Overweening Generalist

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dreaming Large: Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension: Part One: Space

Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary called these three things together "SMi2LE." They were both enthusiastic science fiction readers (and writers, one far better than the other), and both were also voracious readers of science "fact" about space exploration, humans getting smarter, and living increasingly longer and more vital lives. Despite their PhDs in Psychology, they were both terrific generalists, and while both were too optimistic about their forecasts, they inspired many a young dreamy intellectual to pursue neurobiology, organic chemistry, quantum mechanics, microbiology and genomics, etc.

For this post, I'll limit my spew to space migration. Soon: some ideas on Intelligence Increase, then Life Extension. The Frankfurt School thinkers criticized modern capitalist societies for techne without telos. Leary and Wilson's visions - and many other similar visions by Dreamers - seem to answer the Frankfurters. (For my telos I'd first choose solving world hunger, overpopulation, the renewable energy thing, and a few other small items like that...which makes me sympathize with the Dreamers who saw the stars as our ultimate destination...Jared Diamond reminds us that, throughout history, technology has always meant power, which solves problems, but also creates new problems. And what kind of life would we have without problems? Consider that your zen koan of the day if you didn't already have one with breakfast.)

I've been actuated to write this blog post by my blog colleague Oz Fritz, who shares many of my influences, and knows more about kabbalah and Crowley than I do... See his recent, trippy SMi2LE stuff HERE.

"The future exists first in imagination, then in will, then in reality." - Barbara Marx Hubbard

After 1972, science fiction writers began to sober up. NASA was seen as a jobs program, with vision problems and in-fighting as to whether we spend billions on unmanned space telescopes that could do real, hard science; or to pursue unmanned and then manned trips to Mars. Venus was not as exciting, which I'll get to shortly. Sure, Mars has its drawbacks: it has 1/100th of Earth's atmosphere, which means you're bombarded with radiation, which causes cancers and that's only the beginning. You can build radiation shields, but they're prohibitively expensive. Mars is always freezing, there's (probably) no life, no organic chemistry, canals, or temperate zones. The surface area is basically rust.

But Venus makes Mars look like Central Park on a warm spring day: when we look at it from Earth it's the next brightest astronomical body after the moon, but that's opaque, reflecting clouds of sulfuric acid, not a lot of fun. Below that, it has a very dense atmosphere, in stark contrast to Mars. But the problem: imagine our global warming problem times, oh, I'll just say 10,000. Maybe a million. It's extremely dense carbon dioxide. Talk about a smoggy day! It has no carbon cycle, so the nightlife suffers catastrophically. The day life too. Hell: life. A "runaway greenhouse effect" probably caused it all, and it's just a tough break for us: we need hospitable planets: not too hot, not too cold, an atmosphere with oxygen, some weather, plate tectonics...is that too much to ask? Oh yea: A decent day on Venus is about 450 degrees Celsius, or about 900 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt your copy of Paul McCartney and Wings' Venus and Mars.

Turns out getting humans to Mars to live or at least "hang out" is far more difficult than science fictionists had thought. The last Apollo guys were subject to solar flares and cosmic rays for about 12 days. A trip to Mars and back would run 18-30 months, or between 550-900 days. And the weightlessness is murder on your bone density. Micro-gravity causes us to lose as much density in one month as we would normally on Earth in a year. So: your bones age times 12. Your bones support your muscles, and we all see the implications there. Further: your tissues deteriorate under the radiation. Cancers are more frequent, and your brain gets damaged. Any pharmaceutical drugs are spoiled.

                                     Sulfur-rich rocks on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL/Cornell

"But haven't you heard of terra-forming Mars?," you ask. Oh yea. But it turns out that's a far more difficult problem than we'd thought. Just think about fixing Earth's climate problems. I still think there's gotta be some way to do it, though.

Peter Diamandis says there's "no question" we'll soon genetically engineer single-celled bacteria or even algae that can withstand the Martian conditions, and a $1million X Prize is at stake for the first team to do it.

