Reader Request Week 2016 #2: Will Humans Survive?

We’re getting cosmic for this next question, from Greg, who asks:

Earthlings have 4 billion years to figure out space colonization before the sun goes red dwarf and consumes the earth Galactus style. They also have 4 billion years before the Andromeda galaxy collides with the Milky Way galaxy, which will likely require massive technology to survive.  Can we pull it off? Can we even survive that long?

Well, before we begin, let me make a few corrections here.

<nerd>

Actually, the sun will not turn into a red dwarf, it will turn into a red giant, which has a very real chance of expanding out to the size of Earth’s orbit, swallowing it up in the process. That’s likely to happen closer to five billion years from now, not four billion years from now. Not that it will matter because a mere billion years from now the sun is going to be brighter and hotter than it is now, which will likely turn Earth into something like Venus is today, i.e., a hellish world where greenhouse gases have run amok, so that’s probably the deadline we’re working within.

Also, the Andromeda Galaxy colliding with the Milky Way Galaxy? While it is likely to happen in 4 billion years or so, it’s unlikely any of the stars in either galaxy will collide with each other — the distances between stars is just too great. It’s possible (although unlikely) the Solar System might be ejected into deep space because of the gravitational effects of two galaxies merging, but the solar system itself should be fine. Mind you, by that time the Earth would be uninhabitable anyway because of the sun heating up, but the galactic smash-up will be neither here nor there to that.

</nerd>

So: The now amended question is: Will humans figure out space colonization before the Earth is rendered uninhabitable by the sun, which barring anything else will almost certainly happen a billion or so years from now, and will we survive that long in any event?

The answers: Maybe, and probably not.

Last part first: Humans, which is to say the species Homo sapiens, is about two hundred thousand years old, which is actually not that old as species go. We evolved out of previous species of the genus Homo; probably Homo heidelbergensis, which went extinct around the time we showed up (probably coincidence, I’m sure). Before heidelbergensis was Homo erectus, from which it was likely descended, and which has also gone extinct. And so on and so forth.

Here’s the thing about species: Generally, they don’t last very long (geologically speaking). Over time, most species are likely to do two things: Evolve into another species, and/or go extinct. To be clear, sooner or later, every species goes extinct (see the ticking timebomb of the sun, above); only some evolve into something else. But it is very rare, generally speaking, for a species to last more than a few million years.

Why? Because the Earth is an unstable place, given enough time — temperatures go up, then they go down. The amount of gases in the atmosphere fluctuates significantly. Ice ages happen. Global warming occurs. Every now and again an asteroid drops in to really screw everything up. Die offs of the majority of all the extant species on the planet have happened several times (and some folks are warning that we’re in the early stages of a new one, thanks to human activity messing with the planet). When the ecologies change, the niches that species developed to take advantage of change too. This is rarely a good thing for the species in question.

Current humans have existed for a mere 200,000 years, in a genus (Homo) whose oldest member existed only 2.5 million years ago — barely even yesterday in geologic time. It would be optimistic in the extreme to suggest that Homo sapiens, as it exists today, will still be with us a billion years from now — 400 times as far into the future as our entire genus extends into the past. Given the assiduousness with which we’re currently reworking the ecology of the planet (unintentionally or otherwise), we’re probably making it more difficult for the species to last another 10,000 years, much less a billion.

But we’re smart! I hear you say. Sure, that’s true, but does it then follow that a) we’re smart enough not to basically kill ourselves by wrecking the planet, b) that our intelligence means that evolution is done with us. The answers here, if you ask me (and you did) are: We’ll see, and probably not. In the latter case, there’s an argument to be made that our intelligence will increase speciation, as humans intentionally do to our species what natural selection did unintentionally before, and do it on a much shorter timescale, in order to adapt to the world that is currently rapidly changing under our feet, in no small part because of our own activities.

So, no. Human beings, meaning Homo sapiens, will almost certainly not be here a billion years from now. We’re probably not even going to be here 100 million years from now, or 10 million years from now, or, hell, even a million years from now. The question is whether our evolutionary descendants will be around, a new branch (or branches) of the genus Homo. My guess is: A million years from now, yes, and we may even recognize them as human. Ten million years from now, maybe, but we could probably only vaguely see them as being descended from us. A hundred million years from now, if our descendants are still around, there would be no family resemblance at all. A billion years from now, well. Remember that your direct ancestors from a billion years back were single-celled eukaryotes who had just figured out this great new thing called “sex.” That’s how far back in time we’ll be from any of our descendants then.

