Is the pandemic a rehearsal for our own cosmic mortality?
Last weekend the American space program resumed one of its most cherished and iconic traditions: launching astronauts into space from its own soil and with its own rockets, after a decade of hitching rides to the International Space Station with the Russians.
The event was celebrated as the beginning of a new era in spaceflight, with talk of moon colonies, Mars voyages, space tourism, interplanetary capitalism and the cool new SpaceX spacesuits. "We are proving out a business model, a public-private partnership business model that ultimately will enable us to go to the moon, this time sustainably," Jim Bridenstine, Nasa's administrator, said at a news conference on May 26.
But this triumphant talk shared the headlines with more disquieting news about our vulnerabilities back on Earth. In the week before the launch, the death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 100,000 in the United States, and the frustrations generated by the pandemic — abrupt and widespread unemployment, glaring social inequity — surely helped fuel the riots that roiled many cities over the weekend.
It was hard not to see it as an ominous signal, reinforcing a message some thinkers say has been sent by the universe regarding our cosmic destiny as a species. In 1998, Robin Hanson, now an economics professor at George Mason University, posed a vexing question: If the universe is such a garden of possibility, as astrobiologists and cosmologists proclaim, why amid billions of worlds and after billions of years is there no evidence of anybody out there to greet us?
Where are the alien ham radio operators beaming scientific secrets or extraterrestrial poetry? Why no mysterious engineering projects out among the stars? Where's our invitation from the Galactic Council? As the great physicist Enrico Fermi once asked, "Where is everybody?"
Maybe the Great Filter got them, Hanson proposed. The Great Filter is a civilisation-scale event or circumstance that would prevent a species from colonising space or ever meeting other species — perhaps of even continuing to exist.
The filter could be a chemical bottleneck that prevents the formation of RNA that jump-started evolution, or a geophysical roadblock to the production of oxygen, which enabled multicellular creatures. But the filter could also be nuclear war, or a world-destroying asteroid, or global warming, or a malevolent artificial intelligence gone amok. Or, even, a vicious pandemic.
"The fact that space near us seems dead now tells us that any given piece of dead matter faces an astronomically low chance of begetting such a future," Hanson wrote. "There thus exists a great filter between death and expanding lasting life, and humanity faces the ominous question: How far along this filter are we?"
Could microbes derail our plans for outer space? Authorities as diverse as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Tom Hanks have assured us the present pandemic is not The End, but it's hard to not view it as a rehearsal.
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Martin Rees, aka Lord Rees of Ludlow, a cosmologist at Cambridge University and co-founder of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, detailed some of the ways we might die in his book Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century — On Earth and Beyond. When the coronavirus began to wreak havoc in China, I emailed Rees to ask if this was what the Great Filter might look like.
"These global pandemics present an intractable problem," he wrote back. "Obviously, if we understand viruses better, we can develop vaccines." But, he added, "The downside is that it entails also an increase in the spread of 'dangerous knowledge' that would enable mavericks to make viruses more virulent and transmissible than they naturally are."
Part of the message of Rees' book, and others like it, is that we have grown too big and interconnected for our own good, too smart for our pants. As a result, we are pushing on the most ominous term in the famous Drake Equation, which astronomers use to estimate the number of technological civilisations in the galaxy: the average lifetime of a technological society.
How long can a high-tech society survive? No matter how likely it may be for planets to form, for those planets to seed life, and for that life to be intelligent, if the resulting civilisations don't last long enough, they will never overlap in time and space. Each civilisation could bloom and then fade by itself, never knowing a neighbour. If that isn't a recipe for cosmic loneliness, I don't know what is.
There is a loophole in this cloud of gloom. In Arthur C. Clark's science-fiction story The Sentinel, which served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a pair of astronauts find a little pyramid on top of a mountain on the moon. When they approach it, it sends off an alarm; the astronauts are left wondering who received that signal and when "they" will be coming.
We have not yet explored our solar system thoroughly enough to be able to say that there is not such a sentinel, left by some extraterrestrial other, hidden on Mars or some other body. As SETI enthusiasts like to say, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
We don't know for sure that we are alone. But we might be on the way to finding out, as we scatter our own relics throughout the solar system. This year alone, three more robot missions are headed for Mars.
Rees, in a more recent note, pointed out that thinking about the long-term future has evolved since 1961 when Drake first presented his equation. Among other things, artificial intelligence, just a gleam in a few dreamers' eyes back then, has become a big deal. Deep-learning networks are becoming embedded in science, politics and society — to what end, we have only begun to debate. They are the future.
"A 'civilisation', in the sense of a collectivity of intelligent technologically adept beings, may exist for only a few millenniums," Rees wrote. "But their legacy could be some kind of 'brains' that could persist for a billion years." And they could be thinking deep thoughts that we can't comprehend.
"They are the entities that a SETI search is most likely to reveal (if it reveals anything)," he wrote.
If humanity survives to keep searching and exploring, that is. That is hardly guaranteed; we are all here, the virus included, just for a while.
A lifetime wandering the halls of science has made it pretty obvious, to me anyway, that nature has no particular preference for humans — or democracy, for that matter. (Dinosaurs might have been justified in thinking they were the apple of the cosmic eye, but you can't find one now to ask how that felt.) We are on our own; we can't count on help from anybody but ourselves.
But I can't help hoping, despite the immaculate mathematical rigor employed by thinkers like Hanson and others, that we can still beat the odds. We have bloomed but not faded— yet. Call it the Great Reset, or a cosmic wake-up call.
In March, when the pandemic shut down the lab in Italy where Cristiano Galbiati, a Princeton physics professor, was working on a dark matter experiment, he went to stay with family in Milan.
He quickly discovering that ventilators, needed to keep the most desperately ill patients alive, were in desperately short supply — and cost as much as a new car. Galbiati organised a network of particle physicists to design a simple, cheap "open source" ventilator that could be built anywhere. His colleagues eagerly joined the effort.
A month later their ventilator, the Mechanical Ventilator Milano, was approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration. It is one of a host of simple ventilators to have emerged from places like NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other university and industrial labs.
"You know, one way I like to think of it is that it may be true that the virus is spreading, as they say, at the speed of jets," Galbiati said. "But our research is expanding at the speed of light. And you know, these keep me in a sense that we will prevail."
Mars or bust, I say.
Written by: Dennis Overbye
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