Humans are such fragile entities

posted in: Science fact, Science fiction | 12

The more I read about the strangeness of our universe, the more I wonder if we, humanity, will ever colonise other planets. There’s not much chance we’ll settle on a diamond planet and I have to wonder how we’d go on many of the ‘earthlike’ planets already pinpointed. We are such fragile entities, we humans.

I’m in the throes of writing a sequel to my space opera Morgan’s Choice, which accepts the existence of political groupings of star systems into coalitions, federations and the like. Hey, I’m not special in that respect. Lots of SF writers have done the same thing, with great success – Elizabeth Moon, Jack McDevitt, Isaac Asimov etc etc and of course, Star Trek, Star Wars and the like. But how likely is it really?

Like all other animals we are closely attuned to our environment, more so than many of us actually realise anymore. In these days of electricity we can heat or cool our homes, spend half the night watching TV, or reading books, source food from all over the world so nothing is ever out of season, cross distances that took years in days. Yet we cannot escape the factors which shaped us.

I think there are five vital factors we will not easily overcome.

The first is our perception of time.

I use the word ‘perception’ advisedly, because time is something we measure for ourselves to put ourselves into context, if you will. But whether we think the sun is rising where we are, or setting, our bodies are built to expect a ‘day’ of twenty-four hours or so, because that’s how long it takes for the planet to revolve on its axis. What’s more, if we are suddenly wrenched from one time of day to another, as happens with long distance air travel, it takes time for our bodies to adjust. (It’s called jet lag)

Next is gravity, what we call weight.

We have evolved to suit the amount of force the planet exerts upon is. The advent of space travel and weightlessness has proved how important gravity is to our ability to function. Without gravity our bones lose density and muscles atrophy.

Then we move on to air.

Most of our atmosphere, what we breathe, is nitrogen, with twenty-three percent oxygen and a bunch of other gases in smaller quantities, including carbon dioxide. It also has a level of density. There’s more of it at lower altitude (see gravity). See what happens to mountain climbers if they climb before becoming acclimatised. Their bodies can’t cope. And if that mixture of gases changes past a certain level of tolerance, then what?

Then there’s temperature.

Humans exist in an apparently wide range of climates, providing they can find protection from the elements. But the range is actually not that wide in the scheme of things. This article in New Scientist speculates that global warming of only about 11° would render many places on our own planet ‘unliveable’.

The last factor is light.

Earth orbits a G class star which emits light towards the red end of the spectrum. We’re used to seeing colours in that light. If we lived on a world orbiting a cooler star with redder light, or a brighter star with more bluish light, we’d see colours differently.

Humans are adaptable. That’s why the species has been so successful. But even so, we’ve only ever had to adapt to the extremes of one planet. If humans are to venture to other planets I believe we will have two choices; terraform the planet into another Earth or modify the settlers to cope with the conditions. That would mean physically very different races of humanity occupying different planets. And here again, SF can offer plenty of examples. One that springs to mind is Moon and McCaffrey’s joint effort, Sassinak, where members of the Star Fleet have different body characteristics, depending on which planet they come from.

I admit I don’t take that route in my own writing. I simply assume all planets are earthlike, with only small variations in light, heat, time and gravity. I reckon I’m in pretty good company. Come on SF fans and writers, what do you do, what do you prefer?

12 Responses

  1. 500 million is a very big number « Greta van der Rol

    […] Yes, I know life doesn’t HAVE to be confined to the Golidlocks zone (the space around a star where liquid water could exist). After all, life doesn’t have to look like Earth life. And nobody is suggesting that ‘life’ means technology. And nobody is suggesting that there might be lots of excellent reasons why life didn’t form on these planets, or why beings like us couldn’t exist on those planets. I talked about this a bit here. […]

  2. Michael Formichelli

    Take heart!
    We’ve already figured out how to terraform planets using bacteria. As it turns out, we’re also made of the most common elements in the visible universe, so the odds of us finding a place that can easily be adapted to live in are actually pretty high. Mars, for example, by some NASA estimates, can be turned into a breathable, livable world within about 100-200 years (chump change in the grand scheme of things). We can also live in domes, caves, or other sealed environments. And that’s just with the tech we have now! Think about what we can do 300 years from now!

    • Robin Helweg-Larsen

      Love it, Michael! The only problem I have with Mars is the sun being so tiny and weak at that distance… about one quarter size and strength. That may be OK for polar types, but I was raised in the tropics and I like my sun.