Now, as to the other question, will we have figured out space colonization by a billion years from now, sure. Look, if we really decided that space colonization was something we wanted, we could have a couple million people in space in the next hundred years, easy. The issue to my mind isn’t really technology — I suspect we have the tech to make roughly serviceable colonies in space (and on the moon and on Mars) right now, and we could scale up from there in the next hundred years, no problem. The issue is whether we want to make the effort, and swallow the frankly ridiculous set up and maintenance costs, of permanent space colonization. Barring a Seveneves-like catastrophic event, we probably won’t, because why would we? We’ve got a nice planet down here, even if we’re currently mucking it up a bit, with lots of raw materials and space to work with. It’s easier to try to work with what we have down here, at the bottom of a gravity well, then send people up there and try to make that work.

I mean, yes, sure, eventually the sun will eat the planet, and it will swaddle it with greenhouse gases long before then. But again, the operative phrase here is “geologic time.” These events are going to happen so far out in the future that the human mind — the Homo sapiens mind — literally cannot process how far out in the future it will be. I mean, shit. We think waiting two days for something to arrive to our house via Amazon Prime shipping is forever. To make a mind constructed like that consider the unfathomable expanse of a billion years is folly.

Rather than worry too much about a billion years from now, or five billion years from now, I’d rather have us think about the next hundred years, and what we’re going to do with them. Make no mistake, when we talk about the fact we’re “wrecking the Earth” what we mean is that we’re wrecking it for us. As soon as we’re gone, there’s no other species taxing the planet to the same extent we are. What life remains — and life will remain — will speciate out to take advantage of how the planet is then, and will fill the niches, and over time the planet will change again, and speciation will happen to take advantages of those changes, too. The Earth doesn’t need us, and it won’t miss us when we’re gone. It’ll just… go on. It will do that if we die off, or if we take to the stars. But honestly, the first of these is far more likely than the second.

I’d like for humans to be here in a hundred years, and in a thousand. After that, we can worry about the next million years, and then the next ten million, and so on, until we get to the billion year mark and a much hotter sun. We’ve got a lot of time between now and then, however. First things first.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

42 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2016 #2: Will Humans Survive?

  1. That sums it up pretty well. No need to worry about a billion years from now if we can’t figure out the next 100 years.

  2. It would be interesting to see if it is resources that drive the next frontier. I’d agree that going to the moon or Mars seems premature. I’d think that asteroid mining would be the next step; go out and grab some of the rocks nearby and bring it back. I think the moon or Mars would be the “hey, since we’re out here already, we might as well have a Starbucks and McDonalds nearby.”

    There are those that believe that the combination of machine and human is the inevitable next step and that is probably an easy way to see us tranisition to homo mechanica or whatnot. Of course, we could also just be kept around as “pets” by our AI overlords/protectors.

    But, I see ourselves destroying ourselves. We don’t seem to be getting less petty, tribal, or brutal to one another. Global communication has created more self-confirmation bias than it has understanding of others and we’re basically (if not literally in some instances) toddlers with loaded guns.

  3. As Charlie Stross has pointed out, it would be immensely easier to colonize the Sahara desert or Antarctica than anywhere else in our solar system, and no one is in a big rush to do that.

  4. I give us 300 years maximum. Realistically.
    http://longbets.org/
    Go ahead and put some money on it. Seriously.
    People have been predicting doom and gloom since day 1.
    Strange, wasnt the US supposed to be: out of oil, cannibals, all the species wiped out, etc etc.

    /Humans have been completely unable to forecast the future. We cant predict 10 years forward, let alone 100.
    /Homo Sapiens will be long gone in a billion years.
    /Homo Sapiens will easily survive the next 300.

  5. Years ago (yes, I am that old) I met Isaac Asimov. One of the most important questions I felt the need to ask him was this:

    — Based on current technology, when will humans first travel to the nearest star system?

    His answer:

    — 200-300 years from now.

    That was sobering.

  6. Recent personal experience of the last dozen plus years says something else is going on.

    Ridiculous as it sounds, SF movies like The Adjustmemt Bureau, Tomorrowland and Midnight Special have reflected some of that stupefying experience. The just released Midnight Special with Michael Shannon has it right except in reality the demographics are reversed. And like the kid in the movie says: there is a world that exists on top of our own.

