My father was an artillery officer during WWII, and he recounted that in his most frightening battle his guns, laid out on a grid, were at one point firing at tanks from point blank range, their barrels horizontal. Worse yet, there were German infantry inside his battery, among the guns themselves. It isn’t supposed to be that way.
As a humanist writer I sometimes feel that I am revisiting his conundrum of that day. I have all the firepower of our powerful species at my disposal – knowledge, science, the Internet – but there are infantry among the guns here too – atheist klingers wearing our uniforms.
If humanists look for other free thinking colleagues on the Net, they are likely to come across freeratio.org, ostensibly an oasis of fellow intellectuals and a safe haven from the holy rollers. But not so fast – if I am going to discuss humanism at their site, I shall be attempting to distill Grand Marnier from bunker oil.
The opposition to evangelical America among these infidels is so dug in and intractable (understandable after the religious orgies of the Bush era) that I had to eventually opt for an orderly retreat and wash my mouth out with soap. It isn’t supposed to be that way, but these guys are tar babies and it’s not for me to lead them out of the wilderness. There’s just too many of them, Sarge, and they all claim to be humanists, oh yes!
What a treat then to come across an outfit like ieet.org, which operates on a higher plane. Nobody’s wasting time here rehashing the British analytic parlor game of ‘what’s in a word?’ and claiming it’s the only real philosophy. A case in point immediately jumps out at me – a superb article on the realities of space travel by Charlie Stross, entitled the Myth of the Starship.
Charlie has no trouble lowering his formidable scientific gun barrels and laying waste to the idea of travel among the stars, and it is a great pleasure to see a techie use his gift of the gab destructively – I mean creatively – to demolish star tourism.
He discounts our current space ventures as understandably primitive, and cites the root problem thus:
“Rather, what intrigues me is the possibility that the entire conceptual framework of the starship is a dangerously misleading dead-end, and that what we need is a new framework for thinking about interstellar travel.”
As a lifetime boater I adore ships, but Chas will have none of it:
“Such an interstellar capability isn’t going to look much like a “ship”. It’s going to look more like a DVD balanced on a microwave beam, or a can of beans hanging below a light sail energized by lasers powered by huge orbiting solar power stations. There won’t be any biological agencies aboard: just AGIs or something equivalent ported out of a fleshbody’s cranium. No hands, only nanotech assemblers. And after a voyage of decades or centuries it’s going to have to stop — somehow braking at the other end — then spend more decades farming rocks, slush and sunlight to build ever-bigger physical structures until it can build the equipment with which to phone home.”
I love it when a science pro talks dirty like that! But I agree that this is one elevator pitch a Harvard MBA is not going to see an immediate ROI in… Charlie remains an optimist that some day we can reach out into space – the mind is willing, but the starship idea has no legs.
He concludes: “If we succeed in doing it, it’s going to look nothing like the Starship Enterprise. Or even New Horizons. The whole reference frame we instinctively assume when we hear the word “ship” is just so wrong it’s beyond wrong-ness: it’s on a par with Baron Munchausen’s lunar exploits as seen in light of the Apollo Program. We need a new handle for discussing and analyzing such a venture. And the sooner we consign the “-ship” suffix to the dustbin of failed ideas, the better.”
So we take a lesson from Charlie Stross, the renowned SF writer, to the effect that travel to the stars is just too far out, and we must agree with him there, body and figure.
To be fair, Charlie was debunking starships as a means of transportation, citing the ridiculous amounts of energy and time required to transit unimaginable distances, just to the nearest star. He didn’t touch on the science fiction device of using black holes etc. as doors to other universes, which can negatively impact your lifetime, now and there. Let’s take what we learned from his summary, and discard travel to the stars within the foreseeable future – period.
There is a cuter plan.
We’ll accept the Universe as our neighbor, as cool wallpaper, and not get too exercised about its existence – this remoteness buffers us from intruders. As a busy little species, our activities during the coming millennium will likely be conducted in complete privacy – there’s some comfort in that knowledge.
Our destination will be Venus, not the stars, for a number of great reasons. An obscure paper by NASA scientist Geoffrey Landis on the Colonization of Venus has this abstract:
“Although the surface of Venus is an extremely hostile environment, at about 50 kilometers above the surface the atmosphere of Venus is the most earthlike environment (other than Earth itself) in the solar system. It is proposed here that in the near term, human exploration of Venus could take place from aerostat vehicles in the atmosphere, and that in the long term, permanent settlements could be made in the form of cities designed to float at about fifty kilometer altitude in the atmosphere of Venus.”
It gets better, as Landis elaborates:
“At cloud-top level, Venus is the paradise planet. At an altitude slightly above fifty km above the surface, the atmospheric pressure is equal to the Earth surface atmospheric pressure of 1 Bar. At this level, the environment of Venus is benign.
