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A Thought for the Weekend

From Arthur C. Clarke’s Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (London: Temple Press Limited, 1960):

There is no way back into the past; the choice, as Wells once said, is the universe–or nothing. Though men and civilizations may yearn for rest, for the dream of the lotus-eaters, that is a desire that merges imperceptibly into death. The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to its close.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • DCM November 25, 2017, 13:31

    Absolute truth.

    • J. Jason Wentworth December 4, 2017, 10:32

      It is absolute truth to *you*, as it was to Clarke, but it is a great error to assume–or even desire–that it is, or should be so, to/for everyone. Most people I know are much more interested in, and far more motivated by, interests and concerns of this world, their families and friends, and so forth. They just don’t feel that “All the universe–or nothing!” need that motivated H. G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, and if space exploration (unmanned as well as manned) stopped, they wouldn’t miss it at all, and:

      To be brutally honest, I’ve never supported space exploration for such vain-sounding, seemingly hubris-laden reasons, either. I find it fascinating, and–as a bonus–the knowledge gained from it is often of practical benefit later. It’s also self-evident that space *exploitation* (for communications, military reconnaissance, meteorology, navigation, geodesy, mapping, COSPAS/SARSAT [Search And Rescue SATellite] functions, etc.) is worthwhile, but:

      I harbor no illusions that settling space, or other worlds, will make human beings happier or better. Even in his 1968 book “The Promise of Space” (in which he repeated the “lotus-eaters” passage that is given above), Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

      “It is surely only a matter of time before artists, writers, and musicians express their reactions to man’s newest conquest of his environment. From the exploration of space has already come such a flood of knowledge as the world has never before seen. But that is not enough, for without feeling and emotion, knowledge alone is no more than a weariness of the soul.”

      All of the speculations about the Singularity, Humans 2.0, mind-uploading, etc. (which require many assumptions and leaps of faith and which, even if possible, may be utterly undesirable), make me increasingly glad that I won’t live to see much of the attempts to bring them to fruition. There has been no shortage of attempts to perfect and improve human beings by changing external things (or creating new ones) throughout history, and they’re the same creatures, just with deadlier toys than before. Only when people have changed their *internals*–how they regard and react to their situations and to others–have they achieved the contentment and “attitude of gratitude” (and the serenity that comes along with these) that is so elusive, yet so accessible. Also:

      While this may sound like “advocacy of lotus-eating,” it is anything but that. It’s the difference between trying to satisfy a hunger that more and more physical possessions and ever-growing wealth simply cannot satisfy (by occupying more land, digging up more minerals, inventing more toys, etc.) and indulging a quieter, deeper curiosity simply for its own sake (although material benefits that accrue therefrom ought not to be despised). Up to a point–which I would not presume to define for anyone–an increased standard of living is a very *good* thing (would anyone today care to be treated by even the best 19th century dentist?), but beyond a certain point, “acquisition fever” seems unnervingly and depressingly similar to drug addiction. Now:

      “Eating” (by processing them for minerals and volatiles) asteroids and short-period comets that could strike the Earth in the future would certainly provide a desirable planetary defense side-effect to mining these bodies, but this wouldn’t make human beings any happier or more fulfilled. (It could enable grinding poverty to be eliminated or at least greatly ameliorated around the world, which is certainly laudable, though.) But a solar system filled with asteroids, planets, and moons bearing the scars of strip-mining (which unlike Earth’s, won’t be covered by foliage), all to support a forever-keeping-up-with-the-Joneses (including colonization) social order (at the government and individual level), would be no improvement over what we have now. It would only be bigger, not better, and striving mightily to preserve and expand it in perpetuity seems–to me, at least–to be a pointless exercise.

  • HSchirmer November 25, 2017, 13:44

    We just detected our first interstellar visitor. It could be a rock, a dessicated comet, or something more interesting.
    Either way, it is something beyond our current grasp, but perhaps still within our reach…

  • Alex Tolley November 25, 2017, 14:01

    While Clarke was influenced by Toynbee’s view of history and possibly by the expansionist history of our species, the same drive is now expressed using different rationales – avoiding a cosmic catastrophe by becoming a multi-planet species. If our expansion into space followed the O’Neill plan, then there would be the possibility of a vastly increased diversity of cultures, reflected by Iain Banks “Culture” universe and human speciation, reflected perhaps by Sterling’s Schismatrix.

