Should We Terraform Mars? A Debate

This is a part of a debate organised by NASA. Science Fiction Meets Science Fact. ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ Terraform debaters left to right, Greg Bear , author of such books as “Moving Mars” and “Darwin’s Radio.”; David Grinspoon , planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute; James Kasting , geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University; Christopher McKay , planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.; Lisa Pratt , biogeochemist at Indiana University; Kim Stanley Robinson , author of the “Mars Trilogy” (“Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars“); John Rummel , planetary protection officer for NASA; moderator Donna Shirley , former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Donna Shirley: Greg, what are the ethics of exploring Mars?

Greg Bear: You usually talk about ethics within your own social group. And if you define someone as being outside your social group, they’re also outside your ethical system, and that’s what’s caused so much trauma, as we seem to be unable to recognize people who look an awful lot like us as being human beings.

When we go to Mars, we’re actually dealing with a problem that’s outside the realm of ethics and more in the realm of enlightened self-interest. We have a number of reasons for preserving Mars as it is. If there’s life there, it’s evolved over the last several billion years, it’s got incredible solutions to incredible problems. If we just go there and willy-nilly ramp it up or tamp it down or try to remold it somehow, we’re going to lose that information. So that’s not to our best interest.

We were talking earlier about having a pharmaceutical expedition to Mars, not just that but a chemical expedition to Mars, people coming and looking for solutions to incredible problems that could occur here on Earth and finding them on Mars. That could generate income unforeseen.

If we talk about ethical issues on a larger scale of how are other beings in the universe going to regard how we treat Mars, that’s a question for Arthur C. Clarke to answer, I think. That’s been more his purview: the large, sometimes sympathetic eye staring at us and judging what we do.

We really have to look within our own goals and our own heart here. And that means we have to stick within our social group, which at this point includes the entire planet. If we decide that Mars is, in a sense, a fellow being, that the life on Mars, if we discover them – and I think that we will discover that Mars is alive – is worthy of protection, then we have to deal with our own variations in ethical judgment.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Why should we go to Mars, because look at what human beings have done to Earth.'” -David Grinspoon
Image Credit: NASA

The question is, if it’s an economic reality that Mars is extraordinarily valuable, will we do what we did in North America and Africa and South America and just go there and wreak havoc? And we have to control our baser interests, which is, as many of us have found out recently, very hard to do in this country. So we have a lot of problems to deal with here, internal problems. Because not everyone will agree on an ethical decision and that’s the real problem with making ethical decisions.

Donna Shirley: David, you want to comment on the ethics of terraforming Mars?

David Grinspoon:
Well, one comment I’ve heard about recently, partly in response to the fact that the president has recently proposed new human missions to Mars – of course, that’s not terraforming, but it is human activities on Mars – and I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Why should we go to Mars, because look at what human beings have done to Earth. Look at how badly we’re screwing it up. Look at the human role on Earth. Why should we take our presence and go screw up other places?”

It’s an interesting question, and it causes me to think about the ethics of the human role elsewhere. What are we doing in the solar system, what should we be doing? But, it’s very hard for me to give up on the idea. Maybe because I read too much science fiction when I was a kid, I do have, I have to admit, this utopian view of a long-term human future in space. I think that if we find life on Mars, the ethical question’s going to be much more complicated.

But in my view, I think we’re going to find that Mars does not have life. We may have fossils there. I think it’s the best place in the solar system to find fossils. Of course, I could be wrong about this and I’d love to be wrong about it, and that’s why we need to explore. If the methane observation is borne out, it would be, to me, the first sign that I really have to rethink this, that maybe there is something living there under the ice.

“If the methane observation is borne out, maybe there is something living there under the ice.-David Grinspoon
Image Credit: NASA

But let’s assume for a second that Mars really is dead, and we’ve explored Mars very carefully – and this is not a determination we’ll be able to make without a lot more exploration – but assuming it was, then what about this question. Should human beings go to Mars, because do we deserve to, given what we’ve done to Earth? And to me, the analogy is of a vacant lot versus planting a garden. If Mars is really dead, then to me it’s like a vacant lot, where we have the opportunity to plant a garden. I think, in the long run, that we should.

We’ve heard a lot different possible motivations, economic motivations, or curiosity, but I think ultimately the motivation should be out of love for life, and wanting there to be more life where there’s only death and desolation. And so I think that ethically, in the long run, if we really learn enough to say that Mars is dead, then the ethical imperative is to spread life and bring a dead world to life.

Donna Shirley: Jim, we can’t prove a negative, so how do we know if there’s life or not, if we keep looking and looking and looking. How long should we look? How would we make that decision?

James Kasting: I think Lisa put us on the right track initially. She’s studying subsurface life on Earth. If there’s life on Mars today, it’s subsurface. I think it’s deep subsurface, a kilometer or two down. So I think we do need humans on Mars, because we need them up there building big drilling rigs to drill down kilometers depth and do the type of exploration that Lisa and her group is doing on Earth here. I think that’s going to take not just decades, but probably a couple of centuries before we can really get a good feel for that.

Lake Vostok.
Image Credit: NASA

Donna Shirley: Well, I know, John, at Lake Vostok, one of the big issues is, if we drill into it, our dirty drilling rigs are going to contaminate whatever’s down there. So how do we drill without worrying about contaminating something if it is there?

