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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Human Opportunity

There is a small theater for visitors at the NASA Space Center in Houston, called "Destiny Theater". Every hour, every day, they show a film there called “On Human Destiny”.  This beautiful and deeply moving film documents the history of space exploration, using striking historical film footage.  The film concludes that it is our human destiny to explore space and colonize other star systems. 

I don’t believe in human destiny.  I believe in human opportunity.

There is no force which predetermined that humans should reach space, spread life to other star systems, or colonize other planets.  There is only our human potential to do so.  Whether we succeed in becoming something more than we are today or become a geological footnote in the history of a small planet depends on us.  It depends on our choices and our ability to cooperate.  It depends on our ability to work.  It depends on our ability to solve problems.   It depends on what we choose to do.  It depends on us.

Rarity of Human Life
In the history of the world, or the history of the galaxy, the evolution of the human species is an incredibly rare and improbable event.  Even given our debut as a tool-making genus about 3 million years ago, and a species capable of abstract thought 70,000 years ago, our technological civilization is an additionally unlikely and very recent development.   Against all odds, we stand on the cusp of meaningful space travel; we stand on the cusp of interstellar transmission of life.

The universe is about 13.8 billion years old.  By comparison, we have had the ability to communicate by radio broadcast for 122 years.  That is 0.0000000088th of the lifetime of the universe.  Or consider our planet, which has existed for 4.6 billion years.  We have had the ability to communicate by radio for a fraction of 0.00000003 times the life of our planet.  Putting it another way, if aliens had randomly looked our planet at any time during the life of the planet to date, they would have had a 0.00000003th  chance of noticing that there was an intelligent species, capable of radio communication.  [Or, at least a species capable of communication, with the question of intelligence unresolved.]

Rarity of Intelligent Life in the Galaxy
The Drake Equation, formulated in 1961, describes the probability that a civilization capable of radio communication exists in the galaxy at the present time.  Many variables in the equation are poorly constrained (obviously).  But astronomical knowledge is rapidly reducing the uncertainty about the number of habitable planets in the galaxy.  The principal remaining uncertainty is the expected lifetime of a technological civilization, as pointed out by astronomers Carl Sagan and I. S. Shlovski in 1966.
The equation begins with a large number representing the number of stars in the galaxy, or the rate of star formation in the galaxy.  Factors representing some fraction of those stars successively pare down the number of potential civilizations, according to necessary criteria for life, for intelligence, for technology, and for longevity of the civilization.  The equation looks like this (from Wikipedia):
 N = R* . fp .ne . fl . fi . fc . L
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);
R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Some variants of the equation use the total number of stars in the Milky Way as a starting point, rather than the rate of star formation   That number is between 200,000,000,000 and 400,000,000,000.

Here are my guesses for these factors. 
My Assumptions for the Drake Equation:
80% of stars have planets.
20% of planetary systems have at least one habitable planet
20% of habitable planets develop life
1% of planets with life develop intelligence
20% of planets with intelligence develop radio technology.
The average lifetime of a radio-capable technological civilization is 2000 years

These assumptions yield an estimate that there is one technological civilization in the galaxy at the present time – us.  If I adjust the factors such that there are 2 civilizations in the galaxy, the average distance to another civilization would be about 35,000 light-years.  Thus the time required to communicate with another civilization would far exceed my estimate for the expected lifetime of a civilization. 

There are a number of interactive calculators for the Drake Equation available on the Internet.

Human Opportunity
“The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.”                                              Robert Heinlein

Against incredible odds, humanity stands on the cusp of interplanetary travel.  Some of the world’s best and brightest people are seriously making plans to colonize Mars.  And if the other planets in the solar system are too inhospitable to support an independent human civilization, scientists have discovered a thousand planets around other stars – and these are but a tiny fraction of the number that must exist. 

Still, I am reminded of the title of a 1973 book by Ben Bova: Starflight and other Improbabilities.  As we understand physics today, the speed of light is an unyielding limit.    Voyages to the stars would require generations to complete the voyage and consume vast resources.  The probability of success for any particular venture would be slim.  But the tantalizing possibility of interstellar colonization is possibly, just barely within our grasp.  A program to gain more information about other planets is the first step.

I can imagine launching miniaturized microprobes, using magnetic accelerators in space to catapult them near light speed.  Returning the data to earth is problematic; but perhaps the probes themselves could use the gravity of stars to reverse course to earth.  Alternatively, a series of relay craft, with deployable antennae could follow the probe and transmit the data back to earth. 

And if colonization of the stars proves to be impossible, we could at least do what life does: propagate itself.  We could send seed packages to other star systems which would spread the miracle of life to other worlds.  If that alone is humanity’s legacy, it would be a worthy monument that we lived, developed science and technology, and gave life a new chance on barren worlds.

If life exist on other planets (as I expect it will on some, in a simple form) we should respect and preserve that life.  But I would not let protection of speculative simple life prevent our own further development.  Earthly life has proven its ability to develop complex forms, ecosystems, intelligence and technology, and I value those more than non-sentient algae.  We do not yet know what we might achieve, but today, we appear to have achieved more than any other life in the galaxy.  We owe it to those who have gone before to reach for what more we can become.