    Clarke would write stories around that quote, “The Road to the Sea” and “The Songs of Distant Earth”. Ironically, Clarke almost became a lotus eater in Sri Lanka, until the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey pulled him back. His friend and dive buddy Mike Wilson succumbed.

    Closer to home, our western, Enlightenment culture seems to be dividing again. There are those who want to drive science and technology forward to push the boundaries, while others retreat into the age-old certainties of doctrinaire religions and stymie any knowledge that challenges them. In largely secular Britain, C P Snow once famously saw the divide between the humanities and scientists.

    Watching the video of our host’s closing remarks at TVIW it is clear that Paul has successfully bridged that cultural divide. I have hope that our species will rise to the challenge of expansion into space, and continue to create great art as we go.

    From “The Road to the Sea”:

    “Great Art and domestic bliss are mutually incompatible. Sooner or later, you’ll have to make a choice.”

    • Hamilton1 November 25, 2017, 16:10

      That’s a somewhat intolerant attitude you have there. I for one don’t have any problem with a ‘godlike’ or ‘alien’ intelligence having created the Universe, while we humans push forward to explore the possibilities of that Universe to the maximum degree. So don’t tar us all with the same brush.

      Also using the example of Britain, which seems to be regressing to an evermore Victorian attitude of narrow nationalism, is quite ironic.

  • James Stilwell November 25, 2017, 14:44

    Clarke thought interstellar beings would arrive on earth before we ever found them…that would alter many things…

    • Kamal Ali November 26, 2017, 15:58

      It always seemed obvious to me that the more advanced species will detect the lesser advanced one first. If they are around in our area of the galaxy, I bet they know we exist. As to whether they would translate that into arrival on Earth: that’s a separate issue .

      • ljk November 27, 2017, 10:10

        A transmitted message would be easier, cheaper, and safer. Whether they will bother to contact us that way as well is also up for debate.

    • ljk November 27, 2017, 13:44

      James, do you have a reference to that statement about/from Clarke? I recall him saying if he had one message to send to ETI, it would be let humanity come to you first. The implication being that if humans were handed the tools to reach the stars they might not learn how to do it for themselves and also miss out on all the other things they would learn in the process of achieving interstellar travel. Is this what you meant?

      • James Stilwell November 28, 2017, 10:39

        I’ll post the exact words and we can reconsider their implication…as to who was the teacher and who was the student…A truly fascinating question…

        No quotes will come today…but much later…

        The implication is that Clarke must have believed the galaxy is populated by many benevolent races…sub-light ships would take 1000s of years to reach most parts of our arm of the galaxy…FTL vessels would indicate there is still an arm of physics totally unknown to humanity…Maybe there is a way to FTL but that would mean mass to infinity beyond light speed could be achieved without destroying human life crossing that barrier…

        Some of the quotes might be from old Omni magazines…

  • Robert Clark November 25, 2017, 15:37

    Great quote. Thanks.

    Bob Clark

  • Antonio November 25, 2017, 16:51

    Space agencies have been lotus-eaters for half a century now, at least for manned exploration. Luckily, private entrepreneurs are slowly taking the lead and sidestepping them.

    • Alex Tolley November 25, 2017, 20:36

      That is an interesting interpretation, but I respectfully disagree. Lack of rapid progress is not really the same as “lotus eating”.

      The dichotomy between those on a mission, like Odysseus, and lotus eaters is a false one. Indulging in the moment for a short while is not a problem, as we know how restorative beach vacations can be. Upsetting the balance too far in either direction is perhaps more problematic, and there are common sayings to admonish the extremes.

      As for manned spaceflight, we should have real reasons to invest in it, rather than taking more economic directions. The lack of obvious manned spaceflight progress may be analogous to the lack of progress in using horses for work. They are no longer the source of work in a world of machines. In a world of capable machines, humans should not be in the role of providing cognitive work for missions, but rather they should be in space because that is where they want to live.

      • Antonio November 26, 2017, 8:45

        They are total lotus-eaters. From 1969 to 1972, 27 men flew to the Moon, 12 of them walked on it. From 1973, 44 years ago, to today, they not only didn’t go beyond the Moon, they even didn’t go beyond LEO! Our first trip to LEO was 56 years ago!

        About the man vs machine comparison, that’s totally non-sense!

