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Space Exploration: A Closing Window?

Our expectations determine so much of what we see, which is one of the great lessons of Michael Michaud’s sweeping study of our attitudes toward extraterrestrial intelligence in Contact with Alien Civilizations (Springer, 2006). But extraterrestrials aside, I’ve also been musing over how our attitudes affect our perceptions in relation to something closer to home, the human space program. Recently I was reminded of Richard Gott’s views on the space program and the Copernican Principle, which suggest that just as our location in the universe is not likely to be special, neither is our location in time.

My expectation, for example, is that whether it takes one or many centuries, we will eventually have expanded far enough into the Solar System to make the technological transition to interstellar missions. But Gott (Princeton University) has been arguing since 2007 that there is simply no assurance of continued growth. In fact, his work indicates we are as likely to be experiencing the latter stages of the space program as its beginnings. The view is controversial and I like to return to it now and again because it so shrewdly questions all our assumptions.

Image: Apollo 17 Saturn V rocket on Pad 39-A at dusk. Will manned space exploration ever achieve the levels of funding that made Apollo possible again? Credit: NASA.

So ponder a different, much more Earth-bound future, one in which funding for human spaceflight may end permanently. Examples abound, from the pyramid-building phase of Egypt’s civilization to the return of Cheng Ho’s fleet to China — not every wave of technology is followed up. Thus Gott, in a short but intriguing discussion called A Goal for the Human Spaceflight Program:

Once lost, opportunities may not come again. The human spaceflight program is only 48 years old. The Copernican Principle tells us that our location is not likely to be special. If our location within the history of human space travel is not special, there is a 50% chance that we are in the last half now and that its future duration is less than 48 years (cf. Gott, 2007). If the human spaceflight program has a much longer future duration than this, then we would be lucky to be living in the first tiny bit of it. Bayesian statistics warn us against accepting hypotheses that imply our observations are lucky. It would be prudent to take the above Copernican estimate seriously since it assumes that we are not particularly lucky or unlucky in our location in time, and a wise policy should aim to protect us even against some bad luck. With such a short past track record of funding, it would be a mistake to count on much longer and better funding in the future.

This application of the Copernican Principle goes against my deepest presumptions, which is why I appreciate the intellectual gauntlet it hurls down. Because what Gott is sketching is a by no means impossible future, one in which the real question becomes how we can best use the technologies we have today and will have in the very near future to ensure species survival. Gott’s answer is that within the first half of this century or so, we will have the capability of planting a self-sustaining colony on Mars, making us a two-planet species and thus better protected against global disaster of whatever sort. We will have created an insurance policy for all humanity.

Let’s act, in other words, as if we don’t have the luxury of an unbroken line of gradual development, because an end to the space program some time in the 21st Century might mark the end of any chance we have to get into the Solar System, much less to the stars. Skip the return to the Moon, a hostile environment not conducive to colonization, and go for the one best chance for extending the species, a planet with water, reasonable gravity and the resources needed to get an underground base off to a survivable start. The real space race? The race to get a colony planted in the most likely spot before all funding for human spaceflight ends.

Gott is reminded of the library of Alexandria, a laudable effort to collect human knowledge but one that eventually burned, taking most (but thankfully not all) of Sophocles’ plays with it. Here he’s thinking of the surviving seven Sophoclean plays and weighing them against the 120 that the dramatist wrote, by way of making the case for off-world colonies as soon as possible:

We should be planting colonies off the Earth now as a life insurance policy against whatever unexpected catastrophes may await us on the Earth. Of course, we should still be doing everything possible to protect our environment and safeguard our prospects on the Earth. But chaos theory tells us that we may well be unable to predict the specific cause of our demise as a species. By definition, whatever causes us to go extinct will be something the likes of which we have not experienced so far. We simply may not be smart enough to know how best to spend our money on Earth to insure the greatest chance of survival here. Spending money planting colonies in space simply gives us more chances–like storing some of Sophocles’ plays away from the Alexandrian library.

As I said, this is bracing stuff (and thanks to Larry Klaes for the pointer). Gott is not the only one wondering whether there is a brief window that will allow us to move into the Solar System and then close, but he is becoming one of the more visible proponents of this view. The motto of the Tau Zero Foundation — ad astra incrementis — assumes a step-by-step process over what may be centuries to develop the technologies for travel to other stars. But Gott’s point is emphatic and much more urgent: For incremental development in space to occur, we should multiply the civilizations that can achieve it, spinning off colonies that back up what we have learned against future catastrophe.

That’s a job not for the distant future but for the next 4-5 decades. Gott reckons that if we put up into low Earth orbit as much tonnage in the next 48 years as we have in the last 48 years (in Saturn V and Shuttle launches alone) we could deliver 2,304 tons to the surface of Mars. And while he talks about heavy lift vehicles like the Ares V, we also have commercial companies like SpaceX with its Falcon Heavy concept and the continuing efforts of Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society to make something like this happen even absent massive government intervention.

