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The very long view of life

BOOK REVIEW

Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge; Edited by Damien Broderick; Atlas & Co.: 330 pp., $16 paper

August 26, 2008|Brett Levy | Special to The Times

With SO many natural and resource crises facing mankind -- global warming, high energy prices, shortages of raw materials -- do we really need to worry about what life might be like a million years from now? But as new technologies emerge and our understanding of the universe grows, it is inevitable that futurists will try to project what lies ahead.

It would be nice to report that "Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge" -- 14 essays written by scientists, computer experts, mathematicians and fiction writers -- provides a fun escape while reaffirming to readers that we will survive our immediate woes. Alas, the authors generally worry how we must begin planning for the destruction of Earth, the collapse of the sun and the eventual cooling of the universe. No need to cancel your weekend plans, though, because it seems that predictions of "Year Million" are in large part based on events that will occur billions of, if not a trillion, years from now.

While not all the authors agree on how humans and our planet might evolve, several, such as Steven B. Harris, Robert Bradbury and the easier-to-read Wil McCarthy, predicate their overlapping essays around chopping up most of the solar system to build and fuel a super-massive computer -- called a Matrioshka Brain, constructed from a yet-to-be invented material called computronium. "Would anyone really tear the planets apart?" Bradbury writes. "Many will object, 'How barbaric.' But, as history tells us, different cultures have different values."

Ground-up Jupiter would be used to construct nested spheres built around the sun to capture its energy. This idea was originally laid out by physicist Freeman Dyson, who is the most referred-to progenitor by the authors. Humans would either live on the spheres or more pragmatically be uploaded as "software" into the enormous Matrioshka Brain. Because of its relatively small mass, Earth could be left around as a sort of global museum, suggests Harris. Whether minds merge into one super brain or remain independent entities connected by a massive galactic Internet remains open to debate.

If the reader finds the idea of living inside a giant computer unpalatable, turn to Rudy Rucker, who believes we will continue to breathe air but mentally communicate through microscopic machines using nanotechnology. In "The Great Awakening," Rucker refreshingly defends life as we know it and argues against turning us into mere raw computing power.

"Turning an inhabited planet into a computronium Dyson shell is comparable to filling in wetlands to make a mall, clear-cutting a rain forest to make a destination golf resort, or killing a whale to whittle its teeth into religious icons of a whale god," Rucker writes.

Another common theme is that the flesh-and-blood version of mankind will not be exploring space the way Captain Kirk gallivants through the galaxies in "Star Trek."

"So forget multigenerational ships full of large organisms like humans, or even cryonically preserved corpses awaiting medical resurrection," writes Harris in the essay "A Million Years of Evolution." "We shall long since have redefined 'human' and found how to make intelligent matter and its mobile representatives, as needed."

Instead, mankind might send out probes or "seeds" that would create entire civilizations once they find a suitable and presumably uninhabited solar system. These seeds, writes Robin Hanson in "The Rapacious Hardscrapple Frontier," might compete against one another and through a sort of natural selection determine the best way to explore and develop galactic resources.

The last three essays explore mankind long past Year Million, into Year Billion and even into Year Trillion. By then, suns will have expired, the universe will be exceedingly cold and organic life forms will be long gone. But perhaps that would not be the end of life, write authors Sean M. Carroll and Gregory Benford. These writers expand the scope of previous authors by predicting that our entire aging universe will be transformed into an even larger giant computer, which becomes ever more efficient at running on less and less energy and matter.

Ironically, our future is expected to bring the descendants of mankind back to coping with the same issues we face today: environmental problems, high energy prices and a shortage of raw materials.

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Brett Levy writes about parenting, health and environmental issues at www.dadtalk.net.

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