        Moon rocks collected by machines: 0.326 kg
        Moon rocks collected by men: 380.96 kg

        Maximum distance Curiosity can travel per day: 0.2 km
        Maximun distance astronauts can travel per day: tens of km walking, hundreds of km by car

        Hability of Curiosity to search for fossils: none
        Hability of humans to search for fossils: a trained geologist can find hundreds per day in a good place

        Hability of Curiosity to climb: run over obstacles 65 cm in height
        Hability of humans to climb: practically unlimited

        Hability of Curiosity for chemical and biological analysis: very limited
        Hability of humans for chemical and biological analysis: practically unlimited

        Hability of Curiosity to build or manufacture: none
        Hability of humans to build or manufacture: well, you know…


        • Alex Tolley November 26, 2017, 15:22

          Your use of figures like these is cherry-picked and prove nothing, let alone that Nasa’s human spaceflight program can be characterized as run by “lotus eaters”.

          Humans cannot look at any rocks on Mars, let alone the inner and outer planets because they cannot even get there. While current Mars rovers, steered from Earth, are slow, perhaps you have missed developments in robotics that will invalidate your argument. Yes, humans are better at pattern detection than robots for fossil location, but this is rather irrelevant if there are no fossils on Mars. Innate human capabilities remain rather static, while machines are improving by leaps and bounds.

          What this means is that humans must use the same type of tools as robots, so that their only adavntage is superior cognitive abilities “on the spot” and the currently (only) superior ability to traverse ground. These are temporary advantages. The advantages of robot missions are that they are extremely inexpensive by comparison to human missions and capable of long duration. Is a human really going to spend many years on a trip to the outer solar system just to be “on the spot” when the target is reached?

          Nasa’s human spaceflight can perhaps be better characterized as pork barrel funding for political ends. There has been little need for humans to be in near-Earth space. One has to wonder whether all those experiments on the Shuttle and ISS could not have been done for the far lower cost by developing good VR and telechirics for experimenters to use safely from Earth. Nasa’s Robonaut is certainly making EVAs less necessary and I expect will be the wave of the future.

          As crowdsourced intelligence becomes mainstream, the deployment of sensors to input data becomes the better way to acquire samples and data that can then be fed back to the experts. IOW, rather than have that spacesuited geologist scrambling about, the release of many small robots over a wide area becomes the multiple eyes for fewer expert humans and trained machines to search for interesting samples. That model can be applied to any environment, from the depths of the Europan ocean to the atmosphere of Saturn and back to our lunar backyard.

          If NewSpace companies succeed in developing low-cost human spaceflight, then hurrah. In the meantime, I would settle for an abundance of cheap robots crawling over planetary and other solar system bodies and whose sensory data can be fed back to my computer for me to explore as an active/passive participant in the comfort of my home.

          • Antonio November 26, 2017, 19:16

            “Humans cannot look at any rocks on Mars, let alone the inner and outer planets because they cannot even get there.”

            Huh?? They surely can. It’s easier to go to Mars now than it was to go to the Moon in 1961, when Apollo started. We are much more near, technologically.

            “Yes, humans are better at pattern detection than robots for fossil location, but this is rather irrelevant if there are no fossils on Mars.”

            Wow, you know that there aren’t fossils in Mars without searching for them!

            “Innate human capabilities remain rather static, while machines are improving by leaps and bounds.”

            Astronaut capabilities are so vastly superior to that of rovers that that argument is totally pointless.

            “What this means is that humans must use the same type of tools as robots”

            Huh?? Humans can use a lot much much much more tools than robots. Please visit any lab on Earth and compare that with Curiosity or any probe around Mars.

            “These are temporary advantages.”

            Temporary advantages are advantages anyway. And you don’t know when they will dissapear.

            “The advantages of robot missions are that they are extremely inexpensive by comparison to human missions and capable of long duration.”

            Nope. NASA budget during the Apollo era, adjusted to inflation, was around $22-23 billion per year, not that different from now (around $19 billion).

            “Is a human really going to spend many years on a trip to the outer solar system just to be “on the spot” when the target is reached?”

            Again, huh?? Who is talking about the outer solar system??

            “As crowdsourced intelligence becomes mainstream, the deployment of sensors to input data becomes the better way to acquire samples and data that can then be fed back to the experts.”

            At 200 meters/day?? Really??

            “rather than have that spacesuited geologist scrambling about, the release of many small robots over a wide area becomes the multiple eyes for fewer expert humans and trained machines to search for interesting samples.”

            Or maybe you can send WALL-E. Everything is possible in an arbitrarily distant future, but we are living in the present day.