Will the first interstellar mission be assembled not by an Earth team but by the scientists and engineers of a colony world we have yet to populate? There is no way to tell, but a Mars colony of the kind Gott advocates would give us at least one alternative to a future Earth with no viable space program and no prospects for energizing the species through an expansive wave of exploration. One colony can plant another, multiplying the hope not only of survival but renaissance. But all of it depends upon getting through a narrow temporal window that even now may be closing.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jded May 11, 2012, 4:19

    Captain Obvious speaking:

    Copernican principle doesn’t work here, since the probability of asking the question “where in the timeline of spaceflight are we” is not independent from it’s answer. Basically, we are wondering only because spaceflight is not (yet?) essential to human civilisation. IF it ever becomes, the question will become moot (will become simply the question of human survival). Therefore distribution of people asking the question must be heavily concentrated around the begining of spaceflight period, so the chance that we are in the second half (or even last 99%) of it is much less than 50%.

  • kalish May 11, 2012, 6:45

    apart of human fate and statistics, we should be conscious that we don’t have much more breakthrough to expect. Scientific mind is nomore new, and science was the great discovery.

  • Jeff Noyle May 11, 2012, 14:13

    Well said, Paul. I would also add the gloomy observation that a pessimistic view of humanity’s own chances of survival ties in neatly with the Fermi Paradox…

  • Ole Burde May 11, 2012, 16:57

    When you listen to much of the arguments here , its possible to get the impression that Determinism is a rather accepted fililosophy . It seems that much of the debate goes on WHICH predictive strategy will be the best one to predict an aparently already decided future .
    This to my opinion fits better in a Bhudist monastry than with a bunch of space-enthusiasts…
    The future is never decided more than a very short time ahead .
    The most powerfull principle at work governing the future might be the strange tendency of things to get evenly balanced , like one of those elections where the goverment of 300 mill people gets to be decided by a 100 votes .
    Mankind could end up owning the galaxy , or degenerating to a giant global version of Somalia . Both outcomes are an equally logic extrapolation of existing tendencies , so perhabs the reality on earth will be Somalia , while a few might escape and start something else .

  • Rob Henry May 11, 2012, 17:26

    Astronist, I would agree with everything in your second comment (except for one usage of the word “meaningless”), though it is very different than your first. But note that it would be unusual for us to be in “unusual times”.

    You can really only significantly distort the probable distribution of our future in space from the one you gave, if you see unusual factors that indicate that the window should be substantially bigger or smaller than that. These factors should stand head and shoulders above any that could argue in the other direction, and be in no way comparable to them, if we are to argue for times being unusual.

  • Rob Henry May 11, 2012, 17:36

    Yes Jded, being able to ask that question is important here, but do you really believe that we will be utterly incapable of asking it soon?

  • Rob Henry May 11, 2012, 17:48

    The second paragraph of my comment addressed to Astronist was an endeavour to define “unusual” in his context, and uncouple it from handwaving.

  • Astronist May 11, 2012, 19:38

    In case it helps to clarify things, I would point out that we are living during a highly unusual period of rapid growth of industrial civilisation. This began some 300 years ago with the adoption of the steam engine, though obviously with a longer period of some thousands of years of gradually increasing population and technological capabilities. So far as can be ascertained, this situation appears to be unique during the several billion years of life on this planet.

    Closer to home, those of us with a few grey hairs remember the first known deliberate voyage of intelligent beings between the surfaces of two astronomical bodies, a highly unique event for Earth life and for the Solar System, and quite possibly for the Galaxy.

    The current social and economic paradigm of rapid population, economic and technological growth is not a long-term sustainable state. It must therefore either lead to collapse and a return to a society based on subsistence farming, or lead to a new low-growth sustainable state at much higher population, economic and technological levels on a much larger resource base (just as say the Neolithic agricultural revolution did some 10,000 years ago).

    Since evolutionary bursts of activity like this are intrinsically unusual (compare the Cambrian explosion of animal life), I assert that the Copernican principle does not apply to them, and is of no help in attempting to predict their outcome. The fact that statistics cannot predict the outcome of a single event (e.g. single dice throw, single radioactive decay) is a second, but independent, reason why I reject Gott’s reasoning on this subject.

    Stephen
    Oxford, UK

  • Eniac May 11, 2012, 20:47

    John Hunt:

    Eniac:

    I don’t think pre-1950 technology would get anything at all done on the moon. We are pretty much stuck with high-tech in space.

    Equipment can be remotely controlled by wire. Concentrated solar light can separate water from regolith and can melt metals which can be cast and machined. Etc. So please specify an example of what requires large high-tech industry which cannot be produced on the Moon. I’m not questi0ning that there might be something but please give an example.

    Anything digital requires chips. Are you envisioning the machinery that separates water and casts metals to be operated manually by legions of men and women in space suits? A very quaint notion in this day and age. No phones, radios, television, computers, internet, etc. etc. ?

    Especially in space, chips are a lot cheaper than people. Chances are space industrialization will happen entirely without manual human labor, and you must realize that this would be impossible without sophisticated digital control systems. The newer (and therefore lighter and more powerful), the better.

  • Eniac May 11, 2012, 21:11

    Astronist:

    In case it helps to clarify things, I would point out that we are living during a highly unusual period of rapid growth of industrial civilisation. This began some 300 years ago with the adoption of the steam engine, though obviously with a longer period of some thousands of years of gradually increasing population and technological capabilities. So far as can be ascertained, this situation appears to be unique during the several billion years of life on this planet.

