In Case Of Emergency

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Friday, 26 May, 2017.

Last year October, I mentioned how resilient our planet was – how it has survived major catastrophic events that killed up to 85% of the species of our planet at a time. Because, yes, our little blue-green planet is not quite as fragile as we expect it to be. Life, after all, finds a way. However, we – and our way of life – is quite a bit more fragile than the planet, and that has concerned us for quite a while now.

Scientists even have a term for that risk – a Global Catastrophic Risk. It is defined as a hypothetical future event that could cripple or destroy modern civilization. If it could cause human extinction, it is termed an existential risk. Thus, while a global catastrophic risk could kill the vast majority of life on earth, humanity could at least still recover from it. An existential risk, however, would destroy our species. There is no coming back from that.

Given our rather human prevalence for not quite grasping statistics, we tend to think the chance of this is rather minor. We could not be more wrong. Many of these events have happened before, and we thus have some idea of their likelihood. That is where statisticians with their mathematical models come in, and the results are quite shocking. 

The Global Challenges Foundation – specifically founded to attempt to identify and limit global catastrophic events – revealed in its 2016 Annual Report that the average person is five times more likely to die during a human extinction event than in a car crash. In a 2008 expert survey, it was found that the estimated probability for a human extinction event during the next century was 19%! 

So what are these events? Well, they are generally grouped into two categories – Anthropogenic (or human caused) and non-anthropogenic. Non-anthropogenic are those we usually think about when we think extinction events – things like asteroid strikes, which is calculated to be a one-in-a-million chance during the next hundred years. After all, the Chicxulub asteroid did cause the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs just 66 million years ago. 

It also includes the possibility of extra-terrestrial invasion, although no evidence has been found of extra-terrestrials yet, my article about the Drake Equation last year April should give some ideas as to why.  Others include cosmic threats. A close supernova, or a gamma ray burst would certainly do that, but neither are very likely. Then, of course, there is the 1% chance identified that the planet Jupiter could cause Mercury’s orbit to become unstable, and one of the four outcomes there would be a collision with the Earth.

Other include global pandemics, a mega tsunami, and even the eruption of a super-volcano – such as the Toba eruption in Indonesia about 71 500 years ago that caused a global volcanic winter of 6 to 10 years and severely reduced the human population of earth, as evidence by a genetic bottleneck occurring around that time in our evolution. However, as it turns out, the greatest threat to our existence is anthropogenic threats. Those we made ourselves.

The bleeding edge of technology has always presented some problems, but currently we are expanding on several fronts that could affect our own survival. The two front-runners currently are super intelligent artificial intelligences and molecular nanotechnology weapons. The emergence of these two technologies would certainly spell our end if not handled properly. A super intelligent AI would suddenly supplant humans and improve itself so quickly we could never hope to contain it. We would become comparable to ants against its intelligence – and since when do we negotiate with ants? Would we expect it to be any different? 

Molecular nanotechnology allows construction on an atomic scale – small machines that could literally reshape matter. Should they be improperly programmed, they could replicate out of control, and consume our biosphere. Nevertheless, even should this not happen, we already have several technologies that could lead to extinction. While nuclear weapons have so far only been used twice, there still exists enough of them to scourge the earth. Biotechnology could be used to create biological weapons – a human-created pandemic that spirals out of control! 

Simpler still, we could just exhaust the earth of its resources, leaving us unable to support the billions of people currently living of earth! Alternatively, as we‘ve witnessed already, we could just ignore the dangers of climate change, and find that the planet’s climate has become hostile to our way of life. 

So what can we do to defend against this? Well, the Norwegian government already started with a project. On the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, they created the Global Seed Vault. Situated just 1300 km from the North Pole, they started to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds to protect against widespread ecological disruption, and allow us to reseed the planet, as it were, should a global catastrophic event occur. African seeds were amongst the first to enter, as the Southern African Development Community has for years been sending seed samples to Norway for protection against the unthinkable.

The location was considered ideal, since it was not located near any tectonic activity and was located under the permafrost near the Arctic pole. A feasibility study had determined that the seed vault, operating unaided, could preserve most seeds for hundreds of years – possibly even thousands for some seeds. Naturally, humanity has managed to put even our Doomsday seed vault in danger though our own actions.

With global warming accelerating, the permafrost that was supposed to provide protection, and was thought to be permanent, turned out to be anything but. Last week, as summer approached, the vault found its entrance flooded after ‘permanent’ permafrost started to melt for the first time in forever. Luckily, only the entrance flooded, and not the vault, but still – it was enough for the Norwegian government to start installing drainage ditches they did not think they would ever need. 

We need to be careful however. These risks are quite difficult to calculate, and may even be underestimated due to observation selection effects. Just because a complete extinction event has never occurred, does not mean it will not – after all, if it had occurred, there would be no survivors, and we would have no idea it ever happened. So take a moment to reflect just how fragile our existence is on this world, and how lucky we are to be here. Life is precious. We should start acting like it.

