Roving Science: Destiny or Hubris

So this week I have been doing my usual cruising around the internet in search of new and interesting science news. A friend of mine was reading the February 2009 issue of Sky and Telescope the other night as he hung out with me while I reviewed Calculus. (I get math anxious sometimes and just need someone to hang out with me while I do math until I get up to speed and feel assured that I really can do the math.) He showed me a photograph in the ‘gallery’ section that was taken in Marlette, Michigan that is entitled “strange clouds”. The clouds are indeed strange looking. Somewhat saucer shaped with a central dividing line. I did a search on Google of ‘strange clouds Marlette Michigan’ to see if I could find a jpeg or a link to post, but nothing was available without a subscription to Sky and Telescope. During the search I discovered that Marlette, Michigan has had more than its share of reported UFO sightings.

Another article in Sky and Telescope was “Living Dangerously” by David Grinspoon. In the article he writes about the dynamic interaction between the atmosphere and earth and how because of things like hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and the like life has actually been possible on the earth. He points out that volcanoes replenish nutrients in the soil, storms water the earth, lightning causes fires that clear out overgrown forests and make them healthier, etc. He makes a case that the things that we consider to be natural disasters actually foster life. In contrast there is peaceful Mars with its sparse atmosphere, dry and windswept surface, and too thick for movement and heat transfer crust. Mars is most likely a dead planet that certainly at one point had a water cycle and, if not life, the potential for life. The article proposed that in looking for life that we consider looking for planets with a similar dynamic interaction between its core, crust, and atmosphere.

I googled David Grinspoon and found an interesting article on terraforming at:
www.space.com/adastra/adastra_terraforming_brody.html

The article is entitled “Terraforming: Human Destiny or Hubris” and it is by Dave Brody. In the article he talks about the dialog between different camps who argue either that humans should or should not terraform other planets. Mars is the planet that is focused on primarily. Grinspoon is quoted and gives a pretty good reason for humans to achieve interstellar travel:

“If you’ve got an endangered species, you don’t want to have just one little plot of it someplace,’ says David Grinspoon. “All life on Earth is that endangered species. If we get to that stage where we’ll be moving from one celestial body to another, we’ll have a pretty good crack at outliving the Sun. We may be manning the lifeboats, but in those lifeboats there will be all the species of Earth coming with us (well, maybe not the mosquitoes).”

While this does presume that we will as a species outlive the Sun and avoid a whole host of other extinction causing things, it is a pretty good reason to shoot for interstellar travel and to gain some knowledge of how to do terraforming. I mean even if the Sun were to stop producing energy today, it would take 50,000,000 years for significant effects to be felt at Earth, but still…. However, that’s an ambitious amount of time for a species to survive I think, but, we humans, we can be ambitious on the whole scale of being alive in the galaxy. I mean it is good to have goals.

In his article Brody kind of questions the assumption of human chutzpah when it comes to the notion of terraforming, he rhetorically asks:
“Given our track record of modifying Earthly environments, can we safely conclude that Nature has pre-destined — or at least deputized — Homo sapiens to be the agent of its spread to the stars?”

He then provides a quote from Bob Zubrin:

“Human beings in bringing life to Mars will be, in a very real sense, continuing the work of Creation. We will not be playing God but engaging in that activity that God gets the most credit for doing. By so doing, we will show the divine nature of the human species and, therefore, the precious nature of every member of it. No one will be able to look at a terraformed Mars and not be prouder to be human.”

I have to ask a few questions at this point. Does anyone else think that we haven’t changed our attitudes since the days when Spain, Portugal, England, France and the rest of the European monarchies set out to garner resources, convert the natives, and establish dominion over what was the world they knew?

Further, is this an okay attitude or not? Just cause we can go trouncing over the galaxy, does that make it okay? Are we entitled because of our mastery of the technology? Is that our prize?

Also, are we naively heading out into the galaxy and just setting ourselves up for the mega-smackdown of the epoch? Think of what could go wrong.

Ooooo. Actually don’t. I can spin science fiction plots off of this for the next decade.

Instead, think of what could go right. Seems to me that this is a shorter list.

Another question. Just because so much could go wrong, should we not try to figure out how to terra form or how to go to the stars?

More questions. If we did find microbial life on Mars, should we terraform Mars to encourage that life to bloom? And would that be ‘terra-forming’? Or should we wipe the microbes out and then selfishly proceed? Also, is it ethical to transform a moon or planet to an earthlike state for our own purposes if it has life? Or even if it doesn’t have life? Consider the resources necessary and that we would be experimenting on PLANETARY levels. Also, what if we botch it? What if another alien species could have done it better?

Hmmm…..Maybe Venus and Mars have already been terraformed and botched. Maybe the earth was some kind of home chemistry kit that surprisingly overflowed the chintzy plastic petri dish and junior dumped it in the trash so mom wouldn’t find out. Maybe we are some alien race’s horror movie.