Last week’s episode of Cosmos, episode 11, The Immortals, was one of the best and most moving. Neil deGrasse Tyson examines humanity’s desire for immortality, and the ways that this has happened in some sense: writing, that captures thoughts for future generations; the idea that life may have survived periodic meteor bombardments, that might easily have wiped out all life on earth, but being ‘reseeded’ by fragments of debris floating around the solar system before landing back on Earth, or Mars.
And SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, and why there have been no results. (This is a theme still being mined by science fiction writers.) One possibility: despite the likelihood of habitable planets that might give rise to life, and intelligent life, maybe intelligent civilizations simply don’t last very long: they burn themselves out quickly, through internal discord that triggers nuclear wars, or through inattention to environmental dangers. Tyson:
Our economic systems were formed when the planet and its air, rivers, oceans, lands, all seemed infinite. They evolved long before we first saw the Earth as the tiny organism that it actually is. They’re all alike in one respect: they’re profit-driven, and therefore focused on short-term gain.
The prevailing economic systems, no matter what their ideologies, have no built-in mechanism for protecting our descendants, of even 100 years from now, let alone 100,000.
In one respect, we’re ahead of the people of ancient Mesopotamia: unlike them we understand what’s happening to our world. For example, we’re pumping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere in a rate not seen in a million years. And the scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate.
Yet our civilization seems to be in the grip of denial: a kind of paralysis. There’s a disconnect between what we know and what we do. Being able to adapt our behavior to challenges is as good a definition of intelligence as any I know.
And the episode gets better: speculating on what immortals would actually do. And the Cosmic Calendar of the next 14 billion years. And what humanity might accomplish in the next few seconds of that calendar.
It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby star systems on our interstellar arks. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, more confident, far-seeing, capable and wise. For all our failings, despite our flaws and limitations, we humans are capable of greatness.
A very science-fictional, expansive, and optimistic, vision. (Free of the deadweight of primitive religious dogma.)