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Astronaut: 'Single-Planet Species Don't Last' 921

An anonymous reader writes "Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle astronaut John Young, due to retire in two weeks, says that the human species is in danger of becoming extinct: 'The statistical risk of humans getting wiped out in the next 100 years due to a super volcano or asteroid or comet impact is 1 in 455. How does that relate? You're 10 times more likely to get wiped out by a civilization-ending event in the next 100 years than you are getting killed in a commercial airline crash.' He says that the technologies needed to colonize the solar system will help people survive through disasters on Earth. Young has written about this topic before in an essay called 'The Big Picture'." In related news, the Shuttle overhaul program is on track for a May 2005 launch.
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Astronaut: 'Single-Planet Species Don't Last'

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  • Re:Prove it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bimo_Dude ( 178966 ) <bimoslashNO@SPAMtheness.org> on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:02PM (#11116179) Homepage Journal
    It seems to me that the real threat to the species is the species itself. At some point, we will probably make ourselves extinct, as well as make the planet uninhabitable. What a shame.
  • Hyperspace (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Schezar ( 249629 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:04PM (#11116204) Homepage Journal
    For anyone interested in this sort of thing, I recommend Hyperspace [campusi.com] by Michio Kaku [mkaku.org]

    One of the discussions in the book touches on objective "levels" of civilization and species.

    IIRC, it can be broken down something like this:

    Level 0: What humans are now.
    Level 1: Mastery of the entire energy capacity of a single planet
    Level 2: Mastery of the entire energy capacity of a single solar system
    Level 3: etc...

    He supposed that Level 2 and beyond was the point at which a civilization was effectively permanent, able to survive anything less than the total heat death of the universe.

    Neat stuff.
  • by takev ( 214836 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:11PM (#11116292)
    1 in 455 for every hundred years means 45k years, so I guess we are already a little overdue to die, that could just be a statistical anomaly.
  • Re:Prove it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Kardamon ( 54123 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:13PM (#11116320)
    If our sun goes all bets are off though we need to find another solar system but I bet we could figure out something in 4.5 billion years.

    We already have a spare solar system, it's called Jupiter. The only thing we need to do is to transform it into a star an off we fly...
  • Re:Odds are off (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LiquidCoooled ( 634315 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:24PM (#11116485) Homepage Journal
    What if Shumaker Levy 9 [nasa.gov] had impacted with Earth instead of Jupiter?

    Instead of a bruise on its surface, we would be dead.
  • by phillymjs ( 234426 ) <slashdot.stango@org> on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:34PM (#11116609) Homepage Journal
    The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 belched enough ash into the atmosphere to block out some sunlight and temporarily alter the global climate, which negatively affected the harvest that year. It was effectively a relatively mild, non-nuclear 'nuclear winter.'

    I don't know if Krakatoa qualifies as a super volcano because of that, but there is a currently-dormant volcano that apparently is considered "super" in Yellowstone National Park. [solcomhouse.com]

  • Re:Prove it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Entrope ( 68843 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:36PM (#11116639) Homepage
    It is clearly bullshit: Asteroid impacts are memoryless, and more terrestrial causes probably are.

    1 in 455 chance of effective human extinction within a century means the expected interval between events like that is 31,500 years (100 years * log(0.5) / log(454/455)). Over the past 600 million or so years, there have been six definite mass extinctions (Cambrian, Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, Cretaceous), with some scientists suggesting there have been more, occurring on a 26 million year cycle. Even those estimates are three orders of magnitude rarer than "1 in 455" suggests.

    In contrast, we would have almost a 37% chance of surviving 45,500 years with the 1-in-455 odds.
  • by pknoll ( 215959 ) <slashdot.pk@LISP ... g minus language> on Friday December 17, 2004 @12:56PM (#11116880)
    "Dinosaurs are extinct because they didn't have a space program."

    This quote means well, but it's dumbed down to the point of being misleading. A better explanation would be "Dinosaurs are extinct because they were hopelessly incacapable of adapting to climate changes."

    Just so. Dinosaurs are really extinct not because they couldn't build spaceships, but because they couldn't make parkas. Or light fires. Or build dwellings. Etc. etc....