    This is certainly correct, but it is looking back at what already happened, it is a given fact the probability of which no longer matters. Only when we look to the future do we ponder probabilities. Of an infinity of possibilities, we have to look towards the most probable, or least “unusual” as most relevant.

    Assume humanity will conquer space and settle billions of star systems within the next billion years, as we all would like to think could happen. If you were to pick one of the literally billions of billions of lives throughout all of the past and future history of the human race (whatever its eventual manifestation) at random, what is the chance that it would be one in our current time? Why not 2000 years later when the number of lives to chose from will be vastly larger? Or a million years later? Does that not make you feel privileged? Extremely lucky, really, to be there at the very beginning?

    This is the central core of Gott’s argument, and I do not think you have addressed it satisfactorily in your rejection.

  • Joy May 12, 2012, 5:48

    “Andrew W May 9, 2012 at 16:00
    I’d start with trying to devise a way to establish a high technology self sustaining colony in Antarctica, no easy task (if it could even be done) – once you start to look at the details of the economics and infrastructure requirements.
    – Ever notice how things appear so much simpler when they’re far away?”

    Bullseye, Andrew W! I started hitching rides on ocean going sailboats and eventually bought one because it became clear that the “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” scenario was not going to happen in my lifetime.

    As land based governments have become increasing rapacious and intrusive, lovers of freedom (generally from the lower half of the “1%” economic elite) have fantasized about building floating sea colonies. Still hasn’t happened, even though most of the surface of this planet is ocean, which has breathable air, abundant wind energy, solar energy, distilled water falls from the sky, and high protein food is available (albeit reduced by 90% from original stocks) … I am not sure there is a reliable record for longest time lived at sea without landfall or resupply, but am pretty sure it would be less than two years.

    I also know people who have worked in Antarctica and share Andrew W’s skepticism about the likelihood of (ever) establishing a self-sustaining high tech colony there. Certainly none of the tech developments of the past half century have been game changers for the Antarctic bases. … Although an Inuit type subsistence existence might now be possible in the West Antarctic peninsula.

    The problems are hard, and the more closely you examine them, the more complex they turn out to be.

  • Eniac May 12, 2012, 7:59

    Here is a far out solution to “Gott’s paradox”: Maybe in 50 years we will all upload and become computer programs. We will reproduce by cloning our minds instead of our bodies. Then, if you chose any arbitrary person at any time from here to eternity, anywhere in the universe, it will trace back to one of us, it will be one of us. Thus, the conundrum is solved….

  • Astronist May 12, 2012, 8:55

    Eniac, thanks, interesting and crucial point. I would reply thus: suppose that there is a major change in human affairs, the period of change being brief, such as the invention of spaceflight (an invention of objective evolutionary significance, as the species which adopts this innovation expands its territorial range, and hence its resource base and opportunities for diversification, by a factor of up to at least 10^13).

    If one chooses a large number of individual human lives at random from the entire span of human history (however that may be defined), then the proportion of lives picked that fall within that period of change will be extremely small.

    If one chooses only a single life, then it may fall within that special period of time or it may not, and there is no more to be said (unless that single choice is conceived as part of a multiple choice experiment, in which case the probabilistic argument comes back into play).

    My key point would be: given that we are talking about a moment in human history, then there must logically be people alive during that special period, even though only a relatively small number of them.

    What Gott has to demonstrate – and has not yet done, to my knowledge – is that people living through special periods of development in human history are unable to formulate statistical arguments! Because if they are able to formulate those arguments, then they will understand that they are living through a special period of time.

    If there are special periods, then *somebody* has to experience them! We would appear to be that somebody. Gott’s argument is essentially that we cannot be unusually lucky, but the nature of random events is that *somebody* has to be lucky, and there is no a priori reason at all why it should not be us. This is what it feels like to be lucky! Enjoy it while it lasts!

    (To be more precise, Gott’s argument is that it is *unlikely* that we are lucky, but that brings in the implicit assumption that we are in a multiple choice experiment when in fact we are not.)

    I hope this clarifies the debate…

    Stephen
    Oxford, UK

  • Rob Henry May 12, 2012, 9:02

    Eniac, there are many ways to solve the dilemma. To me the real problem is that each is too much like religious doctrine and just as hard to test. I will give a just 2 suitable examples.

    1) Most sentient beings exist as the product of Crick type directed panspermia from other galaxies. All ETI’s in a seeded galaxy appear around the same time, due to the way these programmes just so happen to work optimally (new genes being added at different stages). Upon emerging they soon destroy each other, but not before starting a new wave of seeding.

    2) That we are all simulated beings not flesh and blood ones, and since there is more interest in how civilisations begin than their more normal states, most such simulated beings exist in these more interesting times.

  • Eniac May 12, 2012, 10:29

    Joy:

    I also know people who have worked in Antarctica and share Andrew W’s skepticism about the likelihood of (ever) establishing a self-sustaining high tech colony there.

    The reason Antarctica does not have self-sustaining colonies on it is that it has long become part of our backyard. This is evidenced by the fact that you and I both know people who have worked there. Just because nobody wants to actually live there does not mean that it is not part of our “Earth colony”. In my view, any place where you can go visit and have lunch at a cafeteria is colonized, as well as the surrounding land if it can be reached within a few days by vehicle.

