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Posts from the ‘Science’ Category

Reasons to seriously address Light Pollution

Since the dawn of humanity our ancestors have been able to look up at the night sky in its untainted entirety with respect and awe. The night sky must have been the biggest source of guidance, comfort and storytelling to those accustomed to only having campfires as a source of light. We may owe much of our cultural evolution to the night sky. Religion and civilization in general are likely the results of our wonderment over various astronomical events. Imagine a world where every sentient being has had an equal opportunity to view the splendors of the night sky unaltered. Today this is not a possibility. Many people in modern times haven’t had the chance to travel anywhere remote enough to view the sky without being inhibited by what is known as light pollution, or “skyglow”. Nowadays, we walk outside of our city homes on a crisp, clear night and see only a handful of stars. Light pollution is the byproduct of our modernized world. The technological advancements which have provided us so much security and visibility may actually be disconnecting us further from our natural selves. Not everyone has the time or inclination to drive so many miles outside of the nearest city just to see a more wholesome night sky; even when in a seemingly remote area, light pollution from large cities still tends to dampen the sky to a degree. The loss of our night sky could result in our downfall, but to bring back its undiluted brilliance could mean a boost in our sense of self and fascination in the natural world.


A comparison of the view of the night sky from a small rural town (top) and a metropolitan area (bottom). Light pollution dramatically reduces the visibility of stars. via Wikipedia

The fact that the vast majority of the human species can no longer view the night sky in its entirety is detrimental to our spirituality. If it is true that human civilization was founded upon astronomical events, then it can’t be good that we are potentially cutting ourselves off from these roots. A disconnection from the starry night could mean a disconnection from ourselves and our curiosity. Seeking to understand the stars and our place in the universe has been one of the primary motivators of scientific progression and cultural evolution.

Aside from the suspected spiritual detriments light pollution may cause, there are more obvious problems as well. For one, it’s going to be increasingly harder for astronomers to study celestial objects as urbanization and mega-cities become more prominent. Scientists will have to resort to solely building space-based telescopes which are currently expensive to launch and come with their own inconveniences, like the difficulty of repairing them or the allocation of usage. This is not only true for professional scientists: amateur, or citizen scientists, will have an even harder time aiding in discoveries as well. When we can no longer analyze the sky we lose out on inspiring the youth and the general public. We may also miss out on important discoveries such as near-Earth asteroids, supernovae, or extra-planetary asteroid impacts. Additionally, light pollution is actually known to cause disruptions in ecological systems. Studies show that certain types of artificial lighting can cause physical and psychological problems for humans and other animals. We humans have existed in the same biological form for tens of thousands of years, meaning that our psychological health may be attuned to our ability to view the night sky. Similarly, improper light exposure has been known to throw off our circadian rhythm.  

Efforts to restore the magnificence of the undiluted night sky range from implementing policies, to unique lighting technologies and petitions for “lights off” days. Businesses, neighborhoods, cities, and national governments can all implement policies ranging from minimal light requirements at certain hours of the day, to restricting the use of certain types of lighting that emit a troublesome ambiance. Some people have gone so far as to petition for widespread days of no lights, which would require cities to restrict light usage for some arbitrary time frame — maybe even just two hours out of the night — so that citizens can reap the benefits of absolute minimal light pollution. These anti-light events could be timed during notable astronomical events like major meteor showers or auroras. We would no longer have to rely on enhanced digital media to see what the universe has to offer.

This is not to say that technological advancement and urbanization is a wholly bad thing; we can continue making our way towards mega-cities. We just need to stop neglecting collateral damage. If you are interested in ways that you can help combat light pollution, a good place to start is naturally the internet. The Dark Skies Awareness organization is dedicated to the fight; there are ways for anyone to donate to their efforts or to become a subscribed member which offers certain benefits. Search for petitions online that are calling for days of no light, or that are calling for action and policies against skyglow. Refit your homes and businesses with lighting that doesn’t emit sub-optimal levels of light pollution, and spread the word! We must treat light pollution with the same disdain that we view environmental pollution and climate change. Losing the night sky destroys us spiritually while losing the biosphere destroys us physically.

If we can restore the brilliance of the night sky in some way, who knows what sort of cultural changes will take place. As a civilization we may have forgotten something about ourselves, and the reintroduction of the night sky could inspire revolutionary thinking to the same degree it inspired religions and the birth of civilizations. It would cause a spiritual revolution. Looking upon the stars is actually looking upon ourselves. Like many scientists have said: we are made of stardust; we owe everything about our existence to those floating points in the sky. When you look at the band of the Milky Way across the sky, you’re really looking at the center of our galaxy edge-on. Grasping this perspective would be a profound experience to someone unfamiliar with an optimally unpolluted sky. Maybe all it will take are enough people to really understand our place in the cosmos in this way for humanity to really take space exploration seriously.