    Replace the comical aspects of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, vacuum cleaner jet-packs, cuckoo clock robots and Eiffel Tower rockets with metaphysical multi-dimensional portals and metaphysical animatronic hyper+ or double-plus ungood humans as the dominant species and you have something that comes close to….what is usually taken to be right wing Reptilian space alien delusion.

    Once you apply a few adjustments to replace the usual compulsive lying and disinformation from the right wing David Icke sector of fake and “real” delusion you reaffirm the conclusion that what is considered sanity is actually consensual delusion. And that is not the result of reading too much PKD or Gibson.

    If grounded in this so-called reality you have to keep making adjustments between the two as far as people are concerned. Which means riding the words of Pynchon’s title, The Bleeding Edge in so-called life.

    (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow character, Slothrop spelled backwards is porhtols which is German for portholes or portals. Or maybe he was just saying that Slothrop was a psychotic asshole:)

  7. I’ll let the space colonisation enthusiasts get back to me when Australia finally manages to get it’s “northern food bowl” established.

    A bit of explanation – every so often, a political thought balloon goes up along the lines of “there’s lots of unused open space in the Northern Territory and northern parts of Australia generally. We should use that for farming produce!” Usually this thought bubble comes from the sort of urbanised political professional who out-sources the task of caring for their office plants, and whose home “garden”, such as it is, consists of a large lawn they pay someone else to take care of. (The kind of person who isn’t a gardener, in other words, and doesn’t understand the first thing about agriculture and plants in general). Usually, they get hosed down by public servants who do understand about agriculture, or by the keen gardeners in their vicinity, who point out things like “tropical climate” (Australia straddles the Tropic of Capricorn; approximately half our country is in the tropics), “unpredictable water supply” (and a lot of that water supply comes in the form of cyclonic monsoons, which means it’s accompanied by devastatingly strong winds), “lack of soil fertility” and “the crops just won’t grow there” (because it’s too hot and too dry). But that doesn’t stop it from popping up again every so often.

    To put it bluntly, in order to be able to colonise space, we’re going to need to solve challenges a lot more daunting than growing food in an area which at least comes complete with a human-compatible biosphere and breathable atmosphere. So get back to me about how inevitable space colonisation is once we have those sorts of challenges resolved.

  8. @ Pete Chibulskis
    If the planet is FUBAR in 300 years, now I’m fairly intelligent, why would I put a bet on it, when a) I won’t be alive b) and if it happened I couldn’t collect. I wouldn’t.

    Never mind all the SF talk of colonising planets and all that bollocks. We don’t even have hoverboards yet.
    Besides, the tipping point is estimated to happen around 2050, when the population reaches 9 billion+ beyond sustainable levels, at least when factoring in our unwavering greed. Even now the planet’s groaning. Only an illogical optimist can conceive of us being around for 300 years based on current factors.

  9. thanks for taking time to answer.

    Ahem. Red giant. Yes. I was just seeing if anyone was paying attention. Sure.

    we could have a couple million people in space in the next hundred years… The issue is whether we want to make the effort, and swallow the frankly ridiculous set up and maintenance costs

    Do we have that level of tech? A couple million people in space in a century? That’s 54 people a day, every day, for the next hundred years, not counting the tons of materials per person to keep them alive for any length of time. It feels like we have a couple of hand built steam engines, and we need a fleet of Peterbilts.

    it’s unlikely any of the stars in either galaxy will collide with each other — the distances between stars is just too great.

    I’ve heard that before. And it seems so counter-intuitive that it tells me I really have no gut level grasp on how much empty space is between stars in our galaxy. Even if any two stars are many light years apart, if you draw a straight line through a galaxy, I’d think you’d pass through at least one star system, somewhere. Again, I guess it comes down to not being able to wrap my head around the ginormous numbers involved.

    To make a mind constructed like that consider the unfathomable expanse of a billion years is folly.

    I like the kind of sci-fi that expands the mind, makes us think of things we never thought of before, and maybe gives us a glimpse of something so much bigger, so much older, so many orders of magnitude beyond what our personal experience is. Fire Upon the Deep gave a hint of that sort of scale. I don’t see much SF that does that for me.