John Rummel: Well, you accept a little contamination probabilistically that you can allow operations and still try to prevent it. I mean, basically what we can do is try to prevent that which we don’t want to have happen. We can’t ever have a guarantee. The easiest way to prevent the contamination of Mars is to stay here in this room. Or someplace close by.

Greg Bear: That’s known as abstinence.

John Rummel: [laughs]. I also want to point out it’s not necessarily the case that the first thing you want to do on Mars, even if there’s no life, is to change it. We don’t know the advantages of the martian environment. It’s a little bit like the people who go to Arizona for their allergies and start planting crabgrass right off. They wonder why they get that. And it may be that Mars as it is has many benefits. I started working here at NASA Ames as a postdoc with Bob McElroy on controlled ecological life-support systems. There’s a lot we can do with martian environments inside before we move out to the environment of Mars and try to mess with it. So I would highly recommend that not only do we do a thorough job with robotic spacecraft on Mars, but we do a thorough job living inside and trying to figure out what kind of a puzzle Mars presents.

The ALH Meteorite.
Image Credit: NASA/ Johnson Space Center

Donna Shirley: Stan, you dealt with this issue in your book with the Reds versus the Greens. What are some of the ethics of making decisions about terraforming Mars?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Ah, the Reds versus the Greens. This is a question in environmental ethics that has been completely obscured by this possibility of life on Mars.

After the Viking mission, and for about a decade or so, up to the findings of the ALH meteorite, where suddenly martian bacteria were postulated again, we thought of Mars as being a dead rock. And yet there were still people who were very offended at the idea of us going there and changing it, even though it was nothing but rock. So this was an interesting kind of limit case in environmental ethics, because this sense of what has standing. People of a certain class had standing, then all the people had standing, then the higher mammals had standing – in each case it’s sort of an evolutionary process where, in an ethical sense, more and more parts of life had standing, and need consideration and ethical treatment from us. They aren’t just there to be used.

When you get to rock, it seemed to me that there would be very few people (wanting to preserve it). And yet, when I talked about my project, when I was writing it, it was an instinctive thing, that Mars has its own, what environment ethicists would call, “intrinsic worth,” even as a rock. It’s a pretty interesting position. And I had some sympathy for it, because I like rocky places myself. If somebody proposed irrigating and putting forests in Death Valley, I would think of this as a travesty. I have many favorite rockscapes, and a lot of people do.

So, back and forth between Red and Green, and one of the reasons I think that my book was so long was that it was just possible to imagine both sides of this argument for a very long time. And I never really did reconcile it in my own mind except that it seemed to me that Mars offered the solution itself. If you think of Mars as a dead rock and you think it has intrinsic worth, it should not be changed, then you look at the vertical scale of Mars and you think about terraforming, and there’s a 31-kilometer difference between the highest points on Mars and the lowest. I reckoned about 30 percent of the martian surface would stay well above an atmosphere that people could live in, in the lower elevations. So maybe you could have it both ways. I go back and forth on this teeter-totter. But of course now it’s a kind of an older teeter-totter because we have a different problem now.

Links: Colonization of mars[Are We Going To Colonize Mars?]

Fate of Our Civilization and Tactics

Oxygen content of the atmosphere over the last...

Image via Wikipedia

By J. R. Mooneyham

Extinction. Or collapse into a permanent medieval (or worse) state of anarchy and deprivation. These appear to be the normal ends of technological civilizations in our galaxy, based on everything we know circa early 2003. The above statement is not made lightly. Rather, it is a conclusion based on more than a decade of dedicated research into the matter.

The Fermi Paradox which contrasts the 100% probability of life and intelligence developing on Earth against the thunderous silence from the heavens so far (no alien signals) may be resolved by four things: One, gamma ray bursters which may have effectively prohibited the development of sentient races until only the last 200 million years; Two, the lengthy gestation period required for the emergence of intelligence (which almost requires the entire useful lifespan of a given planet, based on our own biography); Three, the need for an unusually high measure of stability in terms of climate over hundreds of millions of years (the ‘Goldilocks’ scenario, enabled by a huge natural satellite like our Moon moderating the tilt of a planet’s axis, as well as gas giants parked in proper orbits to mop up excess comets and asteroids to reduce impact frequencies for a living world); and Four, an extremely dangerous 600 year or so ‘gauntlet’ of challenges and risks most any technological society must survive to become a viable long term resident of the galaxy (i.e. getting a critical mass of population and technology off their home world, among other things). That 600 year period may be equivalent to our own span between 1900 AD and 2500 AD, wherein we’ll have to somehow dodge the bullets of cosmic impacts, nuclear, biological, and nanotechnological war, terrorism, mistakes, and accidents, as well as food or energy starvation, economic collapse, and many other threats, both natural and unnatural. So far it appears (according to SETI results and other scientific discoveries) extremely few races likely survive all these.

