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The Loop: How Technology Is Creating a World Without Choices and How to Fight Back

The Loop: How Technology Is Creating a World Without Choices and How to Fight Back PDF

Author: Jacob Ward

Publisher: Hachette Books


Publish Date: January 25, 2022

ISBN-10: 0316487201

Pages: 320

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

WHENEVER OUR FUTURE on this planet looks bleak, we can’t help but think about other planets. We’ve spilled over our place in nature, and we can’t seem to get along well enough to agree on our shared salvation. Let’s go somewhere else and start over. How far away is the next habitable planet, anyway?
Interplanetary scientists despise the notion of translating light-years to a speed that you and I can grok as a number, the way we put a number to the speed of our own cars, so it always falls to journalists like me to thumbnail a best guess as to just how long it might take to carry us that same distance. Bear with me, please.
Our current rocket technology can propel a ship through space at speeds of roughly 20,000 miles per hour. By the standards you and I are used to, that’s incredibly fast. In our own atmosphere the friction against the surrounding air at that speed would melt through any material we’ve invented and would incinerate you and me before we could even strike up a conversation about where we were going and what we wanted to build when we got there. But let’s use that speed as a benchmark, because in space that speed is a terribly slow rate to cross the enormous distances between planets.
Mars, whose orbit is directly adjacent to our own, is the most survivable other planet in our solar system. But that’s not saying much. Sure, other planets are more horrible. Piercing the thirty-mile layer of clouds that surrounds Jupiter, our rocket’s engines would begin to either choke or over-fire in its flammable nightmare of hydrogen and helium, and then would die completely as they hit the liquid form of the same stuff roughly 13,000 miles past the cloud cover that keeps us from knowing anything about what’s beneath that poisonous ocean. That crew would drown (or maybe drown and burn, unheard of on Earth) without ever making it out of the ship.
Mars is comparatively pleasant. For one thing, there’s stable footing. And a nice day on Mars might actually feel nice. With the sun high in the sky, you’d enjoy temperatures as high as 68° F, a clear August afternoon in San Francisco or Johannesburg. But if you happened to exit the ship at one of the poles, at night, the temperature could be less than −200° F, cold enough to not only instantly kill you, but also almost instantly freeze your limbs into brittle branches that would shatter under a hammer blow. And let’s not forget that even in the balmiest regions of the planet, there’s nothing to breathe, so you’re not getting far on even the most pleasant day. You’d bound perhaps fifty yards in the low gravity before you could no longer hold your breath, then hypoxia would disorient you, and you couldn’t make it back to the oxygen of the ship. You’d wind up unconscious and twitching, your heart would stop, and the red dust would slowly settle around your corpse.
That’s why scientists and journalists alike are so excited about exoplanets, the term for planets beyond our solar system that seem to offer the possibility of a livable atmosphere and surface. Humanity has been treated in the last few years to a steady stream of optimistic fantasy destinations emanating from the now-defunct Kepler space telescope. Kepler essentially squinted out into deep space to see how light from distant stars bent around intervening planets too far away to image in any detail. Depending on how the light goes around a planet on its way to us, astrophysicists can calculate not only the size of that planet, but how far it is from the source of light, meaning we can determine whether the relation between the planet’s size and the distance to its star possibly indicates that planet might host some sort of atmosphere.
The Kepler mission measured the light from roughly 150,000 stars and found several hundred planets whose ratio of size and star-distance makes them candidates—just candidates, but a real possibility—for human respiration and occupancy. Land, walk around, build a cabin out of whatever materials exist, just imagine! And when we consider the vast distances of space, the closest exoplanets are, in fact, relatively close.

But before we pop the champagne and pour our savings into SpaceX, let’s think about what it takes to get to another planet. A trip to Mars, for instance, is comparatively brief. Depending on where it and Earth are in their orbits, the journey could be made in between three hundred and four hundred days. But humans have never traversed open space for that amount of time. The journey to the moon currently takes about seventy-two hours, and astrophysicists and medical experts quietly point out in private conversation that it’s a miracle none of the two dozen people who went to the moon died during the trip. A trip to Mars would involve exposing the crew to the dangers of deep space for roughly a full year. And those dangers go on and on. Deadly amounts of radiation permeate everything in the deep blackness between planets. Space is full of dirt and grit that could disable the ship. (A whole field of astrophysics studies the interstellar medium and has shown that if you held a gloved white hand out the window of the ship as one does on the highway, it would come back blackened by, well, whatever it is that’s out there.) Also consider that if a mishap killed the ship and the crew, the event would be torturously broadcast, on time delay, to the whole of Earth, presumably killing off our species’ desire to travel to Mars in the process.
And even if all goes well for the crew, that’s a long time confined together in a space no bigger than a vacation rental, as all of us who spent the pandemic year locked in with family, roommates, or alone know too well. In fact, before the coronavirus made test cases of us all, psychologists and logisticians who worried about a Martian crew driving each other nuts spent time observing actual astronauts confined in these sorts of tiny spaces for the duration, either of a simulated trip to Mars or a stay on the planet. And it hasn’t gone well. On almost every sardine-style simulation someone has suffered serious injury or illness. A simulated Martian habitat on a military base on the island of Hawaii has seen a half-dozen such missions over the years, including one where a crew member had to withdraw for medical reasons (the mission’s organizers haven’t publicly revealed what it was). Seeking to learn from the experience, the crew pretended to treat their missing member as dead and enacted setting a fake body out on the simulated Martian tundra, where it would be perfectly preserved for a journey back to Earth for burial. In the final Hawaiian mission, the simulation was compromised when one of the crew was electrified by live wiring, and earthly paramedics had to come inside and drive the crew member away in an ambulance. But putting aside the physical danger of living isolated on Mars, the missions have revealed that… people get weird. “You can select a crew all you want, get the right fit and mix, but there’s too many variables when it comes to human beings,” a psychologist for the mission told the Atlantic. “It’s just really hard to predict how we’re going to perform in all situations.”
That’s just Mars. It’s next door to us, cosmically speaking. Now imagine how weird we’d become trying to reach the nearest exoplanet.
Let’s imagine we’re standing together on the launch pad at NASA’s Cape Canaveral facility near Orlando, and staring up at the stars together. As I write this, the last constellation above the horizon is Centaurus. The centaur’s front hoof is a bright star. In fact, it’s three stars—a pair called Alpha Centauri A and B, and, dimmest of the trio, Proxima Centauri. Here, look through this telescope. See? You can tell them apart. But what we can’t see is that there is, in fact, a planet circling the faint light of Proxima Centauri. Man, I wish we could see it. Because that planet, Proxima Centauri b, is the nearest known exoplanet to Earth.
We have no idea what life would be like on Proxima Centauri b, or what the place even looks like. There may be many reasons that it just won’t work for human habitation. It’s possible that stellar winds may push so much radiation across its surface that we’d all be poisoned before we got the first shelter built, and those same winds may have stripped away any breathable atmosphere, meaning we’d have to live underground. It’s also possible that the planet’s orbit of Proxima Centauri happens at such a cadence that one side of the planet permanently faces the sun, meaning half of the planet is always daylit, and the other is always in darkness.
But let’s stay hopeful. Let’s imagine that it’s a perfectly habitable place, with warm winds and a liquid ocean and strange, vivid landscapes of rock and vegetation and alien snow. Let’s go there!
First, the good news. Proxima Centauri b is only 4.2 light-years away. That means that light, the fastest thing we know of, at roughly 186,000 miles per second, would take only 4.2 years to streak from our planet to Proxima Centauri b’s weird, wild shores. For photons, that’s a very short trip.

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