Logic and Human Endeavor: A Perspective on Asteroid Mining
Almost all living things have a tendency to explore the unknown. From the early apes, to Columbus, and the space programs pioneered by NASA – the human urge to venture into the unknown is a demonstrable anthropomorphic trait. In this regard, the transformation of sporadic actions to logical decisions is considered to be the panacea for all our “problems” in the present and the future. In order to understand the importance of logic in this context, let us look at a scenario from Lewis Caroll’s famous 19th century book, Through the Looking Glass (a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
The story’s protagonist, Alice, climbs through a mirror into a world where everything – much like a reflection – is reversed: walking away makes you go towards an object, running helps you stay stationary, etc. While walking through a forest, she meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee, an identical pair of strongly built men, who are an embodiment of characters from a nursery rhyme that Alice had read. As the three begin to converse, Alice is at a loss of words. Tweedledum says,
“I know what you are thinking about, but it isn’t so, no how.”
To this, Tweedledee says,
“Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
The author describes what Tweedledee is saying above as “reasoning”, and that as he says, is what logic is all about. Put simply, logic is concerned with validating the conclusion of a statement using the set premise. There is a logic to this logic of understanding logic as well. Consider this intellectually palpable example. When we become familiar with the English language, we can differentiate between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences: the sentences in this article (I hope) are grammatical sentences whereas “sentences article grammatical the in this” is an ungrammatical sentence. Now, in any language there appear to be an infinite number of both grammatical as well as ungrammatical sentences. This begs the question, how do ‘we’ have the ability to differentiate grammatically cohesive sentences from meaningless word salads, produced ad libitum? Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential modern linguist, argues that the reason behind this ability is the fact that a finite set of rules associated with the English language have been hard-wired into us as a part of our evolutionary process. Can we understand logic the same way? Are the rules of logic hard-wired into us or have they evolved over a period of time? Answers to these questions aren’t as straightforward as differentiating between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences.
This brings us to the subject matter of this article. The statement that, “Earth’s resources are depleting therefore we need to explore other alternative sources of resource extraction”, has two components. The former part of sentence – the premise – has been a matter of concern for decades, while the latter part – the conclusion – is a potential solution, and the focus of this article. The human endeavor, to erase the effects of its bandwagon of progress from the fragile grounds of this planet’s resources, has been a longstanding motivation for scientific innovation. While technologies like solar panels, and electric cars aim to mitigate the damage to earth, conceptual ideas such as asteroid mining tend to look beyond this planet for solutions to earthly woes.
Asteroid mining is a proposed practice of harnessing resources, such as rare-Earth elements, metals and water, from asteroids that are orbiting near the earth – instead of causing mining related damage to the earth itself. Amongst the million or so asteroids that exist in our solar system, near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) are an exciting subset for asteroid mining, primarily due to their accessibility from our planet. While the concept might seem to be straight out of a science fiction novel, or from a parody ad in Starship Troopers, recent developments in the field have been rapid, and arguably, promising. A research study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that a 500-meter-wide platinum-rich asteroid could contain nearly 175 times the annual global platinum output. One of the advantages with asteroid mining is that unlike Earth, these rare-Earth elements are distributed evenly on asteroids, thereby making mining relatively easier. As far as costs are concerned, an independent study by the Keck Institute of Space Studies (KISS) states that just $2.6 billion are needed to capture an asteroid and bring it into a near-Earth orbit, making human exploration and robotic mining much easier. Planetary Resources, a space mining startup which obtained a $21.1 million Series-A funding, partly from Google co-founder Larry Page, posits that a single 30 meter long platinum-rich asteroid could contain US$25-50 billion worth of platinum, at today's prices. Clearly, once the appropriate infrastructure is in place, the potential profits would justify the cost of harnessing these resources.
The technological promise, as well as economic considerations of asteroid mining, when analyzed in conjunction with the well-documented history of human exploration, will highlight a similar theme. Exploit a resource disproportionately, and aggressively; then spend billions developing “advanced” technologies to circumvent the subsequent depletion; reducing the technological costs over time; and finally, referring to this new exploitative technology as an integral part of the future of mankind. Stephen Hawking, an influential theoretical physicist and the author of the bestselling book A Brief History of Time, once said,
“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”
The familiarity associated with this statement makes us question the human tautology, of our shared history, and the mistakes we make. While extending our capitalist horizons seems to be an addictive necessity, is it the most logical thing to do? Let’s head back to Alice's experiences in Through the Looking Glass. At the end of the book, Alice struggles to comprehend if her adventures were “real” or a figment of the Red King’s imagination. To help her arrive at an answer, Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell her that the “Looking-Glass World” is a construction of The Red King’s dream. He is portrayed as a divine figure who dreams all of Alice’s adventures, fostering the idea that her identity is circumscribed by the dream itself. Compare this to our “adventures”, it is important to ask whether we have decided to ignore the lessons of history, and conditioned our sense of logic in a way that succumbs to the future dreamt by our innate sense of greediness – a sense that perhaps drives what humans call “progress”?
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