There’s six major guiding principles by which to defend civilization against all the worst possible threats to its future:

  • One, remove or minimize the sources of all reasonable motivations to harm others from the entirety of humanity– as well as the means to carry out such harm
  • Two, put into place and maintain robust structural impediments to, and socio-economic discouragements of, the domination of the many by a wealthy, powerful, or charismatic few
  • Three, insure the utmost education and technological empowerment possible of the average individual world citizen, wherever this does not unreasonably conflict with the other principles listed here.
  • Four, work to preserve existing diversity in life on Earth and its natural environments, as well as in human behavior, culture, media, languages, and technologies, and even nourish expansion in such diversity within human works, wherever this may be accomplished with minimal conflict regarding the other principles listed here.
  • Five, excesses in intellectual property protections, censorship, and secrecy all basically amount to the same thing, so far as posing threats to the robustness, prosperity, security (and even survival) of civilization is concerned. Therefore all three must be deliberately and perpetually constrained to the absolute minimum applications possible to protect humanity. In these matters it would typically be far better to err on the side of accessibility, openness, and disclosure, than the other.
  • Six, seek out and implement ever better ways to document human knowledge and experience in the widest, deepest, and most accurate fashions possible for both the present and future of humanity, and offer up this recorded information freely to the global public for examination. This means the more raw the data, and the more directly sourced, the better. The more raw the data and less colored by opinions of the day, the better present and future citizens will be able to apply ever improving tools of scientific analysis to derive accurate results, and drive important decisions.

Work faithfully and relentlessly to implement and continue the enforcement of these six principles into perpetuity (always seeking the optimal balance between them all), and you should reduce overall risk levels for civilization to that stemming from true mental illness or pure accidents.

Robust and enlightened public health programs (among other things) can reduce the total risk of mental illness to society to negligible levels. That would leave the risk of accidents to deal with. Reducing the risks presented from various accidental events is another subject in itself, that I’ll leave to others to address.

Especially in a world where shortages of money, talent, knowledge, and time still define more of our economics and society, than anything else. Anyone working to achieve one or more of these aims immediately encounters active opposition from various quarters too. That may sound hard to believe, but look at a few examples: Cuts in military spending even in the most advanced and highly developed nations like the USA face stiff opposition from many politicians because defense cuts are apparently less popular with voters than defense budget increases– almost no matter how peaceful the world happens to be at the time. Any cuts that do somehow get passed can often only be implemented by shutting down unneeded bases or various extravagant weapons programs. But either of those considerations bring up cries of “lost jobs”, even in good times when those jobs might easily be replaced with other, less lethal ones. Weapons proliferation around the world likewise is often defended as generating jobs at home, despite the fact those weapons often end up being used by naughty allies to kill innocents in conflicts where we ourselves have little or no involvement– except for our brand name and label being prominently emblazoned on the blasted shards in various scenes of mass death and destruction. Later on we often wonder why people on the receiving end of these weapons (in the hands of others) hate us so. And sometimes the weapons we sell end up being used against our own soldiers. But still we sell and sometimes even give them away.

Maybe aiding in the spread of democracy and free speech through the world would seem an easier goal than stopping the proliferation of weapons and weapon technologies? Sorry, but no. Indeed, here in America our track record for a long time now is behavior that says democracy and free speech is too good for lots of folks other than ourselves. You see, the ill will built up from all that weapons proliferation, plus other actions on our part, has resulted in lots of countries where we’d be tossed out on our ear if real democracies suddenly sprang up in them.

Like what actions am I talking about? Things like manipulating elections and interfering with other attempts at legitimate changeovers in power in foreign countries. CIA involvement to prop up dictatorships with whom we have deals for things like oil or other items. Stuff like that. There’s no telling how many democratic movements we’ve helped crush or cause to be stillborn around the world in the past century. Of course, you could say we were just emulating our parent countries such as those of western europe, which did many of the same things for several centuries before we ourselves successfully rebeled againstthem.

It’s almost like we don’t want any other rebellions to succeed, in order to retain our own ‘special place’ in history. But is that fair? No.

Of course, sometimes a nation manages to overthrow its oppressors despite our opposition and dirty tricks. But when that happens, our previous sins in the conflict result in whatever new government emerges being dead-set against us. Like in Iran, with the fall of the Shah. Our interference with their internal affairs so antagonized and polarized the Iranians that one result was eventual domination of the country by an Islamic extremist movement, which managed to overthrow the US-supported Shah. And naturally, when things didn’t go our way there we froze Iran’s assets and put in place trade sanctions against them. And in response, they may be seeking to obtain their own weapons of mass destruction and supporting various terrorist actions around the world.

Could it be we are gradually arranging our own (maybe even civilization itself’s) spectacular end with all this chicanery? For the longer we continue this type of behavior, the more difficult and scary it becomes to consider stopping it. And the worse the eventual consequences might be. After all, we’re making a lot of enemies out there. A pretty hefty chunk of the human race, in fact. If and when they all finally overthrow their US-supported dictators or oppressive ruling regimes, they might not exactly want to send us flowers.

I vote we try to find a way out of this mess now rather than prolonging and worsening it with politics-and-economics-as-usual. Before it’s too late. Before our world too becomes one of the silent ones in the galaxy.


Dark Flow, Gravity and Love

By Rob Bryanton

The above video is tied to a previous blog entry from last January of the same name, Dark Flow.

