Skip to main content

The Mission With An Infinite Multiplier Effect

It occurs to me that there is one human endeavor which stands apart from all others in terms of what its outcome might mean for the human species.

Humans have taken control of their fate in a way that no other species has been able to do. No other species even comes close.

Our endeavors are extraordinarily diverse. We create art, music, painting, sculptures, literature, etc. We have invented language to communicate our thoughts to each other. We invented publishing and thereby learned to pass on the knowledge of one generation to another.

Thus we can say with some certainty what happened a hundred years ago. Once we are able to accurately keep track of events, we can create a history of our species. Before we had written history, people used to pass on their knowledge in the form of spoken stories -- the realm of mythology.

Since the last couple of centuries, the most important human endeavor would appear to be science as it has led to new discoveries and inventions that have improved human lives in countless ways.

In recent decades, technology has been making incredible strides. Just think of the advances that have taken place in astronomy. In the last one hundred years, we've gone from not knowing what stars really were to learning about the full extent of the size of the visible universe -- a majestic vista that spans across billions of light years. We've learned about the Big Bang which created all this about 13.7 billion years ago. We've learned about galaxies and more.

Think of the incredible advances in our understanding of the subatomic world. In a hundred years, we've gone from barely knowing about the structure of the atom to having discovered the quark structure and how matter is divided into hadrons and leptons.

Think of the advances in biology. We've deciphered the structure of the DNA which essentially unites all life on Earth. We've learned about genes and genetic codes and genomes. More and more diseases are becoming treatable. So much so that visionaries are predicting that by the middle of this century, humans will become immortal.

Information technology is one sphere of knowledge where our knowledge is increasing exponentially.

Quite a smorgasbord of activities. In all this frenetic activity, one question which occurs to me is to wonder which is the most important one. This is both a theoretical query as well as one with some practical implications.

The reason why it's of relevance to think about the benefits that might accrue from a scientific endeavor is because of various reasons including limited economic resources and competing claims from different constituencies.

It's almost an automatic response from many people when talk arises of big science projects that the money can be better spent in other ways.  Poverty is unfortunately a human problem that still exists in many part of the world. And there are other problems in even the richer nations of the world. So, when 20 billion dollars is sought to be spent on a particle collider, it becomes difficult for governments to justify that kind of expenditure on a science project. Similarly, NASA projects suffer because of lack of funding. There's no money to be spent on manned space exploration. The money is more urgently required right here on Earth.

The patterns of our energy usage would appear to be unsustainable in the medium term dependent as we are on fossil fuels. Renewable sources such as solar and wind are not yet developed fully so that they can replace coal and oil.

The fight with cancer and other diseases continues. In the medical domain too, resource allocation is often predicated upon profitability. 

Corporations naturally seek to maximize profits. Governments are the proper entities who might invest in pure research. But governments in democracies are constrained by politicians who are not often the most far-sighted individuals. 

Keeping this broad scenery in mind, what's that single most effective scientific endeavor? I think the answer has to be SETI. Consider the benefits that might accrue if the project succeeds. The project will succeed if we make contact wiht an advanced civilization out there in the cosmos. The nature of cosmological time and distance dictates that if ever we manage to make contact, that civilization is likely to be far more advanced than ours.

This should be clear when we look back at the history of our own species. We are in some ways in technological infancy. We have invented radio communication in the last century or so. We have invented much else technologically besides that as well -- everything from computers to aeroplanes.

If we go back a thousand years, our ancestors would appear to be astonishingly primitive from our perspective. If we go back 10,000 years, our species was barely in its infancy. So, considering this ever accelerating trajectory of technological advancement, where would our species be in a century from now? Where would we reach in a thousand years from now? How similar or dissimilar our descendants would be from us in 10,000 years.

We have to think of these vast eons of time as cosmological distance is measured in light years and millions of light years. If evolution led to the creation of intelligent civilization somewhere else in our galaxy or in some other galaxy, then that civilization would most likely be millions of years ahead of us.

If SETI succeeds and we make contact with such a civilization, imagine what a revolutionary breakthrough that would be for our species. It would have results. First of all, we would know for sure that we are not the only civilization in the entire universe. Second, we would be able to witness what is possible in the distant future. An advanced civilization from a different place in the universe may not be able to act as our savior though. This is because it is probably that a different civilization would have come into being via a different evolutionary route and would not share too much with ourselves in terms of biology or psychology.

This is a sobering thought. Even though witnessing an advanced civilization might be like a trip into the future, we would still need to overcome our own problems without much help from these denizens of the future. The only hope is this: it seems that the principles of science and the laws of nature would be the same all across the universe. Once we are able to set up some form of communication with these creatures, we might seek to understand the laws of nature from their perspective. In so doing, we would get new insights of our own and be able to fill in the gaps in our own knowledge. This might accelerate the pace of our own development.

The current psychological status of our civilization offers somewhat grim prospects in some ways. I do not think that discovery of extraterrestrial civilization would suddenly change this psychology. So,  even if extraterrestrials are discovered, Earthlings would continue to have a provincial outlook with all the usual divisions based on race and nationality.

The sad lesson perhaps is that our species would swim or swim mostly on its own merit and its own wits. But at least the scientific community would learn a lot from an extraterrestrial encounter.


Popular posts from this blog

Sarah Kay's poem from TED

If I should have a daughter, instead of mom, she's going to call me Point B,

because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way  to me.
And I am going to paint the Solar Systems on the backs of her hands, so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say 'Oh, I know that like the back of my hand'
And she's going to learn that this life will hit you, hard, in the face, wait for you to get back up, just so we can kick you in the stomach but getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.

Edward Snowden

This seems to me to be the defining journalism-whistle-blower story of this generation. It's rare in today's world when privileged people voluntarily choose to take steps whereby they give up comfortable lives to do something that is in the 'public good.' Mr. Snowden was clearly a computer whiz which explains why he got jobs at the CIA (including postings in Geneva under diplomatic cover). Booz Allen obviously did not hire him or pay him the $1,20,000 salary without Mr. Snowden showcasing some considerable technical expertise. I believe Mr. Snowden's expertise probably lies in having deep expertise in various flavors of Linux. That is what I am inclined to infer from his various job roles as a 'Systems Engineer' or 'System Administrator.' Being the self-driven sort of person that he was, I am sure he must be having good knowledge about networking and encryption stuff including but not limited to Cisco routers and related technologies. To put these t…

Top 10 Crazy Facts About India

Here's a random list of things. 1.Indians sometimes prefer to abort a fetus if they find out that it's female. (Or they just kill the new born baby after it's born.) 2.There are more than 20 million babies born in India. EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. 3.Child labor is so commonplace in India that few notice it or consider it out of the ordinary. Kids work as waiters or dishwashers in roadside restaurants. Sometimes, kids ferry tea to the local police station from a nearby roadside tea stall. 4.Massive numbers of kids and younger and adult women are employed as maids in middle class to rich households. Middle class houses might pay 200 rupees to a female who comes and washes the dishes. Rich houses might employ women permanently by paying them more. 5.Cars in the Indian cities are washed in the morning by car-washers who tend to be young men who get paid around 100 to 200 rupees per month for this service. 6.India is home to some crazily competitive exams. The IIT JEE and the IIM CAT have …