By Paul Sussman for CNN
Adjust font size:
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Colonize another planet? I'm perfectly happy here, thank you very much.
Yes, but for how long? Sooner or later, according to experts, the Earth is going to succumb to a nuclear conflagration or a massive asteroid impact such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and then where will you be? Extinct, that's where.
Alarmist poppycock! Who are these so-called experts?
Most recently, Stephen Hawking.
What does he know?
Considerably more than you or me, that's for sure. Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, and probably the only widely recognized quantum physicist in the world, Hawking, 64, has made important contributions to the fields of theoretical cosmology, quantum gravity, black holes ...
... singularity theorum, quantum chromodynamics and grand unification theory. His multi-million selling book "A Brief History of Time" is one of the most popular science publications ever, even though no-one actually understood it. So when Hawking speaks, you better listen.
Okay, so we've all got to move to Mars. When do we go?
Unfortunately it's not quite as simple as that. Although of our immediate planetary neighbors Mars offers by far the best hope of supporting life -- it has abundant supplies of water, and hence oxygen, locked in its soil as permafrost --- the scientific consensus is that transforming the planet into somewhere habitable would take centuries.
It didn't take that long in "Total Recall."
That was an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with all the closely-researched scientific veracity one normally associates with an Arnie blockbuster. No, if we are to survive as a race, according to Hawking, we need to look to Earth-like planets outside our own solar system.
So let's get going! Fire up the rockets!
Unfortunately it's not quite as simple as that, either. All of mankind's journeys into space to date, from Sputnik to the Space Shuttle, have been propelled by conventional fuel rockets. Even using the most up-to-date and powerful of such rockets, it would still take us approximately 50,000 years to reach the nearest star beyond our own sun.
Not if you use Warp Drive it wouldn't. Ever thought of that?
Not personally, although both Hawking and a number of other theoretical physicists, most notably Mexico's Miguel Alcubierre have. Unfortunately "warp drive" -- a concept of faster-than-the-speed-of-light space travel that is a key ingredient of the Star Trek series -- violates one of the most basic laws of physics: that nothing moves faster than light, not even Michael Schumacher.
So what are you saying? We're doomed to just sit here till we're squashed by an asteroid?
Not necessarily. The so-called "Alcubierre metric" posits a form of warp drive that could, theoretically at least, go faster than light without shredding the laws of Einsteinian physics (and no, don't ask me to explain it). Hawking himself, meanwhile, has suggested "matter/antimatter annihilation" as a potential means of intergalactic travel. Basically, this involves harnessing the enormous energy released by the collision of matter and anti-matter to drive a spaceship. Slightly more complex than a Sunday run-around in your Vauxhall Vectra, but not wholly outside the realms of possibility.
OK, so we build a space-ship with the anti-matter annihilation thingumy? Then what?
Then, my friend, we boldly go where no man has gone before. While our own solar system may be lacking the sort of environments necessary for viable colonization, there is a good possibility that other solar systems, if we can actually get to them, harbor just the sort of Earth-like planets needed to re- settle and therefore save the human race. Since 1995 astronomers have discovered almost 200 planets outside our own solar system ("extrasolar planets" as they are called), while a recently-published joint study by the University of Colorado and Pennsylvania State University has estimated that up to a third of the giant planet systems outside our own may in fact contain Earth-like planets.
So what, we just land and carry on as normal?
Obviously there are a few more hurdles to overcome besides just finding a suitable planet and actually getting there. In principle, however, if we managed to develop the technology to do the first two, it should certainly not be beyond our means to establish and perpetuate a viable human colony somewhere else in the galaxy. Whether, given the opportunity to start again from scratch, we would manage to avoid the numerous mistakes we as a race have made on our native Earth is another question.
Physicist Stephen Hawking has suggested the survival of the human race depends on us colonizing another planet.