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 That Speedy Gonzales, Stephen Hawking, Warns We Must Colonize Another Planet Soon - Here's Why He's Wrong

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PostSubject: That Speedy Gonzales, Stephen Hawking, Warns We Must Colonize Another Planet Soon - Here's Why He's Wrong   Wed May 03, 2017 11:51 pm

I trust Stephen Hawking's word when it comes to black holes and quantum mechanics, but I'm more dubious when the famous cosmologist says, as he does in an upcoming BBC special, that it is urgent for humans to colonize another planet in the face of catastrophes like climate change, asteroid strikes, epidemics and overpopulation.

The Beeb is resurrecting its long-running science program, "Tomorrow's World" with a documentary called "Expedition New Earth," in which Hawking says the human species must set up shop beyond Earth within the next hundred years in order to ensure the survival of our species, according to the Telegraph.

I really hope someone on the show's production team, or the BBC's promotions people, or maybe the outlets picking up the story are misrepresenting Hawking's level of hysteria and urgency here, because it's sorely lacking in the logic department.

The most likely worlds for colonization are our moon or Mars (which is also Elon Musk's target of choice for a colony in the next century), and in case you hadn't heard, neither of these places are habitable. Even if Earth were to suffer the catastrophes that Hawking worries about -- and they all worry me, too -- it would still be more habitable than the moon or Mars.

This is to say nothing of the trip to each place, which is highly risky, expensive and involves exposure to an awful lot of cosmic radiation and weightlessness that can do very real damage to the human body, especially on the long trip to Mars.

I feel like I should be able to drop the mic here, but openly disagreeing with one of the smartest men on Earth demands a little extra diligence.

So to be clear, I think pursuing a small human colony is a great idea. The scientific discoveries and technological innovations that will come out of such a venture are well worth the effort.

But this notion that Mars or the moon is our salvation because the end of the world is nigh is really silly.

Let's just run through the scenarios: rising sea levels, famine, epidemics, ecological collapse... If all those came to pass, even all at the same time, Earth would still be more habitable than anywhere else in our solar system. Really, you can't undersell the value of a working magnetic field and an atmosphere, even one with a little too much carbon dioxide in it.

What about nuclear war though? Well, that depends on where you are and if it has been contaminated by as much radiation as the entire planet of Mars gets blasted by all the time. You might need to go underground, which is what we'd also have to do on Mars.

That big asteroid strike could be a really big problem for us, though, right? Yes, it could, but I'm not sure that running away to Mars, which neighbors the asteroid belt, is a better option.

But what if society just completely falls apart and we devolve into anarchic, violent states thanks to any combination of the above? Wouldn't we want to somewhere we could just start over?

Again, just cleaning up our own mess and starting over by rising from the rubble seems more practical, but what if another planet was an option?

This gets at the real urgent problem that we should aim to solve long before we start looking for a panacea beyond our own planet. I'm talking about the very ugly but real conundrum of global inequality. Many of the disasters Hawking warns of are much more likely to impact, say, the low-income residents of low-lying Bangladesh than the average Forbes reader (or contributor).

Just as our terrestrial problems are more likely to affect the poor, pie-in-space solutions like a Martian colony are likely to be an option for only the wealthy and less apocalyptically challenged among us when the stuff finally hits the fan. Martian condos certainly aren't going to be cheap, after all.

This is why the off-planet colonies in so many space operas like "The Expanse," "Elysium" and even "Star Wars" tend to be run by the bad guys. Colonizing a new planet would be just as much about who gets left behind as it would be about who gets to start over.

Yes, there are all kinds of problems that we face on Earth, but all the solutions are here too. All the natural resources, manufacturing facilities, intellectual capital and other tools we use to, you know, live, are here. We'd have to recreate them under far more difficult conditions anywhere else.

You think recycling and conservation are a pain? Just wait until you have to try to grow potatoes in toxic Martian soil and reduced gravity while dealing with your latest bout of radiation poisoning. Yet somehow, the grass is always greener for some people, even when it's on a dead Red Planet.
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