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Studies in Solitude

“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”–Alan Moore

It’s downright amazing to live in a time when we can send a huge rover to another planet, watch its descent, and receive clear pictures from 34 to 250 million miles away, depending on the orbit.  It’s even more awesome that we now have evidence that water flowed on Mars. I look forward to learning of Curiosity’s discoveries, big or small. Even if we can’t verify the existence of life on Mars (past or current), what we learn will help us to potentially colonize our neighbor.

While I’m rooting for Curiosity to find more ingredients for life, I find myself having mixed feelings on our objectives of space exploration and the search for life elsewhere in the universe. I feel cynical when I look at some of the latest photographs from the Red Planet:

It’s just so beautiful, and I feel like this beauty is largely attributed to it being pristine. I worry that humans will inevitably go there and corrupt it with pollution, corporate greed, and war. It reminds me of the chapter in Watchmen where Dr. Manhattan (an invincible man formerly known as Jon Osterman) is giving Laurie a tour of Mars. She begs him to come back to Earth to help save humanity from pending nuclear war, but he disparages the value of life:

I have to admit that a part of me agrees with Dr. Manhattan.  We cannot go to another planet if we’re going to repeat our mistakes. The projections for climate change on Earth are frightening: 100 million could die by 2030 if we don’t begin to reverse global warming. And rising sea levels could sink island nations within the next decade. This should be on the front page everyday. It’s even more important than the struggling economy; prosperity doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a healthy planet to enjoy it on. Losing sight of the big picture could be fatal, and it can no longer be procrastinated.

And if I really wanted to address the big picture, my cynical voice could point out the fact that colonizing Mars won’t save us from the the far off day when our Sun meets its inevitable end and expands during its final stages. There’s a chance Earth could survive, but it’s not very big. And it would destroy a significant percentage of life. In Dr. Manhattan’s view, life on Earth perishing is of no consequence, and he goes on to focus on how Mars’ beauty is breathtaking:

Earth may be relatively minute and certainly doomed, but we still need to go to Mars.  It’s practice for helping humanity to survive and evolve. Who knows what we could achieve over the next few millennia, assuming we survive it. I don’t entirely think we need to fix all of our problems before migrating elsewhere; progress needs to happen concurrently. And we will never achieve anything close to a utopia.

Finding any form of life elsewhere would be an incredible breakthrough, and I hope it happens within my lifetime. To me, the question isn’t, “Are we alone?”  There are infinite questions, and they will come after we discover that we aren’t. It’s only a matter of time. As Carl Sagan said, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

But are we really ready to discover other civilizations? The scientific, psychological, and cultural ramifications are potentially Earth-shattering. How would humanity react to this discovery? Would we be able to see beyond our Earth-centric views? Would it strengthen or undermine the absolutism in organized religions? Would there be conflict or brotherhood?

We really have no idea what aliens would be like.  And it goes far beyond appearances. They could have developed on a planet very different from Earth. Consequently, their environment could lead to completely unexpected adaptations and  paradigms. We often mistake the characteristics of our lives as being universal; we have no one else to compare ourselves to. Aliens could be a true clean slate.

Do they read,  listen to music, eat food, or use money? Do they laugh? How do their senses work? Are there males and females? How do they reproduce? What kind of diseases are they prone to? What form of government do they have? How do they measure time? What kinds of goods and services need to be created and performed to keep their society functioning? Like us, do they have racial differences, or are they generally uniform? What do they believe in? Do they have a need to create meaning? Do they strive for happiness?

Have they too been searching for intergalactic neighbors? Do they have violent, sci-fi movies dramatizing the day when they meet us? Would we even be able to communicate with them? They could be too far away, and there could be a language barrier.

On the flip side, it would be even more fascinating to discover that alien civilizations are remarkably similar to us. Could life be characterized by universal traits? Who knows. All we have are vaguely educated guesses, and the list of questions could go on.

We do know that we are lucky to live on Earth: it’s a rich, diverse planet filled to the brim with beauty, ideas, love, and life (and their counterparts). But Earth chose life; Mars did not. Life is not the only option, whether we like it or not.  Continuing to damage the Earth is biting the hand that feeds; more importantly, it’s choosing death. To choose life is to choose the responsibility that comes with it, and I hope humanity remembers this when we finally leave the nest. Otherwise, Dr Manhattan will be right: we’ll be tailoring our own end as mere water drops in the Cosmos.

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One comment on “Studies in Solitude

  1. I enjoyed this latest posting (and the previous as well). The landscapes of Mars are indeed striking. Somewhat in the same way as Buzz Aldrin characterized the moon as “magnificent desolation”. Regardless of whether human colonies on Mars end up being masterfully-designed aesthetic utopias or haphazard groups of monochromatic shacks with no zoning laws, it’d be hard to say whether humankind would “improve” it. Maybe a better question in my mind is “could life thrive here?” or “could human civilization improve upon itself here?” Depending on the conditions, I think yes. Can we improve on natural beauty, period? Probably not, but I think we’re sensitive enough to have national parks or even city parks as a way of incorporating nature into our ‘ideal’ habitat. There should be more of that line of thinking in a great civilization…

    I also enjoyed your exploration of how radically different alien life might be conpared to our own. Particularly the comment about violent sci-fi movies dramatizing the first encounters with us, haha! And that was a poignant appraisal of climate change passivism as ‘choosing death’… Indeed, even though it’s not so obvious and visceral as a filthy drainpipe emptying into a nice clean lake, the minute, cumulative pollution generated by our ever-multiplying species will someday produce a reckoning. I guess it’s up to us just how serious and costly that reckoning will be…

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