Monday, July 26

Two And A Half Cheers For The “March For Science”

I normally do not revise an already-published column, except in vanishingly rare cases of especially egregious error. But just this morning, after this "Skeptic's Collection" column had been published, my MSN feed contained a story about the urgency of finding a Planet B, quoting no less than Prof. Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge -- Sir Isaac Newton's old position -- corroborating my warning in the following paragraphs by predicting, basically species extinction if the March For Science rhetoric turns out to be correct that "There Is No Planet B".  For the sake of the human species, there damn well better be!


I hate to nit-pick people and movements with which I am otherwise in total agreement. For example, I hate to nit-pick the late Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, with whom I otherwise agree almost completely, on the matter of religion by pointing out that it is not religion per se that poisons everything, as “Hitch” argued, but monotheistic religion, and that most Christians do not believe in “talking snakes,” as Bill is so fond of asserting, only radical-fringe fundamentalists. Well … here is another example:  the recent March for Science.  The marchers’ recognition of the criticality of evidence and empirical investigation, and their advocacy of following both wherever they lead, is refreshing in an age when the great massifs of evidence on climate change have been suppressed by the government as a matter of public policy. Their advocacy of clarity and rationality of thought is equally welcome. But I must demur from their lack of nuance and qualification in addressing the issue of planetary colonization, especially given the cartoonish “There Is No Planet B” rhetoric. Someone needs to tell them, as gently and diplomatically as possible, “Of course, there is no Planet B! We haven’t found it yet -- though the Kepler Telescope, even in its wounded condition, has found several possible Planet-B candidates -- and even if we did find it, we do not – yet – have the technology to even get to it, let alone colonize it!” And it looks like the diplomat charged with communicating this message is going to have to be me, your Curmudgeonly Skeptic-In-Residence. The reasons for my disagreement are two-fold, having to do with biological evolution and with the nature of science.

Biologically / evolutionarily, renouncing planetary colonization amounts to choosing slow-motion species-suicide.  One of the ways species preserve themselves – as species, not as individuals – is through diversification of habitat.  (The following paragraph makes extensive use of the “pathetic fallacy”. Such usage is purely metaphorical:  I am not arguing, even implicitly, for intelligent design, least of all for creationism. It is just a convenient way of talking.) When a bee hive attains a certain size – or when a second queen bee is hatched within the hive … I dunno … the closest I come to being an apiarist is listening to the theme music from The Sting – the hive splits in two, one “sub-swarm” of bees leaves the original hive and flies away, as a community, to found a second bee colony elsewhere.  My understanding is that something analogous occurs in ant communities:  a new community forms and leaves the “mother house,” by migrating to a different patch of real estate.  With plants, dandelions release their seed “parachutes” to ride the wind and give rise to other dandelions in other fields elsewhere.  Flowers entice bees to take their (the plants’) pollen and so perpetuate plants elsewhere. To be sure, there are many other strategies species have evolved to ensure their perpetuation. But diversification of habitat is one of the more important.

Diversification of habitat has been so critical in the history of life on earth that the absence of this ability -- that is, the absence of a Planet B -- has very nearly resulted in a dead, lifeless world on several occasions in life's history. The tethering of life to this particular planet has very nearly spelled life's doom.  Two examples ... I suppose the most obvious – because so well-publicized – bullet that life on earth has so far dodged was the cometary or asteroid impact 65 million years ago that occurred at, and defined, the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, that wiped out the dinosaurs, ended up facilitating the rise of mammals, and that altered the climate on earth for millions of years.  The so-called “Chixulub event” – after the small village on the Yucatan Peninsula adjacent to the crater now hidden by the Gulf of Mexico -- killed off something like 2/3 of all life on earth. Much more destructive, though less well publicized, was the great End-Permian Extinction of 250 million years ago, resulting from stupendous  volcanic eruptions along the “Siberian traps”, that eradicated about 90-plus percent of life on earth. (The mortality was much greater than the Chixulub event because a far greater proportion of life called the ocean home then than would be the case 180 million years later, and the late-Permian oceans became solution of acid.) Even a relatively localized event like the eruption of the Yellowstone magma chamber would be, not an extinction event, at least for humans, but enough to alter life for centuries to come. The earth is a rough place to live – even if you discount cosmic catastrophes of the scale of Chixulub – because the earth itself is quite capable of doing itself in.  And us along with it. If this planet is the only game in town, if there is no Planet B, then, from an evolutionary standpoint, the game is, essentially, already over. If for no other reason than the laws of chance, earth will – not may, but will – eventually become unlivable. Science March rhetoric notwithstanding, there must be a Planet B. Much of the human race must be elsewhere when the bloom finally goes off the cosmic Rose. Otherwise, in the words of the late and beloved Bill Paxton in Aliens:  “Game over, man! We’re all gonna die!”

