July 17, 2007
THE IMPORTANCE OF SPACE COLONIZATION:
In 1993, J. Richard Gott III computed with scientific certainty that humanity would survive at least 5,100 more years. At the time, I took that as reason to relax, but Dr. Gott has now convinced me I was wrong. He has issued a wake-up call: To ensure our long-term survival, we need to get a colony up and running on Mars within 46 years.
If you’re not awakened yet, I understand. It’s only prudent to be skeptical of people who make scientific forecasts about the end of humanity. Dr. Gott, a professor of astrophysics at Princeton, got plenty of grief after he made his original prediction in 1993. But in the ensuing 14 years, his prophetic credentials have strengthened, and not merely because humanity is still around.
Dr. Gott has used his technique to successfully forecast the longevity of Broadway plays, newspapers, dogs and, most recently, the tenure in office of hundreds of political leaders around the world. He bases predictions on just one bit of data, how long something has lasted already; and on one assumption, that there is nothing special about the particular moment that you’re observing this phenomenon. This assumption is called the Copernican Principle, after the astronomer who assumed he wasn’t seeing the universe from a special spot in the center. . . .
You could argue that he’s being too pessimistic about space exploration. The space program may be only 46 years old, but humans have been exploring new territory for tens of thousands of years, so by Copernican logic perhaps they’ll keep it doing it far into the future. But given recent trends — after going to the Moon, we now barely send humans into orbit — he’s right to be worried.
If it’s true that civilizations normally go extinct because they get stuck on their home planets, then the odds are against us, but there’s nothing inevitable about the Copernican Principle. Earthlings could make themselves the statistical anomaly. When extinction is the norm, you may as well try to be special.
Read the whole thing. And worry a bit.