TCS Daily


Ptolemy Redux

By Rand Simberg - September 5, 2002 12:00 AM

The transnational blatherfest otherwise known as the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg has drawn to a close, and it's striking that, for all of their posturing as "progressive," there was something medieval in the thinking of many of the attendees.

For hundreds of years, the educated world in the West believed that all the planets, and the universe (including the sun) revolved around the earth. The ability of this belief to continue to hold sway in the face of inconvenient facts (such as apparent retrograde motion of the planets) was due to the long-lasting work of a mathematician, geographer, and astronomer named Ptolemy of Alexandria, in the second century AD. He finessed the empirical evidence for elliptical orbits of all the planets (including earth) around a stationary sun by conjuring up a complex system of epicycles-wheels within wheels-of the supposedly "pure" circular earth-centered motion that heavenly bodies must have, as dictated by the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Hipparchus.

This terracentric Ptolemaic view was overturned a few hundred years ago by the Polish astronomer Copernicus, and since then astronomers and scientists largely agree that earth is just another planet, in orbit around its sun, which in turn is in a small spiral arm of a swirling galaxy, in a universe with billions more. Unfortunately, while most people now accept this notion intellectually, there many who simply cannot - and certain philosophies that will not - accept it emotionally.

For instance, over two decades ago physicist Louis Alvarez first came up with his controversial theory that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty five million years ago. The paleontological community resisted it at the time, and it took many years to accept it, and not because there wasn't ample evidence for it. It was almost unimaginable to many that a random event from the heavens, of which they understood little, could have such a devastating earthly consequence as to wipe out the largest species of land animals in history, and to dramatically change the direction of evolution on earth.

Now enter the proponents of "sustainable development." A few weeks ago, the World Wildlife Federation declared that mankind's rapaciousness was such that, within half a century, we would require two entire new planets.

They weren't serious, of course. They were (or so they thought) making a satirical point. Of course, to them, and to the delegates in Johannesburg, it was ridiculous to think that we could find two new planets that could be colonized by 2050-we instead had to rethink our approaches to life and society, and change our wasteful ways, so that we could have a more "sustainable" economy.

That this might require the extermination of much of humanity was of little regard, since the goals of individual humans are irrelevant to them-nature uber alles. And, after all, as a man after their own hearts, cuddly Uncle Joe Stalin, once said, "...you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs."

The reality is that the notion of anything off planet representing a resource is anathema to them. For one thing, it would imply essentially unlimited resources for the foreseeable future, since the amount of energy and useful material in space vastly exceeds that on the single tiny planet on which we evolved, which in turn represents such an infinitesimal fraction of the universe that this column would run way over page limit were I simply to write the number of zeros required after the decimal point, and before the one, to express it. Unlimited resources, after all, would mean that they no longer need to control the human population of earth, which to many represents a malignant cancer on the planet (and if they were Copernican, on the universe itself). They cannot accept such a concept.

While we don't, contrary to the comic-book notion of the WWF, need two whole new planets, there is a potential abundance of resources available off planet that could help alleviate any potential shortages on this one, whether in the next fifty years, or the next five hundred. While I am fully confident that technology can provide for the expected population in the next century without resorting to extraterrestrial bounty (particularly since population is expected to level off in this century due to the incentive effects of increasing wealth in a third world that is adopting free markets), use of space resources may offer even greater economic growth than will be available without them.

Some of these resources include platinum-group metals and hydrocarbons from asteroids, clean greenhouse-free energy from the only currently working positive-output fusion reactor - our sun - and even, if we ever work out the engineering issues associated with its nuclear processes, Helium 3 for clean fusion from our moon. And in fact, though new planets are not necessary, space may offer a location for settlement, and an outlet for the creative energy that, a few hundred years ago, was offered by the Americas, which resulted in much of the innovation, in both government and technology, that has created such a bright future for us today.

But to the new disciples of Ptolemy, such thoughts are apostasy. In their view, the earth remains the center of the universe, and everything else is inconsequential, and revolves around our home planet. It is where we were born. It is where we live. And, even if many of us will have to do so prematurely to fulfill their "sustainable" ideological agenda, it is, apparently, where all of us will and must die.

Rand Simberg is a consultant and entrepreneur in commercial space, space tourism, and internet security. He publishes a weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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