Last time, in Placebos and Biocentrism, we returned to the idea that so much of what we talk about with this project is tied to visualizing our reality from “outside” of spacetime, a perspective that many of the great minds of the last hundred years have also tried to get us to embrace. Here’s a quote I just came across from Max Planck that I think is particularly powerful:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

Image-Golden ratio line

Image via Wikipedia

It’s so easy to look at some of the phrases from this quote and imagine them on some new age site, where mainstream scientists would then smugly dismiss these ideas as hogwash from crackpots. Like me, folks like Dan Winter and Nassim Haramein also sometimes get painted with the crackpot brush, but they are both serious about the ideas they are exploring, and they are not far away from the ideas that Max Planck promoted above, or that I have been pursuing with my project.

On July 1st of this year, I published a well-received blog entry called Love and Gravity. It looked at some new age ideas about wellness and spirituality, and related them to some mainstream science ideas about extra dimensions, timelessness, and the fact that physicists tell us that gravity is the only force which exerts itself across the extra dimensions.

Last week Dan Winter forwarded me a link to a new web page of his which yet again seems to tie into the same viewpoint that I’m promoting: Dan is calling this new page “Gravity is Love“. As usual, this page is a sprawling collection of graphics, animations, and articles, most of which are found on a number of Dan’s other pages, but there’s important new information here as well. Here’s a few paragraphs excerpted from the page which will give you the flavor of what Dan is saying about this concept:

Love really IS the nature of gravity!
First we discovered Golden Ratio identifies the change in pressure over time- of the TOUCH that says I LOVE YOU:
Then we discovered (with Korotkov’s help) … that the moment of peak perception- bliss – enlightenment- was defined by Golden Ratio in brainwaves
Then medicine discovered: the healthy heart is a fractal heart. ( References/, and also:
Then – I pioneered the proof that Golden Ratio perfects fractality because being perfect wave interference it is therefore perfect compression. It is my view that all centripetal forces- like gravity, life, consciousness, and black holes, are CAUSED by Golden Ratio in waves of charge.
Nassim Haramein says that although he sees Golden Ratio emerge from his black hole equations repeatedly – he sees it as an effect of black holes/ gravity – not the cause… Clearly – from the logic of waves – I say the black hole / gravity is the effect of golden ratio and not the other way around!
– although some might say that this is a chicken and egg difference – may be just semantics… at least we agree on the profound importance of Golden RATIO…/ fractality…
AND love :

perfect embedding IS perfect fusion IS perfect compression… ah the romance.

Dan Winter is a fascinating fellow, I hope you can spend some time following the links in the above quote. Next time we’re going to look at another somewhat related approach to imagining the extra-dimensional patterns that link us all together, in an entry called Biosemiotics: Monkeys, Metallica, and Music.

Enjoy the journey!

Rob Bryanton

Are Prosthetic Genes Next?

A section of DNA; the sequence of the plate-li...

Image via Wikipedia

By Robert Holt

There is nothing particularly thought provoking about a Teflon frying pan, but it has enormous utility when frying eggs. Teflon (the DuPont brand name for polytetrafluuoroethylene) doesn’t exist in nature. It is a polymer, a chainlike assembly of simple, repeating, fluorinated carbon molecules that was first synthesized by DuPont scientist Roy Plunkett in 1938. It is the only know substance to which a gecko cannot stick.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a polymer. It is a natural polymer, comprised of a chainlike assembly of four different constituent deoxyribonucleotides, commonly referred to as DNA bases A, G, C and T. Each base has considerably more structural ornamentation than the pedestrian fluorinated carbons of Teflon, and when appropriately paired and polymerized as they are in the genome of every living thing, they form an elegant double helical structure. Genetic information, the instructions for cells to make gene products that form the structural and functional components of cells, is carried in the particular order of bases in the double helix. The order of bases in the sum total of DNA that encodes our biosphere has been laid down over evolutionary time. The order is not immutable but it is resilient, left on its own. We have become very good at reading the order of DNA bases (ie. DNA sequences) to the point where an individual human genome comprising billions of ordered bases can be read in about a week. A bacterial genome, typically containing a million or so nucleotides can be read about as fast as the DNA can be purified.

Like Teflon, the new bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, has its origins in polymer chemistry. The genome sequence of its forbearer, Mycolplasma mycoides LC has been known for some time. When we know the order of bases in a piece of DNA we can physically reconstruct it. The procedure involves chemically modifying a base to specify its reactivity, joining it to another base to create a sequence of two, then demodifying this product in readiness for addition of the next base. It is slow, expensive and error prone and can support only a few dozen additions. The approach hasn’t changed much since the first chemical synthesis of DNA molecule, a 77 base fragment of a yeast gene, was synthesized by Har Gobind Khorana and colleagues in 1965. This being the case, the synthesis of a plethora of short DNA precursors, each a carbon copy of a particular fragment of the 1.08 million base Mycoplasma mycoides LC genome, and the assembly of these chemical precursors into the complete, accurate and functional genome of JCVI-syn1.0 is a tour de force in both polymer chemistry and synthetic biology.

The Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome is a prosthetic genome because like any other prosthesis, it is an artificial replacement of a missing body part, albeit an essential one in this particular case. Where will this remarkable new direction in chemical synthesis lead us? Unlike Teflon frying pans, JCVI-syn1.0 cells have zero utility. In fact, if anything they are more likely to have negative utility. It is well established that some types of mycoplasmas are infectious, and in the laboratory many a research project has been derailed by incidental mycoplasma contamination of cell cultures and considerable effort goes into making molecular biology labs mycoplasma free, to the point where an entire industry is dedicated to this problem. A google search for “Laboratory Mycoplasma Decontamination” returns 160,000 hits. Try it.

So why would anyone want to dedicate years of R&D and tens of millions of dollars to build a mycoplasma? Why create the synthetic genome of a parasitic pathogen? To digress a little, synthetic mycoplasma is a legacy project. Initial studies begun over a decade ago focused on Mycoplasma genitalium because it was known to have one of the smallest genomes of any cellular organism – only half a million bases. It was anticipated that the small genome size, plus lack of a fortified cell wall, would make genome reconstruction and activation of more tractable. The reason to try to reconstruct and activate a synthetic genome was simply to show that it could be done. However, when the genitalium genome was built it could not be activated by transfer into a recipient mycoplasma cell, probably because its genomic composition was just too different from that of the standard recipient, Mycoplasma capricolum. To digress further, since capricolum was already known to be able to support transfer of the natural, but larger, mycoides genome the synthetic genitalium operation was scrapped and replaced by the now successful synthetic mycoides project. Although there have been claims that, being engineerable, mycoplasmas could now have commercial applications, this is is highly debatable. The fragile cell membrane that positions mycoplasmas so well as experimental organisms for microbial genomics makes them, at the same time, completely unsuitable for the heavy lifting of industry. These tasks are better suited to their more robust bacterial cousins.

Although lacking any real world utility, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 is definitiely thought provoking. Why is this genome not just another synthetic polymer? What makes it more intriguing than polyester? At first glance it is probably clear to anyone that what sets this polymer apart is that unlike any former product of chemical synthesis it is supporting what is, undebatably, cellular life. Of course we don’t have a clue how to do the design of an organism from scratch, to pick a particular order of A, G, C an T’s that yields some startlingly new but entirely pre-designed outcome. But we are now able to copy organisms. Change them a bit. So where do things go from here? Could we create a more complex microbe? A yeast, perhaps, which is an organism with a cell structure more related to multicellular entities like ourselves than to bacteria. Various yeast strains have been sequenced, and a typical yeast genome is only about ten times larger than Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. How about a fruit fly, ten times larger still, and with a well characterized genome sequence? Or, if we follow this train of thought about as far as anyone would care to, how about a person? This is the real impact of the JCVI-1. It is demonstration that once we know a genome sequence, we can rebuild the organism it encodes. Even, in principle, a person. From scratch. Using chemically synthesized DNA fragments. To be sure, the technology is nowhere near being up to the task of constructing or activating anything as large and complex as a human genome, but the point is just that. The hurdle would be a technical one. A problem of scale. For better or worse, contemplation of human existence need no longer be purely metaphysical. We should ask ourselves how we feel about that, and start to act accordingly.

[Ref: Cosmology Magazine]

The Greatest Achievable Technology to The End of This Century?

Have you ever tried to think what would be greatest tech to the end of this century which could change our planet? I think you’ve never thought about this. May be possible some of you suggest laser weapons,medicines , cloning or space colonization or alien contact or archeological remnants of long dead advanced alien civilization in our own solar system or most debated time travel or anti gravity? I bet you probably won’t know. Tell me what is according to you? I’ll tell you tomorrow in my next post. BTW, you can try to figure out what is this ,in your comments.

Implications to Technological Society

Intelligence is a useful attribute in the development of any higher species. In our case, we inherited several advantages from our reasonably smart ancestors of a few million years ago: A pollution-free environment, a sophisticated society, a good family life, a robust physique, and a taste for steak. Intelligence led to a whole new way of life—a rather comfortable state of affairs.But, now, modern men and women are threatened with numerous global crises. The number of humans on Earth is increasing rapidly, and neither food nor energy can be distributed well enough to keep everyone content on a daily basis. As if these problems weren’t enough, we also face the possibility of human-made disaster brought on by weapons of mass destruction. Other planet-wide problems loom on the horizon as well, threatening our civilization with several potentially global problems, the likes and scope of which Earth societies have never before experienced.

We then ask: How did intelligent life change from the rather pleasant daily routine left to us by our ancestors to the current predicaments we now face? In other words, How did we mess it up so badly? The answer, apparently, dates back ~10,000 years—to the time when our recent ancestors invented agriculture, cities, states, empires. Above all, they created a technological civilization—which in and of itself is a good thing, for it’s the rise of precisely our technological civilization that has given us the tools to unlock secrets of the Universe, as well as to search for extraterrestrial life. But technology also has its drawbacks, the chief one being that technology is a major source of many of our current global problems.

To evaluate the sixth factor of our equation, we seek to estimate the probability that intelligent life eventually develops technological competence. Should the rise of technology be inevitable, given long enough durations of time, this factor is close to 1. If so, then at least one species on all life-bearing planets eventually develops a technological society. By contrast, if it’s not inevitable—if intelligent life can somehow avoid developing technology—then this term could be much less than 1. This latter view envisions a Universe teeming with intelligent life, yet very few among them ever becoming technologically competent. Perhaps only one managed it—us.