Space colonization through adaptation

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As appealing as the idea of deep space exploration sounds, we as humans may not actually be at the most advantageous point in our abilities to undergo exploration at a larger scale. Not only is space travel technologically challenging, but we humans in our current biological form aren’t necessarily equipped to handle the conditions of space or the celestial bodies we wish to explore. We are susceptible to the harsh radiation in the vacuum of space, we cannot respire in most atmospheres, and we probably couldn’t handle some of the unfamiliar physical conditions on most planets such as variations in gravity, or extreme variations in temperature. This however should not stop us from thinking creatively about how we approach space travel. There are many alternative “modes of transportation” for example, and there is always the possibility of  uniquely altering ourselves in preparation for conditions that are not familiar to us.

One way in which we already do most of our space travel is through robots. We’ve sent countless probes throughout the solar system to act as extensions to our biological senses. Through these probes we’re able to gauge everything from atmospheric conditions to unique geological features. Robots act as proxies until we can muster the resources to actually send humans to distant locations, but sending humans to remote places in space involves much higher costs and risks. For now, robots may be our best ticket into space. It may not seem like the ideal avenue, but consider some modern-day technologies that could make this more exciting. We are now living in the age of virtual reality (VR). Many people today have had the chance to experience what it’s like to be fully immersed in virtual worlds. As graphics processing improves, the immersion will only become more realistic. VR has the potential to give individuals the ability to experience someone else’s life, whether that be a fictional video game character or an actual person with a camera attached to their head in some way. Anyone will be able to strap on a VR headset and know what it’s like to be someone on the other side of the world.



This VR technology feature could be expanded for use with various space probes and robotic rovers that we have stationed throughout the solar system. One day we could retrofit a space probe with a 360 degree camera and send it orbiting around all of the Jovian planets. People back on Earth could connect to these probes and experience what it’s like to float over Saturn’s rings in high-definition. Rovers stationed on Mars could give Earthlings a panoramic view of the Valles Marineris.

Saturn's Ice Rings by Gamersan

Saturn’s Ice Rings:

Robotic rovers today are mostly designed to operate like vehicles, but looking further into the future, we may begin building humanoid robots. Robots that are modeled after humans will open up the possibility of an even more immersive and unique exploratory experience. Using a combination of VR technology and haptic feedback gear, a human operator could jack into a humanoid robot stationed on some distant world and take complete control of it. Instead of only being a passive observer limited to what a camera is showing them, people would now be able to take full control of the humanoid robot and move around on their own free will. With the haptic feedback devices and motor sensory apparatus, the operator could feel the ground beneath them, and walk the robot vast distances. This would be very useful for scientists who are looking for more flexibility and control over which objects-of-interest to investigate. This sort of “mind transfer” technology is similar to what James Cameron showed us in the movie Avatar, but instead of inhabiting a living body, it’d be a machine body being inhabited through telepresence. Avatar-like technology would most likely be limited for use by high-ranked scientists or astronauts at first, but soon-after this technology could be developed for commercial use. One day it may be possible to purchase your very own avatar robot for off-world use. Instead of sending ships full of humans to distant celestial bodies, we may just pack shipping freights full of avatars set to go online whenever the Earth-based operator logs in. From there you could navigate around any permissible zone designated for your avatar to use. It would be akin to logging into a massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft or Second Life, but instead of logging into a virtual world you are logging into a physical world far away.

Deep-space travel and extra-planetary habitation may also be more practical if we humans master genetic engineering and alter our own biology. Today when it comes to extra-planetary colonization, like on Mars for example, the most commonly proposed strategy is to terraform the planet, which is a process by which humans alter a planet’s climate to such a way that it eventually becomes more suitable for human habitation. While this idea is tantalizing, many opponents see this as another example of humanity’s anthropocentric tendency to modify everything into something suitable for humans. Some environmentalists think that since humans tend to do more harm than good to their own planet, it may be best if we don’t go around changing other planets in ways that may be detrimental to the planet in the long run. Instead, it has also been proposed that instead of adapting a planet to humans, humans adapt to the planet itself. Genetic engineering provides the opportunity to do so. Like the Ousters in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos, humanity may expand into a variety of different forms which offer unique, adaptive ways to survive on seemingly inhospitable planets. We could alter our metabolic pathways to allow us to survive off different nutrients. We could alter our respiratory system to allow us to breath in different atmospheres. We can alter our muscles and skeletal systems to allow for comfort on varying levels of gravity. Humans would be able to choose where they want to live and adapt accordingly. In the distant future we may see dazzling diversity in human sub-types. Humans with wings optimized for drifting through clouds on a very low gravity planet; humans with lungs living in water worlds; people with genetically augmented skin meant to help them survive extreme cold or heat. The possibilities are endless. Some groups of humans may decide to isolate from the rest of humanity, and future encounters with these groups might have them mistaken for actual aliens! Fortunately, a quick genetic test would place them rightfully back on the human evolutionary tree.

Genetic manipulation may not be the only way in which we alter ourselves as a space-faring civilization. Instead of remaining biological, we may choose to augment ourselves with technology. Swapping out certain organs for machine counterparts may prove just as effective if not more so in optimizing us for specific conditions. In a more extreme case, we may be able to manufacture special exosuits that supply all the variation needed to survive on a certain planet. This suit might be able to rapidly adapt to changing conditions in real-time. This multi-functioning suit could eliminate the need to radically alter humans in their current form.

In the end however, it could be that of all of these options will be available to us. Depending on your preferences you might be able to choose one or a combination of all of these adaptations that would allow you to travel just about anywhere in space you desire.

