Future

Enrico Fermi To Elon Musk, An Eternal Search For Life On (And Off) Earth

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Yann Verdo

PARIS — Ever heard of the Fermi paradox? In 1950, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Enrico Fermi, the famed Italian physicist and father of the first nuclear reactor, estimated the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way, based on the number of stars in our galaxy with a planetary system gravitating around them.

Physicist Mathieu Agelou wrote about the "paradox" in the introduction to a book on aliens recently published by the French National Center for Scientific Research.

"The percentage among those planets ... likely to host life, (and) the probability of life appearing when the conditions of its appearance are met — and finally that among these life forms that a civilization of intelligent beings would appear that have the desire and technological means to explore the universe." Even with the most conservative assumptions, Fermi was ultimately left with a very large number of extraterrestrial civilizations that could indeed come visit us. But how, he asked, is it that we haven't seen any sign of any of them yet?

All the progress made in astronomy since the beginning of the 1950s and, in particular, the discovery over the past 20 years of several thousand exoplanets, have only reinforced the paradox. It can actually make you feel quite pessimistic about the sustainability of the human species on planet Earth: If we haven't heard from any extraterrestrial life form, it may be that no technologically advanced civilization out there has lasted long enough to have time to explore other galaxies. Or that no development model has been able to protect its natural base, its resources, its civil peace long enough. This hypothesis is now seriously taken into consideration and studied by researchers from different fields — economics, ecology, sociology.

The invention of the steam engine comes two-thousandths of a second before the fateful midnight.

As far as the Earth is concerned, U.S. geographer and biologist Jared Diamond's book Collapse explores the causes of human civilizations vanishing in the past, including the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Mayan society of Central America, and the Vikings of Greenland. Might we, Diamond posits, also be rushing towards our own destruction?

Back at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, humankind brought its terrestrial cockpit into a new geologic time, the Anthropocene. For the first time since its appearance 300,000 years ago in Africa, Homo sapiens had become a major geologic force. Looking at the entire history of our planet as a period of 24 hours, the invention of the steam engine comes two-thousandths of a second before the fateful midnight.

Might we be rushing towards our own destruction? — Photo: Dick Duckhorn

Will the arrival of the industrial age bring about the end of humanity? Eloquent charts offer such scenarios: sudden acceleration of the rate of extinction for species (to the point that scientists now speak of a sixth extinction, the fifth having been the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago), rampant artificialization of ecosystems, soaring global energy consumption (multiplied by at least 40 between 1800 and 2000 while, at the same time, the world population was multiplied by only six).

Established a dozen years ago by the climatologist William Steffen, the dashboard of the "Earth system," with its 24 parameters ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to the number of tons of fertilizer poured into the soil, all of which present the same general outlook — a surge between 1750 and 2000 — have become the standard bearer of "anthropocenologists." It has served as a starting point for many scientific studies that all sound the same alarm. One of the most resounding, published in 2009 in Nature magazine, introduced in the scientific literature the notion of "Planetary boundaries," those vital limits not to be exceeded if humankind wants to continue to benefit from an ecosystem that is fundamentally stable and safe.

The study's main authors, Johan Rockström, the director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, and William Steffen himself, identified nine such boundaries. At the time of the study, two of these nine had not yet been quantified due to the lack of data (chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading), four had not yet been crossed (land-system change, freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion and ocean acidification) and three were already crossed: global warming due to greenhouse gases emissions, the erosion of biodiversity and the disruption of the biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, resulting in particular from intensive agriculture and livestock farming.

It may, therefore, be necessary, one day, to colonize other planets, once this one will have become uninhabitable.

The fundamental message from all these scientists is that Earth can and should be seen as a complex system. Its behavior is not predictable because, between causes and consequences, the linearity principle doesn't always prevail. Small factors can have gigantic consequences. Beyond a certain point, the machinery can spin out of control. With its current development model — extremely destructive and ineffective — humankind is now playing with existential fire. "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces' that so terrified Blaise Pascal does not seem to encourage human beings to alter their behavior.

It may, therefore, be necessary, one day, to colonize other planets, once this one will have become uninhabitable. This is the starting scenario of a disturbing number of recent novels and films. We know that the visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk is preparing the colonization of Mars. But Hollywood has also given us a taste of how that planet's ecosystem is indeed a long way from ideal for humans to thrive, or even just survive.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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