    Rather than worry too much about a billion years from now, or five billion years from now, I’d rather have us think about the next hundred years

    Yes. Of course.

    Thanks again.

    Steve: As Charlie Stross has pointed out, it would be immensely easier to colonize the Sahara desert

    I dont know what Mr. Stross said, but it occurs that it might be missing the human element.

    We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard

    From a purely economic point of view, colonizing space may never be profitable. So, it might never be a question of it being “easy”. Maybe we can only ponder colonization once we get to a post-scarcity society, and then it becomes a matter of the fact that its a challenge. There is no intrinsic profit at the top of Mt Everest, but people climb it, because it is hard.

  10. @Greg: I just did some half-assed calculations to give you a sort of sense of scale. I don’t know whether it will help.

    The Moon is roughly 240,000 miles from Earth. If you scale that distance to 1 mm, then the Sun is on average about 40 cm (0.4 m) from Earth. One light-year, at this scale, is about 25.6 km — our solar system fits inside a small city. And note that we’re talking one star, four big planets, two or three smaller planets (depending on your opinion of Mars), and a bunch of dust “filling” that city. There’s a whole lot of empty already. At this scale, the Sun is about 3.5 mm across.

    Alpha Centauri, the closest star system we know of, would be about 110 km from Earth at this scale. That’s like saying that if the Sun is in Austin, the next closest star is in Waco, and there aren’t any smaller towns (that we know of) where you can stop to pee. There isn’t even any scenery. And that is the CLOSEST star.

    The 1 ly = 25.6 km conversion is rough, but it’ll let you fill in the gaps for your favorite star systems. However, let’s look at the distance from Earth to the galactic center (which is somewhat ill-defined); a decent average of the estimates seems to be about 25,000 ly from Earth. That translates to a rough distance of 640,000 km at this scale, almost all of which is empty space.

    In all of human existence, we’ve sent people about 1 mm from Earth, fewer than 10 times. We have sent several spacecraft a distance of a few meters. Our galaxy is terrifying big in the face of that . . . and it is terrifyingly SMALL on the scale of the universe itself. And almost all of that is emptiness.

    I’ll be in the corner, drinking, if you need me. :-)

  11. Greg says:
    March 21, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    I dont know what Mr. Stross said, but it occurs that it might be missing the human element.

    I don’t doubt that we could eventually have outposts and bases on the Moon or Mars. But cities with millions or even hundreds of thousands of people? I think we’d have to have a massive leap in technology and social organization before that’s going to happen.

    At present, the price tag of sending humans to visit Mars for a just a bit seems to be on the order of half a trillion dollars. The SLS will have its first mission in 2018. The mission after that might happen in 2023.

  12. Why go into space? According to our friend Google it is claimed NASA has documented nearly1,080 spinoff technologies. Some big, some accidental and some will be modifications of existing earthbound technology. But the point is just by going there technological progress will occur.

    But it will be too expensive some say – that’s what government hand-outs and tax breaks are for. Columbus didn’t fund his own voyages; he got the Spanish to pay for it. The early explorers expected to make a profit by finding gold, silver, jewels and whatever. When they didn’t they still went back to look elsewhere.

    As a for instance: – fusion power is solved theoretically but it needs a rare-earth mineral that is, well rare. To have enough to make fusion commercially viable we need more. Some scientists announce that there is plenty in the core of planets. Asteroid belt here we come! Then its just a matter of figuring out which asteroids are ex-core and which are just from the crust, and how to mine them and how to get the good stuff to earth and …

    After Columbus the quality of ships improved as they were made more fit for the purpose of crossing an ocean, to carry all that gold and fight off the pirates wanting the gold. The more we go into space the better we’ll get at it. A tweak here, a break-through there and they build up.

    Lets not forget the earth-bound value of this technology. Dimpled golf balls fly further. Will the income from space related patents be counted as space income?

    Greg, above, mentions that to get a couple of million people into space in a century will require 54 persons per day, every day. I think what will happen is that most of those people will go as fertilized ova. The effort to lift humans can be used instead to lift the habitats and supplies needed for survival. By the time the little toddlers are three they’ll be child labourers. Er, I mean learning how the hydroponic system keeps them alive with practical applications of that learning.

