Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"A Small World To Live On, A Big Universe To Die In"- part 2

In the prior essay, I complained about the inadequate thinking behind the execrable plot of the movie Avatar. However, I think my objections need to be more fleshed out, and so - apologies in advance - I'm going to have to go geek on you.

Living in space has been covered by so many scientists and science fiction authors, that I wonder if it is really necessary to expound upon the problems. But the fact is I haven't covered it, so here goes.

Every portrayal we have had of the future of people in space is terribly flawed in this respect: it's always viewed as ultimately planet dependent, the same way surface going ships on Earth are land dependent. But the fact of the matter is to live in space for even a brief period of time requires that you plan on living there permanently. In other words, the only viable form of space travel is going to require that you can exist out there all on your lonesome, with the tools and techniques and resources to pretty much recreate everything you are ever going to need to live out there.

More to the point, every bad science fantasy movie involving aliens invading the Earth to gain a resource such as fresh water is stupid from the start. If you can travel from star to star (or planet to planet) to invade a world, you can darn well extract what you need from asteroids, or comets, or uninhabited worlds, or even the gas and dust and solar winds around you. You don't need to bother fighting some pesky monkey people (or big blue cat people) for that resource you want. In fact, if you can't get what you need from the vast resources floating out in space, your space journey is pretty much fucked from the get-go.

If you wish to call yourself any kind of spacefaring civilization, you pretty much have to make yourself planet independent. You have to take care of the Three Ps: Power, Propulsion, and uh, Semi-Self-Contained Sustainable Habitat (Place). Power, duh, because you need energy to run shit. Propulsion, duh, because you need to move around. But you can't do that in some sealed coffee can with some  grow lights and a hydroponic rack of pond scum and sea monkeys to recycle your bad breath and poo. You need a biosphere. (I'm assuming you need one even if you have a magical faster than light star drive that can poot you around to pretty much anywhere like in your standard space fantasy scenario).

You need a biosphere. An artificial ecology. And a means to replenish it (because even the Earth is not self-contained). You need an extraction technology that can resupply just about anything within your biosphere. There's just no way around it. If humans ever head out, we are going to be like hermit crabs - hauling all the shit (ALL the shit) we need around with us to survive. And hauling all the shit we need (think about it, mining, smelting, refining, manufacturing, recycling, disposal, repurposing, basically everything that a civilization does) to keep things going.

And not only don't we know what we need, we don't even know what we need to need. The one time we tried to create an artificial environment (Biosphere II), it turned into a badly planned, badly mismanaged, awful, dystopian cult-fetish of a joke - you'd have thought the whole thing had been conceived and run by libertarians, it was that fucked up.

Hey, it's probably just as well we didn't just blithely send 'em all off to Mars and then wonder what went wrong, huh?

More importantly, the Biosphere II project was not realistic in making the demand that it be self-contained. Of course you're going to forget something from your grocery list. Of course you are going to run out of some things. Of course your tin can is going to leak. Of course extra air, water, soil, metals, volatiles, you name it, can't be carried along. You are going to need to be able to get that shit from your surrounding environment somehow. It's not cheating if you have to go outside to get what you need. It's common sense to have the ability to do that.

So, space faring civilizations, it's not going to be a romantic 19th century Star Trek vision of isolated sailing ships zooming between the stars. You're going to have to take your whole fucking civilization around with you.


  1. nah brah,

    That's not how it's done.


    When your civilization reaches the level at which it can engage in serious astrobiology - it does it via machines utilizing a bacterial dandelion model.

    and when I say machines, I'm not thinking about Clarke's hackable monoliths - though he did have them function as GOD's (genetic omni-determinists) of biology - I'm thinking about the lessons we've already learned in;

    1. computational genomics
    2. our longstanding knowledge of astrobiology and panspermia
    3. newfound techniques for bacterial data storage

    space is rife with spores. some spores are damn near indestructable and eternal. Just like a dandelion, an advanced civilization seeds the cosmos with rugged bacterial probes and drones fully capable of inhabiting and terraforming a variety of prospective biospheres, and most scarily, of invading and infecting biospheres ripe for conquest and incapable of sufficient adaptive response.

    the engineered biology inherent in those spores determines chemical and biological outcomes on the planet(s) suitable for hosting its operations. we are within a stone's throw of all the technology required to engineer such probes/drones - and - we have more than sufficient technology to have begun the interstellar seeding process decades ago.

    hell, this is the very basis of the Gaia hypothesis (or at least what Lovelock said to look for)


    we may do our own species in here before long, but not (I suspect) before we fulfill the prime directive and pass on the Gaian legacy into the cosmos as farmers in the field of stars. (or fruiting bodies in a vast planet spanning fungal mass)

    wash, rinse, repeat - ad infinitum...,

  2. Ah, yes. The problem with predicting the future is you just go and assume it will be like the present, but more better. Zeppelins in every garage, &c, &c.

    Panspermia may be the way to go. Then again, intelligent life could just be self-assembled via exquisitely timed compressions and rarefactions of comet dust and stellar winds via holographic radio waves or powerful lasers, or the manipulation of gravity itself via stellar tectonics or something.

    In other words, we run right into the Singularity and Fermi's Paradox, which share a common theme. If you get to the level of sophistication where you can broadcast life out into the galaxy, and perhaps beyond, all of our pedestrian side wagers are pretty much off the table, aren't they?

  3. inhale the Clarke very deeply and hold it in John - because therein lies the simultaneous answer to the Singularity/Fermi Paradox kwestin; In their explorations, they encountered life in may forms, and watched the workings of evolution on a thousand worlds. They saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and died in the cosmic night.

    And because in all the Galaxy, they found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the fields of the stars; they sowed and sometimes they reaped.

    Geological history and Fermi's Paradox alike trumpet loudly and clearly that multi-cellular terrestrial life is risky and dangerous an'a'muhphukka... even old Stephen Hawkings was on about this very dilemma not too long ago. Po thang, he needs to trip balls a few times before he leaves this mortal coil, talkin bout spaceships and such...,

    However, once a multicellular species achieves its technology enabled panspermian probe/drone singularity - and can store limitless data in a bacterial substrate - while simultaneously determining bacterial genetic constructions with computational reliability and ease - then that species has achieved its utilitarian endgame for non-portable, fragile, and terrestrially dependent multicellular automata - and simultaneously - the endgame for the eternal storage and proliferation of mind - as we know and experience it.

    Because in addition to achieving the probe and drone panspermian prime directive, the Singularity is the very next/concurrent thing we'll do with our organomechanical technology - transitioning our own engrams (Mind) into a durable, fungible, sustainable, immortal bacterial substrate capable of surviving extremophile environmental conditions and aggregating into the stromatolytic monads of aeons past.

    Why do you think when you REALLY trip balls on some profoundly good organic entheogens - you know, your ayahuasca type extravaganza - you encounter advanced non-human intelligences of a most sophisticated, standard, and universal sort?

    There be dragons, elves, and other fey and wonderful intelligences from remotest antiquity and furthest cosmic reaches who already long ago achieved their own species transition and immortalized themselves in the alternative bacterial microcosmic substrate/dimension.

    Psalm 103:14 For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.

  4. If memory servers, Childhood's End.

    Unfortunately, I'm of the opinion that, much as I dearly love to speculate on these types of things, I don't know jack and never will. Even an order of magnitude bump in IQ or empirical info on the subject still puts me in the diminishing returns department. And so... next topic!