A fantastic future for humanity
Dreaming of the most fantastic future possible for humanity: efficient social co-ordination, preservation of Earth's biosphere and amplified theoretical astrophysics research.
The events of 2020 have taught us one thing: we need more efficient social co-ordination across the planet. A pandemic is but one of the existential challenges we could have and would face in the future. There are many more ahead. Not only do we have to be prepared for them structurally, but also think beyond, the furthest anyone has ever done and set outrageous goals for us. This essay is an exercise in that.
Intelligent life must be abundant in the universe
For life to emerge on any planet, an extraordinary number of things have to happen just right. From there on, for intelligent life to emerge, the chances are still astronomically lower. However improbable that event is, due to the simple big-ness of the universe, the probability for there to be an extraordinary large number of planets with intelligent life is really high.
Based on astronomer Frank Drake’s equation, in our galaxy alone, with 200 billion stars, there could be 200,000 stars with planets orbiting them which could have intelligent life. And then there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. Surely, there must be or have been many, many advanced alien civilizations which not only could detect others, but progressed to the point they could travel across the galaxy.
But, where is everybody ?
The math around intelligent life to exist focuses around conditions on a planet in general. It doesn’t account for point-in-time: Intelligent life on all these planets existing at different times during the life of the universe so far.
While on Earth we have been scanning out to 100 light-years of our planet for signs of such life, we have not been able to detect it.
For basic, biological life there are many expeditions planned during the 2020s which could confirm for us the presence of at least some life on a planet other than Earth. The James Webb telescope, scheduled for launch by NASA in late 2021, will start providing that insight. For eg, TRAPPIST-1 system has multiple Earth-like planets and if there are life signatures emanating from there, this telescope would be able to provide that data. It would be a breakthrough moment for humanity to discover basic biological life beyond Earth. Religion and society operating structure would not take that news kindly.
But, it shouldn’t surprise us. A 100 years ago, we believed there was only 1 galaxy, until Hubble showed otherwise. A long time ago, we believed Earth was the center of the universe, and the Sun revolved around it. As science and technology have progressed, we have learnt repeatedly that we are not special but part of a recurring pattern which occurs elsewhere in the universe again and again. Everything except intelligent life, so far.
It’s possible every intelligent civilization reaches a point where it invents a technology which destroys it, and others have, while we haven’t. This is a case made by Nick Bostrom, who terms it “The Great Filter“. It either lies behind us, or ahead of us. We don’t know for sure where on that spectrum we are at currently.
Or, it is possible for other intelligent civilizations we are not intelligent enough as yet so they see little value in initiating contact with us.
Or, perhaps we need even more breakthroughs in astrophysics and higher dimensions to view everything from a different level altogether in order to discover civilizations which either exist currently or have existed in the past.
The most conservative assumption here is that we are the only intelligent life form which has ever evolved anywhere, at anytime in the universe. We start with this, until proven wrong. Here’s why: we need to value what we have immensely.
Protecting Earth’s biosphere by any means necessary
In a fundamentally hostile universe, to be on this spinning and traveling spaceship around a star, for life to exist here, and advance to the point where we have, that’s a remarkable turn of events! For every generation which follows, it becomes progressively more critical to not screw this up, assuming, what if this is the only and the best shot there has been for intelligent life at any point in the universe’s history.
How do approach it ?
We have to overwhelmingly prioritize protection against existential threats to life on Earth. We have to preserve our biosphere and conditions necessary for life to sustain and thrive. This means acting on multiple fronts against multiple threats. Toby Ord’s book The Precipice: Existential Risk and The Future of Humanity provides a probabilistic estimate of each of these occurring as an existential threat to life on Earth over the next 100 years:
Asteroids or comet impact: 1 in a million
Stellar explosion: 1 in a billion
Supervolcano eruptions on Earth: 1 in 10,000
Total natural risk: 1 in 10,000
Naturally arising pandemics: 1 in 10,000
Engineered pandemics: 1 in 30 (this book came out before the COVID-19 pandemic..)
Climate change and other environmental damage: 1 in 1,000
Nuclear war: 1 in 1,000
Mis-aligned Artificial General Intelligence: 1 in 10
Unforeseen anthropogenic risks: 1 in 30
Total anthropogenic risk: 1 in 6
Total existential risk: 1 in 6
What else is more important than assessing and dealing with each one of these with the best resources we can marshal together ? Each one of these would require tens of billions of $ in investment.
We are going to need a lot more focused billionaires, governmental and non-governmental entities which pick one of these problems and go at it. No one entity can deal with all of it.
Our world will simply require an extraordinary level of preparation, co-ordination and prevention for humanity to still be around a 100 years from now.
Next 100 years: 2021 to 2121
For the next 100 years, the key priority for us is two-folds:
Increase global scientific education and knowledge
Massively efficient planetary co-ordination
If we do this, then we can manage challenges like pandemics, climate change, and controlling the weather to benefit humanity and other life forms. We can also pool resources, and amplify efforts even further against other natural threats in the universe. Would it not be fantastic for humanity if the global space agencies operate as one integrated unit, looking across 100s of years, instead of subject to short-term political outlooks and budgets ?
Increasing prosperity, education, economic empowerment - providing a good life to everybody is key to reaching an equilibrium state in the world where we can think and look at bigger issues at play in the universe, instead of being caught up by surprise from them.
2121 to 3021
If we have made sufficient protections for our biosphere and provided a brilliant life to every being on this planet - why do we need to continue to push space exploration and astrophysics research beyond tickling our curiosity ?
