Recently, our family attended an evening program featuring a conversation with Dr. Jane Goodall. This graceful and passionate elder was a role model extraordinaire for my adolescent daughters. Dr. Goodall talked of humble beginnings, her family’s unwavering support, bold adventures and the future conservation of this ship we call “Earth.” What a “lived” life! We were fortunate that night to be accompanied by an ethnobotanist who personally knows Dr. Goodall. The after-lecture thoughts were profound and spicy, in contrast to the sleet frosting the streets of New Brunswick. I respected Dr. Goodall’s message, but pushed the envelope much further - from a terrestrial boundary to the boundless. Yes, I’m referring to the Universe. And yes, I acknowledge the possibility that the Universe might be bounded. But for purposes of this discussion, I’m not delving into spatial expansion or contraction under Big Bang Theory, Inflationary Cosmology or any other model - let’s just say that from a practical perspective, the Cosmos may as well be infinite.
While I continue to take responsibility for my actions, and will do my utmost to launch the maximum positive ripples into this linked firmament of earthbound life, i.e., the George Bailey effect, part of me was distracted from Dr. Goodall’s worthy admonitions. Maybe it’s the generational difference or that Africa is less of the “undiscovered country” these days, but I have always been enthralled by the stars. Perhaps, it was too many episodes of Star Trek, an excess of science fiction novels and movies, or an innate awareness that simply gazing into the night sky stirs my thoughts to realms of wonder. Regardless of the source of my fascination, my instincts are irrepressible. Thus, as I sat listening to Dr. Goodall, my mind argued the pros and cons for humanity’s extraterrestrial ambitions.
The need is paramount for us to establish multiple fountainheads in Space. The very survival of the human species demands this result - a manifest destiny. My mother always told me not to put my eggs in one basket. It was a lesson I took to heart. So too, must humanity. Will it be a rogue meteor strike, an unstoppable Andromeda Strain, environmental toxins, cataclysmic climate change, nuclear annihilation, a gamma ray burst, or simply death by a thousand cuts as we careen into the unyielding barrier of our little fish bowl? I don’t have the answer. These events may not happen in this lifetime, or even a hundred lifetimes. I’m not a doomer - it’s a basic probability calculation of time and odds. As a realist, I see the need to diversify our portfolio… to increase our chances of Universal sustainability. So, whether it’s a moonbase, a fleet of city-size starships, another planet, a separate dimension, a deviant time-scape or an alternate universe - our race must formulate strategic plans and allocate resources now. And yet, beyond raw survival, there is a less quantifiable reason that I’m shooting-for-the-moon.
Historians now recognize that apart from raiding voyages to Britain, and settlements in Greenland, the Medieval Vikings established a presence in the New World (Newfoundland circa 1000) far earlier than Christopher Columbus. They journeyed over perilous seas to strange lands and unknown destinies. What spirit drove them to such extremes? Surely not everyone wished for an express Valkyrian escort into Valhalla? Perhaps more intrinsic urges held sway. There were vast resources, territories where families could thrive, and freedom - an awakened Soul-searing, Fate-be-damned FREEDOM.
In the realm of legend, these Norsemen (men and women) are larger than life, as were their Gods. The Mighty Thor battled endlessly with the Frost Jotnar and other giant creatures. Their heroes like Beowulf and Siegfried had the strength of ten men and single-handedly destroyed monsters of epic scale. This perception of robust and virile peoples continues in several related mythologies. An apt example from the Celtic mythos is the tale of the Irish hero Oisin (Fin McCool’s son) and the fabled land of Tir na nog. Niamh of the Golden Hair guides Oisin to this faerie kingdom beyond the western horizon. He rides with her across the ocean on a magic horse. Once there, he resides for a brief time with Niamh, but longing for home, he departs on her steed with a warning not to let his feet touch the ground. When he regains the shores of Eire, he is bewildered to find that the primeval forests have been transformed into tame pastures. Asking after the fortunes of his family - the Fianna - he is told they are the stuff of legend and three hundred years have passed while he visited with Niamh. He encounters a group of Irishmen, whom he thinks are boys by their small stature and inability to move a boulder. He offers to help, and mindful of Niamh’s caution, he leans over in the saddle and uses one hand to fling the boulder aside. Unfortunately for him, the girth breaks and he falls to the ground. In seconds, old age catches him.
This Oisin tale is a fascinating transition from the legends of old to the beginning of the modern period. Why are the modern peoples portrayed as shrunken and weak? Could this unflattering physical depiction in mythology reflect a decline of the human spirit? Or is the answer something more scientific such as that the Norse/Celtic genetic lineage was forged from closer ties with that of our Ice Age Cro-Magnon ancestors? Well, I have two responses for you to ponder. In the first instance, there may indeed be more powerful physical features that flourished in a Darwinian lottery. Humans were massive and stronger because that’s representative of those that endured to successfully reproduce. The very actions of a questing life, exploring uncharted oceans and lands, and waging a contest with all that Mother Nature had to offer may have spawned “legendary” human biological characteristics. However, equally relevant is the “joie de vivre”… the spiritual energy that fed the “liberated being” of those early humans and inspired them to deeds seemingly beyond mere mortals.