Gregory Stock thinks the technical hurdles needed to overcome the Martian landscape for humans are too much, and that any technology put toward the effort would be better used on Earth, and he is a strong advocate of fearless, ambitious genetic engineering. Stock thinks the exploration of "inner space" would be more rewarding at this time, and I think if Leary and Wilson were here they'd sit up and take notice of that notion.

Robert Zubrin thinks Stock has it all wrong: the hazards of an inhabited Mars trip have been vastly overstated; he thinks we must go because the frontier is where invention happens. He's a visionary, he's Mars uber-alles. I think he sounds sorta nuts, but what do I know? I'm sitting in my little boxy book-lined room typing away on a tiny computer.

In the latest ish of Reason magazine, Tim Cavanaugh thinks we can get to Mars, but - and this is "trippy" in at least two senses of the word - we need to genetically modify humans on Earth first. Yep. Modify them so they'll be ready to handle the trip to Mars and...whatever they'll do there. It almost certainly has no mineral wealth to help pay back the costs. But it's the frontier, man! Imagine telling a bunch of venture capitalists that they'll need to help fund the engineering of humanoid "freaks" (although wouldn't you steer clear of that language?) to minimize the potential problems for the trip. "Here's the corker - and stick with me here guys, this is brilliant - we manufacture the Martians here on Earth first!"

Maybe I just lack imagination.

You can read about the oh-so-human problems and logistics of space travel - including, rather famously, what to do when you have to poo - in Mary Roach's hilarious and very well-researched Packing For Mars.

Who Was Chesley Bonestell?
A space artist who fired the imaginations of a million young space geeks before we'd ever gotten there. Check out the ingenium on Bonestell! He teamed up - in a matter of speaking - with Werner Von Braun, who wrote imagination-catching articles on space stations, space flight, space travel, etc. He was one of the MVNs (most valuable nazis) Unistat got over the Russians in the immediate aftermath of WWII. And it turns out he was almost uncanny in his predictions about how things would go in space, up to this point. But check out books from your library about Bonestell's artwork, or check out one of the pages devoted to him, like this one.

                                        A Bonestell landscape: the stuff of dreams

Micro-Gravity and DNA
Instead of actually going into space, it turns out we can simulate very low gravity conditions on Earth, using magnets. When fruit flies were levitated for x number of days versus control groups, 500 or so genes were affected, including ones that regulated body temperature, the immune response, and stress levels. See this article from Wired. So: space trips would seem to already by changing astronauts into "freaks" (I'm sure there's a better word), or...Something Else. The fruit flies had trouble reproducing and developed slowly. This is turning out to be a Hard Problem, eh?

But I bet human ingenuity will figure it out. But what will Earth look like then? Will you or I still be here then?

Space Tourism
It's already happening. Listen to some interviews HERE. Charles Simonyi's been "up" twice. The tickets are really expensive, so it helps if you've invented a program that Microsoft sells billions of copies of. For now.

It'll get a lot cheaper if the science fiction-y character Elon Musk is right. Musk, born in South Africa, dropped out of Stanford's grad school, invented Pay Pal (Musk's worth estimated at $670 million), then Tesla Motors, and Space X, which seeks to lower the cost of dollar-per-pound for flight from $1000/lb to $100/lb. The Unistat government's costs to get stuff - including humans - up to the Space Station was $10,000/lb. Musk and his team have lowered that to $3000, then $2000, and now $1000. When Boeing and Lockheed merged, saying the merger would save the US government money, Musk scoffed, saying "When has a monopoly ever lowered costs?" Musk is brash, brazen, and...some sorta genius, as is - it seems - everyone I've mentioned in this blogspew.

Since NASA's Space Shuttle was decommissioned last year, it seems clear the future of space tourism is in private, corporate, commercial hands from here on out. And that may be the best thing that could've happened to our dreams of space travel, if only for cost reasons.

Musk has competition: Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson), which will launch from a large area in New Mexico. They want to charge you $200,000 (a $20,000 deposit please) to get out to the Karman line - the line roughly 62 miles "up" that separates Earth's atmosphere from outer space - and you'll get four minutes or so of weightless-play. The ticket costs will further more space exploration. Like space hotels.

