • Paul

    Sure, we don’t have the tech to colonize Mars at the moment. We also didn’t have the tech to go to the Moon, until we decided to do it. There’s a lot of cool tech coming down the pipeline right now that would make life in space easier. It sounds like a lot of the people on this thread would enjoy subscriptions to science magazines.

    I think we do have the resources to both take care of our planet and plan on a 50 year schedule for going to Mars. Unfortunately, we live in a world that has decided to do neither. We spend it on guns and bombs instead, and not just the US either. Is there any country in the world that spends more money on outerspace programs than on the military?

    So we sit here, waiting for Yellowstone National Volcano (we call it a Park) to explode, or an astroid to hit, or Pakistan and India to get into a war and cause a nuclear winter, all of which I’ve read about in Scientific American, and could turn “The Road” into a survival guide.

    Maybe this is the period in life’s history that filters out intelligent life and keeps the universe quieter than we thought it would be.

  • Victor Plenty

    CB, it means very little to observe that life on Earth has survived numerous calamities. Intelligent life has not. If our civilization collapses, regardless of the reason, there is no justifiable basis for assuming that someone else will come along.

    Nowhere have I suggested that a few small habitats on Mars would mean we were safe from such a collapse. They would be only the first small steps toward the long term goal, where Mars and many other worlds are home to viable self-supporting and self-replicating communities of humans and other life forms from Earth.

    (On one point I am in full agreement with you. No flag-and-footprints human mission to Mars is justifiable. The only reason to send humans to other worlds is to begin the process of permanent settlement. Anything less than that, robots can do.)

    The fact that these settlements will not become self-supporting within the first ten years, or even the first hundred years, is not a reason to wait. It is a reason to start now. The sooner we start, the sooner we will establish a more secure foothold for the only intelligent life currently proven to exist in all the universe.

    I am well aware of the complexity of today’s human technological and industrial supply chains. That complexity is one of the reasons we currently consume so much energy to maintain our civilization. The process of raising up settlements on Mars, and learning exactly what is needed as an absolute minimum to make them self-sustaining from local resources, will help us learn how to sustain our own long term prosperity here, with a more efficient use of Earth’s resources.

    Yes, this process will take a long time. That is another reason to start as soon as possible. Not to throw up our hands and devote ourselves to short term creature comforts while we wait for some more enlightened future generation to invent mysterious, speculative technologies that might magically make the whole process quick, easy, and convenient.

  • CB

    CB, it means very little to observe that life on Earth has survived numerous calamities. Intelligent life has not.

    It means a lot from the standpoint of “preserving life”. Life was preserved just fine before we came along, and will most likely outlast us.

    If you only care about intelligent life, as in homo sapiens, that’s a different matter. I’m all for preserving the human race, but let’s not pretend that life itself depends on us.

    And for that matter, let’s not pretend that intelligence is such an important thing to begin with. Intelligence has yet to prove itself as a long-term survival trait. For selfish reasons of survival instinct I’m with you, but if we die out and with us “intelligence”, then so what?

    Nowhere have I suggested that a few small habitats on Mars would mean we were safe from such a collapse.

    You sure seemed to suggest that a self-sustaining earth-independent colony to act as a back-up was within our reach. But that’s fine. We agree that it is something that could only happen in the distant future.

    The fact that these settlements will not become self-supporting within the first ten years, or even the first hundred years, is not a reason to wait. It is a reason to start now. The sooner we start, the sooner we will establish a more secure foothold for the only intelligent life currently proven to exist in all the universe.

    We could, as Buzz Aldrin suggests, begin working towards a permanent presence on Mars. However we should neither design the project as nor delude ourselves into thinking it’s the beginning of a self-sustaining colony.

    And really, the fact that we won’t have a self-sustaining presence on Mars in the next hundred is years is all the more reason not to “start right now, this decade”. There’s no rush. We should take our time, develop technology that would help all space exploration. Things like the in-orbit refueling and vehicle assembly projects NASA is going to start working on. These are things we will absolutely need to have a shot at Mars, but are not specific to Mars.

    Yes, this process will take a long time. That is another reason to start as soon as possible. Not to throw up our hands and devote ourselves to short term creature comforts while we wait for some more enlightened future generation to invent mysterious, speculative technologies that might magically make the whole process quick, easy, and convenient.

