Monday, June 18, 2007

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." (Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

When I was little, I used to live in the Yorkshire dales, near Feizor. I used to stand on the rift between the limestone and the shale – the Craven Fault, though I didn't know it then – and look over at forbidding Moughton or the lonely, beached-looking Pen-Y-Ghent. They were a long way away. And worse, over that next hill was another dale, and beyond that further dale, there was another hill. They were all the same (to me at least) and almost endless. In the car, a trip between dales took almost as long as the fell-walker, because you can't motor over the hills, you have to detour around them. And everywhere you went was a village, and everywhere you went the dry stone walls ran over the landscape, up hill and down dale and up to each river or pot hole or scar or foss. There's a Brigante fort on Ingleborough, where the tribe made preparations to repel the Romans. People filled those endless waves of dales a long, long time ago.

Pen y Ghent

I never understood why anyone had made the initial trek from one dale to another and from there to the next, a futile quest that had no purpose or end except the relieve the pressure of not moving. I imagined them looking around, deciding something was wrong with one dale – too crowded, too deforested, too many sheep, not enough water – and packing up, moving to the next dale. And then the next and then the next, even though, ultimately, it's pointless because they're all alike.

But life is ultimately pointless. What's it for?

What use is a new born baby?

I don't know. But when I lived in London, I remember several people telling me they were "getting out" because London was no place to raise a child. The fact they went to places like Slough is neither here nor there; they left for an unborn baby. And now, in California, there's a tide of people leaving because it's not what it used to be and although flocks are still entering (and may be why it's not what it used to be), there's an efflux away, to new lands.

No one ever told me why people moved on from dale to dale, even though it ultimately would do no good. After a while, though, I understood it. Something clicked. That bit of DNA switched on. I stopped wondering.

Charlie Stross, one of the most imaginative SF writers out there, put something on his blog recently about the impracticality of space colonization. He put numbers in it. It sounds difficult. Almost impossible. Expensive, fraught with danger and liable to go wrong. He says people will not make the effort. I think they will.

In Charlie's assumptions, he says up front:

"And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. "We can't afford to keep all our eggs in one basket" isn't so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern."

He says that again, later, in the comments. "[16] you interest me: would you like to explain why "the argument of not putting all our eggs in one basket" is so powerful? That is, what can it do for you, for me, or for anyone else on this planet today?
(Hint: I think it boils down to a category error we often make, in confusing our own self-interest in not experiencing personal extinction with the existence of a species-wide collective self-interest in not experiencing species extinction. But I'd be interested in hearing other explanations.)"

A category error we often make? Someone else tries to prompt him, dangling the prospect of science before the science fiction writer. "28: Charlie, have you had a look at the newer multilevel selection theories? I know Dawkins isn't persuaded by them, but there are some aspects of e.g. Wilson's work that I find intriguing." But Charlie hasn't – he said earlier, "Stephen @19: I'm deeply suspicious of appeals to biological drives, because as a species we seem to exhibit rather a remarkable degree of behavioural plasticity. I know Richard Dawkins has taken to stomping on lots of peoples' bunions recently, but I would still strongly recommend reading "The Extended Phenotype" to anyone who still believes in group selection arguments. As for teleologists and believers in some numinous destiny, that's basically a religious argument and not falsifiable (or worthy of airtime, IMO)." And later, he answers, "Stephen @28: Nope, I'm woefully out of date in evolutionary biology."

Yes, he is. Not that going to space actually requires group selection: it only requires enough people to be fanatical enough about something without practical benefit to keep it up for a thousand years or so. Look at the fighting around Jerusalem and tell me that never happens.

And before anyone asks, I am aware that space is larger than Yorkshire (hard though that may be to grasp). I am also aware that you don't need to take your wife, sons, sheep, ploughs and collection of horse brasses into space. You don't even need to go yourself; you just need to know it's a better place to bring up kids than where you are right now.


Anonymous said...

"People filled those dales?" It doesn't look full.

Peromyscus said...

No, it doesn't look full. It could be Yorkshire people hate other people, or it could be that this is the highest density the Yorkshire Dales can support without significantly changing the land.

By the way, my favorite comment on Stross's article on his blog so far is the person who said, "Australia was known for a very long time before it was settled by Europeans. . . . Why? Cos there was no there there."

Yes, but *people* colonized Australia 40,000 years ago! Who cares what the Europeans wanted to settle?

Peromyscus said...

Note: I missed out the photo credit for that lovely picture of Pen-y-Ghent over Moughton. It's from (no photographer credited) and there are some other nice looking photos on the site. . .


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