            • Alex Tolley November 27, 2017, 14:10

              Fossil Hunting on Mars

              1. Human Mission Requirements:-
              Spacecraft to take astronauts to Mars and back
              Habitat to live on Mars
              Astronaut with fossil hunting expertise.
              Vehicle to traverse Martian surface
              Cost very high
              Model: Traditional

              2. Proposed Robotic Mission Requirements:-
              Robotic spacecraft with single journey
              Lots of cheap robots with vision and chemical sensors
              Video communication with Earth
              Fossil expert[s] on Earth
              Amateur fossil hunting crowd
              Copst much lower than human mission
              Model: Galaxy Zoo

              The robotic mission uses many cheap robots with video and laser sensors to scramble about on Mars’ surface. Each has an area of perhaps 100×100 meters to explore during its operation. The robots wander about using some search pattern over their territory. Engaged amateur observers on teh ground mark points and objects that might be of interest to follow up. Experts review the data associated with the amateur marks and if interesting to their eyes, redirect the robot to return and do follow up observations, possible extractions, etc.

              This method can be repeated for different landing sites where sedimentary rocks might be of interest to look for exposed fossils. Given that Mars dried up long before multicellular life appeared on Earth, fossils will most likely be microfossils, some leaving macroscopic signs like stromatolites, banded iron formations, etc. I certainly don’t expect to find marine shelled animal fossils like ammonites or calcareous boned animals like fish.

              Given the right sensors, different groups can use the same the same data for their purposes, e.g. geologists looking for particular rock types. All the real expertise can be on earth, aided by crowds of amateurs to sift through the wealth of data looking for the gems that the experts have quickly trained them to look out for.

              This approach is cost efficient, and a great way to survey the land before a human mission arrives. The model can even be applied when humans arrive, so that serach time is reduced and interesting samples collected, examined and packaged for return to Earth.

      • Brett Bellmore November 26, 2017, 10:42

        “humans should not be in the role of providing cognitive work for missions, but rather they should be in space because that is where they want to live.”

        That’s true, but the failing we’re discussing here is that we, for a while, dropped the ambition of space being a place to live, in favor of it just being someplace you’d learn about out of an abstract interest in knowledge.

        The robots could go forth and explore the entire universe for us, and if we don’t ourselves go forth and colonize it, in the end we will be a failure as a species, doomed to vanish.

        I’m somewhat concerned that, even with this recent (Musk driven) revival of interest in space colonization, we’re still not doing some of the basic research that’s needed, into the biological effects of partial gravity. How can we be talking about colonizing Mars starting in just a few short years, when we don’t even know if the colonists would survive in Mars gravity?

        Ironically, if Mars gravity isn’t enough for humanity, we’ll probably end up colonizing the asteroids instead, just because centrifuges are easier to build in zero g…

        • Alex Tolley November 26, 2017, 15:47

          The robots could go forth and explore the entire universe for us, and if we don’t ourselves go forth and colonize it, in the end we will be a failure as a species, doomed to vanish.

          I am in two minds about this. Humans may never colonize space as humans 1.0. It may well be that very different species evolved from us that will do the colonizing. If those humans are as different from us as the Daleks are to their progenitors, the Kaleds, would we be so invested in the “human” colonization of space? Is there a line that we cross in that regard?

          Conversely, if humans can inhabit robot bodies by downloading minds, does that blur the line between robots and humans, making it more acceptable for machines to colonize space. Suppose we create robots that, like Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw, are both similar in form and mind to humans, would they be acceptable as our successors to colonize space? More of less so than humans a millennium hence who we might not even understand culturally, and may or may not be compatible with biologically?

          Science fiction stories of space colonization were once dominated by Caucasian males from Western Europe and North America. The Cold War made it seem inconceivable that the West would not be the dominant culture to colonize space. Although that has now changed (thanks to Star Trek?), if the Chinese were to be the successful colonizers, and western [cultural] Caucasians excluded, how acceptable is that? If all one cares about is humans 1.0, that result should be irrelevant.

          In summary, I think who or what the colonizers should be is a gray area for me. I tend to think that machines will prove the successful colonizers as they can be adapted to most conditions, unlike our meat bodies. Clarke envisaged the aliens that planted the monoliths on Earth, initially become machines themselves, before transcending that state. That may well be one way for our culture (whatever it becomes) to become dominant in space. Personally, the continuance of our culture is more important than our form.

