"So we can’t just sit here studying tipping points on Earth at the expense of going out and exploring other worlds and looking for life and intelligence elsewhere, because the knowledge we gain from that is probably essential for our own future. Think of it this way: If you’re sick and you go to the doctor to be cured, the doctor will have pretty limited abilities if he only has ever studied [just] you. If he has studied you and lots of other people, [however,] he’ll have a much clearer picture of what ails you. It’s probably like that with planets and civilizations, too."
But, continues Lee Billings in Scientific American, in a recent series of papers and a new book, Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, the astrophysicist Adam Frank argues the Anthropocene’s origins and implications are best understood in the context of astrobiology, the study of life in the universe.
The climate change and other environmental effects associated with humankind’s global ascendance, he says, are likely to be universal phenomena manifest for any and every technological civilization that emerges somewhere in the cosmos. Which means the most crucial insights governing the Anthropocene may come less from studying the ground beneath our feet and more from turning our gaze to the heavens.
Scientific American's Billings spoke with Frank, a professor at the University of Rochester, about the lessons to be learned from speculations about alien civilizations battling climate change.
The book was inspired by some frightening conversations I ended up having with climate change denialists in response to my pieces on that topic for National Public Radio and The New York Times. It was terrifying, really, to see how locked into their perspective these people are and to realize there’s this false narrative about climate change, which we’re stuck in. So this was motivated, in part, by my thinking about how to change the discussion.
Over the years what I’ve come to understand is that human-driven climate change is really an astrobiology problem. It’s not a problem of politics. It’s not a problem of businessmen versus environmentalists. We are talking about something much bigger—a planetary transition, which some scientists label as the Anthropocene. Climate change is just one aspect of this new human-dominated period. My argument is that Anthropocenes may be generic from an astrobiological perspective; what we’re experiencing now may be the sort of transition that everybody goes through, throughout the universe. And there are probably some common features to long-lived civilizations and the planets they inhabit.
I really started exploring this in 2014, when I co-authored a paper with Woody Sullivan of the University of Washington that proposed using dynamical systems theory to model some of these planetary transitions. We argued that it’s possible to identify the basic paths that “exocivilizations” might follow and the feedbacks that might occur when they begin altering their planetary climates. In my latest paper, just published with several colleagues, we went ahead and actually did some of that modeling.
Why would you have any faith in models examining the behaviors of exocivilizations—something no one has ever seen?
I like to draw a parallel to the Higgs boson. This is a fundamental particle that was “discovered” in 2012, but really you could say it was discovered in 1964. That was when three papers appeared extrapolating from well-understood physics to propose this particle that would wait nearly a half century before actually being seen. The details obviously would have to be filled in by actual data, but in that intervening time physicists went quite far in thoroughly extrapolating the particle’s nature.
So, when it comes to thinking about the interactions between an advanced technological civilization and its planet, well, we actually know a lot more about that today than people knew about the Higgs boson 50 years ago. We have lots of examples of planetary climates that we’ve studied right here in the solar system—Venus, Mars, Titan, Jupiter and so on. And we’ve got computer models that can nicely forecast, for instance, the weather on Mars! So we really do understand climate pretty well. And a civilization, to some degree, is just a mechanism for transforming energy on a planetary surface. This gets us into the realms of thermodynamics on global scales, which is supercool.
Image credit: antarctica.gov.au
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