Scatter, Adapt, Remember

How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Annalee Newitz, 2013

Emigrating Beyond Earth

Human Adaptation and Space Colonization

Cameron M. Smith and Evan T. Davies, 2012

These two books complement each other, and will be discussed together. Mostly to keep my memories of both organized, and to respond to the climax topic of both books - migration into space. This is not a comprehensive book review.

I've met two of the authors. Dr. Smith makes amateur spacesuits and teaches Anthropology at Portland State University. And while I can't find the memory in my own unreliable brain, Ms. Newitz met me when I presented High Stage One1 at the Space Elevator Conference in 2011 (co-author John M. Knapman), and notes this in her book. Her "day job" is peripatetic journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the science/science-fiction website io9.

When I saw Scatter at the library, I thumbed through the index looking for Dr. Smith, and found my name instead. Ms. Newitz had probably finished researching her book before his was published. If they read this review, I suspect they will mention each other in their next books; perhaps even collaborate.

Both books concern the long term ( "million year" ) survival of the human race, with Scatter focusing on the animals that survived mass extinction, while Emigrating extrapolates from the human colonization of the Pacific Islands. Both books discuss the five major mass extinctions during the history of life.

The books suggest that space colonization is the remedy for mass extinction - reducing our dependence on the earth and its vulnerabilities. As Robin Hanson points out in The Great Filter, space travel is difficult, but once we learn how, the galaxy is small compared to the vast time available for migration. If "they" are not already here, then there is some barrier to their development, either the rarity of the development of intelligent life, or the development of (slow) interstellar travel. Astrobiologists (see Ward and Brownlee's Rare Earth) have identified many hurdles on the way to large-animal intelligence, while the mass extinctions and human population bottlenecks identified by paleontologists arrive at the same conclusions by other means. This suggests that The Great Filter may be behind us; if we manage to establish life in space, then we may be the first to fill our own galaxy with life.

Emigrating is far more academic and detailed, provides a LOT of anthropological and paleontological detail, and answers "don't go to space until we fix the earth" complaints. The postulated motivation is the same as the motivations that spread mankind into the Pacific, exploring and finding new places to live, according to Polynesian history. I suspect such stories are the brave face that refugees fleeing oppression and poverty tell their progeny; my grandfather left Sweden to escape grinding poverty, and came to Oregon, where real salaries were perhaps 10x what was available to an unskilled laborer near Osthammar and Upsalla. Another ancestor was mulatto (says genetic testing), and fled antebellum slavery to reinvent himself/herself as white in Texas.

Emigrating chronicles the cycles of civilizations, some long-lived (Sumeria, Egypt, Maya) and some less than thirty generations (Greece, Rome, Inca, Aztec). These collapses destroy people, and most of their intellectual accomplishments. While larger groups may gain resiliency from trade and migration with other large groups, when a group becomes too large and too centrally controlled, they become vulnerable to errors in governance; there is no such thing as "too big to fail", only failures that are too horrific to contemplate - and therefore proactively avoid.

Emigrating talks about Mars as humanity's second home, then the development of vast generation ships (populations in the thousands, perhals) to go to the stars. More about that below.

Scatter is journalism. It takes a more close-up view of pandemics, earthquakes, military conquest, and other threats to people in groups, and some of our means to mitigate them, citing experts and visiting labs and places around the world. Far fewer drawings than Emigrating, more pictures of human artifacts and more focus on technology and the personal. Scatter presents ongoing research on the behavior of structures in earthquakes, population in famines, etc. These studies can help us minimize disasters - or else develop false confidence in our ability to prevent them, encouraging us to design ever-closer to the margin of catastrophic collapse, as Nicholas Taleb writes about.

Scatter also talks about Mars as a colonization goal. The means suggested is an Edwards-style space elevator - though the illustrations show behemoth climbers and tethers, not Edward's gossamer structures and ultralight climbers. Scatter takes us only to Titan, not the stars. While both books talk about the genetic/biological changes we will make to adapt to space, Emigrating is more about adapting to radiation in space, while Scatter adapts us to Titan.

Scatter does suggest that the barrier to cheap space travel is not technology, but a developed market, quoting from Randii Wessen at JPL, "the bottom line is that you need a business rationale for doing it". Although I have participated in space elevator design (that is where Ms. Newitz says she met me), I believe that in the near term, the problem is not vehicles but markets. We should not worry about making space "relevant" or "our hope of survival" but about finding fast growth, high profit opportunities driven by customer demand.

Our Future in Space - My Take

Both books are written as if we are rich - the "we" being the US, and "rich" meaning owning lots of stuff. The US is only 4% of the world's population, and while we still have the most stuff per person for a large country, much of this stuff (big screen TVs, big cars, big houses, big carbohydrates) does not translate into the industry and knowledge and entrepreneurship necessary to colonize space. Indeed, we seem to be downwardly mobile on average, while small groups buck the trend and advance rapidly. Whether those small groups transform our society, or are bureaucratically destroyed like Cheng Ho's fleet, remains to be seen. Whether India or China's thrust towards economic sufficiency produces the wealth necessary to fund space as an adventure also remains to be seen. Worst case, they join us as obese couch potatoes, not adventurers.