  3. pibarrington

    Speaking of adaption, there was a great short story that I cannot remember the author or title or anthology but it was about a group of human colonists who kept to themselves and adopted severe Victorian clothing and rigid behavior claiming it was due to religion. One brave soul traveled there and discovered they had interbred with dolphin like “aliens” native to that planet and the reason for the nearly complete hiding of their bodies under the clothing was to hide the resulting gills of that interbreeding. They could now survive under and above water. Your post brought that to mind…

  4. Uber Cool Doug (@AllanDouglasDgn)

    A very good article, Greta, and along the lines of what I’ve been thinking recently. It started with the discussions recently on Sci-Fi physics and how (un)realistic many movies and books are. I’ve been following the announcements of “new earth-like planets” but their determining factors of “Earth-like” are very broad; the latest is close in and in a trinary star system.and has a surface temperature hot enough to keep lead molten. Not exactly a potential target for tourism!

    As you point out so well, we are accustomed to a very narrow comfort zone – in the grand scheme of things – and finding other planets that fit this specific range will be exceedingly rare. Our technology may make it possible to colonize other planets (or moons) by living within protective structures, but romping on the beaches in a swimsuit or strolling through the forests unencumbered by survival gear is rather unlikely.

  5. Robin Helweg-Larsen

    I don’t see any ethical issues here. People (and animals, and plants) spread out as best they can. Do you really want all humans to move back to Africa? Also, life has been modifying the planet since life first arose. The atmosphere is different, the sea is different, the terrain is different, as a result of life modifying the environment, and then adapting to the modifications. Every time a bird drops a seed that sprouts into a tree in a new area, the local environment is modified. And even without the impact of life, changes are made by plate tectonics and the cycles of the ice ages.

    We also don’t have a “Why” for life or for the existence of the Universe. If there *is* a reason, it could be to learn, to develop intelligence, to make the Universe into an intelligence, “to be the eyes and ears of God”, or any of a range of concepts that all encourage exploration and experimentation.

    The practical problems of terraforming are our ignorance, the vastness of a planet, and the current brevity of our lives. So I think terraforming is inevitable, but only a partial solution.

    Modifying ourselves is something we do inherently, as our bodies grow from nothing into adulthood, and as we further tinker with natural processes through shaping or shaving our hair, trimming (and painting) our nails, painting or oiling or piercing our skin, deliberately eating and drinking and breathing and injecting things to change our inner chemistry, and layering on clothes and housing to further adapt to climate. We are on the way to John Varley’s short stories about the colonization of the eight worlds of our solar system, with people physically adapted to living on different planets or even in space itself.

    But short-term I think the answer is space colonies, something the size of a city, whether orbiting a useful planet or travelling between the stars. We don’t like to be confined to a house, but we are normally comfortable in a habitat the size of a small town or an island a couple of miles long, so long as there is a diversity of environments, and we can be with other people, or escape them if we want, and can see plants and animals up close, and can also see a view over a landscape for a mile or more.

    Given how happy people can be to live in front of a TV screen, I don’t think the requirements for a satisfying space colony need be excessive. I hope to live on one myself, if I can just get through the next 50 years…

  6. carver22

    I’ve never written any sci-fi, Greta but this makes it sound both fascinating and challenging. It also confirms that good writing in the genre recognises the fundamentals you’ve listed and produces characters and situations which are far more persuasive than those which ditch all our realities and create/inhabit a universe (or universes) running on different kinds of physics and biological principles.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Probably the best writer I’ve come across who goes some way to addressing some of these issues is Jack McDevitt. One book is set on a world with a much thinner atmosphere and lower gravity than ours. But I guess that brings me to the conclusion that there is an element of – if not fantasy, then poetic licence in space opera. Unless all the action is on a spaceship or space station or a similar artificial environment.

  7. fremont110293

    You definitely have me thinking here. I knew all this but never really gave it a lot of consideration. But then, look at Neil Armstrong and his fellow space travelers, all but unrecognizable in their space suits.
    But there is one other thing. You mention terraforming the planet or adapting the settlers. What of the inhabitants they will most likely meet. Will not terraforming their planet be harmful to them? As an Anerican, I cannot help but compare this to the shameful way the white settlers cheated the Native Americans out of this beautiful land and have now all but destroyed so much of this country

    • Greta van der Rol

      I doubt we’d want to use space suits as colonists. And yes, the ethics of terraforming is an important issue. Do we only terraform planets which have no form of life? For instnace, there’s talk of (in the future) terraforming Mars. Or even Venus, which has a few more things in common with us than Mars.

  8. MonaKarel

    Then there’s the sky when you look up. The one night that was clear in New Zealand, I looked up and almost fell over backwards (and NO I wasn’t drunk!) The stars were all in the wrong places! We don’t realize how much we “need” stars and suns and moons in the right place at the right time. Since I’m not enough of a scientist to understand the gravitational pull of multiples of moons, I’ll just enjoy reading about the romantic three moons in the sky, and think about the multiple shadows they would create.

    • Greta van der Rol

      You would have found many of your familiar constellations were missing, too. You can’t see Polaris (the North Star) from most of the southern hemisphere. That’s just the obvious one. Yes, it’s another learning curve.

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