          • DCM November 27, 2017, 4:28

            The robots are simply an advance guard.
            What we have to do is engage in genetic engineering to give rise to people capable of different environments, and this raises all kinds of difficulties with people. Nevertheless, it’s something that needs doing.
            If we rely on nature to give rise to a Mars adapted species we’ll wait millions of years and still lack the environment for which to adapt. Genetic engineering also eliminates the need for countless deaths and suffering to shape a new species.

          • Brett Bellmore November 27, 2017, 7:20

            If we’re a successful species, we’ll do what successful species do: Form a clade. Some people will do one thing, other people another thing, and eventually we’ll try all the possibilities, in parallel. Indeed, the desire to go down a road other people don’t want to travel will be a major driver of colonization.

            I’m personally a strong advocate of man/machine fusion, thinking that the best hope for humanity is that “AI” eventually come to mean “Amplified”, not “Artificial” intelligence. But, let a thousand flowers bloom.

            However, we’re only at the bare beginnings of our capacity to improve ourselves. I hope we move into colonizing the solar system before humanity 2.0 makes it’s appearance, not because I think 1.0 is better suited for the task, but because whether we do is probably the best indicator of our fitness as a culture.

            And our best hope of avoiding extinction, both biological AND cultural. Extinction isn’t going to put an appointment on our Outlook, you know. It will come without warning, save perhaps in retrospect. To avoid it we must be proactive. If we don’t move into every available niche, BEFORE we know it necessary, we’re probably not the sort of species that’s going to endure.

        • Alex Tolley November 26, 2017, 15:51

          Ironically, if Mars gravity isn’t enough for humanity, we’ll probably end up colonizing the asteroids instead, just because centrifuges are easier to build in zero g…

          I don’t know about ironic. This is pretty much a subset of the argument O’Neill made and was endorsed by Asimov. I think it was Asimov who first used the term “planetary chauvinism” to describe our historical desire expand into spaces with gravity wells, rather than create the ideal habitats from scratch in space.

          • Brett Bellmore November 27, 2017, 6:42

            Ending up colonizing bodies with next to no gravity precisely because we need a lot of gravity? Yeah, I think that would be more or less the definition of “irony”.

  • Gary Wilson November 25, 2017, 19:27

    Clarke was right. We’ll either find a way outwards or become extinct. The next few decades will be telling. Many negatives being superimposed on each other. I won’t go through the long list of problems but if we don’t modify our behavior soon we may not survive long enough to make the big jump.

    • Harold Daughety November 26, 2017, 0:18

      I agree that, if we can move outward from earth and prosper, we are quite unlikely to become extinct. If we cannot move outward, we must change our nature drastically and cease unlimited breeding at will or we will exhaust the earth and thus perish. I believe the solution may be to establish independent and self- sufficient colonies in space. After the collapse of global civilization, the descendants of those who once left earth can maybe recolonize our original home world as they develop the resources necessary to move outward. They will not be US; they will have evolved socially if not physically. But they will be the future of humanity. The time grows short for any solution.

    • Antonio November 26, 2017, 8:51

      Totally non-sense! Never in human history were we safer from extinction than now!

      We live 3 times longer than ever, we have less famine than ever, we have less crimes and wars than ever, … Take a look at the real data, not your imagination: https://ourworldindata.org/

      • Alex Tolley November 26, 2017, 14:49

        Antonio, the threat of extinction by cosmic disaster is the same as it ever was. Nothing has really changed.

        Human-made disaster has indeed increased. You must have missed the problems of climate change, species extinction and other human-created potential disasters on human populations. While we may not go extinct, we may see a global civilizational collapse, forcing a reset. While the threat of nuclear annihilation has receded somewhat since the cold war ended, the threat is still there.

        You seem to be looking in the rearview mirror, not out the front windshield at the road ahead.

        • Antonio November 26, 2017, 19:59

          “the threat of extinction by cosmic disaster is the same as it ever was”

          Nope. We are much more prepared now to detect and act against any disaster than we were in any time past.

          “Human-made disaster has indeed increased.”

          Nope, I really proved that.

          “You must have missed the problems of climate change”

          Climate change can’t make us extinct in any possible escenario.

          “species extinction”

          Wild species extinction is really sad, but our life doesn’t depend on them. Again, there is less famine and malnourishment today than in any time past.

          “and other human-created potential disasters on human populations”

          Like what?

          “While we may not go extinct, we may see a global civilizational collapse, forcing a reset.”

