Out of this World
Santa Fe Institute launches an InterPlanetary Project with galactic ambitions
Science fiction lovers will probably recognize the galactic tribunal trope from any number of graphic novels, books or films. Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer introduces the notion of cosmic judges rendering decrees on humanity as part of a thought experiment:
“I’m so interested in the question, ‘What can we be proud of?’” Krakauer says during an interview in his office at the institute where, on this June afternoon, smoke from fires burning in the national forest semi-obscures the vast city and mountain views from Hyde Park Road. Stacks of books crowd most available surfaces—George Johnson’s Fire in the Mind and The Book of Trees by Manuel Lima catch the eye; a model rocket sits atop Krakauer’s desk.
So, at the galactic tribunal, where you’re asked, ‘What has your species contributed to the universe?’ you could stand up and say, unequivocally, ‘This was an amazing accomplishment and I could tell anyone on this planet or any other one that I thought this was something that was worthwhile.’”
Questions such as these, which require considering humanity and life on Earth from an interplanetary perspective, drive SFI’s new InterPlanetary Project. It launches July 18 with a panel discussion between scientists, writers, artists and thinkers whose work all revolves in various ways around humanity’s future—in space and otherwise.
InterPlanetary builds on the type of complex, interwoven, boundary-pushing research SFI is known for locally and internationally.
Santa Fe Institute’s main partner in the endeavor, Creative Santa Fe, sees InterPlanetary as another joint project aimed at thinking through problems with both local and global significance.
“Our mission is to help people think creatively and outside conventional barriers,” says Executive Director Cyndi Conn, “and to look at difficult complex issues using a visionary approach that combines arts, technology, innovation.”
The project also comes at a time during which interest and money for space science is harkening a new golden age for galactic exploration. Among other developments, NASA ushered in a new class of astronauts from a record number of applicants, scientist Stephen Hawking proclaimed humans only have 100 years left on Earth, and SpaceX technologist Elon Musk published detailed plans for resettlement on Mars.
It’s a fitting context, in other words, for InterPlanetary’s first panel, for which the starting question is: “What will it take to become an interplanetary civilization?”
That mind-bender encompasses many concerns—from preparing humans for space travel to the hard science and technology required to make the journey, along with aspirational initiatives centered on how we might communicate with other life in the universe (should it exist). Last but not least: How can humanity tackle the problems of today to prepare for its future?
As a child, Kate Greene always wanted to travel to other planets. She loved both science and stories. “When you’re a kid and you think about other planets, it’s fertile ground. I loved imagining other planets because the thing I liked the most about science was getting little bits of information here and there and weaving them together into a whole story.”
“My palms started to get sweaty, my heart started racing,” Greene says. “I had a real physical response to living out this kid dream, so I applied.”
Greene applied and was accepted into the program—not by luck. Her background includes work as both a laser physicist and a science journalist. She spent her four months on the project as a crew member and crew writer, contributing dispatches for Discover magazine, while also conducting a separate sleep study for NASA.
“For me, it felt more like graduate school, in a way,” Greene says. “I studied semi-conductor lasers and spent a lot of time in the basement laser lab. We spent all day trying to figure out experiments. That’s what it felt like in a lot of ways: working together, solving problems.”
There were times, when the crew would don their spacesuits and walk around in a landscape that is red and rocky and “looked a lot like Mars on the outside,” during which Greene could imagine she was exploring another planet. The experience also yielded other rewards, such as contributing research to help future astronauts, and collaboration with new people. Moreover, Greene, who will appear on the SFI panel, says the experience changed her work as a writer, and set her on a new path of integrating her science-writing background with more personal narratives. Her book of essays that came from the experience, Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars and Other Stories, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.
Of course, not everyone wants to travel to outer space, or even simulated outer space. But to scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, just the prospect of human space travel sparks “intrinsic excitement” that “seems to be deeply rooted in being human.”
Director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, Elkins-Tanton’s own research focuses on the processes involved with the formation of terrestrial planets. She has received numerous awards and accolades as both a scientist and a teacher.
Elkins-Tanton, like Krakauer, staunchly believes that inspiring work—scientifically or otherwise—comes through collaborations across disciplines.
Her own school at ASU is somewhat unusual in science academia in that its faculty, students and research projects work across a spectrum of interests: from cosmology to earth science to technology. Last year, ASU’s president asked Elkins-Tanton to lead an initiative across all the schools for an interplanetary initiative that has, she says, synergy with SFI’s project.
As such, Elkins-Tanton says, the initiative ties into what she calls her primary mission. “What we do at ASU that is so complementary to the Santa Fe Institute is we’re also trying to create the future of education. We’re trying to teach people process and not just content, to prepare them to answer questions we can’t anticipate from where we are right now that are going to need to be answered in the future.”
One of those questions, as Elkins-Tanton perceives it, is what impact will the discovery of life elsewhere—intelligent or otherwise—have on the human psyche. She references 19th-century geologist Charles Lyell, whose work influenced Charles Darwin’s human evolutionary theory. Lyell, she notes, “was the first to really clearly explicate and lay out for public consumption the proof that the earth must be very, very old and that there were these reoccurring natural processes that just operated over such a long time scale that it was hard for us to envision what it was.”
