Techinical: Leaving Earth-that-Was
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"Earth could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many."

Interesting idea for science fiction, of course... and nothing new. The idea of shipping out to other places for this reason has been in sceince fiction stories for half a century. But let's look (briefly) at what's involved.

First of all, you're going to need to find a suitable destination. Let's ignore the obvious difficulties, like it being only five hundred years in the future, yet humanity has had time to fly probes to a number of other solar systems, get back data, and persuade people to ship out. Since there's no FTL travel in the 'verse (as far as we know) it's going to take quite a while to get even a probe to even our nearest neighbour.

Still, let's overlook that for the sake of the story. We found a new solar system, and it was so good, in terms of suitable lebensraum, that a significant chunk of humanity could be persuaded to give it a shot.

We know there is 'cryo' storage of people, and we might assume that colonists could be transported for tens of decades in this way. Maybe we even stopped counting the passage of time while everybody was in 'cryo', which makes the 500 years in the future thing seem a bit more plausible.

Let's overlook the diagram that the schoolteacher shows in 'Serenity'. Planetary orbital mechanics don't allow for a large number of Earthlike masses to circle a single sun.

Let's assume that it's possible to monkey with terraforming, to shift material about, or make it denser, or less dense, so gravities match. We're violating physics here (mass/energy conservation) but it's for the sake of a good story, so okay. Let's further assume that it's possible to put gases in the 'atmo' of a planet during terraforming, such that even a distant planet can have enough of a greenhouse effect to remain warm. In fact, let's use the same process to explain why the inner planets are green and lush, while the outer ones are sun-baked deserts. Odd, but okay.

So we have this terraformed system, which is achieved in decades rather than the millennia that one might expect. Maybe... with some von Neumann machines, or something similar. (Probably not the large machine seen in 'Serenity'.)

Now... on a world that can't sustain its massive population, how do you build all these goodies? That technologies such as 'gravity drive' might be developed in a laboratory, I can believe. Scientists are doing amazing things right now, such as creating antimatter, and demonstrating quantum entanglement (a possible means of FTL communications, such as that demonstrated by the Coretex).

So you have your new technologies... but how do you put them into production on a big enough scale, on a resource-starved world. Surely, the first country (or bloc) with these new technologies will use them to seize the present-day resources available. If your aircraft can fly into orbit, etc., you'll win any war you start... so it's possible that things got pretty damn nasty on Earth-that-was for a while.

Technologies such as miniaturised reactors and new materials could have been used to provide better living accommodation on Earth. Failing that, they could have been used to create orbital habitats. (Room for about a hundred times the present-day population of Earth, up there.) Then, if you're developing terraforming technologies, where would you try them out first? Mars. And some moons, including those of Jupiter and Saturn.

This overlooks the fact that constructing a spacecraft has huge cost (let's assume you get them cheaper in 'Henry Ford' volume production), produces a great deal of pollution, and requires a massive amount of energy. If heavy industry of the future doesn't have these side effects, there would be much less reason to leave Earth-that-Was.

In our own solar system, we have vast quantities of materials. Everything you could possibly need to sustain life, including metals, water, oxygen, sunlight... Many in a remote place, or in an awkward form (oxygen in oxides, for example) but they could be accessed and released in our own system - and would be, before we attempted such a thing at a vast distance. (Tens of light years away.)

Leaving Earth-that-Was so far behind is such a massive undertaking, it could only be done by the whole species, in terms of the effort required... and you'd only attempt it if our own system was so comprehensively ruined as to push us near to extinction. And even then, it all seems highly improbable. Historically, war and famine have proved to be much more effective methods of addressing overpopulation.



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2007 August