    Though a global catasrophe could make the Earth uninhabitable to humans, it would have to be a lot more severe than the climactic changes that spelled the doom of the dinosaurs. At least, one would hope.

  • Bad math (Score:3, Interesting)

    by KrackHouse ( 628313 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:05PM (#11116993) Homepage
    If the risk is 1 in 455 every 100 years then roughly every half million years the human species would be wiped out. Checking my 6th grade biology book seems to raise some interesting questions. Maybe he's a creationist. Volcanoes and Asteriods? How about loose nukes and the wars cause by migration caused by global warming?
  • Re:Prove it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bilzmoude ( 811717 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:05PM (#11116998)
    We are also highly specialized for our environment. In our current incarnation, we would surely not survive long. We are way too reliant on our technology to go any further than a few weeks.

    We all (mostly) rely on our food being delivered to us via trucks to the grocery store... which needs electricity to function. If our major power sources fail, we will fail too.

    Last August, much of the northeast USA got hit by a blackout. This blackout lasted about 2 days for most people in Detroit (where I am). In that time, we ran out of gas, we were unable to travel (due to lack of gas), stores were not open for food, and everything came to a halt.

    Take that example, but assume it happens at a global scale due to a massive earthquake, planetoid strike, or volcano the size of Yosemite. The entire system would likely fail without the ability to recover. All of us in the cities would surely starve to death.

    You may say that we could adapt to the threat, but unfortunately, there will be no adaptation time. It is most probable that our warning time for such an event would be as little as one second, or one minute. A planetoid large enough to take out the dinosaurs would come with no warning, and hit with such force, that if it landed in the center of the US, it would likely kill every living being from coast to coast within minutes (via the shockwave).

    We, as modern humans are terrible at surviving without our technologies.

    No, not everyone would die in the end, but sure 5 out of 6 billion people probably would.
  • Re:Prove it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by akepa ( 213342 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:07PM (#11117013)
    Some dinosaurs did survive. They're called birds now.
  • Re:Prove it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by arminw ( 717974 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:08PM (#11117028)
    ...population is growing so rapidly...

    What a bunch of BS. There were fear mongers 40-50 years ago telling us about the population bomb and that before the year 2000 comes the world will be depopulated by hunger and disease and other dreadful stuff. Well we are still here and the world's people's living conditions have much improved, abeit much more slowly than could have been the case if human greed for wealth and power were not present.
  • Re:Statistics? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by spike2131 ( 468840 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:11PM (#11117047) Homepage
    you didn't multiply by 100. its once every 455 centuries. i think that means we are due.
  • Re:Great! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ZB Mowrey ( 756269 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:23PM (#11117199) Homepage Journal
    Hey, that would be totally fuckin' awesome, you radical environmental dude...I applaud your sense of long term responsibility. But what happens when the Great Big Rock drops from the sky and smashes us all flat?

    The $Deity-given purpose of ALL species is to survive and procreate. Even if you don't have a $deity, every fiber of your being is wired to survive and ensure a future generation.

    It's no coincidence this guy's work is entitled the "Big Picture". This is us humans deciding that we're gonna survive a little meteor, a little atomic war, maybe even a little supernova. See, that this thing called the Big Picture. We decide that our race will survive anything, and put our best minds and hands to work.

  • by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:34PM (#11117346)
    Unless the asteroid is large enough to severely disturb the Earth's orbit or cause the Earth to break apart, a large asteroid impact won't kill all of the humans on this planet. A lot of life will be destroyed by tidal waves, if the thing crashes into the ocean (but there are high mountains), and by lack of sunlight and earthquakes if the asteroid crashes into land. However, unlike the dinosaurs, we have means to generate power artificially, either by nuclear reactors or even through burning oil - there'll be a lot of oil available after 95% of humanity dies off. This power can be used to generate artificial sunlight to sustain plants and animals through the ensuing darkness and ice age.

    I'm more worried about humankind annihilating itself through accidental nuclear war - the radiation might very well render the Earth barren.

    I agree with Young about the need for manned space travel. It will even have benefits for the Earth, like the construction of solar power satellites to beam power down to the planet - no more need for nuclear power, which is perceived as unsafe, or fossil fuel power, which is dirty and limited in supply.