    To truly colonize, you have to pass through a frontier of sorts, and on Earth there are no more frontiers.

    The problems are hard, and the more closely you examine them, the more complex they turn out to be.

    Amen to that. But that has never kept us from trying, with a fair amount of success.

  • Ron S May 12, 2012, 12:00

    Rob et al,

    This is going around in circles. Really, I get annoyed at the misapplication of statistical arguments (whatever label is attached to them). Others, including Astronist, have mostly addressed this.

    The thing is, until you can demonstrate from either fundamental analysis or with a prior probability of previous episodic intervals of manned spaceflight (heh!) that manned space flight is episodic, it is not valid to apply that sort of statistical argument. Or if you do venture to do so, you must also acknowledge the large statistical uncertainty with which it is inextricably bound. As with a political poll with a sample of 1, the uncertainty is so high that making any prediction about an election outcome, on the statistical evidence alone, is absurd.

  • Eniac May 12, 2012, 18:33

    Let’s create a new field for this: Statistical Philosophy! It is where statistics and philosophy meet up with cosmology. :-)

  • Eniac May 12, 2012, 19:13

    Astronist:

    To be more precise, Gott’s argument is that it is *unlikely* that we are lucky, but that brings in the implicit assumption that we are in a multiple choice experiment when in fact we are not.

    I do not think this “multiple choice experiment” distinction of yours is valid. You seem to be asserting that probabilities are only useful in predicting the collective outcome of repeated experiments. I do not think that is true. Probability is useful anytime we lack knowledge and there are multiple possibilities. A good example of this is the future, where there are always multiple possibilities. Whenever we make a decision, we weigh the probabilities, even if the decision is unique and will never happen that way again.

    The future is one example, but not the only one. We may instead lack knowledge about the past, and use probability to figure out the most likely sequence of events leading to a known current state, like a detective investigating a murder. Or an astronomer guessing at what was going on many years ago many light years away from a few photons detected in a telescope.

    In the present discussion of statistical philosophy, I believe that the assumption that “it is unlikely to be lucky” is a reasonable one to make. Looking closely at the words, I would even call it true by definition. A tautology, if you will. In my opinion it definitely does not bring in any implicit assumption about “multiple choice experiments”, as you say, whatever that may mean.

  • Rob Henry May 12, 2012, 19:23

    Ron S says “This is going around in circles. Really, I get annoyed at the misapplication of statistical arguments”. And I can only suggest that this view might confuse circling in towards a consensus with cycling through the same arguments.

    Though, as in any ongoing debate, their will be some who continue to disagree over almost any point, may I be so bold as to suggest that many preposed counters to Gott’s argument have been found to be invalid, and many others valid, but with restricted application. By examining the second category, I believe that we are making great progress. But first I will note that the most recurring error here is the use of the view of past observers in finding an even shorter likely continuance of a property such as space travel.

    Proposed Criticisms Found Potentially Valid but Restricted
    1) Space travel can be better viewed as part of a longer running trend, so making an analysis of that longer lived trend more relevant.
    2) We can only count observers who are capable of asking about the relevant question with regard to the property or event in question.
    3) Different cultures will ask different variants of the same question, all of which will put them near the beginning.

    My Restrictions on Valid Criticisms
    1) It is not clear that this is true, and even if so none of these is more than a few centuries old, so their use is limited anyway.
    2) Ways that could prevent us from asking that questions in future all seem extreme
    3) If we except the truth of this it is not sufficient just to say that we can ask the question in slightly different ways – we must add that these ways are almost unavailable to us now, and that framing original question in the future or past will be almost unavailable to them then. I proposed that commonsense indicates that such an effect is more likely to be small – and ongoing grand changes in the ways our minds work unlikely

    And we continue…

  • Eniac May 12, 2012, 19:36

    Ron:

    Or if you do venture to do so, you must also acknowledge the large statistical uncertainty with which it is inextricably bound.

    I do not think anyone has denied the large statistical uncertainty in this case.

    As with a political poll with a sample of 1, the uncertainty is so high that making any prediction about an election outcome, on the statistical evidence alone, is absurd.

    It depends on your ambition. If you want an accuracy of +/- 3% of votes in a general election, you need a sample of a thousand, approximately. However, if you just want to ascertain a greater than 3% support for one of the candidates for president of a class of 20 students, a sample of 1 is perfectly adequate. Or, say, a boxing game was coming up where each of the “candidates” had only ever had one other game in their past. One of them beat the long time local champion in a big city, and the other lost to an unremarkable classmate in a small town. You are offered a 50/50 bet on the fighter of your choice. If you were the type to bet on boxing games, where would you put your money, single sample or not?

  • Rob Henry May 12, 2012, 19:45

    Astronist, it is an interesting point that the inception of the space programme itself multiplies the number of observers so dramatically thereafter that this event-observer link gives the potential to invalidate this type of approach, but, to me, it seems to me that all as we have to do is restrict our views to just the inhabitants of Earth to recover from this problem.

  • Rob Henry May 12, 2012, 20:47

    I realise that, in my brief excursion into *religious* types of answers to the delema (that was also meant as a warning that much time could be wasted there to no *scientific* gain) I was seriously remiss in not including another factor.

    Any doctrine that attempts to solve the dilemma, should simultaneously solve the Boltzmann Brain problem. To me the simplest answers come if the universe is closed, or the big rip is real. Other solutions look much trickier.

