Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Why We Must Go

The question is no longer if humanity should expand into other parts of the solar system, but only how we undertake this critical migration. We have to do it right and we need to do it soon.

We must be clear in doing so that some of us will be leaving planet Earth, but we are not leaving it behind.

We must also be clear that we are doing so to save our beautiful, wonderful home planet, not to abandon her.

This has become undeniable to me in reading the 30-year update to the seminal work from 1972, Limits to Growth (1), and a new book by geographer Chris Tucker, A Planet of Three Billion (2).

Limits to Growth used systems thinking and computer modeling to suggest that human civilization was reaching a phase called "overshoot" where the carrying capacity of the Earth could no longer support us in the direction we were taking. In the newest edition, which was published in 2004, the authors say that we are now in overshoot mode and cannot avoid a collapse without dialing back our demands on planet Earth.

Tucker uses his analysis to calculate that the Earth can support a population of three billion people, which means we are far beyond the ideal number, with no end in sight.

As far as I can tell, neither book mentions space development as part of a solution to the dilemma we face.

However, visionary Gerard K. O'Neill did. He was deeply concerned by the conclusions reached in Limits and it propelled him to create his idea of free-standing space communities between the Earth and the Moon. He proposed moving not only people but also heavy industry off the planet and returning it to a more sustainable state (3).

In the 1970s, the environmental movement and the space movement had not yet split and thinkers like Stewart Brand clearly understood that pictures of the whole Earth from orbit or the Moon would contribute to environmental awareness. Today, this image is understood as the Overview Effect. This is the consciousness we must take to the Moon, Mars, and beyond if we are to avoid the mistakes we have made on Earth. We must also do everything we can to mitigate the problems we have created on this planet, but some of us also must go.

The Overview Effect tells us that we are all in this together and we must work cooperatively to create a positive human future on Earth and in other parts of the solar system. The space movement and environmental movement must heal the breach between them and work together for the good of the planet and all life on it. Environmentalists: please expand your vision to include other parts of the solar system! We need your help to do this right.

There is much more to say, but for now, this is enough. This is why we must go.


(1) Donella Meadows, J. Randers, Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2004.

(2) C. Tucker, A Planet of 3 Billion, Atlas Observatory Press, 2019.

(3) G. K. O'Neill, The High Frontier, William Morrow & Co. 1976.

(c) Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 14, 2020

Isaac and I

My writing career has been marked with many ups and downs, an experience that is familiar to most authors. One of the high points was the opportunity, during the 1990s, to co-author two books with Isaac Asimov, one of the writers whose work had a great influence on me. Like many of us who are fascinated by space exploration, robots and androids, as well as the future in general, I was an avid consumer of science fiction from an early age. I'm pretty sure the first science fiction novel I ever read had been written by Isaac. In any event, I eventually graduated to I, Robot, Caves of Steel, Foundation, and much, much more.

In the case of the first co-authored book, Think About Space, I was hired to write the initial draft, with Isaac following up with major edits (or so we assumed). The publisher had agreed, as I recall, that we would be co-authors, which was enough for me, though the pay was pretty small. As it turned out, Isaac thought the first draft was so good that I should get full credit as the sole author, something the publisher did not want to do. So Isaac did add edits to the draft, and I was given co-author credit with him, which was a great honor for me.

When it came to the second book, March of the Millennia, the situation was almost completely reversed. Isaac had written the first draft and I was asked to edit it. I put a lot of work into it, but did not expect Isaac to be so generous a second time. However, he requested that I be listed as co-author of that book as well!

I have found that the successful people of this world are often quite humble and very generous to others. So I have done my best to emulate that approach in thought and action with people whom I have met over the years. (I realize that I did not know Isaac well, and I am not trying to write a biography of him; I am focusing only on his kindness to me and his talent as a writer.)

In July of 2018, Rob Godwin, the founder and owner of Apogee Space Books, and I were asked to speak to an online science fiction book club founded by John Grayshaw, director of the Middletown Public Library in Middletown, PA.

We were sent questions, which we then answered, and the session was published on Facebook. If you would like to see the entire transcript, including Rob's answers, just check out the Middletown Library website.

Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Frank White and Rob Godwin, July 2018

Frank White Answers


Q: Because of ambiguity in human language, there is almost always a disconnect between the intended meaning of a rule and the interpretation of a rule. This is evident in Asimov's three rules of robotics. The rules are written using high-level, ambiguous language. They are moralistic and idealistic rather than formulaic. But they are interpreted very strictly by the robots. Did Asimov intentionally design the laws of robotics this way at the outset, to use the ambiguity between the intended meaning of the rule and the rigid interpretation of the rule as a thematic/plot device? Or did his themes surrounding these rules develop after he came up with the rules? 


FW: I am not sure of the answer, but I think it is a bit of both. It seems to me that the key is this: the rules can contradict one another in real situations, which leads to interesting plot twists. I doubt that he saw all the potential issues when he laid out the rules, though he could see ahead to some of them. As he wrote, the results evolved, which is usually true with any form of fiction.

Q: Rigid interpretation of the rules in Asimov's stories often leads to dire consequences. Were the rules intended to show that common sense must be an ingredient for laws to function properly?


FW: I believe so. Actually, we humans are not so different than the robots. We have laws (rules) that we try to obey, but then we have real situations to consider. For example, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” seems straightforward, but if an intruder breaks into your home at night, what do you do? Well, then we have more laws about that, and perhaps we get into self-defense. But what if the intruder did not have a gun? And so on.


Q: Will robots in the future actually follow Asimov’s laws? Did Asimov believe they would? Or was it just good for storytelling? 

FW: People involved with artificial intelligence research (AI) bring up Asimov’s Laws all the time. There seems to be a feeling that he has done as good a job as any in creating robots we do not have to fear. But then, the same thing happens in reality as in the stories. It gets complicated and everyone says, “We need something better.”

Q: Why did Asimov move away from Foundation series and Robot Series after the late 50s and why did he return to it in the 80s.

FW: I don’t know, but as a writer, I can speculate. Topics for writing fiction bubble up from the subconscious and they can have a lot of momentum for a long time and then they dry up, only to reemerge later. That may have happened. Also, writers pick up on the environment of the time and the 80s might have been more conducive to those topics in the 80s than in the 60s and 70s.

Q: What was the inspiration for the development of robots? How did he come up with the 3, and ultimately 4, robotic laws? Did he plan for the underlying plot with the robots in the full series of Foundation or was it something that developed as the story developed. And along that line, was Foundation planned all the way through to its conclusion or was that developed as each book was published? 


FW: I have an answer to the first question, but not to the others. Regarding the first question, I interviewed Asimov for my book, The SETI Factor, in 1989. The book is out of print, but most of the interview is in the book and you might find it interesting. I suggested that humans had evolved from automatically fearing aliens to being more comfortable with them. He said “I hope you’re right. Our experience rests in the European exploration of the world, in which we enslaved the natives we found and then killed them off. We expect the aliens to be as bad as the Europeans were, but have now learned that it isn’t right to kill off natives or even an endangered species.”


So he saw our fear of aliens as being a projection of our own worst behavior and as we behaved better, our projections became more benign. Anyway, he did not want to write science fiction that showed aliens as evil. That is what led to the robots. Here is a footnote from the book: “In an interview with the author, Asimov explained that John Campbell, perhaps the most important science fiction editor at the time, mandated that humans should always win out over extraterrestrials in any conflicts or competitions they might have. Asimov did not want to cooperate with this dictum, so he created two series that had no extraterrestrials in them.” These were, of course, the Foundation series and the robot series. 


Regarding the whole question of planning, I would share my experience, once again, as a writer. I wrote a novel many years ago about contact with extraterrestrials called Decision: Earth. As I continued writing it, I became increasingly more interested in what I called at the time “Computer agents.” These were AIs like the Siris or Alexas of today. I didn’t plan it, but it just happened. I don’t know if Isaac planned it out or if it evolved, but I suspect the latter.


Q: Did he start out with the intention of connecting so many of his novels into one universe?


FW: Again, I don’t know, but he probably started out thinking of them separately and then saw the value of connecting them.


Q: Would he have identified more with the spacers or those that remained behind on Earth? 


FW: A great question. If I am right that he was agoraphobic, I think he would have identified with those who stayed on Earth. Also, the writing implies a certain degree of skepticism regarding how dependent the Spacers become on their robots. They were somewhat like slave owners, I think.

Q: Is anyone planning on reissuing the books Asimov on Science Fiction and/or Asimov's Galaxy: Reflections on Science Fiction, or at least some of the essays in these two books? Asimov is known for his essays as well as his science fiction, but I think some of his most interesting essays are on the subject of science fiction itself.


