Friday, April 13, 2012

Life in the Far Future

One of the joys of living in Boulder, Colorado, is the annual
Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado every

The conference, started by sociology professor Howard Higman in the
late 1940s, attracts equal numbers of students and gray-haired members
of the community. Invited speakers participate for a week in dozens of
panels on a wide range of topics including politics, the arts, and

In the panel on "Life in the Far Future," three scientists and a
storyteller presented their fanciful--and mostly hopeful--visions of
what the future might hold for humans and life in general.

As a science fiction writer and publisher, I couldn't think of a
better way to spend an hour and a half. I grabbed a spot in the
audience, put my chin in my hand, and became all ears.

Joseph McInerney, a genetics professor and biology educator, pointed
out that there is one thing all species go through: extinction. Of
course, the sun will become a red giant in a few billion years and
destroy the inner planets, but that isn't imminent, so he talked about
some other more near-term possibilities. He said one might be the end
of racism. The human genome is so distributed now that there are no
actual racial dividing lines. At some point in the future, the concept
of race or "other" may simply become moot, if we're lucky.

Vivian Siegel, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, had
browsed a bit on the Futurist web site the evening before, and tossed
out some SF-type visions of the future, including putting diverse bits
of life and embryos into capsules and shooting them into space,
possibly to colonize other planets in the very far distant future (she
acknowledges the improbability of FTL travel. Sorry, space opera
fans!). A student asked how a human embryo could be raised in a vacuum
without the presence of other humans. (Shades of Superman!) It became
evident that "life" here refers to species other than human, for
example, microorganisms. Microorganisms far outnumber humans,
McInerney pointed out, so we will have to devise ways to coexist with
them in a beneficial way. An audience participant pointed out there
could be ethical issues, such as polluting some other planet or
bringing in a deadly foreign species that would wipe out local life.

Feargal Lynn, an Irish storyteller, musician, and psychiatric nurse,
entertained us all by enumerating some things he'd like to see the
future bring. One was a cross between a microwave and a bed. You'd
climb into bed, punch in a few numbers in the box above your head, and
in five minutes you'd have a full night's sleep!  He noted the
importance of music, and talked about his Scottish musician friend
Bill Drummond's (of 80s band KLF) crusade to reinvent music, which he
thinks has been ruined by recording. Drummond burned all his records,
and now tours with a 17-member choir called The17.

Growing up on James Bond movies in the 1960s, Lynn noted that Bond had
great gadgets like GPS, pens that shot poison darts, and an Aston
Martin with missiles. But he always had to get out of the car to make
a phone call. He didn't have a cell phone! Lynn said he wished he knew
what the next gadget would be that would change the world so
dramatically for everyone.

A student asked what the panel thought the lasting impact of the
Internet would be. Several agreed that it was to fight tyranny by
removing control of information from despots. Lynn recalled the sad
example of political folk guitarist Victor Jara, whose fingers were
cut off before his murder during the Pinochet regime in Chile.

Douglas Ray, a lab director with DOE's Pacific Northwest Laboratory,
was by far the most gung-ho regarding technology and its benefits. The
panel cited several problems facing society, such as lack of fresh
water, but Ray said we are close to being able to desalinate ocean water
in a more energy-efficient manner. A student expressed concern about
the dangers of genetic engineering. Ray noted that the biological
diversity on Earth contains a wealth of possibly useful species, even
without engineering. For example, following the Deepwater Horizon oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, there was a huge increase in
naturally occurring oil-eating bacteria, which had found a new food
source. Ironically, Ray also was the biggest believer that humanity
might damage the planet so badly that a life-seeding space expedition
like Vivian's might be needed.

One student asked about the future of education. McInerney felt the
U.S. is going backward since the days when Sputnik temporarily moved
science to the education forefront. He helped develop the Biological
Sciences Curriculum Study, which in the 1960s restored the teaching of
evolution in the schools. He feels that today's emphasis on rote
learning and testing is anathema to good teaching, critical thinking,
and creativity.

Feargal Lynn, who has two young daughters, hoped the educational
picture would improve, and quoted Winston Churchill, who said, "You
can always count on Americans to do the right thing--after they've
tried everything else."

No comments:

Post a Comment