  • Brasidas May 12, 2012, 23:19

    It seems that one would be unlucky *not* to live in a time of space flight. I reason it thus:
    In human society, technologies are seldom abandoned, unless replaced by something better. Has fire, the wheel, agriculture, or any other technology gone out of style? While governments may restrict a technology for a while, or a technologically advanced culture may be destroyed by a less advanced one, some other culture or society will independently develop the same technology, or pick up where the other left off. While the Chinese may not have done much with many of their early technological advances such as the printing press, gunpowder, navigation and others, the European cultures took them and pushed them much further.
    Also, the billions that have lived through the years of space flight already make up a significant proportion of all of the human species that have ever liver. The popultation on earth seems likelely to continue growing, or at least remain at these historical highs. Therfore, it seems likely that a significant majority of the species, including future generations, will have lived in a time of space flight.

  • Astronist May 13, 2012, 8:40

    Eniac, thanks.

    We are either privileged observers, or typical ones. Since we do not know what the future holds, we do not at present know which. Both types of observer must exist. We could be either.

    I’ve re-read Gott’s paper, and his argument is even simpler than I thought. He says essentially: assume that we are typical. From this I can prove that we are not special. Circular logic.

    Rob Henry, thanks, but I don’t quite understand the points you are making.

    Stephen

  • Tarmen May 13, 2012, 15:21

    I agree that our season in the sun won’t last forever. Earth’s population is soon going to plateau and then grey and decline. And the fickle gods can certainly trip us up, or ruin us. Thousands of years could pass before we reach this level again.

  • Rob Henry May 13, 2012, 18:07

    The Astronist says “Rob Henry, thanks, but I don’t quite understand the points you are making.”
    And I’m not surprised. I have the rather annoying habit of reframing my points to the context of use by previous comments made by all and sundry.

    I also find it clearer to examine the problem by removing your usage of “special times” completely and attempt to view what that term means instead.

    I also apologise for the throwing in the Boltsmann Brain problem – my reason there was esoteric and off topic. I had the feeling that Eniac was starting to thinking of how the Fermi paradox and Doomsday argument (which is closely related to the one here) could simultaneously solved. If so, I thought it important to note that their was a third (and even more extreme) conundrum centred around what it meant to be a typical observer.

  • Rob Henry May 13, 2012, 18:26

    I loved Eniac’s poll of one so much, that I have to ask why restrict it to a class of twenty. I have the great image of it to being announced to a statistically illiterate public that, in a scientifically conducted random poll, one candidate was found with 95% certainty to have >5% support, and his opponent <95% support.

  • JohnHunt May 13, 2012, 20:26

    Eniac,
    “Are you envisioning the machinery that separates water and casts metals to be operated manually by legions of men and women in space suits”?

    Please don’t confuse three different situations:
    1) Teleoperations in which no humans are physically present and yet the do a lot of work using high-tech equipment on the Moon. I believe that this will be the bulk of the work on the Moon.
    2) “Human-tended” operations in which there are a few astronauts on the Moon doing whatever detailed high-tech work which robots are not yet up to. Dr. Paul Spudis states that there will be some complex repair operations that requires a human. Since teleoperated robots perform life-saving surgeries on Earth, I personally don’t see what a teleoperated robot couldn’t do. But opinions vary.
    3) Low-tech versions of those operations needed to sustain a human colony ONLY developed in order to ensure that the colony could survive if the high-tech support from Earth ended due to an existential event.

    I’m suprised that you mention the electrolysis of water. This has been done for years without the need for computer chips as the following picture evidences:
    http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/DjPVbRYERlU/hqdefault.jpg

    Likewise, casting metals has been done for millenia without computer chips as the following picture illustrates:
    http://www.phantomgalleries.com/sj/images/Casting.jpg

    So, again, please specify a process needed for the survival of the lunar colony that requires high-tech equipment which the colony itself couldn’t produce.

    As for legions of astronauts, no, from my calculations, by life-support recycling (<1% loss), a single astronaut could produce from lunar polar regolith (5.6% ice) enough water and oxygen to cover those losses for dozens of colonists. I don't forsee the colony as being particularly large.

  • Eniac May 13, 2012, 21:28

    Astronist:

    I’ve re-read Gott’s paper, and his argument is even simpler than I thought. He says essentially: assume that we are typical. From this I can prove that we are not special. Circular logic.

    Either you or Gott are missing something here. The way I understand the argument to go is: Assume we are typical, from this I can prove that humanity will not last very long.

    I do not necessarily subscribe to this, but circular logic it is not.

    Brasidas:

    It seems that one would be unlucky *not* to live in a time of space flight.

    This is correct, but beside the point. The point is not that we are lucky to live in a time of spaceflight, but to live at the very beginning of a practically infinite time of human existence (and possibly expansion, too). If we assume we are not lucky, humanity (and with it space flight) cannot exist for very much longer.

    If there are special periods, then *somebody* has to experience them! We would appear to be that somebody. Gott’s argument is essentially that we cannot be unusually lucky, but the nature of random events is that *somebody* has to be lucky, and there is no a priori reason at all why it should not be us.

    Well, I think there is. It is a consequence of the Copernican assumption that we are typical, and NOT lucky.