Getting humans into deep space will be tricky business. Colonizing the solar system and eventually other star systems will very likely involve non-traditional methods of travel and adaptability. While some of the ideas discussed here may seem implausible or very far off, others seem within our current capability. Using robots as proxies for instance is basically what we already do, but with existing technology such as VR, we already have the recipe for some very engaging exploration via Avatar-like telepresence. Also, augmenting our current biology with inorganic technological components may be more ethical and within reach than radical genetic manipulation. Still, it’s exciting to think about all the ways in which we could explore space. With such a variety of potential avenues – many of which were not even discussed here – space exploration has never seemed so doable.

Why we need to prioritize space exploration

We need to focus more on space: exploration, colonization, and the planetary sciences need to be a higher priority of the general public. Humanity’s future depends on how dedicated we are to exploring the solar system and other stars. The benefits to humanity are immeasurable, but we can imagine what some of those benefits might be. We already know what benefits our current space industry has produced. Many technologies and medications used in space decades ago have already trickled down to everyday humans on Earth. This trickle-down effect bolsters our economy and jump-starts technological innovation. There are also the more intangible mental effects space exploration has on us as a civilization. Exploring space has altered and expanded our cosmic view. The various types of space telescopes and robotic probes represent an extension to our biological senses. Through these instruments we are constructing a more complete picture of the cosmos and our place within it. Studying the various asteroids, planets and moons in our solar system also help us to know how we came to be and where we should go in the future. We can even see how our current understanding of the cosmos affects culture. Artists from various disciplines tend to include modern space science concepts, terminology and themes in their works; it is also a sign of how much the desire to learn more about space is embedded in our DNA.


The handful of lucky humans who have already gone to space are altered in a special way. Many astronauts describe what is called the “orbital perspective” which is basically a psychological phenomenon caused by viewing the Earth from space. While in low-Earth orbit, humans are imbued with a sense of unity and fragility; it increases their respect for Earth and promotes aspirations for peace and environmental conservation. As commercial spaceflight continues to develop, more and more humans will begin entering space. When a large fraction of humanity acquires a taste of the orbital perspective, we may see a revolution in interest towards space colonization in general, and even more miraculously, we may see increased action to end war, poverty, and anti-environmentalism on Earth.


Once enough humans are motivated to colonize space, the industry will boom. There will be increased funding for large-scale projects like space hotels and colonies. The ultimate vacation get-away could be orbiting Earth for a few weeks. These hotels can have attractions of their own, such as swimming pools with panoramic views of Earth, and maybe even highly controlled space walks! In the movie Passengers, a massive Generation Ship on its way to another solar system possesses these exact amenities. Trips around the Moon and other celestial bodies will become commonplace. New jobs will be created to fuel this industry, and artists will have new subject matter to add to their body of work. Imagine photographers, poets, painters and journalists who are able to visit first-hand some of the marvels of our solar system. What wonderful works of art will they be inspired to create upon returning to Earth?


For those obsessed with money and enrichment of the economy, space affords the most promising path to prosperity. Strung throughout the solar system are massive rocks called asteroids which are actually giant conglomerates of all sorts of material, including precious metals and material needed for manufacturing and fuel. Mining expeditions to just a few of these asteroids could result in trillions of dollars in revenue overtime to whichever companies capitalize on this prospect. As we begin seeking these treasure troves we will need bases to house all of the miners and travelers zipping to and fro. Space colonies can be built at strategic points near these asteroids which could accommodate hundreds of thousands to millions of people. It may even be possible to carve out the bigger asteroids, like Ceres, into makeshift abodes. These mining expeditions will supply Earth with materials needed for more advanced interplanetary vessels and for space colonies to be built at various other points within the solar system. The looming threat of over-population could be easily solved when you consider the idea of building thousands of space colonies throughout the solar system. Not to mention bases on the various moons orbiting other planets, and massive cities that can be built on terrestrial planets like Mars, or floating cities in the atmospheres of Venus and the gas planets.

Eventually our entire solar system will be colonized. Humanity will attempt to inhabit every nook and cranny possible. The commercial aspect of solar system colonization will reach new levels. Companies will routinely give customers tours of all of the planets. Imagine taking a slow, scenic flight just above Saturn’s rings; space hotels can also be built in stationary orbits around any of the other planets in the solar system. Thrill-seekers will have novel opportunities to test the limits of what humans are willing to endure. Imagine sky-diving on planets with higher gravitational pulls than Earth’s, or para-gliding from cliffs taller than any others accessible to us today. But humans get bored easily; soon after the solar system is colonized we will have a strong imperative to explore distant stars. Human continuity has always depended on the necessity to create backup plans. If a disaster occurs somewhere, we need another place to go. With all of the scientific progress and harvested materials we’ve garnered in our time within this solar system we may finally be able to quickly travel to distant planets, to start new adventures, and create new spaces for humanity to flourish. As mentioned earlier, Passengers takes place aboard a Generation Ship set for a distant solar system. Vessels like that may one day embark on journeys to hundreds of different candidate worlds throughout the galaxy.


