Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘futurism’

04 OCTOBER, 2013

How Much a Planet Costs: Astronomy, Economics, and the Trouble with Pricing the Priceless


“In our lives we all in some way contribute to this greater choice, either drawing our collective future down to Earth or thrusting it out closer to the stars.”

“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Ray Bradbury poignantly observed in his seminal 1971 conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about space exploration. Indeed, much like so many of Bradbury’s romantic predictions eventually became reality, the fictions of science have always extended into visions of the future, among the most persistent of which is that of other habitable worlds onto which humanity can project itself. In Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (public library), science writer Lee Billings explores the possibilities of building that romance into a reality. The title refers to the projected longevity of life on earth — life that will be extinguished once the Sun burns out. Billings sets the backdrop:

Life emerged here shortly after the planet itself formed some four and a half billion years ago, and current estimates suggest our world has a good half billion years left until its present biosphere of diverse, complex multicellular life begins an irreversible slide back to microbial simplicity. In all this time, Earth has produced no other beings quite like us, nothing else that so firmly holds the fate of the planet in its hands and possesses the power to shape nature to its whim. We have learned to break free of Earth’s gravitational chains, just as our ancient ancestors learned to leave the sea. We’ve built machines to journey to the Moon, travel the breadth of the solar system, or gaze to the edge of creation. We’ve built others that can gradually cook the planet with greenhouse gases, or rapidly scorch it with thermonuclear fire, bringing a premature end to the world as we know it. There is no guarantee we will use our powers to save ourselves or our slowly dying world and little hope that, if we fail, the Earth could rekindle some new technological civilization in our wake of devastation.

'Moonwalk 1' by Andy Warhol (1987) from the NASA Art Project. Click image for more.

This longview choice of life and death, he argues, falls somewhere between science and spirituality, a new kind of scientific humanism to which the people Billings profiles — from evolutionary climatologists to futuristic cartographers to astronomers in search of extraterrestrial life — have dedicated their lives, driven by the shared belief that “in the fullness of planetary time any human future can only be found far beyond the Earth.” Billings puts it beautifully:

As precious as the Earth is, we can either embrace its solitude and the oblivion that waits at world’s end, or pursue salvation beyond this planetary cradle, somewhere far away above the sky. In our lives we all in some way contribute to this greater choice, either drawing our collective future down to Earth or thrusting it out closer to the stars.


I won’t pretend to know what our collective choice will be, how exactly we would embark on such an audacious adventure, or what we would ultimately find out there. I am content to merely have faith that we do, in fact, have a choice. Similarly, I can’t suggest that we simply ignore all of our planet’s pressing problems by dreaming of escape to the stars. We must protect and cherish the Earth, and each other, for we may never find any other worlds or beings as welcoming. Even if we did, we as yet have no viable way of traveling to them. Here, now, on this lonely planet, is where all our possible futures must begin, and where I pray they will not end.

Illustration from 'Outer Space Humor' (1963). Click image for more.

One of the most fascinating scientific romantics Billings spotlights is the astrophysicist Greg Laughlin, a 44-year-old professor at UC Santa Cruz. In 2009, shortly after NASA launched its Kepler spacecraft on a mission to hunt for Earth-like planets elsewhere in the cosmos, Laughlin devised “a strange, half-whimsical equation” to calculate the approximate value of such candidate planets and gauge whether they were worthy of scientific investment beyond the expected media hype such discoveries would inevitably produce. Using a number of variables, from a planet’s temperature and mass to the age and type of its star, the equation promised to yield a crude dollar valuation of the respective world. Billings breaks down the math:

Small, rocky worlds in clement orbits around middle-aged, middle-of-the-road stars similar to the Sun merited the highest values, as those planets presumably offered the best chance for harboring complex biospheres that could eventually be detected by future space telescopes. For a planet to be worthy of wide attention, Laughlin opined, it would need to at least break the million-dollar mark. Laughlin drew his economic baselines from simple math, dividing Kepler’s federally funded $600 million price tag by 100, a conservative estimate of how many terrestrial planets the space telescope would discover during its lifetime. If such planets could be considered commodities, the math suggested that the 2009 market price, as determined by U.S. taxpayers, could be set at $6 million per world—a value that could drop over time if small rocky planets began to overflow astronomers’ coffers. If, however, Kepler found a terrestrial world in the middle of a Sun-like star’s habitable zone, Laughlin’s test runs suggested such a planet’s value could exceed $30 million in his equation.

