One free trip to space or free international travel for life?

One free trip to space.

This is a difficult one. You have all the safety issues to take into account and I love international travel, being fortunate enough to have been abroad most years of my young life. But just being able to go anywhere whenever I want for my whole life would make it boring and not as special. One free trip to space would be enormously special.

It’s funny though, isn’t it, how small we are. We are literally a fly in a cathedral (well, literally in terms of size comparison) in our solar system alone which is a couple of light years wide, let alone the observable universe which is billions of light years wide – and who knows how much is out there that we can’t see?

And yet, >0.01% of people have ventured off our little fibre in a carpet universe. Because I am so small, I think that a trip to space would be special. And it would. And if it’s free then wow – who could say no to that just because they’d rather spend a lifetime exploring the different microscopic features of our tiny carpet fibre? And of course I’d get to experience what astronauts mean when they say you can’t tell up from down, when they talk about the awe of seeing the Earth as a beautiful ball floating in a black sea.

I would not give up that opportunity.

However, I have to say that when I think of places I’d like to visit I think more of Greenland, Canada, the French Polynesia, Scandinavia and South America than space. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. Of course, Earth-bound travel is fine and probably nicer, more hospitable, perhaps even more beautiful than space. Few other planets we know of are as dynamic and none are as geologically active or fertile as ours. Because we have people, we have so many different cultures and towns and cities to explore.

Still, I could not give up the opportunity to go where so few others have gone before and conquer my fears, free or not free. And I know it never will be free, but who knows, it might even be affordable in my lifetime. The world’s first commercial spaceport is already being constructed.

Is global warming real, and what should we do about it?

Yesterday’s topic suggestion from the Daily Post was the question of whether global warming is real. Well I’m not quite educated enough about climate science to give you all the details, but in answer to the question of whether it’s real, yes—you don’t need to be a scientist to know that the world is warming up. If you look at the graph below, the rate of warming has accelerated a lot in about the past forty years (and it’s probably no to do with the sun). You can point to the cold winters the West has had for the past few years, but overall the world in general is warming.

There's been a clear trend of warming over the past half-century, and it's no longer about the sun.

Even most skeptics accept that the climate is changing. The real debate is whether or not climate change/global warming is (a) caused mainly by human beings and (b) something we should worry about. While the public in America and the UK (but not mainland Europe) is split on this issue, about 98% of active climatologists would say yes to both questions.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all going to die. There have been new discoveries that the Greenland ice cap isn’t melting at quite the rate we thought it was and some glaciers are actually growing (so annoying the Times is behind that paywall). These don’t mean the skeptics are right, but it does suggest that global warming may not be as bad as some doomsday environmentalists would have us believe.

What do I think? Again, I’m no expert, but given the very wide consensus among climate scientists who do know their stuff in this area, I think completely denying global warming and not taking any action about it would be a foolish mistake.

However, call me a cynic but I think that trying to stop climate change now is rather futile. People are very unlikely to change their ways until it’s too late. What we need to do is find a way to adapt to global warming – and given that we can survive in space, we can surely survive on a warmer planet. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but realistically we won’t get it done before it’s too late. This may mean large-scale migration and a change to many other aspects of our lives (people will change their lives if they want to live, they just won’t do it quickly enough to stop climate change happening), but a warmer planet isn’t necessarily one that we can’t live on.

I will also say something else: the planet is not in danger. The Earth has been through far, far worse than what we’re doing to it. The amount of turbulence in the Earth’s early days that it managed to sustain was pretty phenomenal, and then it managed to support human life later on. The Earth is remarkably strong and a little increase in greenhouse gases will do little or no harm to it. If anyone or thing is in danger from climate change, it’s us and animal life – not the planet. 

That’s my take on the issue. If anyone more educated about climate science disagrees with me or wants to bring up a different point, they can do so in the comments.

Thanks.

Smaller is greater

What is the smallest thing near me? Well obviously, everything is made up of tiny particles, so in a sense “everything” is the answer. If this wasn’t the case, nothing in the universe would work. And of course we are continually discovering that these tiny particles are made up of even tinier particles and quarks may actually be supersymmetric strings or whatever.

If all this is true then great; small is great. And, as a more general point, being small is what makes things – at least a lot of things – work.

For example, computers are more useful, and easier to use, because they are a lot smaller than they used to be.

Most people would rather read a reasonably small, short blog post divided up into small, short paragraphs, than a long sea of words with no spaces in between.

Smaller countries, particularly in Europe, are generally happier ones. Appreciating, finding satisfaction in and reminding yourself of all the little, daily good things in life, makes you happier than if you want everything to be BIG, or if you adopt the attitude that you’re either number 1 or you’re nothing.

Also, excuse me for politicising the question, but if a country is small, has a smaller government and if that government devolves its power to smaller, local authorities, things in that country work better, and the country is wealthier and happier. Why is Switzerland far wealthier than the EU as a whole and the second happiest country in the world? Why is Hong Kong wealthier than China, Singapore wealthier than Malaysia, and the U.S. GDP in excess of $14 trillion?

Answer: because all these countries are either small, have small governments and enthusiastically devolve power, or have a cultural mindset that sees small as beautiful. Or all three in the case of Switzerland.

Whether you’re talking about politics, ways of life or science, small is great and beautiful. That’s all I have to say.

People aren’t rational

One of the most strange things about life is that everyone thinks that they’re rational—but they aren’t. We think we all have free will to make rational decisions, but in reality our decisions are either made emotionally or have some deeper subconscious motive that is difficult to put a finger on. For example the colour of the ballot box can greatly affect a voter’s decision if they are unsure about how to vote – yet the point of an election is that it should be a way to represent what people really, consciously want (well, perhaps not with the EU elections to a pseudo-Parliament but that’s a wholly different matter).

But I think it’s plain that we have never, and never will, have absolute free will. We may be more likely to think about our actions than animals, but we are still essentially governed by evolutionary instincts, even if we think are acting rationally.

Of course it may be that there’s no such thing as free will at all; perhaps we’re all just pre-programmed machines, or even characters in a computer game God created for his own personal entertainment. In any case, as we learn more about how our decisions are predominantly made unconsciously, and as businessmen use this information to their advantage, it would seem as if free will is likely to decline dramatically in the future. Perhaps it will be entirely gone in a couple of generations – if it ever existed in the first place.

Scary.