This is not to say that the glory and prosperity that can be found in space exploration and colonization will completely eliminate poverty, war, and the other atrocious elements of humanity. As long as we exist in our current biological forms we will always house hate and greed deep in our minds. Conflict between factions may occur at far larger scales than they do on Earth. Perhaps one day we can transcend our negative biological imperatives – maybe through genetic engineering or cyborgization – but this may not happen for hundreds or even thousands of years. But that does not mean we shouldn’t still aim for the stars; the benefits are too good to ignore out of fear or pessimism. In the short-term, prioritizing space exploration will bolster the economy; the trickle-down effect of space technologies will enhance human well-being on Earth. Human culture will be instilled with a deeper spirituality reflective of our understanding of the cosmos, and this understanding will also inspire unimaginable works of art.   

Overpopulation Solved: Space Colonization

Earth’s population is projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. This brings into question how much real-estate and how many resources Earth can actually provide for humans in the long run. There are many Earth-based answers to overpopulation ranging from regulated birth-rates to utilizing unconventional real-estate such as oceans and air. While the idea of creating ocean or air-based cities is tantalizing, I don’t believe they will be the best long term solutions, and regulating birth-rates inhibits freedom. By staying on Earth we are only putting the continuity of humanity at risk by not creating alternatives. Tech billionaire Elon Musk has recently unveiled his plan for putting humans on Mars. His primary argument is that we need to create a “backup” of Earth in the event that a catastrophic disaster wipes out its population. Water and air-based cities are wise and should be considered for the near future, but there are additional options we need to consider. Musk has already set into motion the most obvious option, and that is to get humans on the next best candidate planet for habitation. In the meantime we will need to boost public interest in his mission. But for those (like myself) who are not ready to venture to the red dessert planet, we should consider closer, more comfortable options, such as Earth-orbiting space colonies. And for those who want more options than Mars, we should consider the many other planetary bodies within the solar system such as the Moon, asteroids, or other planetary moons like Jupiter’s Europa.

Orbital Settlements

My favorite solution to overpopulation involves building orbital settlements in specific areas around Earth’s orbit, and after that, around various places in the solar system. These colonies can be built large enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands to a few million people each. Each colony could sit comfortably around stable pockets of gravity known as Lagrange points which exist around planetary bodies. Every massive object in the solar system has five Lagrange points where a large object could be placed stagnantly. If we decided to place a space colony at each Lagrange point they could accommodate anywhere between 1 million to 10 million people in total. Once we decide to spread further into the solar system however we can begin utilizing the Lagrange points of the various gas giants and their moons. Say we decided to place just 15 space colonies throughout the solar system. This would allow for about 30+ million people to offset Earth’s population. 30 million people is only .3% of a population of 9 billion, but it’s a start. In order to get 500 million people off of Earth we would need about 250 average sized space colonies spread throughout the solar system. Depending on how large we decide to make space colonies, we could potentially off-set about 10 percent of Earth’s population in the next century. I believe this is feasible due to the abundance of real-estate in space.

Orbital settlement from the movie ‘Elysium’

In case you’re wondering how orbital settlements work, I will offer the basics. Space colonies are essentially self-contained “biospheres” that attempt recreation of Earth’s conditions at optimal levels. They are depicted in many modern works of science-fiction. Think of the ring-worlds in the ‘Halo’ video games series, the orbital space station in ‘Elysium‘, or the cylindrical space colony Cooper Station at the end of the movie ‘Interstellar’. Space colonies use a combination of artificial gravity and climate control to produce near-perfect Earth conditions. Most space colonies will probably contain homogeneous weather patterns and will stay stagnant at a comfortable, mid-Spring temperature, but terrain and climate can definitely vary based on preference or natural causes. The “Sun” will most likely be artificial depending on the location and shape of the structure. Not only would orbital settlements create alternative habitats for humans, but they will also offer novel, breathtaking views of whatever planetary body they’re orbiting.

As I write this, news is circulating of a proposed space-nation called Asgardia which is petitioning to be the first space colony in Earth orbit. It is only in idea phase but has already garnered 455,000 signatures from people hoping to become the first citizens of Asgardia. This project, founded by a single man named Igor Ashurbeyli, represents the beginning of serious public interest in orbital space colonization. NASA believes that the speculative space-nation of Asgardia would sit well at Earth’s Lagrange 1 point. For more information visit the official website where you can also sign the petition yourself.


As mentioned before, plans are already underway for colonizing Mars. This has been the most obvious target for exploration and colonization since the beginning of the space race. Plans have been outlined through books and movies for decades. Recently, Elon Musk caused renewed interest and competition to reach the planet with his announcement that his company SpaceX will begin missions to Mars by 2020. Now, multiple private and government space agencies are racing to be the first to set humans upon it. Musk hopes to have millions of colonists on Mars by 2050. Soon, tickets to Mars will be as cheap as buying a car. Mars will develop cities, culture, and sustainability which will make it even more attractive to prospective migrants. A billion humans could inhabit the planet by the end of the century.

