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Saturday, September 29, 2012

THE NEXT BILLION YEARS

A half century ago, I got to know the originators of Project Cyclops, Barney Oliver of Hewlett-Packard and Jack Billingham of the Ames Research Center.  They had led a NASA-sponsored workshop on "The Next Billion Years,"  which determined that for $10 billion (today worth $50 billion), they could build 1000 100-meter antennas to search the sky at the waterhole to detect emissions from advanced civilizations.  What if the solution to world peace, cure for cancer or clue on how to bottle fusion were beaming in, sort of like CONTACT, the book by Carl Sagan and movie with Jodie Foster?

After becoming involved with NASA's Earth 2020:  Visions for Our Children's Children, in 1974, I was inspired to spend the summer of '76 at the Ames Research Center on Project Orion, for the key question in those days was:  Are we the only solar system in the Universe?  Our group of 19 faculty members from around the nation were brought together to suggest how best to detect an extrasolar planet.  Today, the following planets seem possible for life:


It's taken all these years, but a number now approaching 1000 planets has been confirmed.  The progress on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, however, seems to be getting nowhere with minimal funding, and might take all of a billion years to finally detect alien life.

In the meantime, Ray Kurzweil has also been thinking big, and with his followers, a billion year plan for humanity is being generated.  I interacted with this group at the Singularity Institute's gathering in San Francisco two years ago.  Basically, the story goes like this.  Our Sun will expand and evaporate our oceans in a billion years, so if Mankind does not leave Planet Earth, that could be the end of intelligent life.

Some of this thinking exists in efforts like the Mars Project.  I was at one time somewhat supportive, for it was U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga who advanced this concept in his book by the same name.  Arthur C. Clarke of "2001:  A Space Odyssey" fame, wrote the Foreword.  That was thirty years ago when I was working in his D.C. office, and Harvey Meyerson, whose desk was next door to mine, ghost wrote that book.  However, Senator Matsunaga was a peace advocate, and you'll note the subheading:  Journeys Beyond the Cold War.  He felt that if two competing powers worked together on a monumental enterprise, the foundation would be established for peace.

However, priorities change with time, and it makes no sense for American taxpayers to largely fund a $500 billion boondoggle to send astronauts to another planet today.  Kurzweil's billion year plan, of course, I'm sure won't hint at such a misadventure now.  Some day we will need to leave Planet Earth, but we have time.  Our species has only been around for 50,000 years or so.  Maybe we can begin to get serious about a real Billion Year Plan to save us in about, oh, 50,000 years.  That would still leave 9,999,950,000 years to get us to an extrasolar planet.

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In the West Pacific, Typhoon Jelawat remains on a path to cruise over Tokyo Sunday night, but only as a tropical storm.

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