    In short: Somebody, yes. Us? Not likely. Just like the lottery jackpot.

    BTW, it is not really Gott’s argument, it is known as the Doomsday argument and is credited to Brandon Carter in 1983: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_argument. There is no shortage of rebuttals there, and maybe I’ll sift through them a little… :-)

  • Eniac May 13, 2012, 23:41

    Ooops, my third and last quote above should have been attributed to Astronist. I apologize for the confusion.

  • Eniac May 13, 2012, 23:46

    What do you know, it seems that this doomsday issue is getting quite the attention it deserves (perhaps more?) in the philosophical community. Myself, I’ll go with the Self-Indication Assumption, or the immortality solution. Both are good at relieving the anxiety, and the latter is positively elating… :-)

  • ljk May 14, 2012, 9:41

    Eniac said on May 12, 2012 at 10:29:

    “To truly colonize, you have to pass through a frontier of sorts, and on Earth there are no more frontiers.”

    There are, but they seem to have gone out of vogue.

    http://www.paleofuture.com/blog/2007/4/20/mans-future-beneath-the-sea-1968.html

    http://www.paleofuture.com/blog/2007/4/26/sealab-1994-1973.html

    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.0754.pdf

    The same could happen with space, especially if we get enough people whining about solving all of humanity’s mostly self-inflicted problems first combined with general ignorance, apathy, and fear of the unknown.

  • ljk May 14, 2012, 9:47

    How NASA started exploring Earth while reaching for the Final Frontier.

    Full article here:

    http://launiusr.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/nasa-and-the-building-of-an-earth-system-science-discipline-in-the-1960s/

  • Rob Henry May 14, 2012, 17:18

    I am suddenly struck by how the abovementioned poll-of-one is the perfect way to illustrate what it means to be a typical observer.

    Suppose this is a US election and our pollster deliberately rung up the republican headquarters for their sample. Now take a second situation where exactly the same person was contacted by a perfectly random lottery. In the first instant he is atypical and the poll invalid, in the second we would hit a great difficulty in not proclaiming him typical and the poll valid.

    The most perfect poll is the one that has the best chance of picking any voter at random. To do so it must also include voters that would otherwise be considered atypical, so that second poll is not just possibly valid, for statistical purposes it has to be valid. The point I am trying to make is that special times aren’t special for our purposes here unless we prove them to be so.

    The circular argument problem that the Astronist mentions can only apply to statements proclaiming us atypical observers, and not including reasons for doing so – not those proclaiming us typical.

  • Kenneth Harmon May 14, 2012, 17:20

    “Special Period”, what “Special Period”? If anything we are all probably “screwed” in terms of when we were born!! So close, perhaps only another 100-200 years before there are extensive Colonies in Space, and yet so far. I suspect that most people who read Centauri Dreams, and post here would gladly bet on the future, and if given half a chance would gladly live 100-200 years from now, site unseen. I know I would assuming of course that Human Civilization continues to progress. There is absolutely no priviledge about being born at the beginning, and I for one would have been perfectly happy to have been born at or near a furture peak.

    KRH

  • Brasidas May 14, 2012, 22:21

    Eniac,

    Perhaps I am missing the point. You wrote, “If we assume we are not lucky, humanity (and with it space flight) cannot exist for very much longer.”

    My point is that one does not need luck, or least not a significant amount of luck, to be alive in the time of space flight, because a significant fraction of humans have lived through, or will live through, the time of space flight. Per Carl Haub (http://www.prb.org/pdf/PT_novdec02.pdf) about 6% of people that ever lived are alive today. If you count all the folks that lived since the 1950’s, you’re up in the 10% range at least. If you accept Gott’s estimate of another 50 years of space flight, and the latest estimates of a World population of 9 billion plus in 50 years, you get something on the order of 20-25% of human’s living in the time of human space flight, at least in 2060. So, we’re not talking the hundred million dollar powerball ticket here, more like a free coke in the McDonald’s Monopoly game. Which seems to defeat the basic premise of Gott’s arguement. What does it mean if you are special, but not really all that special?

  • kittlej May 15, 2012, 9:51

    how special?
    Given the tremendous increase in population since the agricultural revolution, more people are alive today than ever. if you define humanity as the species of primates that routinely use spoken language and CAPABLE of writing, then I would argue that there are not that many of us in the past. For along time our species population in africa and beyond were in the low millions, often less than one million. I we decide on a counting people who live past infancy and assume a life span of about 35 years, then in 100,000 years that amounts to about 3,000 generations of humans. If the average population was about a million until 5,ooo years ago then there have only been 3 billion “people ” in our distant past. Maybe that many more from the invention of agriculture to the invention of the airplane. Since the invention of the airplane there have been about 15 to 20 Billion people… So it is quite EXPECTED to be part of a generation that has experienced flight, and not even surprising to be in the group that were alive to see the moon landing or after.
    We live in exciting times, but we are NOT the fortunate few. We are a in a group that is a significant portion of all “humans” who have ever lived.

  • Ronald May 15, 2012, 10:01

    Wìth regard to Gott and his (faulty) statistics, where he goes wrong in my view is by considering human development as a normal population distribution (i.e. bell curve), whereas in reality such a distribution does not apply here, but rather, as I have argued before, a ‘normal’ growth process, as seen bot in nature and human society.