Mars is favorable because of its proximity to Earth. It’s about half the size of Earth and double the size of the Moon. It possesses a nice template for a future biosphere. Mars used to feature running water and maybe even life before its atmosphere all but dissipated millions of years ago. Although it is inhospitable now, I don’t doubt the human ability to adapt to it by using technology. Closed ecological systems, or biodomes, can be as big as they need to be. Light-weight, flexible exosuits can allow safe travels to and from the many landmarks and cities on the desert planet. Eventually, Mars’ climate could be manipulated towards an Earth-like state via a process known as terraforming, which I will cover later.

The Moon is another nearby object capable of harboring human life. It is less appealing due to its complete absence of an atmosphere and lack of geodiversity. I suspect far fewer people will opt to migrate to the Moon, but it will be a necessary location for setting up scientific and operational bases. The majority of the Moon’s population will most likely consist of scientists and workers helping to keep facilities functioning. Likewise, Mercury and Venus, despite their harsh conditions, can also be set up for colonization. Mercury is not the most appealing planet, but scientists may want to set up camp in order to conduct research. Venus is the other closest planet to us, but its atmospheric situation is the complete opposite of Mars’. Its extreme temperatures make landing on it a a difficult task, but like Mars, it can potentially be terraformed. Additionally, Venus has a thick cloud layer with cooler temperatures closer to the top. It could be possible to create sky cities in the top layers of Venus’ atmosphere.

The outer gas planets have an abundance of interesting moons that are viable worlds on their own. Europa, a moon orbiting Jupiter, is an ice world with a global ocean underneath. Colonizing Europa, like the Moon, Mercury, and Venus, probably won’t be at the top of the list of preferred destinations, but it will be a necessary world to establish bases and small ice villages. On Europa, igloo-like biodomes can be created on the ice, and subsurface cities can be built in Europa’s ocean. Saturn’s moon Titan has a thick atmosphere and lakes of liquid methane. Methane doesn’t have the same special properties that water does, but it is still a top candidate for the discovery of extraterrestrial, microbial life. There is no doubt that Titan will soon be colonized with scientists. There are estimated to be about 180 moons orbiting the various planets in our solar system, and just about all of them are worlds that humans can land on and create habitation in some way. I suspect many moons will be used as scientific stations or tourist destinations. They may not be a direct solution to overpopulation, but they can be used as motivation to journey into and colonize deep space in general.

Aside from moons, giant asteroids are another potential habitat for colonization. Ceres is one such object in the Asteroid Belt that is actually so big it’s considered a dwarf-planet, much like Pluto. In the far-reaching science fiction TV show ‘The Expanse’, humans have colonized the dwarf-planet Ceres for the purpose of supplying water to Earth and Mars. According to the show’s wiki page: 

the station has a population of approximately six million permanent residents with an extra one million transiting through at any given time. Eight hundred to a thousand ships are docked on Ceres every day.

‘The Expanse’ portrays a reality that is not too far-off from our own. Asteroid mining may be the new Gold Rush in the coming decades. Congress has recently implemented the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which would allow space companies to claim ownership of resources they mine from asteroids. Companies such as Deep Space Industries are already devising plans to begin asteroid mining missions in space. It won’t be long before colonies will be necessary in the Asteroid Belt to house thousands of workers and travelers involved with resource gathering enterprises.


Most planetary bodies in the solar system are naturally inhospitable to life in general. Living within biodomes on Mars for instance wouldn’t be the most pleasant long term situation. Having almost nothing protecting someone from the harsh conditions of the outside environment will not promote migration to the planet. But humans have technology and centuries worth of scientific knowledge about how the climate on Earth works. It’s possible that someday, humans will learn to manipulate the environment of other worlds to better support life. Terraforming is the process of engineering a planet’s climate to match conditions on Earth. The necessary final step towards Mars colonization will be to terraform it. Many ideas have been proposed ranging from nuking the planet’s poles in order to melt the ice and release CO2, to creating massive machines that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Whichever technique is chosen, the first Martians will be responsible for guiding their planets terraforming process.

Terraforming process of Mars

Before any world can be terraformed however, humans will need to have solved the environmental problems with the Earth today. Climate change is currently the biggest problem facing humanity, and we are the prime factors causing it. Once we have found a way to stabilize our own planet, only then will we be able to design artificial biospheres for space colonies and technology for terraforming worlds.


Once humanity has inhabited just about every practical world in our own solar system, it will then become necessary to seed the rest of the galaxy with human life as well, assuming there are no other forms of intelligent life in the galaxy to compete with. Eventually, humanity will need to formulate plans for a mass diaspora to other solar systems similar to our own. Finding potential candidates will not be a problem. Thanks to the Kepler space telescope we have already surveyed the sky and have found thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy; many of them deemed potentially habitable. In fact, the star system closest to us, Proxima Centauri, was recently discovered to possess an Earth-like planet of its own. The world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking has already initiated plans focused on sending a reconnaissance probe to this neighboring star system. We will likely send many more reconnaissance probes to the star systems that are most likely to possess habitable worlds before ever sending humans.  After the reconnaissance missions, I imagine a moment in humanity’s future where hundreds of “generation ships” disembark from our solar system on a journey to the countless planets discovered in modern times by the Kepler space mission. These generation ships will house thousands of brave people ready to colonize the first exoplanets. Hopefully by then we will have developed engines capable of sending these massive ships to the nearest stars in a matter of decades, because the distances between stars are depressingly large. It could be argued that leaving our solar system is humanity’s manifest destiny, because if we aren’t to colonize the rest of the universe, then what a ridiculous waste of space. To quote Carl Sagan:

The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.