It’s because every intelligent civilization in the universe would have either understood the creation of the universe and is able to travel across galaxies using higher dimensions, or, if not, then is seeking to do that.
All it would take it is one bad apple to travel to Earth. If this sounds a lot like the need for an Avenger’s Initiative, it is. But, we don’t have a handful of superheroes, we need to operate and plan for it 1000s of years in advance, at Earth-scale, to be in a position where we can defend Earth from any and all threats in the universe, whether natural or from a hostile alien intelligent life form.
Also, if we are able to figure it out, then as we expand our footprint across the galaxy, we can help other civilizations and life forms. What makes us human is our inquisitiveness and our ability to be social, to be kind to others. Would we hold our gifts to ourselves’ ?
To be at and to bring peace, we have to hold a position of power.
How remarkable would it be if ~0.01% of humanity is an extremely gifted and driven astrophysics researcher or pushing the boundaries of space exploration ? Can we build a system where we are able to identify, nurture and empower such individuals at a large scale ?
Albert Einstein worked as a patent clerk, where one of his key motivations was money earned from astrophysics-related prizes, so that he could support his family with two young kids.
This is not something which one can ask the society to do because it is the good thing over a long enough period. It would happen naturally if the incentives are lined up appropriately.
Over a long enough period, we absolutely and critically need astrophysics breakthroughs. We need to be able to travel across the galaxy, which will simply not happen based on our current known principles, but new ones which we need to discover.
It is possible a 1000 years from now we live in a world where we have come across multiple intelligent alien civilizations. It is better if we do it on our terms.
Next 1000s of Years
We won’t know in our lifetimes, but we can take comfort in the fact that sometime in humanity’s future we would have figured out the origins of the universe. During this period we have become an active galactic civilization, harnessing the power of not only our sun but of other stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and having understood the higher dimensions, are able to travel using them.
We are using our knowledge to make life better for all alien civilizations out there. It is, simply, the human thing to do.
The Need for an “Astro Valley”
We have seen the power of dense information and collaboration networks like Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood which has built our society as we know it. People of similar backgrounds and ambition are attracted to the same area, where they collaborate and work across a range of functions to produce marvellous work. Their incentives align. New models emerge which fund experimentation.
That’s what we need for astrophysics and space exploration. It’s not a few people, or a few companies which push humanity forward from here on, but a larger, denser group of connected people. Working in this field needs to be the most lucrative thing to do from an economic perspective as well, so that smartest people on the planet don’t have to choose.
With the right product, the “Astro Valley“ exists online, enabling wider participation across the world so that people don’t have to uproot their families to do what’s needed for humanity over the next 100s to 1000s of years.
Let this not be an academic exercise. We are all biological beings, with limited time on the planet, and whatever we can do across the below dimensions helps in the longer run:
Increasing efficient and useful social co-ordination amongst people at a planetary-scale
Protecting the Earth’s biosphere and acting with speed and efficiency to preserve quality of life on Earth
Boosting theoretical astrophysics research
The COVID-19 pandemic taught me one lesson: we could have done better. We could have mobilized better. The best and the brightest were not sufficiently engaged. At this level of operation, we are woefully unprepared for more serious, existential threats which await us in the universe.
We need to dream outrageously higher, and at least try.
If you want to go down the rabbit hole of related astrophysics stuff, recommend the below:
Avi Loeb: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~loeb/
The Precipice: Existential Risk and The Future of Humanity (book), review:
Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System (book)
Nick Bostrom: https://www.nickbostrom.com/extraterrestrial.pdf
Everything Michio Kaku has published: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/feb/22/highereducation.highereducationprofile
Breakthrough Listen: Alien Hunters Discover Mysterious Signal from Proxima Centauri
TRAPPIST-1 system, and James Webb Telescope launch in late 2021
The TRAPPIST-1 system, 39 light-years — or about 235 trillion miles — away in the constellation of Aquarius, interests astronomers because of its seven orbiting rocky, or Earth-like, planets. Three of these worlds are in the star’s habitable zone — that swath of space around a star that is just right to allow liquid water on the surface of a rocky planet, thus giving life a chance…James Webb telescope, using a versatile onboard tool called the Near-Infrared Spectrograph, could detect the atmospheres of all seven TRAPPIST-1 planets in 10 or fewer transits — if they have cloud-free atmospheres…
TRAPPIST-1e is one of the planets beyond our solar system that has the most in common with Earth in terms of its density and the amount of radiation that it receives from its star. That makes it a great candidate for habitability
…closer study of the seven planets suggested that some could harbor far more water than the oceans of Earth, in the form of atmospheric water vapor for the planets closest to their star, liquid water for others, and ice for those farthest away. The new study pinned down the density of each planet more precisely, making TRAPPIST-1 the most thoroughly known planetary system apart from our own
Finally, about that interstellar object which visited our solar system..
Have Aliens Found Us? A Harvard Astronomer on the Mysterious Interstellar Object ‘Oumuamua
A book by the above mentioned Harvard astronomer which is releasing on Jan 26th 2021: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth
In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization.
In Extraterrestrial, Loeb takes readers inside the thrilling story of the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system. He outlines his controversial theory and its profound implications: for science, for religion, and for the future of our species and our planet. A mind-bending journey through the furthest reaches of science, space-time, and the human imagination, Extraterrestrial challenges readers to aim for the stars—and to think critically about what’s out there, no matter how strange it seems.