But aside from biological / evolutionary considerations, the “No Planet B” rhetoric is actually, though perhaps covertly, anti-science – the purpose of the March notwithstanding.  I start out assuming that, at the present stage of human development, planetary colonization is a multiple-centuries-long project that will require the development of technologies, many of which we cannot even name or dream of now.  Given present technology, it would require a single crew of astronauts eight months to travel to Mars one way. Spend, say, six months on the Martian surface, then another eight-month trip home, and we are talking two years for a single mission comprising a single crew of astronauts. (I am also glossing over the time spent waiting for another Earth-Mars conjunction to bring the two planets close enough to make the homeward trip short enough to be practical. The real round-trip time could be more like three years.) One-off missions are one thing. Actual colonization, involving hundreds of colonists and dozens of spacecraft, together with their associated support infrastructure, would consume resources on a planet-wide scale. So for today and into the immediate future … quite correct … there is no Planet B. An alternative would be terra-forming:  alter the Martian climate so that, over several centuries, by the time human arrived on Mars, Mars would have become a reasonable facsimile of earth. Melt the ice caps, release CO-2 into the Martian atmosphere so as to induce – ah! the irony! – global warming / climate change on Mars, change the soil chemistry by seeding the Martian surface with the right chemicals, etc., etc., etc.  But – again – this would take centuries, and with present technology, it would not be possible at all.

But it could become possible … with science!  Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not within my lifetime. But someday. That’s fine. Science is “always already” future-oriented, especially science applied toward future problems and goals. So to simply say, as I have heard people connected with the March say, “There Is No Planet B” – and simply stop there as if that were the last word – is to say that science itself, including the sciences that would support planetary colonization, should … just … simply … stop, because colonization itself, colonization per se, colonization tout court, is a dead end. But the real dead end is to permanently renounce planetary colonization. As I argued previously, that would be a permanent dead end, all right:  for the entire human species. Lurking behind the “No Planet B” rhetoric is also the perception that science does not enable us to walk and chew gum at the same time, by encouraging us to believe the false dichotomy that we can either care for the earth or work toward planetary colonization … but not both.  This is demonstrably not true, and actually works toward the discrediting of science. The same science that allows us to both light up cities and to incinerate them can allow us to care for this earth and to locate and colonize some distant-future “Earth 2.0”. That is not a choice we need to make. Believing we have to make such a choice is just a 21st-century version of the old and long-discredited, early-60s argument that we have enough problems on earth, so why do we need to be concerned about our own moon or the moons of Saturn.

But to its credit -- and probably quite inadvertently -- the March for Science did raise what is arguably the most fundamental question of all. Given the multiple-century time-frames required for serious, large-scale planetary colonization ... is the human race, at its most basic biological level, evolved to be capable of planning for such vast periods. Here, I am not encouraged. And the "No  Planet B" rhetoric gives me ample reason to believe the answer is "No, we humans are not evolved to be capable of such long-term planning". Humans' cognitive and perceptory apparata were evolved to deal with short-term threats and short-term problems. If you are being frozen by the gales blowing off the great glaciers covering Europe, you learn to build a fire to keep you and your family warm right-freakin'-now. If everyone learns the trick and starts building fires, and especially when they discover new technologies for building new kinds of fires, yes, there probably will be destructive consequences from nuclear waste, greenhouse gases, etc., etc., etc. But you are concerned with keeping yourself and yours warm right now. What will happen after a couple millennia of greenhouses gases have warmed the ambient temperature enough to turn all of San Diego into Sea World ... well ... that is for future generations of that day to deal with. So we work -- and vote -- so as to minimize discomfort in a year, or 2 years, or 4 years. Maybe another intelligent species somewhere with mean lifetimes measured in say five digits' worth of years can plan in terms of centuries and millennia. But not us.

So, at the end of the day, "There Is No Planet B" may well be a comment, not on the availability of alternate habitats for the human race, but for the human race itself and its mortality as a species. "No Planet B" may be just shorthand for Hamlet's soliloquy about "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, [that] puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of. Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all ... "

Y'all have a nice day, y'hear?!

James R. Cowles

Image credits
March for science, Sydney ... AFP Photo, Peter Parks ... CC by SA 3.0
"Listen to your nerds" ... CNN ... CC by SA 3.0
Mars colonization ... NASA ... Public domain
Chixulub impact ... Don Davis ... Public domain
End Permian eruption ... José-Luis Olivares/MIT ... CC by SA 2.0

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