Todd William

Adapting to Life Beyond Earth

(Photo by: Stefan Hefele)
David Deutsch, best known as the founding father of the quantum theory of computation, had a very thought provoking exchange with Sam Harris recently regarding the plausibility and potential hardships of maintaining life on other planets...


SH: There’s this idea that the biosphere is in some way wonderfully hospitable for us, and that if we built a colony on Mars or some other place in the solar system, we’d be in a fundamentally different circumstance—and a perpetually hostile one.

That is an impressive misconception of our actual situation. You have a great quote where you say, “The earth no more provides us with a life-support system than it supplies us with radio telescopes.” Say a little more about that.

DD: Yes. So we evolved somewhere in East Africa in the Great Rift Valley. That was an environment that was particularly suited to having us evolve, and life there was sheer hell for humans. Nasty, brutish, and short doesn’t begin to describe how horrible it was, but we transformed it…or, rather, not actually our species.

Some of our predecessor species had already changed their environment by inventing things like clothes, fire, and weapons, and thereby made their lives much better but still horrible by our present-day standards.

Then they moved into environments such as Oxford, where I am now. It’s December. If I were here at this very location with no technology, I would die in a matter of hours, and nothing I could do would prevent that.

SH: So you are already an astronaut.

DD: Very much so.

SH: Your condition is as precarious as the condition of those in a well-established colony on Mars that can take certain technological advances for granted.

And there’s no reason to think that such a future beyond earth doesn’t await us, barring some catastrophe placed in our way, whether of our own making or not.

DD: Yes. And there’s another misconception there which is related to that misconception of the earth being hospitable, which is that applying knowledge takes effort. It’s creating knowledge that takes effort.

Applying knowledge is automatic. As soon as somebody invented the idea of, for example, wearing clothes, from then on the clothes automatically warmed them. It didn’t require any more effort.

Of course there would have been things wrong with the original clothes, such as that they rotted or something, and then people invented ways of making better clothes. But at any particular stage of knowledge, having got the knowledge, the rest is automatic.

And now we have invented things like mass production, unmanned factories, and so on. We take for granted that water gets to us from the water supply without anyone having to carry it laboriously on their heads in pots.

It doesn’t require effort. It just requires the knowledge of how to install the automatic system. Much of our life support is automatic, and every time we invent a better way of life support, we make it automatic.

So for the people on the moon—living in a lunar colony—keeping the vacuum away will not be a thing they think about. They’ll take that for granted. What they will be thinking about are new things. And the same on Mars, and the same in deep space.

Todd William

About Todd William -

My name is Todd William and I’m an indie author. I like to focus on the positives in life. I’m like kryptonite for cynics. I’m a dedicated father and husband, a science and tech buff, a psychology enthusiast, chess and MMA fanatic, and noble introvert. My biggest fault might just be that I’m annoyingly happy all the time.

I’m addicted to books. I read constantly on a variety of topics, the result being that I tend to know a little about a lot of things yet not a whole lot about any one thing. I lay no claim to superior wisdom. I merely have an unyielding appetite for knowledge coupled with a strong desire to contemplate intriguing thoughts.