          How? Knowledge has never been so much redundant as it’s now. In the library of the University of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, you can read a treatise on general relativity theory, the complete works of Aristotle, a medicine book or an electronic engineering manual.

          “While the threat of nuclear annihilation has receded somewhat since the cold war ended, the threat is still there.”

          Nuclear war can’t annihilate us in any real escenario. Most victims and climate effects will be in the north hemisphere.[1] Let’s say that the war is really really hard and 75% of people in the north die and 25% in the south during the war. That would be around 5 billion victims. And then the nuclear winter, diseases and socioeconomic chaos kills 50% of the remaining survivors. There would be still 1 billion humans in the planet. That was the world population around the year 1810. In that year Napoleon conquered Holland, Beethoven composed Fur Elise, and the first description of modern food preservation using airtight containers was published. Some decades after the nuclear war, the great mortality will be another boring lesson about old history in primary schools around the world.

          [1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2006JD008235/full

          • ljk November 27, 2017, 14:43

            Nuclear war will have one thing that all those other former collapses of civilization did not have to contend with: Intense radiation that will last for centuries or more. It will leave wide swaths of Earth unlivable for ages.

            Combine global radiation with a population that has become increasingly reliant on the trappings of civilization when it comes to obtaining food, shelter, and such, plus the many millions of physically and mentally scarred survivors, and I have trouble imagining humanity popping back up civilization wise any time soon, if ever.

            As for cosmic threats, we may be more aware of them than in past ages, but that does not mean we are actually ready to deal with them. Think the Chelyabinsk meteorite in 2013 as just one recent example.

            • Brett Bellmore November 29, 2017, 8:18

              Short of deliberate efforts in that direction, such as cobalt bombs, the extent of the radiation after a nuclear war is exaggerated. Yes, the cancer rate will go up after a nuclear war, probably enough to take several years off the average lifespan. And, yes, you probably wouldn’t want to live in one of the bomb craters. But that would be the least of anybody’s concerns.

              It wouldn’t generally reach a level that was an acute hazard.

              • ljk November 29, 2017, 10:36

                Brett, can you provide sources on this?

                Another fallout (pun intended) from nuclear war is that hundreds of nuclear power plants will either be destroyed or go offline. They will be adding mightily to the radiation levels as they are left uncontrolled.


                I say all this as someone who supports nuclear power on Earth and in space. Just not the kind that is designed to make people have a very bad day.

          • hiro November 27, 2017, 18:32

            The nasty event that happened around 250 M yrs ago will repeat itself in the future. The main question is whether us humans assist & accelerate this process faster (let’s say in 200-300 yrs from now). We’re doing this very well by the way.

        • DCM November 27, 2017, 4:36

          Humans have lived through climate changes several times.
          We aren’t causing more than some biological alterations. Climate changes are driven by geological and astronomical factors we can’t control and won’t for a long time.
          Note also that wildlife are adapting to life in human cities, as in coyotes and wolves that can read traffic signals alongside human pedestrians.
          Unfortunately education includes indoctrination in self-hatred that arose during the last century following WWI and WWII.

  • Ronald November 26, 2017, 5:41

    Thumbs up and thank you for this inspiring quote from this great visionary, my favorite SF writer.
    And how true: humankind needs a (new) vision, a goal. And not the ‘manifest’ destinies imposed by religions, but a self-chosen destiny among the stars and onto new worlds.

    • Robert November 26, 2017, 13:34

      I’m all for exploring but if that is the sole purpose of humanity, in the end it’s a truly bankrupt vision. Wherever we go and whatever we do we are still fallen humanity in need of redemption. The outward journey is but a temporary distraction from that truth.

      • Harold Daughety November 26, 2017, 19:09

        I believe that is a Western religious viewpoint. I am a very unorthodox Christian and do not believe it. Neither do my Buddhist friends. I know of people who are wrong-headed, who are self-defeating and who make stupid decisions. But there is nothing “fallen” about that. Entropic, perhaps, irreligious, often so, but not “fallen.”

      • Antonio November 26, 2017, 20:04

        You are mistaking belief and truth.

        And I don’t need any redemption from any genocidal sex-obssesed imaginary being.

      • Ronald November 27, 2017, 0:39

        I used to believe those dogmas as well, for decades, until I began to realize that it is religion itself, which is one of the greatest falls of humankind. And created by our own needs and imaginations.

        • ljk November 28, 2017, 15:09

          “Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor — but they have few followers now.” – Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953), p. 15.

