With his recent gloomy comments about Mankind’s future on – and off – Earth, the eminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has made much noise, but little sense. Considering how badly we’re screwing things up here, he told an audience at the recent Big Think conference, “our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”
This concept recurs in science fiction like Battlestar Galactica, where science is able to save us from the Earth-shattering catastrophes it helped us unleash. In fiction, it’s interesting. In real life it’s insanity.
Human life, and all Earth-based life, clearly evolved to fit the circumstances on Earth. A delicate balance of solar radiation, tectonic activity, atmospheric gases, weather, erosion, photosynthesis, and all the biosphere activities based on green plant life, has developed within the norms of our planet and none others we know of.
Spread out to where? Since fuel is far from infinite, we’d have to pick from within our own solar system, and Mars is the only thing that makes the remotest sense. It’s the only place we could get to, especially if we realize we forgot something and have to turn back halfway there.
Once we reach our new home, we’ll have gravitation issues on a much smaller planet, which will always mean less of an atmosphere. There will be a different magnetic field with unknown long-term effects, minimal available water, and no known life of any scale. We could not subsist on the tiny microbes thought to cling to Mars’ surface.
To make this work, we’d be working from scratch with some amazing technology to kick-start a whole planet to produce new gasses and hold them closer to the surface, generate billions of gallons of water somehow and flood the basins, perhaps enrich the soil with compost we saved up on the journey. Even then, we’d be crossing our fingers as well.
In fact, if we had all that technology to transform Mars, imagine what we could do with right here on Earth, a planet with a proven track record of bearing life under the right conditions. We could re-jigger our own atmosphere to cool it off, keep the solar input, gravity, and remaining life, and save a heck of a lot of rocket fuel flying all of us and our planet-shaping gear over to Mars. And we can always cross our fingers here just as well as away from home.
To summarize: if we wreck the Earth’s ecosphere so bad we can’t live here, then we can’t live. Thinking “big” or sci-fi won’t change that basic fact.
Mr. Hawking specifically ties this warning in with support for continued space travel and exploration, which was once a universally popular cause. It is nifty to see detailed photos of neighboring planets, or to study the effects of weightlessness on tiny screws. But the immense costs are coming under question: billions of dollars a year, massive use of fossil fuels and other increasingly scarce materials.
Not least among the costs of our tiny probings into space are the many thousands of dedicated brains that could be solving other problems – like the very ones that have Mr.Hawking urging us to run away into cold space.