Earth is elsewhere

A dummies guide to swimming to the distant shores of outer space and setting up shop on stars and planets.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: April 28, 2018 1:19:37 am
The Future of Humanity The Future of Humanity stands on the reasonable premise that humans will have to leave their home planet behind to survive their own stupidity, or the the element of chance in an uncaring universe.

Book: The Future of Humanity

Author: Michio Kaku

Publisher: Allen Lane

Page: 336 

Price: Rs 799 (Hardcover)

Michio Kaku’s latest book is firmly anchored in science-fiction and futurism, which have sparked the imagination of generations of rocket men, cosmologists, astronomers and physicists. It begins with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (itself inspired by the history of the Roman Empire, he told Kaku in an interview) and ends with Asimov’s favourite from his own short stories, ‘The Last Question’, which looks at the end of the universe and sees a new beginning. The text is liberally strewn with Philip K Dick, Andy Weir, Larry Niven, CS Lewis, Ray Kurzweil, HG Wells and Olaf Stapledon. For variety, Giordano Bruno and the Loch Ness monster also find room here, instances of the grandeur and craziness, respectively, of the human imagination.

The Future of Humanity stands on the reasonable premise that humans will have to leave their home planet behind to survive their own stupidity, or the the element of chance in an uncaring universe. The question is no longer why, but when we choose to become a multiplanet species. It is well-timed, as the space race hots up again, the initiative having passed from governments to private enterprise after the end of the Cold War. Trailblazing space entrepreneurs share Kaku’s conviction that humanity must go off-world. Elon Musk aims to colonise Mars, and Jeff Bezos is shooting for life in orbit.

But if you expect the drama of the journey to the stars, the lyricism of Ray Bradbury or the minimalist beauty of Larry Niven, you’ve picked up the wrong book. There are some striking images, like the comparison of contemporary physics to a bundle of unrelated objects tied together with scotch tape. Indeed, it has failed to unite quantum theory, the science of the infinitesimally small, with gravity, which explains the behaviour of colossal bodies. But in general, the writing fails to move. One expects better from one of the most active science communicators of our times, who is a practitioner himself — Kaku is one of the two people who formalised string field theory.

Having dispensed with what the book is not, let us look at what it is — a crash course in the art of the possible in peopling planets, reaching for the stars, leaving behind our mortality and making contact with aliens. If you follow futurist literature and speculative fiction, you won’t find much here that you don’t know already. But you will find it all tidily organised, with goals, causes and effects. Kaku divides the flight to the stars into three sections. ‘Leaving the Earth’, starting with Robert Goddard, the father of multi-stage, liquid propellant rockets; ‘Voyage to the Stars’, starting with Total Recall; and ‘Life in the Universe’, which focuses on the generations that will hear the songs of distant earth.

In the last 20 years — precisely the time when the space race flagged — new technologies and insights have brought humanity within shooting distance of the stars. An enormous number of earthlike planets have been discovered. Reusable rocket stages have slashed costs. The concept of the ion drive, which can accelerate continuously for years, has brought distant worlds closer. And the idea is no longer to blast off from Florida — an ion drive won’t produce escape velocity initially — and head straight for Andromeda. It is now commonly accepted that space will be opened up in stages, and perhaps planetoids and asteroids will prove to be more rewarding real estate than the planets. An outward-bound project could first set up base on an asteroid, people it with robots, mine its minerals to make spacecraft, and its water, extract hydrogen fuel from some of it, and then step and repeat in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. And if other star systems have their own clouds of asteroids and space fragments, explorers could hop from rock to rock over vast distances, and over generations.

Futurist scenarios usually focus ecstatically on the technology, at the expense of human issues — what would such missions do to us as a species and as a society. What about our politics? These questions are generally left to science fiction, which has produced great work based on obvious realities. Such as, the first alien encounter would probably be with intelligent agents rather than organisms (2001: A Space Odyssey). Or, that the demand for space specialists would make GM humans inevitable (Sergei Lykyanenko’s The Genome). Or, that long-haul space fleets must have on-board governments (Battlestar Galactica). Kaku does venture into some of these reality checks, but he also draws attention to the most important factor in space missions: economics.

Space exploration is fuelled not by technological ability alone. It must make financial sense and return either strategic or business value. The colonisation of Mars has caught the popular imagination, but terraforming it — converting it to an earth-like habitat — is beyond our financial means. The orange businessman on Pennsylvania Avenue wants an American presence on Mars by the middle of next week, but does not understand that any large-scale movement of people off-world would break the back of a national economy. The world waited for commercial electronics and solar energy to become cheap. It must now wait for space travel to become affordable.

However, the financials are beginning to make sense, for prospectors. Elon Musk and Richard Branson are in the game because they understand future margins. Space has been declared a weapons-free zone, but there is no clarity about ownership of resources. There’s rare earths in them thar asteroids and as the torch passes from governments to corporates, Nasa’s motto, ‘ad astra’ (to the stars), takes on a new financial meaning, which provides a fresh impetus for leaving our world behind.

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