          Of course Zeus and Thor lost their cults (unless you count their recent films) not due to science but to the winner of the next religion. However it is true that as recent events have shown, facts and figures mean nothing to the dogmatics and zealots. Except when they are using them in a sort of reverse psychology to win people over to their side.

  • Ljk November 26, 2017, 11:43

    It is true. All the Universe or nothing…


  • Paul Wilson November 26, 2017, 14:18

    Let’s face it, it’s really the only game in town.

  • david lewis November 27, 2017, 10:58

    While there’s likely to be life on other worlds, I often wonder if they know hope, love, friendship, wonder . . . . The past is where I see humanity going with its tendency to take existential risks, so I desperately hope that when we perish there is still someone, somewhere, who can look at the sky and dream and hope and wonder, then turn to a fellow of its kind and smile in friendship and love. Maybe they will inherit the stars.

    • ljk November 27, 2017, 14:35

      I don’t think humanity is the end-all when it comes to the development of the evolution of intelligence on Earth. It will either be something we create or the descendants of other creature already existing on this planet.

      I also wonder if being really smart is actually a detriment in terms of long-term species survival? Jellyfish and sharks are just smart and developed enough to have lasted for millions of years on Earth, despite not having ever built anything resembling civilization or even a stone spear. That could be another answer to the so-called Fermi Paradox.

  • xcalibur November 29, 2017, 12:11

    True indeed. As long as our species is earthbound, we risk extinction. Developing a spacefaring culture will ensure our long-term survival. An interplanetary presence is the first step, but the true achievement will be interstellar expansion.

    I think the main issues are the will and confidence to make forward strides, and maintaining our capacity for reason. As long as we possess those qualities, there is no reason why we can’t have science, humanities, and organized religion side-by-side.

    The allure of the lotus-eaters/Last Man is a potential pitfall, which could seriously undermine our will to progress. However, I perceive a more dangerous force at work, and that is radicalism/fundamentalism. This mind-virus can propagate through all sorts of ideologies, either secular or religious. I see fundamentalism as one of the most destructive forces in society for its ability to incite violence, enforce censorship, and shut down critical thinking. For all our advances in the early 21st century, fundamentalism is still as strong as ever, and I see it as a threat to space colonization and civilization as a whole.

    We will always have our disagreements and differences, whether they be political, religious, ideological, etc. But we must keep our mental faculties intact and functional. If we self-destruct, it will most likely be because of violent radicalism, rather than languishing in a comfortable stasis.

    We humans have many strengths and weaknesses. In spite of all our faults, I believe that we can succeed in the universe and reach the stars. If we do not, there’s no way of knowing how long it will take the earth to produce another species that is intelligent, social, and capable of using complex technology, and whether or not that race will succeed.

  • Doug M. December 1, 2017, 4:29

    The idea that we must expand into space or be destroyed is pretty obviously a religious one, and more specifically a Western religious one: we must be saved, or we’re damned. The exact nature of the damnation is vague — asteroid impact? nuclear war? — but judgment is surely coming, and no rock will hide you on that day.

    The 21st century version of this is of course transhumanism, where humanity’s Hegelian destiny-state is the Singularity, while the scare image is runaway AI.

    Here’s a thing you very rarely see: the idea that we might just fart along for the next few million years. nothing destroys us and we don’t destroy ourselves. no transformation, no exodus. still on Earth, still genus Homo with all the primate baggage.

    Doug M.

    • xcalibur December 1, 2017, 21:42

      You may be right, but any form of complex life that is confined to a single planet faces significantly greater existential risk. The dinosaurs are the classic example of this. We could choose to dominate this planet for millions of years and then go extinct, just as they did. What sets us apart from dinosaurs is that we’re capable of space colonization, via our intelligence/will and technological civilization.

      • Doug M. December 2, 2017, 20:54

        “any form of complex life that is confined to a single planet faces significantly greater existential risk. ”

        [citation needed]

        No, seriously. That statement may seem obvious, but it’s actually got a lot of implicit assumptions.

        As to the dinosaurs, 160 million years would be a pretty amazing run for us. As far as we can tell, the heat death of the universe is going to get us all anyway. The average mammalian species only lasts a couple of million years, so anything more than that is really just gravy.

        Doug M.

        • xcalibur December 3, 2017, 13:35

          Does it really?