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Concept art for a Generation Ship

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A Return to Nature Through Technology

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Determining what is considered “natural” is important in solving many ethical dilemmas we face today, namely those surrounding urbanization and technology. We constantly hear talk of how unnatural and cancerous human civilization is, or that we as humans need to “return to nature.” New techniques in medical and biological sciences, like with genetic engineering, commonly illicit negative responses from people claiming them to go against nature. Likewise, urbanization is slowly eradicating forest land via deforestation and city expansion; wild animals are seen roaming urban landscapes as they try adapting to new homes. Industry lays concrete over green fields and carves out mountains for the purpose of resource gathering. Some may wonder if one day the entire planet will be covered in concrete and metal, like the fictional world of Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Humans also tend to engineer synthetic chemicals that will sometimes pollute our air and poison our drinking water.

Despite these seemingly unnatural tendencies however, current trends suggest that technological advancement is actually returning us to nature. With better understanding garnered from various scientific disciplines, and with careful guidance, we may actually be able to make technology synergistic with nature. And before that, we may need to also redefine what we consider natural in the first place. Are human actions really going against nature in the long run? Technology is something that is permitted to exist within the fundamental constraints of the universe, so shouldn’t that mean that it is inherently natural?

Technology seems to have gotten its bad reputation during the industrial era when advanced technology was in its infancy. During those times massive buildings and vehicles belched out large amounts of toxic chemicals without any consideration of whether or not we were harming the environment. I look around my city today and everything still seems mildly primitive. Cars still use the combustion engine standard and emit harsh gases out of soot-covered exhaust pipes. Both human and energy waste are carelessly deposited in various places around the city. Most materials are still produced without nature in mind.

But there is hope.

Technology seems to be shifting towards more environmental friendliness. The “green initiative” is invading politics, business, design, and consumerism alike. Innovators are constantly looking for ways to improve on existing infrastructure. Energy efficiency seems to be the biggest motivation, but the green initiative will also create smarter buildings, a stable climate, and better overall health for citizens. Between biotechnology, clean energy, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, we will soon see how technology resembles what we consider a “natural process” today. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, argues that technology should be seen as an additional kingdom of life alongside the traditional kingdoms (animalia, plantae, fungi, etc). He calls this kingdom the “technium” and proposes that this unique kingdom behaves a lot like other biological organisms. He argues that technology is something inherent of nature and is something that other organisms nurture into existence, adolescence, and eventually maturity. Technology can be seen as a symbiosis between animal and tool. Evidence shows that humans are not the only organisms capable of using tools. Technology is simply an extension of an organism and in some cases can act and evolve independently of its host. In what ways are various technologies evolving from crude, industrial-era forms to something more conducive to environmental stability?

Biotechnology to me seems the most obvious representation of technology’s synthesis with nature. Synthetic biology is a specific type of biotech that holds much promise in cleaning up the environment. It essentially combines methods of genetic engineering and computer programming. In the same way that a computer programmer uses a computing language to engineer a program, a synthetic biologist is using the language of DNA to engineer unique metabolic pathways for organisms to perform novel functions. For example, some scientists are using synthetic biology to engineer bacteria and algae that can produce biofuels to combat climate change. Craig Venter was one of the first scientists to produce a fully synthetic organism in 2010 and now his company is partnering with ExxonMobil to produce these clean biofuels. Clean biofuels basically take in waste and convert it into usable energy, thus making it a renewable source. This is a good way to clean up the environment, inhibit climate change, and cater to the increasingly high energy demands of modern society. But this only scratches the surface. Synthetic bio and genetic engineering in general will impact everything from the manufacturing of more environmentally friendly materials, to cosmetics, more efficient medicine, to bioelectric devices, and perhaps even more radical, human augmentation. In the future we may be able to use genetic engineering to imbue our skin with photosynthetic cells that will allow us to cultivate sunlight. We would be able to produce our own food and water through internal processes. This would greatly reduce the environmental impact of humans by reducing the amount of food and water that we’d need to produce and consume otherwise. For more information on the various applications of synthetic biology, click here.

As cities expand into metropolises there will be an imperative to improve on their underlying infrastructure, such as waste removal and resource distribution. Design will heavily influence the way buildings interact with their environment. Soon, buildings will be designed to function more like plants by filtering the air in the outside environment in addition to inside. Buildings will functionally resemble large trees. Architects are already looking for ways to make buildings “breath” for instance. Pollution released by what few non-electric vehicles will remain can be offset by placing towers containing genetically enhanced algae on rooftops. Buildings can be covered in a layer of photovoltaic material which could produce much of their energy, and they will also be connected to the city’s smart-grid which will supply the rest of the needed energy through renewable sources. Buildings may also be able to derive energy from intense natural events like monsoons or earthquakes. Earthquakes for instance are packed with massive amounts of energy. If buildings in earthquake prone areas were designed to harness that energy instead of crumbling under the sheer force, that energy could be stored and fed into the grid for later use. Cities near tsunami prone areas can also capture wave energy by installing wave capture technology near the bottoms of their buildings. Another important aspect of modern cities is green space, which includes any area in an urban city dedicated to vegetation (i.e. city parks, wetlands, residential vegetation). Green space has been proven to increase the overall well-being of residents and as a result, green space is also an economy-booster. Deeply integrating green space into major cities will ensure aesthetic, psychological, and economic prosperity. Poverty-stricken communities can benefit greatly from clean, green environments along with being connected to the smart grid. Many large companies are looking for ways to implement indoor green spaces into their office buildings as a way for employees to relieve stress. Amazon is one such company. One day, the “concrete jungle” will better suit its name.