  • Why Airliners? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by HeghmoH ( 13204 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:36PM (#11117362) Homepage Journal
    Why does everybody use airliners as a point of comparison when talking about dangerous things? You're in more danger when riding your bicycle than you are as a passenger on a commercial airliner, but I never hear anybody comparing asteroids to bicycle-related deaths.
  • How about cetaceans? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SvnLyrBrto ( 62138 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @01:56PM (#11117606)
    > (anyone out there know if Great Whites have any natural
    > predators besides humans?)

    I don't think they actually EAT the things, but pods of Dolphin and Orca are known to attack and kill sharks that get too close to a pod that includes calves. Even in the wild, intelligence and teamwork win out over "nature's most perfect killing machine". Jaws, meet your doom. His name is flipper.

    OTOH, if they don't haves calves to protect, those very same cetaceans are content to give sharks a wide berth. It's not like jaws is being hunted for food or sport; so the example probably fails your "top predator" test.

  • Re:Prove it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @02:25PM (#11118006)
    I've thought about this myself... it's clear enough that the comet-riding nomad lifestyle would work, given the necessary technological sophistication, and that such a culture could fill the galaxy very quickly in evolutionary terms. Fermi therefore comes into play: why hasn't anyone else done this yet?

    My answer here is that while comet-riders could certainly spread to fill the entire galaxy, they would find it difficult to go beyond that. Intergalactic distances are enormous; you'd need a colossal commitment of resources to put together a comet fleet capable of sustaining a colony throughout the journey, and it would take an awfully long time. This requires that intelligent life arises on average once per giant galaxy or less: Andromeda might already have been filled, but they haven't yet been able to get over here.

  • Re:Prove it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ubergrendle ( 531719 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @02:34PM (#11118140) Journal
    That's funny, I was thinking that ALL of your topics have improved dramatically over the past 100, and 50, and even 25 year periods.

    1. Starvation - It has pretty much been conclusively proven that we have FAR MORE than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. The issue is market dynamics, and governmental control. We can feed the people in Bangladesh, Somalia, Haiti, etc... if there were a stable environment to deliver food in. This is a human-created problem. Food supply is NOT the problem.

    2. Disease. AIDS is a plague scouring over Africa it is true. But it is no different than Syphilis in its day, or Typhoid, or Scarlet Fever. AIDS is the disease we can't immediately cure in our day and age. 100 years ago you could die from a paper cut (infection). We're MUCH father ahead. We know how AIDS is transmitted, how to avoid it, and therapies allow for extension of lives by substantial amounts. DISEASE is NOT a significant problem, nor an effective population control.

    3. Fertility. In the first world, economics has modified the trend towards smaller family through a rationalisation process. China has control over its population size now, albeit through inhumane methods. AIDS is limiting family sizes in Africa, and soon India and the Pacific-rim. The world will balance itself out, one way or another. FERTILITY IS NOT A PROBLEM -- economies and cultures have ways of managing their population sizes without cataclysmic events being required.

    4. Homosexuality is a rounding error. It is not even statistically significant as a population control, its existed for millenia and even exists in nature. This is a non-factor. HOMOSEXUALITY is a NON-FACTOR.

    I think the world's population is doing very well for itself thank you very much. The UN suggests we could -- with current economic systems and technology -- continue to support up to 10-12 Billion before any meaningful change in civilisation is required. I agree.

  • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) * on Friday December 17, 2004 @02:45PM (#11118307) Homepage Journal
    local warlords take all the food, the people end up no better off...

    Actually, it was worse than that. There was at least one incident where the warlords used the donated food to feed themselves and their soldiers while they killed their enemies... Who happened to be the farmers. So in this case, our food donations actually made the situation worse.
  • Re:Prove it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Afrosheen ( 42464 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @03:41PM (#11118961)
    I take issue with your assumptions. As stated many times above, starvation has never been an issue of production, it's a matter of distribution. If this planet has more people it's better for production, i.e. more farmers and more channels for distribution.

    More room for everyone is mainly a matter of geography. Do all the Japanese *really* need to be crammed into 6x8 apartments? No, they can move, or Japan can build out it's shores in the same way Singapore came about. Tension is mainly the result of people being stupid enough to stay put when real estate becomes a rare commodity (see New York City apartment prices).

