Tuesday, September 13, 2016

There's No Place Like Home

"Howdy neighbor!" Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
I've got another post in the works on topic of Meaning, but it's been almost two weeks since my last post went up, and I wanted to break the silence with something that's a bit easier to write.

There's been quite a bit of news about the universe lately. First, there was the short-lived bit of excitement about SETI detecting a radio burst from deep space. Then we detected an "Earth-like" planet around our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. A scientist even wrote a recent piece for the Boston Globe about directed panspermia, the theory that life on Earth originated, indeed, was specifically seeded, from extraterrestrial sources.

Most of this is nonsensical. The SETI signal is most likely Earth-based interference, or at the very least random noise amplified by natural phenomena. Proxima B, even if it's located in the "Goldilocks zone," is unlikely to be able to support life as we might appreciate it for all kinds of reasons.  Even the author of the panspermia piece recognizes that it's not a particularly compelling theory, and it only moves the goalposts when working out the problems with the chemical origin of life. (That's a topic I've been meaning to address someday.)

Still, people get very excited about the idea of life on other planets. It's certainly been a staple of science fiction since the genre came about. Given all the recent talk related to that idea in the news, I wasn't surprised to see this article: What will it take for humans to colonize the Milky Way?

It starts off this way:
The idea that humans will eventually travel to and inhabit other parts of our galaxy was well expressed by the early Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote, “Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever.” Since then the idea has been a staple of science fiction, and thus become part of a consensus image of humanity’s future. Going to the stars is often regarded as humanity’s destiny, even a measure of its success as a species. But in the century since this vision was proposed, things we have learned about the universe and ourselves combine to suggest that moving out into the galaxy may not be humanity’s destiny after all.
The author goes on to discuss the problems of actually transporting people across the vast distances of space: How to organize society, how to provide enough food for those people, how to keep their ship functional when it is a closed system in terms of resources, etc. All of these problems stem from the fact that any attempt to colonize another planet would be a generational endeavor.
Although I could probably get on board with this.
Why generational? Note my use of the phrase "vast distances" above. We tend to downplay those distances for one reason or another, but it's what I would call insurmountable.

Take Proxima Centauri for example. It's our closest neighboring star, at a cozy little distance of 4.25 light years away. If you're not aware, a light year is the distance light can travel in a year; in more familiar terms, that's about 40 trillion kilometers.

That's a big distance. How much time would it take to travel that span? It depends on how you calculate it. Most of our current technology would measure the trip in tens of thousands of years. Speculative technologies, unproven but being bandied about, drop it into the thousands. Theoretical tech can get it under 100 years, but that stuff remains in the realm of science fiction. Even a propulsion system that could go at the speed of light would still take four years, and we've seen that extended time is not good for humans. Anything faster than that, such as Star Trek's warp drives, remain entirely imaginary.

Of course, that's just to get to our nearest neighbor. Which has a planet that might support life. (Can you imagine the disappointment of sending a ship there that would take 50,000 years to arrive, only to find out it can't support life at all?) Our other neighbors, however, are progressively further and further away; visiting them would be even more prohibitive.

All of this is to say that, at least as far as I'm concerned, we're not travelling to the stars. We're not colonizing the Milky Way. There will be no Federation of Planets. This is it; we're stuck here on Earth.
Be it ever so humble.
I think most people probably realize this on some level. I understand the impulse to dream about the stars, though. It's not just the human fascination with new horizons, the urge to explore and understand. Life on Earth is rough. As a collective society, we've got our share of problems: War, famine, disease, poverty, conflicts at every conceivable scale. As long as there's been a frontier, people have looked to it as the solution to social problems. It's the chance to start over. Leave the conflicts maladies behind and do things right. It's not always utopian, but there's still the prevailing sentiment that things will be better.

We can't really do that on Earth anymore; we've spread out to every corner of the globe that can support human life. There's no escaping the problems and starting over, no running from the entangling governments, no isolation from the social strife that seems overwhelming at times. So we dream about the stars as the next great frontier, the next chance to escape destruction if we "screw it up" as a planet, Wall-E style.

As Christians, we completely understand this sentiment. We recognize just how pervasive the influence of sin in this world can be. There's not a single human institute or endeavor that isn't corrupted in some way. Our hope isn't that we'll get to escape these maladies, but that there will be redemption for them (see Romans 8:18-25). We don't have to dream about other planets because we trust God when He says that He's still watching out for this one.

I realize not everyone sees things that way. All the same, I think there's far better reasons to believe that we will shine like stars than that mankind will live among them.

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