New worlds: we live in an age of discovery

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Randall Munroe, who draws the xkcd cartoons, is great at presenting information in visual form.  Here is his presentation of the 786 newly-discovered worlds in the vicinity of our own solar system.  I wish I could live long enough to know whether it is possible for human beings to journey to these new worlds, and, if so, what they will find there.  Either there are living beings on these worlds, which would be a wondrous thing to learn about, or there are not, in which case it would be humanity’s mission to spread life through the universe.

Many intelligent people — Wendell Berry, James Howard Kunstler, Dimitri Orlov — think that our high-technology civilization is unsustainable, and that space exploration is a diversion from what we truly need to do, which is to learn homesteading skills and husband the earth’s remaining resources.  They have good arguments.  There are many things that could bring down our high technology civilization—radical global climate change, peaking of oil supplies, a dysfunctional global economy based on debt—even the threat of nuclear war has only been mitigated, not eliminated.  Once there is a collapse, it will be difficult to rebuild, because humanity will have used up our easy-to-get fossil fuels and our easy-to-process metal ores.

I persist in hoping that this will not come true, although the only real basis for my hope is that I’ve lived a long time and worried about global catastrophes the whole time, and none of the things I feared came about.  The population bomb has been defused, at least for a while; population growth is leveling off in many countries, and the world produces enough food to feed everyone, if it were properly distributed.  The atomic war between the USA and USSR didn’t happen.  Totalitarian governments did not triumph.  None of these dangers has completely gone away, but none of them is an immediate danger.

Human beings are biased toward optimism, experimental psychologists have found.  We believe, as the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides put it, in “the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”  So maybe humanity is not living in a brief interval between barbarism and barbarism.  Maybe we’re on the threshold of a real human history, in which people look back on us as we look back on the Sumerians.  In some moods, I think this is an illusion arising from having read too much science fiction in my youth.  In other moods, I think my pessimism is an illusion arising from old age and knowledge of mortality.  This is still a great time to be alive.

Click on NASA’s PlanetQuest and the Paris Observatory’s Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia for more about newly-discovered worlds.

Click on xkcd for Randall Munroe’s cartoons.

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