That is the opportunity for humanity.

What We Must Do: A Short List
Colonization of the stars, by people or earthly life, will not happen by itself.  Realization of this opportunity will only happen if people actively work toward that goal, through deliberate, directed effort and management of problems facing humanity on Earth. 

You may have noticed that I highlighted the final parameter of the Drake Equation – the expected lifetime of a technological civilization.  My guess is that a technological civilization will exist for about 2000 years before self-destructing due to environmental collapse, war or other strife.  Clearly, the longer a civilization can last, the better the chances of realizing Human Opportunity.  Therefore, our first goal is to ensure the longevity of civilization for our descendants.

Here is a short list of what we must do to realize our very rare, improbable human opportunity.
1)      Bring peace to the globe. 
Nationalism was the great sin of the 20th century, causing two world wars and countless smaller conflicts.  In the 21st century, nationalism is still rampant, even resurgent in the first two decades of the new millennium.  Our job in the next century should be to render national borders obsolete, uniting economic interests and blurring national identity until war between nations becomes a ridiculous idea.  Global spending on the military is about 2.3% of GDP; spending on all space products and services is about 0.4% of GDP, or about 1/5 of the spending on defense.  Just imagine what we could accomplish if that ratio was reversed!

Religious conflicts also need to come to an end.  Over 3000 distinct religious sects exist on Earth, generally with each one claiming to be the single true faith.  This conviction of righteous certainty continues to plague mankind in the form of religious prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, hatred, and violence.  Religious pluralism and acceptance is necessary worldwide, in order to eliminate conflict between faiths.  Governments must be secular in order to avoid favoritism to any single faith.

Tribalism is the root of most human conflicts – the notion of “us” versus “them”, with thoughts and rhetoric which de-humanizes the enemy.  The bases for that tribalism are the familiar divides of race, religion, ethnic identity, national origin, wealth and political orientation.  Tribalism itself must be recognized as the enemy, and opposed wherever it occurs.

2)      Bring prosperity to all.
We cannot realize the full potential of mankind while a large portion of the world’ population lives in poverty.   Although great strides have been made in reducing extreme poverty, still, between one-third to one-half of the world’s population lives in poverty according to some measure – without access to adequate clean water, food, or sanitation. 

Health, nutrition, sanitation and education are the minimum requirements for full realization of a human life.  If not from the morality of fairness, then our own self-interest should motivate us to provide these things for all of humanity.  Because if we are to realize the potential of our species, we need the best performance from all of the workers, all of the scientists, and all of the geniuses on the planet.  If we do not provide these things to every young person, we are missing out on the possible contributions that we might receive. 

Although extreme poverty is diminishing, income inequality is increasing around the globe.  As economist Thomas Piketty pointed out, as long as the return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth, the unequal distribution of wealth will increase.  Further, automation of labor through robotics and computerization is a threat to the global middle class, causing destruction of middle-income jobs.  The loss of honorable work is nothing new; it has been a theme of several dystopian novels, notably Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, “Player Piano”, published in 1952.  Providing meaningful employment to workers will be a major economic challenge as labor is increasingly automated.  

Conflict is often rooted in inequity.   The final reason for bringing prosperity to everyone is to reduce conflict between people.  People naturally understand fairness.  People desire equality of opportunity, and a decent, honorable and respected quality of life.

The elimination of inequality includes the elimination of gender and racial discrimination.  Apart from the moral imperative of fairness, we must understand that we are unlikely to realize human potential if half of the human race is blocked from contributing to our success.   

Balancing the distribution of wealth is difficult.  It means providing equality of opportunity.  It means balancing the meritocracy of individual achievement with respect for all people.  It means providing meaningful and financially rewarding work to all laborers.  It means managing the disproportionate return on capital to the owners of capital with the need to distribute wealth throughout society.  By no means have we solved these problems, or have any solution in sight.  But providing honorable prosperity to everyone is something that we must do to achieve the potential of the human race. 

3)      Mitigate environmental damage.
Damage to our environment will shorten the lifespan of our technological civilization, reducing our chances of realizing our potential.  It should now be clear to everyone that human-induced climate change is real.  Our emissions of greenhouse gases are adding heat to the atmosphere and changing the climate in ways that may be very damaging to many people.  There is no quick fix, but we need to stabilize or reverse climate change by 2050.  Beyond climate change, we must remediate the damage to the ecosystems of the oceans due to overfishing and pollution.  We must also stop the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere into the oceans, which is causing a significant change in ocean acidity.  We need to achieve clean air and water, particularly in newly industrialized developing countries which are rapidly causing damage to the environment.

We need to achieve our goals of environmental protection without compromising the standard of living and economic well-being of people.