    I’ve already said what I think we should be doing, and it’s not throwing up our hands. You’ll need those “mysterious speculative technologies” to actually make the project work.

    As an engineer, I know that when you have a long-term project that you have no real idea how to finish, starting “as soon as possible” thinking this means you’ll be done sooner is usually quite wrong. You think you’ll just learn what you’re doing as you go, but what happens is when you do figure out what you should have been doing, all the resources and inertia in what you’ve already done make it harder to go down the correct path and you end up with a project both later and crappier than if you’d done the up-front R&D to figure out the correct path first.

    So, yeah. Space R&D? Yes. Presence on Mars? Yes. Start the permanent self-sustaining colony on Mars project? No. Waste of time and resources.

  • Kenny

    CB… no, absolutely not.
    Let’s run through what people physically need to survive in a harsh environment such as Mars.

    Food.
    Water.
    Air.
    Shelter.

    The ability to produce these on site is the only requirement for a permanent and self sustaining colony. At the very least, the machines to produce these basic requirements could be shipped up with them in the first place.

    You talk about the monstrous chain of human technology and how it would be impossible to get that going on Mars any time soon. The question I’d ask in reply is why would any of that be important?

    The technology employed by any such colony would, in the infancy of the colony, and in the interests of sustainability and ease of production in situ, be robust, reliable and simple.
    The successors to today’s rapid prototyping machines could produce the metal, ceramic and plastic parts needed by the colony to build further machinery. The raw materials would come from Mars.
    We could design deliberately universal circuit boards and send them out with hundreds of thousands of these in storage. Whatever machines they made on site would use these universal boards with type specific software.

    CB, such a colony is absolutely within our capabilities. We could send them up there and we would probably not need to resupply them for decades, if ever, because their initial technological base would allow them to produce simple, hard wearing technology. They could then devote a fraction of their total effort to building up a chain of capability.

    The colony wouldn’t be particularly high tech… but it wouldn’t need to be. There is nothing about living in an environment like Mars that demands anything beyond the four must-haves I listed above, and the ability to produce them at will.

    (P.S. They could take a fully equipped surgical suite or three with them…)

  • Kenny

    Oh… obviously power would be an additional need. But simple solar panels are not hard to produce. A machine designed specifically for that task could be transported with them, along with a nuclear reactor and a couple of decades of fuel to get them going.
    They could even replenish hydrogen fuel cells by harvesting ice.

  • Kenny

    Much of my argument obviously hinges on technology such as this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_laser_sintering , going up with them.

  • Victor Plenty

    CB, you write:

    If you only care about intelligent life, as in homo sapiens,

    That is a gross distortion of what I have said.

    For selfish reasons of survival instinct I’m with you, but if we die out and with us “intelligence”, then so what?

    Without intelligence, Earth life will remain permanently confined to this planet. Recognizing this fact does not have to mean we “only care about intelligent life.” To be frank, it is a dishonest debating tactic on your part to make such an accusation.

    I have already clearly stated that carrying life to new worlds is a responsibility arising from our intelligence. I have never suggested it was a privilege we should reserve to ourselves as some sort of reward for being intelligent.

    If life’s confinement to a single planet is allowed to continue, it will inevitably face a calamity that is not survivable. The fact that life has survived previous mass extinction episodes does not justify assuming it will survive every future threat. In fact it would be irresponsible to make any such assumption.

    You sure seemed to suggest that a self-sustaining earth-independent colony to act as a back-up was within our reach. But that’s fine. We agree that it is something that could only happen in the distant future.

    More slippery tactics on your part. We can agree to disagree on certain points. There is no need for you to distort my statements in order to claim some vague victory.

    I have stated that it is well within our reach to begin the process of establishing life on other worlds. We could start building the necessary infrastructure on Mars before the end of this decade. Calling this “something that could only happen in the distant future” is absolutely not a point of agreement between you and me.

    I also disagree with your claim that only “the distant future” will see such outposts existing independently, without the need for constant resupply from Earth. Of course it won’t happen immediately, but that does not mean it would require hundreds and hundreds of years, either. The plain fact is, we won’t know how long it takes until we do it.

    Your claim of certainty as to that time frame is baseless.