It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between these two extreme views. We don’t even know how many prehistoric Earth cultures failed to develop technology. We do know that the roots of our present civilization arose independently in several different places on Earth. These include Mesopotamia, India, China, Egypt, Mexico, and Peru. Since so many of these ancient cultures originated at about the same time, we might judge the chances to be good that some sort of culture will inevitably develop, given some basic intelligence and enough time.

But literary culture is one thing and technological culture quite another. Archaeologists argue that some of these ancient peoples never did develop technology. The Mayan civilization of Interamerica, for example, had sophisticated social and political organizations. They built primitive observatories, enabling them to study the motions of stars and planets with their naked eyes. In fact, the Mayan calendar was more accurate than that of the Spaniards who conquered them several centuries ago. Despite these accomplishments, however, archaeological records show that the Mayans used neither wheels nor metal. They built small toys with wheels, but not large carts or wheelbarrows useful in farming or herding. And they apparently had no use for metal other than in jewelry or ornaments. Either they never thought to use these as technological aids, or they realized them and rejected them.

Regardless of how many ancient earthlings accepted or rejected technology, only humans developed it and now use it. This is a sticky point for some researchers. If technology is an inevitable development, they ask, why haven’t other forms of Earth life also found it useful? The probable reason is that a given niche is usually filled by only one species. And the niche labeled “technological intelligence” is currently filled by Homo sapiens.

In an evolving society, we should expect only one species per biological (or cultural) niche. As an example, recall that the recent fossil record implies the coexistence of several hominids angling for the same niche several million years ago. The apparent result was competition and the demise of all but one type of those ancestral hominids. Competition between the various australopithecines likely provided a great impetus in the survivor’s drive toward superior intelligence.

So the fact that only one technological society now exists on Earth doesn’t imply that the sixth factor in the Drake equation must be very much less than 1. On the contrary, it’s precisely because some species will probably always fill the niche of technological intelligence that this term is likely close to 1.

One further point is worth noting. This sixth factor could be decreased somewhat if most planets are completely covered by water. Technological intelligence is likely to develop only on the solid parts of a planet. Aquatic life may be intelligent, but it’s hard to imagine how it could ever become technically sophisticated. To discover the laws of applied physics, something resembling hands must be able to manipulate gears, pulleys, inclined planes, and the other rudiments of elementary technology. This isn’t a criticism of the dolphins, about whose intelligence there is no question. They probably admire the stars while flipping their heads above water, perhaps even wondering if dolphins reside on other worlds. But unless they leave the water, they can never become technologically competent. Will they leave the water (again) to try to develop that technology? Probably not now, because we fill the niche of land-based technological intelligence. If they tried to evolve onto the land, they would soon enter into direct competition with us and we would surely dominate them.

Why Self Destruction?

Modern warfare is an especially germane example of unnatural self-destruction. Military organizations are constantly developing new ways to kill people and destroy all manner of things. The United Nations recently announced that the nations of the world spend more than a million American dollars per minute on weaponry. Nuclear explosives, laser-guided weapons, neutron bombs, mobile missiles, lethal chemicals, and a growing arsenal of other destructive devices have become permanent ingredients of our civilization. These aren’t just popgun fare, capable of maiming individuals; they are global munitions, able to mangle whole nations. Consider nuclear bombs , which, despite the end of the Cold War, are still very much a threat to the survival of humankind.

The world supply of nuclear weaponry is currently equivalent to ~20 billion tons of TNT, a highly explosive chemical used in the production of dynamite. Numbers in the billions no longer faze readers of earlier epochs of this Web site, but an analysis of weapons density is guaranteed to shock anyone. Dividing the world arsenal by the number of people now on the planet, we find to our astonishment a sum total of ~3 tons of TNT per person. This is neither 3 bullets, nor 3 sticks of dynamite, but the nuclear equivalent of ~3 tons of explosives for every man, woman, and child on Earth. No wonder it’s called overkill!

Further reflection reveals the extent of our disgrace, not just because we pay for all these armaments, but especially because we tolerate them. We are members of a society that permits the unchecked escalation of nuclear arms that can be used for only one thing—to wage nuclear war. And, contrary to popular belief, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the 1980s or the warming of east-west relations of the 1990s didn’t much reduce this weaponry. At best, this bilateral lip service acts only to regulate the expansion of worldly destructive powers.

What sort of damage does a typical 1-Megaton nuclear blast guarantee? About 100 times more destructive as the Hiroshima bomb, the detonation of the equivalent of 106 tons of TNT would create a brilliant fireball, the center of which would attain temperatures of ~107 K, comparable to the Sun’s core. Such rapid heating causes sudden expansion of the air around the point of explosion, as shown in, which in turn gives rise to shock waves and severe winds where pressures reach values ~3000 times that of Earth’s normal air, thus sufficient to flatten ordinary brick houses ~4 km away from the point of impact. One such typical nuclear warhead, of which thousands now stand alert in the world’s arsenals, would be absolutely fatal to buildings, people, and almost everything within a ~50 km2 area surrounding ground zero. Not only would the blast itself annihilate virtually all within this inner zone, but the heat released by a 1-Megaton nuclear explosion can also cause paper to ignite as far away as ~15 km, ensuring widespread firestorms throughout the region. The destruction of life and property would be so immense, regardless of where in a city such a weapon landed, that missile accuracy isn’t even required.

