Sunday, September 6, 2009


Valhallacon is in full swing in Bellingham, Washington. This is a small, friendly con in a small, friendly hotel. Yesterday I did five hours of programming, ending up hoarse as well as jet-lagged, but enjoying myself greatly. Two panels, a GOH interview, a reading, and a kaffeeklatsch. A highlight was a sort-of-panel with science guest Peter Ward.

Ward, who is a regular on NPR's Science Friday, is a world-class expert on paleontology and mass extinctions. He is Principal Investigator at the University of Washington part of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, and the author of twelve books on science, including RARE EARTH: WHY COMPLEX LIFE IS UNCOMMON IN THE UNIVERSE. That one, which explains why we probably aren't going to find any other intelligent aliens Out There, apparently caused an epic run-in with Gregory Benford and David Brin, who think otherwise. I wish I had witnessed that.

This panel was supposed to feature SF writers generating story ideas about the material Ward presented, but we writers didn't do too much of that because we were too stunned. Ward, a personable and engaging speaker, cheerfully presented one disaster scenario after another, most of them "unstoppable." Seas rising from global warming, endangering three-quarters of the world's population. Dead oceans. In 100 years, way too much carbon dioxide in the air. In half a billion years, way too little carbon dioxide in the air, due to plants' fixing it, unless we heat up massive amounts of limestone to counteract. In five billion years, the end of the sun. By the end of the panel, the audience wanted to slit its collective wrists.

I raised this question: It's one thing to care what happens to humans 100 years from now but why should I, Nancy Kress, care if humanity no longer exists a half billion years in the future? Species come, species go. This question didn't seem to compute for many people, but it seems valid to me, and I got no real answer from anyone. I also pointed out that, in terms of writing ideas (the ostensible reason for the panel), a disaster did not have to be either forestalled or "solved" in the story. There is also a wealth of potential stories in "letting" the disaster happen and then imagining the world that might ensue afterward.

This is why I go to SF cons: for the mental stimulation. Well, that and the company in the bar.


dolphintornsea said...

The entire history, including the evolutionary history, of the human race is only about 3 million years, so worrying about the death of the sun 5 billion years from now simply doesn't make sense. It's what you might call an error of scale. Nothing about the world, or the human race, as we know it today, is likely to be remotely recognisable even one million years from today, so just put the death of the sun out of mind.

100 years - that's different. That we do need to think about - right now.

TheOFloinn said...

More and more I am inclining to the "rare earth" POV. Maybe because I am a natural contrarian.

David Ivory said...

'Rare Earth' should be the default view in any case. It makes it more likely that we'll look after our own Earth.

I'm also surprised that David Brin hasn't twigged to the notion that 'Rare Earth' should be the default. Such an attitude would make it less likely that people would shout (by high strength directed radio) into the wilderness thus calling attention to ourselves and potential aggressors, a precaution that David Brin has advocated.

'Rare Earth' is also the more natural scientist's position. Why believe in Aliens when there is zero proof. Belief in Aliens is the Romantic position I'd have thought and anathema to a more Enlightened mind.

I too would have loved to have seen that debate.

Unknown said...

I have listened to Peter Ward speak in the science Friday podcasts very intriguing. I can imagine how everyone was stunned.

Orion said...

I don't think there's any evidence that helps us distinguish between the possibility that complex, multicellular life itself is rare, and the possibility that it is common, but technological civilizations are short-lived. Either one gives rise to a galaxy that seems silent and empty.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Call me a romantic, but I like to think the Universe is teeming with intelligent life.

We haven't heard The Others yet? Well, is communication by the electromagnetic spectrum a Natural Law?

I am =sure= God did not leave us alone.

'Cause that would be...a waste of Space.

TheOFloinn said...

I am =sure= God did not leave us alone.
'Cause that would be...a waste of Space.

OTOH, if it were not as big as it is, it would not have lasted long enough to produce intelligent life. Might could be, it is just as big as it needs to be. If there are millions of dandelion seeds expended to create a dandelion, why wouldn't there be a universe left over after making a world?

James A. Ritchie said...

I don't know enough about it, I guess, but it seems to me that any theory about how common complax life might be is both useless and likely to be wrong.

It isn't liek we've found a few hundred worlds that might be inhabited, but aren't.

We haven't even scratched the surface of the universe, but we're already talking about "rare earth."

What we do know for certain is that planets are very common, and the only earthlike planet we've been able to examine is teeming with life. We have life on this planet even in areas of the ocean where the sun never reaches, and volacic erutions create conditions where life shouldn't be able to exist at all.

Let's actually go out there and look around for a bit before we start tarlking about how uncommon complex like might be.

The universe is a huge place, and even if complex life is relatively uncommon, it could still exist on millions of planets.

I also suspect it's Peter Ward's job to be disaster minded.

Mark said...

Our species has had 64 years during which we could have wiped ourselves out in a nuclear war. We've also had 64 years during which we could have put that energy into colonizing the entire Sol system and really reaching to the stars. This would have put us a good ways toward being resistant to the first possibility. Our present reality is between these.
Maybe I'm expressing my optimistic side (didn't know I had one!)when I say I believe these extreme choices are typical of a technological society of any species.
Extrapolation/tangent: I'm not a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson. I'm not likely to be a contemporary of someone born in 2050 CE. That's not to say none of us did/do/will not exist. I can see how this idea can extend to entire societies, whether or not they exterminate themselves. I suspect that in future millenia explorers will find evidence of more deceased societies than currently existing ones.
Makes me want to reread/review "Cosmos".
James, having to be "disaster minded" or not depends also on what's appropriate for the situation. Doing sales, for example, one must look for what CAN go right. Doing engineering one must look for what CAN go wrong so as to design the thing to be safer.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Mike Flynn, your points are well-taken, but I was not, maybe, =entirely= serious with that post (though I do think there's plenty of intelligent life.)

I just wanted to use the cliche "waste of space" in a (I hope) creative way. (Smiling emoticon here!)

Gregory said...

Brin & I disagreed with Peter Ward over his conclusions which weren't supported by calculations. I do think his views are important but he falls into the most common trap: taking a firm stand on little clear evidence.
We haven't even taken enough effort to find if life arose on Mars, surely the first step.
Gregory Benford said...

Maybe you're right that humanity will no longer exist a half billion years in the future. who knows what's going to happen? But I'm pretty sure that will be your academic helper forever!