61 Comments

Excellent piece, as always, and not to deflect from your critical main point, but regarding life beyond us, here is anther thought, "Our universe is described by physical laws that contain numerical values, which, in technical language, are called “fundamental universal constants.” You could say that the laws in a mathematical formulation are the grammar of the universe, while the constants – the numerical values – are the concrete words used by the universe to “disclose itself.”

You may therefore wonder what would happen if the physical laws, or constants, were different. Would life still be possible? And therefore, why does the universe seem to be fine-tuned, so precisely tuned, to allow the birth of complex and sentient living beings?

Cosmologists normally build enormous and complex simulation programs in order to study possible universes with different natural laws, developing in this way the game of “What would happen if…?” What would happen if the constant of gravitational acceleration were modified? What would be the consequences of a change of electron mass? What would happen if there were a different strong nuclear interaction, changing the one that keeps together protons and neutrons (the nuclei of atoms)? What if there were a change in the masses of quarks (that is, the elements that form the protons and neutrons, and are at the base of the atomic nuclei)? Cosmologists ask these questions in an increasingly radical way, even asking themselves what would be the consequences if the free parameters of the physical models, the different fundamental forces, the second law of thermodynamics, and even the number of spatial dimensions were changed.

These studies and their conclusions, although impossible to observe experimentally, represent established facts that are generally shared by the scientific community. And it can be said that hypothetical universes with even slightly modified laws of nature would not be inhabitable by humans"--Paolo Beltrami, "A Lucky Universe?"

Could it be that we are simply unique, existing under unique circumstances?

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The boss of the UAW said #Tesla workers are ‘scraping to get by’ so that ‘greedy people like Elon Musk can build more rocket ships.’ 🚀 #SpaceCadets

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As an amateur astronomer, I'd like to point out that the universe could be (and possibly is) teeming with life. Space is vast beyond understanding. One light year is 6 trillion miles. Not billion, trillion. That means light, the fastest possible thing, takes four years to get to the nearest star. There are a billion trillion galaxies that we know of, each with billions of stars just as far from each other as we are from the 100 billion stars (all farther than 4 light years) in our medium sized galaxy. Yes we are special. No, we are unlikely to be alone. No they can't reach us and other life is just as far biologically from us as we are from a tree, or a mushroom. Life needs certain elements and compounds. Turns out, they are everywhere. Add the immense span of time - 13 billion years, and the universe is full of life we can only dream about. Live long and prosper.

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Not that I am eager to disagree, but as a physicist I have been tracking the of fusion R&D since the 60s, and the one constant has been that a practical earth-bound source of fusion energy is always 50 years away. Even if this time it's true, it will not come soon enough to save us from our avarice. Note that I said earth-bound: We already have a plentiful supply of fusion-based energy together with virtually all the technology to use it. The sun.

One of the key challenges that humanity faces, IMO, is that of suppressing our self destructive tendencies before we misuse the technology we've invented to destroy all life on the planet.

I plan to post an article on fusion on my Substack in two weeks. (Tomorrow's post is on fission reactors using the Th-U233 fuel cycle). In November I plan on doing a couple of pieces on the Fermi paradox. So Professor Snyder has graciously if unintentionally given a segue into my substack. Thanks!

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It’s OK. Can’t spell my name correctly in English and I am bald, so no offense taken…

As an aside - optimism isn’t a constant. It has to be fought for daily, just like a good relationship or democracy. Nature helps. Dogs too. Or a good beer. Whatever floats your boat…

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I sense a dark outlook. Not that I doubt the necessity of fusion technology in the long run, but surely human ingeniousness is capable of getting things right in time for us to avoid the abyss?

Ukraine will win its war. Russia will be defeated. The US will not succumb to MAGA. We’re flawed and fumbling, but I do believe there will be a future for our children and grandchildren. Cheer up, Professor Snyder!

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Life is made of the most abundant elements in the universe. There's little doubt that life exists elsewhere. The universe is unimaginably vast. We're able to see further than ever before. The challenge to continue our journey is to be able to see ourselves better.

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I am very much appreciating your essays. I shared your thought on terror and terrorism widely. Thanks for being a beacon of sanity and wisdom, informed by learning.

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Elon Musk is alone in his own Universe of ego, arrogance.

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founding

Been very cynical, thinking that of course the hydrocarbon oligarchs know global warming is real and upon us, but they don't care. They have their actuaries and info systems and know exactly who they need to serve their own desires. As long as they have jets, walled comfy compounds, their means of production, their webs of personal social support, they don't care who dies. They know how to control media, ideology, and religious thought, the necessary distractions. They truly are dark magicians.