This description isn’t offered to elicit hysteria. These are facts—bold, stark facts. Construction of nuclear bombs is based on the laws of physics, and the destructive aftermath of their use is also dictated by those same laws. Furthermore, it’s important to realize that nuclear bombs aren’t just scaled-up versions of conventional armaments. The radioactive particles produced during the explosion itself, as well as those destined to fall from the atmosphere far beyond the impact point, would cause nearly irreparable damage, rendering the land useless for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Clearly, a major nuclear war would leave the face of our planet drastically changed, perhaps uninhabited. It’s likely that everything we cherish as great and beautiful would be lost.

In a world of such enormous firepower, there can be no true defense. America and Russia still harbor terrible destructive forces and each side knows the other side has them. The outcome is supposedly a “stable” situation where neither country would dare strike—an equilibrium called by some a balance of power, and by others, peace by fear. The catchphrase in the language of Pentagonese is “mutually assured destruction,” the Strangelovian acronym for which is MAD.

That said, the real state of affairs isn’t complete stability. Every so often instabilities arise to enhance the chance for war. Such an instability might result from an international crisis, perhaps directly involving the United States and some other nuclear state, or perhaps initially engaging less powerful countries yet eventually escalating to the point of threatening military conflict between the nuclear states. Instability could take the form of short-term confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis and the six-day Middle East war in the1960s, or be caused by long-term hostilities like the protracted Vietnam War and the lingering troubles in the Persian Gulf area. Though unexpected international conflicts don’t make outright war a certainty, they surely don’t increase the probability for peace, either.

More predictably, instabilities in the balance of power regularly occur as major weapons systems either are introduced or become obsolete. For a certain period of time, one side has or thinks it might have a slight advantage. Upgraded weaponry might even grant to one side a first-strike capability, whereby one nuclear power could launch an attack so devastating that the other government wouldn’t be able to respond offensively. For example, construction and deployment of “smart” cruise missiles, mobile-launched nuclear bombs, or multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles  are thought by some to give the United States a decided advantage, at least until such time that other nuclear powers can neutralize these accurate weapons with countermeasures of their own. Likewise, the introduction of a whole new class of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles having enormous throw weight, or the development of killer satellites as part of some other nation’s modern armory, is often regarded as giving the opposition a net advantage—at least until such time as our government unveils yet other new weapons sufficient to reestablish the power balance. Even defensive measures such as those enacted by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War to build massive underground shelters, which serve to protect key elements of their civilian and industrial centers from nuclear conflagration, tends to upset international politics. A national Soviet civil-defense program was viewed as a Soviet advantage or at least an instability, since the United States might no longer have been able to hold the Russian populace hostage, as the Soviets had the American population in the absence of a significant U.S. civil-defense program.

Numerous other examples of international crises and weapons development come to mind, especially those triggered by terrorist activities well into the 21stcentury, all of which serve to enhance the probability for war simply because the power scales among nation-states potentially become slightly imbalanced. These are among the main issues at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Geneva and at the United Nations disarmament sessions in New York City. Yet, arms proliferation continues virtually unabated and ugly international confrontations flash repeatedly across our globe.

What effect will a recurrent series of instabilities have on the future of our civilization? Sadly, the outlook seems to be inevitable nuclear holocaust in the Northern Hemisphere. To see this, consider the following analysis. Suppose, on average, that an instability emerges every half-dozen years. rms proliferation continues virtually unabated and ugly international confrontations flash repeatedly across our globe.

What effect will a recurrent series of instabilities have on the future of our civilization? Sadly, the outlook seems to be inevitable nuclear holocaust in the Northern Hemisphere. To see this, consider the following analysis. Suppose, on average, that an instability emerges every half-dozen years. This is roughly the frequency of major rifts in the balance of power since World War II. Suppose furthermore that there is a 95% probability for peace during any one period of instability. That still leaves the odds at 1 chance in 20, or 5% probability, for the outbreak of full-scale war. Then inquire about the degree to which the compound probability for war increases as civilization navigates through several periods of such instability. In other words, how many episodes of instability can a technological civilization withstand before the total probability for war exceeds the total probability for peace? The answer is ~17 such instabilities, or ~100 years.

Self-destruction via modern warfare is, of course, always possible at any time, even when the nuclear powers are evenly balanced. No one really knows the exact chance for war during stable times, though we might imagine it to be very small. Computations like the one above imply that the probability for war not only increases a little during any one period of instability, but also grows steadily throughout the course of time, each chink in the power balance not being entirely independent. If, according to the above estimate, global instabilities raise the chance for war to 5% at any given time, then the compound probability for nuclear holocaust becomes higher than that for peace—namely, 51% —after only 10 decades. Should this sterilized examination of war and peace approximate reality, then we’re roughly half way to Armageddon.

