Albert Camus (1913–1960)
“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” noted Nobel laureate Albert Camus in his philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” from 1942. Ironically, Camus lived for merely three billionths of the age of the Universe (between November 1913 and January 1960), as his life ended abruptly and unexpectedly in a catastrophic car crash.
We can take two approaches to addressing Camus’ challenge about the absurdity of life. One is to struggle in giving our best answer to this existential question based on the reality we live in. The second is to redefine the meaning of our existence so that our life would be worthwhile. Let me explain.
Our existential distress stems from what happens on the two-dimensional surface of our home rock, the Earth, leftover from the formation of our host star, the Sun. National identities are delineated by borders drawn on this surface, and soldiers are willing to sacrifice their life to protect these borders. As I argued in the recent SALT fireside chat, we tend to forget that we live in three dimensions and that the third dimension of space opens endless opportunities for humans to collaborate rather than engage in two-dimensional disputes.
Space also offers a grander perspective of time. The deepest images just obtained by the Webb telescope reveal stars that existed 13.5 billion years ago, exactly three times the age of the Sun. Is Camus’ existential question therefore pretentious? Do we really matter in the grand scheme of the cosmos?
Possibly, yes. The Universe might care about us, if we would be ambitious enough to venture into interstellar space. Like any relationship, it goes both ways. If we would care about the cosmos, the cosmos would care about us. And this relationship could remove the absurdity inherent in our life on Earth.
The Artemis Program of NASA aims to establish a human base on the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars in the coming decades. Over millions of years, we could aspire to plant the seeds of our civilization in interstellar destinations. If we will be successful in establishing interstellar monuments of our intellectual heritage, then our life may be worth living, cosmologically speaking.
The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative aims to develop a light-sail technology that would allow us to reach interstellar space within a human lifetime. But with enough patience over multiple generations, we could venture into interstellar space even with existing technologies.
Just as Camus suffered prematurely a terminal blow to his existence, there are existential risks that could wipe out our civilization, irrespective of how well we answer his question. There is a precedent for that. Long before humans appeared on Earth, the dinosaurs gave a thumbs-up to their existential aspirations, but just like Camus — they were wiped out unexpectedly by a catastrophe. Sixty-six million years ago, a rock came from the third dimension of space and removed them from the two-dimensional surface of the Earth.
We could avoid this particular existential risk by defending our planet, as demonstrated this week by NASA’s DART spacecraft which gave a kick to the Moon Dimorphos by smashing into it. But there are other existential risks, like the Sun boiling off all liquid water on Earth in a billion years or shorter-term catastrophes that are self-inflicted. For example, humanity could be wiped out by a laboratory leak of a deadly virus that incubates for weeks within the human body and spreads exponentially within society before killing its carriers.
The best way to avoid a fatal blow to humanity’s existence is to create copies of what we wish to preserve and put them in other locations. This could initially take the form of a backup and recovery system on the Moon or Mars, and later extend beyond the Solar system.
Having multiple copies would protect our existence and make us relevant for the future of our cosmic neighborhood. Being relevant cosmologically would offer an inspiring context to the meaning of our existence. We could even engage in cosmic engineering projects — as I discussed with Freeman Dyson a decade ago, and join the club of proactive technological civilizations within the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.
Joining the company of extraterrestrials would advance our technological and scientific horizons and give our existence a more robust footing. Together with others we could avoid existential risks more effectively, for the same reason that antelopes live in a herd.
Let us start by seeking Galactic partners through the dating app of the Galileo Project telescopes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.