Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Poignant Purple Prose

The Horsehead Nebula in the Orion constellation, as captured by the Hubble back in 2001

I read about Al Worden’s experience in space today, back when he was the pilot for the command module of Apollo 15 in 1971. He officially became the “most isolated human being” in history and entered the record books when his command module orbited the far side of the Moon. That is the furthest any human has ever gone in this universe. But something about what he said reminded me of what I said to myself a few years ago. When asked if he felt lonely during that experience, he replied “There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely.” This got me thinking about the significance of his statement and the insignificance of its context.

If our Sun is one star among the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, and if the Milky Way is but one galaxy of the 350 billion galaxies in our observable universe, and if our observable universe is infinite, then time and space is immemorial with only the Big Bang as the common origin of all beginnings and endings. Because the Big Bang didn’t just happen over there, or right here. It happened everywhere. All space was present in that time when the universe was hot and dense and it has expanded and cooled ever since. But it was all there – the centre of the universe – and also everywhere. And in a beautifully narcissistic way, aren’t we also at the centre of the universe?

That last thought was from a period when we first started to measure our place in space and time. But ever since the days of Giordano Bruno and Nicolaus Copernicus we humans have gone through a tremendous intellectual ascent. We were no longer at the centre of the universe and the pursuit to attain that consciousness, and the intellectual climb necessary to demote ourselves after that was stunning. We ascended ourselves into insignificance, and rightly so.

H.G. Wells sums it up very nicely for me in this rather poignant purple prose that still resonates well into today’s era more than 100 years after it was spoken: “It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening; out of our lineage, minds will spring that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves.” In short, we humans are not the pinnacle of emergent life.

The somewhat pessimistic undertone makes me wonder about our story and its ending. With the things that are going on in our world today, there is no telling when our final chapter will be prematurely written. The media and literature we consume in this day and age may give us reasons to look out ahead for an asteroid, some new disease or the re-emergence of an age-old pestilence, even terrorism or a 21st century Cuban missile crisis. Or it could be just Mother Nature doing her chores, or maybe even self-replicating machines pulling a Skynet on Homo sapiens. Whatever the reason, the practical pause that stems from the human instinct has evolved in modern times to account for our cautionary cause to observe the signs for our harbinger of death.

The promise and peril of the 21st century is a reflection of the mixed optimism and anxiety of our times; a time of intellectual culture where it is worse for scholars and scientists to fool themselves into believing in something that did not exist, than not to believe in something that did. As the stakes get higher and higher, the area between science and speculation is more muddled than ever.

If scientists from before the 16th century could look at us today, they will be captivated and overwhelmed by our expanded understanding of nature and the cosmos. But they would be even more disturbed by the threats and risks we have knowingly and naively put ourselves in. Although new advances in science offer new breakthroughs, it is the costs and consequences of our discoveries that could jeopardise our survival. There is a very real concern out there in the scientific community that this “auto-pilot” mode that humanity is on at the moment is going so fast that neither the leaders nor the masses can cope with.

So consider our isolation and position in the universe, consider our insignificance and infancy, and consider our obsession and hubris. Then weigh in the man-made threats, natural disasters and even the existential ones. Will this be our final century?

I came across some scientific journals a while back that stated the odds of humans perishing at our own hands are a lot higher than us being wiped out by an extinction-level event asteroid impact. It is interesting how we like to place a greater importance in ourselves over nature. So it went on that asteroid impacts are one of the few threats that can be quantified because every 10 million years, an asteroid a few kilometres across will hit us and cause a global cataclysm. And ever so rarely like every 100 million years or so, there will be one major asteroid impact so large it will wipe out nearly all life on Earth – like a “reset” button. But can we pause long enough to give ourselves cause to look ahead for these unknown dangers?

There are already scientific endeavours by private corporations and governments to survey and monitor the millions of asteroids that cross our planet and track their orbits close enough to predict impacts way before they happen. With these warnings in place, actions could be taken well in advance to evacuate certain areas and save lives. But is that enough?

There is a theory currently circling among scientists – especially from the data gathered recently on the Philae landing – that existing technologies like the thousands of satellites and probes that roam the Earth’s orbit or those that are scattered around our Solar System could be directed toward the asteroid months or years before the impact. Upon arrival, the satellite or probe can be positioned in such a way that it is close enough to cause a “nudge” on the asteroid due to the interaction of forces between the two bodies in space. Unlike popular conventional wisdom, there is no need to shoot the asteroid off course with satellites or missiles. Every single mass of body in space acts like a gravity well and exerts a gravity force of its own, no matter how small. That small force from the proximity of another object close to the asteroid is all that is required to nudge the asteroid and change its velocity by a few millimetres per second. Over time, that velocity displacement would accumulate and increase to a point where its path would be deflected away from Earth. Risk and crisis averted.

Which leads me to wonder is Earth covered by insurance against an asteroid impact? Unsurprisingly enough, some think tank out there has already done the math by multiplying the probability by its consequences. The premium turns out to be approximately 1 billion dollars a year to reduce an asteroid impact risk. That is nothing when compared to the government budgets of most countries.

If anything, these interstellar threats are actually more predictable than your natural disasters on Earth. Our grasp and understanding of the laws of nature on our planet are still fundamental at best and flawed at worst. Two things all these threats have in common are that they are known and the risks they pose are getting smaller each year. But it is the unknown threats that we should really be preparing for.

As with all infinite possibilities and finite probabilities, mathematics dictates that there will be the existence of at least one unknown threat we believe to not exist that we did not prepare for. So it does not follow that because a threat is unknown and yet exists, that any threats, in order to exist, need only be unknown.