'We Don't Have a Planet B'
Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb champions science as ultimate Earth insurance
For eons upon eons, the universe has been responsibly stockpiling habitable planets. Early on, it dispersed the essential supplies for life across galactic boundaries — the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and what have you — and allowed the roughly quarter of a septillion stars with an optimized manufacturing sector to start producing. If one such planet becomes defective, well, there's plenty more where that came from — that is, if your species has a light speed logistics operation in place.
Humans, as we know, do not. Thus Earth and Earth alone is our supply chain; there is no alternative source of atmosphere, water, and/or food within our reach. "Since we don't have Planet B, we should preserve our planet and do the best we can to keep humanity healthy and prosperous. And the best way to do that is through science and collaboration," argues astronomer and cosmologist Dr. Abraham "Avi" Loeb, chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, founding director of its Black Hole Initiative, director of its Institute for Theory and Computation, and recent appointee to the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST).
The professor, a featured speaker during the Jefferson Educational Society's most recent Global Summit XI, returned to chat with JES Vice President (and Erie Reader contributing editor) Ben Speggen on Facebook Live in anticipation of Earth Day, lending some wide-angle insights to the COVID-19 chaos currently gripping our world (using his recent Scientific American article as a reference). "We should let this pandemic serve as our 'moon landing moment,' in which the political system will decide to boost considerably the funding of science … for the prosperity and health of our children if all nations worldwide."
According to Loeb, science — as the selfless, egoless, and inquisitive exercise it's meant to be — is our "shield" against global threats, whether they be pandemics, solar flares, asteroids, or our own ignorance. "There is no better avenue for international collaboration to protect the Earth than science." Loeb characterizes scientific pursuits as an "infinite sum game," without borders or limits. The more we know about the universe and the more of that knowledge we share collectively as a species, the more we all benefit and the less we suffer.
But even as science propels our kind to new heights, we must also accept that there will always be things beyond our awareness or control, things that could ground civilization's rocketship in an instant. In our ongoing "dialogue with nature," we must constantly "revise our notions about the world" — and realize that there are times when nature is going to be doing most of the talking. SARS-CoV2, a "primitive" virus with a fraction of our complexity and none of our cares, now has all of humanity's attention. It is teaching us a difficult and costly lesson, but perhaps one that needed to be taught.
"The pandemic is a reminder of the fact that life is short, that we are not as powerful as we think, and that we should never be arrogant," Loeb says. "We should accept all the good life gives us with gratitude and humility." After all, the percentage universe by volume that is livable is infinitesimally small — the rest is inhospitable or just plain empty.
What we've had here on Earth has always been a rare opportunity, an arrangement that is fleeting. What we have now is even rarer — a chance to step back, listen and watch as nature "reawakens," and remind ourselves that we are just part (not the center) of the universe. "Planet B" is assuredly out there — but for now, nothing (aside from nothingness itself) comes close. Let's stay inside and avoid shopping for other planets as long as we can.
Matt Swanseger tries to approach his inbox, like the universe, with a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder at email@example.com