January 19, 2013

The Mission With An Infinite Multiplier Effect

It occurs to me that there is one human endeavor which stands apart from all others in terms of what its outcome might mean for the human species.

Humans have taken control of their fate in a way that no other species has been able to do. No other species even comes close.

Our endeavors are extraordinarily diverse. We create art, music, painting, sculptures, literature, etc. We have invented language to communicate our thoughts to each other. We invented publishing and thereby learned to pass on the knowledge of one generation to another.

Thus we can say with some certainty what happened a hundred years ago. Once we are able to accurately keep track of events, we can create a history of our species. Before we had written history, people used to pass on their knowledge in the form of spoken stories -- the realm of mythology.

Since the last couple of centuries, the most important human endeavor would appear to be science as it has led to new discoveries and inventions that have improved human lives in countless ways.

In recent decades, technology has been making incredible strides. Just think of the advances that have taken place in astronomy. In the last one hundred years, we've gone from not knowing what stars really were to learning about the full extent of the size of the visible universe -- a majestic vista that spans across billions of light years. We've learned about the Big Bang which created all this about 13.7 billion years ago. We've learned about galaxies and more.

Think of the incredible advances in our understanding of the subatomic world. In a hundred years, we've gone from barely knowing about the structure of the atom to having discovered the quark structure and how matter is divided into hadrons and leptons.

Think of the advances in biology. We've deciphered the structure of the DNA which essentially unites all life on Earth. We've learned about genes and genetic codes and genomes. More and more diseases are becoming treatable. So much so that visionaries are predicting that by the middle of this century, humans will become immortal.

Information technology is one sphere of knowledge where our knowledge is increasing exponentially.

Quite a smorgasbord of activities. In all this frenetic activity, one question which occurs to me is to wonder which is the most important one. This is both a theoretical query as well as one with some practical implications.

The reason why it's of relevance to think about the benefits that might accrue from a scientific endeavor is because of various reasons including limited economic resources and competing claims from different constituencies.

It's almost an automatic response from many people when talk arises of big science projects that the money can be better spent in other ways.  Poverty is unfortunately a human problem that still exists in many part of the world. And there are other problems in even the richer nations of the world. So, when 20 billion dollars is sought to be spent on a particle collider, it becomes difficult for governments to justify that kind of expenditure on a science project. Similarly, NASA projects suffer because of lack of funding. There's no money to be spent on manned space exploration. The money is more urgently required right here on Earth.

The patterns of our energy usage would appear to be unsustainable in the medium term dependent as we are on fossil fuels. Renewable sources such as solar and wind are not yet developed fully so that they can replace coal and oil.

The fight with cancer and other diseases continues. In the medical domain too, resource allocation is often predicated upon profitability. 

Corporations naturally seek to maximize profits. Governments are the proper entities who might invest in pure research. But governments in democracies are constrained by politicians who are not often the most far-sighted individuals. 

Keeping this broad scenery in mind, what's that single most effective scientific endeavor? I think the answer has to be SETI. Consider the benefits that might accrue if the project succeeds. The project will succeed if we make contact wiht an advanced civilization out there in the cosmos. The nature of cosmological time and distance dictates that if ever we manage to make contact, that civilization is likely to be far more advanced than ours.

This should be clear when we look back at the history of our own species. We are in some ways in technological infancy. We have invented radio communication in the last century or so. We have invented much else technologically besides that as well -- everything from computers to aeroplanes.

If we go back a thousand years, our ancestors would appear to be astonishingly primitive from our perspective. If we go back 10,000 years, our species was barely in its infancy. So, considering this ever accelerating trajectory of technological advancement, where would our species be in a century from now? Where would we reach in a thousand years from now? How similar or dissimilar our descendants would be from us in 10,000 years.

We have to think of these vast eons of time as cosmological distance is measured in light years and millions of light years. If evolution led to the creation of intelligent civilization somewhere else in our galaxy or in some other galaxy, then that civilization would most likely be millions of years ahead of us.

If SETI succeeds and we make contact with such a civilization, imagine what a revolutionary breakthrough that would be for our species. It would have results. First of all, we would know for sure that we are not the only civilization in the entire universe. Second, we would be able to witness what is possible in the distant future. An advanced civilization from a different place in the universe may not be able to act as our savior though. This is because it is probably that a different civilization would have come into being via a different evolutionary route and would not share too much with ourselves in terms of biology or psychology.

This is a sobering thought. Even though witnessing an advanced civilization might be like a trip into the future, we would still need to overcome our own problems without much help from these denizens of the future. The only hope is this: it seems that the principles of science and the laws of nature would be the same all across the universe. Once we are able to set up some form of communication with these creatures, we might seek to understand the laws of nature from their perspective. In so doing, we would get new insights of our own and be able to fill in the gaps in our own knowledge. This might accelerate the pace of our own development.

The current psychological status of our civilization offers somewhat grim prospects in some ways. I do not think that discovery of extraterrestrial civilization would suddenly change this psychology. So,  even if extraterrestrials are discovered, Earthlings would continue to have a provincial outlook with all the usual divisions based on race and nationality.

The sad lesson perhaps is that our species would swim or swim mostly on its own merit and its own wits. But at least the scientific community would learn a lot from an extraterrestrial encounter.

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