greygirlbeast (greygirlbeast) wrote,

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running from dying suns

On Tuesday nights, I often watch The Science Channel, because it shows astronomy documentaries on Tuesday nights. So, usually, I can tune in and be assured that there will be very, very little to annoy me. Astronomy rarely annoys me. But I do have a pet peeve, and it got poked at by last night's episode of The Planets. Here's a description of the episode from the channel's website:

The Planets: Destiny — In three billion years, the sun will expand into a red giant. Mercury will be consumed, probably Venus, possibly the Earth. Scientists have already started looking for another solar system to find an Earth-like planet to move to.

Here's the deal, and astronomers know this as well as biologists, as well as geologists, as well as paleontologists. Humans worrying about the inevitable death of the Sun is, not to mince words, silly. To consider it a threat that requires humanity to begin looking for a new home is silly as hell. Our best evidence indicates that the average lifespan of a species is only a few million years, three, four, maybe five (see Sepkoski, 1992; May, 2000). Even those species we call "living fossils," they're generally not. They're species which have descended from some earlier, perhaps similar species, and "living fossil" usually refers, sloppily, to a sort of evolutionary conservativism — this is true for alligators, tuataras, cockroaches, sharks, and even the much-praised coelacanth. The earliest remains of anatomically modern humans date to about 195,000 years old. Now, it's generally assumed that a species first appearance in the fossil record does not mark the moment of its evolution; most species are probably a little older than that first appearance. Anyway, lets say that Homo sapiens has been walking around for 195,000 years. That's a long time, as humans tend to think of time, but it's just a tick of the geological clock. The last glaciation only ended about 10,000 years ago. The earliest human cities are only about 7,000 years old. The Paleolithic ended about 6,000 years ago, and the "Great Pyramid" at Giza was finished about 5,000 years ago. Darwin "just" published On the Origin of Species... a mere 146 years ago. For me, all these numbers say that humans should think of their welfare in terms of decades and centuries, not millions of years and certainly not in terms of billions of years. No matter how things turn out, there will be no humans around a billion years from now, because species rarely last more than a tiny fraction of one percent of a billion years. Some may argue that humans are exempt from this lifespan, because of their unprecedented ability to manipulate their enviromnment. Which is where last night's ep of The Planets comes in, and astronomers who talk of finding humans a new home before everyone dies in the Sun's impending nova. I choose to be cynical and give these guys the benefit of the doubt, preferring to think that they're working the ol' mass hysteria nerve for funding rather than believe they actually believe that anything remotely human will still be around fifty million years from now, much less a billion. Let's just say I'm being charitable. Anyway, when you consider the fact that man's ability to alter his surroundings includes the creation of weapons that could easily destroy Homo sapiens (and most other species on Earth), I think things sort of balance out and we don't have a lot of reason to hope that humans will survive any longer than all the other billions of species that have come and gone before us.

Wow. That's a long paragraph. Sorry.

There are things that humans don't need to worry about, because the time scale on which these things occur is simply beyond the past and future span of human history. This is not to say that we shouldn't be exploring space, seeking out extraterrestrial life, hoping that we'll get lucky and find something else intelligent out there. We should. But we should not try to bolster the importance of the search with absurd claims that assume the longevity of the human species is such that it needs to start planning for the death of our star. We should be worrying about how to preserve this biosphere for the next hundred thousand years, not hoping we can find another green, rocky, wet, oxygen-rich planet nearby so that we might flee the fireball.

Well, anyway. We also rented the incredibly goofy, mind-numbingly odd, unapologetically dumb National Treasure last night. It wasn't as bad as Blade 3, but still. I so wish that Nicolas Cage would stick to real movies, oh, say Matchstick Men or Adaptation, and leave this sort of silliness to men who can't act. Of course, I'm sure the pay is good. I wish someone would offer me a cool million to write some frelling bit of crap that doesn't have to make sense or be historically accurate or even obey its own internal logic. I'd say yes. You bet'cha. Well, after the check cleared. Later on, after the movie, I tried to play the perfectly wretched Red Ninja: End of Honor. Ugh. Just see the review at GameSpy. I wish I had.

The meeting with Marvel yesterday went well. I plotted Daughter of Hounds up through Chapter Six, which is to say halfway (don't worry, there are only twelve chapters, but they're much longer chapters, with a much longer prologue). There was more foolishness over the IRS and Italian royalties. Writing the little intro thing for Steve Jones took longer than expected, by about an hour. And that was yesterday.

May, R.M. "How Many Species?" Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc ., B330 (1990), 292-304.

Sepkoski, J.J. "Phylogenetic and Ecologic Patterns in the Phanerozoic History of Marine Biodiversity." In Systematics, Ecology, and the Biodiversity Crisis. Ed. N. Eldredge. 77-100. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
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