    …in-orbit refueling and vehicle assembly projects NASA is going to start working on. These are things we will absolutely need to have a shot at Mars…

    Not true. We absolutely do not need orbital vehicle assembly projects, nor do we need orbital refueling capabilities. The hardware needed to start building infrastructure on Mars can and should be launched directly from the surface of this planet. It is far more fuel efficient and cost effective to send all such materials directly from Earth to Mars.

    In fact, it takes less fuel to launch a payload from Earth to Mars than it takes to send the same mass from Earth to the Moon. This will seem counter-intuitive to most people, but it’s a well known fact among people with knowledge of interplanetary travel, and we have been taking advantage of this fact with nearly every probe we’ve sent to Mars.

    The hardware for doing this is not “specific to Mars” as you implied. The same technologies and processes could easily be adapted to the settlement of the Moon, for instance, if we discover some previously unknown reason for doing that. It can also be adapted to building settlements on asteroids, both the near-Earth asteroids and eventually those in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, which would be much more valuable than the Moon.

    I’ve already said what I think we should be doing, and it’s not throwing up our hands.

    The phrase “throwing up our hands” was a deliberate social experiment on my part. I consciously distorted your position, in much the same way you have been distorting much of what I’ve said in this conversation, just to see whether you would object. Sure enough, you did. Fascinating.

    You’ll need those “mysterious speculative technologies” to actually make the project work.

    Not true. The core technology needed to start building infrastructure on Mars was developed during the Apollo program. For example, sending habitats, landers, and crew return vehicles directly from Earth to Mars would require launch vehicles equivalent to the Saturn V boosters used to send missions to the Moon, and we humans have already proven ourselves capable of building them.

    The technology we need to manufacture rocket fuel from the Martian atmosphere, enabling crews to return from Mars without having to bring all of their own fuel from Earth, has been thoroughly established and proven to work for well over a century.

    The technology needed to establish living ecosystems in protected habitats on Mars has been thoroughly understood and proven to work for about ten thousand years.

    I’ll end on that note until the next iteration of our little social experiment. Cheers.

  • Bluejay

    Fascinating discussion, folks.

    Jumping (far) ahead: Has anyone here wondered about whether, and how, speciation might occur? Assuming that humanity does establish colonies on other worlds at some point, and that people stay put wherever they are–the settlements being self-sustainable (and therefore isolated?) after all–would all the different human populations evolve into new and incompatible species? I imagine all the planetary environments would be at least somewhat different, perhaps forcing evolutionary change; although, then again, we’d be carving out niches for ourselves, with controlled conditions, perhaps blunting some of that change. Another factor might be the initial genetic makeup of each population; would we deliberately plan for genetic diversity to begin with, or select for people with resistance to certain diseases and conditions, or leave everything to chance?

    In other words, would Homo sapiens just become another “common ancestor” on the Tree of Life, branching off into new species better-adapted to strange new worlds? Anyone care to speculate?

  • JoshB

    In other words, would Homo sapiens just become another “common ancestor” on the Tree of Life

    Yes, inevitably. Genetic mutation will still occur even if natural selection is dampened by our ability to adapt our environment to our needs. Eventually there would be enough mutation that populations on two different planets could no longer interbreed.

    You also have to take artificial selection and other factors into consideration. Genetic engineering and cybernetics could make natural evolution obsolete.

  • Kenny

    Yes Josh… absolutely. The idea has been explored in fiction of course. From the silly to the very serious. The Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) deals in part with the changes wrought on the humans who settle the red planet. These are not genetic changes, rather morphological changes related to the development of a foetus and the growth of a child in low gravity. This results in native born Martians being very tall and willowy compared to the stocky, powerful Earthborn.
    David Brin’s Heart of the Comet deals with the subject in terms of speciation, where circumstance strands a spaceship crew on a comet as it begins the outward leg of its orbit. Their descendants eventually form a new species out in the Oort cloud and Kuiper belt, harvesting the rock and ice to build their civilisation.
    In the case of colonies on other worlds… I feel that human evolution would work on high speed. Seperate populations on Earth don’t have to deal with higher or lower gravitational fields… in the case of asteroid colonies it would be micro gravity. I feel that a span of only 20 or 30 thousand years of separation could see genetic drift significant enough to give rise to separate species. We would see developmental differences in the first native born generations on each colony though, so it may often be possible to tell where a colonist was born, simply by looking at them.

