Book review: The search for E.T.

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars starts off strong with the history of the human quest to understand the universe, going back to the ancient Greeks:

Atoms and void, Democritus argued, were all that existed, and were thus the source of all things—including living beings and their thoughts and sensory perceptions. In a universe infinite in space and time, he said, the endless dance of atoms would inevitably lead to countless other worlds and other lives, all in an eternal process of growth and decay. Not all worlds would be like ours—some would be too inhospitable for life, and others would be even more bountiful than Earth. We should be universally cheerful, Democritus believed, at our fortune to exist in a welcoming world with so many pleasures. His constant mirth at humanity’s tragicomic existence led his contemporaries to call him “the laughing philosopher.” Looking up at the dark Aegean sky, Democritus speculated that the stars, like everything else, were not made of a special celestial substance, but of atoms. They were simply suns, much farther away than our own, some so distant that in aggregate they formed the Milky Way’s pale glow.

In 1963 General Dynamics buried a time capsule with predictions about life in 2063 A.D.:

Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet, predicted that within a century we would have linked atomic power plants to “anti-gravity devices,” fundamentally rewriting the laws of physics and revolutionizing life and transportation on Earth and in the heavens alike. Another Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, expressed his hope that the anti-gravity “scheme” would help humans colonize the Moon, the Martian moon Phobos, and Mars. The prominent astronomer Fred Whipple suggested that Earth’s population would have stabilized at 100 billion, and that planetary-scale engineering of Mars would have altered the Red Planet’s climate to allow its 700,000 inhabitants to be self-sufficient. The director of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight, Dyer Brainerd Holmes, suggested that in 2063 crewed vehicles would be reaching “velocities approaching the speed of light,” and that society would be debating whether to send humans to nearby stars. A majority of the twenty-nine respondents predicted a peaceful world, harmoniously unified under a democratic world government and freed from resource scarcity.

The strangest entry of all was the long, decidedly pessimistic response of Harold Urey, the Nobel-laureate chemist. … He lamented how technological progress had cut off his children from many of the bucolic joys of his own upbringing, such as riding “in a sleigh behind a matched team of blacks, on a clear night with stars above and white snow around . . . nestled warm and cozy beneath a buffalo robe.” Looking ahead, Urey glimpsed a not-too-distant future in which things could fall apart, when the centers of the modern world could not hold, a time when growth would stagnate. He postulated no proximate causes other than already-existing cracks in civilization’s façade. Schemes for world government were unfavorable, he believed, because governments tended to grow bloated and cumbersome from “fantastic national debt” that outstripped both inflation and revenue. The ruinous deficits would be produced by “the curious psychology of politicians” paired with “the development of war machines by applied scientific methods,” and would be exacerbated by the need to provide healthcare and social security for a large, aging populace. Turning society over entirely to the whims of large, private corporations was no alternative, Urey observed, because companies would inevitably conspire to pursue short-term profits against the public interest and common good. through some uneasy and uncertain balance between government regulation and private enterprise could the status quo of growth be maintained. Even then, it could not be maintained indefinitely. [emphasis added]

The author, Lee Billings, writes about how California’s state government has been starved of revenue:

Housing prices and infrastructural necessities rose as capital continued pouring in, and property taxes rose with them, until in the 1970s wealthy, established Californians rebelled. They voted to keep property taxes artificially low, and shifted the state toward a dysfunctional political culture where time and time again voter-led “ballot initiatives” earmarked spending while also eliminating sources of revenue. Since the turn of the millennium, the state had been in near-constant budgetary crisis. When the real-estate bubble burst in 2007, it helped kick off the Great Recession of 2008, which reduced California’s coffers to catastrophic lows. Funding was slashed for public assistance to the poor and disabled, for state colleges and courts, for municipal emergency services, and more.

Billings doesn’t stop to ask the question that we’d expect scientists to ask: “Compared to what?” Since California is the 4th highest tax state in the U.S., as a percentage of residents’ income collected, why can’t they afford to run their schools, fire departments, etc. like the rest of the states do?