Oh yea: the very wealthy space tourists are "biological cargo" according to some in the trade. And the Russians don't like the term "space tourists." They prefer "private cosmonauts." I understand.

Other competition for Musk: the aforementioned Boeing/Lockheed's United Launch Alliance; and XCOR, founder: Jeff Gleason. Another recent Reason article that covers these guys and their doings is HERE.

Here's David Pakman talking about "The Psychology of Space Exploration and Space Travel." It's 5 and a half minutes:


Oz Fritz said...

Great summary of the current U.S. space exploration situation. My friend at Scientific American mentioned that the Chinese are investing heavily in space adventures though I don't know what they're up to. He talked about the possibility of joint U.S./Chinese space ventures as a way to ease tensions between the two countries in a similar way that the U.S. and Soviet Union participated in a joint mission in 1975 while the "Cold War" still frostily rolled along on Urth.

Recently, I recorded and mixed a song about Dennis Tito who apparently went up as the first space tourist. It was from the band I mentioned on my blog where the main writer saw the word "Crowley" on a shipping crate in the Honduras and then had the vision of how the whole album would go. No idea if Dennis Tito appeared in his initial version.

Thanks for the shout-out and link to my blog! May you and yours live long, prosper, and go places!

michael said...

Oz Fritz: There seems quite a lot to be said about this/these topics, and I like the idea of linking our posts in this instance.

Yes, Dennis Tito was a name I ran into a lot when researching space tourism as an industry so far.

It seems we are able to link just about everyone on the planet to Crowley. How did he accomplish THAT feat?

SatoriGuy said...

It would be great to the SMi2LE acronym catch on with the general public.

I definitely agree that future of space exploration depends on the fledgling space tourism industry.

As soon as leaving the Earth's atmosphere becomes more and more affordable to people I think that there is going to be some sort of tipping point in society's awareness of the importance of space travel.

It seems that just the physical act of leaving Spaceship Earth can change an individuals psychological makeup. I think Leary and Wilson would've have been very interested in the so-called "overview effect" on astronauts who experience space space for the first time. It's sounds a lot like Leary's 5th Circuit Hedonic Bliss state of consciousness. Even if interplanetary travel is out of the question for now, I think this experience alone might be enough to help mankind develop a more responsible and evolved perspective of our relationship to Earth.

Here's an interesting article on the "Space Eurphoria":


michael said...

@Satori Guy: Thanks for turning me on to the Daily Galaxy.

I had on my short list of topics to cover on Space Migration the 5th circuit-y experiences of - as I understand it - MOST of the astronauts. But alas, my pieces run usually far too long; I think I alienate readers.

I'm glad you were able to help fill in that part for anyone who was interested. I am certainly interested!

Neuroscientist Andy Newberg is on my radar now, too.

Brev said...

seems like Leary backed off a little from space migration in "Info- Psychology" (update of "Exo-Psychology") and was leaning towards a digital/virtual/"other inner" exploration that had to happen first (internet, etc). does anyone know of more thoughts/writing on this kind of topic? thanks for all the great posts.

michael said...

@Brev: thanks for the kind comments. You're right about Info-Psych. In his 1987 update (from Exo-Psych of 1975 to Info-Psych), Uncle Tim has surprisingly little to say explicitly about the SM aspect of SMi2LE.

"The 1975 version of these realms of atomic consciousness and atomic engineering sounded speculative but the ensuing decade was to prove kind to the notion of intelligent cyber-piloting around in quantum realities." Leary then cites Eric Drexler's now-seminal assertiions of the possibilities of nanotechnology.

Tim also said the 1975 version emphasized psychedelics but "What was missing then was the use of electronic technology, the construction of Info-worlds using computers, synthesizers, electron screens."

It seems there exist quite a lot of writing on various aspects of SMi2LE, post-RAW/Leary, even if SMi2LE not explicitly stated. And even more about virtuality, new psychedelic drugs, the exigencies of space travel. There's so much going on in life extension I can't hope to keep up.

You asked about more thoughts on this topic, and I wasn't sure exactly what you were most interested in, but using my intuition: check out as much of the work of Ray Kurzweil as you can?