Friday, December 2, 2016

Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix's "Beyond Earth"

Charles Wohlforth is a life-long Alaska resident and prize-winning author of more than ten books. He has won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Sci­ence and Technology, among many other awards. Amanda R. Hendrix is a planetary scientist, worked for twelve years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has been a scientific investigator on the Galileo and Lunar Reconnaissance missions, a principal investigator on NASA research and Hubble Space Telescope observing programs, and is the author of many scientific papers. As an investigator on the Cas­sini mission to Saturn, she has focused her research on the moons of Saturn.

Wohlforth applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Intelligence also evolved in numerous lineages on Earth, in animals as unrelated as the elephant, crow, and octopus, creatures with environments and needs that may be as different as those found on different planets. Intelligence would probably arise wherever life has a chance to bloom. As Vermeij said in an e-mail, “Intelligence, like many other traits, is a ‘basin of attraction,’ something so useful under so many circumstances that it is virtually certain to evolve, eventually.”

Musk has thought about all this and repeats Fermi’s disturbing question about it: Why haven’t we heard from anyone? If inhabited planets are all around us in the galaxy, then where are the spacefaring travelers, or even just the radio broadcasts, from all those planets? A habitable planet is probably less than nine light years away, where they would just be discovering Taylor Swift on radio waves from Earth about now.
The exercise of thinking about moving to another planet opens a vast intellectual territory for exploration. As I found with my co-author, planetary scientist Amanda Hendrix, the topic leads beyond space science and technology to politics, culture, evolution, ecology and even big questions about the fundamental nature of humanity.

In Beyond Earth, we created a thought experiment for readers, presenting our scenario for how a space colony could come to pass. Anyone can evaluate the scenario with the evidence we present to agree or disagree with the outcome we reach.

That’s the fun part. But the topic can also be spooky, as this page 99 passage suggests.

Geerat Vermeij of the University of California Davis, studied the machinery of evolution through organisms of the distant past (an amazing feat considering he has been blind since childhood). His conclusion about the likely ubiquity of intelligence suggests species as smart as ourselves should be present on a good number of the millions of habitable planets that we now know are orbiting other stars.

Tech billionaire Elon Musk is famously seeking to put a colony on Mars. Part of his drive comes from an observation Enrico Fermi made decades ago, that if intelligence is everywhere, then it is odd that we haven’t yet heard from anyone living out there. Musk suspects that the reason no aliens have called or visited is because they perished long ago. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, evolution inevitably leads civilizations to destroy themselves before they can move beyond their home planets. Musk hopes to give our species an escape hatch.

But Amanda and I came to another conclusion. To us, it seems equally likely that intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe are too different from us to communicate. They may not want to be in touch. In fact, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, an organization that has been scanning the skies for decades, still isn’t powerful enough to detect radio waves from a world just like ours.

One of the key lessons of our research informing Beyond Earth is the necessity for humility. We don’t know as much as we think we do. But that also means we have a lot of interesting discoveries ahead of us.
Visit Charles Wohlforth's website and Facebook page, and learn more about Amanda R. Hendrix.

The Page 99 Test: The Fate of Nature.

--Marshal Zeringue