The push to abandon humanities in education is simply part of their plan now. True magical thinking, the Libertarians who don't notice that roads and bridges, peace, prosperity, laws and justice, don't just happen. The very words they speak -- their prime tool of thought -- come down to them like their own bodies, from a long unbroken chain. Where is their curiosity?

Musk has been such a disappointment, so much power with so little real imagination. Yet I keep hoping. How can you look at they sky and not have even a little humility and awe.

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I am a bit perplexed by this post, enough so that I find it difficult to believe that Tim Snyder, whose work I have been following for year, actually wrote it. Never before have I seen anything by Snyder referring either to controlled fusion on Earth as the solution to anything. Nor have I seen the question "Are we alone in the universe?" posed by him. Especially so as he is more than knowledgeable and brilliant in his thinking on matters that he does write and speak about. And both of these questions have been written about and long discussed in academic circles of physics, energy studies, and cosmology.

As others have noted in the Comments, the Universe is vast, vast enough that here may well be other life forms in it, even other life forms with the capability to send signals (at the speed of light) and to travel through space (at some fraction of the speed of light). Notwithstanding, the Universe is so vast that the likelihood of us receiving visits or even signals from them is vanishingly small. So we may not be alone in Universe but it is no surprise that we have not been in contact with others.

Fusion energy is well funded and has been for decades. But as others have commented, abundant and high quality energy from fusion is available to us daily from the Sun. The cost of converting it to highly thermodynamically usable electricity has be decreasing rapidly over several decades. To the point where it is cheaper than that derived from exploiting the Earth's finite store of fossil fuels. Cheap enough that conversion of our industrial energy systems to solar energy is accelerating rapidly.

So I am perplexed that Tim Snyder's usually highly cogent blog would be devoted to either of these two ideas, and the more so without citing any new or relevant sources to explain the concerns.

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I'm no physicist, but I've always assumed that the reason we've had no contact with other places in the universe is that it's too big. If the maximum speed anything can travel at is the speed of light, two way communication with other worlds is impossible. So if we were to get a message, it wold have been sent thousands of years ago.

I'm old enough to remember the promise that nuclear power would produce electricity "too cheap to meter." Fusion will likely be even more costly. The capital expense to build a nuclear power plant now is the biggest reason why nobody is building them in the US. Containing a fusion reaction operating at the temperatures found on the sun is proving difficult now, at very small scale. Doing it at at a commercial scale, if it proves possible, will be orders of magnitude more difficult and expensive. Still, I certainly favor investment in fusion, because maybe it will turn out more feasible than I think. Meanwhile, we already know how to make pretty cheap electricity with wind and solar.

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I think Stephen Hawkings said shortly before he died: If humanity would continue to increase the use of electricity at the present pace, the globe would be a glowing ball by 2160. I'm not sure I remember the time right, but I don't believe access to 'unlimited' energy will solve the problem with humans on earth, or in space.

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Bespoke endorphin whirlpool . . . wonderful characterization of what's wrong with values free tech in the hands of the wealthy (adjective doesn't even begin to describe the scale) and powerful.

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I found this piece thought provoking but a bit of a challenge. As much as I respect science, I rely on faith rather than reasoning to accept the validity of most scientific concepts and principles. My brain doesn't seem to be wired for science. The Big Bang theory? I accept it as the best answer we have today for the origin of the universe but I still don't get it. Quantum Mechanics? Again I'll go along with consensus of mathematicians and physicists, but I barely understand the definition of Quantum Mechanics let alone how it applies to the universe and pretty much everything in it.

I've shared this essay with my son, an engineer and computer scientist. I'm looking forward to his thoughts. In the meantime, I'll throw out one comment that goes beyond my confessional: Professor Snyder writes: "Yet no one has contacted us. There has been time enough and space for intelligent life to evolve before us." That seems logical, but can I accept it as a certainly or is just a hypothesis? What's a few billion years in the overall scheme f things? Perhaps we just have to wait a bit longer?

I'll refrain from further questions until I have a chat with my son. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to reading the many readers' comments as subscribers think about Dr. Snyder's most recent essay.

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Oct 15, 2023·edited Oct 15, 2023

Musk's latest is "Loving my new T-shirt," with an image of this new shirt with:

👁️

WHAT WOULD

ORWELL THINK

printed on it using the 𝕏 font.

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1713014913914827226

Scroll down and you'll see several images of Orwell with. . . a fake Orwell quote:

"The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it," with one of his fans suggesting that it, too, should be printed on a T-shirt and sold.

What is most unbearable about Musk is his shallowness, his trivialization of everything that is good, everything that is noble:

"𝕏 as humanity’s

collective

consciousness"

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1692431667548528661

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