    Poverty and suffering are both human-induced threads throughout history. There have always been the 'lame', the sick, and the broke-off, and there always will be. If a man puts his mind to it, he can acquire what he needs to survive in most countries. Suffering, on the other hand, is usually intertwined with poverty. If a man can work his way out of poverty he can reduce or eliminate needless suffering. Ignore strict caste systems like India where you're fucked from birth if you're born into a poor family, most countries don't handle it this way.

    Less disease..well, you may be right there, but with less disease, the population is more vulnerable to outbreaks of unknown viruses and illnesses. The more mild diseases you come into contact with regularly, the more robust your immune system is. For this very reason I never take antibiotics or flu shots unless it's life-threatening.

    The ultimate solution to overpopulation is land distribution. We have a surplus of land all over the world. Some of it is barely habitable, but most of it is just fine. Ever drive across America? Here's what you'll see - flat farm land or rolling hills with nothing there...for hours at a time. This is particularly true of the north. I'm sure it's like this in South America as well as most of Canada.

    What it comes down to is that people like other people, and the more the merrier. When people congregate into big cities, all the numbers rise for everything. More crime but more business owners which create more jobs and a larger tax base. This in turn makes public, free healthcare economically viable and helps maintain the infrastructure required to support a large metropolitan area. Also you get alot of diversity in densely populated areas, so your chance of meeting the 'right person' shoots up exponentially. Your chances of meeting interesting people grows as well, which enriches your life.

    Bla bla I had a meme but now I've lost it. :)
  • Better yet... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Firethorn ( 177587 ) * on Friday December 17, 2004 @03:50PM (#11119046) Homepage Journal
    If it has anything useful, use the thrusters to put it into a orbit.

    One of the neat ideas I've read about involved putting an asteroid on a repeating earth-mars course. You put a base on the asteroid, using the asteriod as shielding. You then use smaller vessels as a shuttle, so you don't have to accelerate that much mass. Use hydroponics and such to keep the supplies required as low as possible.
  • Re:Prove it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @04:25PM (#11119418) Homepage Journal
    Dinosaur's were huge and highly specialized for their environment

    True of the huge dinos that are the media image. But at least a half dozen dinosaur species survived the big crash, roughly the same number as for mammals. They were all in the branch that we now call "birds", of course. They weren't big or specialized. The best modern equivalent would probably be something like a crow, one of the ultimate "generalist" species. The surviving mammals were all more or less like rats and shrews, of course. In the next such disaster, it'll be mostly species like those that survive.

    Humans are generalists, of course. But in a similar disaster, we'd probably be at a disadvantage to crows and rats. This is mostly because of our size, which will be a problem in a world with a shortage of food. But our brain does give us an advantage, so maybe we'd survive.

    Anyway, another asteroid impact will happen. Maybe next week, maybe 100 million years from now, but it's coming. Astronomers know of around 1000 rocks with sizes > 1 km in Earth-crossing orbits, and reasonable estimates are another 500-1000 more exist. That's actually not very many, and chances of an impact in any one year are quite small. But some of them are going to hit our planet some time in the future.

    Maybe some of us will be alive to see it ...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 17, 2004 @07:54PM (#11121335)

    One of the comments made (see Guns Germs and Steel) is that currently people have used up all the easily accesible resources (i.e. minerals, coal etc).

    So any civilization that attempts to grow from our ruins might face a larger hurdle to reach our current technology standards and remain locked in the stone age (or bronze age etc).

    For example, see 'primative' cultures that are unable to totally use their resorces until humans from other areas immigrate in bringing specialized technology (like the arrival of european farming styles and tools to stone age australian natives).

  • Re:Prove it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BlueCup ( 753410 ) on Friday December 17, 2004 @11:35PM (#11122602) Homepage Journal
    Another point, is that given the amount of time theorized since the big bang (~10 billion years) is that enough time for a stable planetary environment to be created, and for a sentient species to be created, and enough time for that species to populate a significant portion of the universe for us to know about them? My guess is that there are other intelligent species out there, and there will be many more in the incomprehensible amount of time left before a big implosion, or until all matter is too far away from each other to support life) but that we're one of the earliest ones. (Relatively speaking)

%DCL-MEM-BAD, bad memory VMS-F-PDGERS, pudding between the ears