I cringed when I saw the cover of the new issue of Scientific American. Trying to predict what technology will be like 50, 100, 0r 150 years in the future is a parlor game, not a serious intellectual exercise.
To understand why, you need only read a little 1950s-era science fiction. The predictions made by the authors about what the 21st century would be like were not just wrong — they were wildly, spectacularly wrong, by turns far too bold and not nearly bold enough.
My favorite example is Isaac Asimov’s early stories about robots. He built his robots’ brains using vacuum tubes, because the transistor hadn’t yet been invented, much less the IC chip. And yet, sixty or seventy years down the line, we still don’t have autonomous thinking machines of the kind Asimov envisioned. He had not the shadow of a clue about the real technological difficulties over which he was leapfrogging.
The migration of humans to colonies in space has been a staple of science fiction for close to a century, yet none of the authors who have written about it has come close to grappling with the real issues, which are probably more economic than technological, though the technological challenges are beyond imagining. And yet, here is Scientific American blathering about “starship humanity.”
Dissecting the rosy vision of space exploration in this article would be an amusing exercise, but it would take days. There’s a howler in almost every paragraph. Author Cameron Smith imagines Mars colonies staffed mainly by “farmers and construction workers,” which sounds reasonable if you limit your vision to the tasks that colonists would have to spend most of their time on. But who on Earth is going to pay untold billions of dollars to put a handful of farmers and construction workers in sustainable habitats on Mars? Smith has not a word to say about the (if you’ll pardon the term) astronomical costs of such a project.
As a matter of strict fact, we don’t even know how to build a sealed, sustainable habitat here on Earth, where gravity and loss of air pressure are not issues, and where you can pop open the hatch and call a taxi to take you to the doctor if you get in serious trouble. The experiment has been tried. It failed.
Nor does Smith spare a word for the benefits that might accrue to those who shoulder the costs and brave the dangers. Why? Because we don’t know of any benefits. The central error in which visionaries of this ilk wallow, consciously or unconsciously, is that they romantically imagine that colonizing space will be pretty much like how the Europeans colonized the Western Hemisphere.
Guess what, folks: Mars ain’t like that. There are no trees. There’s no water and no air. There’s no dirt to plant crops in, and no animals to hunt for food or hides. I’m imagining a short story — hell, I ought to write it — in which a settler in Kentucky, circa 1760, is offered a chance to go to Mars. I imagine him asking a few pointed questions about what he’ll find when he gets there, and then, when he hears the answers, spitting a chaw of tobacco on the ground, picking up his flintlock musket, jamming his coonskin cap on his head, and saying as he stalks away, “Hell, what kind of idiot would I have to be to want to go to a place like that?”
He’d be right.
Smith goes into some detail about the likely genetic changes that space colonists would undergo, if there were ever to be any space colonists. (I’m not betting on it.) He seems to be a credentialed expert. Yet his vision is oddly stunted. His discussion of embryonic development, for instance, when women start getting pregnant in space, is based on our current, very fragmentary understanding of this enormously complex process. As we learn from reading science fiction, basing your predictions about the future on what is known today is just plain stupid, because there’s waaaaay too much that we don’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld might put it, we’re neck-deep in unknown unknowns.
Or consider Smith’s notion about how humanity will evolve in space: “The only thing we can predict with confidence is selection for increased resistance to radiation damage. Some people have better and more active DNA-repair mechanisms than others, and they will be more likely to pass their genes on.” He may be right about DNA repair mechanisms — I wouldn’t know. But the bland phrase, “they will be more likely to pass their genes on,” conceals a grim reality: fatal childhood cancers. Because that’s how genes don’t get selected for in a population — people with less advantageous genes die before they reproduce.
“Oh, but Jim, you’re being too pessimistic! We’ll be able to examine an individual’s genome and find out if he or she doesn’t have the right genes to survive radiation. Then that person can be advised not to have children.” Yeah, right. There’s a fatal flaw in this happy-face scenario. Are the space colonists going to happily sit back and accept the verdict of the Genetic Screening Board that they’re not fit to reproduce? In case you hadn’t noticed, human beings (like all other animals and plants) have a strong drive to reproduce. So people will be having outlaw babies because their instincts leave them no choice, but as it turns out, the Genetic Screening Board was right, so lots of babies will die of cancer. Babies with cancer — thank you for this charming vision, Mr. Smith.
Cameron Smith really seems to have no grasp whatever of the enormous difficulties past which he is careening — but the reason is not hard to guess. He’s a professional crystal ball gazer. He gets paid to come up with these predictions. If he threw up his hands in exasperation and said, “Shit, nobody knows,” he’d be out of a job.