Column Archives:

March 24, 2013

Why should people Survive?

I get this all the time from people that know me: Caleb, if you hate people so much why are you so concerned about serving the community? If you don’t know, I volunteer all my free time away, tutoring undergrads for the GRE, tutoring at-risk high schoolers, working as a substitute, volunteering at assisted living facilities, and for a short stint I even tutored (tortured) some elementary school kids with math. Really my every day is some sort of devotional to saving the planet, which includes the people I guess. My readers probably know my only real concern is for the whales, but saving them includes the people too so I guess it’s like collateral healing?

Here’s the thing. Is life rare? I don’t really think it is, but according to the latest science, life is regrettably limited to Earth. I believe that in time we’ll find life other places. I don’t know how intelligent the life will be and for the most part I don’t care. Maybe there will be whales in far off oceans, but the point will be that the universe isn’t empty. I’ve learned that the universe is an abundant source of opportunity for a random combination of amino acids and evolution will always do its thing.

The latest science (check the report from March 21, 2013) just came up with a new age for the universe, some 13.82 billion years. Multiply that by a billion Earths and throw in some relativistic time lengthening based on planetary speeds. It amounts to a lot of chances at developing intelligence. Not that intelligence is some great point. I just think a lifeless cosmos is a lot of rock moving around; it’s life that makes it beautiful. I’ve been called a romantic before.

My theories being what they are, I still have to move forward with the latest science as my guiding light. Maybe, despite all the chances at reproducing spontaneous life generation, maybe we’re all there is. No wonder I’m always depressed. There needs to be some higher purpose to intelligent life.

Here’s the thing. I may hate homo sapiens, but they will serve as a vehicle for spreading life through the universe. Humans will spread the seeds of life to as many places as they can without stopping until every habitable place is colonized. They’ll take themselves, but they’ll also take crops, livestock, whole ecosystems, pets, and unintentional species like rats on the ships of old.

The way I see it, everything that happens on Earth is meaningless with very few exceptions. There are two actions that I deem meaningful in the greatest way. The first is the development of technology that helps us escape this mortal coil. That includes some tasks performed in medicine, ecology, NASA, materials sciences, engineering, anything that solves the problems of long term space travel or high speed space travel.

High-speed space travel is necessary because the nearest stars are so far away. The closest is over 4 light years away, but if we can manage to attain relativistic speeds (velocities near the speed of light) time slows down in the frame of reference from the ship to the universe. Slowing time for the ship has the advantage of lessening the toll of travel for organisms on the ship, but it has some disadvantages too. Look up the twin paradox if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Assuming we have to bring every life form in the ecosystem Noah’s ark style, travel time is going to be critically important. Sustaining all these life forms with enough ecological critical mass to be fruitful and multiply on a new world is no small task.

Long-term space travel is simply unavoidable unless we truly master high-speed travel. Plus, the initial terra-forming phases are basically like space travel anyway since colonists might not be able to the leave the base for generations. The difference is that colonists on planets can spread out and use local resources that are unavailable on the ships.

The second set of meaningful tasks in this era here on Earth includes any progress in the drudgery of planetary survival. This is a broad group of tasks that includes people trying to maintain biological diversity on the planet, insuring our collective survival, and generally preventing this planet from becoming a wasteland that would set us back from our primary task.

I fall into the second set of tasks, since I feel these problems are more imminent. I don’t see us leaving the planet in my lifetime, but I do see us destroying it. Here I define destroying the planet as anything that prevents the escape of life. The end has been nigh since the first man stood upright, in fact some of the oldest writings ever found are about the coming apocalypse; not the Christian Apocalypse, no, much older than that, but all religions have an end myth. Therefore, I don’t really put much stock in my own end myth, and yet I work to prevent it.

While I fully believe it’s universally common to dread a mysterious end, I also believe it’s naive to think we can’t mess up badly enough to kill ourselves. Paradoxically, religion gets in the way of both of these truths, confirming the former and refuting the latter. Regardless, of the hurdles, if the universe is to exist with life, and I want it to, humans must survive to serve as the vehicle. If not us, then who? Maybe Star Trek IV had it right and whales will do it; OK probably not. The unfortunate lonely truth is that only humans can populate the heavens and that makes them worth saving.

Song of the Season (or longer)

I’m taking this class on Energy Policy and I really like it. In fact for the first time ever, I really like all my classes and professors. This semester at Tech is how I hoped undergrad life would be (It would have to be more difficult for me to say this how I hoped graduate life would be). As part of the class we’ve looked at coal mining and it’s been depressing all around. I thought perhaps I had used this song before, but google didn’t find it so the song of the month is one that I learned to play over the past month, a staple in my listening rotation for years: John Prine’s Paradise.

     When I was a child my family would travel
     Out to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
     There’s a backwards old town that I often remember
     So many times that my memories are worn
     Sometimes we’d travel down the Green River
     To the abandoned old prison on Airdrie hill
     The air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
     But empty pop bottles was all we would kill
     Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
     Down by the Green River where paradise lay
     Well I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in askin
     Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
     The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
     They tortured the timber and stripped out the land
     They dug for that coal til the land was forsaken
     And they wrote it all down as the progress of man