Don't panic: I haven't suddenly found religion.
However, I was listening to an NPR "On Point" program about the value of space exploration, and the Hawking's assertion that we need to be a multi-planet species was presented as a "Do you agree?" question to the audience.
Well, obviously: if the survival of your long term descendants is of any importance to you, then - duh - of course we need to become multi-planet.
Actually, we need more than that: we need to get out of this solar system before our sun goes away, and we need to get out of this galaxy before it collapses into its black hole center. If the Universe itself expands and collapses periodically, we need to find a way to survive that too (and people are actually thinking about such things even now).
That's all based on the assumption that preservation of the human species is important and worthwhile; I'm not entirely sure that's the case but if it is, Hawkings is exactly right, and starting work toward that goal is better done too soon than too late.
But suppose it's beyond reasonable possibility? We already know that the type of bopping around the Universe depicted in Star Trek et al. probably is impossible - unless we have grossly misunderstood physics. Historically, going against current scientific theory in just about any area has been a good bet, but indulge me momentarily: Captain Kirk is unlikely to ever warp to Alpha Centauri.
So how do we ensure our species survival? Well, we already know that bacterial spores can survive thousands of years at any temperature and the only real obstacle to surviving space travel is radiation: shield against that and you can ship life tremendous distances. With not a tremendous amount of advancement in our understanding of genetics, we might even be able to engineer DNA that would have more than a slight chance of evolving (given the right environment) to something like us. For all we know, that's how we got here originally (2001 Space Odyssey etc.)
That's a bit unsatisfying, but "mind transfer" technology might be packaged for long distance shipment also - you die here, but hopefully "wake up" somewhere else, someday. Yeah, it's not "you", but the mind that wakes up would think it was.. unless told otherwise, of course.
Here's the fun part: mind transfer technology might be thousands of years away, but that doesn't mean that you (or something that thinks it is you, anyway) can't "wake up" on the sun lit shores of some earth like planet a few hundred thousand years from now. Take some DNA from known descendants, do some calculations far beyond our current abilities, and perhaps something genetically very like "you" can be the result. Ship off a "resurrection" machine (or hundreds of them) and many lifetimes later one or more lands in a place where "you" can be recreated. No memories, of course, but that's not necessarily a problem if you were prescient enough to have left a legacy of writings, recordings, etc. - "you" can be recreated, in a sense resurrected. Yes, it's not really you, and there'd be a lot missing, but the new "you" wouldn't know that, or would attribute it to ordinary memory dysfunction. Any other creature that only knew you through your writings etc. would be equally unaware that you were not the genuine article. "You" might even have the same quirks, personality and psychological makeup: a good psychiatrist could probably peg me pretty well just by reading this website. Combine that with deeper DNA knowledge and this could be pretty darn accurate, couldn't it?
I haven't entirely convinced myself that spending money on genetics and DNA research is a better idea than spending it on buliding a moon base, but honestly I am leaning that way.. and that surprises me.
Got something to add? Send me email.
More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2011-03-26 Anthony Lawrence
The psychological profiling [of a programmer] is mostly the ability to shift levels of abstraction, from low level to high level. To see something in the small and to see something in the large. (Donald Knuth)