But most inventive of all was that Laughlin extended the formula not only to planets, but also to their home stars — which meant that, in theory, the calculations could be applied to the planets of our very own solar system, measuring their value not in dollars but in photons:

Photons, not dollars, are a planet hunter’s fundamental currency, as they are what allow a planet to be not only detected but also subsequently characterized. Generally speaking, the more photons astronomers can gather from an exoplanetary system, the more they can learn about it. Stars and planets nearer to our solar system are brighter in our skies due to their close proximity, and hence more valuable, providing floods of useful photons where more distant objects would only offer trickles. This facet was why so many of Kepler’s small planets would struggle to reach a valuation of even a million dollars: the Kepler field stars were far away, and thus very dim. The brightest star visible in the solar system by many orders of magnitude is, of course, the Sun, which has the capacity to send local planetary valuations into truly astronomical territory.

If Laughlin based his calculations on the early-twentieth-century belief that Venus’s clouds would reflect the Sun and shield the planet from the scorching solar flux, its scientific value would swell to a whopping $1,500 trillion — that’s one and a half quadrillion dollars. But if Venus’s actual runaway-greenhouse surface temperature were used for the calculation, the planet would be worth a trillionth of one cent. (This gaping disparity of valuations, Laughlin asserted, is akin to the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, a case of companies translating investors’ blind enthusiasm into exorbitant valuations that eventually caused the bubble to burst once their true value was revealed.) When Laughlin applied his equation to our Earth, he arrived at a value of roughly five quadrillion dollars, or about 100 times the global gross domestic product — “a handy approximation of the economic value of humanity’s accumulated technological infrastructure.”

But he didn’t stop there — he also ran the equation for a habitable candidate from Alpha Centauri system, which he valued at $6.5 billion. As Billings wryly remarks, that’s approximately the amount astronomers estimate would be necessary to build the kind of space telescope capable of detecting signs of life on such a world. The most intriguing dynamic, however, is that just like we confer value on art, we confer value on the world itself — the star to such a world would become increasingly brighter if we were to actually voyaged there, eventually becoming a new Sun to our new home. Laughlin tells Billings:

In going there, you have this ability to intrinsically increase value. And that’s an exciting thing because it ultimately provides a profit motive for perhaps going out and making a go of it with these planets. This is saying that something that is several billion dollars on Earth could be, if you go there, a quadrillion-dollar payoff.

Of course, Billings is careful to admonish against the lazy shorthand mainstream media tend to use in headlining such news — it is equal parts lazy and foolish to put an actual price sticker on a planet, especially on our Earth, which is home to other worlds of immeasurable complexity and contains “the aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love…”

Illustration from 'The First Book of Space Travel' (1953) by Jeanne Bendick. Click image for more.

Five Billion Years of Solitude goes on to explore the thrilling and terrifying repercussions of what it means to live as “creatures with the intellectual capacity to discover their genesis and the technological capability to design their fate,” and to remind us, above all, that we do have a choice in that design. Complement it with Isaac Asimov’s witty 1969 letter on why we should invest in space exploration.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2012

A Visual Timeline of the Future Based on Famous Fiction


Proof that in the year 802701, the world will still exist.

The past has a long history of imagining the future, and humanity has an equally long history of mapping time. Several months ago, I shared a link to a timeline of future events as predicted by famous novels. Italian information visualization designer Giorgia Lupi saw it on Twitter and was inspired to create an ambitious visual version for La Lettura, the Sunday literary supplement of Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, with her design team at Accurat.