    John covered whether we will remain homo sapiens. I don’t think so because if the above happens then we will be genetically modified to handle low/no gravity. Born in space – stay in space. A new species will appear – Homo ZeroG. Or maybe several species each intelligently designed (pun intended) to fit a niche or serve a function. And some will become dead-ends (like Lois McMaster Bujold’s quaddies).

    Now let’s go meet the Andromeda Galaxy half-way.

  13. Andrew Hackard did a good job above describing how empty space is but just to help, here’s the best visualization I’ve ever seen. And this is just our solar system.

  14. If you want to get a feel for how empty space is try taking a “planetary walk”. Don’t know if they exist in the US but there are quite a few of them around here.
    It’s a walk with information panels where the sun and planets (and maybe moons, asteroids etc.) are placed true to scale of the solar system. You take a few steps from the sun and reach Mercury, a minute more to Venus etc.
    At a scale of 1:1 billion Pluto (not a planet…) will be an hour’s walk away.

    To reach Proxima Centauri you’d have to go around the Earth several times. It’s just not doable any time soon.

  15. There was a moderately well known scientist who classified his more successful colleagues into two classes.
    The first were those whose work he felt he could have done if he worked harder and or longer. Then there were those whom he called “magicians” whose work he never could have duplicated no matter how long or how hard he tried. Do you ever feel this way about other writers ? How would you recognize a book written by a
    “magician”, as opposed to someone who was very skillful in his or her art.

  16. Good grief, there is certainly a lot of Homer Simpson-esque “can’t win, don’t try” defeatism in this thread when it comes to space exploration. Yes, space is big. No, space exploration will not be easy. Yes, we should do it anyhow. Lets not try further colonization of deserts on Earth (or Antarctica) though, they are really fragile ecosystems and we’ve damaged them enough already. Lets go somewhere else instead.

  17. I think when we start seriously moving into space will be the line where we start drifting off of the baseline. All of our delicate fretting about genetic engineering will not count for much when someone living in condition of either low gravity or spin gravity is given the option to alter themselves and their germ line so that their bones don’t weaken in the conditions they work in, or the chance to alter their bodies so that they don’t get the bloating and lose of sensation, they are going to do this without a second thought.

    I think one of our great blindspots is how much of the human future in space will be about the biology. It’s not just our manly men of science-fiction who think that the future will be clean lines and shine tools – or at most a decorously grunge-y punk aesthetic. We all kind of do it. But anyone who’s dealt with machines has seen what a mess holding liquids in tanks and running them through pipes entails – cleaning is mandatory. Clogs will happen. And organic chemistry is murder on a lot of our machines. If you’re going to be conducting a lot of biology in a can – and you’ll need to – it’s better to do it in a bladder. Think of every article you’ve read about how bacteria have been taught to secrete X – it’s miraculous, but its another tank to clean out.

    And this is all before we’ve even talked about the benefits of structures that can self-repair, or a host of other reasons. So between our ability to live and work their, and our ability to run a stable habitat, we’re looking at more God’s War than Star Trek when it comes to what it will look like. We’ll look different. If you can grow a skin that can resist the radiation load, you will. If you’re organs can be modified to laugh off cancer, you will. If you can harden your body against zero-g, you will. And you’ll put it all in the germline so your kids can as well.

  18. A lot of folks here are pointing out what Douglas Adams said so well: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

    So? It’s big. It’s a lot of hostile nothing between hostile bits of something with only one known friendly bit. It’s actively trying to kill anyone who goes there every single second that they’re there. Again, so?

    I absolutely guarantee that we (Homo Sapiens) will go. Why? Because there’s a buck to be made. Resources are infinite once you’re not on a living planet where you have to worry about disrupting the very ecosystem that keeps you alive when you harvest the resources. And, since folks typically pay for resources, you can make a buck melting down an asteroid (or whatever) and selling the pieces. It’s not an easy buck by any stretch, but it’s there, people will see that profit and they’ll make the effort and pay the cost (in dollars, time, and lives). Our history is one of expansion for profit and I believe that, if nothing else, will drive us into space. And that doesn’t even count the dreamers, the disaffected, the outright crazies who will see it as a way to get explore, to get away from persecution, to just say “the hell with you people, I’m leaving”. Give this a few thousand years and we’ll populate the local neighborhood (say, a few tens of light years in any direction) organically. No plan. Just growth.

