I am a late riser and particularly so on a Sunday morning. This morning I made myself a lovely cup of dark, dark coffee just the way I like it no cream, no sugar – just unadulterated caffeinated goodness poured into my Field of Dreams cup (its heat sensitive so the players come out of the cornfield as the hot liquid warms them up). I also made myself an excellent fried egg in a toast (you fry the egg in a little hole you make in the toast) and strolled over to the t.v. set to have my breakfast. Now usually on Sundays I watch whatever the Barefoot Contessa is cooking or whatever house improvement show is on TLC or HGTV to ease me into my day. This morning I noticed something called “The Universe” on the History channel and being a bit of a geek and thinking it reminded me of something Carl Sagan would have produced, I sat down in front of that to have my breakfast. The episode I started watching was entitled “Another Earth” (I had unfortunately missed the Parallel Universes episode).
It started out harmlessly enough and I watched with interest for a few minutes. They were talking about Sagan and the Drake equation and the true possibilities for life in the universe. Fascinating, I said as I sipped my coffee. And then…. Prof. Peter D. Ward came on with his take on the Drake equation. He and Donald Brownlee are the authors of Rare Earth. He proceeded to detail his ideas on the probability of life on other worlds proclaiming the Drake equation way, way over the top optimistic. Unfortunately, Ward continued, detailing all the factors that keep this delicate little ecosystem of ours in one piece: the importance of planets like Jupiter to sort of run interference against asteroids for little planets such as ours (good work Jupiter), planet tectonics and their importance in cooling a planet to the right temperature and bringing the heavy metals up from a planet’s core since heavy metals are necessary for advanced civilizations. As he continued, talking about a multitude of other factors, I started to get a sense of just how truly precarious our very existence is – he mentioned how fortuitous is our place in the galaxy and how one little burp from a gassy star can blow off our atmosphere and leave us all with the same last thought… I can’t breath…. that’s what Dr. Ward said and that’s what I thought as a wave of panic fell over me. I groped for the remote control and changed the channel, gulped some coffee and tried to calm myself.
It was one of those moments when you realize how serendipitous our existence is and how stupid we all are for worrying about everything from what cereal we should buy to bi-partisan politics. We are all on a very fragile little boat sailing in uncharted waters and not having a clue as to what’s coming our way. We’re worried about how we smell and are our teeth white enough while this phenomenally huge, barely understood physics experiment rages around us … kind of like Mr. Magoo out for a stroll not realizing how close he is to catastrophe at any point (I understand physics better through animation than actual math).
I’d like to watch the rest of The Universe series but it is something best watched later in the day when I have had a couple of cups of coffee and not as easily panicked.
P.S. In researching who Dr. Ward is I found he is a member of the Lifeboat Foundation. This from their website:
The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, as we move towards the Singularity.
And here is the definition of an “existential risk” from their website as well:
An existential risk is a risk that is both global and terminal. Nick Bostrom defines it as a risk “where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential”. The term is frequently used to describe disaster and doomsday scenarios caused by non-friendly superintelligence, misuse of molecular nanotechnology, or other sources of danger.