Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Move the Planet - or - Safety First

I've been reading Olaf Stapleton's "Star Maker" (1937). I don't buy into the author's philosophy, which seems to be a secularly sanitized version of 19th century spiritualism. On the other hand, Stapleton in this one book displayed more imaginative (or crazy) ideas than many science/speculative fiction authors do in their writing careers.

A little over halfway through the book, I ran into a short description of how an inhabited planet could be used as an interstellar vehicle. Essentially, strap a rocket on, and let 'er rip. Light? Heat? No problem. Snag an uninhabited planet, orbit the two around each other, and convert the uninhabited one to energy, a bit at a time - making an artificial sun.

I know: There are a few details of the idea that are dicey at best. Starting with the idea of applying thrust to a planet.

But it might work.

And, arguably, it may have been tried.

I think that people could be more risk-averse than human beings are.

Look at it this way:
  • We started making tools out of flint, quite possibly without any thought of the dire consequences that would transpire when we ran out of flint.
    • Which we haven't, yet.
  • Reckless of the danger, we used horses and other animals as energy sources for vehicles and industrial sites such as mills, and cobbled together methods of dealing with waste products as they piled up.
    • Cities in America have completely abandoned large-scale efforts to rid the urban environment of manure.
  • We converted to coal power without carefully mapping out the effect on air quality.
    • Which arguably wasn't the safest, most prudent decision.
  • Now we've got nuclear power plants dotted over the planet, at least in places that can afford them, and we still don't have a really good method worked out for what to do with the waste.
    • You get the idea.
As if to demonstrate the human willingness to take insane risks, not too long ago someone decided to find out what happens when you shut down the pumps in a nuclear reactor's cooling system. Remember Chernobyl?

The Gill Theory of Human Evolution

I'm not terribly serious about it, but I think this is as plausible as some other ideas that've been run up the flagpole:

Millions of years ago there was a species of primate that was slower and weaker than the rest. They were about as smart as any other primate, with one distinction.

They were crazy.

Every other primate had something - common sense, survival instinct, call it what you will - that kept it from climbing out on branches that didn't look thick enough, and inhibited the creature's curiosity when intellectual inquiries would involve getting close to carnivores or other known hazards.

Not these primates. Many of them found out, first-hand, why they were the first to attempt some mad experiment. Like walking up to a lion and slapping it on the nose.1 A few were quick-witted enough to survive.

Perhaps they left the forest willingly, perhaps they were driven out by their more sensible and responsible cousins. The point is, they spent the next uncounted toll of generations in the savanna, slapping quite a few lions along the way. Also hyenas, cheetahs and baboons.

The survivors were really good at solving problems, quickly: literally, sometimes, on the run.

Many cut and crushed hands later, they learned how to make stone tools. Without inflicting near-lethal injuries on themselves.

By this time, they were recognizably human, and working out ways of keeping a fire going without igniting their surroundings - and, occasionally, themselves.

The crazier of them/us left the only place on Earth where they could be comfortable, and eventually populated every continent, except the interior of Greenland and Antarctica. So far, we haven't figured out how to settle the top of a continental glacier - but I wouldn't put it past humans. Remember, we're arguably insane.

A couple generations ago we briefly visited the moon, and our avatars have been scouting out other planets in the Solar system.

And we're still, arguably, crazy.

Moving Out of a Dangerous Neighborhood

Our sun is in one of the more interesting and active parts of the Milky Way galaxy: a spur of one of the great spiral arms.

This is the sort of region where things are happening: Great clouds of gas and dust coalesce to form new star clusters; titanic stars race through their lifespan and explode as supernovae. We may at just the right distance from Betelgeuse to watch it explode - close enough to see the show, not so close that we get fried. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (June 10, 2009))

It's been argued that the distinctly unserene and quite eventful geological and paleontological history of Earth has something to do with its passages through this galaxy's more dangerous neighborhoods.

People who aren't human - and who are more risk-averse than we frequently are - might decide to move to a nicer, quieter neighborhood.

Given time, they might work out a way of moving their planet in a comparatively risk-free way. If a nearby star was threatening to explode, that could be a very serious incentive.

Then, after a very long trip, they could settle down - still on their home world - in the nice, quiet, uneventful region between spiral arms.

It's not as crazy an idea as it sounds: a fair number of Americans moved to the suburbs for about the same reasons.

Related post:

1 Think about it. You're at the edge of the forest. There, not 20 paces away, a lion is sleeping. Wouldn't you wonder how it would react to a slap on the nose?

Updated (December 10, 2009)

I added subsections to the bulleted list that starts with the dangers of dependence on flint, and ends with the problem of nuclear waste.

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