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Oh, the humanity

An astronomer's cosmic perspective on life, the planet's long-term future, and upcoming elections

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As an astronomer, I've spent many quiet nights at remote mountaintop observatories gathering photons from distant stars and galaxies. The high-altitude skies are very dark, and the brilliant stars seem nearby. Yet the light I see left most of these stars well before the advent of human civilizations, while the light from the distant galaxies left before there were any humans or even a planet Earth. In spite of humanity's seemingly immense problems terrorists, nuclear explosions, and global warming we astronomers can maintain a cosmic perspective, viewing humanity as a Johnny-come-lately species living on an obscure planet orbiting a ho-hum star one of billions of stars in a run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy.

My career as a typical astronomer involved the development of totally automated telescopes, writing a small mountain of research papers and books, teaching, organizing many conferences, and a stint as president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Although nominally retired for the past 15 years, I still teach astronomy courses for Cuesta College and Cal Poly's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and direct the Orion Observatory located near Santa Margarita Lake. I observe eclipsing binary stars looking for orbiting extrasolar planets. Cuesta College and Cal Poly students often use the Orion Observatory for their research projects.

Not typically, however, I have actively applied my astronomer's cosmic perspective to humanity. How did we come to be? What is our fate? For several decades, I have been busy translating mainstream science's answers to these questions into an easily read book. Not being an expert in the many areas covered by my book, I borrowed science's story from low-cost, easily read science "trade" books. Written by eminent scientists for the edification of the unwashed masses, they were relatively easy pickings. These volumes are all dog-eared now, full of notes I scribbled in their margins. I am deeply indebted to these literate scientist-authors. My recently released book is a summary and guide to more than 200 of the best science books.

Science's story doesn't start with humanity itself. We must first sprinkle our cosmic stage with stars, planets, and evolving life and then, starting a few million years ago, the curtain rises as the newly formed Rift Mountains cast a rain shadow over an increasingly treeless east African savanna. Lacking their beloved trees, our hominid ancestors bravely faced lions while our two sister species, the common chimpanzees and the bonobos, remained secure in their protective western jungle. They never left their Garden of Eden, while we hominids ventured forth to become the planet's top hunter-gatherers. Although not numerous eating steak at the top of the food chain instead of munching grass at the bottom limits one's numbers by the end of the last ice age we dwelt in every continent except Antarctica.

In the warm interglacial, we Homo sapiens became numerous instead of rare by taking up agriculture. Ants, long before us, had become numerous in the same way. They developed ingenious herding and gardening skills that allowed them to tap the plentiful food at the bottom of the food chain. We simply aped the ants. By feeding off the bottom of the food chain instead of the top eating beans instead of steak our population soared, and soon the number of individuals in each human civilization, like each ant colony, numbered in the thousands or millions.

There was, however, a fly in the evolutionary ointment. Other life had thoughtfully restrained the ants' success, but we were not so fortunate. Evolving our simple chimp tools into machines, we tapped a bonanza of food and fossil fuel energy. We were an irresistible team, we humans and our domesticated plants and animals not to mention our chain saws, bulldozers, and tractors. We quickly blitzkrieged the planet no other life could stop us as we rushed headlong toward the sustainable limits of the planet.

So what is our fate? How will our story end? I offer four representative story endings: Chimpanzee Paradise, Boom and Bust, Planetary Superorganism, and Star Trek. Take your pick. Reversing direction, will we return to a planetary Garden of Eden, rejoining our sister chimpanzees in harmony with other life? Or, pedal to the metal, will we slam full speed into the wall of planetary finiteness, crashing into oblivion? Then again, with only modest restraint will we transform the entire Earth into one gigantic yet sustainable global farm? But why limit ourselves to Earth? Why not leave our birth-planet behind, voyage to the stars with our machine partners, and, with some future Captain Kirk at the helm, establish a galactic empire and explore the universe?

On the evening of Oct. 27, I taught a short Cal Poly Osher class based on my recently released book, Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants. At the end of the course, my students, all 50 years or older, voted on which of the four futures they thought was most likely. They overwhelmingly voted for Boom and Bust. Then, asked which future they thought was most desirable irrespective of whether or not it was likely half the class went for Chimpanzee Paradise, while the other half was evenly split between Planetary Superorganism and Star Trek. Two animal-loving seniors voted for Boom and Bust as most desirable. Why? The sooner we go bust, they suggested, the sooner the human-induced mass extinction of other life will come to an end.

What is my take on the future? I believe we are destined to leave the planet of our birth, to spread to other stellar systems in this little corner of our galaxy perhaps eventually to the entire galaxy. We are destined to live beyond the short, 5-billion-year remaining life of our local star, the sun. The universe is young, we are young, and our cosmic future stretches before us an immense banquet we will savor for eons.

As we vote on Nov. 7, we should strive to place humanity and our current problems into a cosmic perspective. After all, we are probably not the only intelligent life in the universe certainly not the first beings to face planetary limits. Perhaps aliens have already solved the problems of nuclear weapons and global warming. If only some wise alien would come to Earth and point the way! Consider this: Perhaps Arnold is not really an alien terminator, but has been sent to save humanity, starting with California. I offer no hints. You must decide with your vote!

You can cultivate your own cosmic perspective on humanity by reading my book or attending one of my relaxing Hawaii conferences at the Makaha Resort: Evolution of Religion, Jan. 3 through 9. 2007 Humanity: Our Origins, Evolution and Fate, Jan. 3 through 8, 2008 or Astronomy at the Telescope 1609-2009 (celebrating the 400th anniversary Galileo's first observations), Jan. 1 through 4, 2009. Or come to the San Luis Obispo conference, Alternative Futures for Humanity and Planet Earth, June 19 through 21, 2008. For details, visit www.orionobservatory.org.

Russell Merle Genet teaches astronomy at Cuesta College.

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