wanna go HOME now...

  I Am Not Rockwell

16 July 1999

5:00 PM: Now normally I'm no more paranoid than the next American, which is to say, very much so indeed. But this is making me extra high-octane nervous. Someone has been reading the same four files on Potatoe.Com over and over for the last five hours or so. I suppose it's probably just a bot, or someone having server trouble. But I keep having this image of someone printing out copies so they can burn them, while repeatedly stabbing a photo of me in the eyes, their face set in an unreadable expressionless state...

This is not a good day to go see Blair Witch Project, I tell you what.

9:56: I'm about as motivated as a slug on a beach towel on the shores of the Great Salt Lake today. Could not get to sleep last night at all, only a few zzzzhours from 8:30 until 1. I think it was because I wanted to get up and get in to here a bit early, but I thought I could do it without setting the alarm. Performance anxiety. And the itchy feet.

So, Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. Before many of you were born, men actually walked on the Moon. It makes me so mad I could spit that that's the only way to put it - past tense, ancient history. Stupid country.

Well it's not too late yet. I think that if anything, there's a lot more support for the settlement of space among these kids today then their knee-jerk dumbass boomer parents. I was glad to see that when Neil came out of his coccoon Today for the big whoop at Cape Canaveral, he used the time to pitch for going back, and for going on, to Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy found a much bigger audience than I would have imagined, and last I heard, James Cameron was doing an adaptation of them for Fox. Zubrin's book did pretty well too. Sojourner was the Old Yeller of the 90s, except for the having rabies and getting shot part. But it was still sad when it ran out of power and died. So it's not like this is such fringe or unpopular stuff. Maybe it'll happen. I hope.

In last week's New Yorker, Timothy Ferris has an article about an astrophysicist, J. Richard Gott, who takes the standard Copernican principle - that it is more probable that there is nothing privileged about your position in space or in time - and applies it to things that you might not usually think about. The idea is that you are far more likely to encounter something during the middle of its existence; it's unlikely that you just happened to come along right at the very beginning, or at the very end.

He first thought of doing this in 1969, during a visit to the Berlin Wall. He realized you could divide the Wall's lifetime into four quarters, and that having done so, the odds were that he was there during one of the two middle quarters. The Wall had been up 8 years at the time, so if he was there during the middle half of its existence, that would mean that at the most, it would be up for another 24 years (the final three quarters of its lifetime). So, at a time when people really thought that a permanent scar had been built across Europe, he knew that there was a 50/50 chance that the Berlin Wall would be down in the next 24 years, simply based on the fact that it hadn't been around all that long already. Twenty years later, down it came.

This is a weird way of looking at things, especially if you take it from 50% probability to 95% probability. You come up with predictions like the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan continuing to exist for at least another year, but not past 3519 - purely because it opened in 1959. (Hey, I know something else that opened that year... ahem. So I've got at least a year left. Great.)

The reason I bring all this up is because of Today's anniversary, and the lack of things to remember that have come in the intervening years. He makes a very good point about it all, which I will let him say in his own words:

"The manned space program is thirty-eight years old, so it's been around only a short time. Things that haven't been around a very long time are not likely to be around very long in the future. So there's a real danger that we will quit it, as the Chinese did in the fifteenth century. They explored Africa, came back with a giraffe that everybody wondered at, and then they just quit. The period of great Egyption pyramid-building lasted about a century from the first to the biggest; then there was a long, slow decline during which the Egyptians built crummy ones. So there's a danger that we'll end up stuck on the earth - that if we wait too long we may have a population that's too small to respond to an emergency or to do space colonization. Should something bad take us by surprise in a hundred and fifty thousand years - an epidemic, or something like that - we'd be saying, 'We should have colonized back there in the twenty-first century, while we had the chance.'

"I'm not saying that Mars isn't dangerous, but colonizing Mars would increase our survival prospects by giving us two chances in the casino of life. It's often said that people have a wanderlust, but why do we have this wanderlust? Because it's good biological sense to spread out and multiply, to make copies of yourself. The Greeks had all their books in the Alexandrian library and they guarded it very well, but eventually the thing burned down. The only reason we have seven of Sophocles' hundred and twenty plays, the rest having been lost, is that somebody copied them and put them elsewhere. So we should copy ourselves. This has been life's good strategy for 3.8 billion years - to make copies and spread out, because entropy's trying to cut you down. I think the very first astronauts sent to Mars should be people who are prepared to stay on and start a colony. why bring them back just to give them a ticker-tape parade in New York City? Leave them there!"

Amen. I'd go. And I don't even like to fly.

From the 12 July 1999 issue of The New Yorker, reprinted only because they can't be bloody bothered to put it up on the Web themselves.

Willfully blind self-indulgent nebbish or amusingly quirky old coot? And how bout that local sports team? Discuss among yourselves.

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