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Grand Survival December 24, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy, Social Politics, Transportation.
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Yesterday I pointed out that those who claim to care about worldly things grander than individual freedom (be they human life or local ecosystems) should concern themselves with perpetuation beyond our precarious planet.  The premise here is clearly fascist, but that does not mean it isn’t noble or worthy.

A program for interstellar propagation of earth life would certainly be a tremendous challenge.  But it would also be salutary: In the absence of a grand threat or challenge humans tend to degenerate, focusing our energy on selfish amusement and petty disputes.  Mankind’s admirable traits emerge most clearly when we collectively step up to overcome great obstacles.

Perhaps the greatest good our present leaders could do is to sell this vision: The survival of our species is in imminent danger so long as we are bound to this planet, and if we focus our energy on breaking our ties to it we can achieve a collective immortality.

Interstellar propagation requires the focus of vast quantities of skilled human resources in a number of areas:

Energy: Enormous sums of energy are needed to get machines into deep space and to sustain them at large distances from solar and material fuel sources.  Presently we struggle to produce enough energy to sustain even core terrestial activity.  The first hurdle we face is the development of practical fusion technology, which will finally produce massive quantities of energy “too cheap to meter.”  The second hurdle is is the creation of antimatter batteries (i.e., devices capable of controlled storage and reaction of antimatter with matter), which provide the densest energy we can currently conceive — indeed, energy density 10 orders of magnitude greater than the chemical power sources with which we are familiar, and 5 orders of magnitude greater than fusion media.

Machines: We need advances in nanotechnology and materials sciences so that we can create self-replicating and self-healing machines.  With access to massive amounts of energy a “von Neumann” type machine could in principle turn raw matter into plasma, extract refined elements, and synthesize the compounds needed not only to repair itself but also to build new copies of itself.  In deep space this reclamation capacity is essential since all matter must be recycled in order to sustain a functioning system for leaps between star systems that might last eons.  Interstellar exploration requires fleets of von Neumann probes, not just to find new bases for establishing life, but also to build caches of materials and energy for life-sustaining vessels traveling in their wake.  Life-bearing vessels themselves should self-replicate when resources are available: If propagation is limited to a non-increasing fleet then there is some probability that the entire fleet will eventually be wiped out by accidents or unforeseen problems.

Humans: We may be able to build enormous ships containing functioning biospheres that would support thriving human societies for thousands of generations as they travel between settlements.  But natural modern human creatures are far too unstable and ill-equipped for efficient interstellar propagation.  After all, we have to reproduce at least every forty years, and we die after a hundred.  Each new generation faces risks of polymorphism: We’re not quite sure how each child will turn out in terms of capacities, limitations, or disposition.  This “generational polymorphism” is a tremendous risk in a small, isolated population.  Small inbred populations also face increasing genetic risks that over many generations can destroy them.  Aside from problems of breeding, there are problems of gravity and biophilia: Man is not naturally equipped for long-term survival in microgravity or in completely artificial environments.

What we really want to create is an Explorer subspecies of homo sapiens: Purged of all genetic diseases and disabilities, able to live its entire life on synthetic food, able to maintain physical and mental health in the limited environment of an interstellar space ship.  Perhaps capable of indefinite suspended animation; if not, then enjoying an exceptionally long lifespan.  Capable of reproducing to populate new copies of seed ships that would be constructed at every opportunity.  And finally, capable of starting new settlements of vital populations of human beings to fill and maintain new biospheres indefinitely.

Either that, or we could just stay here, fight to keep other people off our lawn, and see how long this lasts.

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1. federalist - August 10, 2009
2. Net Human Product and Our Purpose | Federalist - May 22, 2013

[…] on a vastly larger, less precarious scale. Could we achieve such a thing? Almost certainly not in our corporal forms, which have evolved only to survive and reproduce in the fragile fringe of our home planet. But in […]


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