Freeman Dyson: The Greening of the Universe

  • Date: 27/09/16
  • Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books

Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. I give the name Noah’s Ark culture to this style of space operation.

An illustration of Freeman Dyson’s vision of ‘Noah’s Ark culture’—a space operation in which, ‘sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth.’ Spacecraft resembling ostrich eggs will bring ‘living seeds with genetic instructions’ to planets, moons, and other ‘suitable places where life could take root.’ A new species of warm-blooded plants, ‘kept warm by sunlight or starlight concentrated onto it by mirrors outside,’ will enable the Noah’s Ark communities to survive.

An illustration of Freeman Dyson’s vision of ‘Noah’s Ark culture’—a space operation in which, ‘sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth.’ Spacecraft resembling ostrich eggs will bring ‘living seeds with genetic instructions’ to planets, moons, and other ‘suitable places where life could take root.’ A new species of warm-blooded plants, ‘kept warm by sunlight or starlight concentrated onto it by mirrors outside,’ will enable the Noah’s Ark communities to survive.

[…] All three books look at the future of space as a problem of engineering. That is why their vision of the future is unexciting. They see the future as a continuation of the present-day space cultures. In their view, unmanned missions will continue to explore the universe with orbiters and landers, and manned missions will continue to be sporting events with transient public support. Neither the unmanned nor the manned missions are seen as changing the course of history in any fundamental way.

The authors are blind to the vision of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the prophet who started thinking seriously about space 150 years ago. Tsiolkovsky saw the future of space as a problem of biology rather than as a problem of engineering. He worked out the theory of rockets and saw that rockets would solve the problem of space travel, to get from here to there. Getting from here to there is the problem of engineering that Tsiolkovsky knew how to solve. That is the easy part. The hard part is knowing what to do when you have got there. That is the problem of biology, to find ways to survive and build communities in space, to adapt the structures of living creatures, human and nonhuman, so they can take root in strange environments wherever they happen to be. Tsiolkovsky knew nothing of biotechnology, but he understood the problems that biotechnology would enable us to solve.

With Tsiolkovsky, we leave behind the parochial concerns of the twenty-first century and jump ahead to a longer future. In the long run, the technology driving activities in space will be biological. From this point on, everything I say is pure speculation, a sketch of a possible future suggested by Tsiolkovsky’s ideas. Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. I give the name Noah’s Ark culture to this style of space operation. A Noah’s Ark spacecraft is an object about the size and weight of an ostrich egg, containing living seeds with the genetic instructions for growing millions of species of microbes and plants and animals, including males and females of sexual species, adapted to live together and support one another in an alien environment.

After the inevitable mistakes and failures, we will have acquired the knowledge and skill to build such Noah’s Arks and put them gently into suitable places in the sky. Suitable places where life could take root are planets and moons, and also the more numerous cold dark objects far from the sun, where air is absent, water is frozen into ice, and gravity is weak. The purpose is no longer to explore space with unmanned or manned missions, but to expand the domain of life from one small planet to the universe. Each Noah’s Ark will grow into a living world of creatures, as diverse as the creatures of Earth but different. For each world it may be possible to develop genetic and other instructions for growing a protected habitat where humans can live in an Earth-like environment. The expansion of human societies into the universe will be a small part of the expansion of life. After the expansion of life and the expansion of human societies have started, the new ecologies will continue to evolve in ways that we cannot plan or predict. The humans in remote places will then also have the freedom to evolve, so that they can move out of protected habitats and walk freely on the worlds where they have settled.

The essential new species, enabling Noah’s Ark communities to survive in cold places far from the sun, will be warm-blooded plants. A warm-blooded plant is a species with leaves and flowers and roots and shoots in a central structure, kept warm by sunlight or starlight concentrated onto it by mirrors outside. The mirrors are cold, separated from the warm center by a living greenhouse with windows that let the light come in but stop heat radiation from going out. The mirrors are attached to the greenhouse like feathers on a peacock. The mirrors and the greenhouse perform the same functions for a warm-blooded plant that fur and fat perform for a polar bear.

The entire plant, with the warm center and the greenhouse and the mirrors, must grow like a mammal inside its mother before it can be pushed out into the cold world. The new species of plants will be not only warm-blooded but also viviparous, growing the structures required for independent living while still inside the parent plant. To make viviparous plants possible, the basic genetic design of warm-blooded mammals must be understood and transferred to become a new genetic design for plants. Our understanding and mastery of genetic design will probably be driven by the needs of medical research, aimed at the elimination of disease from human, animal, and plant populations. Warm-blooded and viviparous plants will fill empty ecological niches on Earth before they are adapted for life support in Noah’s Arks. They may make Antarctica green before they take root on Mars.

Almost all the current discussion of life in the universe assumes that life can exist only on worlds like our Earth, with air and water and strong gravity. This means that life is confined to planets and their moons. The sun and the planets and moons contain most of the mass of our solar system. But for life, surface area is more important than mass. The room available for life is measured by surface area and not by mass. In our solar system and in the universe, the available area is mostly on small objects, on comets and asteroids and dust grains, not on planets and moons.

When life has reached the small objects, it will have achieved mobility. It is easy then for life to hop from one small world to another and spread all over the universe. Life can survive anywhere in the universe where there is starlight as a source of energy and a solid surface with ice and minerals as a source of food. Planets and moons are the worst places for life from the point of view of mobility. Because Earth’s gravity is strong, it is almost impossible for life to escape from Earth without our help. Life has been stuck here, waiting for our arrival, for three billion years, immobile in its planetary cage.

When humans begin populating the universe with Noah’s Ark seeds, our destiny changes. We are no longer an ordinary group of short-lived individuals struggling to preserve life on a single planet. We are then the midwives who bring life to birth on millions of worlds. We are stewards of life on a grander scale, and our destiny is to be creators of a living universe. We may or may not be sharing this destiny with other midwife species in other parts of the universe. The universe is big enough to find room for all of us. One writer who grasped the universal scale of human destiny was Olaf Stapledon, a professional philosopher who dabbled in science fiction. His books Last and First Men and Star Maker, written in the 1930s, remain as enduring monuments to his insight. Stapledon gave us a larger view of space, teeming with life and action, as the stage of a cosmic human drama.

Full essay

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