Thursday, July 18, 2013

Space travel window

From an article about, and interview with, Elon Musk:
He was influenced, he says, by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, a science fiction saga in which a galactic empire falls and ushers in a dark age. "It's sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let's say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?"

It takes me a moment to realise it's not a rhetorical question. Um, poison the barbarians' water supply, I joke. Musk smiles and shakes his head. The answer is in technology. "The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time."
Me: As I've mentioned, I'm writing a book about DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal. And it seems to me there's an analogy between 19th century canal building and 21st century space travel: There's a window to do something, and that window will close at an unknown time. National borders and cultural diffusions that seem inevitable in retrospect were anything but; if the window had closed, something very different would have resulted.

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