This notion, she says, “caused a great crisis of faith. It caused a crisis in meaning. There was a sense that if things weren’t laid out by divine providence and we were just subject to this pitiless occurrence of natural phenomena, then we had no meaning.” Elkins-Tanton wonders if the discovery of life elsewhere—be it uni- or multicellular—“will give people that feeling that we’ve lost meaning or the feeling that we’ve gained meaning again.”
Robleto has spent much of his career thinking on the message people of earth might want to convey about themselves. A formative moment happened when he was 6 or 7 years old and first encountered the Golden Record, placed on the spaceships Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977 containing images, sounds and messages meant to capture life on earth.
Robleto had stayed home sick from school and dialed a 1-800 number NASA had set up for listening to sounds of space as the Voyager made its first approach to Saturn. Robleto called in expecting to hear aliens, and instead heard the Golden Record. “I didn’t understand that at all. … I was so disappointed. It just made no sense to me why NASA would send this into space. I had no idea I was listening to the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”
He’s referring to Ann Druyan’s brain waves, recorded shortly after she and Carl Sagan, with whom she collaborated on the Golden Record, admitted they were falling in love. Robleto says in many ways his work has been directed by Druyan’s actions. “She essentially snuck love on board,” he says.
Two years ago, Robleto—who has ended up working with Druyan—became the artistic consultant for the “Breakthrough Message” project, one of Yuri and Julia Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives founded in 2015 “to explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective,” according to the project’s website. “Breakthrough Message” is a $1 million competition to design a message that comprehensibly captures humanity and life on Earth for another civilization.
Robleto also serves as artist in residence at the SETI Institute. The work at SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—includes a vast array of research and development projects in the service of finding signs from advanced civilizations in the galaxy.
Based in Houston, Robleto has shown work in both solo and group shows across the country, and has been recognized with a variety of awards, fellowships and residencies. As an artist, Robleto’s practice spans mediums: He works in sculpture, paper, print and more. As an artist with both a background and passion for science (he was a biology major before switching to the arts), he prefers the term “trans-disciplinary” because it fully encompasses the degree to which his projects are intertwined rather than merely referential to scientific issues and phenomena.
“When I made the switch from science to becoming an artist, it never occurred to me to not bring that background with me,” Robleto says. “I find the tension between them fascinating. … The common seed is both originate from the quest to increase the sensitivity of our observations.”
Complexity science, which guides SFI’s work, particularly interests Robleto. “I’m really drawn to the issue of scale in complexity science, how scaling up and down reveals a different set of information that wasn’t apparent from the previous scale. That’s not unlike what artists do.”
The question of scale connects with another driving concern Robleto brings to his work and that has been a research focus at SFI: altruism.
“Competition and destruction,” Robleto says, “dominates so much of all our topics.” His personal quest “is poetic and scientific proof we can be cooperative at some fundamental level,” which makes as much evolutionary sense as the belief that competition drives human existence.
After all, over the span of time, “the only civilizations that will survive are ones who figure out how not to destroy ourselves. If we ever found another civilization, just the fact that they’re there, that means altruism won out.”
Return to Krakauer’s original thought experiment: What has humanity done for which it can be proud? Krakauer believes that while specific citations would vary from person to person, most would likely name artistic or scientific achievements rather than, say, “human decency,” although he believes the latter also would be legitimate.
The question ties into Krakauer’s own background as a mathematic biologist, and one of the many thoughts that prompted the InterPlanetary Project as a whole. We are living in a time in history, he argues, filled with “incredibly positive things,” among them the ability to connect with other people all over the world, progress in our understanding of the environment, “the second great space race” and many other accomplishments. These signs of progress are occurring alongside other signs of the worst time in history, what Krakauer characterizes as a “stupidity pandemic, and the deepest political distrust and the worst kinds of prejudice.” Interdisciplinary work, such as the InterPlanetary Project, provides an opportunity to consider how and why such darkness and light can occur together—and perhaps yield some solutions.
“I’m very sensitive to this idea that interplanetary concept would be considered irresponsible and that we’re running away from the problems we’re facing now,” Krakauer says. “It’s the opposite. Friends have asked me, ‘Don’t we have real problems with income inequality and spoiling the environment?’” Yes, Krakauer says. And “if we really want to settle a colony on Mars, we sure as hell better understand how to create a social system that doesn’t fragment within a year, we better understand planetary cycles and we better understand how we’re going to grow food in an inhospitable environment.”
Re-contextualizing some of these challenges within enlivened discussions is a way of “injecting playfulness … and hedonism” into serious topics.
For the last 15 years, his research associated with the Santa Fe Institute has been looking, from a physicist’s perspective, which he describes as “quantitative, analytic, computable and therefore predictable,” at “the phenomena that go on on this planet. In particular, the questions to do with the generic principles giving rise to life and laws of life, the regularity that underlies the extraordinary complexity of life around us, social life, the socioeconomic life, the life we’ve created on this planet.” (West’s most recent book, released in May, is titled Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies).
Just as Krakauer and Elkins-Tanton both emphasize the need for work across disciplines, West points to the way in which an interplanetary viewpoint can create a more holistic picture “in which everything is recognizing that everything is interacting with everything else and everything is dependent on everything else.”
If “changing the world one planet at a time,” as Krakauer describes the project’s aims, sounds overly ambitious—that, too, is part of the point. “Cynicism is boring,” Krakauer says. “Gloom has its own aesthetic appeal … and optimism can be a little boring at times, but it is an optimistic project in that it says ingenuity is unbounded and understanding in many ways is unbounded and there’s so much more to know.”