Should the average probability for war during periods of instability be greater, then this type of analysis suggests that nuclear war could be imminent. Conversely, a lower probability for war during individual instabilities would mean that the nuclear powers might be able to avoid war for a longer time. Only if war’s probability in these circumstances is <1% can we hope to postpone nuclear catastrophe for more than a few centuries, a time interval still small in the cosmic scheme of things. Regardless of how minute the chance, though, the compound probability for war will sooner or later exceed that for peace, making full-fledged nuclear war better than a 50-50 shot.

The crux of any (admittedly simplified) objective analysis like this one revolves about the average probability for war during any one instability. Of course, no one knows this value for sure. Too many subjective factors enter, including the nature of humanity, which doubtlessly influences in some complex manner the response of governments either to trigger or to avoid nuclear self-destruction. Numerous sociopolitical factors play integral roles, but none of them can be quantified, and at any rate, in a rapidly advancing technological society, these factors may be nearly irrelevant. The nature of humanity might not come to the fore and play a role even in times of global crises. If not, then the argument is clear solely on the basis of probability theory, and it is this: Though the probability for nuclear war might be small during any single period of instability, a civilization can withstand only so many instabilities before the compound probability for war begins to exceed that for peace.

Naturally, there are always opponents of this type of analysis. Nor are they necessarily those permanently equipped with rose-colored glasses. They argue, for example, that our leaders wouldn’t actually retaliate, even knowing that some other government’s nuclear arsenal was due to arrive within the ~20 minutes that intercontinental ballistic missiles need to travel from one point on the globe to any other. But how can we trust any leader of a government to sacrifice its people for the good of civilization? Retaliation is becoming so mechanized—and fast—that the element of humanity is indeed minimized, perhaps lost. If certain parts of our “Defense” Department have their way, America’s response will soon be triggered only by radar-computing machines, not by the President. This elected official can override the computers by vetoing the machines’ commands, but in the event that he or she hesitates, our missiles will be up and away—automatically. We live at a time when command and control decisions are being transferred to robots. And, for better or worse, words like “humaneness,” “civilized,” and “survivability” don’t compute.

Others maintain that nuclear weapons will never be used. Retaliation, they claim, isn’t an issue because no one will be foolish enough to unleash nuclear weapons in the first place. But how can we afford to believe this viewpoint? That’s all it is—a belief. Warring nations have seemingly never failed to utilize the most potent weapon available to them. Since early history, the buildup of weapons and the prospect of war have been closely allied; the invention of arms has nearly always precipitated their use in warfare. With few exceptions, each new and deadlier weapon, from crossbow to guns to dynamite to poison gas to tanks to atomic bombs, has eventually been deployed on the field of battle. Historically, once humans have fashioned a new weapon, they apparently commit themselves to its use. Those who say that nuclear weaponry is different deserve a cold response: How can we be so sure that the goodness, the rationality of humanity, will surface in the nick of time?

Still others argue that, despite a full-scale nuclear holocaust, all inhabitants of Earth will not necessarily perish—a claim tantamount to saying that nuclear war is winnable. But the very concept of mutually assured destruction is designed to make this impossible. With so much overkill now stored in our nuclear depots, it’s equally likely that any humans surviving the targeted blasts would succumb to the postwar aftermath of radioactive fallout, economic chaos, ozone depletion, and climatic cooling. The cumulative effects of all-out nuclear war would be so catastrophic that they render any notion of “victory” meaningless. Winnable-nuclear war arguments are totally specious, offered by irresponsible people—the type, unfortunately, who have thus far generally overseen the design and making of nuclear weapons policy. Let’s once again hope that pronouncements like these aren’t true reflections of the real nature of humanity.

The currently misleading concept of mutual destruction must be reframed in more realistic terms to reflect the full magnitude of the cataclysm that a nuclear war would bring. Then, we can plan, not to limit nuclear weapons, but to ban them altogether. So, let’s change the philosophy of approach: Instead of arguing for mutually assured destruction, we should strive to reach a loftier goal of mutually assured survival.

All the above near-term, alas global, problems are surely a good deal more complex than here sketched, largely because several of them are interrelated. For example, should current sociopolitical attitudes remain unaltered, the chances that someone will unleash nuclear bombs—that’s the self-destruction problem—will surely increase as the number of inhabitants grows—that’s the population problem.

Current conflicts are destined to become further inflamed as people, perhaps whole nations, become desperate for food, energy, and resources. Wars waged solely to redistribute wealth may be the only way that poor countries, which feel they have nothing to lose, can hope to remedy their deteriorating status. Water, so plentiful in the oceans and to give but one example, will likely trigger wars regionally, then perhaps escalating nationally, as its freshwater type dwindles in the 21st century. The prospect that developing nations might catalytically induce nuclear war between the nuclear powers grows steadily. Even the specter of masked terrorists conducting nuclear blackmail with clandestine plutonium devices looms large on the horizon. Doubters should keep in mind that significant amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium, produced in American nuclear plants, are currently missing. Furthermore, at least one major American city has already seriously considered capitulating to a multimillion-dollar demand on the threat that the city would be leveled by a hydrogen bomb, a hoax which, at the time, neither the Atomic Energy Commission nor the FBI could discredit.

Clearly, the continued growth of world population and the incessant threat of nuclear detonation are the foremost problems confronting our civilization today. Change or be doomed. What do you choose? I prefer to stop all this.

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