Webb’s Deep Insight: Time is of the Essence

In matters of “survival of the fittest”, time is the ultimate arbitrator. When asked why she continued to smoke rather than quit based on advice from her doctors, a 102-year-old woman replied: “all the doctors who gave me this advice died by now.”

We are trained to think short-term as a survival instinct against immediate existential threats. The front page of newspapers showed Webb’s “deep image” of galaxies from 13 billion years ago side-to-side with stories about corruption in politics. The Israeli writer, Dror Burstein, emailed me: “why do these items attract the same level of attention?”

Consider the biggest item on our agenda: survival of humanity. We are aware of immediate existential risks in the form of nuclear wars, climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence (AI) takeover, or asteroid impact. But these items occupy the same short-term horizon as our daily news on a timescale of years or decades. Webb’s deep image should inspire us to think in terms of billions of years.

The biblical tale about Noah’s Ark avoided a catastrophe with a vessel that preserved life-as-we-know-it on Earth. But rather than loading mature life forms onto that vessel, we could now store their genetic information and material composition, as pages from a recipe book for recreating them out of raw materials elsewhere. The information could be recorded on an AI system equipped with 3D printers onboard a spaceship that would travel for billions of years. A futuristic Noah’s spaceship of this type would be able to replicate life-as-we-know-it on habitable exoplanets throughout our Milky Way galaxy. And when the Milky-Way will merge within a few billion years with its sister galaxy, Andromeda, the number of desired real estate destinations will double.

It is time to recognize that our future might be different from our past. Natural selection for billions of years on Earth could be replaced by technological selection for billions of years in interstellar space. We cannot afford another billion years of gradual biological evolution on Earth, since the Sun will boil off all oceans on Earth within that time frame. We are nearing the end of our cosmic journey on this habitable Earth, and frankly — going around the same star, which we call our Sun, for so long is rather boring.

From now on, science and technology will determine whether life-as-we-know-it will survive in space and for how long. To promote long-term survival, we must shift attention from short-term risks and focus on what matters in the long-run. When contemplating survival plans, we must remember what Abraham Lincoln said: “you can fool a part of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

By making additional prints of life-as-we-know-it throughout the Milky Way, we will avoid the risk of extinction as a result of a single-planet catastrophe. Building a bunker under the White House would protect politicians from a nuclear war, but will not necessarily preserve the best that humanity’s DNA has to offer. The same can be said about sending wealthy individuals to settle on Mars. We do not want to multiply the wrong entities based on William of Occam’s lesser known quote: “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitates”, or “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity”.

Space travel should not be guided by commercial benefits because there is no way to cash on an exit from the Solar system. Instead, interstellar journeys would reflect humanity’s spiritual quest for exploring the unknown and getting a better sense on how we came to exist.

It is possible that complex life was seeded on Earth by another civilization that reached the same conclusion about its long-term survival. In that case we have interstellar relatives to search for.

Next year, the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) on the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, will start filming a video of the Southern Sky with 3.2-billion pixels per frame. The unprecedented sensitivity of the survey could potentially lead to the discovery of many new interstellar objects in the vicinity of Earth that do not resemble familiar asteroids or comets, like `Oumuamua. Observing such an object with telescopes on Earth as well as the Webb telescope a million miles away, will allow them to accurately trace its three-dimensional motion and identify any excess propulsion that it exhibits.

The best way to demonstrate that we are intelligent is by not allowing the short-term arbitrary and mundane to dictate our long-term future. Thinking on timescales of billions of years is the first message delivered by Webb’s “deep image”.

The second message relates to what you look at in Webb’s image. It is entirely natural to focus on the luminous islands of starlight. However, these bright regions represent the “tail of the dog”. The dark regions between them are full of dark matter which dominates the mass budget and therefore controls how the luminous islands move. The dark regions represent our ignorance, since we still do not know what the dark matter is.

This brings to mind the second message delivered by Webb’s “deep image”. We must explore what we do not know, because it often carries more weight than what we know. Only by exploring the unknown, will humanity become aware of the full scope of its existential risks, beyond corruption in politics, and survive them.

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.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.