Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Do multiple Earths equate to multiple civilizations?

If [the planets] be inhabited, what a scope for folly; if they be not inhabited, what a waste of space. -- Thomas Carlyle

This is exciting and all, to think that there may be other Earths in the millions out there someplace. Yet I think most of the analysis of this possibility is incomplete.

In order for life as we now know it to arise, there need to be certain conditions. A moderate sized yellow sun, for one: a small red sun would grip a planet in tidal lock, and a giant white or blue sun wouldn't live long enough for life to evolve. A small rocky planet with liquid water at or near the surface--although extremophiliac life might exist under harsher conditions. And then possibly a disproportionately large satellite along with tides, oxygen and or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and etc.

And then life has to evolve, onwards from unicellular and acellular life, into multicellular life of increasing complexity and sophistication. There is probably nothing automatic about this. Fast, torpedo-shaped sea creatures have evolved any number of times: ichthysaurs, tuna, marlins, orcas, but sentient primates with binocular vision and opposable thumbs have come along very rarely. Indeed, we seem to be the last of only a handful of such creatures ever to arise.

Most analyses I've seen stop here, but it seems to me that there are further improbabilities to be overcome. The rise of intelligent life doesn't mean the rise of civilization, or even technology. What if intelligent life on another world never got beyond the hunter/gatherer stage, or the agricultural stage. What if the industrial revolution never happened? Or more frustratingly, what if the aliens were like certain civilizations here, which did not lack knowhow, but did lack curiosity.

Of course, it could be that Earth is the exception, and that advanced technological civilizations are the rule elsewhere in the cosmos. But given the chain of improbabilities that have led from the primordial scum to our present state, it's fairly easy to to doubt that anyone Out There is listening to our call.

As Tallyrand said back in the 18th century...

Russia is never as strong as it looks, and Russia is never as weak as it looks.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Persistant problems at work

Bleagh. Just bleagh. I'm so crossed up at work I don't even know how to act anymore. I manage a small staff, some of whom can't seem to get alone with one another. I can't conciliate them. I'm not hard-nosed enough--too wimpy, I guess--and the lack of strong leadership from me leads to trouble for everyone. I've had to go on anti-depressants just to take the edge off, to keep functioning. I've got another pie in the face scheduled for this coming week; wish me luck, okay?


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Millard Fuller, RIP

Today's news brings tidings of the sudden passing of Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. I was a HFH volunteer in the mid-80s, and met him frequently. His faith and enthusiasm were inspiring, as the growth of Habitat over the years attests.

The special thing about Habitat was that its mission appealed to just about anyone. Fundamentalists? Chapter and verse can be cited about helping the poor. Conservatives? No involvement from the government, at least before the "faith-based initiave" era. Libertarians? Habitat was self-help in the best sense, as the houses were paid for by the homeowners (it's just that no interest is charged on the loan). Liberals? The volunteers are a rainbow of ordinary people doing extraordinary things: church groups, students, retirees, various questers at loose ends. Secularists? Come on aboard; we won't bite you!

And most importantly, Habitat works. The default rate is very low, and for years was non-existence. The recipients are invested in results. "Sweat equity" truly gives people a hand up, not a hand out.

For a while I worked in a warehouse, where donated plumbing supplies were stored. It was good quality stuff, and I still smile to think: the owner of a Habitat house in that area probably had better bathroom fixtures than their former slumlord did. I still smile to think how perfectly my spell with Habitat intersected my life. I was young and open-hearted, the perfect age and attitude to reap the blessings that giving brings, that being part of a wonderful cause greater than oneself brings. It's been a long road since then, but the inevitable shimmer of nostalgia adds nothing to the genuine benefit I received from my time there. And it was because of one man and his "theology of the hammer."

Without vision the people perish