We’re all going to die here…

7 Dec

Take a look at this picture, beautiful isn’t it! This is our planet, the earth and we’re going to die here. I don’t just mean me and you; we’re definitely going to die here; or our children, they’ll die here too; and their children…it goes on and on, until eventually, and I see no reason for optimism of any other outcome, the whole of humanity will die on this rock we call home.

This is going to be one of two posts inspired by conversations I’ve had on Twitter the last two mornings with @thinkingfox, which were prompted by his two most recent blog posts on humans and space travel. The first post from yesterday was on Cryonics, Generation Ships and the future of Humanity and it’s well worth a read.

He rightly points out that unless we answer the questions around Faster-than-Light Travel or creating Warp Fields capable of bending space/time then huge Generation Ships or Cryonics are the only option we have, as a species, for visiting other worlds and potentially populating them.

It got me thinking about my own scepticisms about the likelihood of humanity ever physically leaving the solar system, which I’d thought I’d summarise in this post. Please note, I’m not a scientist (you’re shocked, right!?!) so the below is based on my love of reading science…up until the point of it needing an equation to explain it…if I’m wrong about any of this, please post me a comment and let me know.

Space is too damn big and we are too damn squishy!

Humans are squishy, really, really squishy. Space is really big and does not like squishy things and it tends to find new and interesting way to kill them. So space travel using conventional propulsion methods is a nightmare; it’s crawlingly slow (relatively speaking), it requires vast amounts of fuel and, perhaps most importantly, your life expectation over long voyages is not exactly high. It’s the reason we haven’t been to Mars, which floats in our cosmic backyard and the reason, by and large, that we abandoned jaunts to the moon.

As you would expect the bright people at NASA explain the issues best: Why interstellar travel is so difficult

We like war

One thing humanity is pretty adept at is the making of war, it’s what we do and we’re good at it, we’ve been doing it for 1000s of years! Wars are okay (Yes the Lefty just said wars were okay): they drive technological innovation, and always have done, as we search for new and interesting ways to commit huge acts of genocide. Unfortunately wars use a lot of three things: Humans, money and resources. Humans, money and resources are all things that if you want to become a space-faring species you need an abundance of. While ever there are wars on Earth it seems massively unlikely there will be the concerted effort to create a means to leave.

So, if you agree with these points, we’ve accepted for the time being that we’re going nowhere fast. What about the future? What about future technology? Well, here’s my understanding of the options and their pitfalls:

Faster-than-Light Travel

Well it’s now at least theoretically possible, thanks to pesky sub-atomic particles managing it (or appearing to). It’s a step in the right direction as previously it was thought impossible by physicists, but don’t get too excited: even if sub-atomic particles can do it, that doesn’t mean we can!

My favourite argument against this was explained to me by a friend: you’d need to know the area of space you plan to travel to very well to avoid re-appearing in normal space in the centre of a star or the like! The same issues exist for so-called Warp field technology, which create fields of infinite mass and as a result, bend space/time meaning a craft can avoid having to breach the light barrier

We can neither produce Warp Fields (despite what tin-hatters say) or travel Faster-than-light and we may never be able to. See the NASA Glenn Research Centre Site for a lowdown on the scientific liklihood of this, their current thinking categorises it as being ‘Speculation’ and therefore not backed by current scientific theory.


As Thinkingfox points out, the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, featured on Frozen Planet,  can freeze and die in the Winter, only to revive in the Spring and it can do this 13 times. Humans can’t do this, as far as we know, if you freeze a human (and most other complex organisms) what happens is ice crystals tear apart cell membranes, with existing technology, there is nothing we can do to repair the damage to every single cell in the human body, let alone bring people back to life!

If Cryonics worked, it would be a valid option, keeping the population of Earth 2.0 frozen while the ship, using improved but conventional propulsion, makes the long journey to a selected habitable world.

Generation Ships

This is one of the most interesting options as, once we solve the manufacturing issues of building a giant starship in space, it’s a feat that could be achieved in our Grandchildren’s lifetimes. It works like this: fertile and heterosexual couples with diverse and useful specialisms are chosen to be the ships first residents. Each couple must procreate, raise and train those children in their specialism, before submitting to euthanasia the moment they are no longer useful…this process continues, rinse and repeat until eventually, after hundreds of generations, the target planet is reached. Anyone spot any issues here?

For Generation Ships the biggest obstacle is ethics and not technology. The first generation of our ship have freewill, it is their choice to be there, but what about the second generation and those after? They will be born into a world without any choice at all. They will have no choice over their path through life, it’s predefined; no choice over falling in love or procreation, genetic diversity must be maintained at all costs; and no option but to submit to euthanasia once their purpose is served. Consider than Humanity is not too good at dealing with such restrictions on freedoms, so we may have to drug our Generation Shipmates lest Human emotion and resistance to perceived injustices take hold.  These are pretty big issues and that’s before you get onto the issue of only allowing heterosexual couples into the program in the first place!

Oh did I mention the cosmic radiation? No, okay it’s nasty in deep space so there’s a high likelihood everyone would be fried at some point.

You’re definitely going to die here

Life in the universe is precarious, its springing up at all is miraculous and there are then a multitude of natural ways that it can end: Asteroid impacts, viruses, volcanism…the list goes on, for further reading, the Wiki page of Extinction Level Events (ELE) is a must. Then there’s the numerous ways our species could destroy all life on Earth: nuclear warfare, a technological singularity etc. Assuming we avoid all these potential disasters then, eventually, in a around 7.6 billion years, our sun will either die out or become a red giant and entirely consume or make our little planet uninhabitable (accounts seem to vary). So there’s a timescale, we don’t have forever, and if we don’t find a way to leave then our species is definitely going to die here on this rock!

I’ll end with the words of Thinkingfox when I raised some of these issues while we were chatting: Humanity school report = Must try harder.

of course I could be wrong, maybe this is the future for Humanity, courtesy of Babylon 5:

Next time I’ll be discussing why I’m not too worried about a visit from ET (Alien Life: Chicken or Fish?)


8 Responses to “We’re all going to die here…”

  1. ThinkingFox December 7, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Cryonics and ion drives… Now, all we need is some research funding… oh… wait… we’re spending all of that on wars and bailing out the banks.


    PS Thanks for the hat-tip 🙂



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