    Such a growth process is characterized by a slow (almost horizontal) establishment phase, a rapid (steep angle) growth phase and again a more or less horizontal mature phase. This can then be followed by either a similar new growth process or a senescent or degradation phase (the curve bending steeply down).

    Humankind is now clearly at the beginning of the rapid groth phase, which is indicated by all sorts of prameters: number of scientific publications, number of technical inventions, prosperity growth, life expectancy, etc. etc., even sheer population growth. And the end of this is nowhere in sight, no levelling off whatsoever (at least not longer-term and global, regardless of the present recession, which is no more than an insignificant blip in human history).

    In other words, there is ample reason for long-term optimism. There would only be reason for civilizational pessimism if we had been experiencing global developmental stagnation or decline for a while.
    I believe we are only at the beginning of this present development stage.

  • Ronald May 15, 2012, 10:21

    This kind of ‘statistics of one’ as mentioned here and wrongly applied by Gott may be valid in another interesting way, though: the type of star that we orbit. I sometimes argue that it is no coincidence that we orbit a solartype star and that red dwarfs are probably (much) less suitable for habitable planets with (higher) life. Red dwarfs comprise at least 75-80% of all stars in our MW galaxy and make up an even much larger fraction if we also consider stable (main sequence) lifespan, say well over 90% of stars times lifespan.
    So, if they were equally suitable as mother stars for planets with higher life, there would be an at least 80, 90, …?% chance that our star was a red dwarf.

    And yet as we all know our star is a much rarer G star. Unlikely to be pure coincidence, I mean not impossible, but unlikely. Most likely our star is not exactly optimal, but belonging to the right category.

  • spaceman May 15, 2012, 11:30

    Hi Paul and friends,

    I am familiar with the Copernican argument of Gott, as I remember first reading about it in Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” and then again in Gott’s own “Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe.” If I remember correctly, I think he first presented this pessimistic picture in a Nature article published in the early 1990s.

    Even before my initial encounters with Gott’s argument as a teenager during the 1990s, I remember feeling a certain angst– in addition to the usual “teen angst” that many youngsters contend. My unease arose from a sense that our activities in space were on a smaller scale rather than a larger scale, our cosmic ambitions lessened amongst those who were not die-hard space enthusiasts despite a booming economy and myriad technological advances. Perhaps there was no “drive to explore”, maybe we aren’t an exploratory species after all, and maybe we will face inevitable extinction here on Earth instead of moving out into the Universe in a big way. My impression of Gott’s argument is that it is anti-Teleological in the sense that it challenges attractive yet glib assertions that we are destined to colonize the Universe beyond Earth. Another Teleological argument recently challenged by Paul Davies in “The Eerie Silence” is the idea that there is Life Principle at work in the Universe that drives non-living matter toward living matter.

    So, on the one hand we have Gott’s Copernican argument that is indeed somewhat of a warning saying that we need to push ahead full-throttle in efforts to colonize beyond Earth before it’s too late and on the other we have another ala Jacques Monod (and I suspect now Paul Davies) saying that there is likely nothing in the laws of nature that drives the non-living toward the living (implying Life on Earth is an exceedingly improbable fluke). Each of these positions is depressing in that (i) if Monod is correct, then Earth is the only planet containing Life let alone Reason on it in the observable Universe, and (ii) if Gott is correct, then the most intelligent member of this only example of Life is unlikely to spread Reason and/or Life into a vast sterile Universe.

  • ljk May 15, 2012, 16:21

    Here is a paper on making warp drive (note who one of the authors is):

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.1957

    And here are some blueprints for the warp engines when this version of the Enterprise gets past its primitive ion drive stage:

    http://www.cygnus-x1.net/links/lcars/blueprints/federation-starship-uss-enterprise-sheet-11.jpg

    http://www.cygnus-x1.net/links/lcars/blueprints/miranda-class-starship-uss-reliant-ncc-1864-sheet-14.jpg

  • Eniac May 15, 2012, 18:28

    Brasidas and kittlej: You are both misunderstanding the “special time” to mean the time of space flight. The special time in question is the very beginning of a very long future of space flight (or human existence in general). What’s special is not that we are in it (as you say, that is actually overwhelmingly likely), but that we are so very early in it.

    Only if that future were short would our position not be special, which therefore seems likely. Maybe faulty reasoning, but not for the reasons you give.

    Ronald:

    Wìth regard to Gott and his (faulty) statistics, where he goes wrong in my view is by considering human development as a normal population distribution (i.e. bell curve), whereas in reality such a distribution does not apply here

    Gott’s argument relies only on the distribution being such that a much larger number of lives will be in the future than in the past and present. You seem to be agreeing that that is the case, so this is not it.

    Ronald:

    In other words, there is ample reason for long-term optimism. There would only be reason for civilizational pessimism if we had been experiencing global developmental stagnation or decline for a while.

    You are correct that if we have real knowledge that the future of humanity is bright, the argument is null and void, because it is based on complete lack of knowledge about the future. To me, this seems like a reasonable assumption, as predicting the future has been proven futile so often. Some predict indefinite growth, others imminent disaster, and it is very hard to put probabilities on any of that. Better just assume a neutral prior probability, which is what Gott does.

