Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Homo sapiens

So on Saturday, someone decided to tell me that I need to get a life. 'Who cares,' they said, 'about all this rubbish you talk about?' Maybe I should explain why I'm so interested in space. I remember first becoming fascinated with space travel when I read a book by Arthur C. Clarke entitled Islands in the Sky. I almost forgot about it then for a few years, until when I was 14 or 15 I realized something that seems to me as if it should be obvious.

The human race is going to die. It's going to happen, one way or another. We will be extinct one day, and nothing that we can do about that: all we can do is delay that day as long as possible. But I look around me in the world today and I see that what's going to kill us will inevitably be the consequence of our sins.

Now, although that sentence was couched in religious terminology, I mean it in a totally non-religious way. Thinking about the way I behave, I realize that I am in a continual war between what I should do and what I want to do, and more often than not I do what I want. For example, last night after the Maths trip I should have done some horn practice, but instead I went to bed and read a book. This morning I should have got up at quarter past six so as to have enough time to do the things I need to get done before lessons, but I stayed in bed to twenty-five to seven. These are minor examples, of course, but they illustrate what I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, when taken at the scale of a nation, the pre-occupation with 'me' has terrifying consequences. Because a government continually feels the pressure of 'what the people want', it is forced to give the people what the people want rather than what they need. Take the USA for example. Its self-serving import/export policies and propaganda about the benefits of 'free trade' (we sell stuff to you happily, but won't buy your stuff except at huge rates of taxation) are born out of the desires of Americans to own big cars, comfortable houses and still to have plenty of time to drink beer in their local. Of course, that's not to say that people all over the world don't have the same basic desire to live in comfort. I do. But while we feather our nests, people all over the world haven't enough food to eat and barely enough water. That's neither right nor fair. I know good people who do many charitable things; a few who have given up a lot in the name of charity. But I know that they make up the minority of people; would that they were less exceptional. Perhaps what I'm talking about is the 'human condition'.

So what does that have to do with me? Because everyone is too preoccupied with what people want, rather than what they need, important things are being neglected and money that needs to be spent on scientific research is being directed elsewhere. We've known that Yellowstone National Park in USA is a giant semi-active caldera for a long time but because the chances of an eruption are so remote, less research is being done on it than should be. The fact seems to be ignored that an eruption of that particular volcano would result in the outright destruction of a large area of the USA, and would have extinction-level effects. Likewise, take an asteroid impact: we've known for thirty years that a large asteroid or comet hitting the Earth would be an extinction-level event. But such is the state of affairs that frequently-reported near misses aren't taken as a warning, but as another example of 'those crazy scientists crying wolf again'. As Terry Pratchett puts it, we are "...a race that watched million ton slabs of ice crashing into a planet which was in astronomical terms just next door, and then did nothing about it, because that sort of thing only happens in Outer Space".

But although I hope that through my future work I may be able to help with the danger to our race from outer space, I have really been plagued by the realisation that we have too many eggs in one basket. Although the Earth is a big, our survival is a fragile thing, and as we make the world smaller by our transport and communication infrastructures becoming continually more sophisticated, I see that we just increase the likelihood that something will kill us all. People first saw the effects of that in the SARS virus last year. Having seen the numbers, we were very lucky: the rate of infection was low enough that a serious epidemic was averted. If SARS had been a little more potent, a pandemic could have been on the cards. Another manifestation is terrorism. Terrorists can communicate so effectively nowadays, and that contributes to the potency of their attacks. Although I condemn terrorists and their activities, they do serve an important role in society: they remind us of how fragile our perceived security is. While we stay locked into one rapidly shrinking planet, these problems of war, disease, and the poor-rich divide will only get worse. What homo sapiens needs is some redundancy, so that if Earth suddenly ceases to be a going concern there will still be some of us somewhere to keep up the struggle.

This is my mission, to make our species capable of surviving an extinction-level event on Earth, or an infectious disease, or a nuclear war. But I won't be able to do that unless I can persuade people to do what they should rather than what they want, and governments to think not about the next five years but the next fifty. It won't be easy, but it is necessary. This will be my life's work.