In just over two years I will be 81. That may in fact be the sum total of my future. Even if I live another twenty years and chalk up a century, the End is Near and after that there ain’t no more.
But, like you, I’m an Ant-Man. In the Big Scheme of Things, I’m a tiny, insignificant, fleeting blip on the radar-screen of History. While I can’t say I have No Future, the one I can expect is, well, sort of short. Frankly (as becomes me) I am more interested in THE Future rather than my own, the future of the whole human race, condemned – for the moment at least – to individual and later universal extinction. Immortality, we know, is not going to happen anytime soon.
So let’s take five and reflect on our destiny in this perhaps infinite, possibly non-solitary, Universe of which, without being consulted, we have become an infinitesimal part. Since Darwin, 150 years ago, we know that our only purpose in living, like the rest of the animate world, is to contribute to the survival of our species. Some people today consider that that will depend ultimately on our getting the hell outta here and heading for the nearest habitable exoplanet (our own collection of planets, plus or minus Pluto, and even including Mars, offers scant hope for extraterrestrial survival). So beam us up, Scotty, and let’s head for one of those hundreds of planets rotating around other Suns, where a man can find water for his Scotch.
No point in aiming for the planet of our nearest Star. It’s practically next door to its Sun, Proxima Centauri, and you wouldn’t want to live there even if you could. A pity, because it’s only 4.22 light-years away from Earth. The nearest planet identified as habitable is a little further out, a “mere” 13 light-years in fact. The just-discovered Kepler 452B, practically a twin-sister planet to Earth, 60% bigger and twice the gravity, with plenty of water, is the most promising exoplanet ever found. But it is over 100 times further away, so I’d put it on the astronomical back-burner (updated figures for Kepler have been posted under “An Update on Space Travel”, August 29).
Now those figures, for the most part, sound reasonable enough, until you translate light-years into kilometers. It is even more impressive, I think, when you translate the distances into the time it would take to get there. If you wanted to check out Proxima Centauri during your Star Trek, traveling at a respectable 56,000 km/hr like our spaceships, it would take you 81,000 years ! I began by saying that I’ll soon be 81. The flight-plan we’re talking about is not 81 PLUS 1000 years, but a thousand TIMES 81 years. 81,000 years means 2,700 generations – all living out their successive brief life-spans within the confines of the same gigantic Noah’s Ark space vehicle. Even sci-fi editors and Marvel Comics would feed such a scenario to the shredder.
But that was just the challenge of getting to the nearest star. Getting to the first habitable exoplanet would take more than three times as long. That’s a minimum of 243,000 years. I think you get my point.
It is admittedly hard to believe – although there are people who actually believe in Miraculous Medals – but the diameter of the known Universe is 91,000,000,000 … LIGHT-YEARS. (Some would say that’s, for all practical purposes, pretty well infinite, “quasi-infinite”.) That’s not a belief, but a fact. I think we can forget about ever understanding where it came from and why it began to exist 13,800,000,000 years ago. While we’re at it, I suggest we can forget about intergalactic travel too. We are all impressed with the recent exploit of sending a space-vehicle as far as Pluto. Took nine years to get there. Nine whole years, naturally with no one on board. I don’t like being a wet blanket, but the target-planet we have in mind is 27,000 times further than Pluto ! Let’s continue to sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star”, “to Dream the Impossible Dream” and to recognize stars and their planets as literally unreachable. This little blue planet of ours is the only one we’ll ever have. Let’s protect it and make life on it, for ourselves and our descendants, worth living. Fly to the Moon if you must (Musk ?), and if you can pay the fare. But See Earth First. Leave the rest to the telescopes and space-probes. Enjoy the DVDs and the night-sky, and stop asking “Why ?”. The only answer is “Because”.