    The Self-Indication Assumption neatly takes care of that, but I don’t think that is what you had in mind. I think you will like it when you read about it, though.

  • Astronist May 16, 2012, 4:38

    Eniac,

    “I believe that the assumption that “it is unlikely to be lucky” is a reasonable one to make.” – True, but it does not tell us whether we here and now are “lucky” (among the first 0.0000001% of intelligent beings ever to live) or not. Somebody has to be in that “privileged” position. We may be that somebody, or we may not be.

    What Gott does is to assume (the Copernican principle) that we are not lucky. Fine. If we are typical observers, then we are not atypical ones, granted. But somebody has to be an atypical observer, and we can only judge whether we are or not by looking at our actual circumstances. Gott falls down in the same way that the ancient Greeks did: by relying too much on abstract reasoning and not enough on experiment and observation.

    Stephen

  • Ronald May 16, 2012, 4:51

    @Spaceman, you come up with two very important conclusions indeed, though maybe not necessarily depressing:
    1) “Earth is the only planet containing Life let alone Reason on it in the observable Universe”
    You probably meant ‘higher’ life here, because even most radical Rare Earthers contend that ‘simple’ (Prokaryote or equivalent) life may be much more common.
    Besides, the ‘observable universe’ is also a somewhat drastic size measure, our MW galaxy might be more appropriate to begin with. Other galaxies may contain a higher proportion of suitable sunlike stars (I read something of that nature about Andromeda, though I am not sure about this).

    2) “if Gott is correct, then the most intelligent member of this only example of Life is unlikely to spread Reason and/or Life into a vast sterile Universe”.

    Though, again, I would not say ‘Life’ here, but rather ‘self-aware intelligence’ (in the galaxy), I mostly agree here, that there seems to be some kind of immense responsibility, or at least opportunity, that very few people, especially in high positions, seem to be aware of or care about. I myself have often experienced how people, even those with all sorts of rather radical and/or exotic (pseudo) religious beliefs, ridicule the whole idea of a human (self-chosen) destiny and responsibility to spread life and intelligence in the cosmos.
    If this were a religious notion and perceived mission for humankind, it might actually guarantee and speed up space exploration. But I don’t see this happen any time soon. Remarkably all major religions seem to be very ‘earth-bound’ in their goals.

  • ljk May 16, 2012, 10:06

    Ronald said on May 16, 2012 at 4:51:

    “If this were a religious notion and perceived mission for humankind, it might actually guarantee and speed up space exploration. But I don’t see this happen any time soon. Remarkably all major religions seem to be very ‘earth-bound’ in their goals.”

    Because most of them tell their followers not to focus on science for their answers and their heaven is not the physical Universe but some mystical other realm.

    Ironically, a religious/cult group might be ideal for focusing on major space efforts up to and including a Worldship colony, but such space focus probably will not happen until we get established in the Sol system. Otherwise we may have a Catch-22 situation here.

  • Ronald May 16, 2012, 14:04

    Off-topic, but relevant and interesting enough (Paul: maybe a separate post one of these days?):
    In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences there is a fascinating article about what we already suspected, namely that systems with hot Jupiters (giant gas planets in close orbits) most probably do not possess terrestrial planets. ‘Warm Jupiters’ and Hot Neptunes may have them though.
    PNAS is not for free, but now Arxiv has the full article freely available now:
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1205.2309.pdf

    Brief summary:
    – The sample of ‘Hot Jupiters’ consisted of 63 Kepler planets with a radius > 0.5 R Jup, all orbiting solartype stars (G and early K) in orbits < 6.3 days (peak around 3.5 days).
    – The sample of 'Warm Jupiters' consisted of 31 Kepler planets of the same sizes as the hot Jupiters, same type stars, but with orbital periods between 6.3 and 15.8 days.
    – The sample of ‘Hot Neptunes’ consisted of 222 Kepler planets with a radius between 0.125 and 0.5 R Jup, same type stars, same orbital periods.

    Results:
    – None of the Hot Jupiter systems shows any companion planet in the innermost system (planets of very small sizes are still possible, as are planets with much longer orbital periods).
    – Three of (31) warm Jupiter systems have companion planets in the inner system.
    – Roughly 1/3 of the hot Neptune systems are in multi-planet inner systems.

    “These differences between hot Jupiters and other planetary systems denote a distinctly different formation or dynamical history.”
    And: “Hot Jupiter systems (…) are unlikely to form or maintain terrestrial planets interior to or within the habitable zone of their parent star.”

  • Rob Henry May 17, 2012, 20:40

    Astronist says “But somebody has to be an atypical observer, and we can only judge whether we are or not by looking at our actual circumstances. ” and I still maintain that this is completely wrong, and that for reasons I already gave, if we can not show reason to believe that we are atypical – then we fit the class of typical observers, no matter how lucky we are. Here special observers are those that have OTHER or privileged information that shows they are special.

  • Eniac May 18, 2012, 0:10

    But somebody has to be an atypical observer, and we can only judge whether we are or not by looking at our actual circumstances.

    Yes, but we do not know our actual circumstances regarding our typicalness. The unknown is the length of humanities future. If it is short, we are born at a “typical” time, if it is long, we are atypically early. Gott and others believe that the former is more likely, not completely without justification.