    As to the general “will humanity survive” question, I’ll have to go with the yes here. Any organism that spreads out into multiple star systems it going to be damned hard to kill. Stars blowing up, gamma ray bursts, black holes all become survivable for a species. Not so great for the local folks, but that’s the cost of doing business (i.e. life).

    As to the “will we be recognizable”, again, I’ll have to go with yes here. I think it was James Blish in Cities In Flight that said “a species stops evolving the minute it invents the wheelchair”. I think he was mostly right here in that once a species attains a certain level of technology, they tend to go into a steady-state from a biological evolutionary perspective and begin to use their technology to replace that evolution. SCUBA gear would be an example here – we can’t survive long in a water environment so we create technology that allows us to adapt. And I don’t think we’ll modify ourselves substantially (i.e. no gills, no rock hard skin to live in space, etc.) simply because that takes away adaptability and if there’s one thing humans are really, really good at, it’s adapting. We’re not especially good at anything else, but that means we can adapt, much of the time with technology, to damned near anything since we have no real specialization.

  19. Wow. The pro-“colonization” comments here inspired me to dig up this article on the issue. I suspect that one reason why the public is so ill-informed about space travel is that we see all these movies and tv shows that make it look easy. No wonder college science students believe that people have been to the Moon multiple times since 1980; didn’t they see people on Mars at the multiplex last month? It looked so real. I also suspect that one reason I felt that the actual 1969 Moon landing was anticlimactic was that it didn’t look as cool as even sci-fi tv and movies looked in those days.

    The reaction to Murphy’s post was fascinating, too. Despite the colonialists’ scientific pretensions, what really drives them is emotion, and fantasy. Don’t tread on their dreams, but don’t fund them either.

    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/why-not-space/

  20. With regards to Duncan, are we talking about some very real environmental and climate concerns, or space here with regards to the OP? I completely get the need to limit resource use, but I’m not sure shoe-horning space into that discussion works. Space is and only is a way to keep consuming resources, our environmental concerns mean we cannot do this, q.e.d. humanity in space is a dangerous fantasy that all right-thinking people will show their opposition to.

    I’m reminded of the fact that most of the real conservation efforts of the last half-century have not come from people going back to the land in a sort of virtuous primitivism; it’s been finding ways to perform the same amount of work with far less energy. I know enough about how mining works to think that the idea of ore coming down from the vacuum is a far better idea than digging it from the ground, to provide just one example.

    I suppose if man were meant to fly, he’d have had wings, and we should all just go surfing (no hyperbole – I just spoiled the end of Aurora for you), but I think assuming that we’re ultimately trapped in our Malthusian limits involves ignoring a great deal of the history of the last 300 years.

  21. John, your fiction particular OMW really helped me shape my own thoughts on this question. Mastering the modification of the human genome and nanotech assuming that’s possible will hasten our evolution. We may not be the same type of human, but unlike our forebears we’ll have the means to remember. That’s an unprecedented distinction. It may be the essential thing that keeps our descendents human.

    I’ve been wondering why would we leave the Earth en masse as unaltered humans. I was one year behind astronaut Scott Kelly at SUNY Maritime College and we watch his accomplishments closely. While his effort to push the envelope on human performance in zero G is creditable, it only seems useful if it helps our genetic engineers create homo sapiens astrus or celestus or whatever they are named. Otherwise, why suffer like that?

    While most humans will sit tight, there will be those that will demand to explore, especially if science extends our lifespans and functional performance. These practical masochists will seek transhuman upgrades and access to extraterrestrial colonies. There is only so much to see on Earth.

  22. Andrew: “Our galaxy is terrifying big in the face of that . . . and it is terrifyingly SMALL on the scale of the universe itself. And almost all of that is emptiness.”
    Your scale helped me wrap my head around the size of things a bit. Thanks.

    I dont find it terrifying though. When someone puts the scale of the solar system or galaxy into terms that are maybe a bit graspable, to me, I feel better connected to it. To me, the question of where my place is in the universe is best first answered with a really good map, and a good scale model.

    xaaronx: thats was a helpful video for me, thanks.

  23. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re unlikely to colonize space. Biological life is completely ill-suited to living in space or colonizing worlds without existing biospheres. This is no secret; dozens of futurists and SF writers have pointed it out.