FW: I don’t know. Walker Publishing, which published the two books I co-authored with him, had plans for reissuing a lot of his work when he died. I was supposed to help them with the project and was saddened at his passing for so many reasons, but partially because it meant that initiative would not happen.


Q: I’m a big fan and have read all of his SF---most, several times. Would you consider him as a better writer of engaging human characters, or engaging robotic characters? Why were his stories relatively “dry” of emotion and pathos?


FW: I think he was better at creating robot characters than at creating human characters. As I read more and more of his Foundation work, it seemed to me that the robots were evolving and becoming better than humans. Perhaps he intended this to be the case. In any event, he was first and foremost a scientist and he may have felt more comfortable with rationality more than with emotion.


Monday, June 8, 2020

Are We Really All in this Together?

It has taken me some time to return to blogging because I have been watching and listening to what is going on in American cities, and asking myself how I could say something different from all that has been said by so many in the past week.

Let me give it a try. Many of my recent blog posts have been about the remarkable synchronicity between the astronauts saying, "We're all in this together" when they view the Earth from orbit or the Moon, and a variety of people saying it in regard to the COVID crisis. There did seem to be a remarkable display of unity globally for about a month at the beginning of the massive shutdown that was implemented to slow the spread of the virus. However, in the US at least, that consensus began to fray as the lockdown continued. We began to have people demanding their rights to open their businesses and go where they wanted to go, with or without masks. Opposing them, we had people supporting even more stringent controls and shaming those who did not want to go along with the plan.

This division became political, as "Red States" began opening up and "Blue States" stayed shut down. President Trump supported the "liberation," as he put it, of certain states and the Democrats decried his actions. I suppose all of this was predictable and it reminded me of what happened when Sputnik was launched, but that is a topic for another blog.

Suddenly, though, COVID was pushed away as protests began over the death of George Floyd. Anyone who saw the video of a cop's knee on Mr. Floyd's neck and heard the cries of "I can't breathe" had to be outraged by the incident. It soon became a symbol of oppression of African Americans by police and the marches began in every major city, and around the world.

As the protests began, SpaceX launched its Dragon Crew Capsule and it flew flawlessly to the International Space Station. The space community had been waiting for this event for years and wanted to celebrate, but it was hard to do, given the circumstances on the surface of the planet.

Now, there are articles being written suggesting that NASA's hope for the flight to generate some kind of unity in troubled times was misplaced. While many of us have compared this moment with 1968, another difficult year that ended with Apollo 8 and Earthrise, some commentators are arguing that it did not unify us and didn't improve things. If it had, wouldn't we be better off now?

Regardless of how that particular debate works out, one could easily say, "No, we are not all in this together. Isn't it obvious?"

But we need to make a distinction in the meaning of the statement.

When an astronaut says something like "We're all in this together," they are stating an objective fact. It is similar to "If you jump out of a window, you will hit the ground." The space traveler perceives the Earth as a whole, interconnected system, of which we are a part. The actions each of us takes affects every other person and the fate of our planet is the fate of all living things on it. This reality that we are part of a whole system is as real as the law of gravity.

When a surface dweller looks at COVID and realizes the same interconnectedness because the virus threatens everybody, she or he briefly has "astronaut awareness," but it does not mean that we are all going to act in unity and harmony in the face of this realization. Our goal must be that we move into alignment with the objective fact of interconnectedness with our actions on the ground. The astronauts do not see an "other" from orbit, but it sometimes seems that we are attuned to seeing only that when we are on the Earth. Aligning our experience on the Earth with the objective reality seen by the astronauts is the next step in understanding the deep meaning of the Overview Effect.

Friday, April 17, 2020

"We're All in this Together:" Part Six: Threats and Opportunities

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of...100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivision, presenting a united facade that would cry out for unified treatment.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins                                                               
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys

What might be some positive lessons learned from the impact of the COVID Effect on global society?
One of the most important is that humanity, when we are united to response to a threat or opportunity, can achieve an enormous amount in a short period of time. A recently published essay by Charles Eisenstein makes this point in great depth. (1)
In the United States, we have already learned this lesson in the past, but seem to have forgotten it. For example, the US was deeply divided between isolationists and interventionists regarding the wars raging in Europe and the Pacific, until Pearl Harbor. Although much of the American Navy was destroyed in the attack, the nation rallied, rebuilt, and helped to win a world war in four years. Contrast that with the 20-year war in Afghanistan, which is still not quite over.
In response to the Soviet Union’s launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and then the launching of the first human into orbit in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the US would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. At the time, no one had any idea how to do that, but with a clear mission and a sense of urgency, NASA accomplished the goal, in spite of a stand down after a terrible fire killed three astronauts and in the wake of the president’s assassination.
In response to COVID, the Earth’s population has acted as a species, perhaps for the first time ever. The phrase of the astronauts, “We’re all in this Together” is stated as a self-evident truth...though it was not so clear even a month ago.
Maybe you like the Green New Deal, maybe you hate it. However, one criticism of it was that we simply could not do it; it was impractical to make such a massive change in our economy and society in time to “flatten the curve” of climate change. And what would we do to support all the people thrown out of work by the radical changes envisioned in the Deal?
Well, a lot of what we have done in the past month, like reducing the amount of fossil fuel use, and helping people who are unemployed because of the lockdown, look a lot like that proposal.
Perhaps we should do it, perhaps we shouldn’t, but we can no longer say we can’t do it.
It seems that humans only respond to threats or opportunities, doesn’t it? If the threat is large enough and immediate enough, we will overcome our differences and respond. If the opportunity is large enough and immediate enough, we will respond. The differences don’t go away, but they are submerged long enough to react to whatever has suddenly claimed our attention.
Humanity, for good or ill, is the most powerful species on Spaceship Earth. We hold the fate of so many other living things in our hands. The virus has taught us a critical lesson, if we are only willing to learn it and act on it: we can use this enormous power for enormous good.


oCopyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

"We're All in this Together: Part Five:" What is Humanity's Mission?

Note: It’s Easter and a time when we tend to think of death and rebirth, regardless of our faith tradition. Our world is experiencing a lot of deaths right now, the passing of truly innocent victims. My emphasis on lessons learned is not to ignore the sacrifices that are taking place today, but to honor them by doing our best to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.
The pandemic is challenging us to think about viruses, and ourselves, in new ways. How do we get a handle on something that has, to our knowledge, never before happened in human history? By that, I mean something that affects every human being on planet Earth and something that threatens every one of us.
            Interestingly, astronauts have been weighing in on this question, comparing what is happening with COVID to their experiences on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. On April 11, during a virtual version of Yuri’s Night, Chris Hadfield addressed this issue with a short video and a conversation with Loretta Whitesides. (1)
As he and other astronauts noted during Yuri’s Night and elsewhere, self-isolation is one aspect of the two situations that is very similar. Typically, there might be six astronauts on the ISS and they are physically isolated from the seven billion people on Earth, including their family members. As is the case for those of us in isolation during the pandemic, they have an ability to communicate with people on the planet, but not to visit them.
            A second similar element is the pervasive sense of danger that a space mission and the COVID virus engender in us. Astronauts are in a shirt-sleeve environment on the ISS, but, as Hadfield noted, they know that a micrometeorite might penetrate the hull at any moment. While their safety is being monitored by mission control personnel around the world, the harsh environment of outer space will be unforgiving if anything goes wrong.
Like us, the astronauts have to don protective clothing if they go outside. Even more than inside the Shuttle or ISS, danger is ever present on a spacewalk.
Finally, Hadfield pointed out that uncertainty is a big part of the experience. Astronauts leave the Earth on spacecraft and expect to return on a certain date, but that is not always the way things turn out. For example, we are currently marking the 50thanniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which was supposed to be the third lunar landing of the Apollo era. However, something went terribly wrong on the way to the Moon and getting the astronauts home safely became the actual mission. The same has happened with the Shuttle and ISS expeditions. Unexpected events can lengthen or shorten flights into orbit or the Moon.
Like the astronauts, too, Hadfield said that we are being taken out of our ordinary daily lives and given a unique experience. He said that Yuri Gagarin and most astronauts who followed him felt compelled to share the meaning of the spaceflight experience, which has come to be called “the Overview Effect.”
These similarities are striking and may give us a start at developing language to understand what I have begun calling “the COVID Effect.” (2) But what stood out for me the most was that Hadfield also said that each of us should ask ourselves “what is our mission” during this unique time; "what do we want to accomplish?” 
In another video, he noted that sending a crew to the ISS is designated as an “expedition” because you are a “small group of people doing something that has elevated risk in a very different environment...” (3)
So maybe we ought to consider this period of lockdown and social distancing as a period of time with a purpose, an expedition. Just as astronauts experience the Overview Effect when they are in outer space and return with a new worldview, maybe we will experience the COVID Effect during this time and emerge with a new perspective on ourselves, our planet, and our place in the universe.
The big difference between us, as “astronauts of Spaceship Earth” and astronauts like Chris Hadfield is that we did not know our mission when all of this began. We have to define it while we are in the middle of the expedition. Unlike a professional astronaut, who carries out a mission that has already been assigned to them, we get to choose the meaning of this experience, the nature of humanity’s mission. 
What do you think it might be?