Humans are smart; the human brain is currently the pinnacle of cosmological evolution. But I think we could use some help with planning and monitoring. Artificial Intelligence will help us to create a more sustainable civilization that is cooperative with the Earth’s biosphere. A.I. can map out the most efficient ways to manage the grid, allowing for optimal energy usage and savings. Google recently implemented their DeepMind A.I. into their own data center and was able to cut energy costs by 40 percent! Artificial intelligence has the capacity to solve humanity’s biggest problems. With the large amounts of data we’re funneling through our various sensory instruments we’ll be able to map out detailed weather, economic, and energy usage patterns using A.I. to crunch the numbers and produce simulations. We’ll be able to distribute food all over the world in the most optimal way and ensure that no nation is left hungry. We will also be able to track the effects various organisms have on the ecosystem at global and local scales. The interactions between plants and animals are extremely important in maintaining ecological balances; A.I. will help us to preserve these interactions by letting us see the patterns. Essentially, A.I. will act as a huge enhancement to what scientists are already doing.

At first thought, augmented reality is not a technology seemingly indicative of technology’s movement towards environmental-friendliness, but I think it will enhance our environmental imperatives the same way A.I. will. Aside from the incredibly fun games created using AR, we haven’t quite witnessed its more utilitarian benefits. When wearable technologies like Google Glasses, or something more intimate like electronic contact lenses become commercially available (and fashionable), people will have access to information about reality beyond what they can see with their naked eyes. Imagine putting on your AR glasses, walking outside, looking at an object, and being able to see metadata floating next to the object with useful information about its properties. Look up at the sky with your AR glasses and you can see enhanced visualizations of weather patterns like wind velocity or air currents and their temperatures. Imagine walking into a forest, looking at a tree and being able to see visual information about what internal processes are taking place, what interactions that tree might be having with other plants and objects in the vicinity. Move your gaze over the soil and you can identify the weird looking fungi growing from the ground. If these AR interactions were to be gamified in some way it would open the door for proactive environmental action. Perhaps if someone were to pick up a piece of trash from the ground and throw it away they could earn experience points that could later be redeemed for tangible rewards or money. Or maybe successfully planting seeds in areas marked as “in need” could earn someone points. People could earn points and “level up” for identifying plant species within a forest. The educational value of AR has yet to be tapped into. What augmented reality will also give people is perspective. People will receive a better visual idea of how interconnected the biosphere is from the macroscopic level down to the microscopic level. When people understand the intricate relationship between ecological factors they will gain a better idea of what they can and cannot do for the sake of environmental preservation.

Like mentioned before, achieving a synergy between technology and nature will require careful guidance. While the technologies and ideas discussed here may seem utopian, they could just as easily become troublesome if not approached carefully. I understand that humans and society are complex. Most of these ideas are big picture and speculative; they ignore the chaotic way in which society actually progresses. What I hope to convey however is that technology may not be as unnatural as we presume, and may in fact be morphing into something indistinguishable from nature itself.

Additional Reading/Watching:

Cities and Nature in the Age of Urbanization 

Gaia Hypothesis

‘Terra’ (on Netflix)


Life Extension

Is aging just an unnecessary evolutionary technique to keep the human population balanced? With the proliferation of anti-aging studies and the prospect of space colonization I’m beginning to think we should consider the pursuit of life extension for the sake of preserving an individual’s experience of life. I personally don’t really give in to the philosophical or religious arguments against it. Some species reverse their own aging naturally and some don’t age at all, and we all share the same genetic possibilities.

To clarify, I’m not suggesting true immortality like many propose. That seems a bit too radical a notion for serious modern discussion. My view for the time-being is that we should preserve an individual’s youth throughout their life and as a result we could see moderate life extension like maybe in the range of 30-50 years, for starters. But those additional years are lived with the same vigor as someone at the peak of their physicality like a middle-aged athlete. Maintaining a body at the end of its life is wrought with high costs both medically and economically, and could be a burden on family and friends. One of my main hopes with life extension too would be to keep geniuses and innovators alive who could still contribute to society in important ways. I’m sure Steve Jobs would have a lot to say with how Apple is ran today, and I bet a debate between Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein would’ve been fascinating. One of the advantages of our current lifespans is the fact that we do have people old enough to have experienced decades worth of history that they can pass down to generations first hand.