An important question for calculating the probability of finding an extraterrestrial civilization is how long such a civilization might last. Billings devotes a lot of the book to speculating that our penchant for digging coal, oil, and natural gas out of the ground and setting it on fire will result in, not simply global warming, but extinction of the human species. The experts he interviews, however, contradict this perspective: James Kasting says “We’re squandering Earth’s resources. We’re doing terrible things to biodiversity. I have no doubt we’re living in the midst of another major mass extinction of our own making. I take what little comfort I can from knowing we probably can’t drive life itself to extinction or push the planet into a runaway greenhouse. The carbonate-silicate cycle will erase the fossil-fuel pulse in a timescale of a million years, and then the long decline of atmospheric CO2 will continue.”

Billings describes NASA as the world’s most wasteful non-military enterprise:

The chimeric [Space Shuttle] vehicles that finally emerged were elegant, versatile, and irreparably flawed. Instead of achieving 50 flights per year as originally projected, the entire shuttle fleet collectively flew 135 times during the program’s thirty-year lifetime. The shuttles lofted payloads to orbit at a cost estimated anywhere between $18,000 and $60,000 per kilogram—more expensive than the expendable launchers they were built to replace. The shuttle program’s failures came in part from the fact that many of its “reusable” components required extensive refurbishment by a small standing army of technicians after each flight. They also came from the shuttle’s inescapable operational risks, which led to the tragic losses of two orbiters and crews. Space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch in 1986 due to a sealant failure in one of its boosters, and the Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003 after a piece of foam insulation punctured a wing. Politically driven compromises made early in the shuttle design process proved to be major factors in both disasters.

The Shuttle does prove useful for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, but Billings notes that “Critics of NASA’s human spaceflight program noted that for the estimated cost of each shuttle servicing mission, an entirely new Hubble could have been built and launched via expendable rockets, all without risking human lives,…”

Why can’t NASA find planets with fancy new orbiting instruments? “As was typical of so many government projects begun during Bush’s administration, the only thing Constellation seemed to excel at was transferring billions of dollars of public, federal money into the coffers of well-connected private contractors who too often delivered precious little in return. … After years of middling results and more than $10 billion in expenditures, Constellation was canceled in 2010 by President Barack Obama… The [planet finding] mission [of some other experiment] was repeatedly downgraded and its launch continually delayed, piling on empty expenses until, after consuming more than half a billion dollars, in 2010 SIM was quietly cancelled and its nearly complete flight hardware junked or repurposed.”

After describing NASA’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to squander money, Billings expresses dismay that the public doesn’t want to fund more exoplanetary research. Billings seems to think that it is impossible to get rich people to fund astronomy but does not justify this belief. Given that rich people funded nearly all of the work of astronomers for thousands of years, shouldn’t at least one of the world’s 1645 billionaires want to fund a planet-finding satellite? A planet, once found and named, is forever. Poverty or disease relieved today may return tomorrow.

Readers: Why don’t we see more private space-based science? My first job was writing software to analyze data from the Pioneer Venus orbiter. The mission cost about $225 million in late 1970s dollars. Presumably some costs have gone up since then but other costs should be lower, e.g., the $1 million PDP-11/70 that I used to analyze the data could be replaced with a smartphone app. Private funds are contributing significantly to the $1 billion telescope taking shape in the Chilean desert (article). Why wouldn’t private donors want to escape the Earth’s atmosphere? [coincidentally, the New York Times has a March 14 article on private funding of science]

There are some thought-provoking questions in this book but I can’t recommend it overall. If you’re desperate for something about how a planet can undergo dramatic change, check out Snowball Earth.

2 thoughts on “Book review: The search for E.T.

  1. A friend who worked on the Constellation program said they were constantly doing things on the cheap. From that point of view, Constellation failed not because private contractors wantonly wasted money, but because it was a half hearted effort from the start. When the moon missions were in full swing, maybe 10% of the annual GDP of the US was invested in the space program. How much was spent on Constellation again? No wonder they succeeded then. No wonder they’ve failed now.

Comments are closed.