Sunday, 9 November 2014

Interstellar & the Goldilocks Conundrum

I watched the movie Interstellar yesterday, and it got me thinking about Earth's survival prospects and the likelihood of finding and reaching a habitable world.

First - the film. I enjoyed it, some fantastic visual sequences rivaling Gravity, a good plot, a director willing to address relativity and its consequences (including - hallelujah - making it clear that relativistic effects only work forwards - you can't go back in time), and realistic characterizations (including the dark side of humanity). It's longer than it needs to be, mainly towards the end, but given everything else I'd rate it pretty high, especially given the lack of good science fiction films lately.

Next, the issue of finding a habitable world, should we need one - and let's face it, we probably will in the next century, because our planetary 'governance' sucks, big time. In the past few years, people have gone from wondering if there are any other planets out there to being told there are thousands, millions, perhaps, because the galaxy is - as author Douglas Adams used to say - really big. Only the other day came the news and images of a star and a planetary system forming (HL Tauri), 450 light years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus.

The question is whether any of these planets are in the so-called Goldilocks Zone, i.e. not too hot or too cold, containing water and oxygen, and being of similar size - and hence gravity - as Earth.

What the film depicts pretty well, is that even if we find planets in that zone, they might still be pretty inhospitable, without many resources or crop-sustaining soil. And here's the conundrum. If we found one that was not only in the zone, but fertile, then it's likely to already have indigenous life forms, perhaps intelligent life. Recall that the beds Goldilocks slept in belonged to someone else. This means that by the time we find a habitable world, we might be very desperate, in which case we might be the invaders trying to steal another world's resources. I always find it kind of funny that we're the ones whose planet is being invaded rather than the other way around; okay, Avatar is a good exception (this idea of us being the 'bad guys' led to me writing a couple of short stories from a darker human future, the Sylvian Gambit and Executive Decision).

The second problem is getting there: even if we spied a pristine world, it would take centuries, if not millennia, to reach it, unless somebody makes an amazing discovery or an alien visitor shows us some neat tricks that change our understanding of the laws of physics. Interstellar uses a wormhole, and in a nice touch the wormhole itself - conventionally pictured as a funnel - is a sphere, which seems to make sense, and in any case makes for fab visuals in the film. But even if a wormhole could exist, would it be stable, and would we survive the trip? There's a nice discussion on this here, in relation to the film.

I only make use of wormholes in the last book in the Eden Paradox series, Eden's Endgame, and even there, no organic matter can survive the trip (whereas machines can). Humans would get fried or ripped apart by gravitational fluctuations, which is what the scientists seem to be saying.

So, where does that leave us? Anchored to Earth for many centuries to come, assuming we don't literally blow it? Destined to die along with Earth if we go too far?

An aspect of the film, also present in the Eden Paradox, is that in the near future, for various reasons, civilization turns away from science, since science ends up causing a lot of our future problems. But as in Interstellar, this is a self-defeating path, since if things go bad, science may be our only way out.

In the movie, there is a Plan A, and a Plan B. Both involve giving up on Earth. Clearly, we need a Plan C.

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