Giorgia was recently visiting and after she shared the story, I asked her to create an English edition of the exquisite timeline exclusively for Brain Pickings, which she generously did:

(Click image for hi-res version)

Giorgia explains:

The visualization is built on a main horizontal axis depicting a distorted time-line of events (in fact we put them regularly, in sequence), starting our future-timeline in 2012. The y-axis is dedicated to the year the novel / book foretelling the event was published.

On the lower half of the visualization you can find the original quotes (shortened)

We then wanted to add further layers of analysis to our piece:

– finding out main typologies of foretold events (are they mainly social, scientific, technological, political?)
– discovering and depicting the genre of the book,
– and most of all, dividing them into positive, neutral or negative events.

Finally, good news, in 802,701 the world will still exist!

Here are a few progress sketches for a fascinating glimpse of her process:

See more of Giorgia’s wonderful work on her site, then imbibe some visualization lessons from the world’s top information designers and data artists.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2012

Henry Miller on Art, War, and the Future of Humanity


“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.”

In the heat of World War II, Henry Miller (1891–1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — was living in Beverly Glen, California, and wrestling with the soul-stirring questions that war inevitably brings to the surface. It was then he penned “Of Art and the Future,” a wide-ranging essay on war, art, technology, the role of women in society, and mankind’s future, eventually published in Sunday After the War (public library) in 1944. In 1959, the it was included in The Henry Miller Reader — also featuring Miller’s wonderful “The Wisdom of the Heart” — where he contextualizes it with a caveat: “The war was still on, my royalties from Europe were cut off, and I was in the doldrums.” Still, the essay offers a timeless and immeasurably timely lens on the triumphs and tyrannies of the human spirit.

Miller begins by considering the continuum of time:

To most men the past is never yesterday, or five minutes ago, but distant, misty epochs some of which are glorious and others abominable, Each one reconstructs the past according to his temperament and experience. We read history to corroborate our own views, not to learn what scholars think to be true. About the future there is as little agreement as bout the past, I’ve noticed. We stand in relation to the past very much like the cow in the meadow — endlessly chewing the cud. It is not something finished and done with, as we sometimes fondly imagine, but something alive, constantly changing, and perpetually with us. But the future too is with us perpetually, and alive and constantly changing. The difference between the two, a thoroughly fictive one, incidentally, is that the future we create whereas the past can only be recreated. As for that constantly vanishing point called the present, that fulcrum which melts simultaneously into past and future, only those who deal with the eternal know and live in it, acknowledging it to be all.

He articulates the era’s familiar fear of technology:

The cultural era of Europe, and that includes America, is finished. The next era belongs to the technician; the day of the mind machine is dawning. God pity us!

Vintage illustration for Homer's 'The Iliad and the Odyssey' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In a prescient contemplation, all the more true and urgent today, Miller considers the state of war and peace:

In the future we shall have only “world wars” — that much is already clear.

With total wars a new element creeps into the picture. From now on, every one is involved, without exception. What Napoleon began with the sword, and Balzac boasted he would finish with the pen, is actually going to be carried through by the collaboration of the whole wide world, including the primitive races whom we study and exploit shamelessly and ruthlessly. As war spread wider and wider so will peace sink deeper and deeper into the hearts of men. If we must fight more whole-heartedly we shall also be obliged to live more whole-heartedly.

He then goes on to echo his then-lover Anaïs Nin‘s poignant meditation on individuals and mass movements:

This war will bring about the realization that the nations of the earth are made up of individuals, not masses. The common man will be the new factor in the world-wide collective mania which will sweep the earth.