Neither book presents the most impressive and sustained technical/entrepreneurial miracle of our time: the explosively exponential deployment of solid state electronics. Classical Moore's law lithography development - 30x increase in transistor density per decade - is merely one of many drivers for the more important development: 200x increase in the number of transistors per decade, 1.7x per year, 4.5% per month. This growth can continue for at least two more decades with the devices now in the research labs, resulting in far more digital assistance to far more people at far lower cost. That will turn the world upside down, and provide the tools to leave it.

Many Americans know about Bill Gates and Microsoft - few have heard about Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecommunications magnate who is neck-in-neck with Mr. Gates as "richest man in the world". Both are rich because of the transistor explosion. Sr. Helu provides cell phone telecommunications to far more poor people than Mr. Gate's relatively wealthy software customers. Sr. Helu is better positioned for future growth, especially if he can combine those phones with the internet to connect the world's poor into a vastly expanded global economy. Provide the world's poorest people of 2034 with capabilities and global reach unmatched by the richest person of 2014, and the new economic driver will be nearly 10 billion very powerful and informed people, with radically divergent approaches to problem solving. Some will succeed brilliantly.

This won't be Orwell's 1984, or "robot apocalypse" - we have no motivation to build such things. Individuals will be the center of a much larger collection of hyperpersonalized systems, and the parallel advance of open source and repurposable systems will mean those individuals can choose to have far greater control over their own destiny. While the flesh/brain component of "human" may become an ever-smaller fraction of the whole, humans and nature will be an amplified, not expendable, component of this "digital noosphere".

With 380 trillion terawatts of space solar energy to power the noosphere, we no longer need to choose between nature and technology. They can build on each other, with technology serving all lifeforms, not just first world humanity, while the vast "information mine" of the biosphere will be an essential design template for the vastly expanded interplanetary digital web. While the 5 billion years of geological/hydraulic beneficiation that produced the Earth's ore bodies will be the source of the initial materials for this expansion, most of the solar system's carbon and hydrogen is in space, on other bodies. The Earth is too warm and close to the sun to support low temperature, high compute-efficiency digital machines mostly built from rigid structured hydrocarbons. We will build the first generations of space computation systems with the metals and semiconductors and plastics the Earth and its vast industrial infrastructure can produce. These will be nearly impossible to replicate with undifferentiated extraterrestrial resources. Within a few centuries, though, we will be mining the gas giants for the carbon and oxygen and hydrogen needed for the cryogenic systems we will deploy in the far, cold reaches of the solar system.

The rocky inner planets, with solar shielding or enhancement, will become the home of gravity-dependent life. Vastly more bio-life will be in zero gee, symbiotic with digital "life", actively and rapidly repairing itself in the cosmic radiation bath. While the human form is poorly adapted to this environment, Neptune at the speed of light is closer than Europe to the US in airplanes at the speed of sound. Enhanced human minds will roam the solar system the way we roam cities and continents now, "travelling" in ways we can barely imagine in 2014.

This will be the starting point for our migration to the stars, as distributed intelligences, not as 80kg primates in expensive artificial biospheres in metal cans. We do not have self-sustaining colonies on the poles, or underground, or at the bottom of the sea, or high in the atmosphere. Humans go where other human-enabling lifeforms have gone already. We abandon places (like the Sahara, or Easter Island, or Detroit) that no longer sustain human life. When we accumulate enough enhanced biosphere elsewhere, some will travel there in the flesh, the way our ancestors walked and sailed their way to pre-existing biomes elsewhere on the Earth. With machinery, and terraforming, and digital intelligence, we may bootstrap a human child from a few nanograms of DNA, in a pre-constructed biological environment. Or we may download copies of our minds into artificial bio-humans. The constructed environments may grow from interstellar spaceships that weigh grams, not megatons. Natural humans and the biosphere that supports them aren't very portable.

Space is vast, mostly empty of mass and usable energy, and completely empty of food, breathable air, and ready-to-use natural materials. We will conquer space with methods based on the resources available, not adapted from our past. Emigrating correctly notes that the architects of the future will be amateurs, but neither the enthusiasm of amateurs nor the expertise of professionals will be enough to transform amateurs into the new experts. Invention will require persistence, the accumulation of knowledge, and a heck of a lot of luck. Seven billion enabled people may have enough luck among all of them to produce miracles.

(1)Learn more about "High Stage One" in Space Elevators: An Assessment of the Technological Feasibility and the Way Forward edited by Peter Swan et al., International Academy of Astronautics, October 2013.

ScatterEmigrating (last edited 2015-01-16 04:58:11 by KeithLofstrom)