• above the clouds, there is abundant solar energy
• temperature is in the habitable “liquid water” range of 0-50C
• atmosphere contains the primary volatile elements required for life (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and Sulphur)
• Gravity is 90% of the gravity at the surface of Earth.”
The fact that Venus is almost the size of the earth with 0.9 of its gravity means that I will immediately lose 20 pounds, and humans will not require an exoskeleton to support them when returning to Earth, as Mars colonists would. A challenge even for my Hong Kong tailor.
We can’t find so much as yellow snow on Mars, while Venus has been our tropical paradise-in-waiting – go figure. Who hired these space cowboys?
In the ebook “The Humanist – 1000 Summers” (www.smashwords.com) this opportunity on Venus is not lost on the Japanese. They did launch a troubled probe to investigate the Venusian atmosphere. Coincidence? I don’t think so. (Use coupon TS69J to read it free this month).
What might we do on Venus? Our breathable air (nitrogen and oxygen) is a lifting gas in CO2, so any dirigibles we build can carry great weight. In perpetual sunlight and shielded laterally from cosmic rays, we’d build a nanocarbon frame and wrap a light plastic film around the city, which needs no pressurization, to shield us from the sulphuric acid droplets in Venus’ atmosphere. No space suits are required, because it really is shirtsleeve weather at 1 atm – truly miraculous.
Cities, countries and the UN on Earth could sponsor such colonies, there’s lots of room – the area of the cloud surface is three times that of earth. Solar planes can readily navigate from one city to another. Over time Venus would begin to cool as its cloud cover and sunlight was converted, and the super-hot temperature on its surface drops toward Earth’s.
If we can configure an atmosphere like Earth’s, our species gains one virgin planet. One thing is for sure – if we build on the Japanese program there will be continuing interest and support from all humanity. So starships, no. But planetship beacons for our youth, calling them to a future on Earth’s twin sister – oh yes.
Charlie Stross convinced us that star travel was a non-starter, so we accept the Cosmos as little more than scenery – works for me – I had not yet made any plans. Heaven can wait.
Looking around, we found an obscure NASA paper inviting us to colonize Venus, so as surely as the Caribbean attracts snowbirds – tropical paradise, here we come.
But really, why would we do this? Obviously the Earth is crowded and we could use some lebensraum, with more natural resources – no question. But there are deeper reasons, ones that make up the core of humanism.
Our species suffers from two main cancers – militarism and corruption, and together they impoverish us. The only lasting solution to either of these diseases is world government, through the United Nations.
Next, if we define humanism as an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet and lives then our species’ governance is its proper study. Humanists must become trusted critics and arbiters of the human condition.
That’s our baseline.
In “The Humanist – 1000 Summers” the ascendancy of the UN allows us to “lift up our eyes unto the hills”, the higher salients that humanity alone can contemplate. The cooperative process of colonizing Venus over 1000 years beckons, and could achieve the following:
1) End our long night of war, nationalism and racism.
2) Inspire youth to respect and trust in science, and to participate in terraforming our new planet.
3) Instill a consensus period and rationale for stabilizing and enjoying Earth for 1000 years.
4) Allow Homo sapiens a suitable time interval to deal with the Singularity, which is the dangerous inflection point wherein our native intelligence is surpassed.
All well and good, but what’s in it for us personally? Everything, if the truth be known.
Again from my book, I propose that humanists partner up with such as the Jesuits, or ex-Jesuits as the case may be. (Fear not, I am neither Catholic, Christian, nor Jesuit – agnostic at best – just looking for a trained and proven crew to place in our ship’s wheelhouse).
When it comes to elaborating a catechism around the study and support of Man, the Jesuits are nonpareil. Their ranks are thinning fast, their churches are standing near-empty, and there is an opportunity at hand to simply change the books in the pews and continue – as humanists. We must be mature enough to recognize the worth of our own traditions, and responsible enough to morph and manage them properly on our watch.
Our movement then gains fellowship, ritual and tradition by recycling churches, not by mocking or abandoning them. This process can occur within Islam and Hinduism as well as Christianity -modernizing their metaphysics while keeping their ethics – again in the book.
Someday I hope to participate in a ceremony in a centuries-old church, whereby I place my genetic records – DNA, genome, tissue samples and life data – into the hands of Jesuit-like stewardship. Then, with my grandkids downstairs in Sunday school learning about Darwin and Venus, I’ll stand up and out-holler the choir on one or all of Pete Seeger’s humanist hymns.
I won’t have to be rich or famous in my short lifespan, I’ll have more of them coming here, or on Venus. If “men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them” (Thoreau), I’ll die contented, knowing that I have entrusted all to my human family and our institutions.
This aspiration then will be our humanist starship. We shall navigate to the one part of the Universe that matters to us – the other side of death; to the future. Death is a feature of biology; it is not our eternal albatross. Work with me on this.
Support the UN and starve out the military – we’re going to need some big money for knocking the new planet into shape.
– Dwight Gilbert Jones