While sipping a fresh blend of coffee with a wonderful friend, we had the debate. He posed the question of whether that yearning for discovery within humanity is a fatal flaw - an anachronistic leftover of genetic recombination after a dark prehistory. As a self-proclaimed proud and hardy scion of peasant stock from the Old Country, he would rather spend his years on a hundred acre farm savoring good food, loving his family and laughing with friends. I admit to the allure of this vision. But looking within, I must also face the reality that for me there may be no such rest without a little voice whispering in my ear… that undeniable twitching of the psyche that wants to know what’s behind Door Number Two even if it means losing everything. I cannot say whether this restless trait is our saving grace or our undoing. But I informed my friend that if I could seize the opportunity, I would take my family to the stars. Like the early pioneers, we would forge a new life. In part, I think the days of his halcyon retirement scenario are dwindling. Assuming the requisite level of prosperity, he can still do so in this lifetime - but what of his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren? This world on which we live is shrinking, just like the image of civilized man in the legends. No, the Earth is not contracting, other than a minor tectonic plate shift now and again. I’m speaking metaphorically about “freedom.” Population continues to explode across the globe, resources remain finite, and the Hobbesian compact of civilization that was made long ago is tightening with chain-like strength around our bulging necks.
I’m too young to have any memory of the Apollo moon missions. But you can feel the excitement even from the news reels. The average Joe on the street was enthralled by Space exploration. Dinner conversations had more than their share of prognostications on aliens, other worlds and future technological innovation. It was a time when anything seemed possible and when the “best” in us rose to the forefront. A generation of children grew up wanting to be astronauts and scientists. Can you say the same today? Let me clarify that I have no problem with humans in other careers, but if the Sirens of the digital age lure our brightest into a Lotus Eater sleep of the living dead - well, you can understand my concern. As I write, NASA has been essentially cancelled, and society’s “bread and circus” atmosphere is overwhelming. Even with my own children, I don’t merely fight, I wage WAR every single day to limit the video games, the meaningless TV dribble, the consumerism, the media brainwashing, the presence of impure foods (GMO, sugar, syrups, chemicals, contaminants) and most importantly, the dulling effects of an educational system that dims the light in their eyes. We desperately need critical thinkers, innovators and dreamers.
There were some readers who viewed me as anti-technology after my recent science fiction spin piece “Regards to the Father of Aviation.” However, don’t sign me up for the Amish just yet, and that lost Amazon tribe will have to subsist without one more mouth to feed. What I was arguing for therein, was fundamental liberty - the right to be free from encroachment and to follow the dictates of the Soul. Try to name one creature that has improved for having been tamed, that has not been tragically lessened in the transformation. A gilded cage may keep you safe and alive, but what is the measure of that existence? I’m not advocating anarchy. However, I am suggesting that we inherently need to ride the storm’s edge. It is on that threshold that our actions rise to the heights of Heaven or fall to the depths of Hell. For now, technology is a necessary partner along that continuum to help us understand the Universe, to propel human achievement and to insure our survival. But we need to evolve humanistic mechanisms alongside technical inspiration to preserve that which makes us “heroically” human. With each passing year, we are advancing our metaphysical understanding of the Cosmos. We have a lexicon of quantum particles in the Standard Model to supplement electron, proton and neutron, and we are creeping toward resolution of such mysteries as the Higgs Boson, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. However, while acknowledging the genius of our machines, I believe our greatest advancement has been programmed within our very being. I have no doubt that one day our curiosity, perseverance and desire for inner exploration will enable human consciousness to make the leap between worlds and realities. Everything we are and experience, may have started as ONE interconnected incredibly dense singularity. Even if this proves overstated, our experiments are revealing what more of us are intuitively recognizing - there are varying levels of quantum entanglement in all matter and energy. For now, we might employ descriptive euphemisms like Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” or endearing analogies like Schrodinger’s Cat. In the future, however, the wave-like nature of the subatomic particles that comprise the nearly empty space that we call matter might be transported to an infinite locale simply by consciousness “willing” it so. Perhaps, this type of journey is possible today in limited aspects for literally a handful of people. Admittedly, evolution may require another million years for this “breakthrough” - I like that word as it nicely captures the essence of the task. However, until such capabilities can be effectively harnessed, the imperative for more accessible human colonization beyond Earth must be embraced and actualized.
My friend from the coffee session also suggested that we might be alone in the Universe… that life might be unique to Earth. Putting religion aside, he cited the improbable chain of causation that must have occurred for life to have arisen here, and then calculated the astronomical odds of duplicating that elsewhere. Taking this supposition as true for the moment, this implies that we have a higher obligation to colonize “life” throughout the Cosmos. For such a wondrous creation as the Universe cannot have been engendered for an inanimate and meaningless death dance across infinity. However, let me shatter this premise of solitude with the same reply that I gave to my friend, “Nonsense!” I explained that when you look at the vast scope of existence, the sheer number of stars (estimated currently between ten sextillion and one septillion) that inhabit the known Universe, those incredible odds don’t seem all that compelling anymore. I then reminded my friend of a counterargument intrinsic to our world: the millimeter size Water Bear (Tardigrade). Water Bears are able to survive a wide array of brutal environments that include temperatures approaching absolute zero, a thousand times more radiation than would kill a human, the absence of water for a decade, and most relevant to this conversation: the vacuum of Interstellar Space. On this note, he relented, and qualified his statement to mean the absence of carbon-based life. In this alternate path, I maintained to my friend that even if humans are members of a vast orchestra of life spread across the Universe, we yet have qualities that argue for reserving our seat at the Galactic table: love, creativity, altruism, curiosity, compassion, and intelligence.
Humanity must arise from its slumber! Now is the time for our collective consciousness to lift its ostrich head from the illusory sands of this tipping vessel, and to focus our intentions on the expansive reality of the Universe. We are mandated to shatter the confines of our planetary lifeboat. Yes, there will be unbearable sacrifices, appalling death and strange adaptations that may fracture our species, but these will be offset by a legacy of freedom and glory that will forever rescue humanity from an epitaph of ignominy and irrelevance.
Causes W.L. Hoffman Supports
Preservation New Jersey - Trenton, NJ The Waldorf School of Princeton - Princeton, NJ Resource Center for Women and Their Families - Hillsborough, NJ