Miller considers the role and responsibility of inventors and “geniuses” in moving society forward — something astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson recently discussed on Colbert — with equal parts optimism for human nature and caution of power-warped human intentions:

The problem of power, what to do with it, how to use it, who shall wield it or not wield it, will assume proportions heretofore unthinkable. We are moving into the realm of incalculables and imponderables in our everyday life just as for the last few generations we have been accustoming ourselves to this realm through the play of thought. Everything is coming to fruition, and the harvest will be brilliant and terrifying. To those who look upon such predictions as fantastic I have merely to point out, ask them to imagine, what would happen should we ever unlock the secret patents now hidden in the vaults of our unscrupulous exploiters. Once the present crazy system of exploitation crumbles, and it is crumbling hourly, the powers of the imagination, heretofore stifled and fettered, will run riot. The face of the earth can be changed utterly overnight once we have the courage to concretize the dreams of our inventive geniuses. Never was there such a plentitude of inventors as in this age of destruction. And there is one thing to bear in mind about the man of genius — even the inventor — usually he is on the side of humanity, not the devil. It has been the crowning shame of this age to have exploited the man of genius for sinister ends. But such a procedure always acts as a boomerang: ultimately the man of genius always has his revenge.

One could easily see him as a champion of today’s 99%:

What is now at the bottom will come to the top, and vice versa. The world has literally been standing on its head for thousands of years.

Vintage illustration for Homer's 'The Iliad and the Odyssey' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Two years before Races of Mankind, Miller makes an eloquent case for abolishing racist sensibilities:

We have talked breathlessly about equality and democracy without ever facing the reality of it. We shall have to take these despised and neglected ones to our bosom, melt into them, absorb their anguish and misery. We cannot have a real brotherhood so long as we cherish the illusion of racial superiority, so long as we fear the touch of yellow, brown, black or red skins.

He then presents a vision for the future of the city, strikingly aligned with today’s notion of global citizenship:

The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid. The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates.

Miller’s addition to history’s famous definitions of art mirrors Joan Didion’s conception of writing as power. He writes:

At the root of the art instinct is this desire for power — vicarious power. The artist is situated hierarchically between the hero and the saint.


To put it quite simply, art is only a stepping stone to reality; it is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man’s task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken, that is all.

Despite his own profound passion for books, Miller envisions a future where the bound page no longer is:

In a few hundred years or less books will be a thing of the past. There was a time when poets communicated with the world without the medium of print; the time will come when they will communicate silently, not as poets merely, but as seers. What we have overlooked, in our frenzy to invent more dazzling ways and means of communication, is to communicate.

Nearly two decades before Marshall McLuhan’s seminal treatise on how new communication media shape our desires and cultural norms, Miller makes a similar observation:

No, the advance will not come through the use of subtler mechanical devices, nor will it come through the spread of education. The advance will come in the form of a breakthrough. New forms of communication will be established. New forms presuppose new desires. The great desire of the world today is to break the bounds which lock us in. It is not yet a conscious desire. Men do not yet realize what they are fighting for. This is the beginning of a long fight, a fight from within outwards.

In contemplating the era’s political landscape — an observation at once timeless and timelier than ever, with the urgency of this season’s election — he laments:

Often, when I listen to the radio, to a speech by one of our politicians, to a sermon by one of our religious maniacs, to a discourse by one of our eminent scholars, to an appeal by one of our men of good will, to the propaganda dined into us night and day by the advertising fiends, I wonder what the men of the coming century would think were they to listen in for just one evening.

Ultimately, however, Miller’s characteristic faith in the human spirit remains unabated:

Myself I cannot see the persistence of the artist type. I see no need for the individual man of genius in such an order. I see no need for martyrs. I see no need for vicarious atonement. I see no need for the fierce preservation of beauty on the part of a few. Beauty and Truth do not need defenders, nor even expounders. No one will ever have a lien on Beauty and Truth; they are creations in which all participate. They need only to be apprehended; they exist externally. Certainly, when we think of the conflicts and schisms which occur in the realm of art, we know that they do not proceed out of love of Beauty or Truth. Ego worship is the one and only cause of dissension, in art as in other realms. The artist is never defending art, but simply his own petty conception of art. Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

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