4)      Continue scientific studies and space exploration.
Obviously, we will not explore and colonize space without further progress in science and technology.  We must continue to explore the planets, moons and asteroids of our solar system.  We need to continue to investigate the effects of the space environment on human physiology, so we can design spaceship environments capable of deep space flight.   We are making good progress in that direction, with concrete plans to send a manned mission to Mars.

I think an important stepping-stone will be to mine the asteroids, or bring asteroids into Earth orbit to provide construction materials for other ventures.  The technology required for these ventures will add to the general know-how of living and working in space.

Energy is a significant constraint in space exploration, as it is on Earth.  Small-scale nuclear fusion reactors seem feasible, and there are a number of research companies working on the idea.   When fusion energy is achieved, it will be a milestone for space exploration, as well as the key to ending our climate-change crisis on Earth.  For these reasons, continued funding and research into fusion power must be one of our special priorities. 

It is also not too early to think big – an independent, self-sustaining planetary colony may require a more accommodating environment than today’s environment on Mars or Venus.  Within this century, we could begin the first stages of terraforming Mars, Venus, or moons within our solar system.  The costs might be large, and it may require centuries, but the reward would be another home planet for mankind.

And private entrepreneurs are already working toward an interstellar exploration project.  The "Breakthrough Starshot" was initiated in 2016 by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner with a personal commitment of $100 million, and supported by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  The US agency DARPA has also given a grant called the 100 Year Starship, toward the development of the capability for interstellar travel within 100 years.


There is a lot to do.  But there are seven billion people capable of carrying the task forward.  We need to extend the lifetime of our technological civilization, we need to do more to ensure social equity and opportunity, and we need to work toward colonizing other planets.  The first thing is to recognize the goal and to gain alignment of many people toward that goal.

We should also acknowledge the progress that has been made over the past 300 years of the scientific enlightenment, and especially the incredible progress over the past 30 years in former "developing countries".  This progress is well documented in Hans Rosling's book Factfulness, and Steven Pinker's book Enlightenment Now.  Rosling's data visualization site, is an excellent tool for seeing that progress, especially in the visualization "Health and Wealth of Nations".$chart-type=bubbles

We will not realize the potential of our species by focusing on self-interest or national interest.  We will not get there by fighting.  We will not get there by arguing about what is the correct religion and true form of God.

Although our entertainment about space provides inspiration, we will not achieve human opportunity by reading science fiction, or watching Star Wars, or playing space games.  It seems to me that people are satisfied with the dream, the fantasy that we are a space-faring people.  We will only achieve human opportunity by actually doing things that will bring us closer to space travel.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk recognizes the value and the fragility of human opportunity.  Musk made a fortune in Internet businesses with the purpose of acquiring enough capital to make a difference.  Musk started the automobile company Tesla, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating environmental damage.  Musk founded the rocket company SpaceX, because Elon Musk sincerely wants to colonize Mars.   Few of us have the abilities or resources of Elon Musk, but everyone can do something. 

Against odds of a hundred billion to one, we stand today as perhaps the only technological civilization in the galaxy.  After three and a half billion years of evolution, we are alive at the very moment when we have the intellect and capability to do something remarkable – to remake the galaxy into a home for earthly life and mankind.  We stand on the brink of colonizing the stars.  Whether we succeed or fail depends on us.  

Let's do it.
Original post: 7/13/2016.  
Edited 4/3/2020 to add references to Hans Rosling's Factfulness, and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now, and references to interstellar exploration initiatives, and additions about human potential.


Drake Equation
N = R* . fp .ne . fl . fi . fc . L
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);
R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Drake Equation Calculators

Planets Image

Origin of Life on Earth
Origin of life at least 3.5 billion years ago, possibly as old as 4.1 billion years ago.  Probably originated as RNA-based life.  Gained complexity and diverse functions through time.
Multicellular life evolved independently at least 46 times.  Multicellular life arose about 3 to 3.5 billion years ago, and complex multicellular life arose about 1.5 billion years ago. 

Homo habilis: 2.8 m.y. BP

Hans Rosling, 2018, Factfulness, 341p.
Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Ronnlund;

Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, 576 p.
World Bank statistics on military spending, as a percentage of GDP by country.  
Military spending is still increasing in real terms, due to the increase in global GDP.  Real military spending has increased by 2.5x since 1988.
World military spending declined from 3.4 percent of GDP in 1988 to 2.3 percent in 2015.
United States military spending has declined from 5.6 percent of GDP in 1988 to 3.3 percent in 2015.

The number of people in extreme poverty has been falling rapidly.   In 1981, 44% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.90 per day.  By 1990, that number was reduced to 37% of the world’s population, and by 2012, only 12.5% of the world’s population lived on $1.90 per day. 
In 1998, over 80% of the world’s population lived on less than $10 per day. 

Space Exploration
Several articles from a series about entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Most information seriously dated – 2005 vintage.

NASA 2016 budget:  19 billion dollars.

Total global spending for space products and services was $330 billion in 2014, including commercial, military, and government scientific spending.
Given global GDP of 74.150 billion in 2015, spending on space is about 0.4 percent of global GDP.

Interstellar probes


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