The Structure of Stories

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 18 May, 2017.

We all love stories. Starting from those told by our parents as they regale us with wondrous tales while we sit on their knees, to sitting and listening to those told by grandparents around the fire, up until later life, when we discover books, movies and television. We remain glued to majestic stories and seek them out. After all, our earliest history we only know via stories told over generations – stories are intrinsic to human nature!

Every story differs in its details, making it unique. Yet when you look closer, there’s a common thread running through many stories. Some are due to its presentation – movies are often presented in three acts, while stage plays and television shows have five acts, each somewhat self-contained, and each driving our story forwards. Still, when you examine some of our most popular tales, our wildest stories, our finest myths, you find a structure that pervades across all presentations. You find the monomyth. 

The monomyth has three stages. In the first, the Departure, our hero begins his or her journey. At first, the hero is living a normal life, either revelling in it, or yearning for more. Then comes the call to adventure, where our hero must leave what is known and travel into the unknown. This usually comes from an external agent, either mystical or in person, driving them towards it. Think of Joseph being sold to slavery in the Bible, or Gandalf arriving in the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, or the Droids bought for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The hero might resist the call, or go willingly, but ultimately they leave their old world behind. 

Having crossed that first threshold, they then enter the unknown world of adventure, where the old rules no longer apply. They meet their mentor, and acquire new companions on their journey. Then, they face their first challenge – and they’re defeated. This usually also involves losing the mentor. Witness Joseph’s service as a slave and imprisonment, Gandalf’s death in Moria, and Obi-Wan’s death in Star Wars.

This starts them on the second stage, the Initiation. This is where the hero is tested on a road of trials. The hero can meet an untrustworthy person whose help is needed on the quest (for Joseph, the Pharaoh’s cupholder). They might meet a god/goddess that helps them on their journey (Galadriel in Lord of the Rings). They are tempted to abandon their quest, either by a romantic interest, or their companions (Han Solo offering a way out of the conflict for Luke in Star Wars). Ultimately, they face their trials and challenges and overcome them to reach the apotheosis, or climax, of the story.

Armed with new knowledge, the hero faces the toughest challenge yet – and is sometimes assisted by their formerly ‘untrustworthy’ friend who comes through in the end (like the cupholder, Han Solo, and yes, poor old Gollum in the end of Lord of the Rings). The hero experiences a rebirth, and receives the boon they have been craving all along. Joseph becomes vizier of Egypt, Frodo gains his freedom and Luke recognition. 

Then the final stage – the Return. Faced with their rebirth and newfound boon, they have to reintegrate with their old lives. They cross the threshold back into ordinary life, now a master of both. Joseph experiences this when his family come to Egypt for food, and he resettles them there. Frodo has his journey back to the Shire, where he has more challenges when he gets there. Luke finds a new home for himself in the Rebellion.

The monomyth was first introduced to the world by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, back in 1949, and has found itself embedded in popular culture since then. When examined, you’ll find the monomyth in many of our most popular stories, from a wide variety of authors and filmmakers. In fact, most superhero origin stories follow the template almost to a T.

Why is this, though? Perhaps the most explored area that concerns itself with this is called memetics – the study of memes. First proposed by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Meme, he proposed that there is, similar to how genes self-replicate, mutate and respond to societal pressures, a similar method by which ideas do so. Thus was born the idea of a meme: "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." Needless to say, the meme soon itself became a meme, and the name is now coupled with an internet phenomenon based on templates of pictures. 

At its core, however, the monomyth is perhaps the most solid evidence for the persistence of memes. A story structure that has pervaded all cultures to become embedded in our psyches, and one we instinctively flock to when we need to tell the story of a hero. Perhaps aptly, it is also commonly known The Hero’s Journey. 

However, just because the monomyth is so persistent in our culture, does not mean that it is the only way to tell a story. After all, you can probably yourself name many stories that don’t follow this template – and in fact, it is sometimes used to make the exact counterpoint to what the hero’s journey expresses. One of my favourite novels, Dune, expressly aims to follow the monomyth so as to subvert it, cunningly making the point that an infallible hero’s mistakes are always amplified by those who follow them without question.

So while our stories may have structure, and seem similar, you should always take the time with your own stories to see what archetypical story you’ve followed, and ensure it sends the message you’ve envisaged. And perhaps, if you’re struggling to tell your own story, you can use the structures, the memes, of those who came before you, and make them work for you. Most importantly, however, is to remember that these memes are like genes, and if you follow a blueprint, you should twist and subvert it enough to be novel.

How Far We’ve Gone

Originally published in the Informant√© newspaper on Thursday, 11 May, 2017. 