    Mechanical life could potentially be far more at home in space. In fact, on Earth machines wear down at rapid rates compared to organic life. Organic life has a pretty good foothold on this planet. Our machines are competing with a deeply rooted dominant chemistry. Machines might find it hard to keep themselves in good working condition. Even the relatively simple infrastructure we build is starting to break down after less than a human generation. Automobiles need routine maintenance just to last as long as our favorite pets, helicopters need dedicated mechanics and the Space Shuttle practically had to be rebuilt for every flight.

    Inhabiting deep space could give machines the chance to survive much longer, perhaps even over geological time. Moreover, they have potentially much lower launch costs. To paraphrase Biff Tannen, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first thing AI does is make like a tree and get out of here.

    If machines colonize space, we’d then have them to compete with if we want to follow, as well as gravity and clunky life-support requirements. I just don’t see it happening. One of the more benign proposed answers to the Fermi paradox is that space might be full of quiet machine life, whispering across narrow channels of lasers or wormholes or topological defects or whatever, and leaving deep gravity wells alone as biological preserves.

    @Greg

    I dont find it terrifying though. When someone puts the scale of the solar system or galaxy into terms that are maybe a bit graspable, to me, I feel better connected to it. To me, the question of where my place is in the universe is best first answered with a really good map, and a good scale model.

    We’re just tiny little specks about the size of Mickey Rooney…

  24. There’s also the important question of orbital mechanics: the vast distances between bodies in the Solar System can mean very little if the orbits are right. It’s not like you’re walking the whole way: acceleration, than a long coast, than deceleration. With the right heading and start time, you can get much further than you would think.

    One of the classic examples is that getting to the moons of Mars is not that much more expensive in terms of delta-v than landing on Earth’s moon. It’s completely non-intuitive when it comes to moving about in a gravity well as we all do every day, but in orbital mechanics, it all a question of math. On the one hand, in the Solar System it will take time to get anywhere. But in terms of energy, it is possible to be quite clever. For human being who live 75 years, awake the whole time, it can be quite inconvenient.

    For ones that live several centuries and can hibernate, on the other hand…

  25. Youngpretender: “Space is and only is a way to keep consuming resources, our environmental concerns mean we cannot do this”

    I dont think that would be the case on the grand scale of things. We could get a lot of material for building spaceships from the moon, with the added advantage that it is lower gravity, so easier to get out of the gravity well. I remember reading something that said the way to the stars would be from the asteroid belt, plus a few major advances in propulsion and manufacturing.

    Gulliver: god I love animaniacs.

  26. @Greg: There have already been a number of nice responses about the emptiness of the milky way. Here’s another one.

    You write, “Even if any two stars are many light years apart, if you draw a straight line through a galaxy, I’d think you’d pass through at least one star system, somewhere.” There’s an easy way to do just that: look up at the night sky! Sure, you see lots of stars, if you make sure you’re away from light pollution. But you see a heck of a lot more black than nonblack; otherwise the night sky would be very light rather than very dark. The reason you see mostly black is that there are no stars in most directions you look.

  27. John, bang on as always, but with a quibble: We need to survive the next 30 to 50 years as a species before we start worrying about the next century. We aren’t doing anything significant to stop global warming* and my take is that we’re already past the tipping point and sliding downhill fast. (When the permafrost starts thawing enthusiastically, instead of its current desultory thaw, warming will accelerate fast.)

    * Before you ask, I’ve edited a (metric) ton of the papers that provide evidence for global warming. You can argue with the particulars of any one study (I have some issues with many of the isotope studies), but when all the studies based on different categories of measurement basically say the same thing, it’s hard to argue with the overall conclusion.

    Large swaths of the planet, such as most of Africa, most of northern China, and monsoon India are already in precarious condition concerning food security; add another degree or so of warming and there will be catastrophic famines. We northerners might be spared the worst of it, or we might not. But it’s going to get very nasty within most of our lifetimes.

    At this point, I think we should be starting to think about lifeboat rules. I’m not quite at the point of building a bunker and filling it with 20 years worth of dried foods, but I’m no longer quite so willing to mock those who do this kind of thing.

  28. Erik: ” There’s an easy way to do just that: look up at the night sky! ”

    That doesnt actually work because with the naked eye, we only see a tiny, tiny fraction of the stars in the milky way.

    Not to mention, we dont see the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, or any planets, asteroids, etc.

