Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Meanwhile, back on Earth


"I think the brain is the most wonderful, the most interesting, the most complex, the most fascinating organ. Then I think, who's telling me this?"

—Unknown comedian/philosopher

Stephen Hawking, arguably the most and certainly among the most intelligent human beings who have ever lived, at least in terms of theoretical physics, has a brain that has spent a lot of time in deep space. His 1988 book, "A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes," was a bestseller.

"My goal is simple," he says. "It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all."

This lofty goal should keep a brain busy for a few lifetimes, though perhaps it is tainted with hubris. People of such genius live in their heads more than most. Hawking, who is completely disabled with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), has lived longer and done far more than most people with this crippling neurological disorder. He is unable to move or even speak on his own. Yet his brain clearly functions: He writes books, gives lectures and ponders the universe and existence itself. Hawking's head is surely a fascinating and exciting place to live and undoubtedly gives him a measure of comfort and motivation in dealing with his physical and experiential limitations. He is a man to admire, pay attention to, learn from, even though in reality only a handful of fellow theoretical physicists can be said to grasp the elements of his thinking.

Still, Hawking's thinking warrants more skepticism from the less-refined brains of the rest of mankind. Or, perhaps, his thinking only illustrates the limits of the human brain or, more likely, the consequences of brain power detached from the organic, biological environment of planet Earth.

Earlier this year he came out with a startling opinion: "It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species. Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."

He said that within 20 years humans could have a permanent base on the moon and a colony on Mars within 40 years. Hawking also said, "We won't find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system."

And just last week NASA, always looking for funding and a reason to exist, announced an idea without a plan, much less a blueprint, to build a permanent base on the moon within 20 years.

What futile nonsense.

I'm a traditional, old-fashioned sort of Earth dweller, and I'm not thrilled at the thought of my grandchildren living on Mars or the moon, much less wandering around other star systems looking for what they already have at home. There are big mountains to climb on Mars, but there are really bad dust storms, not much oxygen, no running water and no place to grow organic carrots. The moon is even worse. There are no rivers, lakes, forests, meadows, oceans, wild creatures, snow storms or rain squalls in either place. There aren't even any clouds to reflect sunup and sundown. Even if it were possible to create sustainable "bases" and "colonies" on the moon and Mars, the day-to-day reality of living in them would make places like Leavenworth and San Quentin on Earth seem like health spas for the privileged and pampered. They would be bunkers, and we know who gets to live in bunkers. It won't be my grandchildren or yours.

If this is the best that the best human brain in history can come up with in terms of the survival of the (human) species, not to mention (which Hawking didn't for obvious reasons) all the other species sharing and surviving (or not) the planet Earth with us, then it is obvious the human brain isn't the wonderful, interesting, complex, fascinating organ it tells comedians it is. After all, global warming, nuclear war, genetically engineered viruses and much more are problems created by the human brain. Perhaps their solutions are in the brain as well.

The German astronaut Sigmund Jahn said, "Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations."

The human brain urgently needs to turn to cherishing, preserving, making sustainable all life on Earth, not just man's. To think of abandoning Earth for the moon and Mars as a survival mechanism is not wonderful, interesting, complex nor fascinating. It is just really, really crazy.

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