From the birth of the human species in Africa 200 000 years ago, humanity started to spread, and by 1500 years ago, humanity had spread out across almost every landmass on earth, save for Antarctica. The Earth was ours. True, movement was not quite as easy as it is now, but that barrier stood but a little while longer, until 8 September 1522, when Ferdinand Magellan first circumnavigated the globe. And so, we cast our eyes upwards…

By 1610, Galileo Galilei, father of modern science, perfected his telescope, and discovered Jupiter’s moons, craters on the moon, and showed Venus had phases when viewed from Earth. But it was Sir Isaac Newton who started us on the journey outwards, with the publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, one of the most important works in the history of science. Besides his classic laws of motion, and the law of universal gravitation – contained in the first part De motu corporum (On the motion of bodies) – the last part enabled us to venture outwards. De mundi systemate (On the system of the world) laid down the mathematical basis of planetary orbits, and formed the basis of our ability to look upwards and reliably see planetary bodies where we expect them to be. 

Yet still we were trapped on this pale blue dot in the cosmos. That stopped being the case on 16 March 1926, when Robert Goddard’s first liquid fuelled rocket launched. Soon, his work was expanded upon, and after some trouble with the Germans in Europe, we began our ascent. On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched and the first artificial satellite broadcast its deeps from space. On 3 November 1957, this was followed with the first dog in space, Laika, aboard Sputnik 2.

But low-Earth orbit was not our mission, and we cast our nets further. On 2 January 1959 the probe Luna 1 became the first object to reach escape velocity, and exit Earth’s gravitational reach. It became the first object from earth to reach the Moon’s vicinity, and soon after, on 13 September 1959, Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to impact the Moon. 

Then on 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Our probes, however, soon reached much further. On 14 December 1962 Mariner 2 managed the first successful planetary flyby, coming within 35 000 km of Venus. By 16 June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. We kept going. On 14 July 1965 we received the first close-up photographs of another world – Mars, taken by Mariner 4. But the race was on to the Moon.

On 3 February 1966, Luna 9 performed the first soft landing on the Moon, and sent the first photographs from the surface of another world. By 3 April 1966, Luna 10 became the first spacecraft to orbit the Moon. Then, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 became the first human to set foot on another world. To this day, this is the furthest extent of human spaceflight. Mankind has never again ventured further from its home. 

Our space probes, however, continued on its relentless outward journey. By 2 December 1971, the Mars 3 probe landed on Mars, and sent the first signals from Mars’ surface. Then, on 15 July 1972, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to leave the inner solar system, on an escape trajectory away from the Sun. On 3 December 1972, it did the first flyby of Jupiter at a mere 130 000 km.

In 1977, two remarkable spacecraft launched. On August 20, Voyager 2, and on September 5, Voyager 1 was launched. Based on the data sent back by Pioneer 10, they were hardened against radiation to make them the best outer solar system explorers yet. By 5 March 1979, Voyager 1 did its flyby of Jupiter and five of its moons. On 1 September 1979, Pioneer 11 flew by Saturn and took the first photographs of its moon Titan, where the Cassini probe is currently busy with its Grand Finale. Voyager 1 finally did the same on 12 November 1980. 

But here, the distances become vast – almost unimaginable. Only on 24 January 1986 did Voyager 2 manage the first flyby of Uranus, approaching within 82 000 km. And then on 25 August 1989 it managed to fly by Neptune, getting within 30 000 km. Until now, Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited these two far-away planets. Finally, on 14 February 1990, Voyager 1 took the first photograph of the entire Solar System, before ultimately, on 25 August 2012, becoming the first spacecraft to leave the solar system.

There are still quite a few spacecraft out there, exploring the space in between us and Voyager 1 – Cassini around Saturn, Dawn exploring the asteroid belt, Juno around Jupiter, the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter around Mars – directing the two still-active Martian Rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, and New Horizons that blitzed past Pluto in 2015, but none have gone as far as Voyager 1.

Voyager 1 is currently 20.6 billion kilometres from Earth. To put that into perspective – if the Earth was resized to a ball only 1 meter in diameter and placed in Windhoek, Voyager 1 would be as far away as Durban from it. Only 2 billion km behind it is Pioneer 10, also on its way out of our solar system, 18.1 billion km from Earth, but unfortunately we’ve lost contact with it back in 2003. Voyager 2, at 17 billion km from Earth, remains in contact, with Pioneer 11 at 14.3 billion km following, but out of contact since 1995. 

So here we are. Our spacecraft slowly reaching out into the cosmos, with naught but a golden record to mark our location should anyone encounter it in the vastness of interstellar space. I suppose, if nothing else, it should be some consolation that no matter what we do here, now, at least some part of us (mechanical, true, but carrying pure human ingenuity) will keep going, to mark, as a species, how far we’ve gone.