  • Paul

    I think genetic drift happens whenever a group of people are isolated, but it would be hard to say how long it would take for a true second species to occur. After all, we’ve been breeding pure bred dogs for a long time, purposely making them different from each other, yet, in theory, a Great Dane can still mate with a duchhound.

    And it would depend upon how much of a Martian colony’s population comes from their own reproduction and how much comes from continual immigration.

    I think CB is underestimating the rapidity of technological growth as it is right now. Thanks to Mexican immigration, the US has been a little lazy in robotics, but Japan, with is graying population and strict immigration policies, has pulled ahead of us in these matters. If the US was serious about Mars, I think we could take the technologies I read about in Scientific American and convert them to use on Mars and start colonizing before I die (I’m 39). If that seems like the distant future, well, there’s a joke I heard:

    To the English, a hundred miles is a long way, and to the Americans, a hundred years is a long time.

    Based on that critera, I guess the Chinese will make it first.

  • Bluejay

    Thanks to Mexican immigration, the US has been a little lazy in robotics, but Japan, with is graying population and strict immigration policies, has pulled ahead of us in these matters.

    ???

    Paul, what does Mexican immigration and US immigration policies have to do with how we’re doing in robotics or technological innovation?

  • http://toniokruger.blogspot.com Tonio Kruger

    I suspect Paul was attempting to echo the late James Michener’s observation about how cheap labor can be one of the worst liabilities a country has because it gives the country little incentive to develop any labor-saving technology lest they throw someone out of work.

    If so, I can’t help but find it ironic that he’s essentially blaming Mexican immigration for halting the path of technological progress at a time when many native-born Americans I know–both Hispanic and otherwise–are losing their jobs due to either automation or outsourcing, if not both. And come to think, most outsourcing is only possible due to the type of technological advances those Mexican immigrants are supposedly preventing.

    But, hey, it seems like the damned Mexicans get blamed for every other problem in the U.S. so why not the lack of progress in robotics? Where art the Susan Calvins of yesteryear and all that jazz…

  • Kenny

    Paul, dogs have been domesticated for many thousands of years, but it is only in the last few centuries that we have been deliberately breeding them for extremes of size and shape. Before that, most domestic dogs looked pretty similar to each other.
    Your point about an influx of new genetic material from the homeworld was a good one though. A Martian population would only become a new species if they were isolated from Earth, with little or no interbreeding. In such a case, speciation might occur in just a few tens of thousands of years, due to the difference in environment.

    CB… I’d be really interested to know what specific technological innovations we need to achieve before a self sustaining colony on Mars would be possible.

  • Victor Plenty

    Bluejay, the question of human speciation is intriguing, but does not worry me overly much.

    There is already good reason to consider human social evolution more important than our biological evolution. This will continue to be the case, and perhaps become still more important, even after we establish independent human settlements on other worlds. No matter how physically isolated these settlements become, they are likely to remain in fairly constant cultural contact, exchanging social ideas and technological innovations.

    If distance eventually makes trade in material objects impractical, or physiological adaptations make reproduction impossible between disparate populations of human successor species (neither of which seem likely to happen any time soon), I consider it highly unlikely we will ever willingly abandon our ability to trade ideas.

  • Bluejay

    Bluejay, the question of human speciation is intriguing, but does not worry me overly much.

    Oh, it doesn’t worry me at all. I just think it would be quite interesting if it happens. :-)

    I think you make a good case for continued exchanges between worlds. I agree (or at least I hope) that this would be the likeliest scenario. But I wouldn’t put it beyond the realm of possibility that a self-sustaining colony might choose to cut itself off from all other human settlements for (fanatical?) political or religious reasons, especially when the great distances between colonized worlds would make it very easy to make a clean break.

    Historically, isolationist impulses have proven unfeasible because the distances simply aren’t great enough; on this one world, our cultures and ideas and trade and politics all bump up against each other, sooner or later, whether we want them to or not. (Even regimes like North Korea can’t completely shut the world out, in part because the world won’t let them.) But self-sufficient colonies separated by trillions of miles of space? If the colonists are of a mind to do so, I don’t think it’s impossible that they could go their own way.