(1) You can watch the video and conversation between Chris and Loretta, as well as the entire Yuri’s Night program here:
(2) I have resisted using this term, because I don’t want to be seen as creating new “Effects” to go with the Overview Effect. However, it really seems to fit the situation, so I am using it, but sparingly. If people find it valuable and it helps to move the conversation along, that will be a great benefit.
(3) Here is a link to the other Hadfield video, which is excellent:
Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

"We're All in this Together": Part Four

"You can't see the boundaries over which we fight wars, and in a very real way, the inhabitants of this Earth are stuck on a very beautiful, lovely little planet in an incredibly hostile space, and everybody is in the same boat."

---Former Astronaut Don Lind, in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

"We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented ... all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other."

---Pope Francis, delivering the Urbi et Orbi address to an empty St. Peter's Square (NPR, 3/28/20)

As I have mentioned in earlier blog posts on this subject, the message that "We're all in this together," or "We're all in the same boat," is something of a mantra by astonauts when they return home after seeing our planet from space and in space. From orbit or the moon, they experience the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and realize that we cannot ignore this connection. It is real and it has real implications. This is the essence of the Overview Effect.

The message is coming through to us with great clarity now that we are threatened by the coronavirus. It's ironic that we have difficulty absorbing the information from our fellow human beings, but an invisible co-inhabitant of the planet has gotten through to us loud and clear.

The astronaut mantra has now become everybody's mantra, from Pope Francis to People magazine. Although there have been tensions between countries and even among the various states in the US, it has been heartening to see how people have come together to face this crisis and to "row together," in the Pope's words. We can only hope that some of the spirit of unity persists once we move to a more "normal" system state at some point in the future.

Similarly, the global lockdown that has reduced travel dramatically has had an impact that can be seen clearly by satellites in Earth orbit. As just one example, the pollution that represented a major health hazard in China not long ago, is noticeably absent in pictures taken from space during the pause that has emerged in response to COVID-19:

As we know after centuries of experience, war is something to be avoided. However, there are moments, like this one, when it is necessary. As with any conflict, though, the lessons learned are almost as important as achieving the necessary victory.

What are we learning from this battle? How will we use it to forge a better future on Earth and in space?

Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"We're All in this Together": Part Three

I asked my good friend and colleague Felix Hoch to review my previous two blogs on the topic, "We're All in this Together." He did so and said his only disagreement was with the notion of the virus as the "immune system of the planet," because, as he put it, "seeing humanity as a plague further promotes a mindset of separation. I experience it more as a balancing move of the biosphere that has huge potential to facilitate and initiate global coherence in the noosphere."

As is always the case, Felix's words are full of wisdom. I hesitated using the term "immune system of the planet" because I do not see humanity as a plague and I do not want to promote a mindset of separation. However, that was the phrase that came to mind and engendered the writing of the blog post, so I had to be honest and share it as the starting point for my thinking.

In this post, let's use Felix's phrasing that it is a "balancing move of the biosphere" and understand that it has great potential for how we view the future. In particular, I am encouraged that the astronauts' experiential understanding that "we are all in this together" is also becoming experiential for surface dwellers. The number of people repeating that phrase is growing rapidly and I have now heard it said by the Surgeon General of the United States, Bernie Sanders, CNN's Anderson Cooper, and Vice President Mike Pence. (People with quite diverse world views, as we know.)

Moreover, "One World In Dialogue," a great online gathering place for what I would call "overview thinking," is sponsoring a global meditation on 3/29/20 titled "We're All in This Together:"

Coming full circle, we have this excellent article that concludes with exactly the same sentiment from astronaut Jessica Meir:

If the reality of the Overview Effect, which astronauts understand so well and have been striving to communicate for so many years, now permeates global society, then this very difficult and---for many of us---tragic period, will leave humanity and the Earth with something of tremendous value.

Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

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