This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Human Exploration From Ancient to Cosmic

Humans are born explorers.

When I was 11 or 12 a friend sent me a letter with a schematic for a raft (this was in the days before email and text messages). He came to visit his grandparents in the country from time to time, and we had kicked around the idea of taking a raft down one of the larger creeks in the area. His plan had small logs lashed together with cord, and milk jugs for additional buoyancy. I didn't make much of his plan, and we never attempted it. In retrospect I came to realize that his design was actually quite good, and could have worked. Except, of course, that the creek we wanted to use it on was usually too low and full of debris to allow passage of such a craft. 

What motivated us then was a sense of curiosity and adventure. Had the creek been of sufficient size, and had we actually made the raft, we would have drifted through woodlands and farmland, not unexplored wilderness. To us, though, that didn't matter. So when I read recently that members of the homo erectus species, our forebearers, had sailed to the Aegean Islands 450,000 years ago, I can't say I was surprised. It was delightful to learn, of course. 

Homo erectus had a remarkably good run. Their earliest appearance was about 2 millions years ago, and the last population of them was likely in Java about 108,000 to 117,000 years ago. From them various other species descended, eventually including our own. 

Certainly high among their motivations for making such journeys over open water must have been a need for resources and space. As populations grow so do the demands on local resources, and so the more adventurous must set out to look for new lands and means to live. They must have had some form of language in order to coordinate their efforts, and surely they must have dreamed of opportunities across the seas. They also would have known loss, as they learned the hard way what wouldn't work to travel the waters, or as storms or other events ended journeys prematurely and in the depths.

Across the ages this spirit of adventure has often come at a price, particularly when there were already people inhabiting a 'new land.' Such was the case in the Old World, and so it has been in the New. Can we learn from those terrible mistakes? As we look out at the stars, many of us dream of our species finding its way there. Certainly our solar system has abundant resources, from the energy pouring forth constantly from the sun, to the metals in asteroids and gasses in outer planets. 

Will we find life as well? While certainly no planet in our system is like earth, abundant with diverse forms of life, there could be microbial life beneath the surface of Mars, or even multicellular life in one or the other of certain moons of Jupiter or Saturn. NASA takes care now when exploring other worlds not to contaminate them with life from our world. Even a little microbial life from earth could turn out to be invasive in other non-terrestrial environments. 

Perhaps, in the long stretch of time it will take for us to learn to navigate beyond our solar system, we will also develop the ability to live at peace and not merely take by force what we want. I wonder what those archaic humans would make of us, their descendants, having made it all the way to the moon? It would surely be incomprehensible for them. And yet, in a very real sense, they live on in us, and so lives on their courage to push beyond the horizon.