  • Kenny

    Victor, I agree with that wholeheartedly. It is extremely unlikely that we would ever establish a colony more than a few light years away from the nearest outpost of humanity. If communications continue to be limited to the speed of light (as seems likely) such a distance is fairly trivial, tv shows might feature a cast of the long dead by the time they make their way out to the farthest flung colonies, but there shouldn’t be much of an issue receiving the transmission.
    Information will likely be the goods of trade between interstellar outposts anyway… it’s difficult to imagine a local product valuable enough to justify the expense of boost to orbit and transfer to another star for sale.

    Ready transfer of culture in that manner might mean human society remains relatively homogenous, even spread across dozens of light years.
    Genetic drift would eventually give rise to new species however.
    A hundred million years from now, there could be dozens or even thousands of species of post humans ranging across the stars.

  • Kenny

    Bluejay, there’s really nothing stopping isolationist groups from cutting loose and setting off for the big black yonder. The technology exists right now, it’s just that it would be freakishly expensive. The other issue is that there are usually millions or billions in a given ideological group… moving any great number of them would be incredibly difficult.

    The wouldn’t have to make a break for the stars though. There are plenty of asteroids and moons out there.

  • Bluejay

    @Kenny: True; but I was thinking more along the lines of already-established colonies undergoing some kind of social transformation that gives rise to isolationist attitudes. (In the same way that the American colonies didn’t start out as a deliberate exodus of people intending to sever ties with England; that decision came much later, long after the colonies were established.) In that case, “moving” the millions or billions of colonists would already be a fait accompli.

  • Kenny

    Well… the issue with the American colonies was unfair governance in the United Kingdom. The problem with transport between worlds is gravity. You have to invest a lot of energy to get something up off a planet and take it somewhere else. Trade won’t work like that between worlds unless we build something exotic like a space elevator.
    This means that it’s very difficult to think of a scenario in which the home government of Earth might impose unfair conditions on, say, a Martian colony. It’s not like Mars has mineral wealth that Earth might exploit… much simpler and cheaper to tow some asteroids into Earth orbit and chop them up.

    For a very, very long time, any future colony on Mars will be a quite claustrophobic affair. We’re talking about underground cities and bubble domes. Mars has no magnetosphere, so solar radiation is literally deadly. While a self sustaining colony would be possible right now, terraforming the planet would not. Any martian colony would require significant help from Earth to accomplish this. I don’t see isolationist sentiments building too quickly under those sort of conditions.

  • Bluejay

    Well… the issue with the American colonies was unfair governance in the United Kingdom.

    Sure. I didn’t mean for my metaphor to be taken as the exact conditions I think might give rise to separatist space colonies. Just pointing out that I was talking about pre-existing colonies turning isolationist (for whatever reason), rather than isolationist groups shipping off all their members to start a settlement from scratch.

    I don’t see isolationist sentiments building too quickly under those sort of conditions.

    Agreed. I think I’m talking longer-term than you are (perhaps a hundred million years, as you say above), and speculating more wildly. :-)

  • Kenny

    Bluejay… there’s a very interesting book called ‘House of Suns’ by Alastair Reynolds. It deals with the fortunes of a group of clones known as shatterlings, who have been traveling around the Galaxy at close to the speed of light, (and using a form of suspended animation while they do it) visiting with colonies and whatever, trading, teaching, experiencing and moving on. They’ve been doing this for more than 6 million years by the time the book opens.
    The galaxy depicted is incredibly rich in cultures… all of whom are originally descended from humanity, but many of whom bear little or no resemblance to modern stock. Basically, in six million years, mother nature and the genetic engineer have filled the galaxy with post human societies. The interesting thing is that the book plays with something called ‘turnover’ where these cultures exist for a time, gaining power and prestige, before succumbing to something, be that natural disaster or invasion by another power or political upheaval… no one culture lasts more than a few hundred thousand, or if their really stable, a million or so years. The reason suggested in the book is quite simply the speed of light. A government cannot be held together across a hundred thousand light years.

  • Kenny

    *or if they’re really stable* *sigh*

  • Bluejay

    Thanks for the recommendation, Kenny; I’ll check it out. I also missed out on the Mars Trilogy you mentioned earlier (as well as the Lewis and Zubrin books that Victor recommended); more books for my reading list, hurrah!

  • Kenny

    The Mars trilogy is very, very good. Actually funnily enough it deals with rebellion against the homeworld, so maybe I was talking out my bum. :)
    Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars (No prizes for guessing that terraforming plays a big part in this series) are by Kim Stanley Robinson.