  29. “Earthlings have 4 billion years to figure out space colonization before the sun goes red dwarf”
    Woah, Cool!
    “Actually, the sun will not turn into a red dwarf, it will turn into a red giant”
    Oh Smeg!
    I was so looking forward to seeing cats evolved into hominid form.

  30. David H: You’ll be glad to see that Danny John-Jules is still alive and well and working in TV/film. He was the best thing about Red Dwarf, which is saying something.

  31. 3,000,000,000 AD Collision/Merger with Andromeda Galaxy
    .
    Our Milky Way Galaxy, at this time of 3 billion years from now, is
    gradually colliding with and merging with the larger giant spiral Andromeda
    Galaxy. Statistically speaking, almost no stars will actually smash into
    each other. However, as this vast collision occurs at roughly 300,000
    miles per hour, three dramatic things happen. First, the diffuse galactic
    gas and dust heats up from compression. Second, the giant black holes in
    the center of each galaxy, each millions of times more massive than our
    Sun, whirl around each other, and then eventually merge. Third, enormous
    numbers of comets will shower through the merged galaxy, many smashing
    innocent planets into extinction events.

    There is a chance that in this merger, the Sun and Solar System might be
    flung completely out of the galaxy, and thus escape the tremendous violence
    of black hole merger. Or, it might be swept into almost anyplace within
    the galaxy, even into the accretion disk of the doubled black hole. For
    the sake of argument, let’s predict on this web page that the solar system
    keeps roughly its current distance from the new galactic center. That way,
    we can continue the geological; and astronomical predictions as below….
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/timelineCF.html#3G

  32. Duncan writes “The reaction to Murphy’s post was fascinating, too. Despite the colonialists’ scientific pretensions, what really drives them is emotion, and fantasy.”

    A lot of Murphy’s arguments are bad math and scientific ignorance.

    For example his delta V budgets come from incorrectly patching conics.

    One of his assumptions in Stranded Resources is that we would be lucky to find an asteroid within 5 km/s of the earth moon system. This self proclaimed space insider has never heard of near earth asteroids? There are asteroids that could be parked in lunar orbit for as little as .17 km/s. He also assumes lox/methane propellent which has an exhaust velocity of about 3 km/s. The Keck proposal suggests ion engines with 30 km/s exhaust velocity.

    Plugging in these .17 km/s and 30 km/s changes Murphy’s estimate of propellent mass by two or three orders of magnitude.

    One reason space is so expensive is disposable space craft. Imagine what a transcontinental flight would cost if we threw away a 747 each trip.

    Musk seems to be on his way to developing an economic reusable booster. Given propellent sources not at the bottom of earth’s gravity well, economic and reusable upper stages are also doable. Many of the accessible near earth asteroids are 40% water by mass. And there may be rich ice deposits at the lunar cold traps.

  33. Comment about

    “northern food bowl”

    Reminded me of:

    Farming looks mighty easy, when your plough is a pencil and you’re a
    thousand miles from the cornfield. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

  34. Farming is definitely not easy. For the longest time, it was stuck at the level of the internal combustion engine, but the advantages of the assembly line/ mass production didnt happen until the economics would support farms that are several thousand acres, which is relatively recent. And it has yet to apply automation, which would be a google self driving car brain transplanted into the body of a 120 hp 4wd diesel tractor, which is just terrifying.

    In space, I imagine it will be smaller scale at first, like a roomba, crossed with a rototiller.

  35. I really miss Carl Sagan. I loved his book/tv series Cosmos when I was a kid, and whenever I read stuff like this post and the fascinating comments you guys have made, I always wonder what Sagan would have to say. He had a great way of explaining stuff to the layman and making even the highest-concept seem relevant to everyday life.

    For myself, I think the future doesn’t belong to us but rather what we become. I don’t think the future is Star Trek with familiar-looking ‘ordinary’ guys out there. Humanity will be genetically adapted in various ways to better survive whatever high/low/zero gravity environments it eventually lives in. I think its rather sad; they won’t look like us or even perhaps think like us. We have fantasised for generations of leaving Earth and humanity on other worlds but it won’t ever be like that. It won’t be us, certainly not the ‘us’ that we understand as being human today.

    And thats even assuming we as a species survive long enough for that to happen. We still have the advent of Artificial Intelligence to experience and hopefully survive. That will be a huge event that cannot be underestimated.

  36. To me the more interesting question is when will we break the light barrier if ever. And yes that includes other ways around it. ;)

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