05 February 2008

Baby Steps

Okay, this is not going to be my last shot at this idea, but I had a discussion with my 12-year old last night on the way home from baseball practice that began something like this: "Dad? What's going to happen to us when the sun burns out?" "I don't think we'll live to see that," I said. "I didn't mean me and you, stupid. I meant the human race, life on earth." (This kid is capable of sustained discourse, so we thought out loud as we drove and arrived at some interesting thoughts which I felt could help provide some perspective for this blog.)

"Yes, I agree, son, life on earth as we know it will at some time in the future end." "How?" We brainstormed: Asteroid/meteorite, like the dinosaurs. Ice age. Dying out of the core. Flooding. Environmental disaster. Cataclysm of another natural sort. Total war. Nuclear winter. Sun burning out. Moon crashing in or flying out of orbit. Etc. (You'd be surprised at the power of a 12-year old's imagination when he's thinking about destruction.) Leastways, we concluded, it's going to happen sooner or later.

"What then, dad?"
"Well, son, the large reptilians had their day ruling the planet until some cataclysm killed them all out—they think it was meteorite hitting the Yucatan. We are the mammalians and, as of now, the highest evolved form of life. What could come next?"
"Good guess, son. And they would probably develop intelligence and grow large and dominate the planet in their own way."
"Cool. Hey, what if we built giant spaceships and started heading out to the stars looking for new planets to inhabit before then?"
"Brilliant question, son. Mars might be our first candidate."
"Oh yeah, I loved that rover we sent up there. I'd like to build robots like that one day."
"Great, son. Of course, if we wanted to go there we'd have to learn to live in a completely man-made environment."
"Like the Biodome?"
"Something like that."
"Boy, I sure would want to be around to see that."
"Well, I don't think it'll happen in either of our lifetimes, son, but what we can do is try to keep this in mind—let's call it "the project of humanity"—and live our lives trying to contribute to making it possible."
"Like inventing spaceships that can travel at the speed of light?"
"Sure, son, why not? Or, what about developing ways to keep us from getting sick? Or, what about achieving a politics that doesn't involve aggression and self-destructiveness? I mean, if we're all on one big spaceship and we start fighting among ourselves then we could destroy the ship."
"That's right, dad."
"And I think we would have to come up with some way of helping us remember from generation to generation why we're all sailing around in this great big spaceship. If we forget that we have this big survival project and that we're trying to seek out new worlds capable of sustaining life we're likely to get depressed or something."
"What about being able to morph so we can go down black holes into other dimensions and stuff?"
"Sounds about right, son, but ambitious. Just remember: baby steps. Think about what we can do with our lives to contribute to this big project of preserving life as we know it."
"Human life, dad."
"Right. But remember, distances in space are so vast that traveling around the galaxy or even farther will take enormous amounts of time. Generations upon generations. Tens of thousands of years—more than the life-span of human civilization. We're likely to evolve over that time and we'll have to have measures to adapt to space life."
"Just remember, son. Baby steps. Got any homework?"

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