          I agree that the Singularity is a modern iteration of eschatology. But even if the whole narrative of space colonization is based on that Abrahamic religious impulse, that does not invalidate the idea, i.e. just because there is an irrational appeal for an idea, does not mean there cannot be a rational appeal.

          The rational issue here is redundancy. Just as your data is made secure with backups and cloud storage, the human race and civilization will be made secure with space colonization. The fact is, extinction events can and do happen, and our technology adds to the threat already posed by natural causes. As long as we are earthbound, our future is not secure. Settling other planets/space habitats will greatly increase redundancy; settling other stars will exponentially increase redundancy, due to the hard speed limit of c.

          160 million years was an amazing run for the dinosaurs, too. It is in the nature of life to want to survive, prosper, and reproduce. In spite of the flaws of homo sapiens, we have intelligence, sentience, and civilization, and the capability of ensuring our continuity within the cosmic wilderness. We have to give it our best shot, because like I said, we don’t know how many other sentient species are out there, or what the next sentient race would be like — it could be better than us, it could also be worse.

          There is also a huge difference in scale between a couple million years and billions of years. We’re also not 100% certain on the ultimate fate of the universe. It may all wind down eventually, but as long as dark matter/dark energy are massive cosmological unknowns, it’s too early to make definite statements on the distant future.

          • Doug Muir December 4, 2017, 4:29

            It really does. “extinction events can and do happen, and our technology adds to the threat already posed by natural causes.” — well, right there. If we’re inclined to exterminate ourselves by technological means, expanding offworld won’t eliminate that inclination. There are a lot of SFnal visions, from Bradbury to Firefly, where Earth is devastated by humanity but the colony world lives on. All of them avoid the obvious question: if humanity is inevitably going to devastate Earth, why won’t it do the same on Mars or The ‘Verse or wherever? Moving to Mars won’t make us more peaceable, rational, or sane.

            As to natural extinction events, we’re already very close to being immune to asteroid strikes. We’ve discovered and plotted the orbits of pretty much every NEO over 1 km, which is comfortably smaller than the K-T impactor, and we’ll have them mapped down to 300m within another decade. Anything that could kill or seriously hurt us, we’ll see coming literally centuries before it arrives.

            The only natural extinction event we know of that could plausibly kill us would be another end-Permian episode of hypervolcanism. Geology is a pretty mature science, so we can say with some confidence that none of those are expected in the next few million years. (Yellowstone is a supervolcano, not a hypervolcano. When it eventually blows, it’ll be bad for west and central North America, but it’s not going to cause an extinction event.)

            Finally, note that the “backup copy” analogy breaks down badly when you consider what and where the “backup” would be. Any remotely plausible offworld habitat — space colonies, terraformed Mars, vaguely Earthlike planet around a distant star — would be much more hostile than Earth’s biosphere, or much more fragile, or both. Backup copies are a fine idea in the abstract, but our actual physical universe isn’t proving very cooperative. “All your eggs in one basket” is a less compelling argument when the alternate baskets are fragile spun glass and suspended from treetops.

            To make the analogy work, you need a biosphere that’s roughly as big and as friendly to human life as Earth itself. As far as we can tell, nothing like that exists anywhere within our plausible reach.

            Doug M.

            • xcalibur December 5, 2017, 13:23

              You make interesting points.

              As the cliche goes, technology is a two-edged sword. Yes, we could use technology to destroy ourselves, but we can also use it to secure our survival. I don’t think expanding off-world will fix human nature, but it will give us more chances to succeed. As long as we’re on one planet, a global catastrophe could destroy our civilization or race (depending on severity). With multiple habitats, catastrophe would have to strike multiple times to achieve this effect, rather than just once. This should give us significantly greater security.

              Yes, thanks to science, we’re more secure than ever against natural extinction events. Still, the risk is there, especially if we become complacent in the future.

              It’s true, off-world colonies would fall short of the earthly ideal. That doesn’t mean they have to be excessively hostile or fragile, though. Once again, redundancy of life-support systems would help secure life on a space habitat, as would shielding in the right places. With enough terraforming, an earthlike planet could become stable enough to support us long-term. There may yet be candidates out there within 20 light-years. There’s also Venus, which would require massive terraforming, but has the potential to be earthlike.

              The backup copies or ‘alternate baskets’ don’t have to be made of glass and hanging from treetops. All they need is a reasonable degree of long-term stability and security, and that should be achievable. Earth may be our best habitat, but having alternatives/backups is far better than none at all.