Different species have evolved survival mechanisms unique to their niche and scale. For our ancestors it made evolutionary sense to keep the human body alive until around age 30, because that was about how long it took to raise offspring to an age where they could fend for themselves (that, and we were less equipped to deal with the dangers of the environment). In the 21st century the average life-expectancy is 70-85 depending on where you live. To the generations alive today this seems absolutely normal. This is the way it’s been for decades and we are getting by just fine. We are conditioned to the milestones of the average lifespan: birth, primary school, high school, college, marriage and family, retirement, death. That’s just how life is, right? Many say that life extension (and not to mention immortality) is unethical and that it is unnatural for humans to do this. Modern biology has taught us that all life on Earth is based on the same chemical code known as DNA. By combining the four base pairs that comprise DNA, you can build an organism with various genes and proteins that allow the organism to survive in the world. Many genes are common among different species, while some species possess traits that make them unique to the animal kingdom. One important thing that we’ve learned in biology is that many organisms possess genes in their DNA that are currently dormant (not useful to the organism in question anymore), and we have also found that it’s possible to take genes that are prominent in one organism and splice them into another organism’s genome. My favorite example is the gene for bioluminescence which is what allows deep-sea, light-deprived animals to deter or attract predators/prey. This gene has been inserted into everything from trees, toys, and neurons for various purposes. We now know that genes are interchangeable and can function properly in organisms that don’t naturally express them. Like previously stated, there are many organisms that can reverse their aging, some that age very slowly, and some that can freeze their aging in suspended animation. If it’s possible for these organisms to express anti-aging traits like this, then why can’t humans attempt to implement that into their own genome?

If humans radically increase their lifespans, then overpopulation will be an expected problem. If nobody is dying then we are not freeing up space for future generations. My simple response to this concern is space colonization. But if space colonization seems too-far off to you, then I propose expanding our idea of what we consider suitable real-estate on Earth. 70% of Earth’s surface is water, so why are we not utilizing that space. Floating cities would be an amazing engineering feat and could steal away a large fraction of the human population living on land. Energy could be produced through a combination of wave, wind, and solar energy. Storms could be handled with bio-domes or gigantic walls. Google has already proven that transatlantic cables can cross the vast ocean and connect people overseas. The possibilities with floating cities are endless and I know that if the idea were seriously brainstormed then creative humans could make it possible, safe, and sustainable. However I think the holy grail of addressing overpopulation will be outsourcing humans to space. I personally would be the first to sign up for citizenship aboard an Earth-orbiting space colony. Space has ample real-estate for massive space structures the size of whole continents. And then there are the various rocky worlds spread among the solar system. Mars colonization is already a hot topic. Next on the list would be many of the rocky satellites orbiting some of the gas giants further out in space. Even the Moon or an asteroid could be a viable option with the right combination of artificial habitats. But the threat of overpopulation is not just space. Food will be an issue as well. This is where we can implement vertical farming, lab-grown meat, and possibly even super-nutritious pills that would reduce the need for humans to eat in the first place.

I posted an article on Facebook about life-extension recently, fully expecting nobody to Like it or for some people to voice negative opinions about it. I was surprised to see that the article was one of my most Liked posts in awhile. Apparently extending human lifespans is a desire for many of my Facebook friends, even the ones who aren’t super sci-fi nerds like myself. But I have still heard plenty of rebuttals towards life-extension in general. One being: “won’t we get bored?” Human culture and our understanding of reality is an ever-changing process. Each decade presents humanity with a new political, cultural, and technological atmosphere. In such a dynamic civilization it’s hard for me to imagine ever being bored with life. New science will take us to the farthest reaches of space. Virtual Reality will provide endless entertainment in the digital realm. New artists utilizing new techniques and new history will captivate audiences like never before. Human culture will be so diverse, and there will be so many new places to travel and new art to indulge in it almost seems as though boredom could be eradicated. Questions about how life-extension and potentially immortality would affect religion leads to circular arguments caused by the fact that the afterlife and most other religious topics are not falsifiable at this point in time, and therefore I think moot when discussing life-extension in scientific terms. In fact, I don’t see how life-extension even violates religious belief systems. For one, extended life does not equal no death. Anyone can still die in a freak accident. Furthermore, perhaps the ethics behind euthanasia will be further addressed when considering the possibility of someone choosing to reverse their anti-aging biology and succumb to the process of death. If we are to give people the right to live via life-extension, then we should also give people the right to die. Death may seems like an unnecessary end to experience, but a life of needless suffering is also undesirable. The Buddhists teach us that life is inherently suffering, and that this is okay and necessary to contrast with joy. But if a person would rather cease their experience rather than endure prolonged and unavoidable suffering then perhaps there should be an option for them to go peacefully. I imagine many scenarios where someone who has lived multiple centuries chooses to die in a choreographed way, such as climbing to a mountain summit only to take a pill that painlessly ends their life, or by entering Earth orbit and ending their life with a spectacular view of Earth floating below them. The thing about not having to die unpredictably due to old age is that you can better plan the circumstances of your death in a more favorable way.

To wrap this post up I invite you to add any other points for or against life-extension that I have not covered. I’m sure there is much, a topic like this can be discussed in a book. As we venture further into a world of rapidly changing technology I think it is of utmost importance that we seriously discuss issues that have formerly  been seen as science fiction, because it is becoming more apparent that science fiction has a very predictive nature.